Government officials in northern Afghanistan are building up their own ethnic-based militia groups to expand their influence and keep the Taliban at bay. But the spread of mostly Tajik and Uzbek militias is aggravating tensions with local Pashtuns.
Kala Khan, 39, a Pashtun from northern Afghanistan, walks toward the small hut he has lived in with his family since warlords kicked them off their land in 2001. Pashtuns are the country's largest ethnic group but a minority in the north.
A Pashtun rides his motorcycle in Shirikat. The residents of Shirikat were forced from the land they own that their animals graze on and now live in dire poverty. Some Pashtuns say they are being driven to turn to the Taliban, a largely Pashtun group, to defend their interests.
Private militias began appearing in northern Afghanistan over the past year, around the same time the Taliban insurgency flared up. Here, a shepherd herds his flock of sheep through Balkh district. Much of the land grabbed from Pashtun residents was prime grazing land.
Zaybiullah (standing), 25, a Pashtun farmer, tends to his father Abdul Ghafar, 59, in a hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif. Mr. Ghafar, a tribal elder, says militiamen shot him and killed his other son to seize their land.
'There's no justice for people like me. I've asked the government to arrest these men and bring them to court, but nothing's been done,' Mr. Ghafar says. Here, Rahmatullah, who goes by one name, right, a Pashtun elder from Charbolak disrict, represented Mr. Ghafar's son, Zaybiullah.
Some Pashtuns say the Taliban wouldn't be thriving in the north if the private militias didn't abuse Pashtun residents. 'When they patrol, they say they're there to fight the Taliban,' complained Tajdin Khodam, a 20-year-old blind Pashtun. 'But their very presence has created the Taliban.'
Balkh police chief Gen. Esmatullah Alizai, an ethnic Pashtun, says 'I worry that these militias abuse their power but have a close relationship with powerful people in Mazar and have protection.'
Residents of the village of Marmal wait outside the district center in Mazar-e-Sharif to air grievances with the governor of Balkh province, the Tajik former warlord Gen. Mohammed Atta Noor. Gen. Atta runs at least two militias.
The militias use their own weapons and don't receive any salaries, Gen. Atta says. Militias make up for lack of pay, some say, by the pillage of Pashtun villages. Here, a billboard of slain commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, right, and President Hamid Karzai, left, in Mazar-e-Sharif.
All photographs by Bryan Denton for The Wall Street Journal.