Coalition’s concerns arising from the increasingly aggressive and assertive behaviour of insurgent groups, or from their very identity and international connections, are not limited to Loya Paktia and the locally dominant Haqqani network. Following Petraeus’s guidelines and moving further East, one arrives in what has sometimes been termed Loy Nangrahar (Nangrahar, Laghman, Kunar, Nuristan – we can better call this part of the country the eastern region, according to the old administrative divisions). Here, insurgents are not under the sway of a major and highly distinctive network, but rather belong to several different groups, which, although cooperating in the fight against foreign troops, show a high degree of autonomy and unpredictability. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports about the ‘East’ proper.
Fazlullah Wahidi, the governor of Kunar, has commented the news that the US is shifting its strategic focus to the east in a recent interview, linking it directly to an increased US interest in the Haqqanis’ activities and resolutely denying that the network holds any sway in Kunar (read Pajhwok article here). This to cool things down on the US side, but Wahidi has of late been accused by some Pakistani media outlets (Dawn News channel on 4 July) of harbouring and actively supporting anti-Pakistani terrorist groups in his province.
Let us start with order. The Haqqanis seem in fact to be conspicuously absent from the eastern border region of Kunar and Nuristan, and although they have taken the road to the East, this has meant mainly sending people across the Spinghar mountain range from Kurram Tribal Agency into Nangrahar. Notwithstanding its considerable altitude, cross-border movement through the Spinghar remained a major factor of strength for insurgents in the southern districts of Nangrahar for the last years, nor does it seem to have stopped now that the Pakistani army is carrying out a long-called for operation in Kurram. Both Afghan and Pakistani Taleban aim mostly at the three Khugiani-inhabited districts of Khugiani, Sherzad and Pachir o Agam (but insurgents have been often infiltrating also Deh Bala, Achin and Nazian in Shinwari territory) in the south and east of the province where the insurgents count on a solid presence. From there, the insurgents are actually projecting themselves on the districts closer to Jalalabad. In these areas, cross-border raids constitute an important tool for insurgents to intimidate or punish not-supportive local communities, as exemplified by the most famous of these instances when, two months ago, gunmen stormed a wedding party in Dur Baba, killing the groom and eight other guests, apparently in retaliation for the defiant attitude of the district governor.
A major operation involving the Afghan Border Police and Army and the Coalition troops was launched in the area in the second half of June with the purpose of stopping massive infiltration from Kurram – probably the militants were trying to relocate to avoid confrontation with the Pakistani army. During the first week of July the flux of insurgents from Pakistan was eventually stopped, after airstrikes killed as much as 30 of them in Khugiani. On the other hand, infiltration from Khyber Agency, which had been gaining prominence during 2010, seems to have decreased since Lashkar-e Islami, the foremost Khyber-based militant outfit, has been weakened by internecine fighting starting from April.
Insurgent groups in and around Nangrahar have reportedly being trying to extend taxation of local populations outside of their traditional strongholds(*). To mollify the locals into paying ‘ushr and zakat (tax on land produce and alms) to them, the Taleban usually secure first the help of local mullas. These are made to preach to their communities the need to support jihad financially if not by direct armed participation, and the combination of social and religious pressure together with individual threats or action against those unwilling to comply is usually effective.
The taxation campaign may thus have reached unprecedented levels in the eastern region, both in terms of population and areas affected, but it is not the only direction where insurgents have been looking to for funds. The smuggling of gems, timber and opiates – the last item in particular is experiencing a revival – are of course ‘normal’ sources of income for the insurgents, among others, countrywide. Inside Jalalabad, the region’s centre, it seems that the already existing links between political insurgents and organized crime have further strengthened as of late. In the last weeks for example, a series of kidnappings of wealthy businessmen shook the city, causing even a lockout of protest among the moneylenders of the bazaar. In one of the last instances, one such sarraf was abducted from the main bazaar in full daylight by men presenting themselves as NDS officers. The Taleban eventually distributed night letters in Jalalabad denying their role in the kidnappings and ordering locals to report abductions to the Taleban security commission; many locals however believe that insurgents are abetting the criminals and benefiting economically from the latter’s activities.
Nor seems this criminality to be hitting randomly. A specific group of businessmen are reportedly safe from risks thanks to their high connections and economic deals with government officials. Even more worrying is that this does not dispel the idea among locals that the targeting of the other victims has an insurgent matrix. It would suggest a close understanding, if not actual cooperation, between the ‘enemies of the state’ and government officials with their business lobby, especially when outstanding traders outside of the latter’s circle are targeted.
One could also argue that this kind of insecurity affects areas experiencing administrative changes, and Jalalabad is definitely fitting in the category. Let us leave aside the transition of the city’s security to the Afghan forces, which is widely believed will happen among the next batch of areas to be announced in October – or in December. Not only the police chief has been replaced last month, and it will take time for the newcomer to settle down; Nangrahar’s governor Gul Agha Sherzai is, since last spring, rumoured to be on the move (see our previous blog here). After the death of Ahmad Wali Karzai in Kandahar, some argue, he has multiplied his lobbying efforts to become governor there again. Almost every second day in Jalalabad there are rumours about his appointment having been made effective. It is still to be seen if Sherzai obtains the seat in spite of strong Karzai’s reserves. But, then, who will take his place in Jalalabad in case he succeeds?
None of the members of the locally prominent Arsala family (of the late Haji Qadir and Abdul Haq as well as its current elder Din Muhammad) seem in a good position to attain their longed-for object of desires: Nasratullah, among them probably the most broadly acceptable, is still considered by many too young to deal with such a delicate position, while his cousin Haji Zaher is too controversial in the eyes of the foreigners (and of many a local). Furthermore, Haji Zaher, now an MP, has just declared war on Karzai on a series of issues, and if the dispute over the parliament figures as the main theme, it could well be that his frustrated attempts at getting a governor seat in the eastern region in the recent past helped him to radicalize his position towards the President. So, the government would seem more inclined to bring in another ‘neutral’ outsider, and the name most commonly heard of in this respect is that of Juma Khan Hamdard, currently governing Paktia.
Hamdard, however, is seen as all but neutral. In a former stronghold of Hezb-e Islami like Nangrahar, the presence of a Hezbi ‘firebrand’ like Hamdard will surely affect the political landscape heavily. Many local observers agree that such an appointment would undoubtedly appease a lot of former commanders and party members, and possibly even improve the security of some districts in the short term. But, they warn, it can have serious consequences for the entire region’s future stability, as the governor would most probably lean on old Hezb-e Islami networks to improve his position and thus favour a score of party members, be them siding with the government or taking part in the armed insurgency(**).
The presence of Hezbi insurgents brings us to the already mentioned complexity of the eastern insurgents’ map. Local Hezbis and Taleban are joined by a significant proportion of Pakistani militants, themselves pertaining to different outfits, while in some areas specific local groups further complicate the situation(***). It is the case of Kunar, where local Salafi militants are active in the insurgency too, both as part of Taleban units or in more autonomous fronts. There is no single command or coordination among all the different groups, and sometimes tensions have been reported, but insurgents in Kunar, even Taleban and Hezbis, do not seem to experience rivalries or infighting to the degree witnessed in some other provinces, and they are reportedly cooperating when one group becomes hard pressed(****).
The result, however, is a confused situation, where the behaviour of the insurgents is not easily predictable. For example many locals from Kunar reported to AAN that local insurgents have accepted to allow schools, even for girls, to function. On the contrary, one month ago, insurgents burnt down a girl school in Chaparhar district of Nangrahar. Not even inside single provinces, where the Taleban shadow administration supposedly should try to implement same standards and united leadership at least among the followers of Mulla Omar, things do appear clear. In Kunar, for example, there has been a deal of confusion as to the identity of the Taleban shadow governor: Mawlawi Abdur-Rahim, already in charge since 2008, or Qari Zia-ur-Rahman, more closely linked to the foreign fighters and the Pakistani Taleban? Apparently, a compromise was reached by appointing the first asra’is-e tanzimat (here with the meaning of ‘head of the military operations’) for the whole eastern region, possibly as a way to make room for the other.
It happens thus that from a somewhat relaxed modus operandi towards NGOs or even Afghan security forces caused by the insurgents’ deep roots in local communities there could be a sudden shift to situations of extreme brutality and victimisation of civilians. The insurgents of Kunar for example banned beheadings years ago, and at least some commanders in the southern half of the valley have reduced their attacks on ANP and ANA, apparently trying to concentrate on foreign troops (interestingly, some reported this as an explicit order issued by a ‘mawlawi claiming to come from Pakistan on Mulla Omar’s behalf’ around three months ago, although this does not seem a plausible explanation). At the same time, the killing or abduction of civilians – even clerics – for intimidating purposes is a frequent occurrence in parts of the province. Or, for example, Kunar holds the sad record of female suicide bombers, apparently more a by-product of emphatic Taleban propaganda among communities than a case of child exploitation.
The more brutal acts of violence – like the murder of two local Community Development Council workers in Rodat district of Nangrahar last Wednesday, which subsequently saw the attacker done to death by locals – are usually ascribed to foreign, or anyway not local, insurgents. The need to keep Afghan and Pakistani Taleban focusing on their respective areas or, when not, coordinating closely with local insurgents, is apparently well understood on principle by the Taleban leadership, but not always put in practice effectively. In most of Afghanistan, foreign fighters are allowed to operate only in coordination with local insurgents and under local commanders, even when they provide the main economic assets. But in a province like Kunar this is simply impossible. According to some local sources, a tentative division of the areas of responsibility has been done, with the ‘Emirate Taleban’ (those directly linked to the Quetta leadership) in charge of the districts on the left bank of the river, and those integrated in the TTP ranks conducting operations on the right bank bordering the FATA. But things do not seem to work that way consistently, and double appointments for the same shadow district governor position, with consequent quarrels, have been reported.
A major reason for this state of things is the porousness of the border in Kunar, in both geographical and political sense. As Qari Zia-ur-Rahman had been in charge of administering swaths of Bajaur in the past, so TNSM/TTP commanders like Mawlawi Faqir Muhammad and Abdul Wali have been able to carry out attacks in Kunar from Bajaur and Mohmand respectively. If these trespassings had been until now denounced by Afghanistan as ISI’s disruptive activities inside Afghanistan, they have been increasingly taken up by the Pakistani government as Afghan support for anti-Pakistani groups after an unclaimed attack in Upper Dir, the first of a series apparently originating from Afghanistan, left dozens of Pakistani security forces dead on the first of June 2011. Since then, the reversal of the situation, with the Pakistani press accusing the Afghan governor of Kunar of sheltering the terrorists in sanctuaries on Afghan soil or the Afghan and Coalition troops of not doing enough and, part of it at least, expressing security concerns at the planned withdrawal of the Nato, could not have been more complete (read Dawn article here).
Unfortunately, the development, instead of bringing about a closer cooperation between the two countries to improve control over their border, gave the Pakistani army an additional incentive to continue and intensify the artillery shelling of areas inside Afghanistan all along the Kunar border down to Goshta in Nangrahar. This has been an inexplicable(*****), months-long bombardment which, provided it is now over, for more shelling were reportedly killing livestock in Naray district on 4 August, it has caused at least 14 civilian deaths (this is what UNAMA could confirm, figures given by locals are much higher) and displaced hundred of families. The lack of a strong diplomatic reaction from the international community and the Afghan government has been a strikingly negative signal given to local inhabitants already experiencing degrees of disaffection from their government and its international backers.
On top of it, insurgents allowed themselves to play with the issue: Qari Zia-ur-Rahman stated in an interview with a Kunar local newspaper that his men carried out raids inside Pakistan in retaliation for the shelling of Afghan territory, and it was now the Afghan state’s turn to react. The truth is that insurgents simply do not recognize nor care for borders, and this not in the name of gone-by ideals of internationalism, but in acknowledgement of the inability or unwillingness of nation states to repress their criminal activities, on whatever side of the Durand Line.
(*) According to an Afghan source, local insurgents found themselves in straightened circumstances after the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the disruption of some of the funding networks originating from the Gulf countries. They would have sought to replace diminished international funding by leaning more on taxation and other local sources of income.
(**) Nangrahar, and more generally the whole eastern region, has been arguably the most important stronghold of Hezb-e Islami during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. In particular, some central districts like Batikowt or Rodat provided a high percentage of the party cadres countrywide, while currently several MPs from the four provinces have a Hezbi background. The pivotal role of Nangrahar’s governor in the whole eastern region would make Hamdard’s a heavy appointment. Furthermore, the loyalty commanded by Hezbi affiliates within the state apparatus reportedly allows even those who sided with the insurgents’ considerable freedom of movement, and this, in turn, offers margins of exploitation by other insurgents. In the words of a Kunari: ‘some corrupted MPs facilitate the movement of Taleban and even al-Qaeda leaders in the area (from Kunar to Torkham and vice-versa) in black-windowed four-wheels by calling the security forces in Jalalabad and telling them it’s Hezb-e Islami members moving around, not to mess with them.’
(***) This diversity of course applies also to the agendas allegedly pursued by the various insurgent groups: according to some locals it would be difficult to find a foreign country which is not sponsoring this or that armed group on the border areas of Kunar or Nuristan. Afghan officials themselves are said to have close contacts with some insurgents, as shown by a narrative of the recent operation in a high school in Shewa district of Nangrahar, which on 17 July led to the death of 14 insurgents including their commander Khan Wali. Three insurgent groups numbering a total of around 60 had gathered there, but one of the commanders had actually set up a trap in cooperation with the NDS to eliminate Khan Wali, considered the more committed and dangerous among them (and an outsider, originating from Nurgal). Khan Wali himself, by the way, had some high-ranking connection on the other side, as he had been among former Nangrahar police chief and now MP Hazrat Ali’s clients before turning to jihad, and apparently had kept close contact with some of the latter’s lieutenants.
(****) This could be because Hezb-e Islami’s presence there is clearly limited compared to more mixed environments. The famous Hezbi commander and Hekmatyar’s deputy Kashmir Khan completely controls Shigal district in the north of the valley, and such is the sway his men hold over the area that Shigal is sometimes mockingly described as the district ‘having the best security in Kunar’, even allowing for some development projects to take place. In the rest of the province, except for Chawki district, Hezbi presence is negligible.
(*****) A rather indulgent remark would be that Pakistani troops are at a loss as how to repress entrenched hostile militants after they have allowed them to move undisturbed across the border in the past. Unless the shelling preludes to a will of the Pakistani army and intelligence commands to step in as providers of security in the parts of Kunar border region abandoned by the NATO troops and where the Afghan government’s presence is merely nominal. Only, judging by the amount of problems Pakistan already faces inside its tribal areas, such a move would definitely disproof the fabled strategic acumen of the ISI.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020