Afghanistan: Strange Bedfellows

Abdul Rashid Dostum (l) and Governor Atta Mohammad Noor.
Abdul Rashid Dostum (l) and Governor Atta Mohammad Noor.

Politics often makes strange bedfellows, more so in a nascent and messy democracy like Afghanistan, where warlords continue to wield enormous power. The recent alliance between Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor and First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum to combat the Afghan Taliban in the embattled north is a case in point.


Burying the hatchet, the power-brokers have vowed to fight together against the insurgents in their stronghold. One overriding objective behind the nexus between the Jamiat-i-Islami and Junbish-i-Millie — both having private militias — is to keep the region from sliding into chaos. More importantly, they are hell-bent on ruling the north with an iron fist and keeping their preponderance intact, by hook or by crook.


In an interview, the powerful Balkh governor warned that many provinces in the north ran the risk of being overrun by the Taliban and Daesh. But in coordination with security forces, the strongmen are confident of inflicting a body blow on the militants, who are steadily zeroing in on their traditional bastion. If Dostum has been sidelined in the unity government, Atta has also been left out of the political game in Kabul — a situation that has prompted them to become tactical allies. But similar alliances, cobbled together in the not-so-distant past, had to struggle with internecine bickering.


Even the fragile ruling coalition is composed of two competing parties led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Driven by greed for power, they have many political and ethnic differences. To boot, they have to contend with two insurgent groups — the Taliban and Daesh. Just like the squabbling coalition partners, the militants are also divided.


Whatever their impact on security, such unwieldy unions may spur parallel forces within the government. Looking at these manipulative moves, several intriguing questions spring to mind: What is it that encourages these political actors, who are practically part and parcel of government, to forge alliances? Is Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, responsible only for safeguarding his own citadel? Or should he work for boosting security across the country?


Instead of seeking to secure one particular region, the battle-hardened men should lend a helping hand to intelligence and security agencies in devising a coherent strategy for stabilising the country. The development is a surprise, in that both have often clashed while jockeying for control of the region.


Like the north, many provinces including Nangarhar, Nuristan, Laghman, Kunar, Helmand and Paktia are currently in the throes of intense fighting. How can the vice president, known for his opposition to the Taliban, restrict his role to the north? Do we need other commanders to guide the southern and eastern parts of the country to stability?


While debating the pros and cons of these groupings, one must acknowledge both men are senior leaders, who can improve security by fighting together against the Taliban. But we know from experience if the militants are brought under pressure in one area, they move to another. If pushed to the wall in the north, the fighters will shift to the south and east.


Their stout followings notwithstanding, the two individuals are in no way more resourceful than the ministries of defence and interior. Since raising private forces needs finances, training and time, they will be better advised to assist the security establishment.


Meanwhile, there are rumours swirling around ex-jihadi leaders’ quest for a return to power. Their possible unity will lead to new alignments — a dangerous nostrum. Dos­tum and Abd­ullah will rise along with other Mujah­idin outfits in Kabul, Noor in Balkh, Ismail Khan in Herat and others elsewhere in the country. This fragmentation will represent a spooky scenario, where another debilitating civil war could not be ruled out.


While maintaining security in his province, Noor can share his rich experience with the central government. By the same token, Dostum should think of helping the defence ministry execute a nationwide security strategy. Other renowned jihadi leaders can also work together for bringing security to Afghanistan.


For all practical purposes, these alliances are nothing more than a marriage of convenience — marking the continuity of, not an end to, the conflict. Hopefully, the president and parliament will see to it that the alliance does not take any toll on Afghanistan’s stability. It should not be allowed to disturb the balance of forces or muddle the course of war.


In last year’s presidential vote, Dostum — backed by Uzbekistan and Turkey — joined forces with Ghani. On the other hand, Atta threw his weight behind Abdullah. How long will this alliance last? There are broad indications the newfound unity between the erstwhile foes has been brought about by some regional powers to protect their interest in Afghanistan.


The writer is a freelance journalist.

This article first appeared in Dawn, a leading daily of Pakistan. Click here to go to the original.


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