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IWPR, October 18, 2007

Strongman's Reign of Fear in the Northern Afghanistan

"Commander Shamal has private prisons and he arrests those who do not obey him ... our lives and everything we own belong to this commander."

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Faryab

Panicked residents of Faryab province say a local warlord is exacting tribute and abusing civilians while the government does nothing to stop him.

Shahabudin fled when life became intolerable for him in his native district of Pashtun Kot, in the northern Afghan province of Faryab. He claims that a former militia commander has taken over Pashtun Kot and is ruling virtually unchallenged.

"I think that every inch of the area he [Shamal] has occupied is a prison for the local people, because he can do anything he wants."
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Oct.18, 2007

Some commentators say the situation here exemplifies a wider pattern of lawlessness where paramilitary strongmen are effectively sidelining local administrations in parts of northern Afghanistan, at a time when attention is focused on the war against the Taliban in the south.

"Abdul Rahman Shamal reigns in [Pashtun Kot], and he roams the district on his horses just like a king. He is accompanied by armed men on horseback. Anyone who sees him coming tries to hide," said Shahabudin. "He treats people like slaves, and no one can do a thing without his permission.

"When we marry off our daughters, we have to go to the commander, offer him 5,000 afghani [100 US dollars] and ask his permission. Otherwise the marriage will not be possible."

Shamal was formerly, at least, a militia commander within Junbesh-e-Milli-ye-Islami (National Islamic Movement), the military faction led by Uzbek strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Dostum is a controversial figure, but he has been at least partially co-opted into government, serving as chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of Afghanistan's armed forces. However, some of his former lieutenants are using the power vacuum in the north to exert their authority. Despite concerted drives in recent years to dismantle the numerous irregular forces across Afghanistan, such men still retain significant private militias.

"The government and human rights organisations have claimed that the situation is improving, but in reality the commanders are gradually gaining the upper hand, and the government can't do anything about it," said Mohammad Nabi Aseer, a journalist and analyst in northern Afghanistan.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Oct.18, 2007

In Faryab, at least, the continuing existence of illegal armed groups is no secret. In August 2006, Shamal's forces clashed with those of another commander, Khalifa Saleh, who was aligned with a major rival of Dostum. Some 300 armed men took part in the fight, which left 14 people dead. (See IWPR's story on this, "Afghan Interior Ministry Takes on Armed Factions", ARR No.228, 1-Sep-06.)

Shahabudin alleged that men are forcibly levied from local families to join Shamal's paramilitaries.

"Anyone who refuses to send his son to the commander's militia is beaten or even killed," he said.

He added that the militia commander extorts money to buy horses and provide food for his men. Once again, resistance is punished by imprisonment or torture.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Shamal, and both government security forces and their international allies claim to be searching for him.

But while local people seem to know exactly where Shamal and his men are operating, the commander has not been detained.

"We have conducted three operations against this commander," said General Khalilullah Ziaee, chief of police in Faryab province.

"But the terrain favours him. He hides in the mountains, and when we approach, he sees us coming three hours before we can get to him, and he makes an easy escape. Later on, when we are gone, he comes back."

Ziaee said that police were determined to capture the commander, but lacked the resources to do so.

"We want to save people from his evil-doing," he said. "But he runs away when we attack him, and we don't have the horses to chase him with."

In the end, Shahabudin had to make his own choice. "Life became unbearable. Death and dishonour followed us. So we had to flee," he said.

Mullah Yar Bay is another Pashtun Kot resident who fled to escape the commander's rule, which he said involved arbitrary detention, torture and murder.

Zaidullah Paiwand, the head of the Faryab branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "We see here that commanders torture people, rob them and beat them. We have received many complaints against this commander [Shamal]. We have submitted all our reports to the law enforcement agencies, but unfortunately nothing significant has happened."
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Oct.18, 2007

"Commander Shamal has private prisons and he arrests those who do not obey him," he said. "Many of those who have defied him have either disappeared or been imprisoned. Our lives and everything we own belong to this commander."

Local residents chafing under the yoke are angry that the authorities are unable – perhaps even unwilling – to find the commander.

"The government doesn't want to catch Shamal," said a man who still lives in Pashtun Kot. "They come into his area and leave without doing anything. I am sure that if the government does fight him, it will not win."

This interviewee believed the authorities were allowing Shamal a free hand in Pashtun Kot to keep him from branching out into other parts of the province.

"The government makes promises, but they are just deceiving people. I've decided to go and live somewhere else, because as long as Shamal is alive, no one can do anything in Pashtun Kot," he said.

Sattar Barez, Faryab's deputy governor, acknowledged that the presence of Shamal was a problem, but insisted the authorities were taking steps to deal with it.

"It is totally wrong to say that the government is silent," he said. "[Shamal] is a criminal who tortures and beats people. His crimes are known to everyone. We have plans to deal with him soon."

IWPR was unable to contact Shamal, but spoke to Junbesh, the party with which he was formerly connected and allegedly still is.

Junbesh officials say their party has made the transition from armed faction to legitimate political party, and deny links with commanders such as Shamal.

Deputy party leader Kinja Kargar told IWPR that the party was fully compliant with Afghan laws, which ban political groups from maintaining links with armed groups.

"Junbesh is a powerful public party that has dissolved all of its military branches under DIAG and DDR," he said, referring to two government-sponsored programmes, Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups and its predecessor, the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration scheme.

Critics say both programmes, which were backed by the United Nations and which cost tens of millions of dollars, were less than successful.

But Kargar was adamant that the Junbesh organisation no longer embraces armed groups.

"Anyone in possession of weaponry does not belong to Junbesh," he said.

Faryab's police chief told IWPR that political parties often issue such disclaimers. "[Shamal] belongs to a party that is known to everyone," said Ziaee. "The party denies the relationship so as to avoid legal problems."

Human rights groups are worried about the situation, saying they have brought their concerns to the authorities' attention but little action has been taken.

Daulat Bibi, 40, told IWPR that she was raped by 13 men working for a local commander.
"I was hospitalised for one and a half months," she said. "I went to the district governor's office, but no one listened to me. Those who raped me walk free, and the government did not even bother to arrest them. I went everywhere, but people told me, ‘There is no law that can do anything against these commanders. Just forget it."
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Sep.13, 2007

"This issue is of great concern, but unfortunately we have no powers of enforcement," he said Zaidullah Paiwand, the head of the Faryab branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "We see here that commanders torture people, rob them and beat them. We have received many complaints against this commander [Shamal]. We have submitted all our reports to the law enforcement agencies, but unfortunately nothing significant has happened."

Paiwand could not confirm the existence of private prisons, but said, "I think that every inch of the area he [Shamal] has occupied is a prison for the local people, because he can do anything he wants."

Worryingly, some analysts see the Pashtun Kot situation as part of a much broader trend. They argue that the militia commanders who were dominant in the early to mid-Nineties are once again emerging as a powerful force in the north, taking advantage of the weakness of central government.

"The government and human rights organisations have claimed that the situation is improving, but in reality the commanders are gradually gaining the upper hand, and the government can't do anything about it," said Mohammad Nabi Aseer, a journalist and analyst in northern Afghanistan.

"The government is unable to combat the Taliban, and it is afraid that if it alienates the [northern] commanders, they might turn into an even more powerful enemy."

Aseer said disarmament programmes had not worked, and that most of the factions-turned-parties retained a paramilitary wing, a factor that encouraged central government to do nothing.

"In reality, leaders of political parties obtain power in government via these military wings," he said. "Taking action against local commanders would entail taking action against their leaders in Kabul. [President Hamed] Karzai's government does not have the power to do this. Commander Shamal is a good example."

Category: Warlords, HR Violations - Views: 9484


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