KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan government has tapped a notorious former warlord to lead a mission to retake a remote northwestern district captured by the Taliban over the weekend, officials said Tuesday.
First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum has no formal position in the military, but has a "bodyguard" of 640 men. He and other former warlords are assuming a larger role in the battle against the Taliban as troops have struggled to take on the insurgents without the aid of U.S. and NATO combat troops.
Dostum's spokesman, Sultan Faizy, said he would assess the situation in Ghormach district, in the Faryab province, and submit recommendations to President Ashraf Ghani and the National Security Council. He will then implement their decision, only leading men into battle with their permission, the spokesman said.
Dostum, a prominent mujahedeen commander who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and took part in the civil war that erupted after their withdrawal, is expected to lead a combined force of army, police and his own militiamen. Government reinforcements are already being dispatched to Faryab.
If he gets the green light from Ghani and the NSC, it will be Dostum's second time this year leading men into Faryab to take on the Taliban. In August he donned full military uniform and joined troops in pushing the Taliban out of districts around the provincial capital Maymana.
Faizy said Dostum was expected in Faryab late Wednesday. Dostum was also preparing to go to Kunduz, a northern city seized by the Taliban for three days last month, he said.
Dostum's activities have caused some alarm, and raised questions about the government outsourcing security to former warlords able to mobilize small private armies.
Acting Defense Minister Masoom Stankzai has denied the government is falling back on private militias. In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, he said Dostum and others are able to mobilize armed men they had previously been associated with, but did not have private armies.
"It is a kind of perception that they have their own army. They say that if the government wants them to mobilize people and bring them in to really strengthen the security forces, they will help and mobilize and not do anything without proper military planning," Stanekzai said.
"We don't want to create a parallel system in the country, that is dangerous and that is not in the interests of the country."
The Taliban, who have steadily widened their footprint in the country over the past year, captured Ghormach on Sunday. The district police chief and 17 of his men have not been heard from since Monday, said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, said the insurgents detained the district police chief, who was wounded, along with 13 other police. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
Afghan troops were meanwhile battling the Taliban in three districts in the southern Helmand province, on the other side of the country, Sediqqi said.
Officials said the insurgents had fought their way to within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Sediqqi said Afghanistan was facing "security problems" in at least nine districts, without elaborating.
Mohammad Hashim Alokozai, a lawmaker from Helmand province, said the Taliban had launched attacks on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah and seized the Babaji area north of the city.
"A heavy battle is going on around the city," Alokozai said. He said the local Helmand government was downplaying the severity of the attack, which he said had killed or wounded dozens of security forces.
"I warn the government, if the Taliban overrun Lashkar Gah it will not be as easy to take it back as it was in Kunduz," he said.
It took two weeks for government troops to drive the Taliban out of Kunduz, and battles are still underway on the outskirts of the city.
"Life is getting back to normal for the locals and people are trying to get back to their houses" in Kunduz, Sediqqi said. Up to half of the city's population of 300,000 is believed to have fled during the fighting, which cut off water, electricity and food supplies.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan contributed to this report.