The New York Time, August 18, 2017
In Afghanistan, a Destructive ‘Game of Thrones’
The infighting could be traced to ethnic tensions, grudges dating back to the civil war in the 1980s and ’90s and the government’s shaky American-brokered coalition
By Rod Nordland
KABUL, Afghanistan — The senior security official in northeastern Takhar Province was deferential when he telephoned Commander Bashir Qanet. After all, he was talking to one of the most powerful government supporters in the province, who has hundreds of militiamen under his command.
“Please could you stop killing your own people?” he asked the commander, whose irregulars had just opened fire on a couple of dozen pro-government worshipers inside a mosque, during prayers, killing five and wounding 37.
The commander responded with a profane comment about the caller’s wife — the worst possible insult to an Afghan — and slammed the phone down. At that point the death toll of Afghan civilians attributed by the authorities to Commander Qanet’s three-month-long rampage in Takhar was about 30 (seven in just the last week), none of them insurgents, but the police and security officials as of Friday had been powerless to stop him or his followers.
“Game of Thrones” has nothing on 2017 Afghanistan when it comes to violence in politics and crassness in war, not to mention plots almost too complex to follow. Just to be clear: Both men on the phone call were supposed to be on the same side, putatively supporting the beleaguered government in Kabul. The country may be in the midst of a steadily worsening, existential war against a determined Taliban insurgency, but Afghanistan’s leaders in the government camp often seem mostly at war with one another.
That has hurt the government’s efforts to tame the insurgency. It is no coincidence that many of the places where the insurgents have made their biggest gains have been in the northern provinces, where warlords have long held power — and often are deeply resented.
This week, the largest city in the north, Mazar-i-Sharif, was in turmoil after Asif Mohmand, a provincial councilman, posted on Facebook the week before to scold a supporter of the famously vain governor of Balkh Province, Atta Muhammad Noor, whose picture has been pasted all over the northern capital on giant posters. There is not even an election going on.
“Twenty times I told you not to put up another poster of that pimp and miscreant Atta,” Mr. Mohmand told the supporter in a video online. “This time when I catch you, I’ll kill you, you shameless fool, I’ll pump 30 bullets into your forehead, and then help myself to you.” (It was not clear what he meant by the last phrase.)
Mr. Mohmand then tauntingly posted a selfie on his way to Mazar from Kabul on Monday afternoon, just in case his enemies did not know where to find him.
Governor Atta, a notorious warlord himself and hardly one to shy away from a fight, sent his gunmen and a contingent of police officers to meet the provincial counselor’s plane when it landed, only to encounter Mr. Mohmand’s own armed supporters there to defend him from arrest. The ensuing firefight raged through the terminal and its parking lots, killing two, wounding 17 and temporarily shutting down Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport.
These violent disputes in Balkh and Takhar Provinces are the most recent evidence of the infighting that is diverting resources from the fight against the insurgency and undermining public support. Similar outbreaks among government supporters have taken place in other parts of the country, including the capital, Kabul, where the first vice president, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was forced into exile this year after the authorities charged him with the kidnapping, torture and rape of a political opponent.
The infighting could be traced to ethnic tensions, grudges dating back to the civil war in the 1980s and ’90s and the government’s shaky American-brokered coalition of bitter political rivals that is long past its expiration date. Parliament should have been disbanded two years ago and the executive branch is split between two antagonistic leaders — President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
The result is the central government does not really control large swaths of its own territory, even where the Taliban is not a factor. Instead, it cedes authority to warlords, some in government and some just aligned with it, who are too powerful to be subdued and often too angry at one another to focus on their common enemy, the Taliban.
Such infighting among the warlords is precisely what helped catapult the Taliban to power in 1996. And many of those warlords are still on the scene, on the government side.
“Most of these political parties have illegal armed men, and it’s a threat to the government,” said a retired general and military analyst, Abdul Wahid Taqat. “They could force the government to collapse and also open a path for the Taliban to return to power.”
In remote Takhar Province, in Cha Aab on the border with Tajikistan, the problems started after the Afghan government formally made peace this year with the Hizb-e-Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist group that had been conducting a low-level insurgency against the government. Like President Ghani and his supporters, Hizb-e is dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group.
The other faction in the Afghan government, led by Mr. Abdullah, is aligned most closely with the Jamiat-i-Islami party, another fundamentalist grouping identified with Tajiks and other northerners.
Cha Aab’s mullah, Muallawi Mahfuzullah, considered a Jamiat man, began preaching against smuggling and violence by Commander Qanet, who as a Hizb-e commander is now on the government’s side. The commander’s men ordered Mullah Mahfuzullah to stop, and after he refused, sacked his home and killed another mullah from his mosque, the police said.
At prayers last Friday, Mullah Mahfuzullah spoke under the protection of 30 officers drawn from the Afghan police and the National Directorate of Security. But Commander Qanet’s militia forced their way in and opened fire on the worshipers provincial police officials said.
“Even the police stood by and watched like victims and did not even try to stop the firing,” said Qurban Mohammad, 45, a laborer who was present. “They were like wild beasts.”
Commander Qanet, reached by telephone, was clearly unhappy to take the call. He complained that Mullah Mahfuzullah had declared him an infidel, but denied attacking him. “My fault is this, that I voted for Ashraf Ghani in the election,” he said. “All the allegations against me are false.” Then he abruptly hung up.
Some of the same players were involved in the fighting at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport. Governor Atta, a longtime stalwart of the Jamiat party, has formed an alliance with General Dostum, plotting to return from exile in Turkey. General Dostum is the leader of the Junbish Party, which represents the country’s powerful Uzbek minority.
Historically, Junbish and Jamiat, like General Dostum and Governor Atta, are bitter opponents who have killed thousands of each other’s followers. Now, however, they are in an enemy-of-my-enemy alliance. Both oppose to the predominantly Pashtun faction around President Ghani.
Mr. Ghani has long tried to oust Governor Atta from office, and also pushed the rape prosecution of General Dostum. Mr. Ghani has publicly called General Dostum a “known killer,” even though they were running mates in the 2014 elections.
Then there is Mr. Mohmand, the provocative provincial councilman. He enjoyed the support of the Hizb-e-Islami faction at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport, who apparently provided the muscle that protected him — for a while. The national police refused to arrest him, because they said there were no valid criminal charges. But Governor Atta’s men, including the border police, captured him and, under pressure, turned him over to the Afghan intelligence agency, which in Mazar is run by an Atta follower. While in custody, he later claimed, Governor Atta’s son bit off his ear.
Some saw Mr. Mohmand’s visit as a conspiracy by Mr. Ghani’s supporters to so weaken Governor Atta that they could succeed in removing him — a move that has a new urgency, now that the governor has aligned himself with General Dostum.
So far, the ploy, if indeed there was such a ploy, seems to have failed. But Mr. Mohmand was released Thursday and returned to Kabul, ready for another episode.
Jawad Sukhanyar and Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul, and Najim Rahim from Kunduz, Afghanistan.
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