Blood and thunder in embattled Balkh
KABUL - Events unfolding in Afghanistan's northern province of Balkh provide a window into Afghan politics and throw a harsh light on the problems faced by those attempting to bring good governance to the country.
What's happening in this Afghan microcosm is this: the provincial governor supports a rival of Afghanistan's incumbent president, Hamid Karzai; a leading warlord, formerly an ally of the governor, switches sides to become Karzai's running mate in the presidential elections, and a blood feud results; the governor accuses Kabul of distributing arms to various warlords in the province, to destabilize it and force his ouster; Kabul accuses the governor, who is of an ethnic minority, of creating a fiefdom and killing off rivals; and the populace is caught in the middle of this infighting between national and provincial government, rival presidential candidates and assorted warlords.
Balkh's governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, accuses the Ministry of Interior of distributing weapons to powerful warlords in the province to undermine his power because of his support for rival presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.
Noor told a gathering this month, "Our people are aware of the distribution of weapons to local commanders. The responsibility for any violence and conflict in Balkh [falls on] the people who distributed these illegal weapons."
In a conversation with Killid Weekly, Noor's spokesman, Munir Farhad, said the warlords were using the weapons to intimidate locals.
"This is against the Afghan constitution and the central government doesn't have the right to distribute weapons to these people who are illiterate, unprofessional and unqualified. These armed commanders are using weapons supplied by the government against Afghan national solidarity and interests. These are not professional security organs," Farhad said. "They are warlords."
But some analysts say that it is Noor, an ethnic Tajik, who has created extra-legal power in Balkh. "Atta Muhammad Noor has established a small kingdom," said Fazal Rahman Oria, a Kabul-based political observer. "He follows his own rules and principles and does not obey the central government."
Rohulla Samun, a spokesman for Juma Khan Hamdard, governor of Paktia province and former governor of Balkh, says that there is no weapons distribution program and that Noor is "just using this as an excuse to kill Pashtun tribal leaders he doesn't like".
A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior denies that there is a government effort to arm warlords in Balkh. Noor's complaint, he says, has been referred to the Attorney General's office and National Security Council for investigation.
The deputy and acting attorney general, Fazel Ahmad Faqir Yar, said that "a mixed commission should be assigned to evaluate whether [these allegations are] true or not. If it is true, clearly there will be an investigation."
The presidential election
Observers say that if these warlords are being armed by the Karzai government, there is a broad political purpose behind the action. The aim is to weaken Noor and force him out of office due to his support for Abdullah's candidacy in the August 20 polls, the results of which are still pending.
"This is politics," said Farhad. "It has a deep root in political issues. The government is not working for security, their goal is political."
It is rumored that Karzai once offered Noor a position in his cabinet in exchange for Noor's abandoning support for Abdullah, an offer that Noor declined. Marshal Mohammad Fahim, a Northern Alliance comrade of both Abdullah and governor Noor, switched sides and accepted a similar offer and is now Karzai's running mate. That defection led to a blood feud between the candidates and resulted in numerous incidents of violence on the campaign trail.
The latest accusations and counter-accusations come during Afghanistan's tense wait for results of the presidential election.
With the outcome in limbo, Karzai has maneuvered behind the scenes to try and prevent a possible runoff vote if he does not secure 50% of the total votes cast. It is rumored that he has offered Abdullah 12 ministry chairs, to be filled by him and his supporters, in exchange for a withdrawal of the challenger's candidacy. It is unclear whether Abdullah will accept the offer, though in public statements he has stridently rejected any such compromise.
The situation in Balkh demonstrates the weakness of the central government to maintain security through constitutional means.
"The [statements] of the Interior Ministry show the weakness of the Afghan police, that police do not have the ability to enforce the law," said analyst Oria Rahman, adding that the very fact that the allegations had to be referred to an authority outside the Interior Ministry shows the weakness of that body.
Local police commander General Mujtaba Patang rejects this, asserting at a press conference that "weapons haven't been distributed in the north of Afghanistan. We are the government and we are armed. I assure you that no one has the ability [to act outside] the government's authority."
The people of Balkh are caught between a governor who does not have the confidence of the president and increasingly well-armed warlords. All sides have called for calm and expressed hope that the situation will not further escalate into bloodshed.
Noor's spokesman lamented, "This will make the situation worse across Afghanistan and not just in Balkh. This will create problems for Afghan civilians."
And the Taliban? They appear to not even be a factor in the battle for Balkh. A victory by the Western allies over their foes leaves them with "friends" like the protagonists in Balkh, while the lot of ordinary Afghans is likely to remain dismal.