As Afghan National Security Forces struggle to contain the Taliban's spring offensive, where local insurgency groups have been reinforced by foreign fighters affiliated to ISIS, the two most powerful men in northern Afghanistan have set aside decades of skirmishes to announce a new alliance to wrestle back control of their region. In light of Kunduz nearly falling to the Taliban last month, Balkh Governor Mohammad Atta Noor and his arch rival, First Vice President General Dostum, announced they would set aside their differences and unite to reestablish stability in the increasingly volatile north of the country.
Late last month, Governor Noor and First Vice President Dostum set aside old feuds to announce they would unite to fight the Taliban offensive destabilising Badakhshan and Kunduz. “Given the shift in the geography of war from the south to the north, with ISIS trying to gain ground in the North and the escalation of Taliban operations in northern provinces, the two parties decided to defend northern Afghanistan alongside Afghan national security forces," Noor told the BBC, acknowledging rumours that he and First Vice President Dostum had decided to reignite the alliance that helped topple the Taliban in 2001.
Dr Zabih Fetrat, a spokesman for Dostum's Party of the Islamic Society of Afghanistan, said the alliance was forged at a meeting in Faryab Province where both influential faction leaders "admitted that some insecurities could somehow be related to conflict between their two political parties."
History of failed alliances
While many lawmakers and observers welcomed the combined military might of such a renewed alliance, critics were cynical that the pact could last, pointing to how previous alliances between the two leaders fragmented in the past. Dostum and Noor have been part of two major alliances, both times resulting in conflict and a violent fall-out. After the Taliban seized power in 1996, Noor and Dostum's troops clashed for control of Kabul, and especially, the northern hub of Mazar-e Sharif.Both Noor and Dostum joined Ahmad Shah Massound soon after to join the Northern Alliance, but after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, forcs from the Interior Ministry had to intervene in 2003 after deadly clashes between soldiers loyal to either party. Relations between the two influential military commanders since have been in a state of frozen conflict. Two years ago, Dostum formed the National Front with other former Northern Alliance commanders, only for Noor to snub the political movement.
A member of a former Northern Alliance faction, Deputy Chairman of the Cultural Council of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan Arif Shamsi, told Afghanistan Today that the alliance is "good news for the north," but shared concerns that it might not last. “The people support these two generals. They (Dostum and Noor) can together bring back security to Northern Afghanistan," said Shamsi. "I really want this alliance to last, since it is good for our security, but I am concerned it will collapse.”
ANSF support or militia?
While Both Noor and Dostum have said that the combined force will fight alongside Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to repel the Taliban in the north, others have suggested that two figureheads are creating an independent militia which could have catastrophic consequences. “I believe that every militia, army or force that is built has to be within a legal framework. There should be a structure where everybody’s authorities and responsibilities are well-defined. If there is not such a structure, we will return to the years of 1992 and 1996 which paved the way for the Taliban and ensuing disasters," Mohammd Arif Rezai, Professor of Law and Political Science at Balkh University, told Afghanistan Today. Rezai recalls the sectarian divide in Mazar-e Sharif during this time, which spread terror through the city's districts.
Governor Noor denies that he and Vice President Dostum are forming a militia. “We do not intend to build extrajudicial forces. We do not suggest anything beyond the current official structures the government put in place. If needed, we can mobilize Mujahedin or the fighters we had in the past to defend the government and the county under the framework of Afghan security forces. These fighters are experienced and fully capable of defending their country," Noor told reporters.
Analysts point out that Noor and Dostum now fall on opposite sides of the Unity Government and have already clasehd about who should succeed Atta Noor as governor in Balkh and who should be the next governor of Jowzjan Province. Others say the alliance can only cover the nine northern provinces in which Dostum and Atta hold influence, primarily in areas with Uzbek and Tajik populations. Professor Rezai says both leaders should support the government's efforts all the same, rather than act independently. "If efforts to mobilize the people against the enemies of Afghanistan were made by the government, it would be more effective and better,” he said.