MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – A powerful warlord in northern Afghanistan and a key U.S. ally in the 2001 Taliban defeat blames a devastating Afghan government and an “irresponsible” US departure for the rebels’ recent rapid territorial gains across the north.
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Ata Mohammad Noor, who is among those behind the latest attempt to halt the Taliban’s progress by creating more militias, told The Associated Press that the Afghan military is severely demoralized. He said Washington’s rapid exit left the Afghan military logistically unprepared for the Taliban̵
In an interview at his lavish home in Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the north, he said that even he had not expected the Taliban’s quick victories, especially in the nearby Badakhshan province in the northeast corner of the country.
“It was surprising to me that in 19 hours, 19 districts in Badakhshan were surrendered without a fight,” Noor said.
He said the Taliban in some areas were small in number, perhaps even too few to conquer a district, yet the military handed over their weapons and left. Reports and photos widely shared on social media show that some officials in the provincial capital of Faizabad are boarding one of the last commercial flights to Kabul. The Afghan capital remains in government hands.
The 57-year-old Noor is one of the powerhouse actors as Afghanistan enters what many fear will be a chaotic new chapter with the final withdrawal of US and NATO troops. He commands a personal militia with thousands of warriors. Once the governor of Balkh province, where Mazar-e-Sharif is the capital, he actually still runs the province. As leader of Jamiat-e-Islami, one of Afghanistan’s strongest parties, he exercises influence throughout the Nordic region.
Although he is nominally united in opposition to the Taliban, he and other warlords are often bitter rivals. As the government is weak and the rebels are winning, the potential for violent fragmentation is great.
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The Taliban’s conquest of most of the remote Badakhshan province is particularly important because the north has traditionally been the domain of the US-allied warlords. It was the only province that did not come under Taliban control during the group’s rule of 1996-2001. It was once a Jamiat-e-Islami stronghold, the home province of one of Noor’s predecessors as its leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, killed by a suicide bomber in 2011.
The rebels now claim control of more than a third of the 421 districts and district centers throughout Afghanistan. They have also conquered several border crossings with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, opening up revenue opportunities for the Taliban and cutting important transport routes. The Islam Qala border crossing with Iran was the last to fall to the Taliban on Thursday.
Noor was harsh in his criticism of the divided Afghan leadership, saying it often left the army without reinforcements in combat or even food, and paid unfairly military salaries. He said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rules with a coterie of four people, a reference to the president’s ever-reduced inner circle.
U.S. President Joe Biden defended the withdrawal in a speech Thursday, saying it would be completed by August 31st. He called for greater unity among Afghanistan’s leadership and said the United States had provided the Afghan government with weapons, training and tools to sustain itself.
“The Afghan government, leadership must come together,” Biden said. “They have the capacity. They have the power. They have the equipment. The question is, do they do it?”
Still, Noor said the signs of an unpleasant military were ahead of Biden’s announcement in mid-April that the United States was ending its “eternal war”, noting that Afghan army recruitment had already fallen by 60% and corruption was widespread. .
“We advised the government at the time that they should work on the morale of the military, they should unite, but they did not listen,” he said.
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Noor also criticized the Afghan government’s combat strategy, saying that the leadership of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces has overused its elite command units. He said this included sending them into battle without proper preparation for reinforcements and resupplies as well as ordering them to hold checkpoints, a job they are not meant for. Commands were not properly rested either, he said.
Although the Afghan Air Force has well-trained pilots, Noor said the fleet was overused and entertained. As a result, “most planes are back on the ground. They can not fly, and most of them are without ammunition,” he said.
Noor also slammed the rapid US departure as irresponsible. While Afghanistan valued the money and labor that America invested in the country, it did nothing to make Afghanistan self-sufficient, he said.
“We needed factories to produce our own ammunition and workshops to repair the planes and other vehicles that were given to the Afghan forces,” Noor said. “But the international forces did not work to create a foundation, a self – sufficiency in Afghanistan.”
Earlier this year, when the Taliban gained momentum, Noor was one of the first to push for the creation of new militias, calling it a “people’s uprising”. Last month, the government launched a mobilization program that helped move and fund volunteers under local leaders.
Noor said the new militias are as necessary to help army morale as to fight the Taliban.
Yet he acknowledged the dangers. In the 1990s, militias and warlords – including Noor – fought a civil war that wreaked havoc on Kabul, killing some 50,000 people and helping to accelerate the Taliban’s progress.
“There is a real possibility of a civil war. This is a very dangerous possibility,” he said. He warned that it would be shaken by Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India – who all use Afghan factions to advance their interests.
The new mobilization program only adds more militias with insecure loyalties to the mix of militias maintained by Afghanistan’s many warlords since the 1990s.
In addition to Noor, they include Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, who is accused of war crimes, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former US-declared terrorist who is currently in Kabul and has been a bitter enemy of Noor’s Jamiat-e-Islami for decades. Abdur Rasool Sayyaf’s former militias have been linked to brutal crimes against Hazara’s ethnic minorities in the 1990s civil war. The religiously regressive Sayyaf also had close ties to al-Qaeda and even operated training camps with the terrorist group in the 1990s.
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A few miles from Noor’s home, he maintains a political office in a lavish composition protected by armed guards and barricades. A group of his militiamen, some with assault rifles, others with machine guns, relaxed in the lush area. Their leader, Habibullah Rahman Orfan, said they would follow Noor anywhere and accept his commands without reservation, referring to him as “the great” commander.
He said they would defend Mazar-e-Sharif, launch an offensive to recapture the districts of Balkh province currently under the Taliban, and be ready to serve as Noor commanded.