Playing with fire in Afghanistan's north

Recent protests in Jowzjan may signal attempts to chip away at central government.

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in northern Afghanistan (ARR No. 256, 8-June-07)

The idea that northern Afghanistan is a safe and sleepy place is fast becoming a thing of the past. The spreading Taleban presence, a thriving trade in illicit arms, and now violent political manoeuvring are turning formerly calm provinces into increasingly volatile areas that could soon pose a serious threat to the Kabul government.

Most recently, the capital of Jowzjan province, Shiberghan, was the scene of a massive protests that spilled over into violence, leaving at least ten people dead and 40 injured.

Thousands of supporters of General Abdul Rashid Dostum rioted on May 28 in Shiberghan. They were demanding the removal of Jowzjan's governor, Juma Khan Hamdard, whom they accused of incompetence and ethnic prejudice.

Hamdard is an ethnic Pashtun, in a province dominated by Uzbeks loyal to Dostum.

Protesters poured into the streets and then attacked the governor's residence. The local authorities claim that some of the demonstrators were armed and fired shots at police. The police opened fire, killing and wounding dozens.

The provincial authorities declared a state of emergency, closing schools, shops and government offices. They also imposed a curfew.

"This action was not directed against me; it was a plot by Dostum against the Islamic State of Afghanistan," Hamdard told IWPR. "We have photographic proof that his supporters ripped down [President Hamed] Karzai's portrait from police headquarters during the protests and replaced it with Dostum's."

According to Hamdard, the demonstrators had the same aim when they mobbed his residence.

"They wanted to attack the governor's house, burn the national flag of Afghanistan and the president's portrait," he said. "They wanted to hoist the banner of Junbesh-e-Melli and put up Dostum's picture."

According to Hamdard, Dostum himself appeared in Shiberghan on the day of the protests, accompanied by armoured Land Cruisers and dozens of armed guards.

"We tried to keep Dostum's men from entering the governor's house, but they kept up their attacks and they opened fire on the police, so the police and army had to defend themselves," he said.

General Mohammad Khalil Aminzada, chief of police in Jowzjan province, denied that the security forces had fired on peaceful protesters.

"This was not a demonstration; it was an armed attack on the governor's house," he told IWPR. "There were police in placed a first defensive ring around the site, but protestors used extreme violence to break that line. They then proceeded to the governor's residence, injuring three policemen. When they got to the second and last line of defence, Afghan National Army forces had to shoot."


Shiberghan is Dostum's home base, from where the Uzbek general maintained a tight grip of large parts of the north during the civil war of the early Nineties.

His political faction, Junbesh-e-Milli-ye-Islami, is firmly rooted in the north.

Dostum was one of the best-known of the Afghan "warlords". After starting out as a militia leader fighting for the Soviet-backed regime against the mujahedin, he went on to ally himself or fight against almost all the warring sides in the subsequent internecine strife. There have been persistent allegations of human rights abuses committed by his troops.

While popular among his Uzbek supporters, Dostum is disliked by Afghanistan's Pashtun majority, in large part because of atrocities committed against the Taleban.

According to reports from well-placed insiders, Dostum still has tens of thousands of men under arms in the north. If this is the case, it would be testimony to the failure of foreign-backed disarmament programmes such as DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration) and DIAG (Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups).

According to the governor, Dostum is on a mission to recapture some of his lost glory. "This constitutes pressure on central government; Dostum is trying to claw back some of his lost privileges and take back some of his former posts," he said.

Earlier in President Karzai's administration, Dostum held the post of deputy defence minister for a time. In a highly controversial move, the president brought Dostum to Kabul in early 2005 to fill the largely ceremonial post of chief of staff to the armed forces high command. The general has reportedly chafed at his lack of any real authority.


Nor is the general confining his efforts to Shiberghan, according to Hamdard.

"Dostum is once again distributing weapons to his old commanders and militias and inciting people to rise against the government in all the villages of Jowzjan," he said. "Right now, guns have been distributed to all the villages around the capital. If they are not completely disarmed, things could get dangerous."

Police chief Aminzade agreed that the security situation was deteriorating.

"This Junbesh-i-Milli is not a political party, although unfortunately it has covered itself under this title," he said. "In fact, it is a military faction within the government."

He said Dostum had armed 4,000 men and deployed them around the entire city.

"If the government does not deal seriously with this problem, violence against the government will continue," he said.


Junbesh rejects all the accusations, and denies it had a hand in fomenting violence, which it blames instead on the governor.

"This was a popular movement," said Sayed Noorullah, the Junbesh party. "We, as a political party, support this democratic initiative."

Humayoon Khairi, Dostum's spokesman, agreed.

"The protestors had legal and democratic demands," he told IWPR. "They were not armed, nor were they violent - the government just shot them.

"The real blame for the violence lies with the governor. People under his command shot the protestors. If the governor was not behind it, then he is incompetent in that he did not control his police."

Khairi said the unrest would continue until Hamdard was gone.

"If the governor does not leave his post, and if those who shot the protesters are not brought to court, then there will be more extended demonstrations in all the northern provinces," he said.

During the war against the Soviets, Hamdard was a commander with the largely Pashtun faction Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now branded a terrorist by the United States.

After the fall of the Taleban, Hamdard aligned himself with Dostum and became governor of Baghlan province. He was removed from that post, also in the wake of demonstrations, and assigned to Jowzjan.

His relations with Dostum have since soured considerably.


The Afghan government has sent a delegation of parliamentarians and some ministers to Jowzjan to investigate the incident.

Mueen Mrastial, a member of parliament appointed spokesperson for the delegation, told a press conference in Mazar-e-Sharif on June 2, "After viewing a video recording of the demonstration, we have concluded that it was orchestrated by Junbish-e-Milli. Protestors were holding Dostum's portrait and shouting 'Long Live Dostum'. This clearly indicates that Dostum was behind it."

Mrastial said President Karzai would try to mediate in the conflict. "Karzai has asked the governor and Dostum to come to Kabul so that he can talk to them in person, and I hope this problem will be solved peacefully," he said.

Karim Rahimi, spokesman for the president's office, told reporters in late May that those found to be responsible for the violence would be prosecuted.

"Every Afghan has the right to protest in a peaceful manner, but the government will never allow protests to turn violent and result in killing," he said.


Some observers believe the unrest has less to do with Dostum's pique at losing power than with the emergence of a new Afghan political force, the National United Front. They argue that the new group may be trying to assert itself by shaking the government's grip in the provinces.

"Junbesh is now a branch of the National United Front, and this action against the government is, in fact, a move by the Front," said Qayum Babak, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif.

The National United Front was set up just three months ago, bringing disparate political forces together in a bloc opposed to the central government.

"Dostum and the rest of the opposition have more power than the government, and they want to run the northern provinces themselves," said Babak.

"If the Karzai administration gives in to their demands, it will be the beginning of an erosion of governmental authority in other provinces as well."

Muhammad Farid Hakimi, another political analyst in the north, thinks it is Dostum's personal ambition that has set Junbesh on a collision course with Karzai's government.

"Dostum has never been happy with the post given him by the central government," said Hakimi. "So he and his partners are trying to pressure the government into giving him more privileges."

However, he agreed that the National United Front is playing some role in the process.

"The Karzai administration has lost the ability to manage the country," he said. "The National Front wants power in the provinces. We are going to see more and more of this types of protests. If the situation continues like this, the crisis will spread in Afghanistan day by day."

The situation in Shiberghan highlights the fact that Karzai now has two opposition fronts to contend with - the Taleban and the "jihadi" parties.

The National United Front has denied playing an active role in the protests.

Mustafa Kazimi, spokesperson for the Front, told a press conference in late May that the government was just looking for a scapegoat.

"The government is trying to repress the people," he said. "We advise the government to maintain an open dialogue with the people. Blaming some party for everything that happens is not helpful."


People in Shiberghan are incensed by the renewed outbreak of violence.

"Damn them all!" said Muhammad Anwar, a shopkeeper. "The price of food is sky-high, and the shops are all closed. I don't care whether we have a governor or not - but we were living in peace. Now the city is full of soldiers, and we can't sleep at night for fear of fighting."

He shed tears as he added, "It is just like the civil war years. We were just starting to learn to breathe again, and now these leaders are at it again.

"By God, it is enough! We cannot tolerate these power-hungry people any more. Please, please, leave us alone."

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.