In the spring of 2012, the Taleban lost control of substantial parts of one of their strongholds, Andar district in Ghazni. The government and national and international media called it a popular uprising. In Part 1 of AAN’s special reportage on the events of Andar, guest blogger and local journalist, Emal Habib(*) questioned this narrative. He produced detailed evidence that the fighting had broken out between disgruntled young members of Hezb-e Islami who had joined the Taleban and the mainstream Taleban. He also showed how the fighting had been encouraged and then co-opted by senior government figures in Ghazni and Kabul who managed to turn the initial rebel group into a pro-government arbakai. In part 2 of Habib’s reportage, he looks at how the embattled and fractured uprising in Andar has started spiralling downward. He also looks at how the attempts to replicate the Andar strategy – infiltrating an arbakai into a Taleban hotbed through a splinter group – in other parts of Ghazni have failed.
Andar was a Taleban stronghold for years. Now, security in about a third of the district is in the hands of what local people are almost universally calling an arbakai. They use the term not in the traditional (south-eastern Afghan) sense, but an anti-Taleban, pro-government militia. As I detailed in my last blog, for the first time in many years, the central state has been able to show a real presence in the district. The fighters in the arbakai, estimated at around a few hundred, know the area and their enemy well, with some having fighting experience from their participation in the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s.
Initially, and into July, the arbakai was successful in inflicting heavy casualties on the Taleban. In a fight on 5 July, around a dozen Taleban fighters were killed near Shahin village. The Taleban themselves admitted they were facing a serious enemy, but said he would be short-lived as an offensive to drive the arbakai out of the area was soon to be launched.(1)
This incident was followed by one and a half months of stalemate with little significant military development during most of July and August, including during the holy month of Ramadan. The arbakai seemed to have given up on spreading their presence beyond the already captured areas and the Taleban appeared not to be interested in attacking the arbakai in their bases. There was one exception when, on the night of 13 August, the arbakai attempted to capture a new village, Alijan. They found themselves forced to retreat following a severe Taleban counterattack. Both sides suffered light casualties, according to the villagers, but it meant the ‘arbakai’ will probably no longer be able to capture more areas with the same ease as they did in spring when they moved into villages that enjoyed the presence of former Hezbis and other jehadi commanders.
Since the end of Ramadan, it has been Taleban who have dramatically stepped up their campaign and not only in Andar, but also against government and US military targets across Ghazni province. Two notables were targeted in the outskirts of Ghazni city in different attacks within a week in late August. The first, on 24 August, on the Andar uprising’s self-proclaimed leader and a former Ghazni provincial governor, Faizanullah Faizan, failed. He suffered a wound in his leg as a suicide bomber tried to detonate his explosive-laden belt in Pashtunabad in the outskirts of Ghazni city. In the second attack, the chairman of the elected provincial council of Ghazni, Qazi Sahib Shah, an ethnic Hazara from Hezb-e Wahdat, was killed, along with his bodyguard, on the evening of 29 August, also in the outskirts of Ghazni. On the night of 30 August, using insiders in the arbakai, the Taleban raided Saheb Khan village, one of the best known Hezb strongholds during the mujahedin era and one of the first villages which had accommodated the arbakai.
During this attack, the Taleban captured 11 arbakai members and alleged supporters as they were asleep and torched the compound they were using as their military base. They also torched another house, that belongs to Lutfullah Kamran, one of the arbakai commanders, and his brother, Amanullah Kamrani, a provincial council member. Five of the captured men were executed the following day by the Taleban(2), four accused of being active arbakai members and the other for being their facilitator. The rest are still being held by the Taleban (as of 2 September).
In the latest incident, two US soldiers were killed in a clash with the Taleban in Bator village adjacent to Andar, but formally part of Gero district. According to local sources, American forces had made a dawn raid on a house where Taleban were staying on 31 August. The soldiers were killed in an exchange of fire.
These attacks, most notably the attempt on Faizan and the night raid on Saheb Khan with the support of Taleban’s insiders, are not the only developments that make some observers think the tide has started to turn against the rebel movement (ie those rebelling against Taleban rule). Two more phenomena speak for this reading of events. The first are the emerging signs of a lack of a unified command and a sense of division between the various small groups led by local commanders among thearbaki (plural of arbakai) in Andar. In at least two incidents in the last half of August, different arbaki groups exchanged fire with each other in the villages of Payendi and Nakam. The first was caused by what one group considered the misconduct of a member of the other group and the second by a verbal feud. Another sign of division is that different people claim to speak as leaders or spokesmen for the uprising (in addition to Faizan, who has declared himself as the general leader of the uprising, the media has quoted Lutfullah Kamran, Wali Muhammad, Patsun and Haibat Shah, the two latter most likely not commanders).
During Eid, it was noticeable that arbaki in different villages flew different flags. While the Payendi group loyal to former Hezb commander, Abdul Hafiz, raised Hezb-e Islami’s flag over their post, the other group more loyal to Faizan flew the official flag of Afghanistan.
The second phenomenon suggesting the momentum of the rebellion has been lost is the increasing number of arbakai members surrendering to the Taleban in the last month or even joining them with their weapons and motorbikes. Several sources gave me the names of 12 people who have surrendered since early August, the latest an arbakai member from Karpal village on 2 September whose brother has been an active Taleban fighter since the time of the pre-2001 Emirate.
Despite the faltering and confused nature of the ‘Andar Uprising’, as a brand it has done well. The earliest attempts at cloning the model were in Ghazni province. Deploying arbakai with former jihadi commanders as leaders was attempted and failed in two neighboring districts, Deh Yak and Gero. In early June, local people in Deh Yak, to the east of Andar, reported that a group of arbakai fighters, with the support of a former Ittihad commander, Zafar, were stationed overnight in the area. The Taleban rushed to the place the next morning to drive them out before they could spread further in the area. A fierce,three-hour long battle erupted. Zafar and at least one of his men were killed and the arbakai retreated to Ghazni city. Faizanullah Faizan, who also acted as a supplier of men to the arbakai there, admitted the uprising in Deh Yak had been unsuccessful. Since then, no other such attempt has been made in the area.
Then, in Gero, to the south, five former Hezb commanders and local influential people were killed and as many were detained by the Taleban for plotting a similar arbakai revolt. Khalil Hotak, a local political activist, showed the author the names and identity of the five dead men.
Almost two months later, in late July, an attempt to station an arbakai in Muqur district ended with a similar fate. Provincial officials said on 31 July that several Taleban were killed as locals initiated a ‘national uprising’ inspired by the Andar model. But local people, in interviews with the author, said that only a brief shooting had taken place under ambiguous circumstances between Taleban and some armed men ‘similar to the Taleban, but unknown to us’. At least one person from each side was wounded. There were no follow-up actions confirmed by independent sources.
However, two Afghan Local Police (ALP) posts were successfully deployed in the outskirts of Muqur town – not in the Taleban’s heartland of the district where the posts should have gone if they were to be effective, but near the district centre. Rumours of an ALP deployment to another restive district, Qarabagh, led the Taleban to plant IEDs along the main roads connecting it to Jaghori, Malistan and Ajristan districts to prevent the infiltration of any new, pro-government force by land to the area. They warned the Qarabagh population not to use these main roads.
With the ALP apparently being substituted for the arbaki in places like Muqur and Qarabagh, the question is: will this variation on the model work? The ALP has already been tried in many other places, leading to mounting evidence of misconduct, although deployment has been welcomed in others.
The Taleban’s thwarting of the Gero, Deh Yak and Muqur ‘revolts’ before they had even properly started (as well as the failed attempts to spread the ‘uprising’ inside Andar) suggest that the prospects for spreading Andar-style rebellions, at least in Ghazni province look difficult. The Taleban now understand the plan and are striking back quickly and decisively against any such move.
So what is the future of the Andar model? In a following blog on the issue, we will look at attempts to clone the Andar uprising elsewhere in the country and assess what would be needed to have a real popular rebellion against the Taleban.
(1) Interview with a local Taleban commander. However, when I talked to the Taleban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, to find out why no visible campaign had yet to be launched against the rebels, he said there was no plan for an offensive: ‘We will not waste our energy in fighting these few deceived individuals who fight only for a salary they got from the government. We will only defend the areas where we are currently in charge from the arbakai. They will eliminate themselves when they achieve no further successes, and get no local support – and when they start fighting each other. They are not welcomed by the people.’
(2) Villagers, who gave the names of the dead men and their locations – two from Gandaher, two from Saheb Khan and one from Gulo village, said four had been arbakai members and the fifth was a supporter. The Taleban say all five were armed arbakai. Some media reported that the killed were local civilians.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020