Gul Agha Sherzai may well be satisfied with the ‘gold medal’ he has been awarded on Sunday by a local labour organization for his services. It could represent the final achievement of his long-lasting tenure as governor of Nangrahar province. After almost six years, many local powerbrokers in Eastern Afghanistan, and maybe himself too, seem to be looking for a change. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports.
In an unprecedented effort to obtain the removal of a provincial governor, several MPs from Nangrahar joined hands with about one third of the provincial council (PC) and a number of influential local leaders in organizing a series of protests in Jalalabad(*). An official motive for the mobilization seems to have been offered by the brutal attack on the local Kabul Bank office on 19 February and the perceived incapacity of the governor to guarantee security. The day after the attack the protesters set a deadline ending 24 February for the governor to resign, while local shopkeepers, angered by the upheavals of the successive days which kept half of the bazaar closed, joined the protests. It is true that Nangrahar long-vaunted security, at least in its central districts, has seriously deteriorated during the last year, and this of course implied a drop in the popularity of the governor. But such a sudden and brazen ‘revolutionary’ attempt to unseat him is not caused by the sincere concerns of the inhabitants only.
Sherzai’s governorship has been, in its first years, a relative success story from many points of view. Karzai appreciated that the Kandahari Gul Agha was keeping himself busy in Nangrahar, away from his natal province where Sherzai constituted (and to some extent still does) a powerful political and economic rival for his own brother. Keeping him at arms-length also lessened Karzai’s concerns over Sherzai’s special relationship with the US.(**) For the latter, of course, a friendly governor in a vital province as Nangrahar was a ‘must’ that allowed them to get support for their operations in the area. In turn, they provided Sherzai with lavish funds for development projects which allowed him to raise at least the quantitative standards of his governance.(***) This, in due course, received recognition from the population which could not but appreciate the benefits coming from the governor’s patronage.
Gul Agha Sherzai’s governorship in Jalalabad has sometimes been associated with the pageantry of a regional ruler of old, who holds his owndarbar and doles out favours in a smaller scale replica of the royal – now presidential – court of the capital. What probably impressed the locals more, however, were the tangible efforts to improve infrastructure, especially the inadequate provincial communication system. This construction frenzy led to the refurbishment or building of everything from roads to university facilities, mostly done through companies related directly or indirectly to Sherzai – which provided the governer with a vital tool of political leverage: by encouraging possible opponents or simply local powerbrokers to become business partners in land deals and construction projects he was able to link their fortunes to the stability of his position.
This process, however, had its limits. Sherzai had been interested mainly in developing the surroundings of the provincial capital Jalalabad and the valuable commercial corridor linking it with the Torkham border crossing, and, eventually, Pakistan to Kabul. It is on this axis that most of his projects took place, while other, more peripheral districts have been neglected in comparison. A clear example is that of the Khugiani-inhabited districts, where much needed water rehabilitation projects and road building have been largely absent. The lack of suitable hydro resources and access to markets is a big incentive for farmers to turn (or stick) to opium. In fact, districts like Khugiani and Sherzad, arguably the most insurgency-ridden in Nangrahar, have been the target of Sherzai’s eradication campaign for several consecutive years by now. Parts of the large Khugiani tribe led by the Khales family which, in turn, had led the local mujahedin tanzim of Hezb-e Islami [Khales] during the 1980s have therefore been alienated from the post-2001 Kabul set-up and joined the Taleban, led by the son of their deceased leader Maulawi Yunos Khales, Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed.
Moreover, even those areas heavily affected by investments did not necessarily turn into fiefdoms of support. If the newly built bazaars of Markoh and Ghanikhel (at regular intervals on the way from Jalalabad to Torkham) allowed locals to purchase imported goods and to commercialise their agricultural surplus to either Jalalabad or Peshawar, other projects, like the land grab and re-distribution for a huge construction project along the main highway in Rodat district, triggered resistance from locals who first got displaced with many promises and subsequently felt unsatisfied with their share of the allotments. These land conflicts, which in Nangrahar – due to the demography of the province and the return of refugees from Pakistan – are even more common than elsewhere, usually saw a polarization between those supported by the provincial government and their opponents who sought and found patronage from other sides.
Nangrahar in fact does not lack contending strongmen, and not all of them have accepted the idea of an everlasting Sherzai’s hegemony in their province. First and foremost among these is the Arsala/Jabbarkhel family of late Haji Qader and Abdul Haq, now mainly represented by their older brother Senator Haji Din Muhammad, Sherzai’s predecessor as Nangrahar governor. As many people told AAN, ‘they consider themselves the legitimate owners of Nangrahar’s governorship, and won’t find peace until they’re back on that seat.’ They have been supporting anti-Sherzai initiatives in the past, like the enquiries of then Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabet in 2008 – another Nangrahari – and seem to be involved in the present one as well. Two members of the Nangrahar PC are family: Haji Jamal Khan Qader, brother of Haji Zaher (son of Haji Qadir), and Nasratullah, son of Haji Din Muhammad (both were elected with high amounts of votes, ranking first and third in 2009). The latter in particular has been quite vocal among the protesters in the last weeks.
MP Hazrat Ali, an enthusiastic supporter of Sherzai’s governorship in his early days (years), has now also turned out to be one of the starkest supporter of the need to unseat him. The member of the small ethnic Pashai group, former Shura-ye Nazar commander and powerful Nangrahar chief of police (2003-04), apparently gathered the heads of the ‘conspiracy’ at his house in Kabul and proposed either himself or another MP from Nangrahar, Fereydun Mohmand, as interim governor. The latter even declared to the press that Gul Agha Sherzai had ‘promised to step down before Thursday (24 February)’, in time with the ultimatum that the protesters had set, but that he then failed to comply with his promise. Even the protesters’ declaration that if Karzai did not take action they would unseat the governor themselves failed to materialise. A commission sent from Kabul calmed down the issue, and, although protests resumed last week, this time mainly demanding the execution of the Pakistani national caught among the attackers at Kabul Bank, it seems unlikely they will achieve their first stated objective so easily.
However, the front of the protest has been wider than the previously known opponents of Sherzai in the province. Among the major figures of the Jalalabad protest, MPs and PC members, that met Karzai in Kabul on 27 February some were former staunch allies of the governor. Their sudden change of mind might well be economically motivated by a third party.(****) Reportedly, some of the new MPs are eager to strengthen their power base back in the province, based on their newly acquired position. Sherzai’s firm grip on every sort of business might be seen as an obstacle to their efforts to find preferential access to lucrative trades – legal or illegal – and to control major sources of revenue, such as the customs with Pakistan, thus triggering a ‘parochial’ reaction to reclaim the provincial economic assets for themselves.
The Kabul government (and the US, too) may be more concerned about the inability and reluctance of Sherzai to help curb the insurgency by ‘winning hearts and minds’ in some problematic districts like Khugiani and Sherzad, where his approach led to an almost complete absence of government activities except for security operations and the annual poppy eradication efforts. In recent administrative changes, new district governors were appointed by Kabul for the two districts. In what seems an attempt at regaining some loyalty among the disaffected inhabitants of the area, by bypassing the provincial governor, these appointments are considered close to Karzai, and at least one of them is a former local Hezb-e Islami commander who reintegrated, and now joined the government in the most literal way.
But while fixing patches locally, the government seems committed to keep Sherzai in his place. The head of the commission sent to investigate the protests, Asadullah Wafa, did all he could to that effect, and the local branch of the Da’wat-e Islami, Sayyaf’s party, which as of late got even closer to the government than it was before, staged a counter-gathering to denounce the illegality of the protesters action. They argued that Sherzai’s appointment or substitution pertains to the President only (through IDLG, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance), and that an impromptu removal of the governor could only worsen the existing corruption (which has in the meantime become another major complaint of the protesters).
The situation in Jalalabad has not gone back to complete normality. Yesterday’s double bomb blast, which resulted in the death of two policemen and injuries to 25 other passers-by, is just the last in a long series of failed or successful attacks inside the city by ‘insurgents’ (although some observers would suggest a direct link between discontented strongmen and this and other recent incidents, aimed at putting pressure on the governor by disrupting security).
This adds into the picture the role of Pakistan, which has exerted undue pressure on the politics (and economics) of the province so close to its border. Since his appointment, Sherzai has reportedly enjoyed good relations with the neighbouring country, but in these times of ‘transition’ this could prove to be not good enough. Other local political actors may guarantee longer-term ‘partnership’ with the officials across the border, if in power, or prove more pliable.
Sherzai himself may not be too sad at the prospect of leaving. He probably senses that it is time to return to Kandahar or to turn to national politics before the credit (and the money) he has been hoarding gets spoilt in this Nangrahar dogfight. Some people reported he had a meeting some months ago with Karzai, pleading to be given leave. No doubt, he will try and conclude his tenure in Jalalabad honourably, and not before having received guarantees for his economic interests in the province.
But who will be able to fill the position? Possible Nangrahari candidates seem to be Hazrat Ali and the two major exponents of the Arsala family, Haji Din Muhammad and Haji Zaher. The latter would not be accepted easily by the US administration, who reputes him a narco-trafficker; while the tactical alliance among Hazrat Ali and the Arsalas could collapse as quickly as it has been formed. Another option is that the central government introduces another outsider into the game. But, with the security situation worsening, who would have the guts to endure the highly probable disruptive reaction of local powerbrokers to another ‘intrusion’? That question mark explains the strong commitment of the government to defend Gul Agha Sherzai’s position, at least for the moment.
(*) While Shamshad TV reported that ‘[t]he Nangarhar Provincial Council and MPs in the lower house of parliament have jointly called on the central government to remove the governor of Nangarhar’, according to other sources only 6 of the 17 provincial council members and certainly not all parliamentarians have been actively asking for replacement. Given that the owner of Shamshad, Fazl Karim Fazl, is from Nangrahar, it is not difficult to understand the reasons of the channel’s extensive reporting on the issue.
(**) US forces were instrumental in installing Sherzai as Kandahar governor in late 2001, out-manoeuvring his rival Mulla Naqibullah who was Karzai’s favourite for the post. Sherzai, by the way, had already had an unsuccessful stint as Kandahar governor after the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and, as such, contributed much to the chaos that led to the emergence of the Taleban. More details on this story can be found in Antonio Giustozzi/Noor Ullah: ‘The inverted cycle: Kabul and the strongmen’s competition for control over Kandahar, 2001–2006, Central Asian Survey, Volume 26, Number 2, June 2007 , pp. 167-184 (18).
(***) The image of a-US backed governor, no doubt true to a great extent, which had previously contributed to Sherzai’s political strengthening by instilling in potential opponents fear of US retribution based on accusation of links to the Taleban, is now a less effective asset. Opposition to the presence and activity of the US troops has increased over the years, along with an increase in operations targeting the central districts of Nangrahar and often affecting civilians, notwithstanding Sherzai’s claims of successful coordination between Afghan forces and Coalition troops. Moreover, some local politicians believe that Sherzai’s special relationship with the US has become somewhat ‘colder’ since the presidential elections of 2009, when he stepped down from his candidacy after striking a deal with Karzai. Before that, there were indications that the US seemed to have considered Sherzai as a possible political alternative to Karzai even in Kabul, individually or as part of a Pashtun coalition also including Ashraf Ghani, Anwar ul-Haq Ahady and Ali Ahmad Jalali.
(****) Sherzai has been able to keep at least one powerful figure (albeit himself an outsider too) on his side: Ali Shah Paktiawal. The Chief of Police who was wounded in the recent attack on Kabul Bank, has been approached, but apparently without success, by the protesters.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020