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Afghanistan: Battles Highlight Struggle Between Warlords, Central Government

For the second time in a month, troops from the fledgling Afghan National Army are being deployed to quell fighting between a militia backed by the Afghan central government and troops of a powerful regional warlord. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at the situation in the northwestern province of Faryab, where government-appointed military commander General Mohammad Hashim Habibi's soldiers are battling for a third day against the private militia of ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Prague, 8 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The governor of Afghanistan's northwestern Faryab Province, Anayatullah Anayat, says fighting continued for a third day today between the private army of a powerful northern warlord and a militia force that is backed by the central government.

Dostum's forces have been clashing in Faryab Province with troops of government-appointed military commander Habibi since the night of 6 April.

A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, General Mohammad Zaher Azimi, told RFE/RL that the deployment of about 750 soldiers from the Afghan National Army today will demonstrate the authority of the central government and bring security to the province.

"The Defense Ministry has decided to send in a team to investigate how the clashes started, who it was started by and why it all happened. Also, a battalion of the Afghan National Army is being sent to Faryab to show the presence of the central government and to bring security," Azimi said.

Several truckloads of National Army soldiers -- armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades -- were reported at Kabul's military airport today while a U.S. military transport plane was standing by.

Afghan Transitional Chairman Hamid Karzai's government has defended Governor Anayat as its legitimate representative in Faryab. Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, has warned that if the government investigation determines Dostum has acted against Anayat, it would be deemed "an unlawful act."

Ludin explained that General Dostum is an adviser to Karzai. But he said that does not give Dostum the right to deploy his private militia forces or get involved in any "military operational issues."

Anayat said the fighting today took place near the provincial capital of Maimana in the districts of Shirin Tagab and Bilchiragh. Yesterday, Dostum's militia forces briefly took control of an area called Joma Bazar near Maymana. But Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said today that the central government has regained control of that area.

"From the region of Joma Bazar yesterday, we received some reports that some militia forces have taken this region away from the control of the central government. Today, Joma Bazar is under the control of the government again and the militia forces that came in have left or no longer have influence in that area. As the Faryab governor said this morning, the shops are open and only schools are closed," the interior minister said.

The clashes in Faryab are the latest to demonstrate the difficulties faced by Karzai as the Afghan central government attempts to extend its authority into provinces that are controlled by warlords and their militia fighters.

As Afghanistan prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in September, the central government has been trying to push ahead on several key security sector reforms -- including expansion of the Afghan National Army into tense provincial regions and efforts to disarm and demobilize private militia factions, including those of Dostum.

The latest UN statement on the progress of demobilization singles out Dostum by name as trying to delay the process.

Indeed, U.S. and UN officials have stressed that the power struggle between regional warlords and the central government is one of Afghanistan's biggest security problems ahead of autumn elections. Analysts are predicting more clashes between government troops and those militia factions whose leaders are unwilling to give up either the land they have seized or their weaponry.

There are conflicting claims about the cause of the fighting in Faryab Province. Governor Anayat told RFE/RL that Dostum's forces attacked the central government militia force from positions east of Faryab.

"Unfortunately, there have been rumors during the past 15 to 20 days that, from the direction of Shebergan and Sar-e Pul [to the east], some armed people want to come toward Faryab and start some military operations. We have informed the central government. But unfortunately, these rumors have developed into an actual military operation. They actually attacked Faryab. And the main reason for this is for them to show their strength from the direction of Shebergan and [to pressure those] in Faryab Province who are obeying the central government," Anayat said.

But General Dostum's representative in Kabul, Akhbar Bai, told RFE/RL that the fighting in Faryab is the result of a popular uprising there against the central government. He claimed that Karzai's cabinet is conducting a "secret game" in order to discredit figures like Dostum ahead of the elections.

"The people of Faryab have started a public uprising. The secret game going on is now open and 100,000 to 200,000 people of Faryab -- with the help of the police of Faryab -- have security in their hands. This uprising is from the people of Faryab, but there are other plans -- sabotage -- from the central government. They want to show the international community that these public figures are warlords. For the peace and security of Afghanistan, we demand that the central government stop this interference," said the spokesman.

When asked to clarify what he meant by "sabotage," Dostum's spokesman reiterated his allegation that the central government is behind a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting regional faction leaders like Dostum.

"The sabotage is that the central government, because of the upcoming elections and in order to regain power in Faryab, are making some figures appear as warlords who are armed. And they give them a bad name. They want to show the international community that the main problem in Afghanistan is these figures," he said.

The spokesman said Dostum's political faction of the former Northern Alliance, known as Junbish-e Milli, will not interfere in the developments in Faryab Province. But he warned that there would be further uprisings against the central government if the clashes continue.

"Junbish-e Milli will have no interference and about 2 million people of Faryab will take charge of the province, and they will choose their own governor and their own commander without any interference by Junbish," he said.

Although Dostum remains an adviser to Karzai, his forces have been involved in several battles for territory in northern Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001. Dostum also unsuccessfully opposed Karzai's bid for a strong presidency during the Constitutional Loya Jirga in December and January.

Anayat alleges that Dostum launched the recent assault in Faryab after Kabul turned down his demand to be appointed defense minister or army chief of staff.

Jalali said the 750 troops of the Afghan National Army will arrive in Faryab later today. The Afghan National Army has been trained by forces of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition and has been working closely with U.S. troops in a spring offensive against the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

About 1,500 troops from the National Army were deployed to the western city of Herat in March after the militia of Herat Governor Ismail Khan overran the garrison of a Defense Ministry militia whose commander was appointed by Karzai. U.S. military advisers are now positioned with those National Army forces in Herat.

Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry has said that the death last month of Ismail Khan's son, Civil Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadeq, was the result of factional fighting -- and not an assassination as initially claimed by Ismail Khan's spokesman.