War & Peace

Security at the Fringes: the case of Shujai in Khas Uruzgan


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The build-up of the formal Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is one of the main pillars of the transition strategy. However, in practice many security responsibilities are, and will continue to be, held by a myriad of hybrid and auxiliary forces that often operate under unclear lines of authority. Observers and media have been describing the uncontrolled behaviour by such armed groups as possible forerunners of the chaos and collapse that could follow an international drawdown. A closer look, however, shows that the confused lines of control are often a by-product of the current security set-up, rather than a sign of its decline. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert looks at the background of one such example: notorious Afghan Local Police (ALP) commander Abdul Hakim Shujai in Khas Uruzgan; a case that is complicated by its ethnic undertones and the confusion over who the commander reports to.

Tense Hazara-Pashtun relations
The situation with Abdul Hakim Shujai has often surfaced in discussions about the ALP as an example of how the scheme can go wrong. There had been regular complaints about the behaviour of his men, but in the summer of 2012 he and his men went on a rampage that attracted so much attention that the government felt compelled to order his arrest. Now, more than six months later, he is still a free man and he may or not have been relieved from his duties. Moreover, the case has further eroded the already strained ethnic relations in the area.

Khas Uruzgan’s Hazara-Pashtun relations have long been precarious. Local people often refer to the fierce open conflict that ravaged the district for almost a year in the 1980s. In the end, peace was brokered with outside mediation – among others by Pir Gailani – and since then elders have continuously sought to maintain the peace, by mitigating and mediating new flare-ups in conflict, and to avoid a repetition of the suffering. This has become increasingly difficult as many communities have found themselves on opposite sides of the post-2001 counterinsurgency campaigns. The US military established an auxiliary force early on: the Afghan Security Guards (ASG).(1) On paper they are solely employed to provide base security for the US Special Operations Forces (US SOF)(2), but in reality they have always been closely involved in US anti-Taleban operations. The fact that they were armed and supported by the US SOF also allowed them to act on their own, often abusively, particularly when there was something that needed to be avenged.

In Uruzgan, the ASG was originally recruited from the network of local strongman Jan Mohammad, who was Governor at the time. In the mixed district of Khas Uruzgan, the ASG was a solely Hazara group (largely from the Nasr faction of the Hezb-e Wahdat), with their loyalty and anti-Taleban stance considered beyond doubt by the Americans. This complicated ethnic relations. The ASG have long been accused – by the Pashtun population but also by other Hazara leaders – of abusing their power, being overly violent and providing the US SOF with exaggerated and sometimes fabricated intelligence. Many Hazaras feel uneasy with the power that has been given to their fighters, who are often considered out of control even by their own communities. But the constant pressure from the side of the Taleban and the entanglement of Pashtun communities with the insurgency through kinship and factional ties have at the same time led to a fairly widespread support of the notion of being an armed community that keeps fighters for its own protection.

The Pashtun communities, on the other hand, have to tread a fine line, often feeling mangled between the different warring parties. While the SOF kill-or-capture operations weakened the Taleban and lessened the insurgents’ pressure on the population, the raids also left Pashtun communities feeling defenceless, particularly as they considered many of the casualties to have been innocent. In the meantime, pressure mounted on the Pashtuns to provide men for the emerging local defence forces that were part of the SOF’s Village Stability Operations (VSO) strategy and that later became the ALP. Despite regular ISAF reports of the successes of VSO/ALP in Khas Uruzgan,(3) it has been a rather rocky affair, with the Pashtun ALP largely acting as a refuge for former Taleban commanders who have little to lose. There has been a regular back-and-forth of fighters between the Taleban and the ALP, depending on the relative strength and weakness of both sides, and loyalties are often unclear, much to the concern of the Hazara communities.

The steady stream of confrontations and killings – often with blurred lines between combatants and civilians – has left the population on both sides feeling exposed and vulnerable. Such incidents that have led to low points in the Hazara-Pashtun relations have included: the killing of two young Hazaras from neighbouring Malestan in 2007 (the bodies were returned, but the killers were never identified – the Malestan Hazaras hold the local Pashtuns responsible for this and consider the case still open for revenge); an ASG raid in 2010 that allegedly involved the rape of several Pashtun women (in the end the case fizzled out in a haze of confusion, with several of the mobilised elders concluding that the allegations may have been fabricated, exaggerated or, at the very least, instrumentalised); a complicated case of inter-ethnic elopement – or kidnapping, depending on whom you ask – of a Pashtun girl with a Hazara boy that flared up in early 2010 and resulted in a retaliatory kidnapping of a Hazara girl and an armed stand-off that threatened to reverberate throughout the whole region (the case cooled down, but was not resolved); and the gruesome killing of seven Pashtuns by the ASG in the summer of 2010, which led to an equally gruesome retaliatory killing of nine Hazaras in Bagh o Char by the Taleban (the victims on both sides were either innocent civilians or Taleban fighters and government informants, depending on whom you talk to).

The inclusion of Shujai into the ALP
The appointment of Shujai, an ASG member and small-time commander from the Nasr-faction of the Hezb-e Wahdat, from neighbouring Malestan into the ALP upset the fragile ethnic balance even further. Shujai’s appointment in early 2011(4) seems to have been in response to Hazara complaints that the SOF-initiated VSO/ALP was becoming a solely Pashtun affair, but also because of the wavering commitment of Pashtun communities in the face of heavy Taleban pressure (and probably also to compensate for the departure of a longstanding ASG commander). According to local sources, Shujai had come to the attention of the Americans in early 2010 when he and his men joined the stand-off caused by the double kidnapping/elopement case mentioned above; they apparently detained several people and killed a Taleban commander whom the Americans were after. The American SOF, according to all local sources, insisted on Shujai’s appointment, overruling the district governor (who did not believe the area needed a Hazara ALP force) and those who had preferred another local Hazara candidate (who, according to some, was incidentally no better – and possibly even worse – than Shujai) as well as local leaders who had concerns about Shujai’s behaviour.

Shujai thus joined a lineage of US SOF-linked Hazara commanders who could largely behave as they pleased. But where the behaviour of the Hazara ASG commanders, although pretty bad already, had still been somewhat mitigated by the fact that their relatives and tribesmen lived in the area, and by the repeated requests of their elders not to misbehave too much, Shujai and his men, as outsiders to the district, had even fewer reservations.

Violence, outcry and half-hearted attempts at arrest 
An earlier AAN blog described a violent raid on several Pashtun villages by Shujai and his men that took place in June 2011. In the summer of 2012, Shujai and his men went on a rampage in Pashtun areas again. Like many attacks, whether by the Taleban or the ASG/ALP forces, this one was in retaliation for an earlier killing: two of Shujai’s men had been killed in an ambush on 31 July 2012. The next day, in a two-pronged raid starting from Shujai’s two bases in the villages of Kondolan and Hosseini, the forces moved through the Pashtun villages where the area’s main active Taleban commanders came from and that by association were held responsible for the deaths of the two men. Shujai’s forces trashed and burned houses, looted property, took several men hostage – most of whom were later found dead – and allegedly raped several women, some of whom were so badly injured that they needed to be hospitalised. Initial reports varied from eleven to sixteen deaths.

The violent attacks made the national news and prompted the authorities to call for Shujai’s arrest. There were even a few half-hearted attempts. Provincial authorities told the district’s inhabitants that they had contacted the US Special Forces in Khas Uruzgan for help but were brushed off. Uruzgan Police Chief Matiullah travelled to the district to arrest and bring back Shujai and Ruy Mohammad, a former Taleban commander and head of the Pashtun ALP forces who was also wanted for several murders. Ruy Mohammad did indeed travel back to Tirin Kot with Matiullah – according to some he had been tricked into believing that he was going to be given more weapons and an armoured car – and was briefly detained (but subsequently released; he has recently been appointed deputy police chief in Khas Uruzgan). Shujai, however, had disappeared before Matiullah’s helicopter departed. Locals generally believe he was tipped off and helped by the Americans.

When it became clear that the government was not acting, a delegation of approximately 40 representatives from the district travelled to Kabul in November 2012 to complain. They brought with them a list of 121 people they claim had been killed by Shujai and his men between 2009 and 2012, as well as details of several instances of looting (AAN has a copy) and demanded his immediate arrest. On 13 November 2012, Minister Gholam Mojtaba Patang reconfirmed the Ministry of Interior’s intention to arrest Shujai (see here and here), which was reiterated by his spokesman on 27 November 2012. Nothing happened. On 5 January 2013, when Minister Patang was called to testify in Parliament, he explained that the police had not been able to arrest Shujai as he had fled to a remote location, but that they had now found him and that he would be detained within a week.

That was over twelve weeks ago and Shujai is still free. The MoI argued that he had escaped to Malestan and was beyond reach. But although Shujai has returned to his house in the Pashi area, he is not in hiding. He reportedly hosted Ghazni MP Sajjadi, who came to see him for lunch in January 2013, visited his Pashtun ALP colleague Mulla Abdul Samad in mid-February(5) and continues to travel back and forth to Khas Uruzgan to visit and oversee the security posts that are still, at least informally, under his command.

In a latest twist, a gathering of Hazara elders in March 2013, at which both the Uruzgan Deputy Police Chief and Shujai were present, discussed how to deal with the departure of the US forces from the area. Reports vary as to what was decided. According to a Pashtun source the gathering concluded that Shujai had become a liability and should no longer head the ALP. Hazara sources, on the other hand, claimed that the meeting had resulted in a renewed endorsement of Shujai as the main security provider in the area (although their descriptions of the extent to which this was done implicitly and informally, or explicitly and officially, varied considerably). So, depending on whom you ask, Shujai has either been informally deposed by a decision of the local elders, or has seen his hand considerably strengthened (there are indications that he may have also been given command over the ASG forces that will no longer be linked to the SOF). And so it remains unclear whether the MoI has indeed cut him loose or continues to support him. As in many other places, the ALP umbrella provides a lot of room for improvisation, and it is very well possible that the decisions and practical arrangements by the provincial police leadership diverge from the Kabul policy lines.

Ethnic and factional faultlines
The Shujai case is complicated by ethnic and factional undertones. Like most violent commanders, Shujai has gone after a wide array of enemies and possible rivals, including Hazara leaders in his own area. In April 2012, for instance, Shujai’s men attacked the house of Mulla Anwar, a Hazara and former Hezb-e Islami commander, and kidnapped his 12-year-old daughter. During the attack, Shujai’s deputy, Ali Jan Tawakoli, was killed. Two of Shujai’s men were arrested (one of them has since been released), but so was Mulla Anwar, who has now been convicted by the Ghazni court for killing Tawakoli. The daughter has still not been found. In October 2012, Shaukat Ali, another former Hezb-e Islami commander, was detained in a local mosque by Shujai and his men and badly beaten. When a local delegation came to ask for his release, Shaukat Ali was handed over to the NDS office in Jaghori district in Ghazni, from where he was subsequently released. (There is a video recording in the Jaghori NDS office, which AAN has seen, showing Shaukat Ali and another man, Shaukat Ali’s deputy, in chains; Shaukat Ali is wearing bloody clothes and has extensive bruising on his back.) Shaukat Ali believes he was beaten in retaliation for his involvement in the case of Mulla Anwar, as he was trying to seek redress for the attack and the kidnapping. But this is also an old power struggle – between Hezb-e Wahdat’s Nasr network and their possible factional rivals and between the khan and dehghan (landowning and landless) networks as well as between old personal enemies..

Despite their misgivings about Shujai and their concerns about his behaviour, many Hazaras do not trust the loud complaints and the lobbying against Shujai that is now regularly taking place in Kabul, headed by Uruzgan MP Haji Obaidullah Barakzai and former Senator Mohammad Hanif Hanifi, both Pashtuns. The Hazaras are afraid that the agenda is not just to remove an abusive commander, but rather to weaken the Hazaras and to leave their communities defenceless against acts of retaliation. It also reminds them of a similar mobilisation during the 2010 election period, when more or less the same people lobbied for the disqualification of the Hazara polling centres in Khas Uruzgan, which led to the loss of the two parliamentary seats won in an overwhelming Hazara vote (see here for background).

The ethnic controversy is not just local but has been elevated to a higher level, with the Pashtuns accusing Second Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili, also a Hazara from the Nasr-faction, of protecting Shujai and shielding him from arrest. In October 2012, Haji Obaidullah Barakzai complained that the vice president had actually freed Shujai from prison, but informed sources indicate that he was never formally arrested. (Shujai had apparently visited the Ministry of Interior where he had been kept for a few hours, presumably with the intention to detain him, but he had been allowed to leave after Ghazni MP Sajjadi, who had accompanied him there, vouched for him – reportedly prompted by Khalili.) It is not clear to what extent all actors are intentionally – and dangerously – playing the ethnic and factional card in an attempt to weaken their rivals or whether this is simply a case of responding to patronage-based requests to intervene. What is clear, however, is that the rallying around and against Shujai on ethnic grounds threatens to further polarise the already increasingly tense ethnic relations, both at the local and national level.

Confused lines of command and protection
Khalili is not the only force that is alleged to be preventing the arrest of Shujai. From the beginning when the story first surfaced, there has been considerable controversy about whom he was reporting to and who should be held responsible for his behaviour. Formally, Shujai and his men have all the appearances of an ALP force: they wear ALP uniforms, drive ALP Ranger pick-ups and receive ALP salaries (it is widely assumed that even after the issuance of his arrest warrant Shujai continued to take his cut from the men’s salaries and expenses budget). The Ministry of Interior, however, has consistently denied that Shujai is on its payroll or under its command (see for instance here). Locals believe that Shujai has been actively protected by the US forces because they were the ones who insisted on his appointment and worked closely with him, and they are the ones that Afghan officials consistently point the finger at when asked why Shujai has still not been arrested. Or as a local elder described it: ‘the tashkil (formal position) is from the Ministry of Interior, the support comes from the Americans, and the line of command comes from both.’

What it all means
Recent media reporting has sought to place this case in a broader perspective. A Global Post article in February 2013 noted the Shujai case as ‘one of many signs’ that the era of ethnic violence, civil conflict and warlord rule was re-emerging:

‘The nightmare scenario of NATO leaving Afghanistan to face a new period of ethnic violence and civil conflict has already become a reality in the southern province of Uruzgan. There a militia commanded by a man named Abdul Hakim Shujai is accused of deliberately destroying houses, raping women and murdering dozens of civilians. The government has ordered his arrest, but he remains free. It is the kind of situation huge swathes of the country experienced after the Soviet Union withdrew and warlords ruled the land. Today it’s one of many signs that a similar era is emerging.’

But the suggestion that the inability to control and arrest Shujai is a side effect of the withdrawal of international forces is really a bit too simplistic. It ignores the role the US SOF played in strengthening Shujai’s hand to start with, in shielding him from arrest now that he has gotten out of control, and in helping to perpetuate a situation in which communities may again feel the need to rally around violent commanders in order to feel safe. For the moment, the inability to arrest Shujai is not just a sign of lack of control, but rather of the differing and conflicting lines of command and protection within the government, the security forces, and between the Afghan and the international military. Shujai was not powerful because he was unchallenged, but rather because he was tolerated, protected and supported.

There have also been suggestions that Shujai may represent a new type of warlord. A more rigorously researched article in the Sidney Morning Herald, for instance, details many of the allegations against Shujai (including some of the more sensationalist ones) and speaks ominously of ‘a monster stalking the eastern flank of Oruzgan’ and of ‘a new breed of warlord’.(6)

However, a closer look at Uruzgan’s local strongmen over the past few decades but also more recently, unfortunately shows that the behaviour of Shujai, though excessively violent, is not unprecedented (this includes the allegations of violent rape). What makes his situation possibly different from commanders in the past is that the violence is taking place in the context of competing narratives and parallel lines of command. The targeted Pashtun communities have shown that they can mobilise an effective lobby (just like the Hazara communities that have been targeted by the Taleban try to use the links they have when they need to). And they have managed to link into a wider political agenda: a blurring of lines within the Kabul government on who the real enemy is (it is no longer unequivocally the Taleban), a growing resentment against the US forces and their auxiliaries, and a creeping – still largely implicit – discourse that is moving towards ethnic hostility.

Shujai, rather than simply being an outlaw, is also the product of the ongoing wrangling between the US and the Afghan government over how to ensure security and control in the face of an ongoing insurgency and of the bubbles of autonomy that are created by overlapping areas of authority. The US forces want troops that are responsive to their needs, can do raids and can keep roads open. The Afghan government wants its sovereignty to be respected, based on a belief that everything will automatically be better once responsibilities have been handed over. In the micro-cosmos of Khas Uruzgan, it is not quite clear how this will play out.

Finally, a word on what the Shujai controversy tells us about the ALP in general. Proponents of the scheme tend to argue that violent and uncontrollable commanders do not represent the ‘real ALP’, given that when properly implemented ALP forces are vetted by elders, bound to their communities and answerable to the local police chief. But this argument ignores the fact that the scheme, in practice, serves as a container for a whole host of local armed gangs, former Taleban fighters and auxiliary forces to the US military. The question of how the ALP is doing and what its impact has been on security should be answered separately for each locality. In general, the main clue can be found by asking ‘who the ALP is for’ in that particular area: who appointed the men, for what reason, and who do they answer to? The extent to which the ALP contributes to stability in the area will be closely linked to the role and the agenda of the main patrons.

Former US Ambassador Ronald Neumann recently warned – and rightly so – that ‘local police forces could yet be a long-term threat to the state if they become predatory or promote inter-tribal feuding. This is why the expansion of local police must be done with a deep understanding of each village where the force is formed and careful attention paid to the district police chiefs who support and supervise the force’. Khas Uruzgan is a case in point.

(1) Over the years, a large number of hybrid and often semi-official auxiliary forces have been set up. These include the ‘campaign’ forces linked to the international military (in particular to the international Special Forces and, in some cases, the CIA), the small armies of private security guards that protect MPs and other prominent personalities (often in improvised uniforms), the private security companies protecting international sites, the forces involved in convoy security or the protection of critical infrastructure and construction projects, and the various local forces such as the ALP. (The distinction between these forces, incidentally, tends to be fluid, and armed men often move around, switching labels while maintaining their lines of command). Most of these forces have been given some form of legal cover and have, at least formally, been brought under the flag of the security ministries. Private security companies have been ordered to come under the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), although many of them appear to have maintained their original structure and command; meanwhile campaign forces and units protecting local infrastructure have often been morphed into the ALP. This can result in considerable confusion over the lines of command and control, as illustrated by the controversy over troops allegedly linked to the SOF in Wardak. For earlier blogs on the various forces see, among others, this blog that discusses, among other things, the KSF and Paktika ASG; as well as this AAN report on Local Defence Forces by Matthieu Lefevre.

(2) See here for the 2010 solicitation for Afghan Security Guard services at Khas Uruzgan’s Anaconda base: 118 guards for the period 1 February 2011 to 31 January 2016.

(3) See for instance ‘Change Comes to Khas Uruzgan’ on 11 April 2010; ‘The Line in the Sand’ on 19 April 2010 (‘This simple, but telling action would be referred to as The Line. Since the first meeting, tales of The Line spread like wildfire throughout the Khas Uruzgan tribes’); and ‘Turning the Tide’ on 22 February 2011 (‘This is but one example of a district in Afghanistan, but success, as seen in Khas Uruzgan, is spreading in other districts and provinces throughout the country’).

(4) Although various media have reported that Shujai was in the ALP since 2009, in interviews with people from Khas Uruzgan, he was not mentioned until early 2011, when he was widely described as the new ‘arbakai’ commander (the term used by Afghans for the ALP throughout the country). The reason the media back-dated Shujai’s appointment probably lies in the fact that the accusations against him go back as far as 2009. At the time, Shujai was not explicitly mentioned as a violent actor, given that the actions were usually ascribed to the ASG commander, but there were references to fighters from Malestan.

(5) Abdul Samad is another ‘reconciled’ Taleb, who joined the government in early 2012. He had run into trouble within the Taleban ranks: he was detained and badly beaten on suspicion of being in touch with the Americans, he managed to escape but only after the man who was guarding him was killed. (The man had accompanied Samad to his house after he had promised to hand over his weapons; when Samad did not reappear, he went to get him and was shot by Samad’s brother. Samad maintains that it was in self-defence given that the man entered his house.) Since Samad joined the peace process, he has been attacked several times by the Taleban, resulting in more deaths on both sides. His relations with the Americans and his ability to call in artillery support has made him the main power in the area under his control, particularly since the Taleban networks have been much weakened, but his position is obviously closely tied to the American presence. ISAF has described Samad here as the ‘most high-profile reintegree in the country’.

(6) The label of ‘warlord’ is often very loosely used. Strictly speaking, it should refer to quasi-independent rulers who control vast territories and have their own sources of income. During the mujehadin years, warlords emerged based on their ability to monopolise resources, mainly money and weapons, and to cement strong ties of dependence with their sub-commanders. With the vast diversification of sources of income and influence in the post-2001 era, many sub-commanders have gained a considerable level of independence vis-à-vis their former tanzim leaders. This, however, does not make them warlords. Shujai, although operating above the law, is still only a small-time commander with influence that for the moment does not exceed (a corner of) two districts.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace