Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Voices from Zabul

Martine van Bijlert 11 min

Just got back from a short visit to Zabul, the largely forgotten province that is surrounded by Kandahar, Uruzgan, Ghazni, Paktia and Pakistani Baluchistan. I was curious how things had developed since my last visit three years ago. The governor had been changed – and so had the Taliban governor – some provincial department heads had been moved around, while others seemed stuck to their seats. The Stryker Brigade had come and gone. Some of the elders had been detained at Bagram Airfield, others had been killed.

It was hard to get a feel for where things were going. There were contradictory claims of an improving / worsening security situation. And there was a number of recurring themes in the conversations. Some of them of course because I brought them up, but others kept surfacing of their own accord. There were the stories of local detentions and releases and diverging analyses of why this or that person – including a prominent former commander who had just been arrested two weeks before – had been taken and whether this was justified or not. There were anecdotes of police and government corruption. Opinions about the necessity – or risks – of establishing tribal forces and about the unknown fate of the reconciliation and reintegration agenda. There were musings with regard to what the foreigners may be doing and the overarching role of the ISI. And there were a few very articulate kuchi advocates. The conversation fragments below are obviously not a comprehensive overview of Zabul opinion. They are some of the comments people make or stories they tell when you sit down to talk. Some of it is genuine, some of it probably not, and some of it is somewhere in the middle.

Conversation fragments:

“Things are much better now in Zabul. It is much safer. One or two years ago the Taliban took the mayor’s car from the bazaar, and once a police Ranger and a car from the department of Public Works. And when there was fighting 2 km from the city centre the foreigners did nothing. Now they have become more active. The situation became so much better, that we don’t even need police anymore.” – provincial council member

“The situation has gotten worse in Zabul. In the past people would come to meetings and ceremonies and they would listen, but now nobody is coming. The distance between the people and the government has grown. The people understand that those in government only work for themselves and for their own pocket. I also work for the government, but I have distanced myself from such practices. That is why I can still travel to the districts without protection.” – head of a government department (allegedly notoriously corrupt)

“I am really worried. I feel that if things don’t get better this time Afghanistan will never in its history be stable. If the big countries don’t start listening things will not be solved. Sometimes I think that if the international forces had not been here, we would at least have had some kind of resolution: either the Karzai government or the Taliban. At least there would have been only one force. Now we have 44 forces and they are all pulling in different directions. There are 34 or 35 forces in NATO alone and they all have their own procedures. We cannot deal with that. If for instance someone has been arrested, we don’t know where to go or who to talk to or where to solve our problem.” – employee of an international organisation

“I am from outside the city, but I have moved to the bazaar. I cannot return to my area, not even to visit. I have worked too closely with the government. One year ago I was ambushed by the Taliban, it was not even 1 km from the provincial centre. I was hit by so many bullets and fragments of shrapnel. But I can still persuade young boys from our tribes to join a local force, even those who were with the Taliban before. The government cannot persuade them, because they know that the government has trampled on their rights and has not given us a fair share, but I can persuade them. And we can guarantee that they will not turn around and join the Taliban, because we know them and we know their fathers. (…) Why our young don’t just join the police or the army? When General Azimi [MoD spokesperson] makes his recruitment announcements on the television, we don’t understand what he is saying. He speaks in a different way. Each area and each province has its own culture and habits. If they want to recruit us, they should use tribal people. We don’t trust Azimi.” – kuchi representative

“What I think of tribal forces? Afghans who have been in the West for a long time or who have not been here during the jehad may not like the idea, but I am convinced that the arbakai is the only way to make our areas safe. There should of course be conditions. The forces should not come from outside. They should be from the area so that we know who they are and so that we can monitor their behaviour.” – tribal elder

“You cannot make tribal forces in an area that is still threatened by the Taliban. The area has to be cleared first. And then you have to establish security posts so that the area becomes safer and so that the Taliban cannot travel at will. I am in touch with many elders from these areas and they say: you should make a post in our area, so that we can make excuses to the Taliban and tell them that we have no other choice than to deal with the government and the foreigners.” – security official

“Yesterday the police released a group from the Shomalzai tribe. One of them was a friend of mine. He is very much against the Taliban. I told the governor and the police and other heads of department whom I knew, but they said that the group had been arrested by the foreign military, so the foreigners should decide. But normally when people are arrested they should be evaluated by a committee which includes the military prosecutor and the judge and a few others. Is this not our country? My friend is young, he had been driving on a motorcycle and he was carrying a lot of money. That’s probably why he was taken. But he was carrying the money because he is a businessman and it was the time of the year to collect outstanding loans.” – local doctor

“A while ago a Taliban commander was arrested and then freed again. He became a commander again and is now fighting. You know, it is all about balance. Whenever the Taliban gets weaker, the foreigners help the Taliban so that they are not defeated. And the other way around: when the government gets too weak, the foreigners act against the Taliban. Have you seen Karzai’s election symbol? It is a pair of scales, it is exactly like that. The scales are kept in perfect balance.” – government official

“The NDS arrested a Pakistani woman in the city yesterday. They say she confessed that she had been waiting for her [explosives] waistcoat to arrive. I saw her. She was about 18 years old and in quite a state, she was basically mentally disturbed. I felt really sorry for her.” – security guard 

“Whether innocent people are sometimes arrested? Yes, but then they are freed. Actually, if they are Taliban, they are also freed. And sometimes people are sent to Bagram, regardless of whether they are innocent or with the Taliban.” – tribal elder

“The Russians used to be where the PRT is now. Then it became the education department and the Russians moved to the prison. They came and brought gifts for the students. They invited us and asked the same kind of questions that are being asked now: about the tribes and the resistance and how do you see us. I answered: I am a civil servant, if the government wanted you here then I agree. But one of them said: I think the people who are fighting us are better people than you, because they understand why we came. I thought that was interesting. (…) At that time one of our senators made peace with the main mujahedin commanders. But it was not from the heart, they just wanted to play both sides. The soldiers thought the fighting would stop, but it didn’t. In Pakistan they shifted the main authority from the heads [amer] of the various mujahedin fronts to the commanders, because the heads were more prone to change sides, so they no longer had the authority to make deals.” – former PDPA member

“The problem with the reconciliation and reintegration plans is that nothing has been discussed with the governors. They don’t know how to start and what they should do and whether they will have a role. The government has not even called them together yet to consult them. (…) I am also not sure if it will work. The Taliban has a clear objective, they want to rule. They will not just come like that, they will probably want half of the government.” –senior government official

“The arrest of Mullah Yunus [former Taliban shadow governor of Zabul] in Pakistan will have no effect on the situation in Zabul. Someone else will be appointed. It is like changing your mobile phone. You can replace your phone with another phone and you can still be called.” – local tribal leader

“So we know who the Taliban governor and commander is, but who is the treasurer? Maybe the job is still open. At least the Taliban doesn’t have PRR (pay and rank reform).” – employee at the financial department (mustufiyat)

“The former governor tried to reach out to the Taliban and the tribes through the tribal elders. But the people he chose were not the real tribal representatives. He pulled some close and pushed others away. When the elders asked something, for instance the release of a detainee, he would ignore them. But when a nobody, whom he happened to support, asked the same thing he would do it. In this way he created artificial representatives. It did not work.” – head of a government department

“The Special Forces cannot reach out to the tribes. Look at it this way. It takes five years or ten years or fifteen years to build a house and to make it nice and to give it good furniture. But it is very easy to destroy it, you just have to light a match and all the work is gone. It is the same with the Special Forces. They talk to the tribal elders and get to know them and consult with them and then one day they arrest some of them. You cannot on one hand work with them and expect them to trust you and on the other hand attack them.” – government official

“In Najib’s time the government did a lot of work with the kuchis, through the NDS and the department of Border Affairs. They were trying to find people who wanted to have a kandak [battalion], just like now with all the talk about arbakai. It was a good program because it gave the government the opportunity to know what was going on in the tribes. They also gave a lot of money. (…) About these tribal groups; it would have been good to establish such groups about a year or so ago. But now in any village it has become impossible for the people to stand up against the Taliban. They are simply too strong.” – former PDPA member

“Who should be responsible for a tribal force? No, not the police. They don’t even feature in the question. Everybody knows they are all thieves. But it can anybody else; the governor, the army, the security service. But not the police. Take for instance my son. He was arrested a few days ago, because they said he was Al Qaeda. He is 10 years old! He was released, but the police took his mobile from his pocket and has not returned it. Even the governor could not get it back for me. The whole province knows about this.” – kuchi representative

“The local protection force under Aref Noorzai was about election protection groups, but it didn’t happen in Zabul. I was asked to introduce 60 young men to the governor for this force. We were going to bring 30 weapons and receive 30 weapons, but when I gave the list I was told the next day that it was not happening after all. No salaries were paid and the money was probably pocketed. It was a waste of an opportunity. Some of the men I was introducing had been with the Taliban, but it would have been harder for them to rejoin once they had been part of such a force.” – tribal representative

“The local protection force under Aref Noorzai started its work four or five months ago. The instruction came from Kabul and Noorzai’s provincial representative gathered about 80 people. Well actually they didn’t gather the people, but they made district shuras who made lists of people. The shuras were given one or two months salary.” – provincial council member

“We have to ask why the district of Khak-e Afghan has not had a government presence in years. Is it not a strategic area, does it not have strategic routes? If I know and you know, does ISAF not know? We have to ask why ISAF does nothing about it. (…) Let me tell you, it is not the Americans that are behind such things, it is the British. Yes, even though they have no troops in Zabul. They play the same role within NATO as the ISI plays in Pakistan.” – employee of an international organisation

“All this talk of reconciliation and negotiations will not work as long as things are not solved at the other side of the border. It all depends on decisions by the ISI. (…) I don’t believe Pakistan is acting in good faith when it is arresting all these Taliban commanders. Last week they arrested two other important commanders and then they freed them again. Why free them? It is a big game.” – [or some variation on this] almost everybody

“The Taliban is much more principled than the Karzai government. They are not allowing their governors and commanders to stay in one place for a long time, because this will allow corruption and will foster distance with the population. And they are in the hands of the ISI. That is why they understand the law and that it is important to share privileges.” – employee of an international organisation

“The problem as a governor is that you have empty hands. When you go to a district and listen to the problems of the people, you can promise nothing. All you can say is: I will knock on the door of the PRT, or: I will knock on the door of the Ministry of Health in Kabul. That is very difficult. (…) I have now made a one-year development plan for Zabul. I will go to Kabul and lobby the donors for funds.” – the governor

“We are making plans to visit the districts to monitor the poppy cultivation even though the risks and the costs are so high. Last year we lost four people and a Ranger when we hit a mine. We don’t have tractors to do the eradication and anyway in many places the tractors cannot go. Oh yes, in 2007 we had four tractors. We gave them back to the province. Or they are in the districts now. And the US Embassy gave $25,320 to the governor, but we don’t know where that money went. (…) This year they will give $130 per eradicated hectare of poppy, but only if you have GPS coordinates. Last year we did not get the coordinates, because when the engineers saw the car that had hit the mine they refused to go with us.” – officer at the counternarcotics police department

“Are you a journalist, because I have a lot to say. We kuchis are in a lot of trouble because of the drought, which has been here for eight years, and the government is not helping us. We are not being treated as if we are inhabitants of this country. We have seven [male] seats in Parliament, but they are not our representatives. Nobody knows them, and there is not one person from my tribe in Parliament. The government should solve this, at least when it comes to the appointed members. The true representative of the kuchis is someone who serves the people. He can take some money for his pocket if he has to, but he should divide the rest. But this government is full of oppressors. I don’t think there will be service to the people [khedmat] in a hundred years. (…) I also have a lot to say about the foreigners, but that is political talk. The main question is, did they come here to stop a brother fighting a brother, or did they come here for business?” – kuchi waiting at the governor’s compound

“I have a question for the adviser. It is now 8 years that advisers have come and gone. They have talked to us and consulted us and written things down on the paper of their notebooks. And then their papers and notebooks get lost. What has all of that brought us? If I talk to you will that bring anything positive? Will anything happen? Or will your papers just get lost.” –head of a government department 

“You are from Holland. So what has happened to your government? How will this affect your country? Will there be unrest? Will the country still function? Will your economy suffer?” (…) You have no government anymore (laughs), now you are like us.” – tribal elder




Martine van Bijlert

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