War & Peace

Armed, disarmed, rearmed: How Nahr-e Seraj in Helmand became one of the deadliest districts in Afghanistan


On a visit to Helmand in mid-December, UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated that when British troops withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year, they will have accomplished their main aim – leaving behind a basic level of security. But a new report by the Pentagon (1) tells a different story. On its list of the most violent districts in the country, the top four are in Helmand, the province where most British as well as thousands of US troops have been based. The deadliest of these districts is Nahr-e Seraj where a multitude of power brokers within and outside the official security forces violently struggle for influence. Deedee Derksen with an overview of disarmament and rearmament trends over the past 12 years and the resulting security challenges for this and the next Afghan government (with input by Obaid Ali).

Nahr-e-Seraj is home to Helmand’s former capital, Gereshk. Strategically important, the town is situated on the crossing point of the Helmand River for vehicles travelling between Kandahar and Herat on the big ring road. Anyone controlling Gereshk is able to levy tolls on trade in the area, including the booming opium business. Holding Gereshk also affords a major military advantage, given its central location.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Taleban insurgents, having increased their influence over much of northern Helmand over recent years, including parts of Musa Qala, Kajaki and Sangin (2), mounted their pressure on Gereshk this year. There, they face armed members of the Barakzai tribe, who have dominated the area since the time of King Ahmad Shah Durrani in the 18th century, and on whom President Hamed Karzai’s government depend to secure the district.

Yet the main Barakzai powerbrokers are fighting among themselves. There are also rivalries with other tribes, notably the Alizai who are connected to former governor Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, which date back decades if not centuries but have been aggravated in more recent years by the international intervention. Villages dominated by members of the Ishaqzai and Achakzai tribes around Gereshk are unhappy with the Barakzai rulers and firmly behind the insurgency. If the insurgents are unable to capture the town following the withdrawal of international troops from Helmand, it will be largely due to their own disorganisation rather than the resilience and unity of official security forces.

Gereshk illustrates the type of security challenge a new Afghan government will confront. The poorly-executed disarmament program, the rearming of militias and the unwillingness to tackle human rights abusers and opium traffickers in office have resulted in weak and fragmented formal and informal security sectors.

Among the most powerful Barakzai are Ma’alem Mir Wali, a parliamentarian in Kabul and father of district police chief Hekmatullah, and Haji Qadus who controls militias in his hometown of Malgir. Both men recognise that the Barakzai need to resolve their internal disputes and also make peace with powerbrokers from other tribes. But efforts to do so last spring floundered when Haji Qadus and Mir Wali were chosen by their respective allies to head rival informal peace councils. A third Barakzai strongman and commander of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), Hamid Khan, is reportedly also vying for prominence.

Immediately following the fall of the Taleban, the three men worked closely together in the 93rd Division of the Afghan Military Force, the precursor of the Afghan National Army. Mir Wali was division commander, Haji Qadus his deputy and Hamid Khan commander of a smaller group of men within the 93rd. Mir Wali and Haji Qadus oversaw what was, at the time, a collection of local militias maintaining security in their areas. While the official Barakzai leader was Khalifa Shirin Khan, a wealthy landowner from the traditional elite, the real power lay with the three commanders.

Ten years later, and despite major disarmament programs and an international commitment to reforming the security sector, the same three men dominate Gereshk, but with intense competition for the Barakzai leadership (3). The militias, once united under the umbrella of the 93rd Division, have fragmented, with some joining the insurgency. The international intervention appears to have done little to dismantle the informal security sector – the militias – in Gereshk. In fact, they are stronger than ever. So what happened?

Ma’alem Mir Wali was a farmer’s son, studying in Kandahar when the Soviets invaded in 1979. Instead of becoming a teacher as he had planned (Ma’alem means ‘teacher’), religious fervour and opposition to the Soviet invasion led him to become one of the main Hezb-e Islami commanders in Helmand (4). His strategy became that of many other commanders in Afghanistan: seeking support and weapons from a changing cast of actors in an unremitting war.

In the 1980s, Mir Wali’s main backer was the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which provided weapons to combat the Soviets to the seven major mujahedin ‘parties’ or tanzim, one of which was Hezb-e Islami. By the end of the decade, with his militia under extreme pressure from rival tanzims in Helmand, Mir Wali switched sides to join President Dr. Najibullah’s National Reconciliation program which offered support to mujahedin willing to fight with the government (5). When the Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992, some of the pro-government militias in Helmand re-established contact with Hezb-e Islami, which assumed control of the provincial capital, Lashkargah, and the post of provincial governor until 1993. During the Taleban era, which saw Lashkargah taken in November 1994, Mir Wali was forced to flee Helmand, but was able to enter the patronage network of Ahmad Shah Massud on whose side he fought against the Taleban in the Panjshir valley. From 2001, the US Special Forces in Helmand became a lucrative source of money and weapons. With their backing and, as stated by Mir Wali in an interview in June 2013, the support of then Defence Minister Marshall Qasim Fahim, Mir Wali became the commander of the 93rd Division.

Mike Martin, a Pashto-speaking former British army officer who worked for years as a cultural adviser in Helmand and wrote a book on the history of the province (6), says the first months after the international intervention were a time of reconciliation. The main groups in the area united and men from different tribes joined the 93rd Division. Mir Wali and Haji Qadus, who became his deputy, are from different clans of the Barakzai tribe, and while Mir Wali had been involved with Hezb-e Islami, Qadus’s family had served with the rival jihadi party Harakat-e Inqelab-e Islami. The 93rd even recruited some Ishaqzai groups that had previously supported the Taleban .

After the fall of the Taleban regime the main positions in the provincial government were allocated to warlords. Sher Muhammad Akhundzada became governor, Abdul Rahman Jan provincial police chief and Alikozai strongman Dad Muhammad (better known as Amer Dado), who had been loosely affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami, the chief of the provincial NDS, His brother Daud became district governor in Sangin. Notably, the Ishaqzai were the main tribal group excluded from local government positions.

Shortly thereafter, conflict broke out among warlords, who commonly denounced their rivals’ militias as insurgents. They also preyed upon other groups, such as the Ishaqzai, who were outside their networks (7). The violence was driven by old rivalries from the jihadi era and tribal enmities from even further back, alongside new competition for US money and support, government positions and control of the opium trade.

North of Gereshk and south of Sangin, for example, district governor Daud reportedly used his position to tax Ishaqzai villagers, many of whom were growing and trading poppy. According to several Ishaqzai elders, Daud brought particular pressure on Mamak, a major Ishaqzai smuggler. However, since one of Mamak’s brothers served as a commander for Mir Wali, he and his family, like other families with members enlisted in the 93rd Division, were afforded a degree of protection from predatory government officials.

In this disputatious context, the Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) Program, which began in 2003, effected unintended consequences (8). In the autumn of 2004, Mir Wali’s 93rd Division was targeted for disarmament under the DDR program. Some elders in Helmand were happy with DDR. They saw the collection of commanders controlling their home areas under the umbrella of the Division as not much more than a criminal gang: harassing villagers, kidnapping them for ransom and trafficking opium. While this perception is more commonly expressed by non-Barakzai Helmandis, some Barakzai elders also criticise the 93rd. Others, including Mir Wali himself, argue that the Division brought security to the province and that its disarmament led to the violence that continues to ravage Helmand.

The Division’s demobilisation occurred around the time that the Taleban leadership was beginning to reorganise in Pakistan. According to several interviewees, including Ishaqzai elders and current and former Taleban commanders, the Ishaqzai living north of Gereshk and south of Sangin requested the Taleban’s backing as tensions mounted with the Alikozai connected to district governor Daud. When the Division disarmed, local commander Mamak and his family joined the insurgency and urged others to do the same. Their village Qala-e Gaz and surrounding villages are now firmly in Taleban hands. Most sources agree that many other fighters from the 93rd also entered the insurgency’s ranks. The number is difficult to assess since many adopted new names on entering the movement. In numerous cases, they joined purely to protect themselves. When they were disarmed, they were too poor to remain in Gereshk and returned to their villages. If these were under Taleban control, there was little option but to sign up.

In the meantime, relations between 93rd Division commander Mir Wali and his deputy Haji Qadus had soured. According to Haji Qadus, their enmity was sparked by a land dispute. Mir Wali, on the other hand, says that while he was in Kabul to register the Division at the Ministry of Defence, Haji Qadus befriended US Special Forces and formed a group of his own family and loyalists, around 60 men in total, to guard US Camp Price and to accompany them on operations. Whether or not this accusation is correct, the reality is that when Mir Wali and his loyalists were disarmed in 2004, Haji Qadus and his brother Mullah Daud’s group remained armed and won contracts to work as security guards at military bases – firstly for the Americans and later for the British.

In the context of the main Helmandi strongmen trying to undermine each other, Mir Wali says that once disarmed he left the province, afraid of what other powerbrokers might do to him. In 2005, he won a seat in the wolesi jirga and, with his re-election in 2010, is still there. But despite having spent the past eight years in the capital, he remains influential in and around Gereshk, with many elders and villagers describing him as the Barakzai leader in the area. If the Taleban were to attempt to overrun Gereshk with the departure of foreign troops, what would he do? Some sources say he would be able to mobilise between 500 and 1,000 fighters. But Mir Wali shakes his head when asked if he would go back to the battlefield. “I have a plan B now”, he says. “My son.”

His son Hekmatullah is currently the police chief in Nahr-e Seraj and allied to Haji Qayyum who is ALP commander for the entire district. Police chief of Gereshk is a lucrative position, largely because of the tolls levied on goods and opium, and, according to local elders, the post is much sought after. In the year leading up to Hekmatullah’s appointment, competition was so intense that the position changed hands at least seven times in a twelve month period. Elders living in Gereshk and neighbouring villages vary in their opinions of Hekmatullah’s capacity as police chief, but whatever his competence and integrity, there is no doubt that his loyalty is first and foremost to his father.

Haji Qadus and his brother eventually lost the contracts for guarding the military bases. They are rumoured to now rely on construction businesses, although Haji Qadus denies this. He says he is simply securing his village Babaji with a small group of fighters that is not registered with the ALP. He is reportedly also active in local politics, with a base of followers among the Barakzai in the area – especially those who dislike Mir Wali. The latest rumours suggest that Haji Qadus and Hekmatullah are attempting to form an alliance in the face of the mounting influence of the Taleban.

Officially, the 93rd Division had 677 soldiers on its payroll (8) although some say that, in reality, it operated less as a unit and more as a network, with many more commanders under its flag. Mir Wali believes that in spite of the DDR process, at least half of them are still armed – either working within the ANP or the ALP or as illegal militias or insurgents. In addition, hundreds of new men have been armed under the ALP program, which in Nahr-e Saraj falls under the command of 28-year old Haji Qayyum, an ally of police commander Hekmatullah.

Villagers outside the Barakzai patronage network of Hekmatullah and his father Mir Wali complain of being harassed and say that innocent men are being arrested for “being Taleban”. During the time of the 93rd Division, they had nowhere else to turn, but there is now a well-established insurgency to which they can appeal. Many villages north of Gereshk are in Taleban hands, with local support. Villagers say they are happy to see the foreign troops leaving. And if it were up to them, they say, they would have nothing more to do with the local government.

Where this leaves Gereshk in the near future is difficult to assess. Its politics and military balance are in flux. International troops are leaving, the government has assumed responsibility for security, a new president should assume power next year and, at the level of the central government, efforts are underway to bring in the Taleban. However, whatever happens on a national level is complicated by local developments and the volatile and fragile politics and security situation in important towns like Gereshk. The insurgency is booming, at the same time the loyalty of security forces to the national government is not guaranteed. Local and personal considerations trump government policy. At the same time, the formal and informal security sectors are becoming increasingly fragmented. A new Afghan government will have a tough job keeping them in line.

 

(1) Department of Defense, Report on Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan, Report to Congress, November 2013. Nahr-e Seraj, Sangin, Nad-Ali and Musa Qala, with varying population sizes, each had four per cent of the national number of ‘enemy initiated attacks’ from 1 April 2013 to 15 September 2013.

(2) Afghan and international media reported in December 2013 that there was a local ceasefire in Sangin district, which is north of Nahr-e-Saraj district, see here and here. The government rejected these reports. Earlier in December, it was reported that many ‘reintegrated’ Taleban fighters in Helmand, and a majority of them in Sangin, have rejoined the insurgency.

(3) For a similar example, see our report about Kunduz and Badakhshan here.

(4) Ryan Evans writes in The Micro-Level of Civil War: The Case of Central Helmand Province (CTC Sentinel 26 September 2012):

Hizb-i-Islami was the most popular anti-Soviet mujahidin party in the Barakzai-dominated river valley between Gereshk and Lashkar Gah. The Barakzai were the old rural elite of Helmand Province who had the most to lose to Khalqi reforms and usurpers. The Akhundzadas joined the anti-Soviet Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami mujahidin group. Rivals in other Alizai sub-tribes joined other mujahidin parties, out of opposition to the Akhundzadas. Yet Helmandis did not reliably choose their faction solely based on tribal or sub-tribal membership. Other factors included inter- and intra-family feuds, local village disputes, and land disputes. For the most part, the Hizbis in Helmand cared little for the revolutionary Islamist doctrine of the party’s national leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. For them, his group served as a convenient provider of weapons, material, and logistics for local conflicts as well as anti-Soviet and anti-government resistance.

(5) Mike Martin, An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012, London: Hurst, 2014.

(6) An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012, London: Hurst, 2014.

(7) An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012, London: Hurst, 2014.

(8) The Tokyo conference in 2003 led to the creation of the Afghanistan’s New Beginnings Programme (ANBP), the first formal DDR program, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme on behalf of the Afghan government. The program, costing almost $150 million, aimed to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate members of the Afghan Military Forces, who had helped to defeat the Taliban during the U.S.-led intervention in 2001. In spite of the demobilisation of 63,380 combatants, many analysts and former DDR officials argue that the programme failed in its two objectives: to break the chain of command between commanders and their men, and to make them economically independent.

(9) This figure is based on information provided by the Afghan Ministry of Defence for the DDR process in 2004. It was reduced to 462 by the end of that year.

(10) The names of most interviewees are not specified in this dispatch as they asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

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