WASHINGTON, August 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For years, northern Afghanistan has seen sporadic fighting between supporters of two long-time warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Abdul Malik. Now, though, the central government has indicated it has had enough, with Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel calling for the two men's political parties to be disbanded.
He argues that the two parties -- Dostum's National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Hizb-e Junbish-e-Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan), known as Junbish, and Malik's Freedom Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-e Azadi-ye Afghanistan) -- continue to maintain military wings and that these militia are responsible for the unrest in the northern province of Faryab.
Afghan law prohibits political parties from running militias, but in a country where many rogue armies are led -- officially or covertly -- by leaders of the country's 70-plus registered political parties Moqbal's move and the bluntness of his comments are unusual.
New Official Tack?
Warlords have been the bane of centralization efforts for decades. It is too early to say whether this move signals a new government willingness to tackle "warlordism," and curb the power of militias. But it is clear -- in Kabul and among the administration's backers in the international community -- that the current post-Taliban government must rein in warlords if it is to continue on the path toward democratization.
The venture could prove treacherous for President Hamid Karzai's central government -- particularly if it is not diligent in applying the policy. The move to disband Dostum's and Malik's parties has created discontent among those two men's supporters. But the government stands to gain broader support on a national level if it applies the same standard to other militias -- and is not seen to be engaging in favoritism among warlords. Conversely, the recent suggestion by some government officials that militias could be co-opted in the southern and eastern parts of the country could undermine the strategy.
Interior Minister Moqbel cited recent armed clashes in the northern Faryab Province in pursuing the ban.
He suggested the Justice Ministry could act through the country's recently appointed Supreme Court, which, unlike its predecessor, is not linked to the warring parties of Afghanistan's past.
Dostum Vs. Malik
Dostum is a former communist militia commander who allied with the mujahedin to help them take control of Kabul in 1992. Dostum's military units and his Junbish party were major actors during the ensuing civil war. For most of the period between 1992 and 1996, Dostum controlled large swathes of northern Afghanistan and Malik served as his unofficial foreign minister.
But relations between Dostum and Malik deteriorated following the death of Malik's brother, General Rasul Pahlawn, in 1996. Mali's brother was Dostum's second in command, and was killed under mysterious circumstances. Malik blamed Dostum.
One year later, Malik gained notoriety briefly when he helped Taliban forces conquer the seat of Dostum's power, the city of Mazar-e Sharif. Malik soon turned on his Taliban allies and assumed personal control of Mazar-e Sharif and parts of northern Afghanistan.
But Malik's fortunes soon faded. Within months, by September 1997, the Taliban and their Pakistani backers were able to oust Malik.
Dostum meanwhile took his defeated Junbish forces and found new allies to fight the Taliban. Dostum soon joined forces with the United Islamic and National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (aka Northern Alliance) -- formed around under the military leadership of Ahmad Shah Mas'ud.
Dostum played an active part in the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban regime in late 2001. From 2002 to 2003, he officially held the post of deputy defense minister -- although he was rarely in Kabul. Instead, Dostum was busy fighting for supremacy in and around Mazar-e Sharif. His opponents included forces loyal to the current governor of Balkh Province, Ata Mohammad Nur.
In May 2003, the UN-backed central government sought to sideline Dostum. President Karzai named Dostum a "special adviser on security and military affairs," bringing the northern warlord to Kabul in an apparent effort to dislodge him from his northern stronghold. Dostum's job was to advise the president and recommend ways to bring security to the northern provinces (Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-e Pol, Samangan, Faryab).
But Dostum's forces continued to tangle with provincial Governor Nur's forces despite the presidential maneuvering. The situation escalated in early 2004, with General Malik's arrival in Faryab -- in some views with tacit support from Governor Nur. Dostum's forces maintained the upper hand, but Malik loyalists have issued occasional challenges.
The Party's Over
Dostum has relinquished the formal leadership of his Junbish party, but most observers are convinced he maintains effective control.
Dostum and General Malik both insist that their political parties have no military wings. But each has repeatedly blamed the other for fomenting violence, including about 10 days of deadly fighting in early August.
Minister Moqbel's attempt to cripple Dostum's and Malik's political careers has little precedent in Afghanistan, so it is too early to assume the outcome. But the question on many Afghan minds if he succeeds is bound to be: Whose militia is next?