Afghan Warlord Escapes Arrest as Troops Turn City into War Zone

Afghan leaders sent combat forces to capture a belligerent warlord, but many critics believed the deadly raid was a political stunt gone awry.

For nearly 24 hours, the center of Mazar-i-Sharif, one of Afghanistan’s economic hubs, became a front line for a battle that included machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and helicopter gunships. And it didn’t even involve the Taliban.

Elite Afghan forces on Sunday surrounded the compound of Nizamuddin Qaisari, an abusive militia commander, who was resisting arrest with about 150 of his fighters, police officials said. Residents fled the neighborhood as the two sides shelled each other in a city that has long been safe from the broader war.

Close to midnight on Sunday, a full 24 hours after the battle had begun, the police commandos cleared their way through a large garden and into the compound. The battle had led to the death of at least eight of Mr. Qaisari’s men and the arrest of 30 others. Mr. Qaisari, however, was nowhere to be found, apparently having sneaked to safety.

It was the latest embarrassment in an often-politicized crackdown on militias in a country rife with them. But this one came at a particularly fragile time in Afghanistan, as an election dispute simmers to a full-blown political crisis, testing the country’s ethnic and regional fracture lines.

Mr. Qaisari’s saga, which has dragged for years, has all the elements of what has undermined 18 years of American efforts to establish a new system in Afghanistan — abuses, militia turf wars, and politicized justice.

Mr. Qaisari was a district police chief in northern Faryab Province when he was accused of using his hundreds of armed men on the government payroll to extort locals. Last year, he was lured into a trap by a security delegation visiting from Kabul. When he resisted surrender, a shootout ensued, reportedly resulting in the death of at least four of his men. He was eventually caught, loaded onto a plane and brought to Kabul.

President Ashraf Ghani declared his arrest, along with two other strongmen from other parts of the country, a major victory.

“I tied the hands of three strongmen and brought them to Kabul,” Mr. Ghani said at the time.

Soon after, videos emerged showing government forces committing abuses after the arrest, with footage showing soldiers kicking the faces of bloodied detainees whose hands were tied. Angry protests erupted across Faryab. The provincial governor’s offices were burned down.

Mr. Qaisari was such a major criminal that all the risk was worth it, officials said. Still, months later, Mr. Qaisari was suddenly free, holding rallies in the north and conducting television interviews surrounded by the gun-toting guards whom the government had declared outlaw militiamen. The country’s attorney general’s office went silent on what the charges against him had been in the first place.

Even some of Mr. Ghani’s closest allies are not clear on just how Mr. Qaisari walked free. But there are two scenarios on how Mr. Qaisari, an ethnic Uzbek, managed to return to the north from the custody of the Afghan intelligence agency.

One scenario is that Mr. Ghani was gearing for re-election and needed Uzbek votes. He had already lost the support of his vice president, the Uzbek strongman Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, whom he had forced into exile after General Dostum was accused of raping a political opponent while vice president. Mr. Qaisari’s roaming free in the north could be seen as a political check on General Dostum, or at least as a complication for him.

Supporting the theory is Mr. Qaisari’s comments immediately after he was out: He accused General Dostum, his onetime mentor, of cooking up the conspiracy for his arrest.

“It is just a political game,” said Sebghatullah Selab, a member of the Faryab provincial council. “The Afghan government arrested him a year back, before the election, and wanted to use him against General Dostum. But that process was a failure.”

Two Afghan officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said there was a simpler answer, however: that Mr. Qaisari had escaped the custody of the Afghan intelligence. To cover the embarrassment, the rumors of a political deal or even the release of Mr. Qaisari on bail were floated, the officials said.

In any case, Mr. Qaisari returned to his old abuses, and did not even support Mr. Ghani in the elections.

This time, Mr. Qaisari set up shop in the northern commercial hub of Mazar-i-Sharif and got into repeated turf wars with militia commanders loyal to Atta Mohammed Noor. Mr. Noor is a former warlord and longtime governor of Balkh who was also removed by Mr. Ghani in another protracted, messy showdown. But in recent months Mr. Noor has come out as a political supporter of Mr. Ghani’s campaign to gain another term as president.

Two security officials said that what had led to Mr. Qaisari’s latest arrest was his grabbing land and then resisting the police when they went to question him about it.

Other officials suggested that the arrests were potentially tied to a turf war between Mr. Qaisari and Mr. Noor, and represented the central government’s backing of Mr. Noor. Just before Sunday’s raid, photos were published showing Mr. Noor at meetings held by Mr. Ghani and his top cabinet officials.

It appeared that after Sunday’s raid on his compound, Mr. Qaisari made his way to General Dostum’s stronghold in Jawzjan Province.

“General Dostum accepted him with open arms,” said Najibullah Hashemi, a spokesman for General Dostum, adding that Mr. Qaisari had apologized for opposing his former mentor.

As the messy siege of Mr. Qaisari’s home was underway, Mr. Ghani — at an anticorruption conference in which the American ambassador castigated his government for a “culture of impunity and special treatment” — ordered the immediate arrest of another strongman, in a speech that was televised live. That commander, Gen. Zemarai Paikan, who led a large police force, was in 2017 sentenced to eight years in prison, but has been walking free.

Just hours after Mr. Ghani’s order, late into the night local Kabul time, a Facebook account attributed to General Paikan posted a fresh photo of him posing in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“Hello and good night, my dear and esteemed friends,” the caption read.