KABUL (Reuters) - A standoff over a militia commander in central Afghanistan who has defied attempts to arrest him has highlighted tensions over President Ashraf Ghani’s crackdown on local strongmen operating outside central government control.
On Friday, security forces arrived in Lal Sar Jangal, a district in the remote and largely lawless province of Ghor, to arrest Alipur, a commander from the mainly Shi’ite Hazara minority accused of serious human rights abuses.
Their arrival set off a gunbattle that killed four police and eight civilians. Alipur, known as “Commander Sword”, escaped but a few days later reappeared in Wardak province, west of Kabul, holding a defiant rally of hundreds of supporters.
“You rescued me and as long as I have your support, no government can touch me,” Alipur, seen by supporters as a Robin Hood-style figure who defends his people, told a cheering crowd. “I stand beside you and will defend your rights to my last day.”
Deputy interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi called Alipur a “criminal, a highwayman and a killer” and said: “The government will continue to hunt him.”
The case has echoes of Nizamuddin Qaisari, an ethnic Uzbek militia commander in northern Faryab province close to Vice President Rashid Dostum, who was also accused of serious abuses. His arrest in July set off violent protests across northern provinces.
With the Taliban dominating large parts of the countryside, the incidents underline how the government has struggled to control dozens of politically connected strongmen who have regularly been accused of extortion, murder and other abuse.
But they also highlight tensions among Afghanistan’s ethnic groups that are increasingly undermining the central government, suspected by many ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks of favoring Ghani’s Pashtun group.
Mohammad Mohaqeq, a powerful Hazara leader, said Alipur was “commander of the people’s uprising force” and called the attempted arrest, “an excuse to expand the conflict in Hazara communities”.
Hazaras have long been discriminated against in Afghanistan and although the war has affected all ethnic groups, in recent years they have suffered many attacks on mosques, cultural centers and residential areas as well as being targeted on provincial highways. Many blame Sunni Pashtuns for the attacks.
A senior government official said Alipur took up arms and created a small, mainly Hazara force in Wardak years ago after several incidents in which Sunni militants stopped cars on the highway and killed Hazaras.
In revenge, his men would stop cars and target Pashtuns, accusing them of aiding the Taliban or anti-Shi’ite militant groups, the official said.
Truckdriver Sirajuddin said Alipur’s men stormed a small hotel in Behsud district some months ago. “They beat me, called me the Taliban’s brother and put me in a basement for 10 days just because I am a Pashtun,” he said.
It was not possible to confirm the account with Alipur, whose location remains unclear following the rally in Wardak.
The government moved against Alipur just two weeks before the parliamentary elections on Oct. 20 but critics say local commanders have been allowed to operate with impunity for years as long they did not defy the government.
The government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had been able to operate freely because he had the backing of powerful figures in Kabul.
“The reason why such men exist and kill and torture civilians is because they enjoy support from strongmen in the government and beyond,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mustafa Andalib in Ghazni, editing by David Stamp