The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 22, 2001
In a power vacuum, the
Afghan commanders who were kings in
their regions are finding it hard to cede control.
War With Terror
SHAHR, Afghanistan - For the third time yesterday, Commander Sher Alam
ordered his tanks to take up new attack positions around this agricultural
center, kicking up clouds of dust and oily diesel smoke to impress the
enemy in the distance. It was a little war dance for Alam's rival, an old
foe who made his blood boil.
man right from the start is a liar and we don't trust him," said Alam,
the Northern Alliance commander in a village 20 miles west of Kabul.
is 10 days now he says he is coming to surrender and he hasn't."
nemesis is Ghulum Mohammed, a former Taliban commander who was holed up in
the distant hills with as many as 600 soldiers and a few tanks.
a Pashtun, has promised to lay down his arms to the Northern Alliance
troops who swept into the area on Nov. 13 when the ruling Taliban took
in Afghanistan, surrender is not as simple or as straightforward as it
days after Kabul and much of the country fell in short order to the
Northern Alliance, the war has bogged down into a series of slow-moving
local conflicts, often fought at the negotiating table rather than on the
forces are locked in negotiations in Kunduz to the north and Kandahar to
the south to secure the surrender of the last Taliban holdouts.
dozens of other towns like Maidan Shahr, the alliance is negotiating with
local commanders about how to bring them under the Northern Alliance
umbrella. Much of Afghanistan remains outside the control of any organized
force. In Maidan Shahr, negotiations broke down again yesterday as
Mohammed, who has commanded local troops in the area under various flags,
sought to keep his command and switch allegiance to the Northern Alliance.
But alliance commanders remember all too well Mohammed's betrayal five
years ago when he defected to the Taliban. Even in Afghanistan, where wars
are often won by the side that organizes the most defections, there is a
limit to duplicity.
told him he could keep a vehicle and a bodyguard, but he had to turn his
troops over to us," said Alam. "He wants to have all the men and
all the power to himself."
of the problem here and elsewhere was the sudden retreat by the Taliban
and the power vacuum it created - one littered with abandoned weapons.
the retreat, many local commanders inherited Taliban weapons, creating
dozens of independent forces. The country has reverted to a sort of feudal
system where travelers must negotiate various checkpoints to pass from one
zone of control to another. Frequently the men holding the guns are
bandits - "irresponsible people" in the local language.
Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic and political groups opposed to
the Taliban, rapidly recaptured much of that part of the country occupied
by its natural allies, the ethnic minorities of the north. But its
weaknesses were exposed as the advance slowed dramatically in areas
populated by ethnic Pashtuns, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, which
includes much of the Taliban leadership.
talks scheduled to begin Monday in Germany to create a broad-based Afghan
government, the increasingly tense situation in Maidan Shahr is a look
into the future of the country if Afghan opposition groups remain divided.
are some Taliban forces in Maidan Shahr," Northern Alliance interior
minister Yunas Qanooni said yesterday. "We decided to clean out this
reality, Commander Alam was in no hurry to launch an attack against Ghulum
Mohammed's position. Mohammed, a celebrated mujaheddin commander in the
1980s against Soviet occupation forces, held the high ground over a broad,
brown plain, entrenched on a ridge of exposed rock that resembled the
spine of a crocodile.
Mohammed is using delaying tactics," said an exasperated Alam.
like many local commanders who are uneasy with the Northern Alliance, told
negotiators he is sympathetic to a plan to install former King Mohammad
Zahir Shah as head of an interim administration until Afghans can
negotiate a permanent government. Many Pashtuns who are uncomfortable with
the Northern Alliance after its failed attempt to govern in the early
1990s suggest that the 87-year-old ex-monarch - himself ousted in a coup -
would make a suitable choice.
elder brother, Mohammed Musa, recently was dispatched to provinces along
the Pakistan border to speak to representatives of the king.
seem to be few ideological, ethnic or religious differences to complicate
the local war of Maidan Shahr. "We don't know what their politics
are," said Alam.
main issue is control.
Mohammed's purpose is to be in power no matter what regime is in
power," said Barioli, 45, a truck driver who was waiting for
customers at a gas station outside of town.
traveled to Kabul on Monday to try to salvage his power - the Northern
Alliance exchanged a commander with the local group to ensure Mohammed's
safety. The talks apparently failed.
the sun set yesterday, Alam ordered his tanks to stand down and instead
made plans to attack in the morning.
the fighting starts, our houses could be destroyed," said
Zi-ul-Rahman, a 22-year-old shopkeeper from Jelrez, a town under
Mohammed's control. "We're tired of fighting."
Zi-ul-Rahman said he understood why Mohammed would fight. He has much to
the mujaheddin, commanders were kings in their own regions," he said.
"He was a king."