Political Landscape

Protests and Factional Conflict in Sarepul


Since 8 December last year, demonstrations are continuing in Sarepul. While this remote northern province has been one of the areas least affected by the insurgency for many years, of late it has been pulled into the vortex of the Northern insurgency, too. But the protests have a different background: their origins lie in local politics, with national actors involving themselves. Thomas Ruttig and Obaid Ali have looked into those events that have neither caught the interest of the international nor of many Afghan media beyond short news items.

Since more than a month, people of Sarepul* have sporadically demonstrated against provincial governor Sayyed Anwar Rahmati and demanded his replacement. But events turned more dramatic over the past days.
On Sunday (5 February), when reportedly 10,000 people gathered in another demonstration, a riot broke out during which some protesters stormed the governor’s compound and set fire to what, in a video, seems to be the guard’s houses. According to a local journalist, the governor’s bodyguards fired at them, killing one person and wounding two more. The government-owned Bakhtar News Agency reports four dead and the governor evacuated by helicopter. Elders and religious scholars stepped in and persuaded the protesters to leave the immediate vicinity of the governor’s compound. Smaller numbers of protesters have gathered every single day since then, on 6 February for the funeral of the killed protester and then for follow up meetings, but they did not march and things remained calm. On 7 February, MPs flew in from Kabul and spoke to both sides. As a result of the unrest, shops are closed in Sarepul town, the provincial capital, and the people are starting to face problems in obtaining what is needed for daily life. (Amendment on 10 February:) Meanwhile, President Karzai has appointed an investigation commission led by Adviser Minister Amanullah Dzadran from Paktia who is tasked to cooperate with local officials, the provincial council, religious and community elders and to report back to him. That has been reported by daily Hewad on 7 February.

According to different Afghan media,** Governor Rahmati said that the demonstration on 5 February was organized by ‘some of the groups who have lost power’. He named two prominent local individuals as their leaders, Kamal Khan, a former Jombesh commander, and Abdulmalek Azemi, a local civil society activist. Rahmati further claimed that some ‘security forces not only supported the protests but stimulated them’ and even that the central government supported them. At least the third claim seems to be way off since the government has so far refused to heed the main demand of the protesters, his dismissal from office.

In order to understand what is happening, we have to go into the genesis of the Sarepul protests and into the wider balance (or imbalance) of power in this remote but potentially rich province. (There is the oilfield of Angut which had been under General Abdulrashid Dostum, the Jombesh leader’s, control and the revenue from which he used to pay local commanders loyal to him. The Kabul government had just tendered the wider region and the China National Petroleum Corporation won the bid.)

They protests go back to two cases of (attempted) sexual violence that happened in last November/December, with either close advisors to the governor or relatives involved, and what the protesters call the local court’s indifference towards the victims. Broader governance issues, the misuse of power and last but not least personal rivalries also play a role.

Last November, the secretary to the governor allegedly kidnapped a woman from neighbouring Faryab province. When the intelligence launched an investigation, found out that the woman was kept in the secretary’s house and planned to search it, the man got wind of it and handed her over to a shelter. Just a week later, a brother and a nephew of the governor (the former also acts as the governor’s spokesman) were accused of attempting to rape a girls of 15 or 16 years, after they and some bodyguards forcefully entered the home of the girl’s family. The family had accused them for some time of harassing them.

The governor’s failure to act against the assailants led the provincial council (PC)*** and some Sarepul MPs to take the side of the protesters and demand the governor’s removal in letters to the President’s office, the IDLG, the lower house of the parliament as well as to the UN. When the institutions addressed did not implement this demand, the first protests started. The PC also declared that it would not agree with the security handover process in their province, unless their demands were fulfilled. This became a serious challenge for the transition process, which is not only a prestige project for the international community but for the government in Kabul as well.

The government’s transition chief Ashraf Ghani flew in to Sarepul, called on the people to stop their protests and invited them to present their demands to the President’s office directly. Abdulkhaliq Farahi, the head of IDLG, also promised to send a report to the palace. Two delegations were dispatched – first a smaller, 9-member one, then a large one of 150 people selected by local councils, the provincial council, civil society and local elders, headed by civil society activist Azemi – from different districts of the province. They met the head of IDLG, the chairman of the lower house, an adviser minister to the palace, and the First Vice President and discussed their concerns in a security meeting chaired by Ghani, in which the President and several cabinet ministers were present.

Nevertheless, when they returned in mid-January they felt that they did do so empty-handed because Khalili had prevented them from seeing the President directly and because their main demands, the governor’s removal, had been rejected again. This is when larger demonstrations started in front of the governor’s compound. The protestors now not only demanded a trial of the attempted rapists and the removal of the governor, but also included a call for more attention to reconstruction in the province on which, they claim, governor Rahmati also had failed to deliver.

The initial protests were rather spontaneous, and it were mainly Uzbeks who joined them. Then, Azemi (locally called ‘Malek’) assumed a more prominent role. He rejects the notion that he belongs to or is supported by any particular faction. He claims that the governor provoked hatred against government institutions by his refusal to call his relatives to justice and that he, in a larger gathering, had insulted the province’s inhabitants as ‘thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes’. But ‘Malek’ also seems to harbour a personal grudge against the governor: Over the past years, he had worked in several positions in the province’s administration, including as mayor of Sarepol town, and then applied for the post of director of the governor’s office but was weeded out by Rahmati from the candidate short-list.

In a later stage, local Hazara elders also started to mobilise. This reflects other secondary conflicts in the province: between the centre and Northerntanzims, between them and even between different factions of Hezb-e Wahdat – those of Second Vice President Abdulkarim Khalili and of opposition politician Mohaqqeq. It is over influence, access to positions in the provincial administration and the resources linked to it. And it represents the latest round in inter-factional conflict that has dogged Sarepul ever since the Taleban regime fell.

Immediately after the Taleban defeat in 2001, the province was divided into zones of predominance between Jombesh (in Sarepul’s north) and Jamiatand Wahdat (in the south), with Jombesh and Jamiat controlling the provincial centre and a Jombesh governor (up to 2004). After severe fighting in 2002, Jombesh managed to wrestle control over the provincial centre from Jamiat. In the districts, sporadic fighting continued until 2004. After Rahmati was appointed governor in 2010, the balance of power shifted again. This strengthened the position of Khalili’s Wahdat faction; Rahmati had worked in Khalili’s office in Kabul and now filled many positions with his supporters. Hazara mobilisation against him particularly happened in Balkhab district which is dominated by Mohaqqeq’s Wahdat faction and was led by Sayyed Muhammad Hassan Sharifi, who was elected into the Wolesi Jirga from there.

This explains the governor’s accusation that ‘groups that had lost power’ are behind the protests: The other of their two leaders, Kamal Khan, is a Jombeshi military officer who commanded the former 82nd Division of the pre-Taleban mujahedin regime’s army. (He also is the brother of notorious commander Payenda Khan who was an MP from 2005 to 2010)**** . ‘Malek’ Azemi is the son of a Sarepul governor from the times of the Karmal regime (1979-1986, then it was still a district, not a province). Dostum protected many former PDPA/Watan Party cadres when he held the Afghan north, until 1998, against the Taleban regime.

How the inter-factional conflict plays out is illustrated by the example of Sayyad district which is predominantly inhabited by Uzbeks (the UN estimated 70 per cent in 2007) and one of the two most Taleban-influenced areas in the province. Rahmati – a Hazara – appointed his uncle Sayyed Hossain Sajadi as district governor there last fall, a step opposed by local elders. Initially, the local population drove Sajadi out of town and he was forced to run his administration from a vehicle in central Sarepul for more than a month. As a reaction, Rahmati invited some Sayyad elders – under an ostensible ‘peace initiative’ to sort out the district’s difficulties – but put them into jail, exerting pressure on them to accept his uncle’s appointment. The elders had to give in and were released.

With at least open intra-factional fighting over by 2005, the insurgents started to establish a foothold in Sarepul – hitherto one of the least insurgency-affected areas in the country –as early as in 2006. In March of the following year, a German NGO worker was killed, the first such case within three years all over Afghanistan. This was probably linked to criminal activities, including the weapons and drug smuggle through Sayyad district to Pashtun pockets further north in Faryab and Balkh provinces. Sayyad was also considered a poppy producing area then, with a peak of over 3,000 ha cultivation area in 2005, but UNODC called the whole province ‘poppy-free’ from 2008 onwards. Only two weeks after the murder, Sarepul town was rocked by three explosions within two days, targeting the provincial governor and Shia filmmakers. A series of IED and grenade attacks and the killing of a Pakistani contractor followed.

In the same year, the insurgency established itself in some remote areas of Sayyed and Kohistanat districts. By 2009 this had turned into a stable presence. Giustozzi and Reuter described the situation in an AAN report as follows:

‘By 2009, the Darzab–Qush Tepa–Sayyad pocket had developed into a Taleban stronghold in Jawzjan province to the north and was spreading the insurgency to neighbouring Belcheragh, Kohistanat, Sarepol, Sozma Qala, Sangcharak, Gosfandi and Sheberghan districts.’

In 2010, Taleban activities increased further, with temporary checkpost and abductions, along the strategic Sarepul-Sheberghan road, nightletters appearing in the provincial centre. An attack on the central provincial prison in October was repulsed by the ANP, which suffered one dead and three injured. In 2011, more ANP and ANA were deployed and ALP groups were founded that somewhat pushed the insurgent back. Late that year, Mulla Nader reportedly had fled to Pakistan. Last year also brought the province’s most prominent case of civilian casualties caused by the international forces, in Sayyad district. Still, ANSO in its report for the third and fourth quarters of 2011 registered an increase of insurgency operations by 90 and 35 per cent (comparison to same quarter 2010), respectively from 49 to 93 and from 82 to 111 cases, while categorising the province’s general threat level as ‘moderate’. Early 2012 already saw continuing activity, including Taleban putting up check-posts and a drive-by attack on civilian workers busy at an ANP post.

According to local civilian sources, the Taleban do not enjoy much sympathy in the province, but their threats make people in the mountains support them. Their groups mainly consist of 15 to 20 fighters, at least some of them equipped with motorbikes. Most of these groups’ members are local, with only a few outside commanders (meaning mainly Uzbek Taleban from Jawzjan and Balkh provinces). There are two main Taleban commanders, Mulla Nader and Turan (captain) Amrullah who originates from neighbouring Jawzjan. Both are equipped through wider Taleban networks; in particular Nader regularly visits Pakistan.

Amrullah, who was a Taleban commander in Jawzjan up to 2001, renounced violence after their regime’s fall but he did not feel safe, fled and returned to the insurgents’ ranks. He is said to have some 100 to 200 fighters who operate in the Darzab–Qush Tepa–Sayyad pocket at the border between Jawzjan, Sarepul and Faryab provinces mostly. Mulla Nader is an Aimaq, received an Islamic education in a madrasa in Sayyad and seems to have been involved in the area’s drug trade as a major player. Captured by the security forces in 2006, he spent a few weeks in detention but was released through the mediation of elders. After that, he returned to his village Almalik but soon took an open stance against the government. He became a fugitive, gathered some fighters and joined the Taleban, gradually widening his ranks to around 400 fighters and reaching to Kohistanat and Sarepol town district. He has been accused by some of being behind the kidnapping and later killing of the German aid worker and of later attacks on the Sarepul prison and provincial Kabul Bank branch.

Around the middle of 2011, some of his group commanders – including his brother – joined the provincial reintegration programme. They are now serving in different ALP units in Kohistanat and Sarepol districts and in CIP units***** in Sayyad, weakening Nader’s position. His brother commands one of those units. Many of the former Taleban seem to be Uzbek fighters, some with former links to Jombesh, which made it easier to switch sides. (Earlier ALP units were also mainly Uzbek.) According to local politicians, some armed Talebs and ALP members have started harassing the local population in some areas, including even in central Sarepol in fall 2011.

Apart from such incidents, ALP extension in Sarepul seems to serve as a means to  rearm a faction that had lost out in earlier conflicts, Jombesh in this case, a parallel to events in Wardak or Baghlan. The fighting that took place from 2002 to 2004 thus might not remain a phenomenon of the past, after all, for Sarepul.

* The province has six districts – Balkhab, Kohistanat, San(g)charak, Gosfandi, Sayyed and Sozma Qala, plus the district of the provincial capital (UNAMA also gives a district called Sayyedabad) and five representatives in the lower house of parliament. According to the government, Sarepol’s population is estimated at 500,000 (in 1386, ie 2007/08) while a local NGO, Hambastegi, gives a figure of around 715-720,000. A UNAMA provincial profile of 2007 estimates that the population is composed of 31% Uzbeks, 25% Tajiks, 22% Hazaras and 11% Aimaq. (Other sources give a higher proportion of Uzbeks, around 40%.)

Uzbeks are the majority in the three northern districts (Sarepul, Sayyed and Sozma Qala) and Arabs in the small district of Sayyedabad, while Gosfandi is mixed without a clear majority, Balkhab Hazara-dominated, Sangcharak Tajik-dominated and Kohistanat Aimaq-dominated. At the same time, the protestors claim that ‘90 per cent’ of the province’s administrative personnel are Hazara.

Politically, the Uzbeks and Arabs in the North as well as Tajik and Aimaq minorities in the south tend to support Jombesh, the Tajiks and Aimaq Jamiat and the Hazara different Wahdat factions. There are also Pashtun and Baluch minorities which might correspond with Hezb-e Islami pockets of influence, including its pro-government wing.

During the 2004 presidential election, the Sarepul result was as follows: Dostum 48%, Qanuni 19%, Mohaqqeq 15%, Karzai 12% (source: own notes). In 2009: Karzai 46,7%, Dr Abdullah 33,0%, Bashardost 13,4%.

** Source: AAN media monitoring.

*** From its political composition, Sarepul’s elected Provincial Council is opposition-dominated. (Opposition here means parties that are in competition to the governor’s locally.) Of its nine seats (four of them women), four are held by Jombesh (one of them sent to the Senate in Kabul), three by Jamiat-e Islami and two by Mohaqqeq’s faction of Wahdat.

**** Payenda Khan, an Arab by ethnicity (a small minority in Afghanistan), was one of the ‘celebrity cases’ of parliamentary vetting in 2004/05, because he was one of the most well-known candidates with illegal armed groups links who figured prominently on the ‘yellow lists’ of suspicious candidates discussed between Afghan authorities and international community representatives. (ISAF – with its knowledge about allied commanders – tended to keep silent in these rounds.) That Payenda made it on the ballot is a striking example for the failure (or better sabotage) of the vetting by Afghan authorities.

***** Although, as the linked New York Times article spells out, the Critical Infrastructure Police (CIP) is supposed to be disbanded (after the GermanSpiegel asked President Karzai in an interview about this particular form of militia and the President confessed that he never heard about it), a German journalist just returned from Afghanistan told me that he still encountered CIP units with German soldiers in Kunduz province.

Here the relevant part of the Spiegel interview (my translation from German, from Spiegel 5 December 2011, p 45):

‘Spiegel: In reality, more and more militias are established by ISAF, as of late a unit to protect infrastructure, called CIPP (sic).

Karzai: I have never heard about that.
(Karzai interrupts the conversation and let his security advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta be called.)
We will follow this up!’

photo: Ariana News

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape, Rights & Freedoms