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Afghanistan’s warlords once again in the spotlight amid a raging Civil War

Afghanistan’s warlords once again in the spotlight amid a raging Civil War

As Afghanistan's slide into chaos continues, latest reports from the country say that the UN mission in Herat has been attacked. Meanwhile, in its  latest report released yesterday the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconciliation (SIGAR) has said that while the ANDSF has retaken some districts and the Afghan government still controls all 34 provincial capitals, including Kabul, "the ANDSF appeared surprised and unready and is now on its back foot" and that the Afghan government faces an "existential crisis". Of course, the Afghan defence ministry does not agree with such a doomsday scenario, though there is no doubt that the Afghan forces are being subjected to severe military pressure.

Against this backdrop it's not surprising that private militias are being resurrected and Afghanistan's famed warlordism is back.

Who is a warlord?

A warlord derives his influence and prestige from his local tribe, depending on his ability to provide security, sometimes sustenance and often patronage to his “constituency”. He maintains a private army, and typically combines both military and political power. He operates under conditions when the State is fragile.

In Afghanistan, warlords and private militias have been used for centuries, and have been an essential part of a "hybrid military model".

The war against the Soviets and the ensuing civil war that followed generated a stream of well-armed warlords, compelling the Afghan state to ally and co-opt  these powerful players. For instance. Ata Muhammad Nur, an established warlord in Balkh, became governor of  Balkh in 2004; Juma Hamdard, a former senior commander of the Hizb-e-Islami became a security advisor to President Ashraf Ghani. Observers have also argued that many of these warlords, proved themselves to be sophisticated and wily political actors with transnational connections.

After the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, as state building began in Afghanistan, the UN followed a policy of disarming these individuals, but credible reports suggest that  this task of de-fanging the warlords could not be fully accomplished.

Also read:  Why India needs to bond with Russia and Central Asia in Afghanistan

Today, when the US and NATO troops have all but withdrawn, the 300,000 strong Afghan army seems stretched and overwhelmed. It is in these circumstances of an emerging military vacuum that   Afghan strongmen have risen to the forefront, forming a new front against the rising tide of  Taliban-driven extremism. While some locals welcome this, others shudder at the possibility of a return of the warlords, since many of them are  alleged to have committed serious war crimes.

Who are the warlords standing up to the Taliban?

There are the established ones and there are some new on the horizon.

Amongst the established ones are:

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: A Pashtun, a former prime minister and founder of the Hezb-i-Islami militia, which he then broke away from, to form the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin. He earned the "Butcher of Kabul" nickname after laying siege on Kabul, when different Mujahideen factions were vying to take Kabul. During Taliban rule Hekmatyar lived in exile first in Iran and then Pakistan. In 2016, Hekmatyar signed a peace deal with the government of Afghanistan and returned to Afghanistan. He recently paraded hundreds of armed men in Badakhshan and Herat in a show of strength, warning the Taliban to steer clear of his zone of influence.

Ata Mohammad Nur: A Tajik, he was a Mujahideen commander for the Jamiat-e Islami party against the Soviets. When the Taliban seized power the first time Nur became part of Ahmed Shah Masoud's Northern Alliance. After the Taliban was toppled in 2001 during the Hamid Karzai administration Nur became the governor of Balkh in 2004 till, he was relieved of the position in 2018 by President Ghani. Nur has  been mobilising volunteers and former Mujahideen fighters to support Afghan forces in their efforts against the Taliban.

Ismail khan – A Tajik based in Herat, he was part of the Mujahideen who battled Soviet forces. After the  takeover by the Taliban, he battled them but had to flee Iran.  He returned to Afghanistan soon after the US launched its war on the Taliban and helped US forces. He has served as a minister in the former Hamid Karzai government.  He has also been mobilising forces for defending against the Taliban when the latter launched its offensive in the north taking over border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan,  and Tajikistan.

Abdul Rasheed Dostum: an ethnic Uzbek and a veteran of the US war against the Taliban, Dostum has supported first the Soviets and then switching sides just before the Mujahideen took over Kabul. Both he and Ata Mohammad Nur battled over regions in the north for control till they were forced to sign a truce. Dostum, who belongs to the Junbish-I-Islam party, now controls Jowzan, Faryab and Saraipul districts. He was last year elevated to the rank of General by the Ghani government.  Dostum is, perhaps, the most powerful of all warlords, with somewhere around 20,000 fighters at his command.

Hazrat Ali: Hazrat Ali of Nangarhar is yet another fairly established warlord. Belonging to the Pashei ethnicity, he was part of Hizb-i-Islami Khalis and joined the Northern Alliance during Taliban rule. He helped the Americans in the initial years of the war. He has some 6000 militias at his command and has been critical of the peace talks.

Amongst the relatively new warlords are:

Ahmed Massoud: Son of veteran mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, fondly called the "the Lion of Panjshir" and who was assassinated by Al Qaida just two days before the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001. Masoud has mobilised some few thousands of fighters in northern Afghanistan. In an interview to France 24 earlier this year, he had called the US-Taliban deal a mistake and warned that a rushed troops exit could lead to a civil war in Afghanistan.

Link to video of Ahmed Massoud's interview with France 24👇

Son of slain Afghan commander Massoud warns of 'civil war' if US troops leave hastily

Zulfiqar Omid: A political activist, he is a new commander to have emerged in Afghanistan. A politician and activist in Daikundi in central Afghanistan, Omid belongs to the Hazara community, a vulnerable Shia minority which has been relentlessly targeted. Under Taliban rule, there had been a massacre of Hazaras, but they have continued to face attacks under the Karzai and Ghani administration as well.  According to data collated by the New York Times since 2016, at least 766 Hazaras have been killed in Kabul alone. The Ghani government has been accused of being indifferent to the plight of the Hazaras. Omid has the support of the Hazara community and about a thousand of fighters at his command.

Abdul Ghani Alipur: He is another Hazara  warlord based  in Wardak. But he has run into trouble with the Ghani government after he  criticised  its for discriminating against the Hazaras. According to sources in Kabul Alipur has currently left Afghanistan.

Many of the above had helped the American forces topple the earlier Taliban government, fighting in the territories under their control. Many are alleged to have committed war crimes, and many of them have been  critical of both the Ghani government and the American agreement with the Taliban.

The Afghan Local Police are yet another para-military force that is being shored up now to take on the Taliban. These local village militias were created soon after the Taliban were ousted from power to help secure sparsely populated territories which were beyond the reach of the week centralised Afghan forces.

There are also rumours of the Fatimeyoun brigade – comprising Afghan Shia, mostly Hazaras, living in Iran and who were created to fight alongside Syrian government forces in the Syrian civil war of taking up arms inside Afghanistan to protect the Hazara community against the Taliban and the Islamic State. The Fatimeyoun Brigade owes loyalty to Iran. However, Hazara politicians have rejected claims that the Fatimeyoun are operating inside Afghanistan.

While the resolve and morale of the different warlords is impressive, they will have to work closely with the Afghan government as the nucleus to withstand and counter a resurgent Taliban.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising on Eurasia. Views expressed are personal)