Thursday, August 15, 2019

Afghanistan's Warlords Prepare for Civil War

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: Key Afghan warlords have begun preparing for a potential civil war as the U.S. nears an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has observed indicators that Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders are taking steps to mobilize their ethnic communities in preparation for a looming power struggle as the U.S. and NATO leave Afghanistan. Afghan Pashtuns will also soon likely mobilize, if they have not already begun.

The U.S. is about to finalize a bilateral agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan.[1] The Taliban in return is reportedly promising to prevent transnational jihadists (including Al Qaeda and ISIS) from conducting global attacks from Afghanistan. It has also ostensibly committed to subsequent negotiations with other Afghan political leaders over the future of Afghanistan. The exact terms of these negotiations remain unclear, but the U.S. has declined to explicitly support a leadership role in the talks for the current Afghan Government – implying that talks would focus on establishing a new Government of Afghanistan.[2] The apparent decision to sideline the current Afghan Government is a major concession by the U.S. and NATO. The existence and terms of this bilateral agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, when finalized, will sideline and severely weaken the Afghan Government. It will remove the government’s core source of leverage over the Taliban – namely, the military forces and international aid money brought by the U.S. and NATO to Afghanistan.

Photo: U.S. Air Force/TSgt. Stephen Hudson

Afghan powerbrokers are already taking precautions against the likely collapse or cancellation of the promised future talks with the Taliban. They are preparing to defend their communities against the Taliban and to compete with their current and historical rivals in the ensuing power vacuum. Multiple Afghan warlords already retain independent military forces or have coopted government forces to serve their own ends. Others have begun to mobilize new militias from their historical support bases. These preparations in and of themselves raise the likelihood of a new civil war by increasing the strength of power centers outside the Government of Afghanistan and setting conditions for a rapid dissolution of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).


Afghan Tajik powerbrokers are the most prepared for a power struggle. Key powerbrokers either already control or are remobilizing militias affiliated with the Tajik Jamiat-e Islami Party. Jamiat historically formed the core of the Northern Alliance, which partnered with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. Two Tajik warlords are actively mobilizing forces as of August 13, 2019: Atta Mohammad Noor and Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.
  • Atta Mohammad Noor: Atta is the former governor of Balkh Province and Chief Executive of Jamiat. He is likely the most powerful current member of Jamiat. He already controls a network of private militias within the Afghan Local Police and Afghan National Police in Balkh Province.[3] This network receives patronage from him and responds to his orders despite formally serving under the chain of command of the Afghan Government. Atta demonstrated his control over these forces when members of the Afghan National Police loyal to him opened fire on Afghan Special Police Forces attempting to install a new police chief in Balkh Province on March 14, 2019.[4] Atta controls a lucrative border crossing with Uzbekistan, which could become a critical source of military, political, and economic power during a new Afghan Civil War.[5] ISW has not observed new indicators of mobilization by Atta since March 2019, but he likely does not require new mobilizations given his existing control of Balkh Province.[6]
  • Bismullah Khan Mohammadi: Bismullah Khan is the former Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army. He is working to re-mobilize a network of militias in Panjshir Province, historically the base of military power for Jamiat. Credible local reports stated on August 2 that local militias of former Tajik Mujahedeen began re-mobilizing and operating alongside the ANDSF in response to a growing threat from the Taliban in Panjshir Province, which has been relatively secure since 2001.[7] Mohammadi visited security posts in Panjshir on August 7.[8] He is likely leading this new mobilization effort, although it remains unclear if he is simply mobilizing the local wing of Jamiat or if he is engaged in an intra-party power play to consolidate control over Panjshir Province. A persistent threat from the Taliban in Panjshir Province will drive further mobilization by Jamiat.
The Tajik mobilization risks stimulating a breakdown of the ANDSF. Jamiat–linked Tajik commanders have historically dominated the ANDSF and hold substantial influence within its ranks.[9] Jamiat’s powerbrokers are likely in positon to absorb defectors from the ANDSF should it collapse and could even encourage elements to defect to Jamiat.


Afghan Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum is also mobilizing his forces. Dostum’s Uzbeks formed the second major pillar of the Northern Alliance and a rival to Atta Mohammad Noor’s Tajiks. His recent activity indicates that he is retaking control over his network of militias within local security forces in Northwest Afghanistan, which fragmented during his exile in Turkey from May 2017 to July 2018.[10] Dostum made multiple visits in July 2019 to meet local commanders at outposts in Jowzjan and Sar-e Pul Provinces, both of which are contested between the Afghan Government and the Taliban.[11] Dostum allegedly took direct command of operations in these areas, which would imply that he took command of local ANDSF ostensibly under the control of the Afghan Government.[12] Dostum also held three large meetings with local commanders from the ANDSF in Jowzjan Province on July 21, August 3, and August 5.[13] His control of local militias could reignite the historical conflict between Dostum and Atta in Northern Afghanistan.


Multiple Afghan Shi’a Hazara warlords also maintain independent militias in the Hazarajat – a mountainous region spanning multiple provinces in Central Afghanistan. Urban Hazara communities also exist in Kabul. The Taliban has historically targeted the Hazara, most recently during an offensive in Ghazni and Uruzgan Provinces in November 2018.[14] ISIS Wilayat Khorasan also regularly attacks the Hazara in Kabul.[15] The Hazara have thus maintained militias to defend their communities.[16] Hazara leaders warn that continued violence against their population and continued government inaction could lead to increased mobilization among Hazara.[17] This mobilization will likely accelerate after any announced withdrawal by the U.S. and NATO.

Hazara warlord Abdul Ghani Alipur leads a militia active in the Hazarajat.[18] The Afghan Government attempted to arrest him twice in October-November 2018 but released him following large protests by urban Hazara in Kabul.[19] Senior Hazara powerbroker and former Afghan Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq also criticized the arrest attempts in October 2018. Alipur can likely conduct further mobilization among ethnic Hazara.[20]

Iran may also become more active in mobilizing Hazara in Afghanistan. Iran returned thousands of fighters from Liwa Fatamiyoun – a proxy force drawn from ethnic Hazara – from Syria to Afghanistan by April 2019.[21] Iran’s continued relationship to these fighters is unclear from publicly available information. Alipur has reportedly recruited former Fatamiyoun into his militia and an anonymous security official accused him of supporting an effort by Iran to establish structures for a future rapid mobilization of Fatamiyoun in April 2019.[22] Multiple Hazara clerics and politicians also warned in early 2019 that there is a significant risk of remobilization among the Fatamiyoun if the Taliban and ISIS continue to threaten the Hazara.[23]

Further Mobilization and Maneuvers

The Taliban’s threat led the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders to unite their militias and form the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. A similar unification could occur again. Several Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders – including Dostum – already support Jamiat member and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in the September 2019 Afghan Presidential Election.[24] There is also an ongoing effort to persuade Atta and other influential members of Jamiat to support Abdullah.[25] The elections are unlikely to occur amidst a withdrawal by the U.S. and NATO, but this tentative political alliance indicates that the historically fractious Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara powerbrokers could be in a position to cooperate politically and militarily against the Taliban. However, historic divisions between these powerbrokers could still preclude them from reconstituting the Northern Alliance.[26]

Afghan Pashtuns are likely to mobilize soon, if they have not yet already. Former Pashtun Mujahedeen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, could mobilize forces affiliated with his Hezb-e Islami Party. Hekmatyar agreed to demobilize his militias in a reconciliation deal with the Afghan Government in 2016.[27] However, he can still call upon supporters within the existing network of militias linked to Hezb-e Islami that never integrated – as called for in the deal – with the ANDSF.[28] Any mobilization by Hezb-e Islami would likely to reignite a historic rivalry with Jamiat.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear who currently leads the Durrani Pashtuns after the assassination of Kandahar Provincial Police Chief General Abdul Raziq by the Taliban in October 2018.[29] Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, and other influential tribal leaders are likely already preparing to activate their own support networks among the Durranis ahead of an anticipated power struggle with the Taliban. Kandahar is bitterly contested due to its strategic and cultural significance to both the Durranis and the Taliban. This struggle will only further accelerate after the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan.[30]

Afghanistan’s current political environment is highly unstable, as demonstrated by the remobilization of ethnic militias along historical divides. The Taliban and the Afghan political elite are setting conditions to secure their communities and their power through force rather than negotiation. The U.S. bears direct responsibility for this outcome given its successive drawdowns and policy recalibrations in Afghanistan, which led all parties to take up arms to protect themselves at the expense of the Afghan Government. Afghanistan is dangerously poised for a new Afghan Civil War reminiscent of the instability that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

[1] Kimberly Dozier, “The U.S. Is Close to a Peace Deal with the Taliban, Officials Say,” Time, August 8, 2019,
[2] U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, Twitter, July 27, 2019,
[3] “Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity,” Human Rights Watch, March 3, 2015,
[4] “Rival Police Clash in North Afghan City in Spat Between President, Ex-Governor,” Gandhara, March 14, 2019,
[5] “Afghanistan’s Fragile Government Picks a Dangerous Fight,” Economist, March 1, 2018,
[6] Sharif Hassan, “Ousted But Not Out: Afghan Strongman Still Calls the Shots, Residents Say,” Washington Post, May 13, 2018,
[7] Massoud Ansar, “Local Forces Mobilize to Purge Taliban Threats in Panjshir,” Tolo News, August 2, 2019,
[8] Besmillah Mohammadi, Facebook, August 7, 2019,
[9] Mara Tchalakov, “Afghanistan Report 10: The Northern Alliance Prepares for Afghan Elections in 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, August 2013,; Deedee Derksen, “Hezb-e Islami, Peace, and Integration into the Afghan Security Forces,” U.S. Institute of Peace, July 2018,
[10] Deedee Derksen, “In Afghanistan, Today’s Pro-Government Militias Could Be Tomorrow’s Insurgents,” War on the Rocks, December 11, 2017,; Rod Nordland, “Accused of Rape and Torture, Exiled Afghan Vice President Returns,” New York Times, July 22, 2018,
[11] Gulabuddin Ghubar, “Taliban Uses Their Full Strength But Will Not Win: Dostum,” Tolo News, July 12, 2019,
[12] Babur, Twitter, July 11, 2019,; Mujib Mashal, Twitter, August 3, 2019,
[13] FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, July 21, 2019,; FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, August 3, 2019,; FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, August 5, 2019,
[14] Ali Yawar Adili and Martine van Bijlert, “Taleban Attacks on Khas Uruzgan, Jaghori and Malestan (II): A New and Violent Push into Hazara Areas,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 29, 2018,
[15] Abdul Qadir Sediqi, “Attack on Shi'ite Muslim Gathering in Afghan Capital Kills Three,” Reuters, March 7, 2019,
[16] Martine van Bijlert, “Security at the Fringes: The Case of Shujai in Khas Uruzgan,” Afghan Analyst Network, April 6, 2013,
[17] Mustafa Sarwar, “Amid IS Attacks, Hazaras Fear Dangerous Sectarian Divide in Afghanistan,” Gandhara, September 13, 2018,
[18] Hamid Shalizi, “Rebel Afghan Militia Leader Defies Government as Arrest Bid Fails,” Reuters, October 11, 2018,
[19] Ibid.; Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan, “Afghan Authorities Free Hazara Fighter Whose Arrest Ignited Street Clashes,” Washington Post, November 26, 2018,
[20] Hamid Shalizi, “Rebel Afghan Militia Leader Defies Government as Arrest Bid Fails,” Reuters, October 11, 2018,
[21] The U.S. Institute of Peace warned in March 2019 that “thousands” of Fatamiyoun were returning to Afghanistan. An anonymous Afghan security official claimed that 10,000 Fatamiyoun fighters had returned by April 2019, although this number is likely an overestimate. See: Ahmad Shuja Jamal, “The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 19, 2019,; Kathy Gannon, “Afghans Recruited to Fight in Syrian War Struggle Back Home,” AP, March 31, 2019,; Mohsen Hamidi, “The Two Faces of the Fatemiyun (I): Revisiting the Male Fighters,” Afghan Analysts Network, July 8, 2019,
[22] Dr. Antonio Giustozzi & Shoib Najafizada, “Assad’s Afghan Shi’a Volunteers,” Center for Research and Policy Analysis, November 13, 2018,; Kathy Gannon, “Afghans Recruited to Fight in Syrian War Struggle Back Home,” AP, March 31, 2019,
[23] Ahmad Shuja Jamal, “The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 19, 2019,
[24] Frud Bezhan, “Who's Who Among the Afghan Presidential Candidates,” Gandhara, August 10, 2019,
[25] Massoud Ansar, “Atmar’s Team Members Begin Talks with Abdullah’s Campaign,” Tolo News, August 10, 2019,
[26] Mara Tchalakov, “Afghanistan Report 10: The Northern Alliance Prepares for Afghan Elections in 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, August 2013,
[27] “Afghanistan Signs Draft Deal with Militant Hekmatyar,” BBC, May 18, 2016,
[28] Deedee Derksen, “Hezb-e Islami, Peace, and Integration into the Afghan Security Forces,” U.S. Institute of Peace, July 2018,

[29] Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal, “An Afghan Police Chief Took On the Taliban and Won. Then His Luck Ran Out,” New York Times, October 18, 2018,
[30] Carl Forsberg, “Afghanistan Report 5: Politics and Power in Kandahar,” Institute for the Study of War, April 2010,; Thomas Ruttig, “Kandahar from Razeq to Tadin (2): The Collapse Foretold That Did Not Happen,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, August 14, 2019,