Danger in Afghanistan's Once-Calm North

Violence is spreading so rapidly in Afghanistan that there may soon be little difference between the Taliban-controlled south and the formerly peaceful north

By Jean MacKenzie - GlobalPost

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- The people of Mazar-e-Sharif are a breed apart. Free-thinking and free-wheeling, they were the last to bend to the Taliban yoke, and the first to hail the American-led invasion of 2001. Mazar, the cosmopolitan capital of Balkh province, has been an island of relative calm and sanity in an increasingly chaotic Afghanistan, a city where business is booming and few are looking over their shoulders in fear.

Until now, that is.

The growing insecurity in the north, centered in nearby Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, has sent shockwaves through this former idyll. Even worse, say many, the presidential elections that were supposed to legitimize the government and resolve ethnic tensions have done just the opposite: Balkh Province is now divided into two opposing camps, one supporting incumbent President Hamed Karzai, the other backing his chief rival, former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The tension in the air is palpable, the possibility of violence is constant.

"The people are depressed, worried, fearful," said Rahim Ibrahim, a reporter for Voice of America in Mazar-e-Sharif. "They feel that their lives and their property could be in jeopardy."

Asef, a driver who regularly drives the Kabul-Mazar route, was more succinct.

"Everyone is scared to death," he said.

With good reason, it seems. The election campaign, and the long drawn-out agony of the vote count, has torn the province apart.

Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful and truculent governor of Balkh, was an open supporter of Abdullah. This was a direct challenge to Karzai, with whom Atta had formerly shared a warm relationship.

But when Karzai passed Atta over for vice-president, the governor got his revenge. Karzai's campaign posters were torn down or vandalized, and large billboards featuring a smiling Abdullah together with an approving Atta adorned nearly every one of Mazar's multiple roundabouts.

Atta also campaigned energetically for Abdullah, sending his men into all parts of the province to bribe, threaten, or cajole local leaders into supporting the leading challenger.

The president tried many times to rein Atta in; the governor simply ignored him. At the time, residents joked openly that Balkh was no longer a part of Afghanistan; instead, it was an independent republic, with Atta as president and king.

But now, with Karzai's victory all but assured, Atta seems to be looking around nervously and weighing his options.

So far, he has chosen the offensive. In an explosive speech on Sept. 9, he accused the central government of distributing weapons to various groups in the north, with the express intent of destabilizing the situation. The date was chosen wisely: it was the eighth anniversary of the assassination of legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, scourge of the Taliban, leader of the Tajiks, and a close associate of Abdullah, who served as Massoud's advisor and spokesman.

Atta named a former rival, the current governor of Paktia, Juma Khan Hamdard, as the figure behind the plot.

Atta and Juma Khan go back a long way; the latter used to be the governor of neighboring Jowzjan province, where his suppression of politically motivated riots in 2007 left 12 dead, 40 injured, and a population calling for his removal on grounds of ethnic prejudice.

A prominent Pashtun "warlord" of the north, Juma Khan is close to Karzai and on the other side of the political and ethnic divide from Atta, a Tajik who is directly associated with the Northern Alliance, the loose coalition of commanders who battled the predominantly Pashtun Taliban.

Ethnic tension goes deep in Afghanistan, and memories of the war years is strong.

While accurate figures are scarce, due to the lack of a reliable census, most experts estimate that Pashtuns make up close to half of the population. Tajiks are the second largest group, with about 25 percent, followed by Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and other minorities.

Pashtuns have traditionally ruled Afghanistan, and their sheer numbers seem to indicate that they could continue to do so in a democratic system.

Not that there was anything particularly democratic about the Aug. 20 poll, which saw such widespread fraud and intimidation that even one month later, no one has been declared the winner. Karzai leads, with close to 55 percent of the vote to Abdullah's 28 percent, but the European Union announced on Sept. 16 that an estimated 1.5 out of 6 million votes were "suspect" and would need to be investigated.

Abdullah has warned that, if Karzai attempts to steal the election, he may not be able to control his disappointed and angry supporters. This is particularly dangerous in Balkh, where Atta seems intent on keeping the tension simmering.

By the time the dust settles over the disputed election, the Pashtuns in the north, led by Juma Khan, and the Tajiks, backed by Atta, could be at each other's throats, destabilizing the area and alienating the population.

Atta had named three districts of Balkh Province -- Charbolak, Chamtal, and Balkh district, all dominated by Pashtuns, as the areas where Juma Khan was stirring things up. A spokesman for Juma Khan has angrily denied that the Paktia governor has distributed weapons, and has countered with oft-repeated accusations that Atta has been systematically assassinating Pashtun tribal leaders in the north.

Two camps, both heavily armed and angry, split along political and ethnic divides, does not make for stability.

"I think the elections deepened the ethnic and regional problems in society," said an official from a Western embassy, speaking privately.

But while Atta and Juma Khan circle each other like wary wolves, the Taliban are taking full advantage of the situation.

Driven from the south by the beefed-up U.S. military there, the insurgents are now concentrating their efforts on the increasingly fragile north.

Kunduz, to the north-east of Balkh, has become a virtual no-go zone for foreigners; one year ago a reporter could travel freely throughout the province, even at night; now no driver will take a Western journalist along the road from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kunduz city. The Taliban openly run Chahr Dara district, with their own governor, tax-collection system, and courts.

A recent airstrike in Kunduz called in by the German military command left scores of Afghans dead and hundreds more embittered; a New York Times journalist and his Afghan colleague who were investigating the incident were abducted on Sept. 5; a British commando raid freed the journalist, Steve Farrell, but left his colleague, Sultan Munadi, dead, further inflaming local passions.

Baghlan, directly south of Balkh, has seen growing incidents of violence; the Taliban have expanded into several areas of the province, prompting a major military offensive by the Afghan police in late August.

The international community seems to be in quandary as to how to deal with the growing crisis in the north. Atta has enjoyed firm backing from many foreign governments, including the Swedes, who head up the local Provincial Reconstruction Team. While Atta often rails against the foreigners for not doing enough, he is seen as a strong leader who can keep order in the north.

If tension between his pro-Abdullah camp and Juma Khan's Karzai supporters spills over into actual violence, that reputation could well change.

"The international community thinks that Atta and the other warlords have the support of the people," said Qayum Babak, a political analyst based in Mazar-e-Sharif. "But really, the population distrusts the warlords and just wants to be left alone."

It is too soon to tell how the drama in the north will be played out; what is clear is that Balkh is joining the growing list of Afghanistan's provinces where the situation is no longer under control.

(Ahmad Kawush contributed to this report.)

Read more globalpost original reporting on Afghanistan here.


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