War & Peace

Classics of Conflict (1): Reviewing some of Afghanistan’s most notorious hotspots


The first five of the top ten of hotspots reviewed in this dispatch are Panjwayi/Kandahar, Shindand/Herat, Bala Murghab and Qaisar in Badghis and Faryab, Warduj and Jurm in Badakhshan, and Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal in Nuristan. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini

There are only a few places in Afghanistan everybody has heard of. Names like Panjwayi or Tora Bora, though, have been around for a long time, in some cases more than a decade. They have gained notorious prominence in the international press because of the heavy involvement of foreign forces and the subsequent heavy casualty rates, or, on the contrary, because of the total absence of foreign troops and their isolated and remote location that made alarm calls about their imminent fall all the more poignant. They became, sadly, the most famous bits of Afghanistan and shaped the country’s image worldwide. Fabrizio Foschini examines how ten such places that made history during the Afghan conflict are faring after 2014. This dispatch introduces the first five of them, the second part will be published soon.

What have been Afghanistan’s most famous battlefields? Every list of such places will be dictated by personal recollections or acquaintances, temporary perceptions or realities. Attempting a limited selection is particularly difficult as the decade-long conflict sooner or later found its way to almost every corner of Afghanistan. It has, for this list of ‘top ten,’ been extremely difficult to boil down the number of potential candidate districts from a hundred-odd to only ten, and there have been compromises: some districts have been examined together in order to analyse a broader but homogenous area while others have been left out because AAN has devoted, or plans to devote, separate analysis to them. (1) Also, we could confidently exclude ‘transit districts’ from our list after Michael O’Hanlon so helpfully explained to us in February of this year how all highways are perfectly safe (don’t repeat this to your Afghan colleagues if they have family beyond Sayyedabad in Wardak province, or Bakwa in Farah). So let us have a look at what became of those fateful battlefields, after the fury and glory of foreign troops passed.

1. Panjwayi district and Kandahar city, Kandahar province

Among the districts surrounding Kandahar city as a sort of green belt of orchards and hamlets, Panjwayi is probably the best known. It cannot only be considered the birthplace of the Taleban (together with neighbouring Zharay), but it also soon reverted, after the collapse of the Taleban Emirate in 2001, into one of their strongholds. As early as September 2006, it turned into the theatre of fierce fighting between the Taleban and the Canadian ISAF forces; then it became the major focus of the US military operations of 2010–11 (read here for comprehensive background to those operations). In March 2012, it witnessed the shocking massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier (here his latest statements).

Every time, major operations were initiated, because of the threat the incidents posed to the city. The security of Panjwayi is indeed closely linked to that of Kandahar. However, whereas until 2010 – and occasionally after that – the Taleban held sway over Panjwayi and were even able to use it as headquarters to organise and launch operations inside the city, the district today is reportedly under tighter government control, and that is arguably because of the overall better security situation in the city. Since mid-2013, according to many residents and observers, central areas of Kandahar province feel relatively safer compared to the daily violence experienced in past years. According to statistics developed by an independent monitoring organisation, Panjwayi has witnessed the most dramatic drop in insurgent incidents among Kandahar districts: from 345 in 2013 to 44 in 2014. Activities by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) increased, going from 213 to 240. It seems ANSF are now trying to bring neighbouring Zharay under the same degree of control, while more-removed districts like Maiwand or Shah Wali Kot remain affected by daily insurgent operations.

ANSF in Kandahar are reportedly much more active and reactive to insurgent aggressiveness in Panjwayi than they are in other contested areas. In fact, there seems to be a ‘tit for tat’ spree of killings going on between them and the insurgents, with ANSF scaling up their operations in frequency and lethality every time the insurgents increase their targeted killings operations. It is arguably by killing or arresting unprecedentedly high numbers of Taleban or their sympathisers that Kandahar police commander Abdul Razeq has succeeded in reducing Taleban initiative. Also, by bringing in his own men from Spin Boldak district, he has managed to enhance coordination and reduce the risk of infiltration among the security forces. Faced with such revengeful ANSF, the Taleban’s chances reside in aiming at the command and control structure of their foes with high-profile assassinations and, in fact, Razeq already had narrow escapes from several suicide attacks in recent years (read here and here).

Thus, ultimately better security in Panjwayi was not achieved by the US operations, but rather by putting a tougher master in charge of Kandahar city who was eventually able to sustain an endogenous security bubble. Ironically, the district is connected to Abdul Razeq’s ascent from the very beginning. In early 2006, the then rather obscure border police commander was called in from Spin Boldak with his Achakzai militiamen to tackle the Taleban in Panjwayi, and their onslaught managed to thoroughly antagonise the local Nurzai residents, bolstering the Taleban with recruits right before Operation Medusa started and drawing the battle lines in the district for years to come. (2) Razeq’s political persona has now shifted to national-level importance. The widespread allegations of abuse and human rights violations by his men have not changed this, due to Kabul’s need to secure Kandahar. However, his increasing personal sway over the city, and increasingly the province, could be creating strong dissatisfaction inside government circles. Recent hints at a possible reduction of his powers may originate from this discontent – or from an acknowledgement that his tight grip on Kandahar leaves no chances for peace negotiations with the Taleban leadership originating from the province. (3)

2. Shindand district, Herat province

Until a few years ago, when leaving the embattled south in a northwesterly direction to the city-oasis of Herat (then relatively peaceful), one district always presented a lot of security problems: Shindand. This vast district is largely inhabited by Pashtuns who came to be at odds with Ismail Khan, the self-declared “Amir of the West,” when he was in power in Herat, and who eventually found a connection to the Taleban. For many years, the military airbase built there by the Soviets and reactivated by the US, mainly with Iran in mind, lent to the place an air of strategic importance. Today, foreign presence has almost vanished, the airbase is mainly used as a training facility for Afghan pilots, and the security situation in other areas of Herat, including areas close to the city, has deteriorated, too. Shindand, though, still contributes a major proportion of the province’s security incidents – around one-third of the total, according to one organisation monitoring the situation across the country. In recent weeks, the district Taleban have consistently been attacking its central areas.

As early as 2006–07, Shindand has been one of the laboratories for the employment of local militias by foreign contractors linked to the US military. Those militias experimented with how to use the US military potential to set up and have their enemies killed under the label of Taleban. The deeds of Mr. Black and Mr. White, as the local US contractors had aptly been named after the quarrelling gangsters of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, revealed a new, dirtier side of the Afghan conflict to the public when a Senate inquiry was published. Their commanders basically killed each other for greed over the security contracts, while at the same time being supportive of the local Taleban.

Nowadays, locals report that the government’s writ extends only to the district centre and the area around the airbase, plus the immediate surroundings of the few army posts in this vast district. Throughout the years, governance efforts seemed meagre, with a long series of mediocre or outright dishonest officials appointed as district governors. A wide expanse of no man’s land where insurgents are able to move freely connects Shindand with restive Posht-e Rud and Khak-e Safed districts of Farah to the south.

The recent spate of attacks by insurgents, who apparently tried to storm the district centre, may be connected to the homecoming of Shindand’s most prominent local Taleban commander. Nangialay – son of slain Amanullah Khan who used to withstand Ismail Khan’s power –reportedly returned from Quetta for the first time in many years last March. Even before the attacks in May, he made it known that he was not planning to lay down arms. In fact, according to locals he even declared himself “ready to raise the black flag” of Daesh (Islamic State) in case the Taleban leadership opted for a peace deal. With this statement, he is reflecting the stance of many mid-level insurgent commanders who had joined the insurgency because of family or political grievances rather than ideology and who now see the opportunity to seek another organisation’s patronage and continue their opposition towards the government.

The ALP project in the home area of Taleban commander Nangialay – Zirkuh, also home to most of the militant and armed groups of the province – has recently been falling apart. Mentored by US forces until the end of 2014, the once 350-strong district ALP was all concentrated in Zirkuh, with its recruitment base split between men with a connection to the family of Nangialay and to other communities. However, no connection was strong enough to preserve them from a war of attrition waged by the Taleban with frequent attacks and targeted killings. It eventually wore them out. According to locals interviewed, the ALP leaders fled to Herat city, and their militia is now “dead and gone.”

Many more residents of Shindand took the road to Herat never to come back. Whoever was “an administrator, a teacher, a civil servant or an educated or well-off person,” as one such professional from Shindand recalled, found it increasingly difficult and dangerous to live in the district. Militants started to target everybody who stood out with kidnapping threats or simply by enforcing a racket. People would get phone calls with threats and requests for money, until everybody with assets had been forced to pay or leave.

The government seems now to be taking steps to devote more attention to Shindand. At the beginning of June, the government announced the decision to split the district into several administrative units, to better control and allocate more resources to the area. Whether the move has been sparked by the need to counter the recently renewed activism of the local insurgents or by long-standing complaints by locals over Shindand’s considerable size and population is unclear. The decision, although criticised as ethnically biased by newspapers like Mandegar (article in the issue of 3 June 2015), will undoubtedly go down well with locals and might even prove beneficial on the security side – provided further militia-oriented security shortcuts are avoided. At any rate, the previous stasis was described as “doomed” by locals interviewed by AAN, so any change is probably welcome at this stage.

3. From Bala Murghab to Qaisar districts, Badghis and Faryab provinces

Another area of the western region that experienced troubles since the early days was the eastern part of Badghis province, with Bala Murghab, Jawand and Ghormach districts. Despite remarkable differences in their respective human geographies (Bala Murghab is mainly inhabited by Pashtuns who moved there at the end of the nineteenth century, while Qaisar is almost fully inhabited by Uzbeks), these two places became over time the poles of local insurgency.

Bala Murghab’s story is a simple one: Pashtuns there had supported the Taleban when they attacked neighbouring Faryab from the west in the late 1990s and were severely hit by reprisals by Uzbek and Tajik militias linked to the Northern Alliance after the Taleban’s downfall in 2001, with many displaced to Herat and Kandahar. Opponents to the new government found favourable terrain here, also because of the limited interest and investment by foreign partners in the area. Insurgents started to use the area as a hideout undisturbed, until US, Italian and Spanish troops moved in and fought tough battles with them between 2007 and 2012. Then they withdrew. Last year, Badghis province witnessed a higher number of insurgent attacks than in any previous year, a great majority of them in the three mentioned districts.

From eastern Badghis, insecurity spread into Faryab’s Qaisar district around 2007. At first, the district’s Uzbek majority resisted attempts by the Taleban to make inroads and raise taxes, but eventually an autochthonous insurgency developed and gained broader acceptance among the local communities. This was all the more surprising as the area had offered tough resistance to the Taleban in the 1990s. Apparently, local Jamiati-Jombesh rivalries, poppy-cultivation interests and radical propaganda by religious preachers, coupled with the absolute inconsistence of government outreach, did the trick for the insurgency. The whole hilly area between Ghormach and Qaisar became a Taleban stronghold and a much-used stopover in their movements throughout the northern region. (4) Things nearly collapsed after the Norwegian PRT (and the Norwegian Quick Response Force) withdrew from Faryab in September 2012. The following spring, the Taleban launched a major offensive in Qaisar managing to remove most ALP checkpoints and forcing the government to send reinforcements, and they repeated the move exactly one year later, in April 2014. In both instances, local insurgents were joined by Taleban from Ghormach, Jawand and Bala Morghab.

The two offensives showed not only the aggressiveness of the Taleban, but also the weakness of the Afghan National Security Forces in Qaisar, who each time fled superior and better-armed enemies. This year too, in mid-April, the insurgents occupied some villages in the hilly Khushbafi area of the district, displacing many families. The attacks have since subsided, but given the trends of conflict and insurgent presence in the district in recent months, it is only to be expected that the Taleban will again mount major operations in Qaisar later in the year. These concerns were also raised recently in the Wolesi Jirga by a Faryab member of parliament, Naqibullah Sayeq, who added that more than 100 families of Chechen, Arab and Punjabi origin have settled in Qaisar and displaced local residents. According to Abdul Baqi Hashemi, a provincial council member from Qaisar, militants were receiving reinforcements through the passes that led from Ghor into Badghis and Faryab (a route, he says, the foreign families, too, followed ten months ago, coming from Waziristan).

The insurgents’ offensive capacity in the district is enhanced by the ALP’s weakness. Qaisar is among the few districts in Faryab to have an ALP program, but its numbers were reduced after the US Special Forces ended their partnership with the militias last year, and eventually only 200 local policemen could be maintained under salary by the Ministry of Interior. Even these are less than dependable, for their loyalty is divided between Fatihullah Khan Qaisari, a sitting MP, and Janeb Saheb, a former senator also from Qaisar whose brother Shah Farrukh Shah is one of the district’s ALP commanders. Both strongmen share a confused past of unsteady association with Jamiat-e Islami and Jombesh-e Milli, switching sides but always set on their main objective: to fight each other’s local influence.

The Taleban’s influence in Qaisar seems stronger by far. And that of other militant groups, too, as age-old reports of the presence of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Qaisar are now coupled with those about Daesh making inroads, although the success of their outreach among the foreign fighters and the local militants there is still unclear.

Quite clear is, though, that the whole area is in dire condition and remains among the poorest and least developed of the whole country. By February 2014, the conflict had already displaced 2,000 families. The only section of the Ring Road that has not been completed is between Qaisar and Ghormach (read AAN previous piece here). Even if it were, it would be exceedingly unsafe to travel, with daytime checkpoints on the Qaisar-Almar stretch of the road towards the provincial capital of Maimana reportedly targeting government employees.

4. Warduj and Jurm districts, Badakhshan province

For quite a few years, Warduj district of Badakhshan has made a name for itself as a very dangerous place. In the beginning, its insecurity was relative and just compared unfavourably with the rest of this altogether quiet province. In more recent years, however, volumes of conflict have reached levels comparable to hotspots of insurgency in the south or east of the country, including causing 1,000 families to be displaced last year due to clashes in Jurm and Warduj districts.

Warduj became the first district of Badakhshan to see armed opposition to the ISAF troops, almost by chance, when a notoriously aggressive Jamiati commander called Khairuddin Adamkhor, the “Man-Eater,” attacked German troops transiting the district in 2007; later on, he was killed. It has since remained volatile, thanks to some pre-existing sympathisers of the Taleban among the district’s very conservative population (there were madrasas connected to Deobandi centers in Pakistan since well before the jihad), and to the influx of Taleban fighters in recent years. The difficult terrain has cost the ANSF many lives, with the ideological reasoning of local insurgents blurring with the fault lines of Badakhshan’s never-ending commanders’ wars.

Despite the strategic position of the district (Warduj features the only all-year road connecting the Pamir districts of eastern Badakhshan with the rest of the country), until now insurgents have not tried to disrupt traffic and civilian movement on a regular basis. They have, instead, carried out rather fierce attacks on the ANSF, proving especially able at ambushing sloppily conducted police operations. This was mainly thanks to the higher ground advantage they usually have and, recently, their ability to sweep away isolated outposts.

As mentioned, for a while the situation was understood as Warduj being a radicals’ island in a sea of relatively stable, or at least more naturally Taleban-immune, Jamiati districts. However, recently insurgents could not only perpetuate their operations despite their utter isolation, but extend them into neighbouring Jurm. In mid-April, large numbers of insurgents attacked and captured a number of army posts in Jurm. Despite government vows to clear the area, the insurgents maintained the initiative and soon afterwards, in early May, overtook more ANSF posts in Warduj. These attacks, with the particularly brutal treatment meted out to prisoners and the loss of significant ground the government later was hardly able to recapture, change again the equation of the conflict.

Warduj and Jurm are the two main valleys spreading south from central Badakhshan. They run almost parallel and are divided by a mountain range. The insurgents control the higher side valleys and passes connecting the two districts, and Jurm recently seems to have become their primary target. This could be because it is the home district of Zalmay Mujaddidi, a provincial strongman and MP with clout also in Warduj. His break from the main Jamiat-e Islami network to join Karzai’s field has long polarised the local political game. More simply, however, Jurm, with its much larger population, could represent a more interesting target than the sparsely populated Warduj, if the insurgents now follow a more-than-local agenda. The large numbers of fighters the insurgents pulled together to carry out their recent attacks on ANSF posts indeed do show that they are now more than just local fighters. Reports that they are being reinforced by radicalised youth recruited on Faizabad University campus – where Wahabi and radical preaching is very active – and, yes, by foreign militants as well, might be true. The area between Warduj and Jurm has now undisputedly achieved the status of ‘jihadi battlefield’ and therefore quite naturally attracts volunteers from neighbouring districts, provinces and countries.

Recently, however, the Taleban also briefly occupied Yamgan district centre, and the ANSF are now organising a counter-attack. Yamgan, with its famed lapis mines, had been under threat from the Taleban for a long time. Also, local commanders – aligned with the government and holding official security positions, who have long privately exploited the mines, even fighting off government attempts at re-gaining full control of this asset – behaved opportunistically. Before the recent siege, a member of the Badakhshan provincial council lamented that the militants even raise protection money on trucks transporting the gems – 70,000 to 120,000 Afghanis per truckload.

Looking at next potential targets of the insurgency in Badakhshan, one option could be the border districts inhabited by Ismailis on the other side of the mountains. These are poor but of strategic value for trafficking of opiates, which constitute the main source of income for Badakhshi strongmen. Alternatively, a next target could be the important agricultural and trade hub – also for opiates – of Baharak, which is close to Warduj and is the traditional seat of power of the local Jamiatis.

5. Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal districts, Nuristan province

The upper part of the Durand Line, the controversial border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, consists of some of the most difficult terrain of the whole country: high, cracked, heavily forested mountain ridges with scant communication networks or, worse, with roads utterly exposed to ambushes and IED warfare. This, coupled with the presence of strong local opposition to the foreign intervention – the area was never a Taleban stronghold during the emirate, but it features radical Salafi networks – and the easy opportunity for cross-border activities from sanctuaries inside Pakistan and also by Pakistani militants, has made it one of the most embattled areas of Afghanistan.

In more recent years, the border districts also bore the brunt of the diplomatic scuffles between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which here takes a serious and deadly form, with the Pakistani Army pounding Afghan territory with indiscriminate artillery fire. It caused heavy material and human losses (see previous AAN reporting here).

Kamdesh’s location at the centre of a network of roads and passes connecting Pakistan to various parts of northeastern Afghanistan have made it a strategic spot since the late 1970s. In 2006, it convinced the US military to establish a combat outpost in the area. Combat outpost Keating was nearly overrun and destroyed by the Taleban on 3 October 2009 in one of the conflict’s bloodiest battles, and the US ground troops beat a retreat from the area. When the focus of military operations shifted again to the east in mid-2011, this materialised mostly in the form of air support for Afghan troops and the mentoring of local militias provided by the Special Forces.

One such pro-government militia, headed by Hezb-e Islami commander Mawlawi Sadeq, has held for a long time the main Kamdesh village and its surroundings. Not an enthusiastic supporter of the new institutions – he was initially ousted to Pakistan by the NATO troops – Sadeq has notwithstanding guaranteed nominal government control in the district with his presence. The Taleban have often pressed him hard but ultimately failed to conquer the district centre, although they control most of the outlying areas of the district.

The district’s ANP and ALP are practically under Mawlawi Sadeq’s network’s control. However, Sadeq’s men are only interested in controlling a few central villages and, according to Kamdesh residents who fled to Kabul, refrain from all activity in other areas of the district. When the Taleban attack ANA and ANBP checkpoints in Gawardesh valley, one of the hardest-hit spots in the district, they do not have to worry about reinforcements coming from the district centre. There are, at times, almost 1,000 government troops of all sorts are in the district, compared to maybe 200 Taleban, but the former are static and unable to guarantee the security of more than a few places, while the latter are mobile and can disperse more easily.

In neighbouring Barg-e Matal, the local ALP is mainly made up of local Salafis, who might have found a deal with the insurgents present there, at least with the Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT) militants with whom they share common Salafi tenets and decades of cooperation. (5) They likely accepted to cooperate with the government represented by the governor (now acting governor) Hafez Abdul Qayum (a Salafi himself – find recent reports of reconciliation in the district here) due to economic benefits, while not engaging whole-heartedly in fighting the insurgents. At a first look, this Salafi connection would not necessarily play in favour of Daesh recruitment, as it seems to be doing in other areas of eastern Afghanistan, because of the allegiance of LeT to the Pakistani state – which Daesh arguably opposes – and the strong ideological cohesion of this group’s members. However, the Islamic militants in Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal, as in other Nuristani districts, have followed a peculiar trend: groups of torpushan, “black-clad” fighters, have often appeared to target civilians over both political and religious matters, showing if not an affiliation at least a penchant for going beyond the average Taleban in terms of radicalism. In this rough terrain, where Afghans and foreigners alike have sought to locate all sort of mythical creatures, from Siberian tigers to Alexander’s lost armies, the often-overestimated IS could eventually make an appearance.

After realising that the early deployment of foreign troops had stirred popular opposition and offered militants a foothold – in addition to the government’s neglect of this province –, the NATO and Afghan military decided to rely on continued airstrikes in the hope to awe and behead the insurgency. (6) Until recently, they were still frequent (38 out of 45 airstrikes carried out in Nuristan in 2014 took place in Kamdesh).

These airstrikes created resentment and radicalism among the local population. However shortsighted and controversial, though, without this last military engagement by the NATO, the balance of power in the area cannot possibly tip in favour of the insurgents. Eastern Nuristan can be easily cut-off from the rest of Afghanistan. In the river valley downstream of Kamdesh, Ghaziabad district (already inside Kunar province although part of historical Nuristan) is seeing increasingly more numerous and bigger attacks by insurgents on ANSF positions; further south, Dangam district has recently become the more contested border district of Kunar, with levels of conflict intensity rarely matched in previous years.

 

(1) Reference here is to districts in northern Helmand or in Kunduz. Levels of conflict there have reached such proportions that they require the focus of separate AAN analysis (read here; here and here).

(2) The first chapters of “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now” by Graeme Smith offer a vivid and thoughtful narrative of events in Kandahar at the time, while the beginning of Razeq’s career have been masterfully described by Matthieu Aikins (here), with a 2011 update here.

(3) The death of his colleague Matiullah Khan, also a warlord turned cop then kingpin of a whole province, neighbouring Uruzgan, in a possible suicide attack in Kabul earlier this year may have increased Razeq’s concerns about the Taleban eliminating such strongmen in their southern strongholds and the degree of cooperation they are able to receive from insiders or people with connections on the government side.

(4) Even ISAF acknowledged this ‘continuum,’ transferring responsibility over Ghormach district to its Northern Zone command (administratively, too, Ghormach has been switching back and forth between Badghis and Faryab). Read AAN previous reporting here.

(5) The Pakistani militant outfit active in Kashmir first established a presence in this part of Nuristan in the 1990s, setting up training camps for its operatives inside lawless Afghanistan – and in an area that provided landscape features similar to their future area of operations.

(6) Find a recent, interesting article about the use and uselessness of ‘targeted killings’ or ‘beheading’ drug cartels and insurgent groups here. A more extensive version in German can be found here.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace