Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghan Power in North

When asked about the possible unification of Afghanistan, the ruler of that country's northern provinces, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, responded: "I never recognized Burkhanuddin Rabbani as president of the country, and I never will!"


Rabbani, the current president of Afghanistan, and Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek general who governs the northern provinces, are longtime enemies, but they have joined forces against the student movement called the Taliban.


Rabbani's army, or rather the government troops under Commander Ahmad Shah Masood, have lately drawn near to the Afghan capital, Kabul, which has been in the hands of the Taliban for over two months. Dostum's airplanes regularly carry out bombing runs on Taliban bases in support of Ahmad Shah Masood's forces.


What is likely to happen if this coalition manages to oust the Taliban from Kabul?


During my stay in Mazar-i-Sharif, home of the Northern Military Defense Council headed by Dostum, I sensed that he and Rabbani did not entirely trust one another. Rabbani was not made a council member, his place filled by Ahmad Shah Masood, who was also a sworn enemy of Dostum.


Today, however, they have one foe: the Taliban, which its opponents say was formed by the Pakistani government. The Taliban are known for their fanatical religious views, and for the execution of former Afghan president Najibullah, which made the movement front-page news around the world.


In order to consolidate his control of the Northern Military Defense Council once and for all, Dostum created a certain balance of powers by including Mohammed Karim Khalili, head of the Unity Party, and Said Gailani, a leading political figure.


According to officials in Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest tactical error of the Taliban leaders following the seizure of Kabul was their continued march to the north. They broke an existing agreement with Dostum not to approach the Salang Pass, beyond which Dostum's realm begins.


Inspired after seizing Kabul, the Taliban also opened a second front in the northwestern Faryab province. This proved the last straw for Dostum, and despite his hatred of Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masood, the general entered the war on the side of his former foes.


Earlier, Dostum held lengthy negotiations with the Taliban in the hope of creating a unified state with their help. When the Taliban earlier moved into southern Afghanistan, military advisers under Dostum provided technical support.


But the Taliban leaders underestimated Dostum's strength. If Rabbani at present has no real support within Afghanistan or abroad, Dostum's authority is significant, and his close relationship with Uzbek President Islam Karimov is not just a friendship, but a union of two strategic partners.


Dostum's soldiers bear scant resemblance to the wild, vindictive mujahedin; they look more like rank-and-file army soldiers in their former Soviet uniforms. Dostum has surrounded himself with generals, most of whom were trained in the Soviet Union. His army is considered the most disciplined and well-armed force in Afghanistan.


Dostum's genius showed when he sheltered hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kabul and tens of thousands from Tajikistan. Much of the Afghan political and economic elite now works in Mazar-i-Sharif, where new government structures have been formed, and Dostum prints his own currency.


If the Taliban are driven from Kabul, Dostum will be prepared to negotiate with the movement's leaders. He understands that the Taliban-Pashtuns are supporters of Islamic fundamentalism, but his main task is to find a compromise allowing him to unite the country.


A clever politician, Dostum knows that the Pashtun should run the country, as it always did. In his recent speeches, Dostum frequently mentions King Zahir Shah, a Pashtun, who has lived in Italy since being dethroned in 1975. Dostum holds that only the former ruler can unite all the forces in the country and in the future could sit once more on the throne.


After speaking with Rabbani and with Dostum's spokesman, General Mohammed Yusuf, I realized that the unification of Afghanistan is the most important task for all sides in the conflict. This problem worries not only the Afghans, but also neighboring states, especially Pakistan. If Afghan territory were consolidated, this would do much to solve the region's economic and political problems.


The first of these is the building of a gas and oil pipeline across Afghan and Pakistani territory. American companies have contracted the project, and have offered their services to all interested parties including Saparmurad Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan.


The second problem is the Great Silk Road and the railroad that provides ocean access for all the Central Asian countries and allows Pakistan to control trade in the region. One of the most vexing problems is the Durand Line, named for Sir Mortimer Durand, who divided Afghanistan from British India in the 1890s. Rumor has it that a "lease" on a sizeable territory called Pakhtunistan, part of the Pakistani zone and home to some 7 million Pashtuns, runs out next year, and the area could revert to the Afghans.


The death of Najibullah is widely seen as connected to this territorial dispute, which greatly worries the current Pakistani leadership.


The last main problem concerns control of the region's narcotics trade. Today producers in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan export up to 400 tons of heroin and opium to Russia and Europe each year.


For these reasons, Dostum regularly receives the Taliban leaders and emissaries of the Pakistani government. Mazar-i-Sharif, and not Kabul, has now become the political capital of Afghanistan, and General Dostum has become a key player in the country's fractious political life.





Mumin Shakirov is a special correpondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta.