Posted by: Christian | May 28, 2007

What’s Behind the Shooting of Demonstrators in Northern Afghanistan?

May 29, 2007.

This is so simple yet so convoluted. It is so Afghanistan. Let’s get started…

Demonstrators angrily protest in the northern province of Jowzjan (Jauzjan) and at least a dozen are shot dead. Apparently, the demonstrators are loyal to Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek tough guy up north. And the object of their protest? A Karzai-appointed governor of course. According to the NY Times, the incident that sparked the demonstration was the arrest of six men for allegedly attempting to assassinate a legislator who had recently split with Dostum. Now the ANA, backed by NATO troops, has moved in to restore order.


First of all, I should note that this incident is important since Uzbeks, who are about 10% of Afghanistan’s population at the most, have been very cooperative in relation to some other groups in Afghanistan. This is the first time I have noticed the Afghan government antagonizing the Uzbeks, albeit somewhat unintentionally. Before this the antagonizing has always been directed at individuals in the Uzbek community, not the community as a whole.

This is not just a simple power struggle between two men or the simple issue of Dostum wanting to take out some legislator who had split with him. There is, as usual, a complicated background to this story. Most importantly, Governor Juma Khan Hamdard is an ethnic Pashtun in the most heavily Uzbek-dominated province in Afghanistan. So Karzai was not being very subtle with this appointment. And it should be noted that Hamdard, as a former commander for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami, is not exactly qualified for the job.

The ethnic factor is especially important here. Juma Khan Hamdard is a northern Pashtun from Balkh. The northern Pashtuns are seen by many locals as invaders of a sort. In the almost 100 year-long policy known as Pashtunization the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and others in the north had their land confiscated and given (or sold at about $1 per acre) to Pashtun settlers, some of whom were being exiled from the east and south for resisting the Kabul government. Compounding the theft of land was the political domination of Pashtuns over local affairs. And compounding that even further was the fact that some of those minorities who lost their land then had to work that land for their new Pashtun landlords.

The Pashtuns lost much of these advantages in the north during the Soviet invasion, the civil war years and during the fall of the Taliban. Generally bad things happened to a lot of Pashtuns during this time.

Much rests on the relationship between Dostum and Hamdard. And unlike some other struggles between personalities, this one will affect many people throughout the region. It should be noted that Governor Hamdard has had a long relationship with Rashid Dostum. Hamdard joined with Dostum in 1992 once it was clear Dostum was going to dominate the north (and once the Hizb-i Islami funds started to dry up). He then joined the Taliban as they took Dostum’s areas in the north. Although this claim might be refuted by Hamdard, it is clear that many northern Pashtun leaders joined the Taliban so I wouldn’t be surprised if Hamdard was one of them (I just can’t find a source for this that is reliable).

When the Taliban fled the north the ethnic Pashtuns became the victims of vengeance attacks by locals. Northern Pashtun leaders then gladly took the protection offered by either Dostum or his Tajik rival Atta Mohammad. Hamdard quickly joined Dostum’s Junbesh faction and then served as the General of the 8th Army Corps under Dostum in Mazar (The 8th Corps was nominally controlled by Kabul but in reality was a tool of Dostum).

Dostum: Milli qahramon!

Dostum on Horse

This arrangement of convenience lasted until Hamdard endorsed Karzai for President instead of Dostum (Dostum received 10% of the vote). This endorsement was quickly parlayed into the governorship of Baghlan province. He was later sent to Jowzjan as the chief of police for the province, a job that soon turned into the governorship. This matches up nicely with Karzai’s policy of trying to not appoint governors in their home provinces so that they can’t create an independent power base. But in my opinion, appointing a Pashtun in either Faryab or Jowzjan is a bad idea. Both of these regions are heavily dominated by Uzbeks.

Pic: Biz Pashtunlar yaxshi ko’rmaymiz!

dostum placard

So unhappy Uzbeks protest against the governor in the city of Shiberghan, Dostum’s stronghold. And not for the first time either. Allegedly demonstrators attempted to storm government offices and/or disarm the police and the result was over a dozen dead demonstrators/rioters. Accusations are flying about Dostum’s involvement and in the other direction there is most definitely anger over what locals will portray as an unnecessarily deadly response. To sum up, many Uzbeks in Jowzjan will likely be angry and blame Karzai, not just his governor. Hamdard, for his part, will be quite disappointed that this is interfering with his announcement two days ago that Jowzjan is poppy free.

Order has been restored and the army is on the streets, demonstrating to the demonstrators that you can’t just toss out Karzai’s boy with an angry riot. But Karzai will probably see the logic in, after some time has passed, rotating Hamdard to some other post.

As for Karzai, he should quit appointing Hizbi Pashtuns to run rural Uzbek provinces. He should do his best not to add any Uzbeks to the array of violently anti-Kabul forces. I realize he can’t just let some independent Uzbek strongman run a region outside of Kabul’s authority, but there must be a middle ground. And at some point in Afghanistan’s future the people must be allowed to elect their own governors. Just like in Russia America.

PS: This is the best I can come up with by going through my old notes. There may be an entire layer to this story that I am unaware of. But this is what you get if you want same-day analysis of events on the ground.

For more on Hizb-i Islami commanders in government see this 2004 story.

Note: Alternative spellings for Jowzjan are Jawzjan, Jauzjan, Juzjan, Jouzjan etc…


  1. […] including the killing of a dozen pro-Dostum protesters. Afghanistanica sees it as the result of a century of internal colonization, along with some ham-handed appointments by Karzai. Meanwhile, I take yet another look at the messy […]

  2. […] including the killing of a dozen pro-Dostum protesters. Afghanistanica sees it as the result of a century of internal colonization, along with some ham-handed appointments by Karzai. Meanwhile, I take yet another look at the messy […]

  3. […] provides background to the recent shooting of protesters in northern Afghanistan. Share […]


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