Ethnic rivalry lives on in Kabul, as supporters of king who died in 1929 come under attack

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 1:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 9:28pm

A procession of several thousand marchers attempting to rebury the remains of a controversial Afghan king in Kabul came under attack from gunmen loyal to Vice-President Abdurrashid Dostom, an ethnic Uzbek militia leader.

Two marchers were wounded on Thursday in the ethnic clashes before police and other officials intervened, Afghan news outlets reported.

The clash, which erupted around a hilly graveyard in a residential area of the capital, underscored the seething ethnic tensions that continue to roil the country after 15 years of democratic rule, and the potential for violence that can involve rogue officials of a weak civilian government that is already battling a persistent Taliban insurgency.

On one side of the confrontation were ethnic Tajik supporters of King Habibullah Kalakani, a former bandit, conservative Muslim and shrewd populist leader who overthrew a moderate Afghan monarch in 1929 and crushed many of his reforms before being captured and hanged after nine months on the throne.

Kalakani has lain in an unmarked grave in Kabul for 87 years, but after it was identified several years ago his supporters began to demand that the government allow his remains to be unearthed and transferred to a more honourable setting. When President Ashraf Ghani’s office failed to respond last month, they vowed to move the body without permission.

But other Afghan ethnic groups, who view Kalakani as a thief and a despot, opposed honouring him. Dostom, who often behaves more like an Uzbek militia leader than a national vice-president and has led his private army in fighting against the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan, reportedly said he would not allow the Tajiks to build a tomb for Kalakani at the cemetery because it was the burial site of a historic Uzbek leader.

The marchers, many from the Shomali Plain north of Kabul that was Kalakani’s home, moved all morning toward Shah Rara hill, accompanied by a bulldozer to prepare the gravesite. But when they arrived, the procession was blocked by gunmen in the pay of Dostom, some of whom had taken up positions around an old fort above. Shots were fired, wounding two of the marchers, in a scene shown live on TV.

Security officials had anticipated that the event might spark violence, because of the extreme ethnic sensitivities involved and the participation of former Tajik militia leaders in the reburial movement. Police and army troops moved in quickly to defuse the situation and negotiate, Afghan news outlets reported, and no further violence was reported.

But the incident was sure to be seen as an embarrassment to President Ghani on several fronts; first for failing to seek a solution to the mounting contretemps over Kalakani’s legacy, even though his chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, had expressed support for the reburial; and second for being unable to prevent the spectacle of Dostom, a former rival Ghani asked to join his administration, sending armed men into the streets of Kabul.

“The president knew about this and he could have made a decision about it,” Noor Agha Sharifi, a member of the Tajik-led Jamiat-i-Islami party, told Tolo TV news Thursday afternoon. “If he didn’t know, he does now, and he should fix it.”

The incident was the second case of a violent attack on peaceful ethnic protesters in Kabul in recent weeks. On July 23, suicide bombers attacked a rally by minority ethnic Hazaras who were demanding electrification in their provincial homelands. The attack, claimed by Afghan affiliates of the Islamic State, killed 80 people.