Ethnic rifts in the Taliban ranks have been exposed after a battle for power broke out between Uzbeks and Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan.
Hundreds of demonstrators protested in the streets in the province of Faryab on Thursday against the arrest of Makhdom Alam, an Uzbek Taliban commander whom some believe was the victim of discrimination.
Videos showed angry civilians carrying weapons in Maimana, the provincial capital, about 450 miles northwest of Kabul. Taliban fighters appeared to have been stripped of their rifles.
The protests continued today. One Taliban member was killed and three others, including a civilian, were wounded, sources told the local news agency Khaama Press. The Taliban have sent more troops into the province.
An Afghan journalist in Maimana said that Alam had been accused of kidnapping three women in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in a nearby province, according to The National. The reporter said: “The protesters I talked to are saying he is innocent and he was fired because he is from the Uzbek ethnicity, and the Taliban are discriminating against them.”
Clashes between Uzbeks and Pashtuns in Faryab are not unusual. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group within Afghanistan and are concentrated in the south and east. They are also the dominant ethnic group of the Taliban, which originates from the south but has expanded its ranks in recent years to incorporate other ethnicities. These include Tajiks, Turkmen and Uzbeks. Rahmatullah Amiri, an independent researcher and analyst, said that in the north Pashtuns remained the dominant ethnic group within the Taliban but were a minority in the geographical area.
“There are trust issues across northern Afghanistan because of things like Uzbeks surrendering to the republic government over the years and the fact some joined the IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan],” he said. “On the other hand, the Taliban don’t have enough men in the north because the north was not like the south where they really established power. In Helmand, for example, power was established inch by inch throughout the province and a strong relationship with the people was formed.”
Amiri pointed out that this, and a strong sense of community among those in the north, made the Taliban more vulnerable to being challenged locally. He said he had not been able to confirm the reason for Alam’s arrest but that subordinates had “manipulated the situation and made it more about ethnic lines than the reason for the arrest”.
He added: “The Taliban are trying to add more accountability into their [ranks] and this actually backfired. Faryab is just one example; there are hundreds of these incidents happening every day but they are not being reported. Their commanders on the ground take laws into their own hands, they [still operate with an] insurgency mentality.
“In places like Faryab, they try to use it as a way to say, ‘They are trying to disarm us’. The commander tried to use it as a way to get away with what he did. Over the last 20 years, ethnic quota and representation created a mess for the country. Right now the screaming of the international community on this point [of inclusivity and a representative government] means this is a good recipe to use against the Taliban.”
Alam, formerly the shadow provincial governor and head of the military commission of the Taliban during the previous government, was arrested on the orders of the defence ministry in Balkh province.
False social media posts emerged suggesting an uprising of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan supporters and that the Taliban flag had been taken down and replaced with the previous republic government flag.
Abdul Salam Hanafi, the Taliban deputy prime minister, called for peace. “Your problems will be taken care of, but please do not create a political issue that is not good for you and you will be harmed,” he wrote on Twitter.
On Thursday evening Bilal Karimi, the Taliban deputy spokesman, said: “In Faryab, a number of people protested after the arrest of a man by the intelligence services, but now the situation is under control and the people are convinced that there is no problem.”
Ahmadullah Wasiq, another deputy spokesman, said: “It should be noted that the issue of differences between Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pashtuns is untrue.”