In a five day-long protest in the Nangarhar provincial centre of Jalalabad, thousands of demonstrators have demanded the immediate dismissal of governor Gul Agha Sherzai for alleged involvement in corruption, embezzlement of development funds, illegal land grabs and for failing to protect Afghan territory from Pakistani inroads. The protestors were led, among others, by MP Abdul Zaher Qader, and during the manifestations managed to temporarily block all major roads leading to the city. The governor rejected all allegations and asked the central government to investigate the issues, while the leaders of the protest are meeting next week to decide over their future course of action. It is not the first time that Sherzai’s tenure in Nangarhar is tested, and on previous occasions it has been more the will of the government than his own resiliency that kept him on his governor’s seat. This time too, an eventual decision would also depend on the feasibility of such a change in a strategic province, during the crucial transition period and so close to the presidential election next April, and on who could benefit most from it. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini and Obaid Ali report (further insights from Gran Hewad).
On 20 April, thousands of residents went into the streets of Jalalabad in a major protest against the governor of Nangarhar province, Gul Agha Sherzai. Blocking the Torkham-Jalalabad highway in the Sorkh Dewal area, the Asadabad-Jalalabad road at Behsud Bridge, the Kabul-Jalalabad highway in Du Saraka and the ring road south of the city near Farm-e Hadda, the protestors managed to virtually cut off the city from the rest of the country. Their stated aim was to push for the governor’s removal, whom they accused of pocketing and extorting money in the name of reconstruction projects (1), illegally grabbing land as well as of failing to protect the territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Apart from the main roads, public offices, the main city bazar and the schools too remained closed on the first day of protest.
The next four days witnessed further manifestations, where attendance was smaller but still significant, with around one thousand reported on Tuesday and Wednesday. Although the protests have stopped, at least for the moment, after an announcement by the protest leaders, they have created an atmosphere of chaos in the city, now surrounded by an additional deployment of security forces.
Angizah Shinwari, a member of Nangarhar provincial council, told AAN that the province’s residents simply have had enough of their current governor, who is in this office since 2006. According to her, security has got worse, corruption has increased to its highest level and a huge amount of state land has been grabbed by officials during Sherzai’s tenure, while he has not taken any corrective measure. Muhtarama Amin, another member of the provincial council, reported to AAN that the residents of Jalalabad are demanding Sherzai’s replacement also because of his failure to “uphold national values.” She was referring to the accusations made by protesters that the governor is unable or unwilling to react to the alleged inroads made by Pakistani security forces into Afghan territory in some border districts of Nangarhar.
Encroachment on the Afghan side of the Durand Line by Pakistani security forces has long constituted a matter of concern for the residents of Nangarhar’s eastern border districts, and this was exacerbated recently by reports in early April that Pakistan was establishing security check posts along the border in Lalpura and Goshta districts. Nangarhar provincial council warned Pakistan of a strong reaction in case their construction was carried on, not only because the posts were allegedly pushing forward the border to the advantage of Pakistan, but also because, the council members maintained, accepting the building of those gates meant recognition of the Durand line. Actually, Gul Agha Sherzai did summon the Pakistani General Counsel in Jalalabad and asked to halt the work, but his spokesperson later confirmed that buildings had been completed, on the authority of Afghan bordr police sources.
Among the allegations against Sherzai, the most recurrent were those of appropriating the provincial funds for reconstruction and development and facilitating the usurpation of state lands by friends and allies. According to MRS Shinwari, only in the Sorkh Dewal area of Rodat district, more than 1000 jerib of land (around 200 hectares), originally used as pasture by the local Mohmand tribesmen, were appropriated illegally by Ghulam Mohammad Charkhi, a resident of Logar, with the support of the governor.
Land grabs often play a major role in creating rivalries among local strongmen, either because they covet the same piece of land, or because they intervene in the dispute on behalf of one party involved in order to harass political rivals. In Nangarhar, several quarrels related to land had taken place, and in many cases still go on, between different communities (see our previous blog here). In the current protest, however, land grabs seem to be only part of the issue, as local powerbrokers on different sides are blaming each other for committing this type of crime.
The anti-Sherzai protests started just a few days after, on 17 April 2013, dozens of people from the eastern provinces of Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar, mostly refugees returned from Pakistan, went on hunger strike, accusing MP Zaher Qader of fraudulent land dealings. The hunger strikers claimed that Zaher, who, with his political movement called Karwan-e Solh (Peace Caravan) is among the mainorganisers of the anti-Sherzai protests, sold hundreds of acres of government land as his private property. According to the protestors,he had sold them plots in Sorkhrud district worth one hundred million Pakistani rupees (the most used currency in Nangarhar). Provincial Council member Ebrarullah Moradi, who designates himself as the deputy of Zaher, admitted that the plots were sold to these people but argued that they would receive them in the residential project named Zaher Qader Township, near Jalalabad.
Land conflicts in Nangrahar appear to be instrumentalised in what is a long-running conflict between powerful families in this eastern province. Haji Zaher’s interest in the removal of Sherzai may in fact stem more directly from political ambition than from concerns about land and legality. His family, the Arsalas (2), has seen the governorship of their eastern home province as its due right in the last two decades. Zaher’s father Haji Qader, before the Taleban regime, and his elder brother Haji Din Mohammad, under the Karzai government, have held this position until 2004. Before the ‘endgame’ of 2014 takes a more definite shape, Haji Zaher may be well intentioned to re-open the contest for this position, frozen during the last eight years by the presence of what the Arsalas consider to be an ‘outsider’. Sherzai has indeed been transplanted to Nangarhar from his native Kandahar in 2004 by President Karzai, mainly because Sherzai, with his US support and flourishing business, was the strongest challenger to the Karzai family’s power base there.
The Arsalas, however, are far from being united nowadays. Indeed, the only survivor of the elder generation, Zaher’s uncle Haji Din Mohammad, has recently become a staunch supporter of Sherzai. The two branches of the family do not always enjoy cordial relations: the relationship between Zaher’s sibling Haji Jamal and Nasratullah, the young son of Haji Din Mohammad, has been particularly tense at times in the past. Haji Din could be playing on the side of Sherzai also to show himself as the “pro-government” champion among the Arsalas, in stark contrast with Haji Zaher’s oppositional stance.
The attitude of the other main political actors of the province must also be considered. While many have concurred in expressing dissatisfaction with Sherzai’s deteriorating performance, which is far from what was seen as the golden early days of his arrival, when he lavishly spent both government and private money for refurbishment, entertainment programs and the building of political alliances, not all may agree on who should replace him. Among the leaders of the protest, politicians connected to Jamiat-e Islami, like MP Pirbakhsh Gardiwal, have also figured. However, the province’s major former commander affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami and its Shura-e Nezarfaction, Hazrat Ali, now himself an MP, has proven a rival to Haji Zaher’s political ambitions in the past, and would do so again in the case Sherzai were to be dismissed.
In this complicated balance of power, during the previous rounds of protests Sherzai’s fate largely depended on the government’s stance (read our previous blog here). Karzai’s choice was then clear to everybody: keep Sherzai relatively happy and away from Kandahar. But less than one year away from the presidential election, nothing is certain anymore and other factors could come into the equation.
Not taking any action in front of a massive anti-Sherzai mobilisation in Nangrahar could turn out to be a very unpopular choice in the eastern province, a traditional major reservoir of votes and support for Pashtun candidates. Haji Zaher, a campaigner for Karzai in 2009 (as was his uncle Din Mohammad), may well be already ‘irrecoverable’ for the Karzai’s camp. Of late, he has become one of the harshest critics of the government, siding consistently with the opposition in parliament since his election to the Wolesi Jirga in 2010. But if the protest extends beyond Zaher’s supporters this could risk to cause a loss of political support throughout the province – the protestors already called for an electoral boycott – and this is hardly something that a president who wants to help a successor through an election can afford. On the other hand, punishing Sherzai by dismissing him would probably make things more complicated for any would-be successor of Karzai in Kandahar, where, at the moment, the president seems instead to have found an effective replacement for his slain brother Ahmad Wali as a political ally in the Chief of Police Abdul Razeq.
The anti-Sherzai front in Nangrahar seems not to be only made up of Zaher’s cronies. This is proven not only by the above-mentioned critical statements made by independent-minded members of the provincial council, but also by the fact that in course of time the protestors’ composition has changed. While during the first days the presence of the Karwan-e Solh supporters was predominant, led by pro-Zaher provincial council members like Moradi and Zabihullah Zmaray, on the third day members of the Mohmand tribe had apparently a major role in staging it. The Mohmand political leadership, with a few exceptions, has in the past been quietly supportive of Sherzai, or at least not being actively against him. If their discontent against the governor is added to that already felt by the Khugiani tribe because of the poppy eradication programs launched mainly the districts inhabited by them, two of the three main tribes of Nangarhar would be pitted against Sherzai. The third, the Shinwari, are divided over a bloody and long-drawn land dispute, which eventually got mixed up with insurgency and counter-insurgency campaigns; both sides in it have grown dissatisfied with the way the local and national government handled it (see our previous blog).
In response to the protests, the government has dispatched a delegation led by the National Directorate of Security deputy head (for operations) Dr. Muhammad Yasin Zia to investigate the allegations against Gul Agha Sherzai. According to local journalists, however, the delegation so far has only met local government officials.
The commercial hub of Jalalabad can hardly bear to see its trade disrupted for undetermined periods of time, and of that even protestors are well aware. Today, the main leaders of the protest have announced a one-week halt to their mobilisation, stating that a big “tribal” gathering – more with meaning of inclusive of all political factions – will take place next Thursday to decide over the situation. At the press conference where the announcement was made, politicians who did not join the protest were also present, notably MP Faridun Mohmand, who has an ambiguous stance towards Sherzai, having been critical of the governor at past times past and supportive of him recently, and Aman Khairi, the scion of a prominent Khugiani family at loggerheads with Haji Zaher. It seems next Thursday’s meeting could be an occasion for the whole Mashreqi political elite to sit and talk about their future, and, given the occasion by an eventual government action regarding Sherzai, to arrange for how to cut the Eastern cake among themselves.
(1) Complaints began to come up early after Sherzai took over office in Jalalabad about his collection of a development ‘tax’ at checkposts on the Torkham-Jalalabad highway, ending in a fund called Sherzai Foundation and said to be levied for funding charitable projects. The governor was accused of not channelling all the collected money into those projects but rather pocketing part of it.
(2) The Arsala family, stemming from the Jabbarkhel tribe, has played a prominent role in Jalalabad politics since the mid-19th century. Supportive of Hezb-e Islami Khales during the jihad, it achieved a paramount role during the mujahedin era by heading the Eastern Shura, the regional semi-autonomous government chased away by the Taleban in 1996. Of the three brothers, Haji Din Mohammad is the only survivor: Abdul Haq was killed trying to launch an uprising against the Taleban in late 2001, and Haji Qader was murdered by rival gunmen in 2002, while serving as a minister in the interim government.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020