Afghan army dispatched to halt warlord

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The Independent Online

The American-backed central government in Afghanistan said yesterday it was sending troops from the fledgling Afghan National Army to the northern province of Faryab, after one of the most powerful warlords in the country sent troops from his private army to take control of the province.

It is the second time that the government of Hamid Karzai has had to send troops from its barely formed army to a far-flung province in a matter of weeks. The governor of Faryab, Anayatullah Anayat, sent a desperate appeal to the President in Kabul for help after forces loyal to the Uzbek warlord Abdel Rashid Dostum overran several districts overnight.

US forces in Afghanistan are already at full stretch attempting to hunt al-Qa'ida and battling resurgent Taliban forces in the south and east. In the past few weeks violence has also flared in the north and the west, which had been thought to be relatively calm areas.

The new fighting comes even as President Karzai's government is trying to prepare for elections that have already been delayed. They are now scheduled for September.

Details of the fighting in the remote province were sketchy last night, but there were reports of clashes only 12 miles from the provincial capital, Maimana. Some 2,000 to 3,000 of General Dostum's troops had advanced into Faryab from several different directions, a local commander in Faryab said.

Mr Anayat said his forces were outnumbered by General Dostum's and that many had been disarmed. "There are bound to have been deaths," he said. "Our soldiers have been putting up tough resistance."

At least one report spoke of fighters advancing on horseback, but similar reports during the US-led war to overthrow the Taliban in 2001 turned out to be untrue. General Dostum, probably the second most powerful warlord in the country, has tanks at his disposal. He also commands a huge private army, believed by many to be the best-trained and most disciplined in Afghanistan.

Faryab province lies west of General Dostum's stronghold at Shibarghan, and he is already the dominant power in the strategic city of Mazar-i Sharif to the east - the scene of 2001's Qala-i Jangi prison revolt by captured Taliban.

Although he joined his private army with the Northern Alliance in 2001 to help overthrow the Taliban, General Dostum has always pursued his own course. Before Mazar-i Sharif was captured by the Taliban General Dostum ran the city and surrounding area as a private fiefdom, and he has tried to keep the central government of Mr Karzai at arm's length.

He opposed Mr Karzai's bid for a strong presidency in January, but was defeated. He remains officially an adviser to Mr Karzai, but his recent appeals to be given a leading role in fighting the resurgent Taliban in the south and east were rebuffed by the government.

The flare-up comes weeks after Mr Karzai sent troops to Herat province in the west, the stronghold of another warlord, Ismail Khan, to impose calm after fighting flared when Mr Khan's son was killed by forces loyal to an ambitious young local commander. The latest clashes in Faryab are another sign of how tenuous the grip of President Karzai's government is outside Kabul.

A spokesman for the Defence Ministry said last night that the government was sending 750 troops. "The aim... is to stop the fighting, preserve peace and stability and show the presence of the central government," General Zahir Azimy said.