KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan government tried on Friday to persuade a renegade adviser to President Hamid Karzai to withdraw forces that overran a remote northern province in a fresh challenge to the U.S.-backed government.
But even as a delegation, led by Deputy Defense Minister General Mohibullah, met General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the latter’s forces advanced into more territory in Faryab province.
Dostum’s largely ethnic Uzbek militiamen invaded Faryab from neighboring provinces on Wednesday. They took over the provincial capital Maimana on Thursday, forcing the governor and provincial military commander Mohammad Hashim Habibi to flee.
The government rushed troops to Maimana on Thursday morning but they arrived too late to stop the takeover of the city.
The latest eruption of factional fighting is bound to cause worries in Washington about the stability of the strife-torn Afghanistan as the country prepares for elections and U.S. troops press an offensive against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
Karzai ordered the immediate withdrawal of Dostum’s fighters from the province, but the demand has so far been ignored.
“Talks are going on and we hope that the issue can be settled without confrontation,” Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimy said. “The intention is to resolve this issue peacefully.”
Azimy said the talks were held in Shiberghan, Dostum’s birthplace and stronghold to the east of Faryab province.
However, the Pakistani-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted the ousted commander Habibi as saying that Dostum’s forces continued their advances in Faryab on Thursday night and Friday.
He said they captured the district of Belcharagh on Friday morning, to where Habibi had withdrawn the previous day. He said they had also occupied other eastern areas of the province.
“Dostum’s forces captured Belcheragh early this morning and our forces have retreated. But now fierce fighting is raging in Gurzawan.”
Habibi said several people had been killed and wounded but said he did not have exact figures. Habibi could not be reached directly on Friday, but one of his soldiers told Reuters that Dostum had already taken half of the district of Gurzawan.
Azimy said the national army was in Maimana, which was calm on Friday morning. A U.N. spokesman in Kabul said he understood about 150 soldiers from the national army were in the city.
Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on Thursday that a battalion of 750 soldiers would be sent to Maimana. He termed Dostum’s move as “an unconstitutional act of interference.” Dostum and his aides were not available for comment about the developments in Faryab, a province he controlled in the 1990s.
His forces have been involved in several rounds of fighting for territory since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001. A federalist, he unsuccessfully opposed Karzai’s bid for a strong presidency in a constitutional assembly in January.
Dostum helped U.S.-led forces topple the Taliban in 2001, but his star has waned since Washington threw its weight behind Karzai and his bid to extend his authority into unruly provinces.
Despite serving nominally as Karzai’s military adviser, analysts say Dostum has become disgruntled after pressing without success for a top job at the defense ministry in Kabul.
Habibi served as one of Dostum’s commanders in Faryab, but recently switched allegiance to Karzai’s government, which aims to demilitarise 40,000 militiamen by June, including many of Dostum’s fighters.
The fresh factional fighting is bad news for Karzai, who needs to ensure security for elections already delayed until September by security worries caused by Taliban and al Qaeda attacks in the south and east.
It was the second time in less than a month that the government has sent in troops from the still infant national army to keep order in troubled provinces and deal with unrest involving warlord militias targeted for disarmament.
Karzai rushed 1,500 troops to the western city of Herat last month after fierce clashes there, prompting expressions of concern from the U.S. military that this took up resources that should be pursuing Taliban and al Qaeda militants.