On June 17, Chaghcharan, the capital of Ghor province in northwestern Afghanistan fell to the hands of a renegade commander Abdul Salam. The governor appointed by the central government has fled for his life. This is the third time in as many months that an Afghan governor has either been forced out of office or prevented from assuming the post. The first governor to take flight was Enayatulla Enayat of northwest Faryab province who fled in the face of an overwhelming force under the command of Uzbek strongman General Abd al-Rashid Dostum, who exerts significant influence in several provinces (AP, Kabul, April 7). About 750 soldiers were dispatched by the central government to the provincial capital to restore order. There were no casualties in either the capture of the province or subsequent restoration of order.
The second governor was Abdul Haq Shafaq, an ethnic Hazara who was recently appointed by President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan president was en route to his office when a crowd of ethnic Uzbeks pelted his entourage with stones. The crowd wanted their own governor, Taj Mohammad Kohi, an ethnic Uzbek and an ally of General Dostum (Reuters, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, June 7).
The attack on Ghor is more serious and it has exacted a toll. So far, at least 10 people are dead, and the local United Nations International Mission in Afghanistan (UNIMA) office is closed with staff evacuated by coalition forces. Worse yet is the attack on the Afghan Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Hussain Yazdanpanah, local AHRC director, said forces of the renegade commander entered the city at about 2100 local time on June 17. The rebels entered private houses and looted and ransacked AHRC offices, destroying computers and stealing documents. Yazdanpanah said two staff members are missing. Loss of documents is the most crucial issue as they included complaints charging some militia units of human rights violations. In the wake of the rebels’ action, Yazdanpanah said he fears reprisals against civilians (VOA, in Dari, June 18).
Although the Taliban insurgency’s influence is not heavily felt in the northern regions of Afghanistan, analysts point to three main reasons for the events that took place in the provinces: weakness of the central government, power of local commanders and mistrust and ethnic tensions prevalent in the country.
Historically, Afghanistan has been ruled by autocratic central governments, usually dominated by Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group. Central governments were relatively strong, the local people mostly unarmed and rebellions of any kind uncommon. However, the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil wars changed the nature and balance of forces and the psychology of the people. Now the local government is weak, the people are armed and long suppressed grievances are simmering.
The fall of Ghor by itself does not change the situation. But it does set a precedent for other provinces which host more powerful warlords in regions that are strategically much more important than Ghor. According to a local newspaper, this is the first instance of a province falling into the hands of a renegade commander. The newspaper goes on to say, “This shows that still in Afghanistan the shadow of guns over the people’s heads has not waned, and the threat of arms still exists” (Anis, in Dari, June 19).
So far the Karzai government has sent two delegations to Ghor. Mohammad Alam Rasekh, a minister without portfolio was sent on a fact-finding mission before the fall of Ghor and presidential aide Taj Mohammad Wardak was dispatched after the events. Also in Kabul, the Afghan National Security convened on June 19 and 20 to discuss the crisis. On June 20, Karzai spoke at a news conference in Kabul. He said from his meetings with deposed governor of Ghor, as well as with Rasekh, and following media accounts of the events, “One thing is clear — that the problem is the gun and militia.” What he refers to as militia are the private armies of local warlords (RFE, in Dari, June 20). According to a Kabul newspaper there is another element in the capture of Ghor. The newspaper wrote that rebel commander Salam took the province with the aim of having more control over the opium smuggling route. It is not clear what measures, if any, the central government is going to take, according to the newspaper account (Anis, in Dari, June 19).
The government did take some action to assert its control in the province. A June 20 ISAF radio broadcast from Dari indicated that the government has decided to send a national army brigade to Ghor. As a first step, the government dispatched 200 troops from a unit based in the western city of Herat. About 500 additional troops are expected to join the initial deployment. Whether this force is sufficient to restore law and order is unclear. What is clear is that during the three months leading up to the September elections, the Kabul government seems extremely vulnerable and its already limited resources are being further stretched. According to a weekly publication based in Kabul, a lack of security in the country is becoming pervasive. The publication mentions the numerous attacks, bombings, killings and kidnappings in recent months and concludes that the country is engulfed in a political chaos and military quagmire. If this situation is not corrected, the outcome of the September elections will be in jeopardy. (Awa-e-Waqt, in Dari, June 20) Given the situation, there is not much that the Karzai government can do.