It’s Our Turn

7 minute read
ALEX PERRY Mazar-i-Sharif

After 22 years of war, there is little that can make a grown Afghan cry. But mention Ahmed Shah Massoud and the most battle-hardened Northern Alliance mujahedin will tell you he wept on Sept. 9, the day two al-Qaeda agents posing as journalists assassinated the rebel leader in a suicide bomb attack. In death, Massoud has become even more iconic than in life. His picture hangs in shop windows across the northern Afghan capital of Mazar-i-Sharif and is pasted in the windshields of Alliance pickups and jeeps. Along every street those calm, hooded eyes gaze out from their baggy sockets. He’s the Che Guevara of northern Afghanistan, its Mandela, Marley, JFK. (Nearly anyone you ask can recall where he or she was when the news of his assassination broke.) Not merely because Massoud was a famed fighter or a charismatic leaderbut because he had a vision of a unified, representative government for Afghanistan, which remains the country’s best hope.

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu)How much of that vision has been lost can be seen in Mazar-i-Sharif. When the Taliban abandoned Mazar and retreated to the south, they set the pattern for the ground war; so too, the way in which Mazar emerges from Taliban rule is a good indicator of how Afghanistan will fare at peace.

Three commanders of different ethnic backgrounds have taken Mazar, and they are the city’s key players for the foreseeable future. Two of the commanders, Ustad Mohammed Atta (of Tajik descent) and Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq (a member of the Hazara tribe), set themselves up in palatial villas in the city center. General Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, took over Kalai Jangi, an ancient mud-walled fortress to the southwest. In public, all three insist an alliance born of necessity is holding. They say they are cooperating in the primary task of emptying Mazar of armed men and establishing a joint security force under the authority of an all-inclusive council. “We were united, we are united and we will be united,” says Mohaqiq. Moreover, Taliban fighters who defected and paved the way for the Alliance victory appear to have been easily absorbed. “They are Afghans.” says Atta. “Of course we welcome them.”

But as history has proved, the dust never quite settles in Afghanistan. At night, the streets of Mazar aren’t exactly safe; residents lock themselves in high-walled homes and the pop and crack of gunfire sounds across the city until dawn. Even in daytime, people tend to remain within their neighborhoods, which are lumped into three zones under the control of Dostum, Atta or Mohaqiq. The Hazaras catch most of the blame for the city’s violence. In fact, they have most cause for revenge: when the Taliban took the city in 1998 they singled out Hazaras, who are Shi’ite Muslims (the Taliban are Sunnis) and massacred 6,000. The Hazara district in the north of the city is again a virtual no-go area for other tribes. Lootings, hijackings and robberies are commonplace. Two men were killed and five injured last week when a patrol of Atta’s soldiers tried to stop a group of Mohaqiq’s men supposedly stealing a car. The same night, Hazaras also hijacked a taxi and beat its driver, 33-year-old Mauludeen, with the metal butts of their AK-47s. “It’s just like it was before the Taliban was here,” says the bandaged Mauludeen. “Only if the commanders unite will this violence stop.”

As the euphoria of victory fades, it’s becoming clear that some commanders are more equal than others. While Mohaqiq spends his days sitting by his satellite phone swatting away the occasional autumn fly in an empty meeting room, Atta’s home is crowded with tribal elders and local dignitaries paying respects and requesting his signature on a flurry of papers. In turn, both Atta and Mohaqiq are required to drive out of the city to Dostum’s fort when the veteran warlord summons them. (Dostum also maintains a castle-like complex in Shiburghan, some two hours west of Mazar.) And while the popular Atta talks loftily of democracy and elections to form a new city administration, Mohaqiq’s aides scoff at what they see as provincial politicking. Mohaqiq himself proposes an appointed governor and staff to insure the minority Hazaras are represented. Meanwhile a Dostum aide is disdainful of both, dismissing former teacher Atta’s military skills”He’s just a scholar”and adding that Mohaqiq doesn’t belong in Mazar but further south in the Hazaradjat region of the central highlands.

After two decades of fighting, defections and double-crosses, suspicion and betrayal are the guiding principles of any smart Afghan operator. Atta, for example, once fought with the Taliban. Dostum allied himself with Soviet forces during occupation; when they left, he sided with and then betrayed their successor, ill-fated President Najibullah, before being given up himself by onetime ally Abdul Malik. Much of the Taliban’s sweeping success came from confronting the atomized, warring mujahedin factions with a nearly psychotic demand for uniformity. “The mujahedin say they are together now, but in reality no alliance ever lasts for long,” says a Dostum aide. Moreover, a whole generation of Afghans has grown up knowing nothing but conflict. With so much blood spilled, this warrior nation has something of a taste for it. Local English teacher Najib Kuraishi, 20, relates how crowds would gather at public executions held by the Taliban. “Well, it was quite something to see, a line of 10 people being hanged,” he says. Asked if he will ever give up his gun, one Northern Alliance commander says, “Never. An Afghan is not a man without a gun.”

Already, some Mazar residents are muttering that the Taliban, as a united and centralized government, got some things right. Former judge Maulavi Mohammed Afzal says, “The root of their control was just terrorthey would kill five people at a time without trialbut some people did support and admire them because they did cut crime.” Aid workers are already finding the post-Taliban regime more cumbersome to deal with: they need to negotiate with several different commanders to get anything done. “They are like small businesses,” says Linda van Weyenburg of Mdecins Sans Frontires. “Everything becomes more complicated and, of course, they all have to turn a profit.”

The one unifying force in this maelstrom of violence and mistrust is the memory of Massoud. For all anti-Taliban Afghans, the latest chapter in their bloody history began not on Sept. 11, but two days earlier. Everything that has happened since is seen as guided by his ghostly hand. “As soon as Massoud was martyred, the attacks happened in America and Pakistan withdrew its support from the Taliban,” says Abdul Saboor, 35, a fighter pilot who carries a case of Massoud memorabilia with him. “The innocence of his unjust death spread across the world and started the defeat of the Taliban.” In death, Massoud has become the one commander no one dares sell out. “He may not be among us but the way he chose, the methods he chose, of bringing all commanders together, will always be followed,” says Saboor. In a country where so many have died since 1979they basically stopped counting at 1 millionAfghanistan’s best hope for peace and unity rests on a single figurewho is no longer there.

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