Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 August 2014, 14:57 GMT

Afghanistan: Balkh governor trumpets security warning for northern Afghanistan

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 23 September 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Afghanistan: Balkh governor trumpets security warning for northern Afghanistan, 23 September 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ac62c3c5.html [accessed 28 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Aunohita Mojumdar: 9/23/09

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed General Atta Mohammad Noor as governor of the northern province of Balkh in 2004, the move seemed motivated by a presidential desire to curb the influence of Abdul Rashid Dostum, then the most powerful warlord in Northern Afghanistan.

Now, the situation in the North is reversed: Dostum, as seen during the Afghan presidential election campaign, has developed into a Karzai proxy, while Atta is generally viewed as a force to be reckoned with in the North. Atta also has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Karzai administration. Underscoring the distance between the two, the Balkh governor is an unabashed backer of Karzai's main presidential rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

Atta's political shift doesn't just reflect altered personal preferences, it is symbolic of some unsettling changes that have taken place in Northern Afghanistan of late, many of which have escaped the international community's attention.

By far the most significant development has been the deterioration of security conditions. For years Northern Afghanistan was considered to be the safest, most stable part of the country. And under Atta – who is widely viewed as an able, if autocratic administrator – the province began enjoying some benefits of low-level economic development, becoming one of the first provinces in Afghanistan to eradicate poppy cultivation.

In recent months, however, the tenuous gains achieved in Balkh have come under threat. While Balkh itself remains relatively peaceful, violence is on the rise in surrounding areas, especially in Kunduz Province.

In an interview with EurasiaNet at his office in Mazar-e-Sharif, Atta asserted that the central government has been slow to respond to growing threat. "I have been warning the central government and the international community for the past three years" he said. "There is insecurity in Kunduz, especially Chahar Dara, and in Baghlan. For three years I have been telling the government about the Taliban there but they don't listen. It has spread to Bala Murghab [a district in Badghis province] and in Faryab. It is now a big problem for security. The government did not do anything."

Atta alleged that his domestic political opponents, especially supporters of the group Hizb e Islami, have been collaborating with the Taliban, making weapons available to the Islamic militants with the intention of weakening the governor's hold in Balkh. "In Chahar Bolak, Chimtal and Sholgara they have provided weapons" Atta alleged.

While some independent security experts say they have not found evidence that could substantiate Atta's claim, they all agree that the security situation in the North has deteriorated due to a combination of factors. Much of the recent violence in the North, some experts contend, is linked to revenge for past grievances. Specifically, Pashtuns who suffered reprisals at the hands of Tajik, Uzbek and other ethnically oriented militias following to 2001 collapse of Taliban rule are now seeking retribution.

Insurgents with the reconstituted Taliban, which over the past year has grown increasingly bold in carrying out operations inside Afghanistan, are finding that aggrieved members of the Pashtun community in the North are receptive to the militants' message. Unlike in the South, where the anti-government insurgency is pitting Pashtun against Pashtun, the violence in the North is largely between Pashtuns and Tajiks, the predominant ethnic group in the region. Experts believe this inter-ethnic element makes the brewing violence in the North extremely destabilizing. "Local grievances [can] spiral upward indefinitely," said one analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Non-Pashtun groups in the North are now growing increasingly disenchanted with the Afghan government's and international community's tendency to devote a disproportionate share of attention and resources to southern areas. Atta bemoaned the lack of investment in his province. Other local political leaders likewise caution that continued inattention could cause serious strategic consequences.

"The government should make some arrangement for economic help for the youth to prevent them from joining the anti-government groups," said Nasruddin Mohseni, a senior leader of Hizb e Wahadat e Islami, the party of the minority Shi'a Hazara community. Mohseni's party supported Karzai in the election, mainly because party supremo, Karim Khalili, is a vice president. Even so, Mohseni described Atta as a "good governor."

The violence in the North is likely to escalate in the coming months as the region's strategic importance for US and NATO forces grows. Pentagon planners are transforming the region into a major transport artery for the delivery of military supplies, shipped to Afghanistan via Central Asia. This so-called Northern Distribution Network has already attracted the attention of the Taliban. It seems likely that the supply line will come under intensifying attacks in the coming months, just as the main existing re-supply route via Pakistan has been subjected to repeated ambushes. One of the major transit arteries into Northern Afghanistan passes through Balkh Province, where a narrow gorge in the Kholm District could become a Taliban target.

As he confronts uncertainty in his own region, Atta is keeping his options open with Karzai. Of late, he has softened his criticism of the president on a personal level, even as he continues to lambaste administration policies. "I respect him," Atta said, referring to Karzai. "But there are weaknesses all around him, in his team. They have been unsuccessful in preventing corruption, they could not fight opium. ?They could not get the necessary support from the international community."

Senior figures in Afghanistan's security establishment are said to be working on bringing about a rapprochement between Atta and Karzai. The ability of Northern Afghanistan to handle the upsurge in Taliban violence would be greatly enhanced if Atta and Karzai could terminate their feud. "No one burns bridges in Afghanistan" said a Western diplomat wryly. "It will depend on what is on offer."

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.

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