An Afghan government plan to rein in warlords may backfire after the arrests of militia commanders provoked riots by their supporters.
Protesters clashed with local security forces in Faryab province in northwest Afghanistan for days last week, storming the national intelligence agency’s offices and looting the governor’s office. Anger grew after graphic images were shared on social media showing Nizamuddin Qaisari cuffed on the ground next to bloodied members of his entourage.
A local commander leading a militia against the Taliban, the government accused Mr Qaisari of acting above the law. But Mr Qaisari is also a close ally of Afghan Vice President, Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful Uzbek warlord who is in exile following accusations that he ordered his guards to kidnap, torture and rape a political opponent in 2016.
Apart from Mr Qaseri, the government has arrested other powerful militia commanders from Uruzgan, Farah and Badakhshan provinces. The defence ministry has also detained Mohammad Daud Mubarez, who is accused of selling weapons to the Taliban, and Nadir Shah, who is accused of gem smuggling. “These commanders have misused their position of power and aided in creating insecurity in those provinces,” ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish said.
The arrests are part of a strategy by President Ashraf Ghani – who is also struggling to contain a growing Taliban insurgency – to rein in local strongmen accused of extrajudicial killings and abuse of power. “These armed men have challenged the writ of the state, exacerbated the lawlessness and put the lives of ordinary people in jeopardy,” said Aziz Amin Ahmadzai, an Afghan politico who has worked closely with the Afghan government. The arrests aimed “to minimise insecurity across the country” since lines between militiamen and militants often blur as allegiances shift.
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But the arrests outraged the men’s supporters who come from a culture where leaders are usually treated with deference and who often behave with impunity. To the protesters in Faryab, a stronghold of Gen Dostum’s Junbish-e Mili Party, Mr Qaseri is an Uzbek champion and staunch opponent of the Taliban.
“The government arrested a person who is enemy of terrorists, and by doing this the government is paving the way to bring terrorists like ISIS into Faryab,” Qudratullah, one of the protestors in Maimana, capital of Faryab province, told The National by telephone. “They [Afghan forces] are shooting at us for protesting. We will die if we must, but we won’t let them allow the Taliban to rise in our districts.”
Afghanistan has a long history of strong regional leaders. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, various Mujahideen fighters emerged as leaders of powerful regional factions who continued fighting each other and the Taliban in the country’s civil war. They often received support along ethnic lines from minority groups which felt discriminated against by the dominant Pasthun population.
Ever opportunistic, many of these strongmen survived the fall of the Taliban by trading off their cachet as Mujahideen to seek positions as officials and ministers in the new government. They continue to exert influence, often in excess of their official positions, even while standing accused of corruption and human rights violations which have seldom been prosecuted.
Gen Dostum, for instance, was a former communist general who was known for siding with winners and creating his own de facto Uzbek state in northern Afghanistan. He earned a reputation as a ruthless leader and was dogged by allegations of war crimes. Under his rule, criminals were said to be crushed under tanks in public executions. He joined the Northern Alliance after the US invasion and then sought various roles in the Afghan military and government.
Even he may have overstepped his power when he reportedly ordered members of his personal militia to rape a former ally over a personal issue. Gen Dostum was reportedly seen beating former government Ahmad Ishchi in front hundreds at a public sporting event in Jowzjan province. Mr Ischi said Gen Dostum’s men then subjected him to days of severe beatings and sexual abuse – one of the severest degradation possible for a man according to Afghanistan’s honour code.
The government promised an investigation but a six-month standoff followed in which Gen Dostum refused to appear for questioning, taking refuge in his heavily guarded mansion in central Kabul. No charges were laid but Gen Dostum fled to Turkey last May, where his spokesman said he was seeking medical treatment. “General Dostum never leaves the country but remains alongside his people during difficult times,” Bashir Ahmad Tayanj said at the time.
Gen Dostum has remained in Turkey but posted a message on Facebook last week threatening that unless Mr Qasiari was released the government would face “serious challenges”.
The unrest meanwhile has spread to several other northern provinces including Samangan, Jawzjan, and Baghlan causing a temporary closure of the Kabul-Mazar highway, an important trade route that connects Kabul to the north of Afghanistan. The spectrum of the protests has also expanded politically with demands now including the return of Gen Dostum from exile.
Yunus Tugra, an adviser to Gen Dostum, said the arrests were an attempt to quell the party’s hold on the northern provinces. “This is an agenda by a few individuals in the government who are in favour of the Taliban and work with the ISI,” he claimed, referring to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Mr Qaisari was arrested under a false pretext, he said. “Getting rid of Qaseri, who was fighting the Taliban, was the final straw for the people who can see through this agenda.”
Gen Dostum may now be plotting a return to Afghanistan, against the wishes of many in government. “He is trying to return,” Mr Tugra said. “But is being prevented… We are still negotiating his return.”
The government will need to exercise caution to prevent protests spreading if it extends its crackdown to more provinces. “I don’t think people have been made aware about the reality and intentions of these purges,” said Mr Ahmadzai. “If the people understand what is being done, it will help a lot in terms of reducing tensions.”