War & Peace

Classics of Conflict (2): Reviewing some of Afghanistan’s most notorious hotspots


Photo: Bethany Matta

The second part of our series reviewing ten places in Afghanistan that have been fought over throughout the last decade (see part 1 here) starts close to where the first ended: with an area straddling the border between Nuristan and Kunar provinces. Insurgents have in fact just recently captured the administrative centre of one of the districts there, Waygal, although after a similar occurrence in 2011 the administrative centre had been moved to a more-secure downstream location. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini also looks at districts and areas in Kabul, Nangrahar, Paktia and Ghazni provinces.

6. Pech and Waygal, Nuristan and Kunar provinces

Pech valley names such as Korengal and Wanat still resonate in the ears of the United States public. The whole Pech valley, wild and meandering, was often perceived as the ‘heart of darkness’ of the Afghan conflict, with the Korengal side valley being most often labelled as such. This tributary valley of the main Pech, although bereft of any strategic value per se, was the theatre of vicious fighting in June 2005 during the so-called Operation Red Wings. The botched attempt by a SEAL squad to kill a Hezb-e Islami-turned-Taleban commander, Ahmad Shah, and the likewise catastrophic failure of a heli-borne rescue mission led to the deaths of 19 Special Forces soldiers. Since then, the conflict in Korengal has become the archetype of the way US troops pushed into the remotest corners of the country where hardly any Afghan government partners were to be found, only to get bogged down in deadly conflicts of a rather local origin and significance – something that contributed immensely to the growing US public fatigue with the military intervention in Afghanistan. (1)

The Battle of Wanat came three years later, on 13 July 2008, and much like the one in Kamdesh (described in the previous part of this report), witnessed a coordinated Taleban attack almost overcoming a US army base. The importance of that branch of the Pech Valley to the US public ended a few days later when the outpost was finally abandoned.

To the Afghan public, however, the later vicissitudes of Waygal district, to which Wanat belongs, have been far more important. After the US withdrawal, the district was virtually no man’s land until March 2011, when insurgents moved in and occupied the district centre, forcing the few policemen deployed there to flee. Reports started to circulate about the district swelling with al-Qaeda and other foreign militants, and public opinion in Kabul was for once made aware of forsaken Nuristan (read also our previous reports here and here). This prompted the government and its foreign backers to take action, and in June 2012, government control over the district was finally restored. This was partly a symbolic move and partly one meant to prevent or reduce further progress by the Taleban in the province throughout that summer. To stay on the safe side, the district centre was moved from Waygal village to lower and more accessible Wanat (and the district started to be called Wanat Waygal to fit the new situation).

Since then, the balance of forces in Waygal has more or less ‘stabilised’. According to Nuristani MP from Waygal, Ahmad Mowahed, at the beginning of spring 2015, the government was in control of some 20 per cent of the district and the insurgents of the rest. Taleban hold court, raise ushr (a tax) from residents and additionally confiscate animals when they so need. According to Waygal residents interviewed in Kabul, many foreign militants are still there, mostly Pakistanis and Arabs hosted by a local Taleban commander, a young Waygali named Osman Jawari. Militants claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda have remained in the area: Faruq al-Qahtani, a Qatari and al-Qaeda’s leader in Kunar and Nuristan, was reportedly in Waygal until earlier this spring. However, events of the outside world are affecting this secluded area as well: displaced residents of Waygal reported that in mid-March around 120 militants, mostly Salafis, publicly swore allegiance to Daesh, and discussions with the supporters of al-Qaeda followed, although no confrontation ensued. The Taleban shadow governor who succeeded the slain Dost Muhammad, Ismatullah, is also from Waygal, showing the district’s persisting importance in the provincial Taleban hierarchy.

On the government side, there are around 100 agents from the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, and 200 policemen. The ANA is present with only one tolai, a company-size unit. So far, the district has received no Afghan Local Police (ALP) either, although this had been requested by Nuristani representatives in Kabul. Earlier in the spring, it was announced that a battalion of Public Order Police were ready for deployment to the area. But what matters more than numbers on paper is the effectiveness of those forces present. Nuristan’s security has long been plagued by corrupt practices, thanks to the almost impossible task of bringing officials there to account, resulting in appointments ruled by personal connections or bribery, salary embezzlement and ghost soldiers. Shams ul-Rahman, the provincial police commander – previously suspended for having embezzled salaries in 2012 – is now back in his former position. The result is that militants were able to storm Wanat, this last redoubt of government presence in Waygal, at dawn on 25 June (read here and here). The head of Nuristan’s provincial council claimed that Wanat has been recaptured on the evening of the following day by Afghan troops, although the Taleban denied this and claims concerning the area are difficult to verify independently. What seems clear is that, during their occupation, the insurgents looted and partially destroyed the administrative centre and that the presence of the government in this district has been virtually obliterated once again.

Before this last turn, locals claimed the district was better off back when it was no man’s land. With the return of the government, violence was rekindled, in particular with airstrikes by international forces and retaliatory acts against locals, usually arson, by the militants. For example, according to an independent organisation that monitors security incidents, after an airstrike in December 2014, a primary boys’ school in the Komgal area was burnt to scare villagers from further cooperation with the government. As a consequence of these reprisals many people (several hundred from the whole province, which is big numbers for a place like Nuristan) have been displaced and forced to resettle in Jalalabad or Kabul. One of the IDPs from Waygal interviewed by AAN reported how militants came to burn his house a few months ago only because, back in June 2012, he had approached the briefly-returned foreigners with proposals for development programs in the area. The latest advance by insurgents will necessarily trigger a reaction by the government, and Afghan troops may well be able to re-occupy Wanat, if they have not already, but it is not clear how easily they will manage to push the insurgents back to their previous positions and establish a safety belt around the district centre.

Downstream, moreover, Pech valley remains tricky ground for operations. From afar, it may not so obviously look like the hotly contested battlefield it was when US troops were deployed there. A string of ANSF checkpoints established in late 2013 has proven effective at keeping communications open and a degree of control of the main valley road, but beyond the villages along the road, insurgents move freely and make their presence felt. Thrusts into side valleys like Korengal have been abandoned for good as the government focuses only on ‘strategic Afghanistan.’ (2) To launch major military pushes along the Pech valley in order to relieve Waygal may prove costly. Its worth may depend on how strategically important the government deems clinging to at least a small bit of Waygal district – and to small bits of Nuristan province in the broader picture – in order to deny the insurgents a claim to victory there.

7. Uzbin valley, Kabul province

Uzbin is a side valley in Sarobi, the easternmost district of Kabul province, on the way to Jalalabad. The valley extends for some 30 kilometres north of the district centre and the highway that crosses it. While most areas so far considered in this piece witnessed heavy fighting between insurgents and US troops, in Uzbin it was France that, for years, paid a high toll in casualties from IED explosions and skirmishes.

During the first years of the ISAF mission, Uzbin became a no-go area for the subsequent contingents of foreign troops deployed on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway. Despite its central location and proximity to Afghanistan’s arguably most important axis of transport and communication, or rather because of it, fighters from both Hezb-e Islami (Hekmatyar) – the tanzim traditionally stronger in Sarobi – and the Taleban were consistently present. Uzbin is also suitably nested among other insecure districts, such as Tagab of Kapisa province and Badpakh of Laghman, to which it connects through relatively easily traversible passes. The broader area became an important crossing point and sanctuary for insurgents moving deeper into Afghanistan from the border area. While security incidents on the stretch of the highway passing by the mouth of the valley were frequent, it was a single day of fighting, 18 August 2008, that gave Uzbin its dark reputation.

When French troops redeployed in Sarobi in August 2008, they adopted a more aggressive attitude than the Italians who had preceded them. They pushed their patrols deep inside Uzbin valley. Only a few weeks after their arrival, however, one patrol was ambushed by insurgent forces (alternatively described as Hezb-e Islami, foreign fighters or Taleban, but most likely the latter). The French were pinned down for the rest of the day until reinforcements managed to come to the rescue. Ten men were killed and dozens wounded.

That was France’s worst day at war since Lebanon 1983, and it sparked a debate about its participation in the ISAF mission. Although France remained in Afghanistan for another four years after Uzbin, the memory of that day was very much a part of the decision by newly-elected President Hollande to accelerate the withdrawal of the French contingent. Its fighting troops were out of the country by the end of November 2012 and Uzbin was already ‘transitioned’ to Afghan security forces by the second phase of the handover, completed at the beginning of 2012.

In 2010 and again 2012–13, insurgents based in Uzbin staged attacks and placed IEDs on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, particularly in Tang-e Abrisham. Here, the highway passes through a 15-kilometre-long gorge that became the road’s most dangerous stretch. Recently, security on the highway has deteriorated again, with recurrent attacks against ANSF posts and vehicles even in broad daylight. Most happened where the road abuts the mouth of the Uzbin valley. Previous military operations to improve security mostly aimed at dislodging insurgent groups from the Tor Ghar massif to the south of the highway (right on the border between Laghman and Nangrahar), and had proven temporarily effective at reducing attacks on the road. The threat coming from Uzbin, however, in light of the strong position held by insurgents there, will be much more difficult to address. On top of this, security observers report declining numbers of ANSF troops and decreased effectiveness of the ANSF operations in Sarobi, due to a lack of resources and poor coordination. ALP units man a handful of posts besides the district centre bazaar, but are too small (four to five, at most ten, local policemen) to withstand attacks by the insurgents. Insurgents in Uzbin are also realising the importance of targeting other strategic assets crossing their territory: in a replica of what they did last summer they cut the electricity lines that reach Jalalabad from the Naghloo dam, leaving the city without power in the middle of a hot Ramadan.

A member of a local tribal council interviewed by AAN lamented that the government’s sway over the whole of Sarobi had grown weaker in recent years. Not only is all of upper Uzbin completely beyond the control of the ANSF; other areas in the districts do not fare much better. Parts of Tezin area see no real government presence or activity, while in the deserted slopes near Tang-e Abrisham, locals who venture to hunt or gather brushwood are told to stay out by Taleban, saying this is their hunting ground. To the south of the district, in the Lataband area where the old Kabul-Jalalabad road passes through, government control shrinks to just a few kilometres from the district centre. Beyond, the no man’s land is a prime insurgent crossing area connecting Sarobi to Hesarak district and the war-ridden Spin Ghar region bordering Pakistan.

8. The Spin Ghar districts, Nangrahar province

The first Afghan name to catch the fancy of the world’s public in the wake of the intervention in 2001 was Tora Bora. Sounding eerily familiar to many American ears, as a cross between a Pacific atoll and a Japanese WWII war cry, the name of this spot in Pachir wa Agam district in the western section of the Spin Ghar mountain range made its way into history as the site of al-Qaeda’s last organised stand inside Afghanistan as well as the last place Osama Bin Laden was reportedly sighted until he was killed in Pakistan ten years later. Between mid-November and mid-December 2001, the eyes of the whole world were focused on the complex of caves hollowed amid the mountains marking the border between Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan (FATA). The caves were said to have been turned into a veritable underground fortress, and although, when the battle was over, they appeared less sophisticated than expected, they still took enough time to be stormed to allow Bin Laden an escape into Pakistan.

Tora Bora did not leave the news as smoothly as Bin Laden did his underground bunker. The area soon became a crossing point for militants, only this time proceeding in the opposite direction: from FATA back into Afghanistan. In 2007, Anwar al-Haq Mujahed, the son of late Mawlawi Yunus Khales, leader of one of the two ‘historical’ Hezb-e Islamis (the other one being led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), announced the formation of a Taleban front named after the place: the ‘Tora Bora Front’. Operating mainly from Peshawar and the Pakistani Tribal Areas, Mujahed could count on the loyalty of some of his father’s militiamen, spread among his fellow Khugiani tribesmen who inhabit the western section of the mountain range and among other communities as well.

More generally, towards the end of the first decade of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, the Spin Ghar range has become increasingly affected by insurgents’ movements.  In periodic waves, fighters crossed from the Kurram and Khyber agency into Afghanistan, especially after other militant outfits like the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Lashkar-e Islami made inroads in the area. In the summer of 2014, districts at the western end of the Spin Ghar range, like Hesarak and Khugiani, witnessed major attacks by insurgents who had been substantially reinforced from beyond the border and who aimed at taking over the district centres. The insurgents’ push was probably also an effort to punish locals who had participated in so-called ‘uprisings’ against the Taleban. Such instances were for example reported from Hesarak between 2012 and 2014 (see here and here). It took some effort and some air support to fight back the assault in August 2014. The current fighting season sees no reprise of the mass attacks yet, but in districts like Hesarak and Khogiani, insurgents keep constant pressure on police, local police and border police checkpoints.

At the eastern end of the Spin Ghar, the districts inhabited by the Shinwari tribe (Achin, Deh Bala, Dur Baba, Nazian, Kot) have long served as a laboratory for Counter-Insurgency (COIN) strategies and the reinvention of the arbaki tribal institution as a state-salaried militia. (Particularly paradoxical and counterproductive was the US involvement with the arbaki in Achin, where they escalated a land conflict between two sub-tribes and opened the door for Taleban patronage.) Today, these districts are left with a fraught situation. The Taleban and their attempts at gaining ground are bitterly contested by those families or communities who have developed an enmity towards them or have an interests in siding with the state. This happens in the form of a tit-for-tat of murders and revenge acts between communities, often targeting family members or civilian ceremonies – a politicised version of the family blood feuds that have long plagued the region and often take decades to resolve.

Meanwhile, another party has joined the fighting. The eastern Spin Ghar districts are witnessing probably the most serious takeover of insurgent fronts by the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Many local Taleban fighters have switched allegiance to IS, or Daesh as it is called in Afghanistan, and control parts of Achin, Nazian, Deh Bala and Kot. (3) For the moment, clashes between the Taleban and those-turned-IS have reduced pressure on the security forces. However, a strengthening of the IS presence in these strategic transit areas would probably mean more aggressive – or at least less predictable – insurgent behaviour towards civilians and the possibility of further deadly attacks like the bombing in downtown Jalalabad on 18 April. This attack was purportedly claimed, although many were dubious, by Daesh (read AAN’s dispatch here). Following the stratification of insurgent groups and military operations in this area in the last decade, the political and economic elites have relocated to Jalalabad, followed in due course by large numbers of locals unable to find livelihoods or security in their beautiful but doomed districts.

9. Zurmat district, Paktia province

Southeastern Afghanistan, at times also called Loya Paktia, is usually portrayed as the most resilient against state authority. Here, tribal identity still matters more than elsewhere. One encounters a myriad of tiny districts , each inhabited by one tribe or sub-tribe. Zurmat is a comparatively bigger, composite district on the road that connects Gardez to Ghazni. For many years, not only because of its size and complexity, it has constituted the most problematic district in the whole of Loya Paktia.

It was in Zurmat that, back at the very beginning of the intervention, US troops managed to find the pitched battle against the Taleban they had sought and thus far missed. Operation Anaconda in March 2002 saw thousands of US troops and Afghan militiamen storm an area, the Shahi Kot mountains in the southern half of Zurmat district, where Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters had amassed.

The operation was much lionised, and in its aftermath, the whole district was permanently labelled a Taleban stronghold. This may have had some factual grounds – Zurmat has at times been called ‘Little Kandahar’ because it gave birth to many Taleban leaders, including three ministers at the time of the Emirate. However, local attitudes turned against the foreign troops and new government mostly because of the civilian casualties of Anaconda and a series of sudden and often absurd arrests of local leaders in 2002 and 2003. These were caused by a system of intelligence gathering that favoured those who were ready and able to serve up their private enemies labelling them as Taleban.

Zurmat found itself at the crossroads of two major insurgent networks revolving around the Mansur family and the Haqqanis. (4) Despite the high number of projects and funding the US allocated to the district – also for counterinsurgency purposes – local Taleban presence became ever stronger in the next decade, triggering a vicious spiral of IED attacks, ambushes and assassinations versus airstrikes, military operations and night raids that weighed heavily on the civilian population.

Violence started slowly to subside in mid-2012 with the withdrawal of US forces. In Zurmat, they were gone by June 2013 (for a timeline of developments in the overall Paktia conflict see this ICG report). During the 2014 elections, some voting even became possible, a marked progress from 2009, when there was no election to speak of. Nowadays, however, the state seems to have given up on the idea of uprooting the Taleban from Zurmat. The district governor is from Mansur’s home village of Sahak, arguably appointed to appease this hub of local insurgents’ networks. As a matter of fact, locals report that the Taleban do not shut down schools and do not regularly target government employees anymore. The police commander is also from the district, from Khuni Bagcha village and, also according to locals, his men are not targeted provided they stay inside their compounds. The ANA kandak based in the Rahmankhel area however is more mobile and the Afghan soldiers have frequently to fight their way through when patrolling or travelling in convoys not big enough to deter the insurgents.

More than from agreements between the insurgents and the authorities, this relatively ‘stable’ status quo seems to stem from the relations between the Taleban and the local population. Reportedly, community representatives enjoy good relations with the shadow governor (a Wardaki) and the military commander (a local). The Taleban play up their benevolent attitude by not targeting locals – at least not to the extent they did until a few years ago – and they do not force villagers to pay them in cash or recruits. Locals, although tired of the Taleban’s continuous requests for food supplies, seem confident of their ‘merits’ when confronting the local insurgents. When faced with excessive requests from the Taleban, they argue that they do not act as spies and have never accepted government or foreign money to make arbaki units that could be turned into a broader ALP program – in Zurmat, a tiny one was started only in mid-2014.

One outcome of this situation is that most disputes are settled by the Taleban and very few are brought to the state courts. A resident of Mangalkhel reported to AAN about one such arbitration by the Taleban, who recently ruled over a land dispute between his village and that of Munjawar. Also the area of Kulalgo village on the road to Paktika province is, according to a local trader, completely under the control of the insurgents. The village has long been an insurgent hub and many of the district’s Taleban and those with the most aggressive behaviour come from there. Reportedly, they are hosting many foreign fighters and their families who have moved there in the past few months after relocating from North Waziristan. Depending on arrangements at the local level between the insurgent leaders, communities and government officials, the influx of external militants could lead to more ambitious and brutal challenges to the state.

10. Andar district, Ghazni province

Andar in southern Ghazni, more than many other places in Afghanistan, fits the description of ‘contested’. Here, though, it is not the Taleban who contest the government, but rather the opposite. Since 2012, the Afghan government has in fact been relatively successful at exploiting socio-political tensions in Taleban-controlled areas to shake the insurgents’ grip on the district. The ‘uprising’ against them triggered a furious reaction by the Taleban, who immediately engaged in a brutal re-conquest of lost ground.

By early 2012, Andar had been a Taleban stronghold for the best part of the previous decade, although the Taleban had not been undisturbed: the US (and for a while Polish) troops and the Afghan army had launched many operations in the district and had at times fought vicious battles against the insurgents. (5) The Taleban, however, had come out as the stronger side, thanks to the feelings of resistance foreign troops stirred among locals. Indeed, if Zurmat is the birthplace of the Mansur family, Andar hosts one of Afghanistan’s most famous madrassas, Nur al-Madares. A number of Taleban leaders originated from there or have a connection with it, including the top cadres of the Mansur network. The grip the Taleban had over the terrain and the population thus seemed unbreakable at the beginning of the scheduled withdrawal of the ISAF.

Then, however, reports surfaced about locals protesting and then openly resisting the insurgents’ impositions – in particular the closing of schools to retaliate against a ban on motorcycles issued by the provincial governor. In late May 2012, armed locals took control of some villages in Andar and defended them against Taleban attempts at re-capture. The fight was labelled a ‘popular uprising’ by the press. A group of former Hezb-e Islami members who had previously joined the Taleban but had later been sidelined because of ideological differences sparked this revolt. Later, it became clear, though, that more Hezbis and some other former jihadi commanders had joined the fray because the government had provided them with cash and weapons, effectively hijacking whatever had been ‘popular’ about the whole situation.

The political-military network around which the uprising soon coalesced was controversial. On one hand, it represented probably the only chance to withstand the backlash of an organised and locally much stronger Taleban, who did not shy away from sending in foreign militants to punish the rebels. On the other hand, it raised suspicions about previous contacts with the would-be rebels and instigation by state intelligence and about the plan to launch an anti-Taleban drive possibly meant to work simultaneously in several districts of Ghazni. In any case, further support was extended to the anti-Taleban militias by the government and by the US Special Forces. In particular, then head of NDS, Asadullah Khaled, who hails from Ghazni province, played a major role in assisting the uprising and soon completely controlled it. This role was possibly one of the main drivers behind the targeting of Khaled by the Taleban in December 2012 (read here).

Hezb-e Islami and Khaled’s network helped the uprising to consolidate but also set its limits, both geographically and morally. For instance, it never went beyond the villages where Hezb-e Islami had previously enjoyed support, and then it was easily labelled by the Taleban as an externally-backed attempt at bringing back hated former warlords. The Taleban could thus easily mitigate what had possibly been the aspect of the uprising most dangerous for them: exposing the tiredness and resentment felt by ordinary Afghans towards the never-ending restrictions imposed by the insurgent groups in a situation of permanent conflict. Eventually, the original rebels lost importance and many of the anti-Taleban patsunian (members of the ‘uprising’) were integrated into newly created ALP units, thus ending the bluff of a ‘third position’ uprising aligned with neither the state nor the Taleban.

The Taleban reaction has been brutal, as is the behaviour of the patsunian who harass people they accuse of being pro-Taleban and arbitrarily confiscate provisions and items from them. Local communities are now polarised between those supporting the Taleban and those supporting the ALP; the frontlines have more or less stabilised, but the killing goes on. The conflict in Andar hit new vicious lows in 2013 and 2014 (read more AAN reporting here), and even during the 2014–15 winter, there was no lull in the fighting. Despite securing continued government patronage – the police district chief is now Lotfullah Kamran, one of Khaled’s associates who supported the revolt from the beginning – the ALP and patsunian took heavy losses, including the deaths of some of their prominent leaders. Recently, US airstrikes have resumed, to target insurgents who have regained the strength to threaten the survival of the pro-government villages of Andar and use the district to stage attacks on the provincial capital of Ghazni. The need to make sure that the Taleban did not completely cut off and threaten a major city could have represented already back in 2012 a strong reason for the government to take the fight, by proxy, into one of the insurgent strongholds, even at the cost of turning it into the most violent of Afghanistan’s districts.

 

(1) Probably the best-known documentary film about the war in Afghanistan, Restrepo, depicts the life of a US Army platoon in an outpost in Korengal, which the movie terms “the deadliest place on earth.”

(2) ‘Strategic Afghanistan’ was described as the area along the ring road and other main communication networks that the Soviets were interested in keeping when winding up their intervention (Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, p. 189–90). In fact, it was largely the same area as that controlled to the end by Najibullah’s forces. The ISAF came to the same conclusion when it drafted a list of ‘key terrain districts’.

(3) In May, IS supporters reportedly captured a senior Taleban commander in Batikot. This district, although located lower than the Spin Ghar on the highway between Jalalabad and Torkham, has long been one of Nangrahar’s most insecure. Some years ago, Taleban affiliation there replaced the original Hezb-e Islami clout and is now being in turn overshadowed by the popularity of IS, in a crescendo of radicalism which it seems reasonable to attribute to a particularly radical streak in local preaching and religious feeling.

(4) These episodes and subsequent developments in Zurmat are described in the chapter that Thomas Ruttig devoted to the Haqqani network in Antonio Giustozzi (ed.) Decoding the New Taliban, Hurst, 2009. More recently they have been analysed by Anand Gopal in No Good Men Among The Living, Metropolitan Books, 2014, p 133–9. Read the background on the Mansur network in this AAN paper.

(5) For a story on the conflict in Andar before the uprising, see the chapter by Reuter and Yunus in Antonio Giustozzi (ed.) Decoding the New Taliban, Hurst, 2009.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace