Could Gen. Dostum Keep the Taliban out of Northern Afghanistan?

By J. Millard Burr
Tuesday, June 25th, 2013 @ 10:19PM

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We learn in the New York Times, that the US is the latest to put Uzbek warlord Abdur Rashid Dostum on its payroll. With bags of cash channeled through Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Central Intelligence Agency pays up to $100,000 a month to Dostum.

Next year-a quarter century after the Soviet pullout-it is US forces who will withdraw from Afghanistan. The question is how long Karzai can hang on in the likely case that the CIA halts or lowers the millions of dollars in cash in all that has been dropped off at his office every month. The money goes to buy off the loyalty of Karzai’s retinue, and the local strongmen around the country who at least nominally are on his side. This is the way that Afghanistan has been governed since the Raj-the folks in Kabul keep a flow of patronage to the regions, and the regions stay on their side. (Steve Le Vine, 29 April 2013)

In 2014 one can predict a seachange in Afghanistan.  Or, perhaps “tidal wave” would be a better descriptor.  There will be both a military and economic transition as the United States relinquishes its predominant role in the country.  The on-again, off-again peace talks are stalled, but elections will be held and a new President will replace Hamid Karzai.
On 22 June, at midday Friday, a large Taliban force attacked numerous security checkpoints leading to the Kunduz provincial capital in northern Afghanistan.  After a long firefight during which police held their ground, two policemen perished while at least 18 insurgents Taliban were killed and many wounded.  Following the initial attack the Taliban retreated, only to be captured by Afghan security after hours-long counter-attack. The surprising outcome of the Taliban probe was a promising start and most welcome news since NATO handed over security in northern Afghanistan provinces to local forces.

In fact, the Afghan security forces have been very busy.  According to an Associated Press count, 807 Afghan security force members — soldiers and police — have been killed so far this year through May.   (As contrasted with the loss of 365 in the same period in 2012.)  The great majority of them have perished in the region south of Kabul and in ethnic Pashtun-dominated provinces.

To the north of Kabul, in a crescent of the northern provinces that stretch 300 miles from Faryab (with its border with Turkmenistan) through Balkh (with its border with Uzbekistan) to Kondoz (and its border with Tajikistan), the region has been relatively peaceful.  Much of the political power once centralized in Kabul has been decentralized, and the provinces and their warlords are now politically powerful even if their militias are generally inept.  Over the last decade the Kabul voter has become more sophisticated and not utterly predictable. But the provinces still vote along ethnic lines and generally follow the dictates of their leaders.
To the north of Kabul, the ethnic Uzbek, Tajik, and the Shiite Hazara who occupy the frontier provinces of Balkh, Jowzjan, Faryan and Badghis, are worried.  This is especially true of the Uzbek of Jowzjan province who continue to follow Dostum,  the Tajik of  Balkh and Kunduz  who support Noor Atta Mohammad,  and the Shiite Hazara whose leader is Haji Mohaqeq.   As the time approaches for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, these minorities are moving to quarantine both the four frontier provinces and certain districts found in the contiguous provinces of Sar-e-pol and Samangan.

Just prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan it was rumored that Dostum had been killed.  The rumor circulated shortly after the assassination of the Northern Alliance commander, Ahmed Shah Masoud. An ethnic Uzbek, Masoud, had been a thorn in the side of both the Russians and the Taliban but a friend of the CIA.  His loss was significant, but when the Americans appeared in Afghanistan they found that Dostum was alive and well.  With a small contingent of Americans he and his ethnic Uzbeks would confront and defeat the Taliban in direct combat near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh province.

The victory in Balkh, while a success for the anti-Taliban forces, was considered a stinging defeat in Pakistan.  The Pakistan military intelligence, which ran Pakistan’s foreign policy, had suffered a humiliating defeat and its mortal enemy, the Northern Alliance, was actually strong enough to join with the United States in the capture of Kabul.  The US forces, with Dostum’s help, were able to decimate the Taliban, and in doing so it destroyed Mullah Omar’s 7th century theocratic state, and al Qaida jihadists’ safe haven in southeastern Afghanistan.

In the short, sharp aftermath of the Afghanistan invasion that followed the attack of 9/11/2001, Pakistan’s military intelligence (the ISI), and its dominant foreign policy arm, was greatly perturbed not only with the defeat of their ethnic Pashtun Taliban allies but with the US use of the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban, which was in fact an ISI creation.  The ISI had moved along with the Taliban to Mazar-e-Sharif after the Taliban captured the city in 1997.  The ISI, which detested Dostum, was never able to capture its archenemy, and his re-emergence as a political force in 2001 was galling indeed.

In effect, the Taliban, the Pashtun majority, and the ISI had all been humbled.    The ISI was forced to evacuate the city along with its posts in Balkh and elsewhere in the north. The ISI dream for the unification of an ethnic Pashtunistan had been frustrated by the United States, and Uzbek and Tajik forces.  Still, even though the Taliban had been smashed it was not eliminated.  In the years that followed, the ISI has only paid lip service to US effort to eliminate the Afghan Taliban, and it has yet to “delink” from the Islamist brotherhood that it had founded.  Instead, the ISI responded by providing asylum to the surviving Taliban leadership that congregated at Peshawar, Pakistan.

Shortly thereafter there were reports that secret Pakistan sources were providing arms to the Afghan refugees and to the Islamist warlords that controlled the opium poppy trade inside Afghanistan.  The ISI moved tepidly against al-Qaeda and it helped the Taliban survive by providing it a safe-haven in Pakistan’s Baluchistan where its leadership operated from the city of Quetta.

As al-Qaeda reorganized in Pakistan and the Taliban took to the hills, the ISI had assumed that someone close to former king, the octogenarian Zahir Shah, or someone from the Northern Alliance would be chosen by the US to lead the government.  Even better, it was hoped that the feckless United Nations would support a weak coalition government that would be ineffective in subduing the chaos that was sure to follow the U.S. victory.  However, as the Americans slogged their way through the Afghan political swamp, they soon settled on the Pashtun restauranteur Hamid Karzai to lead the nation.

In the aftermath of the Taliban defeat, Dostum bided his time.  He returned to Balkh, his homeland, and to its capital at Mazar al-Sharif.  Located thirty-five miles south of the Amu Darya River that separates Afghanistan from the newly independent and former Soviet republics to the north, Mazar-e-Sharif is home to a mixed population of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkomans. It soon reverted to Uzbek control under Dostum, who kept his Uzbek army intact. He then began the process of re–creating the Junbish-i-Milli, his personal political party founded in the early nineteen nineties.

To ensure peace in the North, Dostum was made deputy defense minister; a smart political move as Karzai hoped to place an ally on his northern flank and gain the support of the nearly ten percent of Afghans who are Uzbek.  (It also allowed Dostum to open a pipeline to supply arms to his Uzbek militia.)  The promotion was given despite the fact that Dostum was notoriously unpredictable, and was considered a war criminal for numerous atrocities carried out against the Taliban in the months following the US invasion.  Meanwhile, the U.S. (with Russian approval) began to use Termez airfield, just across the Amu Darya in Uzbekistan.  It soon became a crucial NATO steppingstone to Afghanistan.  Dostum, as primus inter pares among the local warlords and a man hated by the ISI, soon dominated logistics in the Termez-Balkh entrepot, a situation that would make him exceedingly rich.

In a new turn of the Afghan kaleidoscope, in October 2003, Dostum’s Uzbek militia and the Tajik forces of Atta Mohammad fought a pitched battle west of Mazar al-Sharif.  With tanks and artillery in play, the casualties were reported in the hundreds before the Afghan Minister of Interior could impose a ceasefire.  Dostum and Atta had for years been rivals in the north, but in the end Atta outmaneuvered his enemy and took charge of Balkh.  Today, Atta is particularly concerned with the Pashtun Islamists in the south, which, aided by the ISI, have been training Tajik to infiltrate his region, and Tajikistan itself.

Elsewhere, Dostum moved into nearby Jowzjan and took charge of that province. Hazara leader Haji Mohaqeq who joined Karzai as planning minister is a marked Taliban target.  The leader of the Hezb-e-Wahdat party, and leader of the Hazara ethnic minority most of whom are found in the north; Mohaqeq is convinced that his Shia are candidates for extinction should the Taliban return to power.

Much has changed since 2009, when the Taliban presence in Chardara District – Kunduz province and Faryab province, were the two major Taliban threats to Afghanistan’s northern provinces.  The problem was resolved in Kunduz after German forces went on the attack.  In February 2010 Germany reclassified its forces deployment in Afghanistan as an  “armed conflict within the parameters of international law.”  That legalism gave German forces the freedom to attack the insurgents without placing them at risk at home.  German forces were supported by U.S. troops,  and the upgrade of their Regional Command North led to the region’s general pacification.

In 2008, Dostum chose exile in Turkey, for fear that the U.S. might bring him to trial for actions taken in the war with the Taliban.  He returned in 2009 even though the U.S. embassy in Kabul opposed him, and despite the fact that he and the President actually hated each other.  When the Uzbek leader supported an embattled Karzai in his successful re-election bid, he was paid handsomely ever after.  And in a defiant declaration the Uzbek warlord reminded his enemies, “If you mess with Dostum, you mess with a million people.” (Christian Science Monitor, 17 August 2009)

In May 2012 President Karzai announced the decentralization of political power, allowing a general autonomy in some 230 districts and all provincial capitals.  It was a crucial step taken in anticipation of the NATO disengagement to occur in 2014.  In response, the Taliban have begun a series of attacks in the North to test the strength of its warlords.  The feeble response to a recent attack on Sheberghan, Jowzjan, now places in question the strength of the Dostum militia.  It is claimed they have a have some 20,000 fighters, but one wonders how long they will remain so if their funding by Uncle Sam is cut off. Moreover, Dastum’s has yet to succeed in his “effort to form a National Front, a coalition largely of non-Pashtun northerners” to oppose the Pashtuns.

Indeed, one wonders how long before Afghanistan deteriorates and the Taliban return to power.   Karzai has concentrated the Afghan Security Forces in the south and in those provinces where ethnic Pashtun are dominant.  In contrast, the north has been given little military aid.

What will happen to the northern alliance and the ethnic minorities there once Kabul falls? The U.S. imposed no-fly zone in northern Iraq protected the Kurds and allowed the the region to prosper.  Could the U.S. do the same to secure the protection of Afghanistan’s northern provinces?

To be continued…

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