Kabul: Two of Afghanistan’s most prominent power brokers have forged an unexpected alliance to fight the Taliban and other militant groups that have been gaining ground in embattled northern Afghanistan.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s first vice president, and Gov. Atta Mohammad Noor, the head of northern Balkh province, said this week that their supporters would join forces to retake territory from the Taliban, who have been besieging district capitals in northern Afghanistan, putting the central government on the defensive.

That alliance comes as a surprise to many observers: Both men have waged an on-again, off-again struggle for control of northern Afghanistan, with the rivalry sometimes erupting into open fighting between the ethnic Uzbek factions of Mr. Dostum’s Junbish-e Milli party and ethnic Tajiks belonging to Gov. Atta’s Jamiat-e Islami party.

“If there’s peace between those men, it’s hugely significant,” said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Clashes between armed supporters of both men in recent years rarely led to a high body count. But, Mr. Smith added: “People pay attention to these minor tremors, because those are the kinds of fissures that could bring down the government.”

The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is a fragile coalition that includes Mr. Dostum, who brought in substantial votes from ethnic Uzbek voters in the north. Gov. Atta, who was appointed by Mr. Ghani’s predecessor, former President Hamid Karzai, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Mr. Ghani,– even threatening last year to form a parallel government during a protracted election crisis that threatened to tip the country into civil war.

Mr. Dostum and Gov. Atta said they would lay aside their differences in response to an emergency in the north. Fighting in Kunduz province along the border with Tajikistan has been particularly heavy, with Taliban militants encroaching on the provincial capital and more recently taking control of districts.

Adding to the government’s worries, militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State have also been making inroads in Afghanistan. Taliban commanders in parts of Afghanistan have switched loyalty to Islamic State, often referred to by the Arabic acronym Daesh, presenting a potentially powerful new threat to the state.

In remarks to local media, Mr. Dostum, who likes to refer to himself as general, from his days as a military commander, said he would join forces with Gov. Atta, to fight both Taliban and Islamic State.

“Anybody who is casting a stone toward the enemies of Afghanistan— Daesh and Taliban—we lend a hand to,” he said.

Added Mr. Dostum: “Gen. Dostum is not an engineer. Gen. Dostum is not a doctor. Gen. Dostum has a Ph.D. in fighting the Taliban.”

An aide to Gov. Atta said the alliance was forged to bolster support to Afghanistan’s army and police. Both Mr. Dostum and Gov. Atta officially maintain that they don't have private armies, but the Afghan government has recently allowed militias loyal to both men to operate openly to help combat the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, raising fears about a return to the kind of warlordism seen during the country’s civil war.

“The main aim of this alliance is providing security and support of Afghan security forces,” an aide to Gov. Atta said.

Representatives of Mr. Ghani’s administration in Kabul couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

Mr. Dostum has a long history of rivalry with Gov. Atta, an ethnic Tajik who controls the city of Mazar-e Sharif, the economic and trade capital of the north. Mr. Dostum’s power base is in the heavily Uzbek northern provinces such as Samangan, Jowzjan, and Faryab, one province where the Taliban and other militant groups have been particularly active.

“The security situation in Faryab is not good,” said Rahmatullah Turkistani, a provincial council member from Faryab who is a supporter of Mr. Dostum. “One party couldn’t single-handedly counter all these threats, so we had to form a coalition with Jamiat-e Islami.”

The appearance of Islamic State has been a particularly alarming development for both the Afghan government and nearby countries. While Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan is small, observers say the rise of the group in the Middle East has presented ideological inspiration to Taliban commanders who are eager to rebrand.

Russia, for instance, is concerned about the spread of Islamic militancy to Central Asia from a weak and destabilized Afghanistan. On a visit to Moscow this week, Mr. Karzai, the former Afghan president, said Islamic State was “using Afghanistan as a launchpad to spread their influence across the region. And Russia and Afghanistan should certainly focus on countering this threat,” according to a transcript released by the Kremlin.

Deeper politics, however, may be at play in the country’s north, observers say.

“Dostum feels a bit marginalized in government, and Atta feels left out of the political game in Kabul, which makes them tactical allies,” a Western official said. “They have strategic objectives that involve themselves, not the other guy.”

Courtesy Wall Street Journal