Our guest author Anand Gopal (*) looks back how chances for integrating Taleban into Afghanistan’s past-2001 political system were squandered and how the alienation of leading former commanders in Kandahar became a key motivating factor in sparking the insurgency. Therefore, the original article had the following sub-line: ‘The Victor’s Hubris and the Failure of Reconciliation’.
Just as Kandahar was falling, fissures appeared in the Taliban movement. As most of the government was crumbling-Kabul and other major cities had fallen, leaving just Kandahar, Helmand, and Zabul provinces still under Taliban control-some of Mullah Omar’s chief lieutenants secretly gathered and decided to surrender to the forces of Hamid Karzai.[i] This group included Tayeb Agha, at one point Mullah Omar’s top aide; Mullah Beradar, a former governor and key military commander; Sayed Muhammad Haqqani, the former ambassador to Pakistan; Mullah Obaidullah, the defense minister; Mullah Abdul Razzak, the interior minster; and many others.
The group, represented by Obaidullah, delivered a letter to Karzai-then en route from Uruzgan to Kandahar city, one of the Taliban’s last standing urban strongholds.[ii] The letter accepted Karzai’s recent selection at the Bonn Conference as the country’s interim leader and acknowledged that the Islamic Emirate (the official name of the Taliban government) had no chance of surviving. The Taliban officials also told Karzai that the senior leaders who signed the letter had permission from Mullah Omar to surrender. That same day, Taliban officials agreed to relinquish Kandahar city, and opposition forces successfully entered the city 48 hours later. The surrendered Taliban leaders continued to exchange a number of messages with the new government to work out the terms of their abdication.
The main request of the Taliban officials in this group was to be given immunity from arrest in exchange for agreeing to abstain from political life.[iii] At this juncture, these leading Taliban members (as well as the rank and file) did not appear to view the government and its foreign backers as necessitating a 1980s-type jihad. Some members even saw the new government as Islamic and legitimate.[iv] Indeed, Mullah Obaidullah and other former Taliban officials even surrendered to Afghan authorities in early 2002.[v] But Karzai and other government officials ignored the overtures-largely due to pressures from the United States and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s erstwhile enemy.[vi] Moreover, some Pashtun commanders who had been ousted by the Taliban seven years earlier were eager for revenge and were opposed to allowing former Taliban officials to go unpunished.[vii] Widespread intimidation and harassment of these former Taliban ensued. Sympathetic figures in the government told Haqqani and others in the group that they should flee the country, for they would not be safe in Afghanistan. So the men eventually vanished across the border into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.
Many of the signatories of the letter were to become leading figures in the insurgency. Mullah Obaidullah became a key deputy of Mullah Omar and one of the insurgency’s leading strategists, playing an important role in rallying the scattered Taliban remnants to rebel against the Americans.[viii] Sayed Muhammad Haqqani is an important participant in the Taliban’s political activities. Tayeb Agha has been a leading member of the Taliban’s financial committee and has served on the Quetta Shura, in addition to being one of Mullah Omar’s envoys. Mullah Beradar became the day-to-day leader of the entire movement. Mullah Abdul Razzaq, based in Chaman, Pakistan (across the border from Spin Boldak), is an important weapons and cash facilitator for the Taliban and has ties to the Kandahar insurgency.[ix]
The alienation of leading former Taliban commanders in Kandahar would become a key motivating factor in sparking the insurgency there. Kandahar’s governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, had initially taken a conciliatory attitude toward former Taliban figures. But his close ties with U.S. special forces, who often posted rewards for top Taliban leaders, as well as isolated attacks against the government and the possibility of exploiting his position for financial gain, eventually led to a retaliatory approach. The provincial government began to harass former Taliban commanders, usually mid-level military figures, who had remained behind in Kandahar. A group of Sherzai’s commanders-Khalid Pashtun, Zhed Gulalai, Karam, Agha Shah, and others-became synonymous with abuse. Some of these men had a role in provincial government: Khalid Pashtun was Sherzai’s spokesman, for example, and Karam was an official of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).
These commanders targeted men formerly associated with the Taliban, often torturing them in secret prisons, according to numerous tribal elders, government officials, and Taliban members. Famous in the Mushan village cluster of Panjwayi district, for instance, is the case of Mullah Ahmad Shah. Shah, a former Taliban official and military commander who had surrendered, was at home in the early months of the Sherzai government. Karam and his men arrested Shah and some others on charges of having weapons, took them to a Kandahar city NDS prison, and tortured them. Hajji Fazel Muhammad, who led a group of tribal elders from Panjwayi to the city to try to secure their release, recalled the scene at the prison:
‘We met them in jail and saw that their feet were swollen. Their hands and feet had been tied for days, and they told us that the prison guards would roll them around on the ground. They also beat them with cables. [The prisoners] were begging us to tell the guards to just kill them so that they could be put out of their misery.’[x]
Shah was kept in custody for about three weeks, until his family members purchased weapons simply to hand over to the authorities to get him freed. But the men were arrested again and Shah’s family was forced to sell all of their livestock so they could pay a bribe to the authorities. A short while later, Shah and others were arrested for a third time and held for 44 days, until immense pressure from tribal elders brought about their release. Shah and his brothers soon fled to Pakistan, joined the burgeoning Taliban insurgency, and returned to Panjwayi as Taliban fighters. Today Shah is the head of the Taliban’s main court in Mushan. His brothers Qari Allahuddin and Qari Muhammad Sadiq, along with two other siblings, are also Taliban commanders active in Panjwayi.[xi]
Similar stories across Kandahar’s districts abound. Hajji Lala, a prominent Taliban-era commander who went into retirement after 2001, was repeatedly harassed by Zhed Gulalai, Habibullah Jan (a Zheray strongman), and other government forces for nearly a year. He eventually decided to flee to Pakistan and join the insurgency, then served as a key commander in Kandahar province until he was killed in action.[xii] In some areas this trend was particularly grievous. Elders in Panjwayi district, for instance, estimate that nearly every former mid-level Taliban commander, along with their relatives and friends, fled Afghanistan in the first years of the Sherzai government and are now in the insurgency.
In some cases, former Taliban members did not survive to be able to fight again. The NDS prison chief Karam arrested Mullah Abdul Razziq Baluch, an imam of a prominent mosque in the Sperwan area of Panjwayi district, and took him in for questioning. Baluch had Taliban sympathies during the previous regime but had accepted the new government. A delegation of tribal elders went to Kandahar city to negotiate his release, but they were simply shown Baluch’s discolored, badly bruised body. The prison officials told them that he had committed suicide.[xiii]
The failure to grant amnesty to Taliban figures who had abandoned the movement and accepted the new Afghan government had repercussions far beyond the specific individuals targeted. Soon a sense began to develop among those formerly connected to the regime, from senior officials to rank-and-file fighters, that there was no place for them in the post-2001 society.[xiv] In the Band-i-Timor area of Maiwand, for instance, former civil aviation minister and leading Taliban official Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur had accepted the new government and was living at home.[xv] But the violent drive against former Taliban by Sherzai’s network and U.S. special forces led Mansur to realize it would be foolish to stay in Afghanistan. “He said that this government wouldn’t let him live in peace,” recalled lawmaker Ahmad Shah Achekzai, who had met him during that time. “It wasn’t a surprise to us when he finally fled to Pakistan and rejoined the Taliban.”[xvi] Today Mansur is a leading figure in the movement and one of the replacements for captured Taliban leader Mullah Beradar.[xvii]
Even after fleeing to Pakistan, large segments of the leadership were still open to returning to Afghanistan and abandoning the fight. In 2002, for instance, the entire senior leadership except for Mullah Omar gathered in Karachi, Pakistan, for a meeting organized by former Taliban officials Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani and Mawlawi Abdul Sattar Siddiqi.[xviii] The group agreed in principle to find a way for them to return to Afghanistan and abandon the fight, but lack of political will by the central government in Kabul and opposition from some sections of the U.S. leadership meant that such approaches were ultimately ignored.[xix] In each of the following two years another delegation representing large sections of the Taliban leadership traveled to Kabul and met with senior government officials, but again nothing came of these overtures because of the lack of will from the government side.[xx]
[i] Details of these events are from interviews with Mullah Abdul Hakim Mujahed, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, Mullah Abdul Salaam, Abdul Wahad, officials in Hamid Karzai’s office, and officials and Taliban figures in Kandahar province who spoke on the condition of anonymity, 2010. See also Hamid Karzai’s speech at the Afghanistan Consultative Peace Jirga, June 2, 2010.
[ii] This event took place on December 5, when Karzai was near the Dahla Dam in Shah Wali Kot district. In addition to receiving the letter, he was also actively negotiating with the Taliban officials about the surrender of Kandahar city.
[iii] Interview with Afghan government officials, August 2010.
[iv] Interviews with current and former Taliban and Afghan officials in Kandahar and Kabul, 2010.
[v] Bradley Graham and Alan Sipress, “Reports That Taliban Leaders Were Freed Shock, Alarm U.S.,” The Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2002. Obaidullah and others were freed by the government but came under criticism from the United States.
[vi] Interview with Afghan government officials, August 2010.
[vii] In Kandahar, they included the commanders of Gul Agha Sherzai. In Uruzgan, Jan Muhammad Khan (who had been imprisoned by the Taliban) and, in Helmand, strongman and eventual governor Sher Muhammad Akhundzada are in this category.
[viii] Pakistan arrested Obaidullah in 2007 and released him in a prisoner exchange later that year, only to re-arrest and release him the next year. He appears to no longer have a direct role in the Taliban leadership.
[ix] Interviews with Afghan government officials and Taliban figures, 2008-2010. Tayeb Agha is rumored to have been arrested by Pakistan in early 2010, but the Pakistani government has not confirmed this.
[x] Interview with Fazal Muhammad, Kabul, August 2010.
[xi] Interviews with Kandahar government officials and tribal elders, August 2010.
[xii] Interviews with Kandahar government officials and tribal elders, July 2010.
[xiii] Interviews with Kandahar government officials and tribal elders, July 2010.
[xiv] Interviews with residents and officials in Maiwand and Kandahar city, 2008-2010.
[xv] Interviews with Kandahar government officials and tribal elders, 2010.
[xvi] Interview with MP Ahmed Shah Achekzai, April 2010.
[xvii] Interviews with Taliban commander and Taliban fighter, Kandahar, July 2010.
[xviii] Interviews with Rahmani, Siddiqi, Abdul Hakim Mujahed, Ali Jalali, Felix Kuehn, 2010.
[xix] In particular, there was opposition from the Northern Alliance.
[xx] Interviews with Arsala Rahmani, Abdul Hakim Mujahed, Abdul Sattar Siddiqi and Ali Jalali.
(*) Our guest author is an Afghanistan-based journalist and has covered Afghanistan for the Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor and a number of other outlets. He is the coauthor of the New America Foundation’s “Battle for Pakistan” paper on militancy and conflict in North Waziristan. See more on his blog ‘Global Dispatches’ here.
This blog was published first on the AfPak Channel of Foreign Policy magazine here on 10 November. AAN and the AfPak Channel regularly share blogs with each other.
See also Anand’s recent excellent paper ‘The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar’ published by the New America Foundation here.
This article was last updated on 21 Apr 2020