As the Taliban tries to fight the resistance in Panjshir, and gain international recognition as a legitimate government over Afghanistan, many experts believe their success and the country’s welfare will lie in how they deal with the regional strongmen of the country.
Atta Mohammad Noor, the once-powerful governor of northern Afghanistan's Balkh province, and veteran ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum are angling for talks with the Taliban and plan to meet within weeks to form a new front for holding negotiations on the country’s next government.
“We prefer to negotiate collectively because it is not that the problem of Afghanistan will be solved just by one of us,” said Noor.
“So, it is important for the entire political community of the country to be involved, especially the traditional leaders, those with power, with public support,” Noor said.
Atta Noor and Dostum, veterans of 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan, both fled the country when the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif fell to the Taliban without a fight.
Who are Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum?
Atta Muhammad Noor served as the Governor of the Balkh province in Afghanistan till January 2018.
Known as 'The Teacher', the ethnic Tajik served as a commander in the Northern Alliance, under Ahmad Shah Massoud, against the Taliban in 1996.
After the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan under the Hamid Karzai administration, he was appointed as governor of Balkh Province. During his tenure as governor, Noor, created a loyal and disciplined local administration. As a result, he acquired a monopoly on violence, and achieved relative security and stability even in the most remote districts, at the cost of authoritarian methods.
His opium poppy eradication program between 2005 and 2007, advised by consultants from Adam Smith International, successfully reduced poppy cultivation in Balkh Province from 7,200 hectares in 2005 to zero by 2007.
In 2014, Ashraf Ghani fired all 34 Afghan provincial governors, but Atta repeatedly refused to give up the role. He was then removed from the position of provincial governor in 2018.
However, experts state that he still exercises a high degree of control over politics in Balkh.
Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former first vice president of Afghanistan, and marshal in the Afghan National Army is another key face in Afghan politics.
In the 90s, the Uzbek militia leader aligned himself with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.
After being run out of the country by the Taliban during their rise to power, he returned in dramatic fashion -- as a CIA asset.
In 2018, Dostum stood accused of massacring hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war in 2001 -- including stuffing insurgents into shipping containers where they suffocated.
What do they want?
Atta Mohammad Noor and Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, along with others, have sent signals to the Taliban, saying they are not averse to negotiations with the Taliban.
“Surrender is out of the question for us. The Taliban at this point are very, very arrogant because they just won militarily,” said Noor.
Experts believe that these backroom discussions are a sign of the country’s traditional strongmen coming back to life after the Taliban’s stunning military campaign.
Most analysts are of the opinion that it will be a challenge for any entity to rule Afghanistan for long without consensus between the country’s patchwork of ethnicities.
And this is exactly where the two – Noor and Dostum -- come in. Both the leaders are popular among their people.
Noor is widely recognised as the main source of political power in the Balkh Province and is a key player in the transport industry in Afghanistan's north, including the development of the rail line from Uzbekistan to Mazar-e Sharif.
Dostum too enjoys great popularity, especially among the Uzbek community and maintains an active militia of 5,000 to 6,000 fighters.
Many of his supporters call him "Pasha", an honourable Uzbek/Turkic term.
The Taliban faces challenges to its survival and the threat of the warlords and heads of local militias looms largest. Hence, experts believe that negotiation with them is the only way forward if Afghanistan seeks to find everlasting peace.
Inputs from agencies