Illegal ethnic-Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara militias in the north appear to be using the threat of a resurgent Taliban as an excuse to hoard weapons and more forcefully protect their interests, such as ruling over land they have controlled since the Taliban’s collapse or defending drug export routes that are a major source of income.
Experts say the entrenchment of the militias, who once fought together against the Taliban, reflects divisions and mistrust among regional commanders of different ethnicities which -- if left unchecked -- could exacerbate tensions in the country at a time when its security situation is already on a razor’s edge.
"Obviously, what is happening in the north is really the growing Balkanization of the country," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch and field researcher in Afghanistan who has monitored programs by the United Nations and Afghan government to disarm the militias.
"It's been an ongoing trend in Afghanistan for warlords who are ostensibly allied with the government to entrench themselves even more fully," Zia-Zarifi told RFE/RL. "A lot of them are now swollen with the narcotics trade -- profits from the sale of poppy and heroin. They have a lot of political clout because many of them have allies in the parliament, if they are not directly members of the parliament. And the next step is to openly flex their military muscle.”
Disarmament Falls Short
Attempts to demobilize the patchwork of rival militias across Afghanistan were once trumpeted as a necessary step toward peace and the creation of a functioning democracy. But UN officials have acknowledged that their initial voluntary disarmament program failed to reach its targets.
Militia leaders in the north still command the loyalty of thousands of fighters who can be mobilized quickly in the event of a local dispute or crisis.
Brigadier General Abdulmanan Abed, an Afghan Defense Ministry official involved the country's ongoing disarmament program, says there is an "environment of mistrust" in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif about the Kabul government's ability to prevent Taliban infiltrations.
The commander who holds sway in Mazar-e Sharif is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful general whom Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed as chief of staff for the Afghan National Army.
Dostum is enormously popular among his fellow ethnic Uzbeks in the north. According to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Dostum also is one of several regional commanders who appear to be exploiting Kabul's preoccupation with the violence-ridden south and east in order to stake claims on their old fiefdoms.
In May, when Dostum's supporters staged protests against a controversial governor of the northern province of Jowzjan, the demonstrations turned violent -- leaving at least 10 people dead and more than 40 injured.
Armed supporters of Dostum also clashed with authorities in Faryab Province in May, forcing Kabul to send in troops to quell the violence.
Provincial authorities in Jowzjan accuse Dostum's political faction, Junbish-e Melli, of rearming its supporters in the north. But Junbish representatives have repeatedly denied those accusations, telling RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that they are only a political group and have no weapons.
Another powerful commander accused not fully disarming and demobilizing his factional militia fighters is Mohammad Qasim Fahim.
Fahim commanded ethnic-Tajik fighters from the Panjshir Valley in the former United Front -- also known as the former Northern Alliance. The U.S.-backed alliance also had included Dostum's fighters. But the former United Front disintegrated as the rival militias raced to stake out territory after the collapse of the Taliban regime.
It was Fahim's fighters who, against the pleas of the international community, seized control of Kabul when the Taliban fled Kabul in late 2001. And Fahim's Islamist political faction -- Jam'iat-e Islami-yi -- used its de facto control of Kabul as a negotiating position at the Bonn Conference in December of 2001.
That initially gave Jam'iat-e Islami-yi commanders control of some of the most powerful posts in Karzai's post-Taliban transitional administration -- heading the ministries of Defense, the Interior, and Foreign Affairs as well as the Afghan intelligence services.
Fahim himself was defense minister from late 2001 thru most of 2004. But he was removed from the post in December 2004 after being accused of illegally occupying land in Kabul.
Commanders of other factional militia also have accused Fahim of hoarding weapons for his own militia fighters at a time when, as defense minister, he was in charge of the government demobilization efforts.
Unilateral Hoarding of Weapons
Christopher Langton, an expert on conflict and defense diplomacy at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that amid a perceived spread of the Taliban-led insurgency during the last two years, as well as disturbances further north and heavy fighting in the south, some former United Front commanders have decided unilaterally that they may need weapons in the future.
"Some are quite senior, some close to the government and in politics," Langton says. "And they don't see why they should have to disarm whereas groups in the south remain armed -- and some of the groups in the south have actually been armed by international forces in order to fight on the side of the [Afghan] government."
Other independent experts say the lack of detailed information about local militia command structures has compromised the effectiveness of disarmament efforts.
The International Crisis Group says it is not formal militia structures, but rather, the informal structures that must be understood in order to identify commanders at the village level responsible for calling into action the militia fighters who have stashed away their weapons.
After decades of war, Langton describes Afghanistan as "a country based around armed groups." He says it is naive for anybody to think such a situation could be changed by a voluntary program to disarm and disband militia.
"If, at the beginning, there wasn't the threat of Taliban coming back [to the north], there were other reasons for retaining weapons," Langton says. "Self-protection in a place like Afghanistan is one reason. The possibility of having to guard opium convoys or heroin consignments going abroad is another reason. And the other reason is commercial -- selling armed guards to local authorities to guard their properties. What I think the so-called resurgent Taliban does is to give some perceived legitimacy to" the hoarding of weapons.
Kabul's Overtures To Taliban
Langton says fears among non-Pashtun commanders in the north have been heightened by recent overtures in Kabul about bringing moderate Taliban into the government -- an issue he says is closer to reality now than ever before.
"It does strengthen the belief amongst the former Northern [Alliance] groups that they may have to be prepared to stand up to some kind of Pashtun-dominated government," Langton says. "The United Afghan National Front opposition group, which was given birth last year, came together as a political opposition to the government largely because the people in the party feared that there might be a need to be united once again. And, of course, these are the former Northern Alliance commanders.
"The formation of this political group is an indication that there is a retention of weapons because there is a fear of increasing Taliban involvement both, possibly, in legitimate government and as a force which is encroaching further north illegally," Langton says.
Still, Langton and other experts conclude that the Afghan government is not about to face an armed insurrection by commanders from the former United Front. They say such a development would require a degree of unity among northern militia that doesn't appear to exist. And they say the political coalition formed last year by northern commanders does not translate into an armed alliance -- except at local levels where militia commanders are trying to protect their personal and vested interests.