Ethnic Revolt or Mujahedin Solidarity? A look at the power shuffle in Takhar (amended)

Author: Gran Hewad    Date: 17 July 2013

Takhar has a new governor. The reason? For two weeks, large numbers of Uzbeks were up in arms, protesting against the dismissal of one of ‘their’ people, the provincial police commander, by the governor who is Tajik. The demonstrations turned violent and three people were killed. The government, far from reprimanding the demonstrators, fired the governor and, on 15 July 2013, installed one who was proved to be more to the protestors’ liking. The coup was much celebrated by the group which had been behind the ‘uprising’ – the Takhar Jihadi Council. AAN’s Gran Hewad, Wazhma Samandary, Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark have been looking at the Council’s aims, at ethnic power play in Takhar and at the multiple layers of political considerations behind the appointment of Afghan governors.

From 29 June, Uzbek people from all over Takhar were demonstrating in the provincial capital, Taloqan. Up to 3000 marched against Governor Ahmad Faisal Begzad, a Tajik Takhari, former Jamiat commander close to Vice President Marshal Fahim, after he supported the dismissal of another Jamiati, but ethnic Uzbek, police commander, Khair Muhammad Timor. The protestors demanded Timor’s reinstatement. What they got – the dismissal of the governor – probably surprised even the demonstrators themselves.

The group who mobilised the demonstrators was the Jihadi Council of Takhar. Members told AAN its aims are to achieve a fairer share of influence in the political landscape of Takhar for the mujahedin. As most of the Council’s members are Uzbek, this actually looks like an Uzbek mujahedin lobbying group or possibly even more accurately an Uzbek Jamiat lobbying group. Appearances might indicate that the Council has been taking a reasonable and democratic approach to getting more influence in politics in the province – running a pressure group to voice concerns – until you take a closer look at the people involved.

The Council, established during the Taleban time as an association of mujahedin leaders then fighting the Taleban, consists mostly of Uzbek commanders, many of whom have controversial records. Piram Qul Ziayi, a former MP affiliated with the Jamiat party, chairs the council. He has been the strongest commander in Takhar since Mutaleb Beg, another Uzbek former commander and MP, was assassinated in 2011. Piram Qul has been accused of establishing illegal militias and of committing war crimes (find references here and here).(1) Another leading member of the Council, Qazi Kabir Marzban, also an MP, is the unofficial ruler of two districts of Takhar – Yangi Qala and Khwaja Bahauddin – that are considered the main hubs for the drug trade towards Tajikistan. In 2010, his nephew was accused of raping a local woman and escaping justice through the protection of his family.(2) Mamur Hassan Takhari, a former district governor who is affiliated with Hezb-e Islami, was the commander of a legal kind of militia unit (see report here) during the 2009 presidential election but was suspected of using his men to stuff ballots. Now, he is a member of the High Peace Council. Other influential members include Haji Jamshid, a Jamiati who also sits on the Provincial Council, Haji Subhan Qul, Piram Qul’s war-time deputy, a Jamiati, former mayor of Taloqan and Qomandan (commander) Pir Mohammad, another Jamiati.

In a report by AAN in 2010 on the rise of the Taleban in the north, a major factor in stirring up the insurgency was found to be the depredations of local commanders:

Since the fall of the Taleban regime, Takhar has remained under the often brutal control of former mujahedin commanders who rule their areas of influence like feudal lords. One example of their de facto position above the law is Qazi Kabir who rather drastically prevented the attempt of Pashtun refugees to return from Pakistan to their land in Khwaja Bahauddin district in northern Takhar in 2006 by imprisoning more than 80 families in an old castle. For years, all attempts by the police and the Kabul government were simply ignored to the benefit of local Uzbek and Tajik commanders who were occupying their land. Other cases of arbitrary behaviour include murder, rape, the theft of land, kidnapping, forced marriages which led to numerous demonstrations against those commanders between 2005 and 2008 – but not to the removal of any of those commanders.

Interestingly, ex-police commander Khair Mohammad Timor, whose dismissal prompted the protests, is also a member of the Jihadi Council. In 2012, a police court sentenced him to ten years in prison for murdering a resident of the province twelve years earlier (see report here). He was kept on as police commander until early June when the Interior Ministry finally discharged him because of the verdict. It is not clear why Timor was allowed to return to Takhar instead of starting his jail sentence.

With two weeks of protests, the Jihadi Council has scored a significant victory, managing to topple an inconvenient governor in favour of one much more to its liking, Haji Abdul Latif Ibrahimi. He was appointed on 15 July, is also an Uzbek and one of the most prominent mujahedin commanders in neighbouring Kunduz province. Despite being Hizb-e Islami, he is seen as a brother-in-arms. Abdul Latif Ibrahmi had earlier served as governor of Takhar from 2005 to 2007, before being reshuffled to Faryab over never officially investigated corruption allegations. He is also brother to the speaker of the lower house of the parliament, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi. However, in his new position and with his experience as governor in two other provinces (after Faryab, he was sent to his home province of Kunduz), he will be a valuable political asset for the Uzbek commanders and their followers.

A letter from the NDS

There is much yet to learn about the recent power play in Takhar. A mysterious letter sent by the NDS in Kabul to the agency’s provincial office a few days before the demonstrations may have played a role in firing up the protests. The speaker of the Jihadi Council, Mamur Hassan Takhari, as well as a government official in Takhar, who spoke to AAN on condition of anonymity, both said that in this letter, the NDS had announced its intent to summon three members of the Provincial Council (neither source provided names) in relation to the murder of General Daud Daud. He was the police commander of the 303 Pamir Police Zone, a Takhari, a Jamiati and former close ally of Ahmad Shah Massud. He had also served as deputy interior minister and counter-narcotics minister. Daud Daud was killed in the Takhar governor’s office in May 2011 (see report here). The murder was officially attributed to the Taleban but there were always rumours that it had been an inside job.

Both Mamur Hassan and the government official said the three Provincial Council members mentioned in the letter were Uzbeks. Both told AAN they believed it was these accusations which (possibly partly) prompted the Jihadi Council to unite even more strongly against the Tajik. They believed the governor might have been trying to eliminate rival Uzbek (although also Jamiati) powerbrokers.

AAN has not been able to see this letter. Even so, even the fact that such accusations were made points to the complexity of northern factional and ethnic politics. Almost all of the players involved are Jamiat. In other contexts the Uzbek Jamiatis might take a factional stance, uniting, for example, against rival Uzbeks such as Dostum’s Jombesh. Here though, there had been unhappiness at Tajik Jamiat appointments to the province, dating back to when General Daud was still alive and influential in the north, so this looks like an intra-Jamiat, Uzbek struggle.

Paying a blood debt?

The central government has exchanged governors in response to demonstrations before, including those with good connections, such as Juma Khan Hamdard, a Balkhi, Hezb-e Islami Pashtun and Karzai loyalist, who was moved on from Baghlan (Jamiatis objected to having a Hezb-e Islami man in charge in the province) and Jawzjan (Uzbeks, including from Jombesh, objected to his alleged Pashtun chauvinism).(3)

However, in another recent scenario that looks, at first glance, similar to what happened in Takhar, President Karzai did not sack a governor. In mid-June 2013, Jombesh leader Abdul Rashid Dostum (also Uzbek, of course, and also with many war crimes allegations to his name) organized massive rallies against Mohammad Alim Saee, the governor of his home province Jawzjan (see report here). In this case, however, President Karzai stood by his man. Actually, there are significant differences between the Takhar and Jawzjan cases which highlight the multiple layers of political reasoning behind Afghan governor appointments.

In Jawzjan, it was Uzbeks protesting against an Uzbek governor which at least did not stir ethnic tension. The governor in question was also a strict Karzai loyalist. Moreover, the demonstrations had been organized by General Dostum, who has long had problems with the president. Despite having been a key member of the mujahedin-dominated Northern Alliance before 2001, in jihadi circles, Dostum’s reputation still suffers from his earlier background as head of a pro-communist militia. More importantly, Jombesh is the long-term rival of Jamiat in the north, so Dostum and Jombesh naturally lost clout in the centre in 2001 with the rise of Marshal Fahim at defence and the vice presidency and of other Jamiatis who naturally promoted their own people. In other words, both Fahim and Karzai would have been backing Saee. (Amendment on 21 July 2013: The President has now sacked the Jawzjan governor, too. The new appointee seems to be a compromise candidate between the Palace and Jombesh.)

In Takhar, on the other hand, it was Uzbeks protesting against a Tajik governor. President Karzai surely wanted to avoid ethnic tensions flaring up, destabilising insurgency-ridden Takhar even further. The question remains why it ‘rewarded’ the rebellious Uzbek commanders (who may or may not be seen as representing the Uzbek community – the question is a difficult one) by giving in to their demands and installing a new governor so much more to its liking.

Three things should be considered here. For one, the government’s move could help get the ballot out for any chosen Karzai successor, especially since the powerful Uzbek commanders of Takhar supported Dr Abdullah in the last elections. Uzbeks, generally, feel left out and ill-represented in provincial and national matters, so being seen to help the ethnic group out of its political ‘isolation’ could soften them up, especially with Dostum – always a powerful figure and now one of the leaders of the broad opposition National Front – stirring up anti-government emotions in Jawzjan. At the same time, we see how political affiliation and interests cut across any ethnic solidarity.

Secondly, this might reap the additional benefit of limiting the worrisome infiltration of Takhar’s Uzbek society by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant Islamic group that re-emerged in the region as a Taleban ally (see reports here and here).

Thirdly and probably most importantly, the personal interests of influential people with links to the government were at play. The Ibrahimi brothers – governor and lower house speaker – are Uzbeks from neighbouring Kunduz and have close contact with the Uzbek power brokers in Takhar. The new governor, Abdul Latif Ibrahimi, was indirectly supporting the campaign against Begzad and speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi organised meetings in Kabul to promote his candidacy. Most importantly, the Ibrahimis lost their father and a brother in a targeted suicide attack in Kunduz last March (see report here). Given how common it is when high government officials or their relatives have been ‘martyred’ for the central government, as a means of unofficial compensation, to promote surviving relatives, the appointment of Abdul Latif to the Takhar governorship should perhaps not have come as a surprise.

What this all means, though, is that a significant shift in power to the Uzbek, mainly Jamiat, commanders in this province has taken place.

(1) When in 2006 AAN colleague, Kate Clark, asked Piram Qul about accusations from villagers that his men had killed two small boys, she said he merely laughed ‘wolfishly’ into the camera.

(2) See ‘Afghan family seeks justice after their daughter killed by local powerful people,’ Tolo TV, Kabul, 9 February 2010, accessed via BBC Monitoring.

(3) Hamdard was sent from Jawzjan to south-eastern Paktia in 2006 after his guards shot and killed more than a dozen protestors. He is linked to Hezb-e Islami which in Balkh is more of a minority faction. He has fluctuated between the roles of an ally of and opponent to Jombesh leader Dostum. While working in Paktia, he has tried to maintain his links to his home province, being absent for long periods from his current job. The Wikileaks dossiers included allegations that he has supported Hezb-e Islami insurgents in the north. See reporting here.