The Afghan government’s policy of cultivating the co-operation of northern warlords, backed by the international community, is now evidently headed for failure.
The devestating attack on 6 November on a group of MPs visiting a sugar factory near Pul-i-Khumri, the capital of the northern Baghlan province, should unfortunately come as no surprise.
Baghlan has been plagued by sporadic insecurity for several years. A roadside bomb injured a senior UN adviser near Pul-i-Khumri in the spring of 2006. Several attacks, including ambushes and roadside bombs, on ISAF patrols and Afghan police have also been recorded. In July 2006, an independent Canadian aid worker was killed while two German journalists were murdered there in October 2006. Of the four provinces in north-eastern Afghanistan (Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar, Badakhshan), Baghlan is considered the most dangerous by international agencies.
Several Pashtun communities, grafted in this Tajik-dominated area in the Nineteenth Century as part of the king’s ‘pashtunization’ policy, have found it difficult to adapt to post-Taliban Afghanistan. Jadid district, north of Pul-i-Khumri, is dominated by Pashtuns and was a Taliban stronghold. In late 2001, US-backed Northern Alliance fighters committed atrocities against local Pashtuns as they surged towards Kabul. Jadid is still dominated by former prime minister Hekmatyar’s fundamentalist Hizb-i-Islami party, which is now fighting the Karzai government. By and large, Pashtun enclaves have been more susceptible to infiltrations by anti-government elements, and are regarded by Tajiks and Uzbeks as the province’s fifth column. Moreover, long-standing land disputes between Tajiks and Pashtuns have never been resolved, fuelling resentment and further communal tensions. Warlords, as in other parts of northern Afghanistan, dominate public life and are knee-deep in criminality. Opium is smuggled through from other provinces, like Badakhshan, and large caches of weapons are sold to insurgents in the south. Uzbek, Tajik and Ismaili militiamen vie for control of this strategic crossroads to Kabul, leading to lawlessness and rampant criminality. The Karzai government has not been able to get a grip on the situation, which continues to deteriorate. Last year, Baghlan’s provincial governor was replaced three times in a bid to bring about an improvement in the province. All three incumbents were sacked by the president, after proving unable or unwilling to rein in local factions who can rely on the protection of powerful backers in the government.
As in many other northern provinces, Baghlan’s local administration is divided, corrupt and infiltrated by different factions, making it impossible to tackle criminality or prevent attacks such as Tuesday’s. The pundits seem to pin the deadly bombing on Hekmatyar, perhaps because of his longstanding rivalry with former president Rabbani, the leader of the National United Front, of which MP Kazimi was a rising star. Regardless of who is behind Tuesday’s horrific attack, the fact that it happened underlines the government’s powerlessness to maintain security, even in the north. As insurgent tactics evolve from (unsuccessfully) engaging ISAF in the south to launching Iraq-style attacks in the fragile north and west, areas like Baghlan (with its poisoned communal relations, fractious politics, non-existent rule of law and for-sale warlords) provide numerous opportunities to spread insecurity and undermine any sense of progress.
The government’s policy of cultivating the co-operation of northern warlords, backed by the international community, is now evidently headed for failure. While this policy brought instant benefits following the Taliban’s overthrow, allowing development and humanitarian activities to move ahead and elections to be held, recent security developments graphically demonstrate that many northern warlords are a threat to stability and an obstacle to further progress. How to address the growing threat they pose, while successfully defeating the insurgency in the south and east, is the next major challenge facing Karzai and its western backers.
Dr Dominique Orsini served as Political Officer and Head of Office in 2006-07 with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in Badakhshan province (north-eastern Afghanistan).
The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the views of RUSI or the UN.