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Afghanistan: Notorious Commander Returns To Kabul Ahead Of Loya Jirga

Amid this week's preparations for the Emergency Loya Jirga, an unexpected figure has quietly returned to Kabul. He is General Abdul Malik Pahlawan, notorious for once handing Mazar-i-Sharif over to the Taliban in a failed bid for regional supremacy.

Kabul, 6 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the run-up to the Emergency Loya Jirga, many of Afghanistan's power holders are moving to protect their current positions. The polls for delegates to the assembly have not only seen hundreds of representatives popularly elected, they also have seen top politicians, commanders, and regional leaders guarantee they cannot be overlooked. They have done so either by assuring that districts they control elect their loyal deputies or, in some cases, themselves.

One of these powerful men taking the trouble to participate in the Loya Jirga in person is former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who stepped aside in December to make way for the United Nations-brokered interim administration.

Two others are men with private armies. They are interim Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum and hard-line Sunni Islamist Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf.

All three of these men are key members of the former Northern Alliance who have no intention of being marginalized as the Loya Jirga meets to approve Afghanistan's next temporary government.

But if the Loya Jirga is mobilizing power holders, it also is attracting some former leaders who have fallen and now hope for a comeback. One of the most unexpected of these is General Abdul Malik Pahlawan, a military commander who quietly reappeared in Kabul this week.

Malik is a former deputy of Dostum's who gained international attention in 1997 in connection with the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to the Taliban. In a bid to seize power from Dostum, Malik allied with the Taliban and arrested some 5,000 of Dostum's soldiers. That alliance brought the Taliban into the city center and broke down only after the militiamen tried to disarm local Hazaras who, instead of cooperating, killed hundreds of them.

In the ensuing confusion, Malik's soldiers -- in a new shift in alliances -- then took some 3,000 of the fleeing Taliban prisoner and summarily executed them. The next year, when the Taliban finally captured the city in a new offensive, the militia massacred some 2,000 people, mostly Hazara civilians, in revenge.

Few in Afghanistan have forgotten those events in Mazar-i-Sharif, though Malik himself in recent years has rarely been seen. Some months after he seized power from Dostum he lost it to him again, and ever since has lived mostly in Iran and elsewhere abroad.

But with Kabul now abuzz with preparations for the Loya Jirga, which begins on 10 June, Malik is back in the capital, apparently to assess his options. It is not clear if it is his first return to Kabul since his exile, but it is the first that has been made public.

Malik invited Radio Free Afghanistan to a private interview early this week in which he said he has returned to Afghanistan to welcome the Loya Jirga process. But he gave few details of his immediate plans.

Asked whom he supports for the next head of state and head of government -- both to be determined by the assembly -- he said that Afghanistan has many qualified individuals and he respects the people's decision. "We have lots of respectable personalities in Afghanistan and we can't specifically discuss this issue [in this interview]. The people have the right to choose and we don't want to interfere with the people's rights. The people can make their decision as they wish," Malik said.

Malik is believed to remain close to some figures of the former Northern Alliance despite the events in Mazar-i-Sharif and the Taliban's subsequent capture of the city. The Northern Alliance itself took power from the Taliban when it swept into Kabul late last year as the militia collapsed under the pressure of U.S. bombing.

Asked if he has visited northern Afghanistan since his return to the country, Malik said that he has not. He said that, for now, any return would reignite friction with Dostum, who controls large parts of the region and also is deputy defense minister of Kabul's current interim administration.

"Unfortunately, I have not gone to my home area yet as our belongings, our garden, our land, was under the control of the Taliban before, and now it is under the control of the armed forces of General Dostum. If we go there, there will be tension and fighting again and we never prefer fighting. I would prefer to go home in the context of a democratic atmosphere," Malik said.

Political observers in Kabul say that during his absence, Malik has lost most of his former power base in the north with the exception of some minor supporters. They say that makes it unlikely he would seek to go back to the region in armed defiance of Dostum, who continues to command a large body of troops.

But if Malik is unlikely to hope to regain his former influence in the north by force, he may feel the inauguration of a new Transitional Authority on 22 June will give him an opportunity to turn his remaining base there to political advantage.

That opportunity could come from the desire of many in Afghanistan not to set back the peace process by renewing old quarrels that could lead to clashes. If so, Malik might hope to negotiate with Dostum for a peaceful return to the north.

At the moment, it is too early to know what Malik and other deposed commanders may or may not gain from returning to Kabul, as the city prepares for the weeklong Loya Jirga.