General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s tiny kingdom in northern Afghanistan collapsed around him suddenly. A major blow was delivered by generals Abdul Malik and Gul Mohammad, brothers of a slain former chief of staff of Dostum’s militia, Rasul Pahlawan. The brothers staged an uprising in Maimana, capital of Faryab province, on May 19 and within hours the landscape in the north had changed dramatically.
By May 24, Dostum had fled to Turkey and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the ousted Afghan president, had sought refuge in Dushanbe, capital of neighbouring Tajikistan. Mazar-i Sharif fell to the forces comprising Taliban and Malik’s militia on May 23. The following day, Pakistan became the first country to recognise the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia followed suit two days later.
Dostum, Ahmed Shah Masoud, a former defence minister, and Hizb-e Wahdat, were grouped in an uneasy alliance to contain the advance of the Taliban. The alliance was confined to 10 out of 32 provinces of Afghanistan before the latest developments in the north. On May 20, Qanduz and Sar-i Pul (carved out of Jawzjan province) were taken over by the Taliban forces that moved from the southwest while Malik consolidated his hold on Faryab, Samangan and Baghlan. He was joined by forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami in Samangan.
In the initial fighting, Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest town still in opposition hands and the administrative headquarters of Dostum, also came under attack. Dostum loyalists were able to reassert control but it proved temporary. The battle for control of Jawzjan, Bamiyan and Balkh also continued before falling to the combined Taliban/Malik forces. The Taliban captured the strategic Shibar Pass and advanced to within three miles of Bamiyan, a stronghold of the Hizb-e Wahdat.
The twin challenge to Dostum proved difficult to surmount. Masoud confirmed that their forces were in a precarious position. Taliban forces moved eastward across a new frontline between Faryab and Jawzjan provinces. By May 27, after initial fighting between Masoud loyalists and the Taliban, it was reported that Masoud wanted to hold peace talks. One of his commanders, Basir Salangi, controlling the Salang Tunnel had switched sides and moved over to the Taliban two days earlier. It was, however, the developments in the north that triggered the latest changes.
Malik’s uprising was inspired both by personal considerations - to avenge his brother’s death believed to have been carried out at Dostum’s orders - and to come to terms with the new reality. In explaining his move, Malik said that ‘Dostum was standing in the way of a united Afghanistan.’
According to reports from Maimana, a delegation from the Taliban had been holding talks with Malik and his supporters for nearly two months. He struck as the winter snow began to melt to make movement of men and equipment possible.
With the Taliban advances and Malik’s new alliance with the rulers in Kabul, the way seems to have been cleared for some semblance of normalcy in Afghanistan. Reports from areas under Taliban control say that law and order has improved and people are no longer harassed, robbed or molested by commanders as they used to be before.
From Pakistan’s point of view, the Taliban’s victory could not have come at a more opportune time. Islamabad has just signed a protocol with the government of Turkmenstan to build a pipeline from Turkmenstan’s Daulatabad gas fields to Multan in Pakistan. The pipeline will run along western Afghanistan. With Taliban advances in Badghis, the entire western part has been secured.
Afghanistan’s northern neighbours - Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - have expressed concern over the latest developments. The Tajiks have allowed a southern airfield to be used by Masoud’s forces to bomb Taliban positions inside Afghanistan. And Uzbekistan has openly backed Dostum for many years. They both find their policies in tatters now.
Afghans, however, cannot be taken for granted. There is a tendency to shift alliances. After all, Dostum and Masoud were bitter enemies for nearly 12 years. They struck an opportunistic alliance that enabled Masoud to occupy Kabul. Soon thereafter, the two fell out only to embrace each other again when the Taliban put paid to Masoud’s little kingdom in Kabul.
For the immediate future, it appears that both Pakistan and Turkmenstan are keen to see the country settle down. Even the Uzbeks and Kazakhs have an economic interest in this development despite suffering a political setback. There is likely to be an adjustment in the attitude of the Uzbeks although Tajiks are a different matter.
Once the Taliban consolidate their position in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan is likely to experience further turbulence. Imomali Rakhmanov’s regime may not be able to remain as firmly in control since there are major internal rivalries going on. If Rakhmanov cannot resist the temptation to fish in Afghanistan’s troubled waters, the Taliban may be forced to hit back, and hard.
Muslimedia - June 1-15, 1997