In March 2010, heavy fighting broke out in the northern Baghlan province between Hezb-e Islami fighters and the Taleban. On 7 October 2010, a German soldier was killed by a suicide bomber in the same area. The connection between both events is another example how the establishment of ‘militias’ (even though they are not called so) can go wrong, concludes AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig.
When the Taleban vs. Hezb-e Islami clashes broke out in the north of Baghlan province on 7 March this year, AAN was given three different explanations on why this happened. First of all, ‘the conflict was said to have been caused by disputes between both groups over the taxation of farmers’, i.e. over access to resources. Additionally, the Hezb fighters, led by a commander Sher, were said to have been involved in some kidnapping cases which angered the local population who, as a result, became more inclined towards the Taleban. At this point, the Taleban in the area were still mainly local.
According to the second explanation the ‘Taliban “Lumpenproletariat” fighters’, who had been ‘hired by the government-connected Hezb-e Islami to carry out violence and destabilize the province when needed’, had decided to take over from ‘their former employers to achieve full control of the area’.
The third version went like this: The Taleban leadership across the border had infused the area with weapons and money and leadership – a certain Mulla Yunus was sent to assume command – to take over from the Hezbis who had become too pro-government for its taste. (Something similar happened in the Southeast, where Hezb representatives were pushed out of Taleban-controlled areas for not speaking out against the 18 September election, as this raised suspicions of them being too pro-government.) Also, the partial shift of NATO supply lines away from the Khyber route to the newly opened Russia/Central Asia route made the highway through Baghlan a major strategic target for the Taleban. The fact that fighting along this highway continues to this day – with latest clashes reported for 13 and 14 October – bolsters this view.
The area where the Taleban-Hezb clashes happened is very close to the strategic Pul-e Khumri ‘highway triangle’,a few kilometers north of where the highway comes down from the Salang Tunnel. Here the road forks into the Kunduz route (further east) and the Mazar route (through Aybak/Tashqorghan and Mazar, further west).
The Taleban, led by a Mulla Amanuddin, are reportedly based in the area of Kokchenar and Qaisarkhel (in Baghlan-e Jadid district) to the north-east of Mazar road, while the Hezb fighters are from Shahabuddin, a cluster of ten or twelve villages (one of which is called Akakhel) immediately east of the road. Shahabuddin is inhabited by a number of smaller Pashtun tribes, Stanakzai, Omarkhel, Otmankhel etc., with Ahmadzai and others further away, but there seems to be no clear division like in some other areas, with one tribe on the one and another tribe on the other side of the insurgency.
The outcome of the fighting was much clearer, however: The Taleban gained the upper hand and took territorial control over most of the fertile districts of Dahan-e Ghuri and Baghlan-e Jadid. The 100 or so surviving Hezb fighters, led by Sher, left the area and surrendered to the government. The 35 of them who were still armed handed over their weapons to the DIAG commission and the group was accommodated in a government guesthouse in Pul-e Khumri, Baghlan’s provincial capital.
Astonishingly enough, they were considered ‘reconciled’, even though they only came ‘to the government’ after they were defeated by a stronger force. This was confirmed in a very detailed reportage in the German magazine ‘Spiegel’ that quotes the former commander of the German forces in the area, who referred to commander ‘Sher as an APRP, an insurgent who has surrendered and is now participating in the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program.’ He continued: ‘Sher was a fighter for the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of one of the largest insurgent groups, with ties to al-Qaida and Pakistani intelligence. “Sher and his men are holding the position in Shahabuddin […]. It’s a pilot project.”’(Ulrike Demmer, ‘The Battle of Shahabuddin’, Spiegel (English version), 13 October 2010)
The US Special Forces (SF), who according to local sources built their fortified base in Shahabuddin, proceeded to turn these ‘reconciled fighters’ into another ‘local police’ force and to deploy them back in their home area, sometime around late August 2010. Since the SF are not allowed to arm such groups themselves, they arranged for a group of 30 to get the guns that were surrendered to the DIAG commission back. They also introduced the group to the Germans, who had established a base nearby in a former Afghan army compound, the so-called ferqa-ye 20 (20th division) – according to Spiegel ‘Germany’s most remote — and dangerous – outpost’ in Afghanistan. (It quotes its commanding officer as saying that ‘[w]e were supposed to stay here for 10 days, and […] we’ve been [t]here for five months’ in late September.)
According to sources with contacts to these fighters, the former Hezbis told the Americans that 30 armed men would not be sufficient to hold the base against the Taleban. But the Americans told them not to worry and promised that they would protect them. These assurances did not convince the group, in particular after the Taleban caught, tortured and killed the father of one of them. (Another reason they were probably afraid was because – according to the same source – the US SF took the group for night raids into surrounding villages.)
One day before the elections, on 17 September 2010, the Taleban launched a full-scale attack on the ‘Hezb’ base in Shahabuddin. The Special Forces did not show up, and the Germans who tried to help were held up when the Taleban blew up a bridge over the Ajmir canal. The local ANP refrained from getting involved, because – at least according to our source – it mainly consisted of Andarabi Tajiks who did not want to risk their lives for Pashtuns. (The Tajik-Pashtun rivalry in Baghlan is described in an earlier blog here.)
The militia held the base for 48 hours and then retreated into the village. There, some houses were held by them and some, very nearby, by the Taleban. Finally they managed to call in US air support. They were told to spread blankets on the top of the houses they occupied to avoid being hit, but something went wrong and the bombs also hit the militias. Four of them were killed, including commander Sher. A group of ten survivors under sub-commander Nur-ul-Haq made it back to Pul-e Khumri, while the rest of Sher’s group either spread in the villages or went with the Taleban.
Altogether, this battle – with 250 German Quick Reaction Force and Afghan soldiers under the command of a German officer on one side and 60 Taleban on the other – lasted for four days. The Spiegel called it ‘the most serious battle German soldiers experienced since World War II’. Since 15 April 2010, eleven German soldiers have died in Baghlan in three battles.
After the Taleban left the base as a result of the airstrikes, the Americans retook the base and brought Nur-ul-Haqs people back with them. The Germans, meanwhile, put a temporary bridge over the canal and remained deployed to protect it.
The post came under attack again on 7 October 2010. On that day, a man – who according to one story looked like a farmer (with a sickle over his shoulder) and according to another called for help, pretending to have escaped from the Taleban – approached the German sentry who sent for an interpreter. Then the man, who wore a suicide vest under his clothes, blew himself up, killed one soldier and wounded some 14 others. This was the start of another Taleban attack. The attack was repelled, but it will not have been the last one on that strategic highway.
There are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this story. First, it raises the problem of ‘reconciled’ fighters: It seems that the Special Forces adopt everyone who knocks at their gates, hoping to turn them into another militia. (By the way, shouldn’t groups like this be called ‘reintegrated’ fighters, rather than ‘reconciled’?) It raises the question whether the recruitment of new anti-Taleban fighters is really the – or one – aim of ‘reconciliation’ or ‘reintegration’? If so, then the program is even narrower than I thought.
Second, if fighters who are simply running away from stronger ones already count as ‘reconcilees’, it makes one wonder about the rest of the ‘reconciliation process’. And things can even be much worse than in Shahabuddin: What if a group of insurgents ‘changes sides’ only to turn around their weapons? Ask people who did ‘reconciliation’ under President Najibullah how often this happened. Where is the vetting of such fighters? Do the Special Forces simply trust their word that they want to be ‘good guys’ now? Is the filing of their biometric checks really enough to deploy them?
Third, incidents like this do not create much trust in the Special Forces, who are running this country-wide but low-profile ‘local defence forces’ progam. If they are even unable to protect such a small group of fighters against the Taleban, it shows how much their security guarantees are worth. I hope that the allegedly ‘reconcilable’ Jalaluddin Haqqani doesn’t read this blog.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020