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AFGHANISTAN: Return of the Uzbek Warlord

Tahir Qadiry

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Jun 5 2007 (IPS) - The ugly riots and police firing that resulted in the deaths of at least a dozen people in northern Jowzjan province in the last week of May are being seen as signs of rebellion against the government of President Hamid Karzai by the warlord Gen. Abdorrrashid Dostum and his Uzbek community.

Trouble began on May 26 after Ahmad Khan, a member of parliament, publicly accused Dostum of being behind an assassination attempt which resulted in the deaths of his bodyguard and driver.

But Dostum’s supporters in Shebergan, capital of Jowzjan and headquarters of the Uzbek warlord, retaliated by demonstrating on May 28 against the ethnic Pashtun governor of the province, Juma Khan Hamdard, and demanding his removal for ”ethnic prejudice”. Police fired at the crowd, killing at least 12 civilians.

Both Dostum and Hamdard have since been blaming each other for the massacre. Falling behind Hamdard, the interior ministry in Kabul blamed Dostum’s supporters for staging a “rebellion”. For his part, Dostum in a statement said that ‘’the people of Jowzjan were tired of fascist and autocratic programmes”.

Protests in Shebergan calling for the removal of Hamdard have continued. There are fears of further bloodshed in Jowzjan. “We don’t want a governor that works only for Pashtuns,” said Sayed Nurollah, head of Dostum’s Jonbesh-e-Milli party.

Pashtuns, the community to which Karzai belongs, form more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s 32 million people and are concentrated in the south of the country. Historically they have often been in conflict with the major ethnic groups to their north such as the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.

People from the provinces adjacent to Shebergan like Sar-e-Pol, Fariab, Takhar and Samangan have joined the protests to demand the removal of Hamdard.

Gen. Mohammad Khalil Amin Zada, security commander of Jowzjan, says the protestors had attacked the police first. “We were informed that the people would hold a demonstration. We sent our reaction policemen to ensure the security for the protestors. But the protestors attacked the police and wounded at least four of them.” He said that the police had to open fire at the protestors in order to protect their own lives.

Rohullah Samun, a spokesman for Hamdard, has called the May 28 demonstration a plot. “It was a political motive against the governor. Dostum is distributing arms to his militias and they are preparing for combat. His militias wanted to lower the flag of the government and raise Jonbesh’s flag”.

Hamdard has accused Dostum of forming militias in the province. “Dostum has lost his power. He wants to regain his power by launching some demonstrations. He is a warlord. He wants to be a superpower.”

However, Kinja Kargar, an official in Dostum’s party, rejected such allegations. “Neither Dostum nor Jonbesh was behind protest. People have had enough of the governor and his cruelty. People do not want him here anymore. The protestors were all civilians.” Kargar also dismissed the governor’s charges that arms were being distributed by Dostum. “Jonbesh is a political faction. We do not possess any arms. The nationalist officials make this a pretext.”

Some residents of Jowzjan have accused the police of opening fire indiscriminately. Sayed Mohammad Nasim, 34, a shopkeeper who was amongst the protestors, said: ”We were chanting slogans against the governor when we heard shootings. I hid myself in a ditch. I saw people yelling for help. I saw police shooting at the civilians in the head and chest.”

Shah Mahmud, a farmer in Jowzjan, said the police were the first to start the shooting. “The cruel officials did not tolerate the facts anymore. They therefore, started shooting at the civilians. We will never forget the blood of our sons. We will take revenge.”

In an attempt to quieten the protests, the government in Kabul has sent in fact-finding delegation composed of lawmakers and President Karzai’s advisors.

According to members the delegation, Karzai has summoned both Hamdard and Dostum to Kabul for discussions aimed at settling the disputes. NATO-led peacekeepers and Afghan forces have meanwhile been deployed in Jowzjan to prevent further spread of the violence.

Dostum, one of Afghanistan’s most formidable warlords, has had a hand in the many regime changes that this war-torn country has seen over the last three decades. He was among leaders who helped the U.S.-led forces to overthrow the Taliban government in 2001. Until recently he was regarded as the strongman of the north but his role has been reduced to that of being a military advisor to Karzai.

Sayed Maysam, an analyst, believes that the Shebergan incidents indicated that the regional militias were still powerful. “The demonstration in Shebergan showed that the situation in Afghanistan is very fragile and can be disturbed any minute.”

Rohullah Mojadidi, another writer and analyst, says the people have come to believe that the warlords cannot be done away with in Afghanistan. “Warlords never keep silent. They killed tens of thousands of people during the civil war. Now, they are once more targeting the civilians.”

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