The Pulse

The Sparring Strongmen of Northern Afghanistan

Ethnic conflict has the potential to derail the country’s fragile progress.

The Sparring Strongmen of Northern Afghanistan
Credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz

The strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital of the northern Afghan province of Balkh, saw a major confrontation this month, between the supporters of the Uzbek leader and the incumbent first vice-president, General Rashid Dostum and those of the Tajik acting-governor, General Atta Mohammad Noor.

The clash, which occurred on March 22, was brought to a peaceful conclusion after the provincial national security directorate and councils of elders intervened. However, the tensions did not go away, and indeed had a spill-over effect on the neighboring province of Faryab, which the next day saw armed violence that resulted in one dead and three wounded.

Balkh is home to large populations of all major ethnic groups. Violence here is not unprecedented and can be linked to deep-rooted ethno-political grievances that have accumulated over the distribution of power and resources following the collapse of the communist-crafted regime in Kabul in 1992. After that year, all ethnic groups wielded significant firepower in Balkh and its surrounding regions, engaging each other in intermittent battles until 2003, when the United Nations introduced a disarmament and disintegration program that propelled Noor to provincial governorship. Noor consolidated his power by inserting his militia into the formal state infrastructure, monopolizing the economy, and purging his opponents. Ethno-political tensions and grievances have persisted, albeit at a reduced intensity.

The latest series of violence began over the removal of billboard portraits of Dostum from the city center, a move Dostum’s supporters attributed to Noor’s affiliates. A spokesperson for Dostum claimed that the portraits had been removed in coordination with the local authorities, who deployed police vehicles for the task. Noor was quick to react and laid the blame on “agitators” seeking to create chaos and exploit a fragile situation.

It would be naïve, however, to blame these tensions on portraits alone. Other factors play a role. The most significant are the political economy of the post-2001 experiment, as well as the ethnic affiliations and identities that are contested by numerous factions, at times violently, and shaped and reshaped along ethno-political ties.

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In Afghanistan, state institutions, civil society and media were all severely disrupted by war, and still today struggle to create the capacity, legitimacy and authority to mediate relations among belligerent citizen groups and between citizens and the state to tamp down the chances of renewed violence. The political economy and power structures – which may well have fueled conflict and violence in the first place – continue to function as critical determinants in facilitating and/or derailing the fragile transition to stability. Attention needs to be focused on the role that a healthy political economy can play in transforming a highly volatile society to a peaceful society and in shaping the structure and exercise of power such that it can fairly distribute resources and address ethnic grievances.

Now, these strongmen – who have shown themselves to be extremely effective in manipulating their rigid ethnic constituencies in the northern regions to relevance in post-2001 era, all the while aware that their region is facing a growing security threat from the Taliban that could prove fatal to their own power and influence – have bizarrely proved incapable of reconciling the fundamental antagonism they have toward one another, an antagonism generated and sustained by the political economy and ethnic-agonism. Noor would have liked to have seen Dostum relegated to a “local” man – in other words, somebody at Noor’s own level. Noor finds it difficult to tolerate Dostum as the country’s first vice-president, a man from whom he must take orders. For his part, Dostum would like to be able to use his status to have Noor removed from his post.

Another factor around which the current confrontations revolve is ethnic identity. Ethnicity and ethnic demands by the varied ethnic groups that had traditionally been isolated by the Pashtun grip on power gained in salience during and after the Soviet occupation. During the 14-year war of resistance (1978-92), ethnic grievances and ethnic anxiety were one of the major factors on which the warring factions predicated their struggles. The patterns of peace and war making among the politico-military factions in the civil war years, amid infighting that did not alter the overall struggle over the state and power, demonstrate that ethnic identities provided a formidable force that glued these factions together in the face of the threat from the “other.” The malleability of ethnicity became further exposed to manipulation for instrumental ends when the war of resistance (jihad) was reduced from an ideological cause to a mere ethnic struggle.

Nation-building is a time-consuming process, yet the post-Bonn Afghanistan years were hailed as a major success. Still, the struggle over resources, the state and power, electoral narratives, and mass voting-behavior over the last 15 years clearly illustrate that embedded in the mass consciousness is a tendency towards ethnic animosity. Now, as the National Unity Government struggles to govern and respond to the increasing security threat posed by the Taliban and other terrorist syndicates, both strongmen will seek to insert themselves into the political arena by framing and selling their agendas in the guise of ethnic identities. A close analysis of media affiliated with each faction clearly demonstrates that the latest confrontations have created a situation in which the focus of both the Uzbek and Tajik ethnic groups is on their position in the political economy.

The current wave of violence and its likely implications for the greater northern region must be understood. It must be evaluated within the framework of the political economy of transition and ethnic grievances accrued through decades of injustice and conflict. The war of words among the political elites and the mass mobilization in the form of protests, taking up of arms, and the rebuilding of old military networks and militias all suggest that the political economy of the state-building processes is being contested and manipulated by various factions and that ethnic tensions have the potential to lead a fragile state into political breakdown.

Arif Sahar is a doctoral student at University College London. He specializes in the political economy of state-building in post-2001 Afghanistan. Also a researcher at the University of Derby, he has been widely published in peer-reviewed academic journals, most recently in Central Asian Survey and Asian Journal of Political Science. Arif tweets @ArifSahar2