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Tuesday 15 November 2005
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AFGHANISTAN: Focus on warlordism in northeast

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Armed men talking tough in Kunduz

FAIZABAD, 1 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Sitting in his tiny, dark office in an old building in the town of Faizabad, provincial capital of Afghanistan's northeastern Badakhshan, Shah Jehan Noori, the provincial police chief, pleaded with government officials in the capital, Kabul, to send him more troops and equipment to deal with unruly warlords who still hold sway in many parts of the province.

"We need commandos, we need police, we need helicopters. Commanders [warlords] are strong. They must be brought under control," he shouted down the phone while preparing for another operation to quell clashes between militia groups that had plagued the isolated province since early May.

Northeastern Afghanistan, including the province of Badakhshan, is ironically seen as one of the safest regions in a country rife with insecurity, especially in the south and the east. But it remains a major source of concern to people like Noori who wish to tame the power of local warlords without plunging the region into new conflict.

Although all the militia forces in the northeast were supposedly decommissioned by the UN-backed Disarmament Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, local commanders appear to have no shortage of heavy or light weaponry at their disposal to enforce their will.

In Badakhshan, despite the support of a 200 strong NATO-led group of international peacekeepers stationed in Faizabad, local police are often unable to defuse local feuds and disputes between armed groups.

Only last April there was a clash between two commanders in the Shahr-e-Buzurg border district, four hours south of Faizabad and strategically located on one of Afghanistan's prime drug trafficking routes running north into Central Asia.

Northeast Badakhshan was one of the few provinces never conquered by the Taliban

The two local warlords reportedly came to blows over control of the lucrative run and sought to resolve the issue with heavy artillery, mortars and vehicle-mounted rocket launchers. Several people were reportedly killed and injured in the resulting battle. Some unarmed local people were caught in the crossfire.

In Darahim district, two hours south of Faizabad, the new district administrator, Alimyar, has been wary of his safety since taking up his post. He has been threatened by Neyazi, an ex-district administrator, who claims he protected the area during years of violence and deserves to be in a position of power in the area.

While in Spingul valley, three hours north of Faizabad, a woman suspected of adultery, was stoned to death in mid April, with a local commander purportedly being influential in passing the death sentence.

"The warlords are stronger and better equipped than our police. The police are not supposed to conduct military operations but we have no choice as the only security body here," Noori told IRIN.

"NATO forces here say it is not their mandate to intervene in cases like Shahr-e-Buzurg and the capital has not responded to our demand for ANA [Afghan National Army] deployment," said Noori, shrugging as he watched the unloading of artillery to be deployed in the troubled area.

"This is our utmost power but the opposition commander is even stronger," he warned.

In Faizabad influential commander Nazeer Mohammad, locally known as Nazeermad, continues to wield significant power over civil and military affairs in the province.

Any local resident in the city, if asked, would name the top decision maker in the area as Nazeermad, not the governor. Nothing happens without the knowledge of the powerful warlord who has ruled the city for more than ten years.

Nazeermad has four wives and according to locals, has been married eleven times in the last 15 years.

Badakshan police during a military parade exercise in Faizabad

"He divorces one and marries a new one after every three years - many of them forced marriages," a provincial court prosecutor, who wished to be kept anonymous, told IRIN.

While authorities in the area prepare themselves for parliamentary elections in September, the fact that most of the candidates are either warlords or extremist clergy loyal to these commanders remains a source of serious concern. One civil servant, who has been living in Faizabad for 20 years, maintained that former militias already occupy most key government posts.

"In fact, the governor cannot do anything when the whole circle is supporting people like Nazeermad," he explained. "They are very professional warlords and they proceed in a very well planned, coordinated and organised [manner]".

Badakhshan is the home province of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami [Islamic community]. Most of the provincial government's leading officials still remain loyal to Rabbani.

This isolated province, rife with social and economic problems, was one of the few provinces the hard-line Taliban was never able to conquer. In addition to having one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan, the province is a leading poppy cultivating area.

"When Badakhshan is mentioned, donors and the government consider the issue of maternal mortality and poppy cultivation as the main problems here. No one outside this mountainous province knows that warlordism has undermined development in this corner of the country," Anis Akhgar, the head of Faizabad's women's affairs department, told IRIN. Akhgar is running as an independent candidate in the parliamentary elections but has little hope of competing against her rival candidates, many of them influential commanders.

"They [the warlords] are the candidates, the observers and even they look after the security of candidates. How is it possible that an independent candidate like me can win?" she asked.

Meanwhile, despite the presence of two hundred NATO-led peacekeepers in the tiny Faizabad city, local residents remain mindful of the threat posed by local commanders.

The threat of armed men in the area continues

"Even ISAF [NATO-led international security assistance force] is recruiting the former militias of Badakhshan, re-arming them and using them," Mohammad Zafar, a civil servant at the Faizabad public hospital, told IRIN, claiming that NATO forces were regularly meeting and consulting with Nazeermad in his home on the edge of Kokcha River in the heart of Faizabad.

"All of our villagers who were loyal to Nazeermad and were disarmed last year, currently are carrying military guns and badges of ISAF," Zafar claimed.

Badakhshan is the third largest poppy-growing province in the country. Drug trafficking and the issue of insecurity caused by the lack of infrastructure make it very difficult for the law to be imposed by the civilian-military units of the international Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), especially in other parts of the province which are the primary areas of concern.

The weapons and ammunition caches still found in the area are an additional source of concern.

"There are some warlords left, because in each district you will find former commanders of the old wars which still own a lot of weapons and their power-base is drug trading and ownership of rifles and other weapons," Lt-Colonel Manhenke Olaf of the NATO-led PRT and commander of Faizabad, told IRIN. He added that although the DDR process had officially ended, there is still a lot of weaponry around.

The commander of the two-hundred strong multi-national unit said many of the problems and encounters in Badakhshan were 'an inner Afghan conflict' and the PRTs were not mandated to become involved in these particular issues.

"We are tasked to support the police by giving them advice but we are not allowed to use our own guns in direct military operations," he said.

"In Shahr-e-Buzurg's particular incident, as the police are using heavy weapons [to control the tense situation], it is a semi-military operation [in] which we cannot be involved," he explained.

Olaf rejected claims that the PRTs were re-arming former militias, noting, however, they had recruited some former militia members, including thirty men loyal to Nazeermad, using them to protect the PRT premises.

"What we are doing is we have civil guards which are supporting the military guards securing the camp and some of them are members of former militia groups, because they don't need further military training and are familiar with the area," he explained.

Gunmen on the move in northeast Badakhshan

But Badakhshan is just one example of the whole problem of warlordism threatening public order in northeastern Afghanistan, according to local rights activists.

In the northeastern city of Kunduz, where hundreds of ISAF personnel are deployed and a large contingent of the ANA is stationed, local commanders continue to harass people, with incidents of land grabbing, drug trafficking and forced ‘taxation’ of farmers and shopkeepers being reported.

When IRIN visited Imam Sahib, a border district 70 kilometers north of Kunduz, armed men loyal to a local commander who is a top local government official, forcibly collected money and food items from shopkeepers to organise a reception for a senior visiting government delegation from Kabul.

"The big commanders here are drug traffickers. They are too rich and they don't bother with small matters. Now the poor people are annoyed by small armed groups. They rob highways, grab lands and tax farmers for their harvest," an aid worker, who declined to be named, told IRIN in Kunduz.

He said these armed groups often clashed with the newly trained ANA and national police.

"In just one week we had two major incidents. Men loyal to Commander Meer Alam resisted when the police wanted to check their vehicle at the Kunduz entrance gate, while Zabet Nurullah, a local militia commander was prohibited from passing on a restricted road during a military parade by the ANA," the aid worker said.

The United Nations said the DDR is reaching an end with more than 55,000 of the estimated 60,000 ex-combatants disarmed. But the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MOD) estimates that more than a 100,000 armed men in illegal militias still remain unchallenged.

According to the MOD, a new programme entitled disarmament of illegal armed groups (DIAG) is underway to address the problem of such armed groups and individuals throughout the country.

Local people believe the task is huge and the parliamentary elections, slated for September, will be marked by incidents of intimidation and harassment by local warlords around the country.


 Theme(s) Peace Security
Other recent AFGHANISTAN reports:

Election results finalised,  14/Nov/05

Election results postponed,  9/Nov/05

UN and Afghan rights bodies condemn killing of female poet,  8/Nov/05

Final election results out Wednesday,  7/Nov/05

United Nations and rights bodies criticise jailing of journalist,  25/Oct/05

Other recent Peace Security reports:

AFGHANISTAN: Election results finalised, 14/Nov/05

IRAQ: Ongoing violence sees rising concern for journalists’ safety, 14/Nov/05

BURKINA FASO: Blaise Compaore, a president on a quest for legitimacy, 14/Nov/05

KAZAKHSTAN: Independent inquiry into death of presidential critic sought, 14/Nov/05

PAKISTAN: Call for repeal of blasphemy laws, 14/Nov/05

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