Achin district in the south of Afghanistan’s key eastern province of Nangrahar has been heavily fought over by the Taleban, ISKP and government and United States forces. The delivery of public services has been hampered, helped or abolished depending on who has been in charge at any given time; ISKP banned almost all public services and the Taleban allowed most, supervising and monitoring them, although they were funded and administered by the Afghan state. Now, with the bulk of the district back under government control, public services have begun getting back to normal. However, with many schools and clinics destroyed, professionals scarce and services never that good in the first place, many residents, especially women and girls, still struggle to access public services. In this, the third of a series of case studies looking at the delivery of services in districts over which insurgents have control or influence, AAN researchers Said Reza Kazemi and Rohullah Sorush look at governance and security, education, health, electricity and telecommunications, and development projects in this insecure and often neglected district.Sudais is in his father, Baktullah's, fruit and vegetable store in Shadal Bazaar village of Achin district. Life is slowly returning to normal after government and US forces pushed ISKP out of most of the district in 2017 and 2018. Public services – education, healthcare and electricity supply – are still patchy, barely-functioning or non-existent. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2017
Service Delivery in Insurgent-Affected Areas is a joint research project by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
Previous publications in the series include an introduction, with literature review and methodology, “One Land, Two Rules (1): Service delivery in insurgent-affected areas, an introduction” by Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark and two case studies, on Obeh district of Herat province by Said Reza Kazemi and Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz province by Obaid Ali.
Achin district: context
- Approximately 50 km south of Jalalabad city, linked by partially unpaved roads to the main Kabul-Jalalabad-Torkham road; mountainous; bordering Pakistan’s tribal areas to the south;
- Population estimated at between 104,000 and 322,000 (data below), Pashtuns of the Shinwari tribe;
- Long-embattled district with complicated conflicts. As of early 2019, most of Achin under government control. 2015-18, theIslamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Islamic State’s Afghan-Pakistani franchise, also known as Daesh– controlled most of Achin; it continues to operate from mountain strongholds in the southern parts of the district. 2009-15, the Taleban were in control of much of Achin, but are not now actively contesting it. These power shifts, messy and often brutal, have resulted in at least three conflicts: (1) between Afghan and United States government forces and ISKP; (2) between Afghan government forces and other insurgent groups, mainly the Taleban; and (3) among the Taleban, ISKP and local militias.
Achin district: service delivery
- Education: ISKP closed public schools in 2015-18 and many schools were burned, seriously damaged and/or closed due to fighting. As of early 2019 and since the recapture of most territory by government and US forces, some boys’ schools, including high schools, have reopened. In some of these reopened schools situated mostly in and around the district centre, girls are also allowed to take part, but with no women teachers, they are taught by elderly men. ISKP currently administers teaching in areas under its control; this is mainly of religious subjects, including on jihad. In 2009-15, when in control, the Taleban strictly supervised staffing, the curriculum, day-to-day school management and girls’ education; now they play no role in education services.
- Health: Most health facilities have been damaged in the fighting. As of early 2019, health service delivery has been unhindered except in ISKP-ruled areas. There are no female doctors in Achin. ISKP closed public health facilities and banned vaccination campaigns when they were in charge (2015-18); presently, they allow some private health facilities in their areas of control. The Taleban made no direct interference in the period 2009-15, but benefited from public health services for their wounded and sick members.
- Electricity, media and telecommunications: There is no public electricity supply and some telecommunication infrastructure has been destroyed during clashes. As of early 2019, there has been almost 24/7 mobile phone coverage, including in ISKP-held territory. Radio is a coveted and contested field between the Taleban and ISKP, as both operate radio channels of their own in Achin. TV and social networking is popular among the population for those with access to electricity and smartphones. Insurgent role: there is no mobile phone company presence in ISKP areas but these areas receive telecommunication signals and ISKP makes use of these services. The Taleban enforced a shutdown of mobile phone coverage at night and taxed mobile phone companies in 2009-15; now they exert almost no influence.
- Other services: Some rural development work is carried out by both the government and NGOs and some justice services have been offered by both insurgent actors. ISKP (2015-now) ban public development projects and run their own courts and prisons. The Taleban (2009-15) authorised and ‘taxed’ development projects and themselves implemented some development work (eg road-building in fear of ISKP advances). They also ran their own justice system.
Introducing Achin district
Achin is a mountainous district in the south of Afghanistan’s key eastern province, Nangrahar. (1) With a relatively small area of about 465 km², much of the district lies within the Spin Ghar mountain range. (2) The mountainous landscape makes Achin, especially its southern portions, difficult to access. Situated about 50 kilometres south of the provincial capital, Jalalabad, Achin borders Deh Bala (aka Haska Mena) district to the west, Kot district to the north-west, Bati Kot and Shinwar (aka Ghanikhel) districts to the north, Naziyan district to the east and Khyber Agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) to the south (for maps of Achin district and its neighbourhood, see the map above (and pages 2-3 of this atlas). The roads into Achin (one through Rodat and Kot districts and the other through Shinwar), both of which connect to the main Jalalabad-Torkham road, are partially paved.
Map credit: Roger Helms for AAN.
Most of the population is clustered within various valleys. Two of the major inhabited valleys are Mamand in central Achin and Pekha further to the east, located respectively to the southwest and south of the district centre, Kahi. The further away people live from the valleys, the harder it is for them to access water. The valleys support some degree of subsistence agriculture with crops such as wheat, maize, rice, various vegetables, pomegranates, mulberries, apricots and pine nuts. Many people also rely on livestock to support their livelihoods.
More importantly, the entire province of Nangrahar is known for poppy cultivation. Despite Nangrahar achieving poppy-free status in 2008, a key, albeit temporary, achievement of then Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, poppy cultivation in the province has been increasing since 2010 from 698 hectares in 2016to 1,364 hectares in 2017and 1,692 ha in 2018 (see page 70 of this survey). The increase in poppy cultivation in Achin from 2017 to 2018 is notable because over the same period of time, overall cultivation in Nangrahar province declined, from 18,976 hectares in 2017 to 17,177 hectares in 2018 (see page 66 of this survey and AAN reporting here). There are also some heroin refineries in Achin (see page 162 of this publication). This makes opium a mainstay for many families across the district. Cannabis is also extensively grown in Achin, as well as in the rest of Nangrahar province (read AAN’s recent research on the cultural history in Afghanistan of cannabis cultivation and hashish production here and of hashish consumption here).
In addition, Achin district has other significant natural resources. Firstly, the Spin Ghar range, both in its foothills and higher elevations, is heavily wooded with pine (nashtar in Pashto), oak (tserai) and deodar cedar (archa), providing the district with resources in terms of fodder, wood for fuel and timber. Secondly, the district has some mineral deposits particularly talc (shawkanai in Pashto) and chromite (sangina) (see pages 16-18 of this paper). It also has some magnesite mineral deposits (see page 14 of this report).
Population numbers are always difficult in Afghanistan, but this is especially the case in a district like Achin given the continual movement of people to and from neighbouring Pakistan and major displacements and returns caused by fighting between, variously, the Afghan government, the Taleban and ISKP. Three sources of data on Achin’s population are given below; it seems the third is likely to reflect current figures because of its data triangulation:
- Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) profile of Achin district as of Sunbula 1396/September 2017: 322,000 people (121,000 men and 201,000 women);
- US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reporting information provided by NATO Resolute Support mission in October 2018: 128,557 people– not disaggregated by sex (see page 225 here); and
- United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) dataset for 2016/17: 104,042 people (52,936 men and 51,106 women).
Based on the third source, Achin is the fourth most-populated district in Nangrahar province after Behsud (117,946 people), Surkhrod (Srerod in Pashto) (125,021) and Khugiani (135,522) districts (Jalalabad city has 232,901). However, because of the very high density of population in and around the provincial capital – Behsud, Surkhrod and Khogiani are all near Jalalabad – the population of Achin lags behind and comprises just 6.73 per cent of Nangrahar province’s total population of about 1,547,000 people. The population of Achin might alternately be estimated at 13,512 households, based on Afghanistan’s national average household size of 7.7 persons (see page 22 of this survey). The residents of Achin live in about 140 villages, mostly in the main valleys.
In terms of ethnicity, Pashtuns of the Shinwari tribe constitute the overwhelming majority of the population. (3) There are four major subtribes among the Shinwari: the Sepai, the Alisherkhel, the Mandozai and the Sangukhel. Achin is mostly inhabited by the Sepai and the Alisherkhel. The subtribes are further divided on a patrilineal basis. For instance, there are two subdivisions among the Sepai in Achin: the Rahimdadkhel and the Haidarkhel. The tribal system, led by qawmi meshran (tribal elders), is still largely intact. Given the absence of a functioning Afghan state authority or administration in the district, it effectively provides the only rule-based system of governance. While this tribal system has maintained a level of cooperation between the different groups of people in Achin, there have been instances of tribal conflict and fighting between these subtribes and subdivisions within those subtribes. One well-known area of friction between the Sepai and Alisherkhel subtribes in Achin has been a longstanding unresolved land conflict that violently spiralled out of control in 2011 after external actors (government, US military and insurgents) got involved (previous AAN analysis here).
All of these factors – the rugged and difficult terrain, soaring poppy cultivation and abundant natural resources, internal fault lines within tribal relations and adjacency to Pakistan’s often troubled tribal areas – have contributed to Achin being a district that is extremely complicated and highly vulnerable to insecurity. Rivalry for control over it and its routes into Pakistan has played out variously between Afghan government forces, including allied militias, the Taleban and ISKP, all of whom have competed for resources and overall territory. They have inflicted heavy costs on one another and the civilian population and severely damaged and obstructed the delivery of public services.
Conflict and security
Conflict is not new to Achin. Given its location in strategic Nangrahar – between Afghanistan and Pakistan – it has been a key transit point, with Nangrahar as a whole functioning as what this AREU paper calls a “staging ground” for power struggles nationally. Nangrahari leaders have frequently played a strong role in influencing, if not capturing, power in the Afghan capital Kabul, acting as king-makers or spoilers to successive regimes (see pages 51-55 of this RAND publication). This has meant that throughout history, Nangrahar has frequently been embroiled in national conflicts and Achin, lying on the border, has often played a part in these conflicts. As detailed in previous AAN reporting, poor governance after 2001 and a breakdown of social structures led to inter-tribal fighting and have also been contributors to conflict in the district. Also significant have been struggles over control of resources such as minerals, narcotics and smuggling routes. Many of the conflict actors have interacted successively, with the same figures and long-standing issues re-surfacing in later conflict cycles.
During the 1980s, Nangrahar was one of the most significant provinces for the mujahedin (see pages 11-12 of a paper by Ashley Jackson), with Achin, in particular, acting as a conduit for weapons and fighters. In addition, specific figures from or closely connected to subtribes in Achin rose among the various mujahedin factions and would play a significant role in Achin and wider Nangrahar province.
After the Afghan communist regime fell in 1992 and the country collapsed into “warring fiefdoms” controlled by competing mujahedin factions, Achin and its surrounding areas fell into the eastern region that was controlled by the so-called Mashreqi Shura (Eastern Council), aka the Nangrahar or Jalalabad Shura. The council was a mercurial coalition of mujahedin commanders led by Haji Abdul Qadir of Hezb-e Islami Khales, became governor of Nangrahar in 1992.
A US Army Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) team returns down through the river-bed in the Takhto Valley in Nangrahar province’s Achin district during the return journey of a mission. Photo: Andrew Quilty/2018
A confusing plethora of local mujahedin commanders has risen to influence in Achin and its neighbouring areas especially from the late 1970s onwards. These commanders were loosely and opportunistically aligned with various rival factions in the Mashreqi Shura and other mujahedin factions in Kabul, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, Yunus Khales’s Hezb-e Islami, Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi’s Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami and Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami. (4) Some of these local mujahedin commanders were killed (eg Qari Samad) or died (eg Saif ul-Rahman, Hafiz ul-Haq) , but others continue to be active in Achin and its neighbourhood (eg Qari Salam, currently a commander of a National Directorate of Security (NDS)-funded ‘public uprising’ group in neighbouring Shinwar district). Some operate from the Pakistani side of the border (eg Qari Mujahed, Mia Saheb Juma Khan, Qari Tayyeb and Mawlawi Sawab Gul).
While the Mashreqi Shura kept a relative degree of control in Jalalabad city itself, the outlying areas were almost anarchic. Jackson has described the area that would be the gateway into Achin district: “At one point, the roughly 80 km road from Jalalabad to the Torkham border crossing into Pakistan was controlled by five different commanders, each demanding their own taxes and occasionally going to war with one another” (page 13 here). Local commanders often changed sides or alliances and fought each other. They treated rural people poorly, forcing them to feed their fighters without compensation, using their position to grab land illegally and to set up checkpoints along roads where they extorted money from passers-by and engaged in other forms of harassment. This internal bickering and abusive behaviour made the period of mujahedin rule turbulent in Achin, as in much of the rest of Afghanistan.
This chaotic environment made it easy for the Taleban to initially rise to power in Nangrahar, including in Achin district, which the Taleban seized in a largely bloodless takeover in 1996. (5) A local elder told AAN:
When the Taleban came, no one resisted against them and they easily captured Achin. Haji Qadir and his Mashreqi Shura commanders had already fled to Pakistan. The Taleban only collected weapons from the local people by searching houses, detained some people for a while, but released them afterwards and introduced their district officials. They did not mistreat the people.
The approximately five-year Taleban rule in Nangrahar came to an abrupt end in late 2001. Most of the Taleban who were in Achin escaped to the other side of the border and took refuge in Pakistan. In Achin, a local elder told AAN, “Nothing happened to the Taleban because people had generally been happy with them and they left the area with the people’s help.” Achin and the surrounding areas were also an escape route into Pakistan for Taleban fleeing from other areas.
The Taleban were never totally gone from Achin, however, and began returning to seriously influence and control much of the district from around 2009 onwards, including by setting up temporary and sometimes permanent checkpoints in different areas and along the roads where they controlled the movement of people and goods and taxed trade. One reason for their resurgence was the increased corruption and rivalry among provincial élites affiliated with the Afghan government. From 2005 to 2013, then provincial Governor Gul Agha Sherzai leveraged massive US and international military and civilian support (high because US priorities to counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency) to make and keep political allies. He effectively revamped the political order in the province. Awarding development and, in particular, construction funds to friends and allies became a regular part of his control strategy. Safe in the cronyistic regime Sherzai had created, many members of the élite engaged in land grabs, gobbling up state-owned lands and some of Nangrahar’s most valuable agricultural tracts for questionable housing and development projects (see this previous AAN dispatch and this research article). In addition, Sherzai’s cronyist rule ensured that most of the development projects and aid were focused in and around the provincial capital. Outside of that, most areas of Nangrahar, especially southern districts such as Achin, received little support despite the overall high amounts of aid going to Nangrahar.
Such a strategy created many political enemies and also only worked as long as the aid continued. As time went by, Sherzai faced growing protests, often led by those who had, to some extent, been politically marginalised. Among them, in particular, were two sons of the late Haji Qadir: (1) Haji Zaher Qadir, a parliamentarian who leads a political organisation called De Sole Karwan (Peace Caravan) which has followers including in Achin and (2) Haji Jamal Qadir, a provincial council member (see previous AAN reporting here).
Additionally, many people in Nangrahar, especially in southern districts such as Achin, were increasingly dissatisfied with opium eradication – a priority of the US-led international community, but one which targeted one of their few sources of livelihood (see this SIGAR report on failed poppy eradication and counter-narcotics efforts). Opium cultivation thus resumed, reversing the province’s poppy-free status in 2008. It started in southern districts such as Achin. Local people were also furious at civilian casualties caused by Afghan government and American operations against the Taleban; a local elder told AAN at least some of those carrying out the attacks had been “deliberately misinformed [about what they were targeting].”
Nonetheless, the resurgent Taleban were fractured as well, and lacked control over their forces. Senior provincial Taleban commanders such as Mawlawi Kabir and Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed competed for power and sub-commanders constantly struggled to control their fighters’ behaviour. In such a broken, messy insurgency, with poor command and control, fighters could engage in criminal activities, including “widespread cases of unexplained killings of ordinary individuals, assassination of influential local elders and ransom-driven kidnappings in the southern districts of Nangarhar from 2013 to late 2014” (previous AAN reporting).
At the same time, in the run-up to ISKP’s takeover of the district in 2015, the Afghan state was also becoming “increasingly irrelevant” in Achin and other districts in Nangrahar (page 6 of this AREU paper). Government control was largely restricted to district centres, with security forces rarely leaving their bases, and opium poppy cultivated near district centres and Afghan government security bases.
It was in such a context in early 2015 that ISKP captured Achin, especially the Mamand valley, making it their headquarters. ISKP’s strength in the district was due to a range of factors, including some pre-existing local support, the defensibility of Achin’s mountainous terrain and its porous border with Pakistan. Pre-existing as well as recently coming Pakistani Taleban (TTP), local militias such as Lashkar-e Islam’s men led by Manghal Bagh and some local Afghan Taleban groups and fighters who changed their leanings laid the foundations of ISKP (previous AAN analysis here). (6) ISKP quickly expanded into several southern districts in Nangrahar before they were gradually pushed back by Taleban, Afghan government and US forces and militias belonging to various strongmen.
Of these, the militia forces Zaher Qadir cobbled together to fight ISKP since late 2015 stand out in Achin (previous AAN analysis here). One key motivation for Haji Qadir reportedly was, as one interviewee said, “to keep his labs for processing drugs.” The desire to regain control over poppy production and heroin processing, not just by local militias but also the Taleban, has been one major motivation for fighting ISKP and trying to regain territory. These militias initially bypassed Afghan government security institutions, but were allied with some local tribal elders. They later apparently developed a multi-pronged command and control structure possibly to obtain as many resources as possible. (7)
The fighting in Achin between 2015 and 2018 has frequently been chaotic, brutal and violent to a degree not seen before in the district, or elsewhere in the country. Frontlines shifted frequently as conflict was played out variously between: (1) Afghan government and US forces and ISKP; (2) Afghan government forces and other insurgent groups, mainly Taleban; and (3) Taleban, ISKP and local militias. In addition to a high number of fatalities among combatants on all sides, many civilians have been killed, injured, kidnapped for ransom, dispossessed of their property or displaced. Some unmarried women were also forcibly married mostly to ISKP fighters. During the period 2015-18, much of whatever rudimentary infrastructure that had existed in Achin (eg schools, clinics, homes) was destroyed.
ISKP momentum has been reversed, though, and many of their leaders and men killed (see this previous AAN dispatch). At one point in April 2017, the US air force dropped an 11-ton Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb, the largest non-nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal, on the ISKP complex of tunnels and caves in Achin’s Mamand valley (previous AAN analysis here and here).
Although ISKP was pushed back in Achin as of early 2019 and the Taleban have not re-emerged, the district continues to witness sporadic clashes between the Afghan government and US forces and ISKP (for recent clashes in late 2018 and early 2019, see media reports here and here). Nonetheless, at present the Afghan government has returned to being the dominant governance actor, with ISKP retreating to their mountain sanctuaries and the Taleban largely driven out and not actively contesting the district. The profound weakening of ISKP is the consequence of a series of large-scale mopping-up operations carried out by Afghan government-affiliated military and paramilitary forces with US support building on earlier attacks by the Taleban.
Governance and security provision
The vast majority of respondents said the Afghan government is currently in control of most inhabited areas, particularly in central and eastern Achin, as well as the two main roads to Jalalabad and other subsidiary roads in the district. They report that security has largely improved in the district and life is returning to normal for many residents.
This correlates with the NATO Resolute Support assessment of Achin district as being “under government influence” (reported in page 225 of this October 2018 report by SIGAR) and a guest author’s eye-witness account from last year. (8) However, distinguishing Achin from most other areas of Afghanistan (see, for instance, AAN’s case studies of Obeh district in western Herat province and of Dasht-e Archi district in northern Kunduz province) is the fact that the Taleban are not the secondary governance actors. Instead, according to our respondents, ISKP are the second players here, although primarily in faraway, mountainous and scarcely-habited sections of the district. The Taleban, meanwhile, have been hit the hardest and driven out of the district almost entirely. One interviewee, summarising this overall state of governance, reflected the views of the overwhelming majority of respondents:
The government [now] controls most of the territory [in Achin]. It controls 80 per cent and the insurgents [mostly ISKP] control the remaining 20 per cent. Taleban were controlling some areas and then came Daesh. After that, the government carried out operations, so now it controls most of the district.
Nevertheless, as another interviewee said, district control remains precarious and unstable:
Sometimes the government forces operate in an area and defeat Daesh, but they do not stay there. When they leave the area, Daesh comes back and brings the area under its control again.
On the side of the Afghan government, according to several respondents, key district officials are either directly or indirectly connected, through client-patron ties, to Zaher Qadir. He campaigned for Ashraf Ghani during the 2014 presidential elections and his influence resurged in Achin through the militias he brought together to push back ISKP, as described above. Other Nangrahari strongmen such as current senate speaker, Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, and sitting parliamentarians Hazrat Ali, Mirwais Yasini and Fraidun Mohmand reportedly have little influence in the district. For a list of government authorities, ISKP and the Taleban, historically (when they held much of the district in the period 2009-15) in Achin, see footnote 9.
According to a commander of ‘public uprising’ forces who spoke to AAN, Afghan government forces numbering about 1,140 are stationed in the district, most of them Ministry of the Interior’s Afghan Border Police (ABP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) and NDS-financed ‘public uprising’ forces:
- A company of Afghan National Army (ANA): 120
- Afghan National Police (ANP): 90
- ALP: 280
- ‘Public uprising’ forces: 300
- A battalion of ABP: 350
However, according to all respondents, ISKP are far from gone. (10) It maintains a foothold and operates mainly in mountainous parts of the district and further down along the Spin Ghar range, including in parts of the Mamand and Pekha valleys. In more closely-held areas, such as in Mamand valley, ISKP runs its own prisons and courts. Most ISKP fighters, both currently and previously, are not local. They mainly came from the Pakistani tribal agencies of Khyber, Bajaur and Orakzai or from the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Laghman that border Nangrahar to the north. ISKP in Achin have connections to ISKP affiliates in neighbouring districts of Naziyan and Deh Bala, as well as Sherzad district in western Nangrahar.
The insurgents, both currently and in the past, have drawn their finances from diverse sources, according to respondents and existing studies. While the Taleban permitted, encouraged and benefited from drug cultivation in Achin, ISKP has officially banned it (see, for example, footnote 35 in this AREU paper and footnote 56 in this Global Witness report). ISKP has also criticised the Taleban for their laxity on drug cultivation, portraying them as “drug smugglers who disrespected Shari’a [Islamic law]” in the words of Antonio Giustozzi (page 162 here). According to an interviewee, “Taleban had [heroin] processing labs and relied on drug money a lot… got tax from drug trafficking… [and] got Afs 100,000-500,000 [about USD 1,430-7,140] per truckload of drugs.” In Achin, opium production has returned to production levels last seen in 2017. One reason for this might be the fact that ISKP are restricted to the mountainous parts of the district, leaving residents and remaining actors, including forces affiliated to the Afghan government, free to get back to or turn a blind eye to full-scale opium cultivation and processing.
A potentially more important source of financing for ISKP has been taxing and even directly extracting mineral resources, talc in particular, given the existence of an estimated 1.25 million tons of this mineral in Achin (for details, see pages 11, 16-27 and 34 of this Global Witness report). The Taleban were in control of mineral resources in sites such as Nargesai and Ai Tang in Achin until 2015 when they fled in the face of ISKP, which took them over. ISKP reportedly engaged in a more intense exploitation “both in terms of investment in machinery and expertise, and of the degree of security and control the [sic] exercise over the sites” (page 18 here). As of early 2019, ISKP’s exploitation of Achin’s minerals has been restricted to some sections of the Mamand valley, according to some respondents.
There have also been other funding sources for the insurgents in Achin. There is illegal logging and its taxation; at least ISKP and other militants affiliated to Manghal Bagh’s Lashkar-e Islam have been involved in this. At some point in April 2018, they reportedly clashed over illegal logging and its proceeds in Achin. When they were fighting ISKP, the Taleban also collected a ‘frontline tax’ for a while from the population (see page 10 of this AREU paper). Some respondents said the insurgents had also received some economic support from their sympathisers – in Pakistan in the case of the Taleban and ISIS ‘central’ in the case of ISKP, with ISKP reportedly receiving much greater outside economic support. The Taleban also raised various religious taxes, including ushr, the ten per cent tax on a range of revenue-generating sources, particularly productive land, and zakat, a payment obligatory for Muslims to give, either as alms to the poor and needy or as a tax collected by a Muslim state (the Taleban take this second option). The Taleban collected and cashed animal hides during Eid al-Adha, a key Islamic festival during which practicing Muslims slaughter animals as sacrifices to Allah (see p 10-11 of this AREU paper). (Religious ‘taxes’ may also have been collected by ISKP, but we did not get details of this.) Finally, both the Taleban and ISKP have boosted their finances with donations from rich supporters, through extorting money from those accused of siding with ‘the enemy’ including the government, and ransom-driven abductions.
The September 2017 IDLG profile of Achin states that the district has 46 schools: 25 primary (grades 1-6), six intermediate (grades 7-9) and 15 high schools (grades 10-12). Of these schools, however, the profile added that, at that time, only 16 were functioning; ten had been set ablaze or destroyed in other ways in the fighting and 20 were closed due to insecurity, either real or perceived. In response to the fighting, the education authorities have shifted some schools from insecure to safer areas such as the district centre. The profile also says there were 438 teachers – all male – in Achin. The profile does not state how many pupils there were, only that 410 pupils – again all male – finished high school in 2017. A district education activist who spoke to AAN said that more pupils are attending schools that have reopened after the recent fighting came almost to an end.
In addition, there are many madrassas (religious schools) in Achin, with around one-third under the purview of the government’s Ministry of Education. Many madrassas do not have compounds of their own, but instead form part of local mosques and are supported by local communities. There are 50 mosques (15 official, ie registered with the government, and 35 unofficial) across Achin, based on the IDLG profile. One famous unofficial madrassa is Talim ul-Quran wa al-Sunna, considered a Salafi religious school, which, according to a local religious activist who spoke to AAN, has preached the ISKP cause and recruited for it in villages across the district. Another unofficial madrassa is Abdul Rahman Madrassa, which focuses on the teaching of Hanafi Sunni Islam, the school to which the vast majority of Afghan Sunnis belong and which Salafis regard as a rival. The insurgents in Achin, both ISKP and the Taleban, have tended to prefer madrassas over what they see as the ‘secular’ schools run by the Ministry of Education.
The delivery of education services occurs predominantly in the areas under government control, particularly the district centre and its surrounding villages. Services cease to exist as we move away towards ISKP-controlled territory. The wealthier and more open-minded a family is, the greater the likelihood that they send their children, both boys and girls, out of the district for education – to Jalalabad city, Kabul or even abroad, especially neighbouring Pakistan. Most often, those who can afford it and find it culturally acceptable send their children to study in Jalalabad city to better prepare them for the nationwide university entrance test known as kankur. Nangrahar University in Jalalabad city tends to be the preferred higher education option for many locals who succeed in the exam.
As discussed earlier, much local educational infrastructure was either destroyed or damaged in the fighting. Most schools across Achin including in the district centre have been affected. As one respondent said, “Daesh virtually destroyed the building of Achin High School. Its roofs are almost falling down, so pupils study in the courtyard.” Where school compounds remain intact, textbooks, teaching materials, chairs, tables, potable water taps and toilets are all lacking. Moreover, there is a scarcity of good teachers throughout Achin, as in many other places around the country. Most current teachers are themselves only high school graduates.
Girls’ education – already a challenge – now faces even more hurdles. The vast majority of girls in Achin have been deprived of an education, as families have been reluctant to allow their daughters to attend even those schools that are functioning, because of real or perceived security risks. According to several respondents, there have never been any separate schools for girls. As a result, a few dozen girls attend girls-only classes in the boys’ schools in the district centre; these are morning classes, with boys going later in the day.
As girls move from primary to intermediate schools, their numbers ineluctably decrease. Few girls make it through to high school in Achin. Insecurity has exacerbated pre-existing cultural taboos against girls’ education. Those living within tightly-knit Pashtun tribal communities tend to be conservative and prefer not to have their girls study higher than the primary level. More conservative families tend not to send their girls to school at all – education in a nearby mosque or madrassa (ie learning the Quran and basic literacy) may be the only education these girls receive. Not unrelated is the fact that there are no female teachers in the district. The local community does not allow girls to be taught by young men in the absence of female teachers, so any female pupils are taught by “white-bearded [ie old] men,” in the words of one respondent. Even if there were women in the district qualified to be teachers, their families would likely not allow them to work, again because of conservative social mores.
The situation has prompted a number of parents to send their daughters to school in other parts of Nangrahar. One respondent said, “In Achin, those who want their daughters to go to school move to Jalalabad.” While girls are normally allowed to study up to around the sixth grade in Achin, some of them are encouraged by their families to progress into intermediate and high school studies in neighbouring districts such as Shinwar and even to university studies in Jalalabad and elsewhere. “Some Shinwari people are realising that knowledge is a good thing for their children,” observed one interviewee. Another said, “Some boys and girls from Achin who have studied outside the district, for example in Jalalabad and Kabul, encourage their peers in the district to continue their studies.”
Provincial and district education authorities monitor education in Achin to some extent, according to most interviewees. Their priorities are getting schools open, encouraging attendance by both pupils and school staff and implementing the Ministry of Education-developed school curriculum.
To eliminate potential abuse in the tahwildar or ‘cashier’ (also called the motamed or ‘trusted person’) procedure, whereby agents receive teacher salaries in Jalalabad and distribute them to teachers in the district, (11) the education authorities have recently replaced it with mobile money services offered by the Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC), a private Afghan telecommunication company. According to several respondents, the education authorities have so far biometrically registered about half of all teachers in the district and they receive notice of payment of their salaries via mobile phone. They must then go to Jalalabad to collect their money from AWCC agents, who receive the salaries from the provincial Directorate of Education. Although the mobile money mechanism helps eradicate corruption in the education sector, it takes both time (one day or even more depending on the conditions) and money. A local teacher told AAN, it cost some 500 afghanis – about seven dollars – for a round trip by car for teachers to travel to and from Jalalabad to collect their monthly pay of 6,000-8,000 afghanis – between 86 and 114 dollars, in other words, six to eight per cent of each month’s pay packet now goes on actually getting it.
The insurgent groups have differed in their approaches to education services in the district. All interviewees said ISKP opposed any education offered by the Afghan government, so there has been no such education in areas under their control. According to most respondents, ISKP has destroyed, closed or even converted public schools into checkpoints and fortifications for their military use. ISKP run madrassas only for children living in their areas. The bulk of the education provided is religious, such as memorising the Quran, learning selected hadith and tafsir (exegesis) and teaching jihad to the children. Some teaching of arithmetic (ie the four basic mathematical operations) is also allowed, according to an interviewee. In general, ISKP tends to allow more boys than girls to study and reportedly, education for girls comes to an end when they reach the age of nine.
The Taleban have not run or had a significant influence on education provision since they were last largely in control of the district between 2009 and 2015. However, it is worth reviewing how they managed education when they were in power here given that the fortunes of war fluctuate and current peace talks might also lead to the Taleban having more power locally or nationally. In contrast to ISKP, the Taleban had what could be called an education policy, and a parallel administration to enforce that policy. A primary concern for them was being able to influence or control school staff. The Taleban monitored the behaviour and teaching of school staff and pushed for the employment of some of their members, particularly to teach religious subjects. In areas under their rule, they scrutinised recruits employed to work in schools and even, as one respondent put it, “[had] them [school recruits] commit not to be in touch with [Afghan government] security forces and intelligence.” Recruits from outside the district were monitored more closely than those from inside, according to another respondent.
A second Taleban concern was the school curriculum. Although they were generally fine with the Ministry of Education-prepared curriculum, they placed greater emphasis on religious subjects, such as the teaching of the Quran, than subjects they regarded as ‘secular’, such as science. In Achin they particularly objected to the teaching of art and drawing. They sometimes banned ‘secular’ subjects altogether and replaced them with new religious subjects, such as Islamic education, known as talim ul-islam (Arabic) or islami showena (Pashto) and aqayed (Arabic for belief system). The religious subjects kept changing, respondents said. They made sure that these subjects were taught at school every day. In one case, they also demanded that the interpretation of the Quran be taught by their ulama (religious scholars) rather than those hired by the Ministry of Education. At the peak of their power in Achin, one interviewee said the Taleban had been about to introduce their own school curriculum, but failed to do so as ISKP had emerged.
Third, the Taleban concerned themselves with the day-to-day running of schools. They checked the attendance of both school staff and pupils. They cut the salaries of teachers for days absent. The daily administration of schools also extended to controlling the behaviour of school staff. For instance, they checked appearance: teachers were told not to shave and both male teachers and pupils were told to wear the traditional perahan tomban (shalwar kameez) and kola-ye safid (white cap). It also meant that, to keep schools open and education services running, there were some ties and coordination – however informal – between the Taleban and Afghan government education officials. Although the government funded and supplied the education service, schools were supervised and monitored by the Taleban, who checked attendance by both school staff and pupils and distributed teacher salaries through tahwildars/motameds.
A fourth education-related concern for the Taleban was schooling for girls. Basically, the Taleban shared community preferences on girls’ education, that girls could study up to sixth grade (primary school), they should be modestly clothed (the norm anyway) and, in the absence of female teachers, girls should be taught by old men.
At present, the Afghan government operates six health facilities in Achin through a non-governmental organisation, the Dutch NGO, Health Works (previously known as HealthNet TPO). Health Works has been contracted by the Ministry of Public Health to provide health services throughout Nangrahar. According to a doctor from Achin who has worked in the district for the past nine years, there is a Comprehensive Health Centre (CHC) in Achin district centre, four Basic Health Centres (BHCs) in Mamand, Shadal, Pekha and Abdulkhel villages and a Sub-Health Centre (SHC) that has moved from Bandar to Deh Sarak (for details on Afghanistan’s district-level health system, see here). (12) In addition, there are some private health facilities (ie private doctors’ offices and pharmacies) in the district.
As with education, health services diminish as one goes farther away from the district centre. Health service delivery also suffers from other serious shortcomings. Most healthcare personnel based in the district are not well-trained. Health facilities run by government-contracted NGOs are not adequately supplied with medicine and equipment. Many respondents referred to the lack of ambulance services in the four Basic Health Centres as a pressing medical issue in Achin (only the Comprehensive Health Centre in the district centre has an ambulance for emergency patient transfer). Moreover, most health facilities are based in rented houses and do not have specific compounds of their own; according to the doctor quoted above, only the Comprehensive Health Centre in the district centre and the Basic Health Centre in Mamand have their own compounds. As for available private health services, they are better but more expensive and thus usually inaccessible for poorer residents.
As a consequence, Achin residents with serious conditions have to go to the Comprehensive Health Centres in the district centre or neighbouring Shinwar district or to public or private hospitals in Jalalabad, Kabul or even abroad, especially to Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan if the medical condition is severe and they can afford it. Several respondents said most patients are taken to Jalalabad for treatment.
Fighting in the period 2015-18 undermined what was already a barely functioning health service in Achin. Like schools, most health facilities have been destroyed, either totally or partially. According to one respondent, only two damaged health facilities have been “somewhat reconstructed by the local people themselves.” According to the doctor quoted above, some health facilities have had to shift to rented houses so they could carry on with their work. Intense fighting also caused large numbers of casualties, placing an even greater burden on health facilities, especially the more advanced treatment centres. The same doctor told AAN:
People injured in the war kept coming to our and other clinics in the district. We had no ambulance to transfer the more serious patients to the Comprehensive Health Centres in the district centre, Shinwar or other districts and the regional hospital in Jalalabad. I was myself sent to serve in the Comprehensive Health Centre in Achin district centre and several others were dispatched to the Comprehensive Health Centre in Ghanikhel because of the pressure on these Centres.
Insecurity has harmed the provision of female healthcare in particular. Currently, there is no female doctor in the whole of the district. One respondent highlighted the challenges this presents for women needing treatment: “There are a lot of problems for women. It is because there is no female doctor for the special problems of women. When women get sick, they are taken 50 to 60 kilometres away for treatment.” Although the health department has tried to address this by recruiting more female doctors, those based in other districts and Jalalabad are not interested in going to work in Achin. One respondent put it bluntly, “There is no female doctor. The health department [in Jalalabad] said there would be a double salary and other bonuses for any female doctor who would work in Achin, but no one wants to go and work there.”
Given Achin’s conservative mores limiting the education of most girls, it is also difficult for the district to generate its own ‘home grown’ female health workers, not only doctors, but also the more basically-qualified. Indeed, there are only a handful of female nurses and midwives in Achin. The IDLG profile noted five female health workers, compared to 42 male. According to another doctor in Achin, there are two midwives and one female nurse in the Comprehensive Health Centre in the district centre and one midwife in each of the Basic Health Centres and the Sub-Health Centre, which would bring the total number of female health workers to eight. Mostly based in and around the district centre, these female health workers are largely inaccessible for women who might need their services in areas far from the district centre. In general, respondents said these female workers are either unwilling or not allowed (by male family members) to go and work in areas under insurgent control or influence. The lack of female health workers in addition to the fact that it is difficult to get around due to the conflict leads to a significant disparity in men and women’s access to health services in Achin. Summarising the consequences for women in the district, one respondent said:
Women just die when they fall ill. Most of those who die die during childbirth. At times, when for example some fighting is going on, it is difficult for families to take their sick women, say, to [neighbouring] Ghanikhel [district] or Jalalabad for treatment.
As with education, the insurgents have differed in their approaches to health services in Achin. ISKP takes the hardest line with regard to government-contracted health services: it opposes the running of any such health service, as well as the administration of any vaccination campaign in areas under its rule. Although the NGO providing government-supported medical services has maintained its impartiality in the ongoing conflict, the ISKP’s ban on public health services is clear; hence, local health providers dare not operate in their areas.
According to some respondents, ISKP, however, supports some health services of its own. One respondent who had seen an ‘ISKP clinic’ after the Afghan government forces recaptured an area described it as “well-equipped,” an observation based on the “kind of medicine and medical equipment they had in their clinic.” ISKP also permits the operation of some private doctors’ offices and pharmacies, all exclusively staffed by male health workers. Presumably, a complete ban on health care would hurt the group, given it wants its own fighters to be treated if sick or hurt. Respondents said the private health personnel cannot say no to ISKP requests for treating their sick and wounded. In one case, one interviewee said ISKP had severely beaten a doctor who had refused to examine and treat an injured ISKP fighter. They also seem to be generally fine with women accessing the existing health services, provided they are accompanied by a male relative or an elderly female relative. As for the treatment of their ‘more important’ sick or injured members, some respondents said ISKP usually takes them to Pakistan’s tribal agencies or elsewhere in Pakistan for treatment.
Similar to the discussion on their education services, the Taleban are no longer providing health services, but had some specific approaches to health in the past when they were largely in control of the district until 2015. In general, they did not directly prevent or interfere in the delivery of health services in Achin, even those funded by the Afghan government. According to several respondents, one reason was that they too needed the services; the Taleban had to get their sick and injured members treated. However, according to one respondent, they made sure that “medical personnel were not in contact with security forces and the intelligence [of the Afghan government],” a similar rule to that established for those working in the district’s education sector. They also appeared to have followed through on these rules, monitoring health personnel for such contacts. The Taleban took their members with more serious injuries or illnesses to Jalalabad or to Pakistan (mainly Peshawar) for treatment.
In order to use the health services, the Taleban were in contact with health workers. In some cases, they would tell the health workers to come to them, bringing with them any available relevant medicine and equipment. In other cases, Taleban members would approach one of the health facilities in person, asking for treatment for their sick and wounded. According to some respondents, such Taleban requests were generally adhered to, given the principles of neutral and impartial healthcare for all. The Taleban were generally respectful of medical personnel. One respondent also said that “priority was given to injured people from Taleban.”
The Taleban also generally allowed women’s use of health services in Achin, provided that patients were accompanied by a male relative or elderly female relative. They were even fine with women being examined by male physicians, given the lack of female doctors in the district.
Similarly, most Taleban insurgents did not prohibit vaccination campaigns in Achin. However, this had to be coordinated in advance with their leaders through the ‘health shuras’ (made up of health workers and local elders). In some areas, though, they created problems for vaccination campaigns even to the extent of banning them altogether. For instance, one respondent said, “When the Taleban were [in our area] three years ago, they blocked polio vaccination and even threatened the vaccinators with death.” Currently, most respondents said vaccination campaigns are carried out normally throughout Achin, apart from in ISKP-held territory.
Electricity, media and telecommunications
Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), the country’s power utility, has so far only supplied electricity in Nangrahar to Jalalabad and its adjacent districts such as Surkhrod and Behsud. Most of this electricity comes from the Naghlu hydropower dam built over the Kabul River upstream in Sarobi. Some also originates from a hydropower dam in Darunta, a village about seven km west of Jalalabad. The supply of electricity, however, has been unstable mainly due to the conflict. Taleban insurgents have targeted transmission towers located between Kabul and Nangrahar through Laghman (for an instance in September 2018, see here).
With the existing electricity grid limited to the provincial centre and its surrounding districts, more remote districts such as Achin are left with no public power supply. Many people have therefore bought solar devices to at least light their homes at night, charge batteries and mobile phones, watch television and listen to the radio. Some wealthier people own and use diesel generators. In some villages, as one respondent said, “People [village residents] get electricity for the entire village from a private [diesel] generator.” In many other villages far from the district centre, much of the population cannot afford to install or maintain either solar or diesel power and so lack regular, stable access to electricity.
In areas under government control and where access to electricity is more common, it is fairly typical for people to have TVs at home. Although there are no local TV stations in Achin, residents told AAN they follow a diverse range of domestic and foreign TV channels because many have both satellite dishes and simple antennas. Popular among male viewers, in general, are Tolo and Ariana TV news programmes including both Afghan and global current affairs as well as Islamic programmes. Young people, both male and female, also watch movies including Bollywood and Hollywood films and follow music and sports programmes, cricket in particular.
Radio is very popular and has become a source of competition between parties to the conflict. As in many other rural areas in Afghanistan, Achin has a high rate of illiteracy, which, together with a scarcity of electricity, makes radio the preferred means of mass communication. The two major insurgent groups have run their own separate, conflicting radio channels (previous AAN analysis here). When they were largely in control of district – before 2015, the Taleban used their De Shariat Ghag (Voice of Sharia) Radio to broadcast articles posted on their website, amongst other programmes. ISKP, however, “outmatched” them through their Khelafat Ghag (Voice of the Caliphate) Radio, an FM radio frequency they captured when they rose to power in Achin in early 2015. Far more professional and sophisticated and far more active, ISKP used their radio station to try to motivate people, especially the youth, to join their jihad. They portrayed their cause as the only legitimate jihad, tried to show their struggle as a global one and tarnished the image of rival jihadi and religious groups, the Taleban in particular. An air raid by Afghan government forces reportedly killed the head of ISKP’s radio service, Sultan Aziz Uzam, and three of his associates in neighbouring Deh Bala district in late December 2018 (as seen on Shamshad TV, Kabul, 27 December 2018, no URL). Both the Taleban and ISKP radio channels, nonetheless, continue to be aired and listened to in Achin, according to some respondents.
According to the respondents, many people also listen to different domestic radio channels based in Jalalabad and Kabul as well as to different foreign radio channels such as the American Radio Azadi (the Afghan branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL) and the British BBC. It seems many people in Achin have followed different radio channels to keep abreast of swiftly evolving political and military developments.
Many people have continued to access TV, radio and social media in areas or periods of both Taleban and ISKP control. In fact, many insurgents themselves watch TV, listen to the radio and use social media. However, they have told local people not to watch certain TV programmes such as Indian and American movies, which they regard as not in keeping with ‘authentic’ Afghan (in the Taleban’s view) or caliphate (from ISKP’s perspective) culture. In some areas or some times during the period 2009-15, the Taleban banned music, movies and smartphones. However, these orders were difficult to enforce as people continued listening to music, watching movies and using smartphones at home. One respondent said, “People secretly listened to music on their mobile phones when Taleban were in control of some areas in Achin.”
This brings us to a discussion of the state of telecommunications in Achin. As of early 2019, there were four active mobile network operators in the district – Roshan, AWCC, Etisalat and MTN. The publicly-run Salaam Network does not operate in the district. One respondent said, “The government did not want to bring Salam in the area and the people did not request [it] either.” The mobile phone companies have hired private guards to ensure the safety of their personnel, antennas and stations. At present, telecommunication services have largely returned to normal. One respondent described the current state of telecommunications in Achin:
We can access mobile networks all the time during the day and the night, but in some areas where antenna towers are far, the signal is weak. There is no restriction for mobile networks and the providers do not switch off the network during the night.
Many Achin inhabitants, particularly the youth, have smartphones, through which they connect to the internet services provided by the above-mentioned four mobile network operators. Some old men continue using basic mobile phones because, as one local elder said, “people of [his] age use simple phones that are easy [for them].” Although internet connectivity is slow and weak across the district, a large number of people, particularly the youth, are constantly communicating and sharing news, information, opinions and pictures on social networking sites, primarily Facebook. The IDLG profile of Achin estimated that 60 per cent of district residents had access to the internet. Inhabitants who have family members and friends in neighbouring Pakistan and further afield – for example, in the Gulf countries, Turkey and even the west – need to be connected to the internet. They keep in contact with their family and friends abroad through a variety of applications including, but not limited to, Viber, Imo, WhatsApp and Facebook.
Nevertheless, recent fighting among the government, ISKP and the Taleban has led to Achin’s inhabitants being without telecommunication services for unspecified periods of time throughout 2015 to 2018. In particular, some telecommunication antennas reportedly belonging to Roshan and AWCC were destroyed in clashes among the warring sides. These antennas have been repaired or replaced, however, and services have largely resumed. It is not clear which party or parties to the conflict were responsible for the destruction of the antennas and other types of infrastructure (eg clinics, schools) in Achin, but the IDLG profile of Achin put the blame on the two insurgent groups. In general, telecommunications are frequently targeted first by warring parties, both government and insurgent groups, because of their power to disseminate propaganda and influence public opinion or forces’ behaviour on the battlefield. However, respondents offered no confirmation on whether the damage in Achin was deliberate or just one more aspect of the general destruction wrought by the fighting.
When the Taleban were the dominant force, Achin residents had to live without mobile phone coverage during the night from about 6 pm to around 6 am the following day in much of the district. According to the IDLG profile of Achin, the Taleban ordered the telecommunication companies to cut phone service during these periods so that “no one [reported] their activity to the government through the mobile phone.” Another respondent said it was not clear whether it was the government or the insurgents who had ordered that telecommunication services be cut off. The telecommunication companies strictly complied with this and other edicts. In one case, one respondent said, “Once a mobile phone company did not pay taxes to Taleban, they destroyed its antenna.”
The Taleban also taxed mobile network operators in Achin. None of the respondents knew by how much. However, all agreed that both the companies and the Taleban negotiated bilaterally for the security and continuation of telecommunication services. The Taleban did not tax the local population for telecommunication services – for example, when buying top-up cards – at least according to those who had experienced the period of Taleban control in the district.
As for the ISKP, it banned mobile phone coverage throughout the day and night for about half a year in 2015 when it came to power in the district, according to some respondents. Currently, while no mobile phone company operates in areas under ISKP control, those areas do receive telecommunication signals. ISKP members as well as others thus have access to services including the internet, which is provided by mobile phone operators. This is seen in the use ISKP makes of telecommunication services. Furthermore, ISKP members are equipped with walkie-talkies for their internal communication.
Other services available
Although Achin is largely neglected compared to the districts around the provincial centre, some development services have been provided by the government’s National Solidarity Programme, non-government organisations (NGOs) and even the Taleban.
Both government and NGO-provided development services tend to involve small-scale rural development, including improving water supplies, providing rudimentary infrastructure and improving local agriculture. Agriculture has been a particular focus of development funds. Both the government and NGOs have assisted some local residents with access to better seeds, greenhouses and cold storage facilities to enhance their agricultural productivity. A major goal has been to support alternative livelihoods to encourage farmers to abandon poppy production. This has largely been in vain, as opium cultivation has resumed its full speed and scale, as explained above. One respondent described the development services offered by the government and NGOs in Achin:
There have been other [development] services such as digging water wells, building minor roads and bridges and agricultural services. Some alternative livelihood and livestock support such as giving dairy cows to widows have also been provided.
Several respondents complained that these small-scale government and NGO development activities had been monopolised by district and village élites who were connected to provincial élites. They were subsequently directed to the benefit of their kinsfolk and local allies. Despite this dissatisfaction, there have been many requests for more development projects. Many respondents said the district was in particular need of development, given the recent, intense fighting. As one respondent said, “Our schools do not have buildings; we want our schools to be reconstructed. Our clinics have been damaged during the fighting; we want them to be reconstructed as well.”
According to most respondents, development services offered by the government and NGOs had to be coordinated with and authorised by the Taleban during its period of control from 2009 to 2015. The Taleban scrutinised those working in the development sector and also taxed these services by demanding and taking what several respondents say the Taleban considered to be ‘their share’. In addition, Taleban insurgents themselves also engaged in and contracted some development work – mostly road-building – in Achin and other districts of Nangrahar. In Khogiani district, for instance, the Taleban built minor roads connecting several villages, although these road improvements were more motivated by tactical requirements for repelling ISKP advances than facilitating rural life (see page 7 of this AREU paper). A similar thing happened in Achin where, according to some interviewees, the Taleban engaged in road-building, in addition to repairing damaged health facilities or improving local irrigation canals. Like road-building, the health facilities were used by the Taleban’s sick and wounded, and the irrigation canals boosted poppy production, which significantly contributed to insurgent finances.
As for ISKP, it has banned any development services offered by the Afghan state or NGOs. Respondents did not know whether ISKP run development services of their own, similar to their health services. It is plausible there are no such services in ISKP-controlled parts of Achin.
Lastly, all parties have engaged in providing rule of law or justice services to some extent. According to some respondents, the three major parties to the conflict have run their own justice systems in the district at different (and sometimes overlapping) periods of time. These respondents said the residents approached a given justice system depending on who ruled the area at the time as this was their only option available, but the general trend was a preference for dealing with local disputes through traditional jirgas (tribal justice system).
According to some respondents, the justice systems of all the three parties to the conflict each had particular problems. The government’s justice system was corrupt, as elsewhere around the country. The Taleban’s justice system was strict and, in the words of one respondent, “forced its decisions on the litigants.” ISKP’s justice system was even stricter and its key feature was, as one respondent said, “to detain and torture people, especially those accused of espionage, in its prisons.” In the midst of the fighting, however, these justice systems were entirely bypassed, evidenced by the many and inherently vindictive summary and extrajudicial killings.
The two insurgent groups – ISKP and the Taleban – have differed in their treatment of public service delivery that is financed and administered by the Afghan government. ISKP has opposed and banned almost all public services, replacing some with services of their own. For instance, while government-run education and health services have been prohibited, ISKP has authorised some private health clinics and madrassas. The only type of service delivery that ISKP has tolerated is the continued operation of mobile phone companies, primarily because they too benefit from these services. They are particularly reliant on the internet and smartphones for recruitment campaigns and propaganda. They have also been running a radio channel of their own. They ban development work carried out by NGOs or the government.
The Taleban clearly differ from ISKP in that, when in charge of Achin, they directly engaged in most service sectors. In education, they played a monitoring role, supervising and controlling school staffing, the school curriculum, day-to-day school management and girls’ education – their four major education-related concerns. In the health sector, although they did not directly interfere, they benefited from government-financed health services for their sick and wounded members. As for telecommunication and development services, the Taleban dictated their terms by enforcing a shutdown of telecommunications at night and by ‘taxing’ mobile phone companies and development projects financed and administered by the Afghan government and NGOs. Like ISKP, the Taleban have been running their own radio channel.
For Achin residents, navigating between the government and Taleban insurgents was far easier than between the government and ISKP rebels. Government and Taleban officials cooperated on many issues in education, health, telecommunications and other areas, albeit more out of necessity than preference. Contact between the government and ISKP, on the other hand, is nearly non-existent in all areas, including over keeping public services running. When all three held significant parts of Achin in the period 2015-18, the result was a weak and scattered form of public service governance with interconnected government and Taleban-controlled public service delivery and an ISKP island with far more limited services.
At present, the Afghan government has returned to being the dominant governance actor with ISKP limited to its mountainous sanctuaries and the Taleban not currently contesting the district in an active way. However, as the history of long-embattled Achin reveals, control of the ‘battlefield’ might well change again and local government with it, leaving the local population with no alternative but to try to adapt to any new holder of power.
Edited by Jelena Bjelica, Erica Gaston, Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark
(1) For the purposes of this dispatch, Achin includes both Achin district and Spin Ghar district that some say has been separated from Achin. This is because it seems few people, including government officials, are concerned about this split and use Achin to refer to both parts (see also page 7 of this report).
(2) A Pashto term meaning ‘white mountain,’ the Spin Ghar is part of the Hindu Kush range, which is in turn part of the bigger Himalaya mountain system.
(3) The Shinwari also form most of the population in Achin’s neighbouring districts of Deh Bala (aka Haska Mena), Kot, Shinwar (aka Ghanikhel) and Naziyan, further to the east in Dur Baba district, as well as some areas way up north in Kunar province, especially Shigal district.
(4) According to three local elders who spoke to AAN, major mujahedin figures and factions in the district in the 1990s included (in no specific order):
- Qari Mujahed, Qari Tayyeb and Mamur Muhammad Isa, affiliated with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami (Hekmatyar, a major mujahedin leader, continues to be active in national politics, having recently nominated himself for the upcoming 20 July 2019 presidential elections; previous AAN analysis on him here.)
- Two brothers, Qari Samad and Qari Salam, Haji Abdul Kabir and Mawlawi Sawab Gul, affiliated with Yunus Khales’s Hezb-e Islami (Khales was from Khogiani district in Nangrahar province and broke away from Hekmatyar to form his own tanzim (political-military organisation). He died in 2006 and has been replaced by his son Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed, who later broke away from the Taleban and currently leads his own insurgent group against the Afghan state.)
- Mia Sahbi Juma Khan and Hafiz ul-Haq, affiliated with Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi’s Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami (Muhammadi was another major mujahedin leader who died in 2002.)
- Sahar Nur Kuchi, affiliated with Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami (Sayyaf continues to be active in national politics.)
- Naim Jan and Saif ul-Rahman, affiliated with the late Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami (Rabbani was the president of the mujahedin government in Kabul, and was assassinated in September 2011.)
(5) According to the same three local elders, the Taleban district governors for Achin in the period 1996-2001 were: Mawlawi Ghulam Nabi Hashemi from Sorubi district in Kabul province; Mullah Rafiq, from Ghazni province; Akakhel, a Sufi pir (leader) from Sorubi; and Gul Wali, a kuchi (nomad).
(6) For an interesting discussion on the switch in ideology by some local Taleban from that of their previous, nationally-oriented organisations to the global jihadist vision of the ISKP franchise, see Niamatullah Ibrahimi and Shahram Akbarzadeh (2019) “Intra-Jihadist Conflict and Cooperation: Islamic State – Khorasan Province and the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-22, pages 9-11.
(7) At present, some of Zaher Qadir’s militias have reportedly fallen within the Ministry of the Interior’s Afghan Local Police (ALP) and some within ‘public uprising’ forces funded by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s intelligence agency. Yet some others might act simply as a wealthy strongman’s private army. In addition to official government resources, some respondents alleged these militias were involved in opium production, processing and trafficking on a massive scale. The behaviour of the militias in general has proved problematic in Achin. An infamous case has been that of Belal Pacha, an ALP commander in Achin, and his men, who were accused of committing a series of crimes such as killing, kidnapping, torturing, beating and dispossessing local residents of their property; Belal was subsequently arrested and jailed (recent AAN reporting here).
(8) The NATO Resolute Support categorises each district into one of five categories: under insurgent control, under insurgent influence, neutral/at risk, under government influence and under government control. The categorisation is based on assessing such issues as who governs, who collects taxes, who controls infrastructure and who controls ‘messaging’ in a district (for further explanation, see page 5 of this report).
(9) According to the respondents, the following are/have been the key governance figures in Achin district. It is not intended to be exhaustive and given frequent fluctuations in political and security dynamics, it may not be current:
- District governor: Ashequllah/Shukrullah Safi, from Kunar province; or Mashuq Sadat, from Kunar province (so no clear district governor)
- District police chief: Haji Nader, Mohmand tribe, from Lal Pur district in Nangrahar province
- District mayor: Nawidullah Shinwar, Alisherkhel subtribe, from Shinwar district in Nangrahar province
- District education director: Haji Taj Muhammad, Alisherkhel subtribe, from Pekha Valley in Achin
- District public health director: Abdul Wahid, from Shinwar district in Nangrahar province, assisted by Aman Gul, head of clinics; or Ezzat Shah Samim (so no clear district public health director)
- ‘Public uprising’ commanders: Haji Muawen, Malek Ehsan, Haji Qalam and Malek Qais
- District governor: Abu Khaled, from Achin
- Military commander: Qari Babrak, from Nangrahar, previously a local Taleban commander
- Other major district-level figures: Mufti Abdullah, from Pakistan’s Orakzai Agency; Mullah Lal Muhammad, aka Osama, from Mamand Valley in Achin, who belongs to the Haidarkhel subdivision in the Sepai subtribe
Taleban (before ISKP took control of most of Achin in 2015, district Taleban figures reportedly kept changing and had no clear hierarchy)
- District governors: Mawlawi Aminullah, from Khugiani district in Nangrahar province, followed by Gul Basar who is reportedly currently a local mosque leader in Achin
- Military commander or police chief: Mullah Tor, from Kot district in Nangrahar province
- Education director: Mawlawi Liaqat, from Shinwar district
(10) This clearly contradicts President Ghani’s recent declaration of victory against ISKP in a visit to neighbouring Shinwar district in mid-February 2019. As part of reactions to Ghani’s statement, the daily newspaper Etilaat Roz (11 February 2019), for instance, called it “premature” and “false.”
(11) To make sure the money was not lost in the process, education authorities required the tahwildars/motameds to deposit a guarantee such as their qabalas (land titles) worth more than the value of the total salaries of school staff. To make it worthwhile for the tahwildars/motameds, they were paid a certain interest for their deposit and work (about Afs 30-40 [approximately USD 0.40-0.60] per school staff salary). Nevertheless, this payment mechanism has been fraught with abuse, particularly given the existence of ghost teachers and schools in the district, as elsewhere across the country.
(12) It has only been a couple of years that Achin has had a Comprehensive Health Centre after its foundations were laid down in October 2016 as part of a larger USD 7.5 million package of health projects for Nangrahar province.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020