Kabul fails to end the local fight for power

By Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday 05 February 2002 01:00

"God does not help a thief," said Haji Saifullah, a white- bearded tribal leader, as he explained how his soldiers had defeated the government-appointed governor of Paktia and sent his men fleeing into the Afghan hills.

Sitting in front of a wood-burning stove in his headquarters in the town of Gardez yesterday, Mr Saifullah, a hospitable and self-assured man made no effort to keep the hatred out of his voice as he spoke of his rival Padshah Khan Zadran. "He is a killer, an ill-tempered man. Nobody here ever liked him," he said.

Talks between supporters of the two men failed to end the conflict, which has raged for control of Paktia province since Padshah Khan's forces were forced out of Gardez in savage fighting last week.

It has all been deeply embarrassing for the interim-Afghan government. Hamid Karzai, its leader, was returning from a triumphant visit to Washington, where President George Bush had received him as virtual head of state, when fighting erupted in the town 75 miles south of Kabul.

Padshah Khan, leader of the Zadran tribe, was one of those Afghan leaders who had done well out of the war against the Taliban, winning the support of the Americans and the Northern Alliance. He had a brother in the government and was appointed governor of his home province by Mr Karzai.

But what happened next shows the Kabul government's problems in trying to exert control outside the capital. The shura, the council of tribal leaders and elders, had already chosen Mr Saifullah, the leader of the Amadzai tribe, who had long played an important role in provincial affairs, to be Paktia's governor.

Padshah Khan appears to have overplayed his hand. He thought that with backing from his own tribe, the central government and good contacts with the US, which has special forces on the outskirts of Gardez, he could take this small city of 40,000 people.

He began his attack with about 600 men last Wednesday. He does not appear to have met serious resistance. Gardez, at the entrance to a pass through the snow-capped mountains on the road to Kabul, is dominated by two fortresses. One, known as Bala Hissar, is a gigantic rectangular keep built on a rock. A few hundred yards away is another, smaller fortress, built on a steep hill.

Padshah Khan's men arrived at Bala Hissar at about 1pm, their confidence evident from the fact that they were riding in buses and cars.

The garrison seems to have had some warning they were coming. Said Sherin Agha, its commander in Bala Hissar, said: "We received a message to leave town." There was a brief shouting match. Then Padshah Khan's men shot dead the guard at the gate and tried to fight their way into the fort.

Now their blue-and-white buses lie abandoned where they left them, their windscreens starred and smashed by bullet holes. Ten of the attackers were killed.

Padshah Khan's men were evidently surprised by the strength of the counter-attack. The ferocity of the resistance may have been because most people in Gardez are Tajik while his men are Pashtun. By early the next morning many of the latter – the figure may be as high as 200 – had surrendered.

After some discussion, Said Sherin, a nervous argumentative man, led us up the steps towards a medieval stone castle inside Bala Hissar to meet some of the prisoners. Saleh Jan, a red-bearded man aged 45, said he and the other prisoners were woodcutters and not fighters. He added that they had not expected a battle.

"If you were all so peaceful why did you come here with sub-machine-guns?" asked Said Sherin sourly. "It was a tribal affair," replied Mr Jan. "Padshah Khan is our leader and we had to obey him."

Haj Gai, another prisoner, said that as soon as they realised that there was serious fighting to be done "we surrendered just as soon as we could". It is the fate of these prisoners that is now at the centre of negotiations.

Back in his headquarters Mr Saifullah said: "They are criminals. They must be punished by either us or the government. I will not let them go."

* Russia's Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, pledged yesterday that Moscow would help to rebuild Afghanistan, saying in return he had won a promise from the interim administration not to harbour terrorists or drug traffickers.

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