Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

A Threat at Kabul’s Southern Gate: A security overview of Logar province

Thomas Ruttig Ali Mohammad Sabawoon 34 min

Logar – a strategic province at the southern gate of the capital Kabul – has been among Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces for years. The government only controls parts of three of its seven districts, in some cases not much more than (parts of) the district centre. This provides the Taleban positions closer to the capital Kabul than almost everywhere else. The province’s mineral wealth and drug production is fuelling the conflict even more. 2019 and 2020 saw intensified fighting, without significant changes in territorial and population control. This makes Logar an example of what analysts call “statically contested” areas. Based on interviews carried out between April and mid-July 2020, AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Ali Mohammad Sabawoon have analysed Logar’s trends of insecurity since the last comprehensive report on the province in 2013. Exploring the reasons for insecurity, they found that residents blame it on poor government leadership while the government blames a lack of cooperation by the population. They also found significant popular sympathies for the Taleban, as the perceived more powerful party in the war. 

Training airstrike by an Afghan Air Force plane in Logar province in October 2016. Photo: Wakil Kohsar (AFP).

Kabul’s south-eastern gate

Logar, with its provincial capital Pul-e Alam located only about 60 kilometres to the south of the capital Kabul, is a strategically extremely important province. The province’s second largest town, Muhammad Agha, is situated only 23 kilometres beyond Kabul’s city limits.

Out of the six rural districts and the one surrounding Logar’s capital Pul-e Alam, the government officially claims to control three: the provincial capital, Khoshai and Muhammad Agha. Security analysts and local sources, however, give a different picture. The website of the US-based Long War Journal with its interactive district control map only considers Khoshai under government control; it labels Pul-e Alam, Muhammad Agha and Baraki Barak as contested and Azra, Charkh and Kharwar (up to 2005 part of Charkh) as under Taleban control. (1)

Local sources interviewed by AAN confirm this general picture, with some differentiation. Near the provincial capital Pul-e Alam, Taleban are present in many villages just four kilometres from the city. Villages there were targets of recent Afghan government forces’ ‘clearing operations.’ In the three southern districts – Baraki Barak, Charkh and Kharwar – the government only holds the district centres or small areas around them. Local residents said Khoshai was also contested, with half of the district controlled by the Taleban and half by the government. The situation in Azra is even more precarious. 

In October 2019, provincial revenue officials told the Afghan Pajhwok news agency that they have not been able to collect taxes in five of Logars’ districts – all but Pul-e Alam and Muhammad Agha – “due to insecurity.”

This degree of control provides the Taleban with positions closer to the capital than in almost any other province. In 2012, AAN called it “a strategic gateway for attacks directed at Kabul.” Together with the Pashtun-inhabited parts of its western neighbour Maidan Wardak, the province is situated at the northern-most edge of Afghanistan’s Pashtun south which is still the largest Taleban stronghold. (They are also building up a presence to the northeast, north and northwest of Kabul, in Kapisa and Laghman provinces and Koh-e Safi of Parwan and increasing – though still small-scale – its activity in the Shemali and Paghman, both part of Kabul province.) During the Soviet occupation and post-Soviet withdrawal years under Najibullah (1989-92), Logar had been part of the outer defence ring for the capital.

A Kabul-based security analyst and former high-ranking Afghan government official told AAN the Taleban positions in the province might be part of an encirclement strategy for a scenario in which foreign troops withdraw and the country’s capital is up for grabs once more. This calls for a closer look at the province and the security situation there.

That the province is of strategic importance was reflected by the visit of President Ashraf Ghani and a high-level delegation on 1 July 2020. The province’s volatility was underlined by the fact that the Taleban hit the provincial capital with eight mortar rounds during Ghani’s speech and later after when he departed by helicopter. In the days before, the Taleban had reportedly attacked police posts at the outskirts of the provincial centre.

Earlier this year, on 11 April 2020, residents of a number of districts, including residents of Pul-e Alam, gathered in Logar’s capital and called on the Taleban to cease their operations, stop attacking the Afghan army and get ready for peace talks with the Afghan government. The participants included tribal elders and pro-government people, according to this report from Salam Watandar.

Map: Roger Helms for AAN.

An introduction to Logar province

Logar became a separate province in 1964. Before, some parts of it belonged to Kabul province, while other parts belonged to Ghazni and Paktia. Officially it is considered to be part of central Afghanistan, but given the local traditions, culture and tribal linkages, it is more strongly connected to Loya (greater) Paktia (ie, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces), the country’s southeastern region. 

Logar province has seven districts, including the one around its capital Pul-e Alam (for another, more detailed map, click here). Baraki Barak, Charkh and Kharwar districts are located to the south and southwest, Muhammad Agha to the north and Azra and Khoshai to the east of the provincial capital. Logar connects Kabul to Afghanistan’s southeastern region, Greater (Loya) Paktia, through the Kabul-Gardez highway that runs east from the main national ring road and over the Tera Pass which, at almost 3,000 meters above sea level, is the watershed divide between Logar and Paktia provinces. Apart from Maidan Wardak in the west, this province also neighbours Nangrahar in the east, and Ghazni in the south. 

Most of the province’s population lives in the plains of the Logar valley, which is irrigated by the Logar river and its western tributary, the Wardak river, and therefore more fertile. This area covers most of the north and west of the province, from Baraki Barak in the southwest to Pul-e Alam and Muhammad Agha, its two major population centres, in the north. A MRRD provincial profile using 2010/11 figures puts the rural-urban population balance at 72 to 28 per cent. According to a 2008 USAID agricultural profile of the province (here), Charkh district ranked highest in terms of agricultural output, growing 35 percent of all products in the province, followed by Baraki Barak (28%) and Pul- Alam (20%) of total crop production. Charkh produced mainly fruits and vegetables, Pul-e Alam grain.

The Logar river, a tributary of the Kabul River, and aquifers under the Logar valley are important water sources for the capital Kabul (AAN background here). The river, however, is temporarily falling dry during the summer months, at least since 2010. This is due to the increase in land under cultivation for which more and more water is diverted from the river while the natural water table is also falling (AAN reporting here).  The province’s more mountainous east and south are less populated. There is also the Sorkhab reservoir in Muhammad Agha district, to the east of the district’s centre.

The province’s eastern, southeastern and southern parts – around one third of its total territory – are mountainous and less populated. Azra, the province’s northeastern-most district, in the Spinghar mountain range, is almost completely mountainous. Agriculture including livestock production, trade and stone quarrying are the population’s main commercial activities.

The majority of the population are Pashtun by ethnicity, while smaller numbers of Tajiks and Hazaras also present. Two districts, Kharwar and Azra, are entirely Pashtun-inhabited, according to UN figures. Charkh has a Tajik majority of approximately 75 per cent. In the remaining districts, the Tajiks are between 20 (Pul-e Alam) and 40 per cent (Baraki Barak, mainly in the district centre, a media report here) of the population. Some of these Tajiks are Shia. Hazara and Sayyed communities, who are entirely Shia here, live in Khoshai (25 per cent of the population) district and small groups in the provincial capital and Baraki Barak. The MRRD profile quoted above gives a 60-40 Pashto/Dari language ratio.

Among the Pashtuns, the Sulaimankhel – part of the Ghilji Pashtun tribal confederacy – are dominant in all but Kharwar district. The incumbent president Muhammad Ashraf Ghani and a prominent member of the political office of the Taleban in Qatar, Mullah Muhammad Abas Stanakzai, are both from Logar province and belong to the Sulaimankhels’ Ahmadzai and Stanakzai subtribes, respectively. Kharwar has an Andar (Ghilzai) majority. There are also Momand, Ludin, Kharoti, Alozai (most of them kuchis) and Wardak Pashtuns.

The official Afghan poverty rate for Logar was given at 38 per cent in 2011/12 and 46.1 per cent in 2016/17 (here, p10). The 2016/17 figure would make Logar the least poor province in the country; Afghanistan’s average is 55.4 per cent. The Afghan government, however, uses its own, lower poverty line than that internationally applied; the latter puts the country’s rate at 80 per cent (see here, p9). This relatively positive ranking is put in doubt by two statements in the same document (p15): that Logar is both among the provinces with the highest deprivation of school attendance and for assisted deliveries. Figures from the Afghanistan Statistical Yearbook 2018/19 put Logar seventh from bottom of all provinces in terms of government revenues collection (p245) which corresponds with its ranking in the population (sixth from bottom). This figure, however, could have been expected higher if poverty is comparatively low. In 2018, the province’s director for education admitted that 40,000 girls were deprived of education (see also this 2015 Afghan media report about ghost schools and teachers in Logar). Logar is also among the eight provinces with the with the highest burden of conflict-related trauma (see here, p61).

Logar is home to several important military installations. This includes an Afghan army base, Camp Maiwand, at Patkhab, to the south of Pul-e Alam and on the strategically important connecting road to Maidan Wardak province, and a training area for police special forces (a 2018 photo here). The army base is adjacent to the former US military’s Forward Operation Base Shank, with over 8,000 US soldiers, contractors and civilian personnel making it one of the largest in the country (2), but handed over to the Afghan side during the military transition in 2014. (Camp Maiwand reportedly had “a fifth” of that.) In March 2019, a US journalist saw the former US military base in a state of severe disrepair. Next to it, however, new US military installations were established, according to a US media report, a “U.S. Special Forces camp and an American outpost called Camp Dahlke West” (see another media report here and AAN reporting here). 

In Moghulkhel village, in Muhammad Agha district, there is a base of the 333rd special forces unit under the Ministry of Interior which, according to police spokesman Shapur Ahmadzai, does not take part in the fighting of other government forces and launches its own operations without sharing its plans with the provincial government. The area is also a Taleban stronghold, with a Taleban ‘martyrs’ graveyard located only 200 metres away from the 333rd base (Taleban killed in the Muhammad Agha are buried here) and a madrasa with around 100 boy-students (also called taleban), seen by locals as a kind of pro-Taleban motivation centre. (3)

There is also a base of the NDS special forces 01 unit in the province (see AAN resources here). According to Ahmadzai, there are Afghan Local Police (ALP) units in Pul-e Alam, Muhammad Agha, Baraki Barak, Azra and Khoshai district. Like the uprising forces, residents perceive the ALP negatively, as they say they “bother” the local population. They cite various examples in which the ALP have killed civilians despite, as the residents said, they were neither Taleban nor linked with them. The residents said the ALP behaviour caused a number of people to join the Taleban in various districts.

Long-term security trends

A 2007 UN provincial profile had already labelled four districts of Logar (Kharwar, Charkh, Baraki Barak and parts of Muhammad Agha) as “problematic” security-wise. It gave a mix of reasons: tribal and factional (Hezb-e Islami) marginalisation; (4) conflict over drug trade routes; and insurgent activity. Early armed insurgent network had overwhelmingly Hezb-e Islami roots. The Taleban’s Haqqani network expanded there since 2008 (see also this New York Times report). A well-known criminal network, involved in abductions, was operating from Zarghunshahr, in the east of Muhammad Agha district (AAN reporting here).

In July 2007, two Afghan staff members  of the International Rescue Committee were killed, and in August 2008 three female expat staff members and their Afghan driver of the same US-based NGO were killed along the Kabul-Gardez road in Logar, in Charkh district and Muhammad Agha district, respectively. The Taleban reportedly took the responsibility for the 2008 attack. In 2008, a self-declared Taleban splinter group, Fedayi Mahaz, claimed the kidnapping in Logar of New York Times journalist David Rohde and his Afghan driver and translator. The group also claimed the assassination of Logar’s provincial governor Arsala Jamal in October 2013 (AAN background here).

By 2009, the UN only considered the provincial capital and those parts of Muhammad Agha that are close to the highway as accessible. During the presidential poll in 2009, the Taleban were already able to threaten election workers throughout the province, leading a local inhabitant to tell AAN that “there were no elections in Logar” (AAN reporting here and here). When one of the authors went to Gardez for election reporting that year, he was only able to go there in a heavily guarded convoy, with Logar being the most dangerous part of the journey. On that part of the road, there were many IED craters, blown up culverts and patches of blackened asphalt from cars set alight.

Journalists writing for the Global Post described the same stretch of the road in 2012, with culverts being blown up “at regular intervals, each one an ideal place to hide a bomb aimed at passing military convoys.” They reported that the Taleban were running “an informal judicial system that is generally regarded as cleaner and faster than the official courts” and that the local population provided the insurgents with “food, a place to stay and pray for them.” They also quoted a local high school student as saying that even his teachers used Taleban songs as the ringtones on their cell phones.

In 2012, the US defence ministry had ranked Logar consistently among the top eight insecure provinces of Afghanistan during the last five years and the district around Pul-e Alam amongst the ten most violent districts countrywide (AAN background here). AAN found that insurgent activity started to pick up in 2011. Up to then, it had mainly consisted of guerrilla-style ambushes; then the number of larger-scale attacks increased. This included complex attacks against government offices in the provincial capital and several district centres and Afghan and international forces’ bases (for example see media reports here, here, here, here, here and here). Assassinations and kidnappings became “daily news, in addition to increasing numbers of victims being caught up in the fighting between Afghan National Security Forces and insurgents.” (5) Since April 2011, the Taleban were also closing down phone networks in Logar at night (see AAN background). In October 2018, Taleban reportedly attacked the guards of the provincial governor Halim Fedayi in Pul-e Alam and captured their Humvee vehicle.

In June 2011, the province had experienced the first suicide car-bomb attack against a civilian hospital, in Azra district. 29 people were killed – amongst them 15 children waiting for immunisation and five toddlers – and 53 wounded. The hospital’s ten-bed maternity ward was completely destroyed. By then, it was the third-most destructive terrorist attack in post-2001 Afghanistan (AAN reporting here).

In late 2014, MPs and provincial council members from Logar said that “most parts of Charkh, Kharwar and Azra districts [are] under the control of the armed opponents”, according to a media report (see also AAN reporting here). Our report from Logar in the same year continued, from Logar’s district closest to Kabul, describing the situation as follows:

Today, most villages of Mohammad Agha district, even at daytime, are eerily calm…. roaming groups of Taleban, are patrolling the district and regularly knock on doors to ask for food. If villagers in this district … refuse to help, they risk being marked as spies of the government and punished … In some villages, families left behind their houses and headed to Kabul… (T)he Taleban sometimes planted people to occupy these homes [as] spies.

People from the province who regularly commute between there and Kabul told AAN that many members of the Afghan armed forces had joined the Taleban after the end of their contracts.

In 2014/15, the province briefly featured a group of Islamic State supporters, led by a former Afghan Taleban commander, accordng to a Pajhwok report. By July 2015, this group had been pushed out of Logar and likely relocated to Nangrahar (AAN background here). According to a June 2019 UN report (p14), later “[a]ttempts to expand into […] Logar […]have failed.” (6)

Over the following years, Kabul-based international security analysts have registered further “substantially“ increased conflict activity in Logar, with peaks in 2018 and 2019. October 2018 brought the highest levels of insurgent activity recorded since “at least 2011,” according to the security analysts in Kabul.

In 2019, Taleban activity particularly increased along the Logar part of the Kabul-Gardez highway. Pul-e Alam and Muhammad Agha districts combined accounted for 76 per cent of all Taleban attacks that year. This led to increased counter-operations by Afghan and international troops in autumn of 2019, including “unprecedented” levels of airstrikes and night raids along the highway, but also against Taleban logistic structures deeper in the province and particularly against insurgent networks operating from Logar into Kabul. As a result, the analysts registered the “highest level” of monthly conflict intensity on record in July 2019. Although this had somewhat “diminished” Taleban operational capacities, there were still between over 40 and over 60 Taleban attacks per months from May to September 2019. On average, this was ten less than in 2018 when the season of significant fighting was longer, from April to October. 

Afghan men gather at the site of a US air strike in Dasht-e-Bari village in Logar province on 30 August 2017. 13 people from the same family were killed and another 15 wounded, Afghan authorities said on August 31. Photo: Faridullah Ahmadzai (AFP).

The current security situation: district overview 

In 2020, Logar appeared to have had an up-and-down in the intensity of fighting. After the slight decrease of Taleban attacks (but not general fighting) in the province in 2019,  a drop in intensity of fighting over the winter 2019/20 and the week of reduced violence before the signing of the US-Taleban deal in late February 2020, local residents in Pul-e Alam and in the districts told AAN that since the beginning of the new Afghan year and the start of the ‘spring fighting season’ in the country in late March, the Taleban have intensified attacks on government security posts throughout all districts of the province as well as in the outskirts of the provincial capital, and on a stronger scale than in any other year since the insurgency started in this province. According to them, they have rarely experienced a day or two in which the Taleban have not carried out an attack. 

A tribal elder in Charkh district told AAN that some years ago, he had invited the district governor and other officials to his home around 35 kilometres away from the district centre, and the district governor had indeed come. But now, he said, the district governor could not come to his district centre without a huge number of armed forces protecting him.

This trend has been confirmed by the Kabul based security analysts quoted above who said that the number of security incidents in March this year was three and a half times more numerous in Logar province than in March 2019. April and May saw large Afghan forces operations, airstrikes and targeted snatches in several districts; in the first half of May – during Ramadan – the Taleban increased their attacks, against the usual trend during this month in earlier years. 

The analysts also said that after the government-Taleban prisoner release picked up again in June, Logar belonged to a list those provinces that experienced a “moderate decline” in fighting. At the same time, they put Muhammad Agha among the 25 districts with the highest number of incidents countrywide.

Also, the wave of assassinations of people working in the current political system continued over the entire period. The most high-profile case was the kidnapping and shooting of former senator Abdul Wali Ahmadzai on his way from a funeral in the provincial capital back to his home area, Chowni, a village in Pul-e Alam on 9 June 2020. Ahmadzai was currently with the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG). A spokesman for the provincial governor accused the Taleban of the killing. In March, a member of the Logar Provincial Council was assassinated in Kabul and in early June the Taleban shot dead two sisters, one of them reportedly the wife of an intelligence official at the Ministry of Interior, the other a visitor. On 6 July, Nafisa Hejran, a female provincial council (PC) member, and her driver were wounded in a shooting in the provincial capital. Her PC colleague Nasir Ghairat, along with three guards, was killed in Kabul on 8 March. 

Most disconcertingly for the residents, often times no group claims responsibility for these incidents. Most residents of Logar that AAN spoke with, however, believe that the Taleban are behind the recent killings of local civilians as a reaction to (rejected) demands for money or other kinds of assistance. In the case of Ghairat, for example, AAN heard accusations that the government might be involved in this case. The same goes for the case of civil society activist Qudratullah Stanakzai, shot dead and thrown in the river in Pul-e Alam on 29 March 2020. According to a fellow activist, he was pro-government, but was also criticising government activities and negligence in Logar. A fellow activist told AAN that no group had claimed responsibility for his killing, but that he and his civil society colleagues knew the Taleban did not kill him. He said, “We are sure that he was murdered by some people inside the government. These people do not want people [like Qudratullah] to raise their voice against them or the provincial government at large.” 

A district round-up

The northern districts: Pul-e Alam and Muhammad Agha

In recent weeks the area around the provincial centre Pul-e Alam has witnessed many Taleban attacks and government forces’ counter-operations. Among the larger-scale incidents was a 4 April Taleban attack on a check post manned by local ‘uprising forces’ in the Shairwazi area of Pul-e Alam. According to the provincial governor’s spokesman, five members of the public uprising forces were reportedly killed during in the attack.

The Taleban are also able to carry out assassinations in the city. On 6 April, for example, they killed an officer of the criminal investigation unit along with two other police in the middle of the city and took their vehicle (see a Facebook post from a government source confirming the incident. On the following day, they Taleban reportedly ambushed a police vehicle in the Bargains area of Pul-e Alam and killed three police officers. On 29 April, Zabihullah Mujahed, the spokesman for the Taleban, wrote on Twitter that their fighters had killed four officers of the Afghan National Directorate for Security in the Patkhaw-e Shahna area of the provincial capital and destroyed their vehicle. This allegation has not been confirmed by officials and local residents.

Residents of Pul-e Alam told AAN that the Taleban have been able to launch attacks on the government security posts whenever they want, which was made easier by their presence close to the provincial capital. The Taleban keep a large presence in villages only four to five kilometres away, such as Kamalkhel, Darokhel, Dadokhel, Muhajerin, Hesarak, Babos and Porak around the Pul-e Alam. Some of these villages were targets of government forces clearing operations during May, June and July 2020 (for example, a media report here).

In Muhammad Agha district, with its centre located 40 kilometres to the south of Kabul on the Logar-Kabul highway, many areas are under Taleban control, as local residents told AAN. Apart from their frequent attacks on the Ainak copper mine (still under development), (7) residents said the Taleban have been, for a long time now, able to temporarily block the highway leading to Kabul and attack and abduct government officials and NGO employees from vehicles they stop. As already described, there is some proximity of government forces and Taleban positions in areas with chromite mines.

The district’s Sorkhab area is the ancestral home of the family of current president Ashraf Ghani. Tolonews reported in 2019 that Sorkhab village had been under “Taleban influence for years” and the Taleban claimed they were taxing the family’s land.

A village at Sorkhab reservoir (Logar) in winter 2005. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

The Kabul-Gardez highway

Taleban attacks along the Logar part of this highway, leading through Muhammad Agha and Pul-e Alam districts, threaten not only the government and NGO employees of Logar province, but those travelling to and from Paktia, Paktika, Khost and Kabul provinces. The Taleban have a presence along almost the whole stretch of the highway, particularly in the Waghjan gorge of Muhammad Agha district and in the Kolengar and Porak areas of Pul-e Alam near Logar’s provincial boundary with Kabul. They regularly block the highway and pull people from vehicles whom they suspect are government or NGO employees. Travellers passing through Waghjan can easily see the white flags of the Taleban on the left-hand side of the road when travelling from Kabul. As a result, government officials such as the provincial governor and other high-ranking officials cannot travel to and from Logar without a large escort of security forces. 

The latest of such incidents occurred when, on 20 June, the Taleban stopped and burnt an oil tanker in the area of Ali Khan Qala. Logar officials said it belonged to civilians, while residents said that it was government tanker (see a video here). In April, the Taleban had pulled a traffic officer—who was travelling to Kabul from Logar province—from his vehicle and killed him, as a local journalist in Logar told AAN. In two high-profile earlier cases, the Taleban killed Qamaruddin Shakayeb, the deputy governor of Logar province, along with a provincial spokesman, the head of courts and eight police in an ambush in Waghjan in April 2018, and in October 2019 the Taleban pulled four Paktia provincial judges—travelling to Kabul—from a vehicle and killed on the spot, according to a Ariana news report.

The southern districts

Baraki Barak district, with its centre located around 18 kilometres to the southwest of Pul-e Alam, has heavy Taleban presence and activity. Residents told AAN that the government controls only the district centre, while all other areas of the district have fallen into the Taleban’s hands. The insurgents attack government convoys and operate recruitment centres and even jails there. Haji Mir Zaman, a local tribal elder, told AAN that for at least one and a half years the Taleban have not allowed anybody in the district to seek government assistance in terms of public service delivery, but that last winter the Taleban at least allowed civilians to go to the district centre to get tazkeras (identification cards). The district, with its strong Tajik minority, used to be strongly pro-government. But, according to a local another tribal elder, when the Taleban overran all of the security posts in this area last year, the local Tajiks had to give up their opposition to the Taleban out of fear. He told AAN on 6 May that the day before the government forces, after a severe clash with the Taleban, had evacuated their last security post in the district. Tribal elders also said that the army and police mainly take care of the district centre. In late April/early May, there were several statements from the Logar governor’s office and the local 203rd “Tander” army corps that the Taleban were planning to attack the district centre but that the government forces had discovered the plan and attacked the Taleban first with the help of air support. On 1 May, they claimed that 15 Taleban fighters were killed and six others wounded see report, and killing ten Taleban and wounding 13 others on 5 May. Security analysts based in Kabul reported, however, that on 5 May government forces had attacked a “funeral ceremony” attended by Taleban in the district, leading to 23 casualties.

A tribal elder said “the district governor, along with the district governors of Charkh and Kharwar, is sitting in the provincial capital” – an indication of how dangerous Baraki Barak district has become. The district governor, Ahmad Wais Abdul Rahimzai, denied this and told AAN on 5 May that he was in the district and had not been home for two weeks (he is from Muhammad Agha district). Even if he were in the district, locals said that security in the district was not good enough to work outside the district compound. A civil society activist, who is a close friend of the district governor, told AAN on 20 June that the district governor had been in Kabul for the last one and a half months at that point.

On 25 April, a journalist from Logar province told AAN that Charkh district was almost entirely under Taleban control. He said the government had only a military presence, mostly from the ANA and very few national police, in the district centre. A tribal elder from the district said there was also a government security post in the area of Dabaro Pul at the boundary with Pul-e Alam district. MP Momand told AAN that the district compound is the only active government presence in the whole district, with the Taleban controlling 90 per cent of the district. According to the journalist already quoted and a tribal elder known to be strongly pro-government, the district governor is based in the provincial capital where he issues tazkeras to people who travel there from Charkh. This was confirmed by a tribal elder from Baraki Barak. District governor Khalilullah Kamal told Tolonews on 9 April, “unfortunately we have failed to provide services to the public.”

Momand also told AAN on 20 June that the former provincial governor had a plan to move the district offices to the Altemur area of Pul-e Alam, but that the new governor had ordered that there should be a civilian government presence in the district under all circumstances.

A tribal elder from the district told AAN that the provincial governor of the Taleban’s shadow government, his deputy and head of the military commission are all present in the Charkh district. He also said that all people arrested or abducted by the Taleban throughout Logar were kept in Charkh district. 

On 18 April, the communication office of the Ministry of Defence said in a press release that it had retaliated with airstrikes against Taleban for its attacks on the Charkh district centre two days before, during which nine national police had been killed (some sources had told the media that the number was over 20). The airstrikes reportedly killed ten insurgents and wounded 17 more, including the commander of the Taleban group that had attacked. This was followed by a larger government forces operation later that month, with claims of 40 killed insurgents and 16 others wounded. 

Kharwar, with its centre located around 45 kilometres to the south of the provincial capital, like in Charkh, has only a military presence. Most of the time the army and police remain in the district centre, called Khwaja Angur, which is still in government hands. According to the Kabul based journalist mentioned above and a tribal elder from the district, the district governor resides in the provincial capital and there is no public service delivery by district officials in Kharwar. The tribal elder also said that the only government security post in Khwaja Angur is a one-hour drive from the Kharwar bazaar which itself was under control of the Taleban. The situation of the district centre is precarious. On 30 April the media office of Logar province said that Taleban insurgents attacked the district compound but that the government forces pushed back the attack and killed 13 insurgents.

The eastern districts

Khoshai (Dari: Khoshi) is considered the most secure district of Logar province. It has boundaries with Pul-e Alam, Muhammad Agha, Azra and with the Jaji district of Paktia province. The district is divided into four howza. The Taleban are present in two of them, Karezuna and Kandaw, while the government fully controls the Payan Dai and Bala Dai. 

According to residents the main reason behind the comparatively good security is the presence of a significant Shia population (around 35 per cent) in Payan Dai and Miana Dai who, according to the residents, are pro-government. A government official who works in Khoshai district told AAN that public service delivery is provided in all areas, even those under Taleban control. He said that when government employees go to monitor a project, the local tribal elders must work to guarantee that the Taleban will not arrest, beat or kill them. An NGO employee who works in Khoshai district told AAN that they, like the government workers, also need written permission from the Taleban to work there. 

May 2020 also saw a security forces’ anti-Taleban operation in the Fatehkhel area of Khoshai, killing a sub-commander of 15 Taleban along with four other fighters, according to a press release by the Logar police. On 24 June, Taleban attacked an ALP post in the Sarband area of Khoshai district, killing four of its members.

Azra district, located to the east of the provincial capital and which had been part of Paktia province until 2005, (9) is particularly volatile. [Amended 20 July: It is not clear whether the district borders directly on Pakistan, as our maps show, or – as local sources say – its eastern-most tip is a dozen kilometres away from Parachinar in the Pakistani Tribal Agency of Kurram and Paktia’s Zazi Aryub is located between Azra and Pakistan.] From Parachinar, through Zazi Aryub, Azra and further on through Kabul’s Khak-e Jabar district of Kabul province runs a direct route to the Afghan capital. This was a much frequented route already during the mujahedin’s struggle against the Soviet occupation (1979-89) and is currently used by the Taleban.

The Taleban have besieged the district centre for the last 15 years. A schoolteacher in Azra district told AAN that the government only controls an area that extends around five kilometres in all directions from the district centre. Still, government forces and civilian officials cannot travel between the provincial capital and Azra district. The government supplies its local offices by air delivery, and the local people who need to go to Pul-e Alam must make a long detour, first through eastern Nangrahar province, then to Kabul, and then from Kabul to Pul-e Alam. 

Taleban and government forces have very recently clashed in this area, resulting in the death of civilians caught in the crossfire, according to the teacher mentioned above. On 9 May the media office of the Logar police reported that the Taleban launched a mortar shell which hit a house in the Salimkhel area of the district. The mortar shell killed a child and injured three other civilians (report here). 

Bazaar in the provincial capital, Pul-e Alam, in winter 2005. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

The major reasons for insecurity in Logar

Residents of Logar province and various local sources cite various factors as the major causes for the worsening insecurity in this province and for the local people’s increased resentment of the government. This includes the strategic importance of the province (already described); the hashish and chromite smuggling and the fight over its control; and widespread local sympathy for the Taleban. Residents of Logar, particularly local civil society activists and some journalists, also citewhat they see as the recruitment of incapable and/or inexperienced and corrupt high-ranking provincial government officials and a lack of coordination among the government’s security forces.

Fighting over hashish and chromite smuggling

Narcotics and chromite smuggling, and the fight for control over it, has significantly contributed to the insecurity in Logar province. The chromite and part of the drugs shipments (hashish, in particular) are from the province, but Logar, and particularly Azra district, is also used as a transit route for narcotics from elsewhere.

Logar’s main mineral resource is the massive Mes Ainak copper mine in Muhammad Agha district. But it is still in an early development stage, and the government controls the area with specially dedicated armed forces, despite regular attacks. Khaled Momand, an MP from Logar, said that around 1,800 security personnel are present for the protection of Mes Ainak mine. Ahmadzai, the province’s police spokesman, confirmed that there is a regiment (ghund) based in Muhammad Agha under the interior ministry’s directorate of public security (Mu’inat-e Mohafezat-e Ama) which does not take part in fighting and does not support other military forces in the province. 

In contrast to the Ainak copper, several chromite deposits in the districts of Muhammad Agha, Pul-e Alam and Baraki Barak are under extraction (see this report and AAN background here, here and here). The total reserves of chromite in Logar and Khost are reported to be one million tonnes. According to this 2017 USIP report, private operators have been extracting the ore under exploration licenses from the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum. It said such contracts were also awarded for mines located in the Dadokhel area of Muhammad Agha district and that this mine “according to residents is controlled by [a] sitting MP” while “fifty-​two smaller chromite sites in Logar province are being illegally exploited.”

For hashish, Azra district is the major cultivation area, at least from the late 1980s. According to a 1989 UNHCR report, sharecroppers from Sayed Karam district in Paktia expanded cannabis cultivation to cover more than 50 per cent of all the agricultural lands of Azra district and up to 80 per cent of those of the Dubandi Valley of Khoshi district. The district is famous for hashish cultivation all over Afghanistan. Its produce, however, is considered to be of comparatively lower quality (AAN background here). In 2016, Pajhwok Afghan News quoted Logar provincial council member Abdul Wali Wakil as saying that 80 per cent of Azra’s arable land was planted with hashish. One civil society activist in Pul-e Alam and a teacher in Azra district told AAN the percentage was even higher now. They put it at 90 and “more than 95 per cent”, respectively.

Residents said that on top of the regular Taleban practice of collecting a ten per cent tax on all products as ushr, they now also ‘tax’ the smuggling of drugs and chromite, which mainly goes through Azra and Jaji Maidan to Pakistan. Residents in Logar said that the drug mafia and some government officials and police chiefs—as well as the Taleban—are involved in smuggling both chromite and hashish from Logar to other provinces. Many residents believe that the Taleban have intentionally made some of Logar’s districts insecure in order to safeguard their smuggling business.

The Taleban have been collecting this money from the drug mafia and chromite smugglers for the last eight years, but the ordinary residents did not know about the Taleban collecting money from drug mafia and smugglers. The public have known about this practice since about two years ago. 

Residents told AAN that the Taleban do not encourage people to grow hashish, but also do not prevent it or raise the fact that this practice is illegal under the Sharia. According to a Pajhwok report, the Taleban collected 10,000,000 Pakistani rupees (around USD 66,700) as tax from the harvest of hashish in 2016 from the whole district (AAN has not found more recent figures). In the same year, district officials said that the smugglers, paid 20,000,000 Pakistani rupees around (USD 13,350) to the heads of the Taleban in Peshawar to allow them to continue smuggling hashish from Azra. Residents said that the smugglers are from the eastern provinces and also from abroad but are assisted by local people.

The Taleban’s lax attitude vis-à-vis the hashish cultivation seems to be motivated by their fight against the local chapter of the Islamic State, the ISKP. In late 2016 tribal elders of Azra district decided that if any member of a family from the residents joined ISKP, his house would be burnt and his family would be banished from the district. According to AAN local sources, the Taleban pushed for this decision, while the district governor reportedly claimed it was the tribal elders’ initiative. (Azra is adjacent to the ISKP’s strongholds in Nangrahar province – see AAN background here.) As an incentive, the Taleban promised to give full exemption in their hashish tax if the residents carried out the anti-ISKP the plan. Recently, as Mansur, a resident of Muhammad Agha district, told AAN, the Logari Taleban had significantly contributed to defeating Daesh (ISKP) in Nangrahar province by sending many of their fighters there.

Regarding chromite, one resident from Moghulkhel village told AAN that the Taleban take 100,000 Pakistani rupees (USD 630) per truck of chromite to allow the smugglers to pass (see also this Pajhwok report). He said that the same amount is given to the village maleks when the trucks pass through. Security and civilian government officials apparently also take their share. This has been confirmed by Ministry of Mines officials as early as in 2012, as quoted in this report. Residents said that in the past when people objected to these illegal businesses, landmines were planted in front of their houses to deter their objections. AAN was told about one case in Moghulkhel village of Muhammad Agha district, where the gates of some houses were blown up at night in 2011. They believed the Taleban behind this. A resident of this village told AAN that many residents left the area afterwards.

Alleged poor recruitment of government officials

A Kabul-based civil society activist, originally from Logar province, told AAN that activists have been pushing President Ashraf Ghani for years to hire capable high-ranking officials for Logar province and to remove governor Halim Fedayi who has served there since 2015. A Logar MP and provincial officials also complained over “incompetent” government officials. When governor Fedayi was removed in February 2018, Muhammad Anwar Eshaqzai came into office, but the civil society activist said he was even weaker than the previous governor: 

The provincial governor spends three days in Logar and four days in Kabul. He comes to Logar on Sunday and goes back early on Wednesday to Kabul. He is incapable. All his activities are handled by Khaled Safi, the head of his office.

Eshaqzai did not last long. In May 2020, Ajmal Shapur was appointed in his place (see this IDLG’s Facebook post) (8) During his introductory meeting, Shapur said that his first job would be to secure the province. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to do better. A civil society activist told AAN that he had resumed the monthly provincial administration meetings Shapur that his predecessor was not conducting. He thought, though, that because Shapur’s lack of a military background he would likely not be able to improve security in the province.

Also Logar MP Khaled Momand told AAN that the government was continuously sending incompetent officials to the province. He described Rahim Khoda Mokhles, the former police chief, a former “Jihadi commander” linked to Jamiat-e Islami, as “unprofessional” and ”unfamiliar with the area and with the people.” He demanded that high-ranking officials for Logar, or at least their deputies, should be from Logar. Spokesman Ahmadzai also told AAN that the former police chief was “not a professional.” Mokhles has been transferred and replaced by Ahmad Faisal Allahdad on 28 June 2020. He has already taken up his position. The new police chief is from Kabul, has graduated from the police university and worked before as a police commander in Herat, Nimruz, Nangrahar and Paktia provinces as well as the commander of the Third Zone of Kabul and of Police District 01 in Kabul.

In the run-up to the 1 July 2020 presidential visit, around one week earlier, defence minister Asadullah Khaled had visited Logar. Didar Lawang, spokesman of the provincial governor, told AAN on 18 June that Khaled had called Logar a “priority of the government” and that it would work for the improvement of its security. Lawang said that Shapur had demanded the minister to dedicate the Afghan National Army’s fourth brigade (lewa) for the province. The brigade currently covers both Logar and Maidan Wardak. Shapur had also asked him for additional military posts to secure the Kabul-Logar highway and in villages with a Taleban presence. Apart from the shared brigade, Logar has 1,800 members of the Afghan National Police and the ALP in its structure, also including the criminal and tourism police, according to police spokesman Ahmadzai. He said when the support staff is deducted from this total, only 700 police remain for fighting.

On the positive side, Logar became the first province with a female vice governor, following a presidential decree foreseeing this for all 34 provinces. On 9 July 2020, Rabea Stanakzai was appointed for this post.

Rabea Stanakzai, appointed Logar deputy governor in June 2020. Photo: Hasht-e Sobh.

Lack of coordination between the security forces

Both MP Momand and a Logar-based journalist told AAN they believed that the lack of proper coordination among military officials had caused the province to become more insecure. Momand said that when, for example, the Taleban attacked police posts, the army did not go to support them in the fighting and “when the army is attacked, the police say, ‘It is army, let them fight on their own.’”

Momand and the journalist cited the example of the MoI regiment assigned to protect the Mes Ainak mine that was unsuccessful in doing so. Momand said that he, along with other MPs from Logar, had complained to the interior minister after 17 May when the Taleban overran a security post in Mes Ainak of Muhammad Agha district for the “seventh time.” 

Khaled Momand said the minister promised around three months ago that he would bring changes in the setup of the police, and it looks as if he recently fulfilled his promise by introducing the new provincial police chief. However, the police spokesman rejected the accusation that there was a lack of coordination among the security forces. 

People’s sympathies for the Taleban

There are several reasons why many residents of Logar have a certain sympathy for the Taleban and why, according to some residents, they have contributed a large number of fighters to the Taleban. A Logar resident told AAN that local Taleban ranks have been increased over recent years by former AAN and ANP members who did not extend their contracts. It is not clear, though, how much of this was voluntary or the result of coercion – the Taleban are able to pressure families when their sons return to their villages of origin – or whether this includes infiltration in order to obtain military training.

The civil society activist said he thinks this is due to the “abnormal situation” of war. He said people witness that when a government soldier is killed, he or his family are not taken care of by the government, but if a Taleban fighter is killed, the Taleban very soon write poems praising him and his bravery is sung everywhere. He said this contributes to pulling parts of the young generation toward the Taleban. He said under normal conditions everyone would prefer the presence of the government.

Already in 2012 the Global Post article quoted earlier had reported that those who were willing to be interviewed for it were “happy to express their admiration for the Taliban, while many others are scared of talking to a journalist.” Its authors quoted local people accusing the police of discriminating against “bearded villagers who come into town wearing traditional Afghan clothes” and that, as a result, the police were seen as “our oppressors and our enemies” and “everyone” supported the “jihad” against them.

At a higher level, the fact that the Taleban’s political office in Qatar includes two prominent representatives from Logar, Mullah Abas Stanakzai and Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar, also contributes to a level of grassroots support, ie pride in being represented.

Almost all the respondents quoted in this text told AAN that the increasingly abusive behaviour of government security forces – including the uprising forces and ALP (AAN background here) – have caused the people to be sympathetic to the Taleban, which in turn further enforced their presence in Logar. For example, some residents said that around three days before Eid (on 21 May 2020), the shopkeepers closed their shops asking the government to stop the uprising forces who, according to them, beat people accusing them of supporting the Taleban that had attacked the uprising forces from their areas. As a reaction, Logari officials said in a WhatsApp group that the new governor went to the area and convinced the shopkeepers to keep open their shops. In turn, the governor’s spokesperson Lawang said that a reason for the insecurity in the province was the lack of cooperation from local residents. He said that the people did not cooperate with the government out of fear for the Taleban.

Children in Sorkhab. Photos: Thomas Ruttig (2005).

Conclusion

For the Taleban, Logar’s strategic importance lies in its proximity to Kabul. Together with consolidated positions in neighbouring provinces such as Maidan Wardak, western Nangrahar and Sarobi, the eastern-most district of Kabul (where fighting had increased recently), Logar is part of a belt that could cut off the capital from southern and eastern Afghanistan if the military situation  escalates into an endgame scenario. In Logar itself, they have been able to regularly attack the government forces in both the provincial capital and the districts. The province also provides them with access and supply routes to areas more to the west, such as Maidan Wardak and central Afghanistan. 

According to residents of Logar and local analysts there are several reasons for the continued insecurity throughout the province, apart from the Taleban’s resilient local structures: incompetent high government officials, a lack of proper coordination among security forces, the struggle over control of the narcotics and chromite smuggling and government security forces’ harassment of local people. Even without clear-cut territorial advances, the position of the Taleban seems to improve in such a situation. 

The Taleban also have obtained informal authority over NGO activity and there are signs that parts of the population sympathise with them, out of fear or resignation or because of weak governance and government forces’ harassment that pushes locals into the insurgency. Population control might even exceed territorial control.

With, over the recent six years, increasing and then peaking fighting activity in 2019 and ups and downs in 2020, but without much change in territory and population control by the parties to the war, Logar is an example of what security analysts call “statically disputed” territory. The lack of success of government troops’ ‘clearance operations’ indicates that Taleban strictures in the province as resilient. That fighting is still intensive seems to indicate that the parties have to do more to hold their particular shares. This is a characteristic situation in many parts of the country. 

Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Christian Bleuer


(1) Double-checking security-related facts with officials proved difficult. AAN tried to talk to three district governors of Logar. They either rejected the requests, claiming that the provincial authorities have forbidden them to provide information to the media, or they provide information that was obviously incorrect. For example, some of them said that they control their whole district. One military official’s spokesman rejected a request to provide the number of security forces existing in the province according to the tashkil (official structure). He said “We have received a letter signed by the defence minister and the Chief of Army Staff, which reads that we are not allowed to share any kind of information to the media until the talks between the government and the Taleban resume.”

(2) The report described it as having an “American-built runway allow[ing] huge cargo planes to bring in troops, weapons and equipment,” and with “a 50-shop bazaar, four beauty salons, three restaurants and an academy to train soldiers in the counterinsurgency doctrine.”

(3) Local residents told AAN that the madrasa is led by two disabled mullahs, Mufti Khaled and Mawlawi Ghulam Hazrat. According to their reports, the madrasa was raided by the government and both of the organisers of the madrasa were taken by the government forces around one and half years ago, but both were later released due to the pressure of the tribal elders of this area.

AAN uses Taleban (capitalised) for the members of the movement and taleban, when used in the traditional sense for madrasa students (more about this in a book chapter by James Caron).

(4) Up to mid-2007, the provincial governors came from Hezb’s rival Jamiat-e Islami which also largely controlled the province’s administration.

(5) Some of the more prominent cases after the October 2013 killing of provincial governor Jamal are listed here, based on media reports:

  • August 2014, Taleban attack the home of Muhammad Agha mayor Saifullah and shoot him dead during the fire-fight
  • October 2014, Ghufran, an Afghan Local Police (ALP) commander in the Kolangar area of Muhammad Agha, killed by a magnetic bomb attached to his vehicle on his way to the provincial capital
  • November 2014, Sabz Ali, ALP chief for central Logar province, and seven others ALP members killed in a suicide car attack on the provincial police headquarters
  • January 2015, Haji Khalil, public uprising commander in Baraki Barak district, killed along with three fighters on his way to the district centre in a Taleban ambush
  • March 2015, Farhad Akbari, uprising militia leader (who had gotten rich as a military contractor, according to the Washington Post) survived a gun attack on his armoured vehicle in the provincial capital; it was reportedly the fifth attempt on his life
  • September 2015, Shah Agha, ALP commander for Muhammad Agha district, shot dead while walking in Kabul
  • March 2016, Colonel Mohammad Jan, garrison commander of the fourth brigade of the 203 Army Corps killed in a bomb blast at his residence in Zarghunshahr, Muhammad Agha district
  • June 2016, Logar MP Sher Wali Wardak, killed in an “explosion” in Kabul
  • July 2016, former Logar MP Dr Asadullah Hemmatyar shot dead in his clinic in Kabul
  • September 2016, Khan Agha Lashkari, ALP commander for Muhammad Agha district, shot dead on his way home (a year back earlier, his brother and predecessor in this position was also shot dead)
  • Muhammad Nasir Modaser, director of local Melli Paygham (National Message) radio, shot dead while travelling from the office to his house in Muhammad Agha district
  • June 2017, Sher Agha Kuchai, former Hezb-e Islami commander, and another civilian gunned down in a mosque in Muhammad Agha district during prayer
  • December 2017, Loya Jirga delegate Mohammad Akbar Stanikzai survived a night-time attack on his convoy when going to his home village, Padkhab Shana; two soldiers and one body guards killed
  • April 2018, Qamaruddin Shakib, deputy provincial governor killed in an ambush in the Waghjan gorge, on the Kabul-Gardez highway in Muhammad Agha
  • July 2018, shooting attack on the convoy of neighbouring Paktia’s provincial governor and prosecutor in the Waghjan gorge
  • March 2019, Saber Khan, district police chief of Baraki Barak killed by a magnetic mine attached to his car on the way back from inspecting police posts in the district
  • May 2019, Abdul Wase Hakimi, executive head of the Muhammad Agha district administration shot dead on the way to his office
  • May 2019, Mawlawi Amir Jan, deputy head of Logar’s Ulema Council and prayer leader at the main Pul-e Alam mosque shot dead
  • July 2019, Sina (only one name given), general commander of the Afghan Local Police for the province, killed together with his brother and another policeman (two more were wounded) by a rocket fired at his car in Pul-e Alam’s Shash Qala area.

(6) Read background on Emarati in this AAN report. The name of another ISKP leader, reportedly killed in May 2017, Hasibullah Logari  (see also here – he is wrongly called “Abdul Hasib” in these reports) might also indicate that he originated from Logar.

The temporary ISKP presence in Logar also seems to have been increased by an influx of Pakistani Taleban, later joining ISKP, as a result of Pakistan’s anti-TTP operations in 2014/15 into Azra district (AAN reporting here). In Logar, there was some IS presence (or IS sympathy) reported still in 2016 (AAN reporting here; on ISKP Kabul cells and their connection to Logar, also see AAN reporting here).

In June 2017, Naser Ghairat, the head of the Logar provincial council (PC) said that Uzbek and ‘Chechen’ fighters had come to – largely Taleban-controlled – Azra district and were trying to recruit young people (see a BBC Pashto service report here). Such one-source and often unconfirmed incidents are often blown out of proportion into an alleged ISKP “presence” that sounds more permanent in such areas (see for example this report).

This December 2018 report by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center (p11) only lists one reported ISKP attack for Logar, with no casualties, for 2014-18 (exact year not given). In Taleban-controlled Azra, for example, even a ‘silent’ ISKP presence is very unlikely, given the Taleban’s enmity with ISKP and active participation in the fight against the group in Nangrahar and Kunar.

(7) The site of the mine is also one of the country’s most important archaeological sites, a 40 hectare monastery complex with over 400 Buddha statues and stupas as well as a Bronze Age site older than 5,000 years. There have been conflicting interests between the mining and the excavation and protection of the site (see recent media reports and photos here, here and here).

(8) Shapur, from Kunduz province, is in his thirties, and has previously served as the deputy for youth affairs in the Ministry of Culture and Information. He stood in the 2018 Wolesi Jirga election for a seat from Kunduz province, but did not win a seat. Shapur was campaigning for Ghani in 2019 presidential election. 

(9) It had belonged to Logar earlier, in the late 1980s, as a 1989 UNHCR report showed.

Tags:

Azra Pul-e Alam Muhammad Agha chromite Khoshai Baraki Barak Charkh Kharwar security situation ISKP hashish Logar Ainak Taleban

Authors:

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon

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