Afghan militias fill the vacuum as the regular army melts away5 min read . Updated: 03 Jul 2021, 11:34 AM IST
- In Mazar-e-Sharif, a warlord’s show of strength has kept the Taliban away—so far
MAZAR-E-SHARIF : When Abbas Ibrahimzada spotted Taliban fighters posting Facebook pictures of themselves at the gates of northern Afghanistan’s biggest city last week, he ordered hundreds of gun-toting members of his own militia to speed through Mazar-e-Sharif in pickup trucks and set up checkpoints at the entrances.
This show of force, combined with similar displays by other anti-Taliban warlords, worked—for now—in restoring calm in the city of half a million people. Even as regular Afghan forces surrendered en masse to the Taliban across northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the re-emergence of militias such as the one led by Mr. Ibrahimzada has blunted the Taliban’s drive.
After a few tense days, Mazar-e-Sharif’s city center now appears to be back to normal, with the usual hustle of the watermelon wagons and hundreds of shopkeepers and shoppers back on the streets. Talk of an imminent collapse withered away.
“With our arrival, people got a morale boost. Because of that, they didn’t have to leave the city," said Mr. Ibrahimzada, a member of the Afghan parliament known locally as “Abbas Dollar" because of his wealth. Using wrapped caramel candies, he mapped out the Taliban’s operations in his home’s opulent safe room, two stories below ground. “People don’t want the Taliban. If people get weapons, the Taliban cannot capture the city."
Ever since the establishment of the Afghan republic following the 2001 U.S. invasion, the central government in Kabul has tried to curb the power of militia commanders like Mr. Ibrahimzada. This was particularly so in Mazar-e-Sharif, which was governed as a personal fief by former mujahedeen commander Gen. Atta Mohammad Nooruntil his ouster by President Ashraf Ghani in 2017.
Now, with few viable Afghan government forces in sight and the U.S.-led coalition pulling out its last remaining troops, these militias—whose leaders often hold decades-old grudges against one another—are stepping into a security vacuum. The recent display of strength in Mazar-e-Sharif might have given the Taliban pause, but it has also served as a reminder of the risks of civil war flaring anew.
When the Taliban closed in on Mazar-e-Sharif last week, after seizing eight of the surrounding Balkh province’s 14 districts, shops closed, people retreated indoors and streets emptied. Hundreds of city residents mobbed the nearby border crossing with Uzbekistan, which ended up shutting the frontier. Others tried to jump on planes headed for Kabul, jacking the price of an airline ticket up to 10 times its normal cost.
It is unclear if the Taliban were ever planning to take the city militarily, officials here say. The Taliban remain on the doorstep of several other, less defended provincial capitals, but so far have refrained from taking them over before American forces, who retain the authority to strike, are fully withdrawn.
A senior Taliban official scoffed when asked about the role the militias played in defending Mazar-e-Sharif. “They are weak, and their members are only there for the money," he said. “Their commanders used to be heroes because they defended Afghanistan against the Soviet invaders. But then they sided against the Afghan people with other invaders, and have lost their support among the people."
The militias, acting under the umbrella of the so-called popular mobilization uprising against the Taliban, say they operate in support of the beleaguered Afghan army and police. Gen. Atta, a Tajik commander, rushed to Mazar-e-Sharif from Dubai when the Taliban arrived on the city’s doorstep. Ethnic Hazara warlord Mohammed Mohaqiq followed suit.
On Wednesday, Gen. Atta phoned his longtime rival in the north, Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord who was dealing with health issues in Turkey, to discuss the joint fight against the Taliban and the expansion of the popular mobilization forces.
Afghan National Army Maj. Gen. Khanullah Shuja, who recently became the commander of the 209th Shaheen Corps responsible for northern Afghanistan, said he was grateful for the militias’ help.
“Politically, their effect is very strong, and it boosts the morale of the forces and it also boosts the morale of the people," said Gen. Shuja in an interview in his headquarters at a sprawling base southwest of Mazar-e-Sharif. “Now the Taliban understand that they are not only facing the Afghan security forces, but also the people themselves, and they cannot fight the people."
The successes of the militia groups in the past week have often been fleeting. On Tuesday, officials in Balkh, including Gen. Atta, claimed that the strategic district of Kaldar on the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan borders had been retaken by Afghan security forces and the militias. But on Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid posted footage of the group’s fighters standing in front of the Kaldar district governor’s compound. “The district right now is in our control," one fighter said in the video.
Even when the militias prove to be successful, many Afghans worry that the warlords, once empowered, won’t be able to put their political and ethnic rivalries aside for long.
“They should be thinking about the benefits of the people of Afghanistan, not one tribe, or one party," said Gul Rahman Hamdard, a member of parliament from Balkh province who is highly critical of the role the militias can play in the long term.
Afghanistan’s central government says it is planning to harness the value of the popular mobilization forces by training these groups and placing their operations under the command of the regular Afghan army. Such oversight plans, however, are still in development, said Gen. Ajmal Shinwari, the spokesman for the central government’s security and defense sectors.
Mr. Ibrahimzada, for his part, complained that neither the army nor the Afghan national police possessed proper leadership to confront the Taliban.
Basking in the small victory of helping to keep the Taliban out of Mazar-e-Sharif, he visited a checkpoint his men were manning near the front line outside the city on a recent day. He shot a rifle at a berm nearby and posed for pictures. He asked his men what they needed, and was informed that another rocket launcher would be useful.
Mr. Ibrahimzada directed his aide to take one of the rocket launchers from his personal bodyguard and handed it over. He then jumped into his armored black SUV and headed back into town.
—Zamir Saar contributed to this article.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com
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