Afghan militias join Taliban fight

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KABUL — A sweeping Taliban offensive across northern Afghanistan, unchecked by overstretched government forces, has triggered a sudden resurgence of anti-Taliban militias in half a dozen provinces, raising concerns that the country could plunge into a prolonged civil war.

President Ashraf Ghani is scheduled to visit Washington on Friday to meet with President Joe Biden as concerns grow in Afghanistan about the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Ghani has endorsed the sudden call to arms by former ethnic rival groups and shaken up his top security team in hopes of stemming the Taliban onslaught and calming public panic.

In a meeting Monday with influential former anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militia leaders, Ghani called on them to create a “united front” and support the Afghan security forces to “strengthen peace” and “safeguard the republic system.” The Taliban reject the current democratic governing system and seeks to install an Islamic one.

During a separate ceremony, the newly appointed acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, called on “my patriots and people everywhere to stand alongside their security and defense forces.” He said the government is “ready to provide them with all equipment and resources.”

Ghani’s government hopes the added support will shore up the beleaguered national defense forces, which have struggled to send reinforcements and supplies to troops facing repeated Taliban attacks.

But the prospect of unleashing a hodgepodge of rogue warriors to repel their old enemies also raises the specter of civil war, a state of violent anarchy that Afghans remember all too well from the 1990s. And although the armed groups have pledged to coordinate with government forces, it is also possible that effort could unravel into confused, competing clashes among purported allies.

“The surge in militias is a recipe for disaster and a repetition of a dark history,” said Tamim Asey, chairman of the Institute of War and Peace Studies in Kabul. “It will enlarge ethnic fault lines and undercut government legitimacy.” He said that relying on the militias is a “poison pill” that might give Ghani short-term relief but will ultimately “kill his administration.”

Atta Mohammed Noor, a northern warlord and former governor, posted a tweet Monday calling for a “national mobilization” of former anti-Soviet groups to fight Taliban aggression. He called on all northern factions to “stand alongside” state forces, and in a separate Facebook post he asked their leaders to join in the fight without creating separate “islands of power.”

In the past several days, fighting has been reported in nine provinces across the north, and armed militias or civilian groups have formed to repel the insurgents, often fighting alongside state forces. All are loyal to local leaders from minority Tajik, Uzbek or other ethnic groups that have no love for Ghani, a member of the dominant ethnic Pashtun group based in southern Afghanistan.

In Kunduz province, a strategic area near the northern border with Tajikistan, several officials said Tuesday that insurgents were fighting against local forces inside the provincial capital city and were either attacking or in control of most rural districts. They also seized a dry port on the border. The Taliban have tried several times in the past to take over Kunduz city and held it briefly in 2015. If the group was to take over the city, it would be a major turning point in the 20-year conflict.

“The city is under attack,” said Ghulam Rabani, a member of the provincial council, reached in Kunduz city Tuesday evening. He said that fighters and government forces were defending the city and had recaptured one rural district but that “all others are now ruled by the Taliban.”

Since May, the Taliban have seized more than 50 of Afghanistan’s 370 districts. On Tuesday, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, told the U.N. Security Council that many of those districts surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the insurgents are “positioning themselves to try and take those capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn.”

The most significant confrontation this week has been in Mazar-e Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city and the capital of Balkh province, long impregnable to Taliban threats. Insurgents breached the city Monday and were pushed back by a mix of militias and national forces.

Information for this article was contributed by Sharif Hassan of The Washington Post.