For more than two decades, the bloody rivalry between General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Governor Atta Mohammad Noor has shaped the political landscape of Balkh province, northern Afghanistan’s economic hub. With the
Supporters of General Dostum at a rally last year.
In the first few years after the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, the forces of Dostum under the banner of the Junbesh faction and Atta's forces under the banner of the Jamyat-e-Islami faction fought each other to control areas in the North. Their armed rivalry ended in 2003 under the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program jointly implemented by the UN and the Afghan government. Dostum and Atta have competed for power ever since.
In last year's election, Atta, an ethnic Tajik, backed Abdullah Abdullah for the presidency and strongly opposed the eventual power-sharing agreement that resulted in Abdullah’s Chief Executive Officer role in the new government.
After the first round of last year’s presidential election failed to produce an outright winner, heated verbal argument erupted between the old competitors. Dostum indirectly referred to Noor as a coward in a speech, and in retaliation Noor said that Dostum was worse than the Taliban.
Following the victory of his running mate Ashraf Ghani in the presidential race, Dostum has secured the vice presidential post in the new government. While he remains popular among Uzbeks and other Turkic ethnicities, it is Atta who remains the province’s acting governor.
Though their coexistence in the current government makes for an uneasy alliance, the current arrangement is not unprecedented. For a short span beginning 2012, relations between Dostum and Atta were cordial due to an alliance between Junbesh and Jamiat under the banner of the National Front (Jabh-e melli). By the 2014 presidential elections, the alliance disintegrated.
The continuing friction between Atta and Dostum was in full view at a flag-raising ceremony during this year’s Nowrooz celebrations, which was delayed for over an hour after a last-minute dispute erupted between the two politicians. When the festivities finally got underway, the men delivered contradicting speeches about Afghanistan’s ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the ethnic and historical origins of Nowrooz. The public spat is illustrative of the ongoing turf war between Junbesh and Jamiat. While both factions officially lay down weapons 12 years ago, its members have regularly locked horns in bloody skirmishes since 2003, and continue to accuse each other of stockpiling arms.
“These hostilities exist in every province of the country, but in Balkh province they are more pronounced because Balkh is the economic lifeline of the north,” says Atta’s spokesman General Abdul Sabor Sabor, who heads the Jamiat’s youth wing in northern Afghanistan. “Its control is vital to these factions.”
But Turkistan University Dean Mohammad Arif Shamsi, the Junbesh deputy for cultural policy and a close friend of Dostum, says Junbish is “thinking at the national level” and “has no need” to involve itself in clashes with other factions or amass illegal weapons.
“From Balkh, Junbish directs its overall political activities but is now stretched beyond the province,” he added. “At the national level, it has filled the post of the vice president, so in Balkh it has a footprint and in the rest of the country, it has power.”
Filling Balkh’s gubernatorial post could prove troublesome for the Unity Government, whose fragilities have already been exposed by the drawn-out process of Cabinet appointments. (To date, the post of defense minister remains unfilled.) Balkh is an important card for both Ghani and Abdullah. Although most Balkh voters supported Atta’s ally Abdullah in the April 2014 election, Dostum wields considerable influence among the province’s Uzbek and Turkic tribes. Meanwhile, Atta continues as acting governor, a post he’s held since 2004.
Sabor stressed Atta “is not keen on any post or governorship,” but adds that any appointment should “ensure stability in the country.”
“[Atta] has very credible information compared to the government system,” he added. “That is why Balkh is ahead in security compared to other provinces, and these circumstances may not be available for him in other provinces. He knows this province like the back of his hand. He knows who is a thief and who is not.”
On behalf of Dostum’s camp, Shamsi said Junbesh would accept the unity government if it appoints “someone worthy of the governor’s post.” In the opposite case, Shamsi added, “Junbesh will render its reservations to the president’s office.”