Longtime foes revive struggles for power

After sending away Taliban, old mullah calls factions to city

War On Terrorism

November 18, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JALALABAD, Afghanistan - The victors began to divide the spoils here yesterday, and already there are hurt feelings, the sort of game-face grumbling that in the past has always preceded major eruptions in Afghanistan.

Which is why, in the weeks to come, events in this market town in the western end of the Khyber Pass may say a lot about how deeply, if at all, peace can take root in the wake of the Taliban's collapse.

The succession of power here occurred much as it did in dozens of other Afghan cities and towns in the past week. As Taliban forces retreated, old commanders from past fights returned home to reclaim power, only to find former rivals doing the same.

To say that Jalalabad was "liberated" is to stretch the truth. Half the men here still stroll the streets with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers slung across their backs. Few men shaved their beards, and few women cast off their head-to-toe burqas. Beards and burqas were part of the ethnic Pashtun style long before the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar made them mandatory.

No one had to dig out their old televisions either. They had never stopped watching, and some residents even flaunted rooftop satellite dishes.

But the most important holdover from Taliban days is the reigning power broker. That would be Yunis Khalis, an elderly mullah who made his name battling the Soviet invaders in the 1980s, and now lives in the hills a few miles out of town.

Khalis got rid of the Taliban much in the way a CEO dismisses a suddenly unpopular board of directors. He politely informed them on Wednesday that it was time to go. Most complied without a shot, unless you count the handful of Arab and Pakistani fighters killed on their way out of town.

Taliban fighters who grew up around here joined the new order simply by trading their black turbans for white caps.

But as old Taliban foes raced into town, some arrived from exile by coming across the Pakistani border. Khalis was faced with the challenge of keeping the power grab from turning into a well-armed wrestling match. Far more than town rule was at stake. Jalalabad is capital of Nangarhar province, astride a strategic trading route that has been fought over for centuries. Khalis' immediate answer was to gather the various contenders late yesterday morning in Jalalabad's grandiose governing palace for a three-hour jirga, a sort of glorified town meeting.

The top job of provincial governor went to Haji Abdul Qadeer, a longtime Khalis ally. That didn't sit well with two challengers.

One was Haji Muhhamen Zaman, a guerrilla commander who fought it out in the Jalalabad area in the chaotic years leading up to Taliban rule. Zaman had arrived Thursday in a convoy of buses and vans brimming with armed supporters and foreign journalists, but that wasn't enough to sway Khalis's jirga.

Zaman's consolation prize was being named provincial military commander, not bad until one realizes that most of the armed men in the streets are loyal to Qadeer, and that Zaman's new base of power is a bombed Taliban building on the outskirts of town where his men industriously manned a checkpoint in the first night on the job.

Hazrat Ali, who led the Wednesday shootout that killed a few of the departing Arabs, complained openly that the top job should have been his, insisting, "I should be governor. I liberated the town."

Lest any of the runners-up get out of hand, Qadeer had taken his own pre-emptive steps. Four days ago he summoned a loyal military commander, Abdul Lateef Nahzatyar, to bring his 300 men down from the hills.

"We are here to secure the town, to provide some order," Nahzatyar insisted calmly. He was surrounded by 20 of his men on the concrete steps of a local guesthouse, where his fighters trooped to their rooms carrying rocket grenades like milk bottles.

Technically part of the Northern Alliance, the men from Nahzatar's unit are not from any of the main ethnic groups in the alliance - Tajik, Uzbek or Hazarra - that the local Pashtun find objectionable.

Nor, like most of the local power contenders, are they Pashtun. They are Pashai, and come from a remote region north of here called Nuristan.

"We're a gentle people, a peaceful people." he said - a tough sell when you've been at war for the past 22 years.

But Nuristan does offer a certain isolation. It is a land of bad roads and little electricity, sealed from its neighbors by 14,000-foot peaks and the lack of a major highway.

All of that seems to make its fighters the perfect fit as the local version of a peace-keeping force.

"We are highly respected and appreciated by the local Pashtun people here," said Nahzatyar, who besides being college-educated - a rarity if you're from Nuristan - also shows the knack of a PR man for knowing the diplomatic thing to say in a touchy time of discontent.

When asked about possible local discord, he shakes his head and said, "I think it will be peaceful. In Afghanistan there are many tribes, many castes, and many different types of people. And the best type of option would be to let them get together. They all have the right to be involved in governing."

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