Afghanistan’s Taliban are battling a rebellion by ethnic minority fighters in their own ranks in the country’s north, a sign that ties are fraying within the alliance built by the Islamist group that seized control of the country in August.
Some Uzbeks who joined the Taliban, which is dominated by Pashtuns from the country’s south and east, along with other Uzbeks, fought Taliban forces in Faryab province this week. At least four people were killed and others wounded in clashes Friday, local residents said.
Inamullah Samangani, a spokesman for the Taliban, said that it was supporters of democracy that use ethnic divisions.
“Now that they have nothing, the so-called democrats are struggling to come up with which ethnic group Talib is good and which is bad,” Mr. Samangani said, on Twitter.
Ethnic divisions run deep in Afghanistan and have been one of the main drivers of decades of war in the country. Uzbeks, Tajiks and other groups tend to dominate in the north and traditionally have opposed the Taliban, whose leadership is predominantly Pashtun. However, some members of the northern ethnic groups also joined the Taliban and played an important role in its conquest of the country last year.
“It is too early to tell if Faryab will have a snowball effect which will reverberate across the ranks of non-Pashtun Taliban up in the north, central and western Afghanistan,” said Tamim Asey, head of the Afghan think tank Institute of War and Peace Studies, now living in exile, who once served as deputy defense minister in the U.S.-backed government.
After the U.S.-backed government collapsed last year and the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they reached out to members of the country’s ethnic minorities and said they would form an inclusive government.
Most senior positions in the Taliban government, however, have remained in the hands of Pashtuns. The international community has criticized the new government for not being representative, a charge rejected by the Taliban.
One of the two deputy prime ministers appointed by the Taliban is an Uzbek. No country has recognized the Taliban administration.
The trigger for the upheaval in Faryab was the Taliban’s arrest of one of its own commanders, Makhdom Alim, a prominent Uzbek within the movement who led the conquests of Faryab and Jowzjan provinces, over allegations of theft, locals said. There is no official announcement from the Taliban about charges against Mr. Alim, though they have acknowledged his detention.
That sparked a broader rebellion fueled by what local Uzbeks said was discrimination by Pashtuns.
In the Faryab provincial capital of Maimana on Friday, streets leading to government offices were blocked off, locals said. Taliban special forces took back control of the provincial governor’s office on Friday, they said.
“All shops and bazaars are shut. It’s possible something bad may happen any moment,” said one resident of Maimana, who declined to be named. “It’s more of ethnic division within the Taliban now.”
A senior Uzbek member of the Taliban, Salahuddin Ayoubi, was ambushed twice as he raced Friday to Faryab to mediate, seemingly by Pashtun Taliban fearful that he would join the rebels, said residents. One of his bodyguards was killed and several wounded, they said.
Shoib Rasalat, a still-loyal Uzbek Taliban commander in the adjacent province of Jowzjan, said Mr. Alim’s arrest wasn’t related to his ethnicity.
“The issue is being misused and twisted towards ethnicity. In every government, its own officials are investigated,” said Mr. Rasalat, pointing to his own example as an Uzbek who had served the previous government, then was taken on by the Taliban after their conquest. “We Uzbeks have rights under the Taliban. We are happy with the Taliban.”