Agence France Presse

Mazar-i-Sharif, March 27:

Two of Afghanistan’s most powerful warlords have laid down their arms to enter politics as the country prepares for its first parliamentary elections. The militias of ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostam and his Tajik rival Mohammed Atta have clashed repeatedly since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But calm has descended on this northern city as both men look to build political powerbases. “There are always underlying tensions, but no major problems lately. Dostum and Atta wanted to be legitimate,” said Captain Tim Rawlinson of the city’s British-run Provincial Reconstruction Team, part of NATO’s peacekeeping mission.

To stand in the September 18 parliamentary elections, candidates must prove they are not linked to an armed group and although commanders such as Atta and Dostam still have ties to their militias, they have disarmed most of their men as part of a UN-backed disarmament drive.

“They realised they can’t reach their goals by fighting but by being in the political field,” said Qasi Mohammed Same, director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. To build popular support both generals need to strive for a veneer of respectability and the international community has made it clear it would take a tougher line with recalcitrant warlords, he said. A month ahead of the presidential election last October won by President Hamid Karzai, military strongman Ismail Khan was ousted as governor of the western province of Herat amid riots. Since then Karzai has chosen to bring militia commanders such as Atta and Dostam into the political fold, while Khan was appointed to head the Ministry of Energy. Atta was appointed governor of Balkh province ahead of last year’s election, while Dostam was appointed chief of staff of the high command of Afghanistan’s armed forces last month.

Dostam’s appointment dismayed human rights groups but political insiders said Dostam, who won 10 per cent of the vote in the presidential election, was a political force to be reckoned with. “It’s a case of keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Dostam needed to have a role in government because they can’t arrest him or get rid of him,” a Western diplomat in Kabul said.