By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan recently sent a team of officials to investigate alleged abuses by militias loyal to two rival strongmen in the country's north, underlining concern that tensions there are undermining the authority of the government in Kabul.
Fighters under first vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a veteran of Afghan politics and war since the 1980s, have clashed repeatedly with those controlled by Atta Mohammad Noor, acting governor of the northern province of Balkh.
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The rivalry has simmered for years, but according to a confidential report drafted by the investigators and seen by Reuters, areas of the north have descended into lawlessness.
The deterioration comes as Dostum has publicly voiced frustration with President Ashraf Ghani and as other politicians question the longer term legitimacy of the awkward unity government formed after a disputed 2014 election.
"They (Kabul) decide whatever they want and later I am informed," Dostum said in a video recorded last week in the northern province of Faryab and shared widely on social media.
He accused Ghani's government of "trying to weaken my constituency and repeating the mistakes of the past government."
Ever since a U.S.-led campaign drove the Taliban from power in 2001, Afghanistan's Western allies have feared the return of former warlords with private armies fighting for control of trade routes and lucrative contracts in their fiefdoms.
But the timing of the latest dispute is worrying for Ghani and his international partners, who meet at a NATO summit in Warsaw this week to decide on extending military support for Afghanistan.
"A political confrontation is the last thing Afghanistan needs as it endeavors to cope with its current challenges," the outgoing United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, told the Security Council in June.
Pressure has been building on the unity government headed by Ghani and his former rival, government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
District and parliamentary elections that were originally due to be held this year and which would be necessary for the new constitutional settlement to be reached now appear unlikely.
Despite assurances by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Ghani's government should remain in office past the September deadline, the potential for political destabilization is rising as opposition groups call for change.
"NOONE TO STOP THEM"
Afghanistan needs a stable government as armed forces try to contain a Taliban insurgency that kills thousands of soldiers, police and civilians each year and prevents an economic recovery after decades of war.
While local militias like Dostum's often take the place of badly stretched government forces in fighting the insurgents, the power that gives their commanders can create its own security threat.
Investigators on the recent trip north said that both Dostum's Junbish party and Jamiat-e-Islami, a party in which Atta is one of the most powerful figures, were undermining central authority.
"Local commanders loyal to Junbish and Jamiat have been involved in a number of killings, extortion from the public, land grabbing, armed robbery, harassment collection of ushur (illegal levies) and other activities for the advantage of their respective political parties," the inspectors noted.
Key police and local government officials have been put in place on the basis of personal loyalty rather than competence, the inspectors added.
A spokesman for Dostum dismissed suggestions that he was building a private militia to challenge the central government, blaming such allegations on rivals seeking to undermine him.
Some regional elders say it is Dostum, not the government, who is in charge in parts of Faryab.
"Everyone in those areas bows to Dostum and he is the one to hire and fire government employees," said Asadullah Jamali, a prominent tribal elder in the province.
The situation in Balkh, where Atta remains in the governor's palace despite efforts by Ghani to oust him, is similar, said Shujauddin Shuja, deputy head of the provincial council.
Atta spokesman Munir Ahmad Farhad denied that the Balkh governor was involved in any wrongdoing or that he was arming a private militia force.
Dostum, a general in the Afghan army during the Soviet war in the 1980s, has been an integral part of the political scene in the years since, with a power base in the Uzbek minority of the north and an image polished by the TV cameras that accompany his frequent trips to the frontline in combat fatigues.
On Sunday, a delegation of tribal elders from the northern province of Sar-e-Pul came to Kabul to plead with the government to intervene and rein Dostum in.
"We've had it up to the neck with the militias," said Junat Gul, a resident of Qaisar district in the northern province of Faryab on the border with Turkmenistan, where militias and Taliban insurgents have been battling for months.
"There is no one to stop them."
(Additional reporting by a Reuters reporter in northern Afghanistan; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mike Collett-White)