War & Peace

2001 Ten Years on (3): The fall of Loya Paktia and why the US preferred warlords


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In Loya Paktia the people, rather than commanders, overthrew the Taleban in 2001 – one of the very few places where this happened. Tribal councils took power, driving out al-Qaida fighters and doing all of it peacefully. Khost and then Paktia provinces fell to tribal coalitions on 14 November 2001, just one day after the Northern Alliance captured Kabul. Logar and Paktika swiftly followed. Two members of AAN travelled to the region in those days – Kate Clark, who was then the BBC correspondent – and Thomas Ruttig, then with the UN mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA). Kate witnessed the US bombing Gardez four days after the province had fallen to anti-Taleban forces. It was, she said, one of the first signs of how catastrophic the mix of heady American power and ignorance could be.

On 18 November 2001, four days after Paktia had fallen to a tribal coalition, Kate filed the following report for BBC radio:

Just minutes after I drove into Gardez, an American bomb hit a check-post on the outskirts of town. One man was killed – his body already taken away by the time I returned. All that was left were some bloody fragments of clothing to mark the place where he’d been blown thirty metres by the blast. Other bombs have fallen on homes. One man described how his son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and three other relatives were killed. I saw doctors operating without general anaesthetic in a pharmacy. There were three wounded men, one of whom had lost a foot. ‘There are no Taliban here’, people kept telling me, ‘no Arabs, no Pakistanis, no Osama Bin Laden. Why do the Americans keep bombing us?’ 

The province fell to anti-Taliban, tribal forces on [Wednesday], but people said I was the first foreigner they’d seen. The Americans, they said, had made no contact at all. 

I had driven south from Kabul in the early morning with a colleague, Soroush Lutfurrahman, after a fierce argument with my BBC bosses who said the ‘real’ story was still in Kabul (5 days after the fall of the Taleban there) and the south-east was unimportant. We stopped only in Pul-e Alam where I met members of the newly created Logar tribal council* and then headed over the mountains into Paktia.

Unlike the Afghan capital which would be edgy for several months (although it gradually became relaxed), security in Loya Paktia in those early days was good. Arabs and other foreign fighters had fled along the road on which we were driving just a few days before, travelling on to Khost and across the border into the Pakistani tribal areas. A friend from Kabul, one of a group of activists who had been in Loya Paktia urging the tribes to rise up against the Taleban, described the foreign fighters streaming through Khost city. He had stationed himself on the roof of the provincial governor’s building with a Kalashnikov, fully expecting to be found and killed, but planning to kill as many al-Qaida fighters as he could. Instead, they were too intent on escaping and he survived to tell the tale.

The various newly formed councils had already spoken to the BBC Pashto service and to the United Nations, but it took more than a week for the news that Loya Paktia had changed hands to filter through to the US. The one remaining security problem, then, when I was in Gardez was the US air force. That day, I drove to the site of one attack and was minutes away from being hit by US jets as they came back to bomb the same target. I stood on the hill near the governor’s house watching the destruction of a civilian target in an area which had been under the control of anti-Taleban forces for four days. Using a satellite phone, I called the Pentagon press office in an attempt to inform US commanders they were bombing a ‘liberated’ area. The spokeswoman called me ‘ma’am’ a great deal –  and refused to put me through to anyone in charge.

Despite being bewildered and angry, people in Gardez still supported the change of regime.

In those early days, Afghans were remarkably patient about civilian deaths. They assumed the Americans were well-intentioned and also that these would be the last deaths in the war, the final sacrifices, before peace finally took hold. In anticipation of peace, there was a lot of politicking, meetings and discussions about what to do next. I encountered many elders traveling between the major towns, trying to organize a Loya Paktia caucus for the post-Taleban era.

This region had not been Taleban heartland, although being largely Pashtun, the Taleban had dealt with it reasonably well. Pro-king, anti-tax protests in January 2000, for example, had been dealt with by sending a minister (Amir Khan Muttaqi) to make peace with the disgruntled tribes and, in secret, Kate was later told, to distribute money.** A year previously, during Eid ul-Fitr, when over-zealous Taleban in Khost tried to stop a match of hagey jangawel (egg fighting) assessing it to be un-Islamic (probably because of associated gambling), the dispute escalated into fighting with guns and reportedly rockets and six people were killed.***  Elsewhere, the consequences of such rebellion would have been severe. Not so in Loya Paktia

Despite this and the fact that several senior Taleban came from the region – most prominently, two frontline commanders and ministers, Jalaluddin Haqqani, (Emirate minister for tribal affairs) and Muttaqi (minister of information and culture and later education),**** the weight of political power during the Emirate was overwhelmingly in the south. In 2001, like Afghans everywhere, the people Kate spoke to were happy the Taleban had gone and keen for positive change. On 19 November, again for BBC radio, she wrote:

The US military perception of Afghanistan as either under Taliban or Northern Alliance control appears to have given no third option for the Pashtun tribal belt of the south to come into the political equation. Don’t the Americans realise, one elder said to me, even though we wear turbans and grow our beards long, we’re not Taliban? 

These tribes are powerful, organised and well-armed and have the force of history behind them.*****  For now, they’re pushing a strongly peace-oriented agenda – demanding a United Nations sponsored loya jirga – or assembly of the nation’s elders which would chose a new leader for Afghanistan. After twenty years of war, the social institutions here were still strong enough to ensure the transition of power came almost without bloodshed or breakdown in security.

Loya Paktia tribes had been starting to mobilise for many months. Local commanders like Pacha Khan Dzadran (who had been part of the pro-King Rome group) unsuccessfully lobbied the UN during the last months of Taleban rule to support a tribal uprising in the south-east and to fly in the former king, Muhammad Zaher, to a liberated Khost.****** From there, the king would march towards Kabul to be reinstated as head of state, taking the same route as Nader Shah in 1929 did when pushing out Habibullah Kalakani (aka by the demeaning name, Bacha-ye Saqao, the Son of the Water Carrier), a Tajik from Shomali who, in Pashtuns’ eyes, had usurped the throne, from Kabul. These historical parallels were very much relevant in the autumn of 2001, with, in particular, the communal memories of the violent sacking of the Shomali by some of the Loya Paktia tribes 70 years previously.

In the end, tribal revolt in the south-east would come just as the Taleban lines north of Kabul were looking ready to break. One can only speculate how different the fate of Afghanistan – and its capital – might have been if Loya Paktia had changed hands before the Shomali frontline collapsed. Shura-ye Nizar was certainly the best armed and best supported (by the US), with the most fighters and with by far the best media team of any of the powers around the capital, but they were not the only group contending the power of the Taleban.

The fact of a single group – whichever it had been – capturing Kabul was bound to cause unhappiness and upset (for detail on this see here). Hezb-e Wahdat, for example, the Shia party based in the Hazarajat to the west of Kabul, which had fighters mobilised, had to be persuaded not to march into (mainly Shia-populated) west Kabul following Shura-e Nizar’s breaking – Wahdat believed – of its promise not to take the capital. Shura-ye Nizar leaders felt that those who had suffered and resisted the Taleban the most – rather than those who had acquiesced and benefited – deserved to get the lion’s share of power. Everyone else believed that, with the help of the Americans, they had usurped political power.

‘We do not accept the Northern Alliance government,’ said one of the elders on the Paktia council, ‘We have contacts with different people – in Jalalabad, in the northern areas, in Kandahar and the west. We have requested them to come here to Loya Paktia for a loya jirga to choose the destiny of Afghanistan.’ Another said they were prepared to fight Rabbani if he did not leave Kabul, but mainly, at this point, the elders were looking for peaceful political change. ‘We’re appealing to the UN,’ said another, ‘to pave the way for a loya jirga and we want all the ethnic groups and peoples to come together and chose a new leader. Whenever the head of Afghanistan is chosen, we’ll work under his hand and accept his laws. And we’ll be able to work under his authority.’

There was a mix then of anti-Northerner sentiment, calls for intra-ethnic solidarity and also an assumption that as Pashtuns, the ‘majority group’ in the country, they should, retain a commensurately large measure of power.  However, this was also very much a populist rebellion and that should have made it important.

Where else, argues Thomas, was popular power to be seen so in evidence during those days?  In late November, he recalls visiting Logar with the now deputy UN Special Envoy, Francesc Vendrell (by that time, Lakhdar Brahimi had been appointed over his head as Envoy). They went at the invitation of the group of Kabul-based activists who had been working with Loya Paktia elders to instigate the uprising in a bit to show the Pashtun tribes’ willingness to work in the new Afghanistan. Although initially the plan was to visit Gardez, the delegation only got as far as Logar (surely after some Northern Alliance politicking). Still the message of good-will came across clear.

What had started as a two-vehicle convoy in the early morning at the UNSMA headquarters in Kabul, grew to a long line of perhaps one hundred cars on the way, with armed men of Pacha Khan and other local commanders. The road was flagged in UN-blue the whole way from Kabul to Logar, using every single piece of fabric in that colour which was available. The reception in Logar was overwhelmingly chaotic, but entirely peaceful. The almost all-Pashtun audience listened attentively to Vendrell’s speech, cheered him like a rock-star and a tribal captain (kaftan) handed over a ceremonial sable fur.

Unfortunately, contacts with the UN counted less than relations with the US.

In the autumn of 2001, this form of popular uprising had seemed feasible in many other parts of Afghanistan. Earlier in the year, before the 9/11 attacks, Kate had felt that discontent with the Taleban was widespread enough that, if there was some encouragement from outside, the Taleban could have been toppled.******* Such a strategy could have been pursued after 9/11, but it would have needed more patience and politicking and a desire to learn about Afghanistan from the US side, as well as a far greater trust in the Afghan people. It would also have needed a more assertive UN leadership. What actually happened – the re-arming of factions and commanders to ensure a quick fix war against al-Qaida and the Taleban – was driven, as Bob Woodward has shown in intimate detail, by the desire to be seen to have a quick victory. (See here for detail.)

This led the US to make some unhappy alliances and in many places, after the Taleban fled, civilians saw often abusive commanders who had been driven out by the Taleban, to the joy of local populations, take up power again. Some had fought in the resistance; others merely drove back across the border to take up power again as revamped anti-Taleban, US-allies. Pacha Khan Dzadran was invited to Bonn, but did not make it into the new elite of pro-US allies.********

The way power changed hands in Loya Paktia through popular consent should have made it one of the most stable areas of Afghanistan and a coherent block ready to negotiate the new power arrangements. Actually, quite the opposite happened.

One problem was that peaceful change left the region with no personal relationship with the CIA and US special forces which in so many areas had worked alongside local factions and commanders. In the new Afghanistan, those personal relationships were crucial for grabbing and holding power. The tribal councils also faced two men in power in Kabul – Hamed Karzai and General Fahim – who had reason to fear an independent political block, especially one near the capital and which was more difficult to manipulate or seek alliance with than the individuals who had taken power across most of the country.

In post-Taleban Afghanistan, warlord and armed factional power was what counted. Yet Loya Paktia was a region which historically had no warlords. There was no Fahim, Gul Agha Sherzai, Ismail Khan, Atta or Dostum. This of course was good – many communities in Afghanistan lamented the return of rule by armed men. However, it also left Loya Paktia vulnerable.

Before the Bonn Conference, General Fahim appointed security commanders in what could only be interpreted as a blatant bid by Shura-ye Nizar to extend its reach far into what was historically not ‘their’ territory. The appointments were later confirmed by Hamed Karzai when he became the chairman of the interim authority after the Bonn conference. Gul Haidar, a Shura-e Nizar commander from Panjshir, who had been an important figure in the capture of Kabul, was appointed as head of the 3rd Corps, covering Loya Paktia but based outside, in Logar. Local, mainly, Tajik commanders served as his juniors, among them Ziauddin, commander of the Gardez division, and Abdullah, provincial police chief. According to officials, civilians, the UN and even the US military, these commanders were the main source of crime and insecurity in Paktia.

Abdullah was known by the Americans to be the source of most ‘Taleban’ rockets fired into Gardez, which later brought him to Guantanamo. From there he was released just in time to run, unsuccessfully, in the 2010 parliamentary elections, having chosen the surname Mujahed. ‘At the beginning,’ one man in Gardez told Kate in 2004, ‘the Northern Alliance was strong and had money, and they worked through these criminals to destabilize the area.’  A businessman remembered that at the beginning, the Americans backed Ziauddin. ‘The US supported Fahim and trusted the Northern Alliance, who are actually anti-Pashtun, anti-Karzai, and anti-Taliban. the PRT arrived (in December 2002), it was very weak and couldn’t fight face to face with the gunmen.’

Locally then, people assumed the Americans supported the new ‘bad’ local administration – either deliberately or through ignorance or weakness. In a way this was true in that the conflict was dismissed by the US military as ‘green on green’ (ie Afghan versus Afghan). Elders also repeatedly petitioned Karzai, but it took him over a year to act. In November 2002, he publicly castigated Ziauddin and Abdullah for extorting money at check-posts and ordered that all district security commanders should be transferred. Not until May 2003, however, were all of those referred to locally as ‘rogue commanders’ finally removed from their posts, using the choice of Paktia to be the first pilot province in the DDR process and with the support of a new PRT commander who recognised that green-on-green conflict mattered.*********

Loya Paktians also felt themselves excluded from power when the first cabinets were announced (they only had one minister after Bonn, Pacha Khan’s brother, Amanullah Dzadran, at tribal affairs, although he lost his job after the emergency loya jirga; later Engineer Sangin was minister for telecommunications,  but he had been living in Sweden for many years and was not considered a real Paktia- or Khostwal by the locals). There was particular bitterness at the number of Panjshiri ministers (at defence, foreign, NDS, interior and administrative affairs). It was symptomatic of the lack of clout they had in the capital.

In June 2002 after the emergency loya jirga (ELJ), Kate again visited Loya Paktia (a time when there was a standoff between the Pacha Khan and the governor of Khost, Hakim Taniwal – who was the first provincial governor assassinated by the Taleban on 10 September 2006).  She encountered a great deal of anger about the new regime, but people at that time were not demanding the overthrow of Karzai or the withdrawal of foreign forces or the return of the Taleban. What they wanted was to be included in the new Afghanistan, as an ELJ delegate explained:

‘In 1929 when the tribes of Loya Paktia tribes helped King Nadir Shah to the throne, we had three demands:

‘No roads.

No conscription.

No schools.’

‘This time,’ he said, ‘we want all three.’ 

In assessing the balance of power at this time, it has to be stressed that many in Kabul felt excluded during the Emirate when the Taleban turned Kabul into a Pashtun-dominated ‘village’; this was so especially for Dari speakers and particularly anyone from Shomali or Panjshir. Nevertheless, 2001 was supposed to be a turning point, the start of a more democratic and more inclusive era.

In June 2002, Kate wrote the following [taken from a TV script for a British audience so the wording is sparse and the ideas somewhat simplified].

Other Afghans may complain about the government. This is the only place I’ve been to where they’re speaking about fighting. We feel at home here, people say, but when we go to Kabul now, we feel like strangers in our own capital. It’s difficult even to find officials who speak Pashto. And if we wear our traditional clothes and keep our beards untrimmed, they just call us Taliban. ‘Pashtuns will react,’ said one man, ‘We will rise up in all the provinces if we’re not given our rights. All the power is with the northerners, the Persian-speakers.’ 

Villagers here can now wake up in peace for the first time in over twenty years. They would have to throw this away if they chose to fight for a greater share of government. 

What everyone has said is that Pashtuns can be patient, but don’t push us too far. They’re feeling marginalised, they believe they have a historical right to rule and the tribes can mobilise armed men if necessary. The question is what will happen if the patience runs out. 

In hindsight, the south-eastern Pashtuns kept their patience for an astonishingly long time. The Haqqani network, now the most powerful insurgent group in the area, did not control a great deal of territory until the last few years, mainly because tribal elders did not want to close the doors on Kabul and its international allies. The intra-tribal structures, so strong within the relatively small south-eastern tribes and with clout up till 2003 and 2004 started to crumble, under the twin onslaughts of the Taleban and Karzai and other Kabul-based politicians’ politicking. The latter have played local leaders against each other, instead of preserving what locally is called ‘tribal unity and solidarity’. The institutions which embodied these values, like the Mangal tribe’s central shura, the Tribal Solidarity Council of 2003 and 2004 in which a number of tribes cooperated, and attempts by the Dzadran to bolster intra-tribal coherence, were seen as threats by the president. As in the South, many tribal leaders can no longer live in their areas and have had to flee to Kabul’s relative safety.

Ten years on, power has shifted and evolved everywhere in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it seems that the way, early on, hope and goodwill in Loya Paktia towards the US and the central government was squandered and rejected was one factor in what would, eventually, lead to a resurgent Taleban in this historically important region.

 

* It was a sign of the new times and of the particular characteristics of Logar that the tribal council conducted its meeting in Dari and Pashto, with speakers slipping in and out of the two languages. In Kabul, under the Taleban, Pashto had been all Kate had heard in offices. Logar on that day was a revelation.

** One of Kate’s first reports for the BBC was about unrest in Loya Paktia. The following day, she was summoned to the Ministry of Information and  Culture and ‘asked’ to go to Khost where, duly gathered tribal leaders gathered at the main mosque to condemn the BBC, express their support for Amir ul-Mu’minin, Mullah Omar, and only on this 2001 trip has learned, receive money from the central coffers.

*** ‘Blows were exchanged,’ reported the BBC’s William Reeve, ‘and then stones thrown. Finding themselves outnumbered, the Taleban are said to have rushed off to seek reinforcements. They returned, according to reports, in eight vehicles, heavily armed and meaning business. But the local tribesmen were also ready and had taken up position in nearby mountains. In the ensuing battle in which rocket launchers are said to have been used, at least six people were reportedly killed. Several others who were injured were taken for medical treatment across the border to Pakistan.’ Thomas reports that again, during Nawruz 2001, fighting broke out as Emirate officials tried to ban egg fighting in Gurbuz (Yaqubi), with casualties taken on both sides.

**** Jalaluddin Haqqani was the only commander who belonged to what today is called the Haqqani network. It has remained coherent within the Taleban’s military structure until today. In the relatively small district of Zurmat in Gardez, fighters and commanders who had been, during the jihad, under the command of Mawlawi Mansur (killed allegedly by Hekmatyar’s fighters in 1993) and known as the Mansur wing of Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami went over whole-heartedly to the Taleban in the 1990s. It supplied military commanders and senior officials. There were at least three Harakat Zurmatis in ministerial positions during the Emirate: Amir Khan Muttaqi at information and culture and later education who is now a senior figure in the insurgency (his family were Zurmatis who had moved to Kunduz), Abdullatif Mansur at agriculture, and Taher Anwari finance and later at economy, as well as four deputy ministers, Abdulhakim Munib, now reconciled and on the High Peace Council (HPC), at tribal affairs; Maulawi Rahmatullah Wahedyar, also on the HPC, at martyrs and refugees, Arefullah Aref at finance and Maulawi Rahimullah Zurmati at information and culture. Khalilullah Firozi and Maulana Pir Muhammad Rohani (also on the HPC) were the president of the Academy of Sciences and chancellor of Kabul, respectively. So strongly represented in the structures of the Taleban’s Islamic Emirate were Zurmatis, that the district was nick-named ‘Little Kandahar’.

***** The tribes of Loya Paktia see themselves as king makers, with the kings coming from Kandahar. Self-identity is important in politics, although really the Loya Paktians only played major roles twice in the 1920. For the most part they have been fascinating and independent, but their political fractiousness (they would see this as their being free men) and secluded location prevented their playing any significant role in state politics.

****** Lal wa Sar Jangal in western Hazarajat (Ghor) was another place where local people had tried to steer an actively independent line between Northern Alliance and Taleban. Elders visited the BBC in early 2000 saying they had organised a local ceasefire between rival factions of Wahdat, between commanders loyal to Akbari (Taleban) and to Khalili (anti-Taleban). The roshan fikran (intellectuals) also organised classes, in the belief that illiteracy was the main cause of conflict. Later that year, they said they asked the UN if they could declare the district independent of both sides and let it come under a UN flag.

******* I had predicted in March 2001 that the Taleban would be out of power by the end of 2001.

******** Pacha Khan was a commander with Mahaaz-e Milli, although he was not very active during the jihad. He was a member of the Rome Group and for a short time in 2001/2002 a western ally. He gradually lost credibility, however, first after conspiring to get a US air strike against a ‘Taleban’ convoy. They were Ahmadzai tribal elders on their way to see Karzai in December 2001, and one of their number, Saifullah, who was an ex-Taleb, had seized the Paktian governorship. Karzai later appointed Pacha Khan governor of Paktia, but when he travelled to Gardez in January 2002, he was met with fire by Saifullah’s people and commander Ziauddin, was driven out of the town and started firing back. By the spring of 2002, he was in Khost, squatting in the governor’s office, claiming his right as an anti-Taliban leader and participant at Bonn to be in charge of the entire south-eastern zone. He was declared an outlaw by Karzai and – more importantly for him – also by the King. He also lost the support of the US military, which had been using his men to fight the Taliban. Special Forces killed one son during fighting in March 2003 and helped ease him out of Khost city. He was arrested in Pakistan in November 2003 and held in jail before being returned to Kabul in February 2004. After negotiations with Karzai, he returned to his home district where another son was appointed district commissioner. One son is also now running a private security business. He was an MP in 2005, but not re-elected.

********* Abdullah’s successor as police chief, General Hay Gul Sulaimankheil, a professional policeman and former Khalqi, said in April 2004 that: ‘For two months, I stayed with the governor. I had one room, no car and my life was threatened by those I had replaced. Those previously in charge had robbed the people. No-one could go outside Gardez; gunmen were in charge there. And the Paktia tribes could not come to Gardez. Gradually, we were able to bring peace and stability and prosperity.’

Tagged with: ,
Thematic Category: War & Peace