War & Peace

At the End of a Long Curve: The fall of Janikhel


Village in lower Janikhel. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005)

The temporary capture of Janikhel district centre by Taleban forces in late July 2017 stands out in the relatively static, mountainous and geographically and tribally fractured region of eastern Paktia and Khost. There, most district centres continue to be in government hands, while many areas outside of them are more or less under Taleban control. However, the situation has become more fluid over some time. Although the capture was a raid and show-of-force, rather than an attempt to seize and hold a district centre, it seems to reflect a more aggressive approach on the part of the insurgents in that area. As AAN Thomas Ruttig and Fazal Muzhary find, the Taleban’s increased footprint in and stronger hold on parts of this area close to the border with Pakistan is also the outcome of a long-term neglect of an area that, for a long time, has been taken for granted as being pro-government.

What happened in Janikhel?

Early on 25 July 2017, after two days of fighting, a large group of Taleban fighters overran the centre of Janikhel district. The district itself is a small, mountainous strip of land at Paktia’s border with Khost province, close to Pakistani Waziristan and with a number of important local roads running through it. On 5 August 2017, government officials reported they had recaptured the district centre (media report here). Local observers based in the region and in Kabul told AAN that a large government force was deployed and this convoy made it to and retook the district centre. Later, Afghan officials were flown in to see the success.

This followed some days of ANSF fighting their way up to Reshpegi Kandao, a pass about three kilometres away from the district town on a winding route leading uphill through forested and mountainous area that had been heavily mined by the Taleban. Fighting seems to have finished now (ie as of 7 August 2017) and the insurgents returned to their previous positions. They are mainly in Kotkai, a plain towards neighbouring Musakhel district (in Khost province), where they have established several bases over recent years. They might have left the district centre, the observers believe, in order to avoid attracting airstrikes to the area.

The exact number of casualties of the fighting on both sides is not clear. Both the Afghan government and the Taleban have claimed to have inflicted considerable casualties on each other. Government sources, after the recapture of the district centre, claimed 140 insurgents were killed and over 120 more wounded. Provincial police spokesman Sardar Wali Tabasum said that at least sixteen ‘Pakistani militia forces’ were among those killed during the initial days of the fighting. The Taleban claimed they only lost one killed. According to Abdullah Hasrat, the spokesman for Paktia’s governor, five Afghan security forces were killed and another four wounded, but local people told Azadi Radio (see here) that they saw dead bodies of 12 security forces one day after the fall of the district centre to the Taleban. The Taleban claimed 15 ANSF killed and 15 more were captured alive – a fact earlier denied by Hasrat. In a video released on 30 July 2017, they were shown sitting in a semi-circle being questioned about their provinces of origin and whether they had been treated well (which all of them said was the case). The video also showed some dead bodies of ANSF fighters.

According to the observers, the Taleban carried away large amounts of weapons, including a number of US-made Humvee military vehicles. (Such vehicles are sometimes used as car bombs during attacks, such as that on 20 July 2017 in Gereshk, see here, probably because the Taleban lack the means to keep them operational.)

The district centre fell to the Taleban on the second day after the fighting broke out. On the first day, the pro-government defenders had beaten back the attackers. They set up additional security posts around the centre, which is located high in the mountains, and, as the local observers confirmed, apparently did not see the second wave of attackers coming and were surprised by it. (That there was a surprise effect is surprising in itself, but not unprecedented, as AAN has reported, for example, from Kunduz province – see here.)

The Taleban had pulled together fighters from several districts of Paktia and Khost, as well as from Waziristan on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistani border, local observers told AAN. Waziristan is where most of their bases still are. The comparatively small, closely knit local tribes of Paktia and Khost on the Afghan side have been reluctant to allow them to operate permanently on their territories, and due to the short distances, cross-border raids are effective enough. But there are also areas held by the Taleban inside Afghanistan, for instance, Janikhel’s Kotkai plain, about ten kilometers away from the district centre that has been under Taleban control for several years. According to one local journalist, who did not want to be named for reasons of personal security, the Taleban fighters mainly came from the Haqqani and the Mansur networks, the two traditional Taleban sub-groups in the Afghan southeast (more background on them here).

A member of the provincial council told the German news agency dpa that the fighting has displaced 250 families.

The run-up to the events

It appears the attack was a raid and show-of-force, rather an attempt to seize and hold territory. It reflects a more aggressive approach on the part of the insurgents, particularly in the eastern, mountainous parts of Paktia and Khost, but also in the two provinces’ capitals, Gardez and Khost. (1) For many years, the situation has been relatively static in this mountainous, geographically and tribally fractured region. Most district centres continue to be in government hands, while many areas outside of them are more or less under Taleban control. (As local journalists pointed out to AAN, there is also an economic factor behind the Taleban control of the area, which exports locally gathered pine and walnuts to Pakistan. The Taleban levy taxes on these to generate one important local source of income for their fighters.) This has changed slowly over a number of years with a growing number of significant incidents.

On 20 May 2017, there was an assault by three attackers, one of them being a suicide bomber, on a bank branch office in Gardez, the Paktia’s provincial capital. This caused the death of three people and injured 30 more. Almost simultaneously, a suicide bomber with a very strong explosive device hit a convoy of the Khost Protection Force (KPF) – a local US-run private militia that is not part of the regular government forces – that had stopped in Khost city for shopping. The attack killed 18 people and was claimed by the Taleban. After the withdrawal of most US forces from the region and the closure of a number of their forward bases, the 4-6,000 strong KPF is the Taleban’s main local adversary. They have been effective in pushing back the Haqqani network’s influence in the three Dzadran districts of Paktia (Waza Dzadran, Shwak and Gerda Tserai). (2) This was followed on 18 June 2017 by a coordinated attack on the police headquarters in Gardez. This reduced much of the compound to rubble and killed at least nine people. Gardez, and its outskirts, has been the scene of string of smaller attacks, such as assassinations, often with the use of magnetic bombs. The latest of these incidents happened on 2 August 2017 against a vehicle of a local intelligence official killing two people.

There was also new fighting in Dand-e Pattan in June and Dzadzi Aryub in July 2017, two border districts that, for many years, were known as staunchly pro-government and safe areas, but where conditions have deteriorated over the past years. Taleban activity has also been registered closer to Gardez, as fresh AFP photos of armed insurgents in Ahmad Aba district show (see one here). This increased presence has been met by frequent drone and other air strikes, for example, on 8 July 2017 in Mamozai, Zurmat district, also close to Gardez and a traditional Taleban stronghold (see this news article as well as 2016 AAN reporting about that area) and in Waza Dzadran on 1 August 2017.

The surprise factor of the attack on Janikhel is astonishing because its district centre has fallen to the Taleban at least once before, almost a year ago, on 27 August 2016 after a siege of almost two weeks. People in Baghlan province had then protested (see here) and demanded that the government send additional forces to rescue the besieged soldiers, who were mainly from their province. After the rescue, the district fell to the Taleban.

The Taleban left after ten days, pushed out by air attacks, but torched the district governor’s office building, the houses of government employees and local policemen, as well as other administrational buildings as they retreated (read here). At the time of this latest Taleban attack, the buildings were almost reconstructed, but then destroyed again, as a demonstration of the incapacity of the government to defend the place.

Furthermore, Janikhel has had a pattern of regular Taleban attacks going back in time to at least as early 2007. (3) The Taleban claimed to have captured the district centre first in late 2008. In a 2009 pre-election assessment, UNAMA counted the district as one of three “high risk districts” in Paktia, together with Zurmat and Gerda Tserai, the home village of the Haqqani family. It is, incidentally, since 2001 the only district centre in Paktia that was ever captured by the Taleban, and one of only a few in Loya Paktia (all the others are in Paktika, such as Omna that was taken in September 2016, and Wurmamay that was held for around two weeks in October 2016). [Corrected 8 August 2017: Three districts in Paktika, Naka, Dila and Omna, are the only districts in the region fully, ie including the district centre, controlled by the Taleban.]

Why now, and why Janikhel?

Janikhel, although small and not very populous (official statistics estimate around 100,000 inhabitants), is of strategic importance for the region of eastern Paktia and Khost. The first reason is that the second-largest road connecting the two provincial centres, which the local population mainly uses, runs through the district. (There is also a more direct main road, further to the south.) Second, it is the junction of a number of smaller roads – and insurgent routes, including the one over the Reshpegi Pass – leading to other hotspots in the region, for example, to Waza Dzadran (Paktia), which is controlled by a local rival of the Haqqanis, and Sabari (Khost) districts. Sabari, with its old, madrassa-based ideological Hezb-e Islami and later Taleban networks (the former often under the latter’s command) is another geographical origin of the insurgency in Loya Paktia, which started with the anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s.

Even more importantly, Janikhel connects – through mountain passes in the border district of Dand-e Pattan – the Haqqani network’s logistic bases over the border in Parachinar (4) with the areas on the Afghan side of the border that are already widely under Taleban control (Dand-e Patan and Janikhel in Paktia; Sabari, Musakhel and Qalandar; the latter three being in Khost province) with other areas further inland, where the Taleban have lesser influence, but is showing an increased activity, such as Ahmad Aba and Sayyed Karam districts near Gardez and further on to Logar and Kabul. Janikhel may also have been chosen for the July raid because its centre sits on a forested mountain range (with even higher mountain tops around it) that is more difficult to defend and further out of reach of the KPF, than the other three districts.

Government neglect, tribal fragmentation…

Local politicians claim that they had seen the attack coming. Mujib Rahman Chamkani, a member of parliament from Paktia province, told AAN that he and his fellow MPs from the province had been telling the government to block the flow of the Taleban from the adjacent districts, which he said had destabilised Janikhel for the last five years, but no action had been taken. The last time he raised the issue, he said, was two weeks before the district fell. He said that they visited “all four security branches: the National Security Council (NSC), Ministry of Defence, National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Ministry of Interior.” But local intelligence operatives, he claimed, told the central government that their information was incorrect. Chamkani added: “We got a call from the president’s office, who told us a day after our meeting that the situation in Janikhel was normal and the district was not in danger of falling to Taleban.”

According to Chamkani, there are Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, Afghanistan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces deployed to this district. Altogether, he estimated this to total some 300 to 500 men. (Provincial spokesman Hasrat told AAN he could not disclose the number of the deployed forces.) Chamkani, local residents and observers told AAN that the Taleban had clearly outnumbered the government forces.

Chamkani further told AAN that ALP members from his home district (also called Chamkani) told him that they had wanted to come to the rescue of Janikhel, but ran out of fuel half-way there. The local officials, he added, did not give the ALP “enough food, ammunition and fuel for the vehicles or motorbikes.” The governor spokesman rejected these claims as baseless. Other observers also spoke of poor coordination between the various regular and irregular pro-government forces in the area.

As AAN has reported previously from other parts of Afghanistan, what is seen locally as government neglect often leads to theories about possible collusion between government officials and the insurgents. As Chamkani put it: “This [the lack of supplies and coordination] makes one doubt the security officials, [and suspect] that they might have a cooperation with the Taleban or may not have the serious intention to prevent the Taleban from attacking this district.”

However, this is only the latest manifestation of the area’s strained relations with the central government, the origins of which reach back to the first years after the overthrow of the Taleban regime by the US-led 2001 military intervention. This is particularly true for the Pashtun tribe of the Mangal that constitutes almost 100 per cent of the population of Janikhel, Musakhel, Qalandar and Lajja Mangal districts, as well as large parts of Dand-e Pattan, Chamkani and Mirzaka. In the early years, the Mangal and most other tribes of Loya Paktia professed an open pro-government position. The Mangal were particularly well-organised under a central tribal council that resided in Janikhel centre. In 2003, the council decided unilaterally to stop growing poppy (which was not a major, but a visible crop, locally) in response to the anti-narcotics policies adopted by the donors and the new Afghan central government, and in exchange demanded development projects for their area. The decision was committed in writing to the UN mission in Afghanistan. However, neither donors, nor the central government of then President Hamed Karzai, responded to this initiative; the UK – as lead nation for the international community’s anti-narcotics drive – concentrated its funding almost entirely on Nangrahar, which then was a larger growing area.

Another political decision of the Mangal Central Shura very likely contributed to the tribe’s neglect by the Afghan government. During the 2003 ‘constitutional consultation’ in the run-up to the Constitutional Loya Jirga over the turn of 2003 to 2004, the tribe unanimously opted for a restoration of the Afghan monarchy; a decision that clearly angered Karzai. The Mangal council also complained that they were ‘consulted’ about a constitution, the draft of which the government refused to publish.

The failure of the Mangal council to attract projects and funds led to its delegitimisation within the tribe and to the fragmentation of the Mangal tribal leadership in general (and, also, to the resumption of poppy production). By 2009, there were around a dozen Mangal shuras each claiming to represent the entire tribe. Local observers also point to the frequent changes of the Paktia provincial governor (two alone since November 2016), leading to discontinuity and ever-changing realignments and intrigues among the provincial and district administrations and the MPs from the province.

Tribal fragmentation, Taleban gains…

Janikhel district, and the wider Mangal-populated areas of Paktia and Khost illustrate how weak administration, neglect by the central government (even if partly only in local perception) and disintegration of the tribal structure turned an area with a pro-government population into a recruiting ground for the local Taleban, particularly the Haqqani network. According to observers, the Haqqani network has seen an influx of young Mangal men in recent years, motivated largely by joblessness and lack of perspectives. The fact that no Mangal has risen up to the Haqqani network’s leadership, and that the network continues to be dominated by the clan that has given it its name (from the Mezai subtribe of the Dzadran), has not prevented this trend.

The temporary fall of Janikhel illustrates how vulnerable many district centres in Loya Paktia are, even though the Taleban rarely make any serious attempts to capture them. The attack, though ultimately repelled, was a successful show-of-force that had both propaganda (the video that was released) and material value (the military hardware that was captured). It also showed that the Taleban have the initiative and are able to force the government into a reactionary mode. On the other hand, it also illustrates that the insurgents are still not strong enough to keep and hold a district centre in this part of Loya Paktia.

For the time being, the fighting in Janikhel seems to have been more about control over the insurgency supply routes, than over the actual district centre itself. However, it does indicate a more aggressive approach and comes on the back of a slow spread of territorial control of the Haqqani network in eastern Paktia and Khost. This spreading control has been fostered by the slow, long-term fragmentation of institutions of tribal leadership that had earlier guaranteed a considerable degree of tribal unity and, at least a tacit support for the central government. This might be the most concerning development in the region, as it might be irreversible.

 

(1) Together with Paktika, further south, Paktia and Khost used to be one province until the 1970s (called Paktia); Khost and Paktika were established as separate provinces under President Daud (1973-78). Therefore, to this day, these three provinces are often referred to as Loya (Greater) Paktia (or P2K in NATO language). Provincial borders between them do not count for much with the local population, nor the insurgents, particularly for those tribes now spread over several provinces. As a result of the breakup of the original province, several tribes were split, including the Dzadran (to which the Haqqani family belongs; they now live in three districts each in all three provinces) and the Mangal (the main population of Janikhel) were split. This spread the central government’s dealings with them over three different provincial administrations, thus making it more difficult.

(2) The KPF is, according to different sources, between 4,000 and 6,000 strong and run by the CIA and operates across the provincial boundaries of Loya Paktia. In late 2015, the Washington Post, in an investigative report described severe human rights violations committed by the force (read here).

(3) The earliest attack was reported by Pajhwok News Agency on 3 April 2007 (not online; in the author’s archive).

(4) According to independent Pakistani media reports (see, for example, here), the Haqqani network leadership relocated to Parachinar before the 2014 Pakistani anti-Taleban military operations. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network (the remnant of the 1980s Loya Paktia network of the Hezb-e Islami/Khales mujahedin party), is known for his long-standing relationship with the Pakistani intelligence service ISI (more AAN background here).

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Thematic Category: War & Peace