Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 22, 2001
In a power vacuum, the warlords vie
Afghan commanders who were kings in their regions are finding it hard to cede control.

At War With Terror

MAIDAN 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.

"That 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.

"It is 10 days now he says he is coming to surrender and he hasn't."

Alam's 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.

Mohammed, 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 flight.

But in Afghanistan, surrender is not as simple or as straightforward as it seems.

Ten 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 battlefield.

Opposition forces are locked in negotiations in Kunduz to the north and Kandahar to the south to secure the surrender of the last Taliban holdouts.

In 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.

"We 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."

Part of the problem here and elsewhere was the sudden retreat by the Taliban and the power vacuum it created - one littered with abandoned weapons.

After 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.

The 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.

With 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.

"There are some Taliban forces in Maidan Shahr," Northern Alliance interior minister Yunas Qanooni said yesterday. "We decided to clean out this place."

In 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.

"Ghulum Mohammed is using delaying tactics," said an exasperated Alam.

Mohammed, 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.

Mohammed's elder brother, Mohammed Musa, recently was dispatched to provinces along the Pakistan border to speak to representatives of the king.

There 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.

The main issue is control.

"Ghulum 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.

Mohammed 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.

As the sun set yesterday, Alam ordered his tanks to stand down and instead made plans to attack in the morning.

"If 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."

But Zi-ul-Rahman said he understood why Mohammed would fight. He has much to lose.

"In the mujaheddin, commanders were kings in their own regions," he said. "He was a king." home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth