The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A popular Uzbek commander fought for the Taliban for more than two decades. He was arrested anyway.

Ehsanullah Toufan, right, an Uzbek commander of a Taliban base in Maimana and a close friend of Makhdoom Alam’s, inspects a line of American Humvees the Taliban had seized from former Afghan government forces, in Maimana, Afghanistan. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)
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MAIMANA, Afghanistan — By all accounts, Makhdoom Alam was a Taliban stalwart. The 45-year-old ethnic Uzbek commander fought U.S. and Afghan forces for two decades and was held for five years in a U.S.-run prison. Last summer, his fighters seized three northern provinces, helping pave the way for the Taliban to take over the nation. With each victory, his influence grew.

Two weeks ago, the Taliban arrested him.

That was enough to touch off a minor rebellion in this Uzbek-dominated northern provincial capital. Hundreds of Alam’s supporters took to the streets on Jan. 13, their anger fueled by long-simmering ethnic grievances — and accusations that the predominantly Pashtun Taliban didn’t want an Uzbek to gain too much power within its ranks.

“Be careful, Uzbeks. They will arrest you all, one by one,” one protester shouted in a video taken on that day. “If they can arrest a person who fought for them for 20 years, they can arrest you, too.”

Alam’s detention represents one of the first internal challenges to the Taliban regime, opening a window into the obstacles facing the militants as they transition from a guerrilla insurgency to a political force. Like previous Afghan governments, the Taliban is led by Pashtuns, the ethnic majority in a country where minorities have been marginalized or underrepresented for decades.

To many Uzbeks, Alam’s saga signals a continuation of such policies.

“We have been victims of discrimination for a long time,” said Abdullah, a protester who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, fearing reprisals. “The Taliban say they are an Islamic government and in Islam there is no discrimination. So why do they want to arrest our leaders and those who represent us?”

Maimana was the scene of protests on Jan. 14 after the Taliban commander Makhdoom Alam was arrested by Taliban leadership. (Video: Courtesy of Qutbaddin Kohi)

In an interview, the Taliban governor of Faryab province rejected the accusations of ethnic discrimination as “baseless.” He insisted that the demonstrations, which were swiftly suppressed by Taliban forces, were orchestrated by officials of the former Afghan government. Alam’s arrest, he added, is an example of the Taliban’s good governance.

“This shows the government is so serious that even their commanders or high-ranking officials who commit any mistake are not above the law,” said Qari Hafizullah Pahlawan Ferdous, the governor.

But even Ferdous doesn’t know why Alam was arrested. Some local media reports suggested that he underrepresented to Taliban officials in Kabul the amount of heavy weaponry he and his roughly 4,000 fighters possessed. But most people, including Alam’s family and military comrades, said he was falsely accused of kidnapping a boy from a wealthy family two years ago. The boy is still missing.

“The reasons for his arrest are still not clear for us as well,” said Ferdous, an ethnic Turkmen. “He was arrested by the officials in Kabul. They know better why he was arrested.”

The Washington Post sent a list of questions to the Taliban seeking clarification on Alam’s arrest and responses to the accusations of discrimination. Bilal Karimi, a deputy spokesman for the Taliban, replied that “investigations are underway in this regard” and “are not yet completed.” He declined to comment further.

The controversy over Alam comes at a delicate time for the Taliban. When the militants returned as Afghanistan’s rulers in August, their leaders vowed to create a government inclusive of all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and religions, a move to convince the international community that the new government deserved diplomatic recognition and financial backing. But nearly six months later, that promise has yet to materialize.

The 33-member cabinet remains dominated by ethnic Pashtun hard-liners and Sunni Muslims, who hold the large majority of the powerful positions. Members of the long-oppressed Shiite Hazara minority have been evicted from their homes in some provinces. The community remains deeply suspicious of the Taliban’s intentions, despite outreach efforts by the militants.

The Taliban is trying to win over Afghanistan’s Shiites with a 33-year-old Hazara emissary. But many question the group’s sincerity.

Here in Faryab province, where Uzbeks are a majority, the ethnic fissures have been deepening for months. Even though many mid-level security and political officials are Uzbek, most residents viewed the Taliban’s appointment of an ethnic Turkmen governor and a Pashtun as his deputy as an attempt to dilute their community’s influence. The most powerful Uzbek was Alam, and then he was gone.

“The demonstrations sent a clear message to the central government,” said a professor of politics at Faryab University, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. “If they continue discriminatory policies, they will face a popular reaction that will create problems for the Taliban to rule this province and neighboring provinces.”

The professor added: “It could also inspire other ethnic groups to rise up against them and their policies.”

The rise of Makhdoom Alam

Alam once was a Taliban poster boy for diversity. Born in Faryab, he was among the first Uzbeks to join the Taliban in the mid-1990s, when the militants first ruled Afghanistan.

Back then, the Taliban had dispatched Pashtun fighters and officials to rule the province and enforce its ultraconservative decrees. In his teens, Alam was posted to Herat, where he rose to become a commander, according to two relatives.

When the Taliban was ousted in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, Alam returned to Faryab and resumed his religious studies. But within a few years, he joined the emerging Taliban resistance, commanding a group of fighters that staged roadside bombings and guerrilla attacks on U.S. and Afghan government forces.

In 2010, U.S. Special Forces arrested and jailed him at Bagram, the American air base north of Kabul. Five years later, Alam was released by Afghan authorities after a group of tribal elders from Faryab vouched for him, said the relatives.

“He then rejoined the Taliban,” said Khairullah Mobasher, Alam’s cousin and a Taliban commander in charge of the military airport in Maimana.

By then, the Taliban was actively seeking to add more ethnic minorities to its ranks to project itself as a national insurgency. Alam played a key role in recruiting more Uzbeks from Faryab and neighboring provinces as well as Turkmen and Tajiks, although their numbers are still dwarfed by the Pashtuns in the Taliban.

In 2017, the militants anointed Alam the head of their military commission, increasing his influence.

Last year, Alam was instrumental in the Taliban takeover of Faryab and two neighboring provinces, Jowzjan and Sar-e Pol, said the professor and local officials. Tribal and religious mediators persuaded provincial officials of the Ashraf Ghani government to surrender to Alam and the Taliban.

After the takeover of Kabul in August, Alam headed a force of more than 4,000 men and was one of the top Taliban military commanders in the north. Alam, the father of eight children from four wives, also was appointed the deputy governor of Sar-e Pol province, said his relatives. His promotion makes his arrest all the more confounding to his family, friends and supporters.

“The Taliban treated him well; they trusted him,” said Zabiullah Mohamedeen, Alam’s brother-in-law. “He had much influence with the people, and through him, the Taliban could influence them as well. He spent most of his life fighting with the Taliban and made many sacrifices. So why arrest him in this manner? This is still a big question for the people.”

‘He’s an honest man’

The arrest itself was carried out sneakily, relatives said.

Alam was ordered by his superiors in Kabul to attend a meeting Jan. 13 in Mazar-e Sharif, a four-hour drive from Maimana. When he arrived, he was taken into custody. The arrangement now seems intended to avoid confrontations with his loyalists in Maimana. Alam was sent to Kabul and placed under house arrest by the Taliban’s intelligence agency, according to relatives and his military allies.

At the time, Inamullah Samangani, a Taliban spokesman, told the BBC’s Persian news service that Alam was arrested over accusations that he had orchestrated the kidnapping of the boy, a case that by then was two years old.

Alam’s fighters were stunned. “I reject these allegations,” said Ehsanullah Toufan, an Uzbek commander of a Taliban base in Maimana and a close friend of Alam’s. “He’s an honest man.”

Alam’s relatives have not seen him since his arrest. They, too, denied the accusations against him and blamed an internal power struggle in which they said rival commanders seeking more of the spoils of victory over the Americans and other foreign forces had spread lies about Alam to the Taliban authorities in Kabul.

“The main problem was the competition for power on the military side,” said Alam’s cousin Mobasher. “Some officials accused him without any evidence. If they have evidence, please show us that the boy was kidnapped by him.”

Mobasher also denied that Alam was hoarding heavy weapons and becoming, in effect, a warlord. “He was committed to the nation,” he said. “He didn’t see the weapons as his personal assets.”

Other close friends, though, said that Alam had grown too powerful too quickly and that the Taliban leadership wanted to curb his growing stature and influence in the north.

“It was not acceptable for the central Taliban,” said Rahimullah Layeq, who had fought alongside Alam for two decades. “So they arrested him.”

When Alam’s supporters heard about the arrest the next day, they were enraged. A group passed Abdullah’s shop and informed him of a meeting at the city’s main mosque. By the time he arrived, hundreds of people had gathered.

Like Abdullah, many viewed the arrest as the latest sign that their community was being marginalized. Many Uzbeks had voted for the Pashtun presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, but afterward, Abdullah said, their governments “forgot us and never served us.”

Since August, they had watched nervously as the Taliban appointed only two Uzbeks among its 33 ministers — the deputy prime minister and the agriculture minister. Some Uzbek language news and cultural programs also have vanished from national television, said the professor and Abdullah.

“Successive governments have looked at us and other ethnic minorities as second-class citizens,” said Khalid, a senior municipal employee, who spoke on the condition that only his middle name be used because he feared reprisals. “The same story is repeating itself with this government, so people went to the street to seek their rights.”

The large protests caught the Taliban off guard. Heavily armed reinforcements were brought in from neighboring provinces. By the next day, Taliban fighters had blocked off streets but agreed to allow the demonstrations. The crowd was much smaller, and many protesters carried weapons. Clashes broke out, leaving two people dead and four injured, according to local officials.

On Jan. 17, the Taliban staged a military parade through the city, showcasing tanks, armored vehicles and hundreds of fighters. It was at once a show of force and a warning to the residents. “They showed their power to the people and everyone understood they would not tolerate any more demonstrations,” Khalid said.

Today, an uneasy calm blankets Maimana. Hundreds who joined the protests have fled the province, fearing arrest by the Taliban. Others remain in hiding, said Abdullah, who hid for several days before emerging because he needed to reopen his shop to provide for his family.

Ferdous, the governor, has urged Alam’s fighters to remain patient and await the outcome of the investigation in Kabul. On Friday, the Taliban’s acting defense minister, Maulvi Muhammad Yaqoob, expressed concern. “Such incidents are creating unrest and divisions within the system,” Yaqoob said, in public remarks made during a visit to the north. “No one should be targeted on the basis of his ethnic background. We should come out of this division.”

But he also warned that “no one has the right to rise up against the decision” of the Taliban to arrest Alam or to punish him if he is found guilty of crimes.

Nevertheless, if Alam is convicted, or if his position within the Taliban is diminished, many residents are bracing for ethnic tensions to flare again.

“We know these days all the power is with the Pashtun,” Abdullah said. “If they continue the same way, the people are ready to sacrifice themselves again for their rights.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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