Khas Uruzgan violence and ISAF press releases
About ten days ago I received news of a nightly ALP raid in Khas Uruzgan, that had resulted in one death, four detainees, several severe beatings, some plunder and a fair amount of local anger. So when I spotted an ISAF press release about a meeting in the district, I assumed it was related to this incident. I was curious to see what information ISAF had, what it chose to release and what this revealed about how they viewed what had happened.
The¬†press release, dated 20 June 2011, was rather bland. It was titled ‚ÄúLeaders in Uruzgan Meet to Renounce Violence, Seek Cooperation and Solutions to Improve Security‚ÄĚ and gave very little information about the background, participants or proceedings of the meeting. The (almost) full press release reads:
‚ÄúElders and district government officials in Khaz [sic] Uruzgan held a security shura June 19 to discuss recent violence and intimidation aimed at Afghan police and security forces stationed in the region. The meeting comes after a week of violence when a family member of a police chief was assassinated and Afghan National Army personnel were attacked while conducting routine patrols. During the shura, District Governor Juma Gul urged village elders to find a peaceful solution to disputes and support local security forces, according to a district government official.‚ÄĚ
So I made a few more phone calls and found out that it had been a violent week indeed. In the span of two days there had been two separate spates of attacks and counter attacks, involving on one hand (probably) the Taleban and on the other respectively the Hazara and the Pashtun ALP militias. A total of nine people had been killed. Clearly not all the violence had made it into the ISAF press release.
The incident that had initially signalled that something was going on (again) in the district had involved the Hazara ALP militia headed by Shojai, a commander from neighbouring Malestan in Ghazni. On 13 June 2011 at night his militia raided several Pashtun villages in the Abparan and Hosseini area, in the north of the district. There is some suggestion that it was supposed to have been a joint operation and that the ALP who were stationed at a security post nearby had simply not waited for the US military to arrive. The raid sounds like it was rather a rough affair. A large number of houses were searched, several men were badly beaten, four men were detained and one man ‚Äď the (mentally disturbed) brother of one of the detained men ‚Äď was shot to death.* The four detained men were initially held at the ALP checkpoint, but were later handed over to the US military (and were reportedly released three days ago).
The trigger for the raid is disputed. Hazara leaders maintain that the operation was in response to the hostage taking of four Hazara travelers earlier that day and that the detention of the Pashtun men did indeed result in the release of the travelers. (The tit-for-tat hostage taking between armed Pashtun and Hazara groups is a relatively common phenomena in the area, with local elders from both sides every time mobilising and mediating in an attempt to prevent killings and escalations). The Pashtuns say that the raid was unprovoked or based on fabricated reports of a shooting and that those targeted were innocent.
But this was not the only incident that took place that day. Earlier on 13 June 2010 the young nephew of Neda Mohammad was killed. Neda Mohammad is a former Taleb and now the commander of the Pashtun ALP forces. Most assume that the nephew was targeted by local Taleban as part of the ongoing attacks on the ALP and their relatives**, but there are ‚Äď as usual ‚Äď also alternative explanations involving prior feuds and conflicts over large pieces of land. Ruy Mohammad, the brother of Neda Mohammad and the actual on-the-ground commander of the ALP, swiftly retaliated: he went to the houses of the current Taleban district governor and his deputy. In both houses he killed a brother and a nephew.
The next day Neda Mohammad‚Äôs militia forces were hit by a targeted IED. A brother (not Ruy Mohammad) and a son of Neda Mohammad were injured and three men were killed. Total deaths in two days: one man killed by the Hazara ALP, four men killed by the Pashtun ALP, and four men killed by the Taleban.
The meeting on 19 June that the ISAF press release refers to was in response to the killings around Neda Mohammad. He had let it be known in the days after the IED attack that he was on the hunt for two local leaders. The two were related to the families that his brother had targeted earlier and they had publicly stood up to him in the past, but there seemed to be no reason to hold them directly responsible for the attack. One of them had been part of the delegation that was tasked to solve last year‚Äôs crisis, after a local elopement had brought the Pashtuns and Hazaras in the district on the brink of war.*** In order to seek protection this leader ‚Äėsurrendered‚Äô to the government, which in practice meant that he turned up at the ANA base to prove that he was not fighting the government and then went to seen the district governor.
The district governor called a meeting to set in motion the formal steps of ‚Äėreconciliation‚Äô between Neda Mohammad and the leader that had offered himself up. The meeting may have saved the life of the leader, but it did not remove the tensions from the area. The families that had been targeted by Ruy Mohammad let it be known that they were still bound by their obligation to take revenge.
What the two incidents have in common is the ease with which the ALP forces could retaliate at will (and this matches reports of earlier incidents). In a way, this potential for brutality is the main driver for ALP recruitment in the area, as those under pressure seek to be legally armed so that they are less of an easy target. This was also of the main reasons why local Pashtuns started joining the ALP once it was established: they were fed up of being harassed and reported on by the Hazara ASG forces (formally recruited for base security only, but in reality involved in offensive Special Forces operations). A more recent example is the surrender of seven Taleban militants, reported on by Pajhwok¬†here. According to locals the commander had had no choice: Neda Mohammad had surrounded his house and had detained his two sons, leaving nobody to work his land and to guard the family. He has now joined Neda Mohammad‚Äôs militia.
The question is obviously whether these really are the kind of ‚Äėsecurity gains‚Äô you should be looking for, with their ever-widening circle of killings and counter-killings (and the list is already long). The question is whether ISAF does not have a greater responsibility to know what is going on and to ensure that their ALP forces do not terrorise the population. And the question is whether these are really the kind of press releases you want to be issuing when so much is going on in an area.
* This seems to be an appropriate moment to remind everybody that in the early days of ALP its proponents were adamant that these ‚Äúcommunity police forces‚ÄĚ would not be armed, would not be involved in offensive operations and would not be mandated to make arrests. Although it was already obvious at the time that these principles would not be upheld, it is important to keep track of empty assurances and outright lies.
** For intance, yesterday a local teacher was killed in Hazar Qadam in Khas Uruzgan, most probably because three of his sons are member of the ALP.
*** The stand-off, that went on for months and that resulted in the involvement of both President Karzai and the Quetta shura, has for the moment cooled down (but has not been resolved). It is has been described by ISAF ‚Äď imprecisely and somewhat unseriously ‚Äď in the November 2010 ISAF press release¬†A Tale of Two Villages.
Other remarkable ISAF press releases relating to Khas Uruzgan includeChange Comes to Khas Uruzgan¬†and¬†The line in the sand, both released in April 2010, when optimism over the effects of VSO in the district were at its height.