The reports from northern Afghanistan suggest that the two most prominent anti-Taliban commanders belonging to the erstwhile Northern Alliance – Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor – have decided to come together to counter the emergent security threat posed to their region by various militant groups.
This is an extraordinary development with potentially far-reaching impact on the balance of forces and the course of the war in Afghanistan.
Dostum and Atta are battle-hardened veterans of the civil war and their respective Uzbek and Tajik militia carry much clout in the Amu Darya region. The United States had depended on these commanders, especially Dostum, to “liberate” the northern provinces from the Taliban in October 2001.
Without doubt, the entry of these two militia forces will boost the capability of the Afghan army, which has been hard-pressed to counter the assorted forces of foreign fighters who operate under the rubric of “Taliban” in the highly strategic Kunduz region. Kunduz has a mixed population of Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks.
However, there remains the “known unknown” – how effective could be this newfound unity between Dostum and Atta, who are sworn enemies at a personal level. (In the 2014 presidential election, Dostum was aligned with the present president Ashraf Ghani while Atta was one of the key power brokers backing Abdullah Abdullah.)
Will a Dostun-Atta alliance last? How long will it last? These are highly relevant questions. Even in the halcyon days of the Northern Alliance, strong external pressure was needed to keep the anti-Taliban resistance going.
The Iranians had burnt midnight oil literally to see that the prickliness between the Northern Alliance leaders didn’t get out of control. The then Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ala’eddin Broujerdi (presently the chairman of the foreign and security policy commission of the Majlis) often undertook mediatory missions.
The big question today is which regional power will feel inspired to take on the responsibility of such a thankless, despairing role today.
That brings us to a tantalizing question as to any “foreign hand” that might have persuaded Dostum and Atta to come together at all in the first instance. Indeed, many regional states have everything to lose if the foreign fighters – Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Uighurs, Pakistanis, Arabs, etc. – who are gaining ground in the ongoing fighting in the Kunduz province manage to create a base for themselves to launch future operations in the Ferghana Valley.
Dostum who was trained in the Soviet academies, has enjoyed backing from Uzbekistan and Turkey. Tashkent regarded him as a bulwark against the Taliban – that is, until he unceremoniously fled Amu Darya in 1998 for Turkey when Mazar-i-Sharif fell into Taliban hands. It must be a worrying thing for Tashkent that a strong contingent from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is present in Kunduz in the ongoing fighting there.
Meanwhile, the regional powers also have suspicions of their own as regards any foreign intelligence working behind the Islamic State in Afghanistan. There are signs that the US may be shifting gear to push its democracy/human rights project in Central Asia.
A US state department official last week openly questioned the legitimacy of the re-election of the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and called for “religious freedom” in the Central Asian states.
Suffice it to say, it is only natural that there would be heightened sensitivity in the countries bordering Afghanistan to the north over the intensifying militant-Islamist presence in the Amu Darya region and along the Tajik-Afghan border.
Nonetheless, a resuscitation of the Northern Alliance as such seems improbable as of now. But what can happen is that the northern groups belonging to the NA could organize themselves as a “mini-front” to counter the foreign fighters who have poured into the region in their hundreds or thousands lately.
But then, these NA groups will still need weapons, money, logistics and intelligence back-up, etc. to get their act together after nearly a decade-and-a-half of forced retirement, which can only come from outside.
Equally, where exactly President Ghani stands remains unclear. It is inconceivable that Dostum, who is the first vice-president, acted independently to forge an alliance with Atta (who is identified with Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in the national unity government).
All in all, the Afghan war is transforming once again and taking Protean shapes – in the Amu Darya region that is the gateway to Central Asia, at least. No doubt, the Dostum-Atta alliance gives some degree of credibility to the anti-Taliban resistance.
Clearly, Taliban’s attempt to force its will on the other (ethnic) groups will meet with resistance. It is a signal that cannot be lost on the Pakistani military.
And it probably justifies Interior Minister Gen, Noorulhaq Olomi’s guarded optimism that Kabul government will have acquitted itself creditably when the current fighting season ends. Of course, Gen. Olomi has seen darker days while serving in the Soviet-trained Afghan army under Najibullah’s communist regime, and is fully competent to give such a hopeful prognosis.