By Najim Rahim and Mujib Mashal
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — A political crisis is brewing in northern Afghanistan, where government forces on Wednesday opened fire on supporters of a powerful militia commander as they were protesting his arrest.
The commander, Nizamuddin Qaisari, is a district police chief in the Taliban-besieged province of Faryab. He is also a close ally of the exiled vice president Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has fallen out with the Afghan president.
Mr. Qaisari is the de facto commander of General Dostum’s militia in Faryab and, like his boss, has increasingly clashed with Afghan civilian and military officials over a lack of security in the ethnic Uzbek stronghold.
Senior Afghan officials said Mr. Qaisari’s arrest was part of a broader effort to rein in pro-government strongmen whom they accuse of abusing power and driving local residents into the arms of the insurgency. The officials also accuse these strongmen of sabotaging military operations.
President Ashraf Ghani said Wednesday that he had ordered a crackdown on unruly militias because soldiers had complained to him that they had blurred the lines of who is enemy and who is friend and had contributed to high casualties.
“I tied the hands of three strongmen and brought them to Kabul,” he said, Mr. Qaisari being one of them.
Afghan officials said the decision to arrest Mr. Qaisari was made months ago. He was accused of killings and sabotaging military operations.
A delegation of visiting officials and generals on Monday called Mr. Qaisari to a meeting in the brigade command in Faryab and had asked him to surrender and board the plane to Kabul with dignity, one senior official said. But his bodyguards resisted by force and then started shooting.
Mr. Qaisari was bound and detained, then transferred to the capital, Kabul. Mohammed Ismail, a unit commander for Mr. Qaisari, called the meeting a trap.
“As soon as he entered the meeting, the commandos were there,” Mr. Ismail said. “They either wounded or killed his people and took him.”
Mr. Ismail said four of Mr. Qaisari’s guards had been killed, three wounded and 20 others detained. A guesthouse next to the army brigade command, run by Mr. Qaisari, was targeted by Afghan commando strikes. Officials said Mr. Qaisari’s men opened fire on the helicopter that was taking him away, but Mr. Ismail denied that.
Thousands of Mr. Qaisari’s supporters poured into the streets of Faryab’s provincial capital, Mainama, to demand his release, and government offices and shops were closed. On Wednesday, the number of demonstrators swelled and government forces fired on the crowd.
The crowds then grew angry and stormed the governor’s office, knocking down doors and setting vehicles on fire. Sayed Qasim Parsa, the head of the main hospital in Faryab, said two people had been killed and 10 wounded.
Abdul QudosQilich, 70, one of the demonstrators, said that about 5,000 to 6,000 people had been marching peacefully in the city before security forces started shooting.
“The demonstration is going a little out of control now after they killed and wounded,” Mr. Qilich said. “I hear light and heavy weapons still. Some of the protesters want to burn security posts, but we are trying to prevent them.”
The Afghan Army has been deployed to parts of Maimana, and the president has dispatched his director of local governance and his army chief to try to calm the anger.
As part of the effort to rein in pro-government strongmen, the authorities also recently arrested Rahimullah Khan, a former deputy police chief of southern Uruzgan Province, who is suspected of surrendering government posts to the Taliban because the administration in Kabul was not giving him the promotion he wanted.
But the situation in Faryab has turned into the latest example of how Mr. Ghani’s government has faced local discontent, sometimes fueled by local warlords, even as it confronts a resurgent Taliban.
In recent weeks, residents in two provinces protested over what they see as the government’s mismanagement of issues related to coming parliamentary elections. Smaller demonstrations in support of Mr. Qaisari have also been reported in at least three other northern provinces.
What complicates Mr. Ghani’s crackdown is that he chose General Dostum as his running mate in the 2014 election despite a long list of accusations that the general had committed war crimes and other human rights abuses.
Even after General Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, became vice president, he continued to lead controversial military operations in Faryab Province despite Mr. Ghani’s opposition.
But then, General Dostum was accused of abducting, torturing and sexually abusing a political opponent. The opponent, Ahmad Ishchi, filed a court case against the vice president and his bodyguards and General Dostum left the country without facing prosecution, in what appeared to have been part of a political agreement.
He has been in exile in Turkey for about a year.
Before his arrest on Monday, Mr. Qaisari, drawing his power from General Dostum’s strong support, had repeatedly threatened government officials. He was angry over the government’s failure to protect Faryab from the Taliban, who have the city of Maimana largely surrounded.
Mr. Qaisari’s unit commanders say he controls thousands of fighters, but government officials estimated his force at 300 to 1,000.
In one security meeting in May, Mr. Qaisari told senior generals that he would kill them all if a besieged area fell to the Taliban. He posted video of his remarks on his Facebook page.
Weeks after that May meeting, with no improvement in Faryab’s security situation, Mr. Qaisari essentially threatened a coup.
“If they do not pay attention, we will tolerate this one day, or two days, or three days,” Mr. Qaisari said. “After that, I will take over everything. I will be the governor. I will be the police chief. I will be in charge of everything in Faryab.”courtesy NY Times