Not long ago, the gates to this city bore a portrait of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the regional strongman who - despite his efforts to shake the title - is still known as one of Afghanistan's most feared warlords. Now the entrance bears double images: one of Mr. Dostum, and one of President Hamid Karzai.
The gesture is part of Dostum's effort to burnish his image as a man keen to cooperate with the central government in Kabul. But after another round of deadly fighting between Dostum's soldiers and those of his rival, Ustad Atta Mohammad, the Afghan government has lost patience with promises to turn over a new leaf.
Mr. Karzai has ordered the merger of the two men's militias, and is looking to uproot Dostum and Mr. Mohammad from their ethnic turfs by giving them jobs in Kabul. Adding weight to Karzai's push, a senior UN Security Council delegation visited the two northern strongmen last week to issue a demand for change.
The program is part of Karzai's renewed effort, backed by growing international concerns for Afghanistan's rickety security situation, to assert central government authority where his influence is weak. Tuesday, a bomb exploded in a vehicle outside a United Nations office in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. And Afghan and US forces clashed with insurgents in northeast Afghanistan in a campaign that targets Al Qaeda and Taliban forces there.
"If [the two strongmen] cooperate with the reforms in the north, then they might be offered a position here," says Shahmahmood Miakhel, senior adviser to the interior minister, who is spearheading the effort in the north. He says that along with militia reform, the government will soon install new governors in five northern provinces. The current governors harbor loyalties to each of the two well-armed power brokers, he says, prolonging problems.
"There is no reason why there can't be peace there," says Mr. Miakhel. "Replacing the governors is a way of showing that the government is following through on its promise to bring security to the north."
The on-again, off-again fighting is wearing on many Afghans and causing the once-mighty military men to lose popular support, says Esa Iftekhary of the Mazar-e Sharif office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "People are saying openly now, 'We don't want you,' " he says of the warring warlords.
Yet Dostum, renowned as an Uzbek militia leader during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and later as an opponent of the Taliban, does not appear eager to change his address. Dostum has been asked before to come to Kabul but has managed to stay in his stronghold. Karzai made him deputy defense minister, but Dostum is never in the capital. Instead, near the shanty homes of Shiberghan, he has recently remodeled his headquarters - a mansion painted in popsicle colors.
Now, Karzai's interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, is spearheading attempts to rein in both Dostum and Atta, and insists that they will have to accept the reassignments.
Dostum himself was not available for an interview, but his chief spokesman complained that Dostum is being targeted as one of the "bad guys," when the real threat is the resurgence of the Taliban. "If it is a punishment for something then it will not be fair. For what?" says spokesman Zaki Faizullah of the proposal to move his boss. "He is ready to study whatever position he will be offered. But which position? We still don't know."
Mr. Faizullah says it is Mohammad's forces in Mazar-e Sharif, about 75 miles east of here, who are provoking Dostum's men. Two of Dostum's generals were kidnapped three weeks ago, he says. At least five troops from the two factions were killed two weeks ago in fighting southwest of Mazar-e Sharif, while more than 60 people were killed or injured in clashes last month, according to wire-service reports.
But to hear people in Mazar-e Sharif tell it - and in the eyes of government officials in Kabul - Dostum is largely to blame for the perpetual fighting. They say he wants to recapture control of the city of Mazar, the largest and most economically active city in northern Afghanistan. They also say he siphons off large portions of what should be central government revenues, collecting from local industries and border trade with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Dostum's office denies the charge. Yet, some 190 customs police have just been sent to the north to make sure all of the funds due the government actually get to the capital.
"In San i-Pol, a province that produces fuel, the people are very poor. Yet everyone lives in mud huts and the only good buildings there are one or two that belong to Dostum," says Mr. Iftekhary. "Everything that comes in through the north is controlled by them," he says, adding that both warlords get their cut.
He estimates that 40 to 50 percent goes to Dostum, another 25 to 30 to Mohammad, and the rest to other political groups. The fear of fighting and corruption, the head of the human rights group here says, chases away aid groups and foreign investors.
Still, in Dostum's hometown, fealty runs high toward the hefty man with a reputation as a fierce warrior. In the bazaar, a salesman manages to be politic by offering large pictures of both Dostum and Karzai that sell for about 60 cents.
"People prefer to buy Dostum because he's very important here and everyone wants his picture," says Abdul Majid, a white-haired man in a stately silk turban. But, he adds, "people who are working in government offices, they prefer Karzai. And people in the military, they prefer Dostum. I like both of them."