Afghan governor escapes after warlord seizes city

Unrest far from Kabul threatens to derail vote slated for September

April 09, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - It was troubling news from a place with an unfamiliar name.

Troops loyal to one of Afghanistan's most powerful and notorious warlords swept into the northern provincial capital of Maymana yesterday, brushing aside security forces of the U.S.-backed central government and forcing the governor to flee.

Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum seized control of the city near the Turkmenistan border as more than 600 of his fighters advanced from three directions, said Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali.

One person was killed and 15 injured when a crowd stormed the governor's offices, he said, in what a Dostum spokesman described as a demonstration. The interior minister said the demonstrators were probably Dostum's soldiers.

"What General Dostum has done is against all military rules and the constitution of Afghanistan," Jalali told reporters.

Enayatullah Enayat, the governor of Fariab province appointed by the central government in Kabul, was reported to be safe at Maymana's airport last night.

The clash demonstrates how difficult it is for Afghanistan's central government to curb the power of the country's warlords, who have been accused of reaping billions in profits from extortion and the burgeoning heroin trade.

It raises questions about whether Afghanistan's national elections, scheduled for September, can be conducted free of violence and intimidation. And the events are also a potential embarrassment for the Bush administration, which has pointed to Afghanistan as a success story in the war on terrorism.

Some 750 Afghan National Army troops landed at Maymana's airport yesterday and moved into the city, aiming to restore order. Last night, Jalali said, government and militia forces jointly occupied the city without serious clashes.

"The situation is tense," he said in an interview in his Kabul office, after a late meeting with security officials. But, he added, "there has been no heavy fighting. Shots were fired, but mostly in the air."

Most of the 13,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan are deployed along the nation's rugged southern and eastern border with Pakistan, where they are engaged in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other ranking al-Qaida leaders.

Afghanistan's north and west, meanwhile, are regarded as a relatively secure places.

Security threat

But President Hamid Karzai has called the warlords, who dominate the north and west, a bigger threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan than al-Qaida.

Less than a month ago, he dispatched 1,500 soldiers to the western city of Herat, after fighting between the forces of warlord Ismail Khan and a rival commander killed at least 16 people, including Khan's son, the minister of aviation.

Jalali said the conflict in the north was triggered by the decision of Hashim Habibi, a former Dostum commander in Fariab province, to publicly pledge his loyalty to the central government.

Over the past few days, Dostum's militia fighters encircled Habibi's 800 soldiers, deployed around Maymana. Dostum's forces then entered the capital with little or no resistance. There were reports, Jalali said, of the defection of scores of central government soldiers to Dostum's side.

Karzai spoke to Dostum by telephone yesterday, but talks have so far failed to resolve the crisis. "He said he was loyal to the central government," Jalali said. "But after all he did? It means he's violated many things."

Emergency meeting

Last night, Jalali, one of the most powerful figures in Karzai's government, held an emergency meeting with Gen. Faisal Bigzad, chief of Afghanistan's national police reserves, and other officials.

"If we send police to Fariab, how many can we send and for how long?" Jalali asked Bigzad. The police official said he could muster several hundred officers in the next few days.

Deputy Interior Minister Alala Din Allal told Jalali that before Dostum's troops advanced into Maymana, the warlord spoke to Enayat, the provincial governor, by phone. "Dostum pressured him," Allal reported. "He said, `You are keeping me from doing what I want.'"

So Enayat agreed to withdraw.

Jalali, a former Howard County resident who returned to Afghanistan a year ago at the request of Karzai, spoke to The Sun on Wednesday as the crisis in the north was unfolding.

Jalali said Afghanistan's warriors had proved to be "paper tigers" in previous confrontations with the government, which is backed up by the might of the U.S. military.

"Nobody in Afghanistan can defy the authority of the central government," he said. "Most of what the central government wants, 98 percent of it has been accomplished."

A spokesman for Dostum, Akbar Boy, told the Associated Press that provincial officials were using government money to influence the outcome of September's elections. He said government troops were welcome to remain in the province, but only if they didn't take sides in what he described as a political dispute.

He also disputed Jalali's account of the clashes in Maymana, saying that Enayat's guards had fired on the crowd, killing four, as the governor raced from the city.

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