The Islamic State, holed up in a few districts in eastern Afghanistan, has suddenly popped up in a faraway western province, Ghor – at least according to provincial officials. They blamed IS for the massacre in October 2016 of more than 30 civilians. Digging deeper into the incident, AAN’s Borhan Osman found that the IS claim was false: The gang responsible were criminals and had historical links to both the Taleban and parts of the central government, but was not part of IS. A closer look at the incident reveals a far stranger, but no less worrying tale than was reported.Funeral of the more than 30 civilians that were killed in Ghor in October 2016.
“IS is gaining support and challenging the Taliban in Afghanistan,” the BBC reported on 26 October 2016, citing Ghor governor Naser Khazeh and adding that “Analysts say the IS militants in Ghor are former Taliban fighters.” The BBC was not the only media outlet who repeated the local officials’ version of events without cross-checking. Officials had said a group of Islamic State (IS or Daesh) militants had rounded up about 30 civilians who were collecting firewood near the provincial capital Feroz Koh (recently re-named from Chaghcharan) and killed them in revenge, after one of the group’s commanders had been killed by local pro-government forces.
Yet, there is no credible evidence of an actual IS presence in Ghor or of links between IS and the particular group that killed the villagers. Indeed, the actual loyalties of the murderers are too complicated to be directly tied to any single entity. The murders do, however, tie in to long-standing tribal grievances and have links to central government politics. To understand who the group behind the Ghor massacre was, one needs to look into what exactly happened, as well as, more broadly, the context into which the group emerged and why officials labelled them as ‘Daesh’.
On the afternoon of 25 October 2016, as local residents told AAN, a group of about two dozen armed men from Murghab Valley, to the north of Feroz Koh, sneaked into the Kasi area which is eight kilometres from Feroz Koh city and stole three herds of sheep. To ensure they could safely carry the sheep to their stronghold, about 30 kilometres further north, they took the shepherds with them. They also took anyone they encountered along the route, so the local community would not discover what had happened until they had gotten out of the area. From similar incidents in the past, the shepherds understood they would be taken as hostages to a point where the armed men were able to flee to an area outside government control, and then released.
In the past, such cattle-rustling had normally been carried out without violence to shepherds or residents as they did not resist. This time, however, a young armed man from a family with members in the intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), tried to stop the theft. He fired at the gang and was then killed in the subsequent shoot out. His father and uncle found out about the killing and rushed out for revenge. Another fire-fight ensued. One and half hours later, the two older men ran out of bullets and were shot dead; in another version of the events, they were stoned to death by the armed group. However, before succumbing to death, the brothers killed the most notorious of the two commanders of the group, Ghulam Faruq, along with another known member of the group, Abdul Shakur.
One of the gang’s survivors, commander Qari Rahmatullah Karim, angered by the death of Faruq and the wounding of his son in the attack, returned to the fields and hills behind Kasi and kidnapped more villagers who had been out farming or collecting wood, amounting to a total of more than 30 hostages. One man who managed to escape told AAN that he and some of the other hostages ran after realising their captors were more aggressive and hostile than they had been in previous episodes of cattle-rustling.
The gang forcibly walked the remaining hostages for more than one hour into the mountains, to the Jeleng area and then shot them. The shooting happened within sight of two Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) check posts located on the hilltops of the nearby Shah Tigh area. Residents have blamed the ANSF of doing nothing to stop the massacre. Although the residents and local officials have given different casualty numbers, all agreed that at least 26 people were killed and several more wounded. Kasi residents and the ANSF recovered the bodies the following morning on 26 October 2016.
Who were the victims?
The victims were all resident of Kasi, a cluster of villages, locally identified by their tribal affiliation. They belong to the two closely connected Khudayar and Sultanyar clans from the Chahar Aimaq ethnic group, (1) who, according to popular belief, are the indigenous inhabitants of Ghor. Kasi is home to about one quarter of the total number of Khudayar and Sultanyar, and is the tribes’ northernmost (and furthest) habitation from Feroz Koh. They are also scattered through several neighbourhoods in and around Feroz Koh, making up a significant part of the city’s residents. The two tribes contribute a remarkably large number of civil servants to local government and are on the whole doing better economically than the average Ghori. Known for their passion for education and having a high literacy rate, they are considered the ‘elite tribes’ of Feroz Koh in particular, and Ghor generally. However, those murdered on 25 October 2016 were mostly from the poorest of Kasi villagers. Some had been collecting firewood for the approaching winter, while others were tending sheep or working on farms.
The two tribes had created a ‘community protection force’, which the locals refer to as khezash-e mardomi (popular uprising), in 2012, after some of its members working in the government were killed by illegal armed groups. A specific incident that spurred the idea of creating the community protection force was the killing of a young judge from Kasi named Qazi Qurban Karimi in May 2012. According to local residents AAN spoke to, the judge was abducted from the centre of Feroz Koh by the same group led by Faruq and Rahmatullah and was beheaded, despite his family paying a huge ransom for his release.
The khezash-e mardomi has been patrolling the villages inhabited by the two tribes, with one of the squads particularly assigned to protect Kasi. It seems to have been a community-initiated initiative, but on the payroll of the NDS. The number of the militia had gradually shrunk from its initial peak of over 100-150 to 20-30 people. The downsizing came after NDS cut their salaries following the establishment of the two ANSF check posts in the Shah Tigh area in 2015. The check posts were established with the chief aim of preventing intruders coming from the north, especially the Murghab Valley, but residents complain they have not been effective.
Who were the culprits?
The local authorities linked Faruq and Rahmatullah to the killings from the beginning. However, they were not the only actors behind the carnage, nor was their gang an isolated group of militants. The group had been part of a wider network that has been operating around Feroz Koh for more than five years. This network is based in and stems from the Murghab Valley (which is actually a series of seven valleys, most of which belong to the Feroz Koh district, but whose borders overlap with Dawlatyar, Lal wa Sarjangal and Charsada districts). The valley is home to about 8000 families, according to estimates by local government officials.
The armed group rooted in the valley is referred to by residents of Feroz Koh as the ‘Murghabis’, which is also used as a shorthand for all residents of the valley who are together taken as a ‘tribe’. (Addition 30 Nov 2016: They do not belong to the Chahr Aimaq but are Tajiks and apparently naqelin, ie a group involuntarily resettled under Amir Abdul Rahman Khan [ruled 1880-1901].) The godfather of the Murghabi network was a mujahedin-era commander, the most powerful warlord in the valley, General Ahmad Khan Murghabi, who was killed in October 2014 by the Taleban after years of close relations with the movement. Ahmad Khan fought the Soviets in the 1980s as a Jamiat-e Islami commander and later served as the commander of the army corps in Ghor during the initial years of President Karzai’s interim government, approximately between 2002 and 2004. During this time, Murghabi notables ran the local government administration while the general served as their chief strongman. The Murghabis were violently driven out of power by a rival tribe, the Rezayis, with its own militia in June 2004.
Murghabis have, for decades, rallied behind Jamiat and voted for its candidates in recent elections, including for Dr Abdullah in the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections. The valley is described by some as the Panjshir of Ghor province because it is such a Jamiat stronghold and many Ghoris believe Dr Abdullah and Balkh acting governor Atta Muhammad Nur have been protecting the Murghabi elite and ‘their interests’ in recent years. One particular case of patronage relevant to the Kasi massacre and mentioned by local residents was the release of Qari Rahmatullah Karim, the man who ordered the killings, from government detention in spring 2014. The reason for putting him in detention is not known. Former Ghor governor, Sayed Anwar Rahmati, and members of parliament from the province have publically accused other MPs and provincial council members of helping gain the freedom of Qari Rahmatullah.
When the Taleban rose as a strong insurgency in Ghor in about 2010, the strongman of Murghab, General Ahmad Murghabi, gradually developed friendly relations with them while continuing to present himself as pro-government and despite, AAN was told, still being on the government payroll (possibly – and this would be legitimate – as a member of the ‘active reserve’). Sources in the local government told AAN General Murghabi regularly visited and received financial and logistical support from senior provincial officials and leaders of Jamiat-e Islami in Kabul, including the late Marshal Qasim Fahim, vice-president to Hamid Karzai. However, his men acted more as anti-government than pro-government forces (see for example, this report from summer 2010). Using the effective impunity guaranteed by the general’s political links, his men carried out attacks in and around Feroz Koh centre, including against civilian targets.
For example, in the incidents listed below, residents of Feroz Koh as well as local officials, have no doubt about the involvement of the Murghabi network:
In 2011, according to widely circulated reports among Chaghcharan/Feroz Koh residents, Murghabi’s men killed four traffic police near Ghalmin allegedly for drinking alcohol. In summer 2012, as mentioned earlier, they, according to the widespread belief among local residents, kidnapped Qazi Qurban Karimi the judge from the Kasi village and murdered him. The same year, in spring, the Murghabi group, according to local residents of Chaghcharan, broke into the office of a Bangladeshi NGO that was granting small loans to community members. In the pre-dawn attack inside the city of Feroz Koh, they killed the director of the office, who was a Muslim from Bangladesh. The NGO suspected the attack was criminal, rather than political.
In April 2013, Rahmatullah’s comrade, Faruq, a serving Afghan National Army soldier, attacked a convoy of ISAF Lithuanian forces based in Feroz Koh, wounding two of their soldiers. That attack was his claim to fame. He was detained and investigated, but later freed (it is not known how). That attack put him right on course for joining the Taleban. By that time, according to Taleban sources in Pakistan, Qari Rahmatullah had visited Quetta and pledged allegiance to the Taleban. Faruq was referred to by his comrades and the wider Taleban as a ghazi (a heroic fighter against foreign invasion), a title that quickly echoed among residents of Murghab. Mullah Ahmad Shah, then the Taleban deputy shadow governor of Ghor (presently military chief for four provinces including Ghor), supervised the Murghabi network’s integration into the movement. The group’s leader, General Murghabi does not seem to have officially become a member of the Taleban, (although Taleban sources did refer to him as a former member). Indeed, he never ceased his relations with government officials and, according to several sources who discussed his interactions, he continued to receive a red-carpet welcome in both Feroz Koh and Kabul from government and Jamiat notables.
The Murghabi armed group turned out to be too problematic for the Taleban, as they were unable to act as disciplined and good subordinates. The commanders carried out arbitrary attacks and acts of banditry that were hard for deputy shadow governor Mullah Ahmad Shah to tolerate. According to elders in Kasi and government officials in Feroz Koh, the Murghabi commanders regularly stole livestock from areas close to Feroz Koh, justifying their theft as war bounty from ‘pro-government people’. They also carried out attacks that showed a more criminal motif than insurgent. For example, according to Charsada residents, Faruq and his group kidnapped two local businessmen in separate incidents on their way home from Feroz Koh in early 2014. One was freed for a ransom of 500,000 Afghani (about 7,700 US dollars); the second was killed despite the paying of a ransom.
The most important incident that precipitated the divorce of the Murghabi network from the Taleban came in July 2014 when Qari Rahmatullah and Faruq murdered 16 people in the Badgah area, near Kasi, as they were travelling on the Ghor-Kabul highway to a wedding. The majority of the victims were Hazaras from the Lal wa Sarjangal district of Ghor and included the groom, the bride, two other women and a child. People familiar with the Murghabis explained the killing as driven by a deeply-engrained hatred of Hazaras among the Murghabi gang. They pointed to one commander named Mullah Abdul Rahman Muzammil as someone who provided anti-Shia ideological motivation for the killing. He is currently in the government’s detention in Kabul and recently sentenced to death for his role in the July 2014 killing. The Taleban movement condemned the killing and distanced itself from the perpetrators. Following that incident, the Taleban disowned the Murghabi group. But the rupture became public only after the two sides started to fight each other in the wake of the assassination of General Murghabi, in October 2014.
A few months earlier, in the summer of the same year, 2014, the government had tried to raise local militias to stand against the Taleban and it was General Murghabi who covertly turned the tide against the Taleban. He did so as a result of the pressure and, reportedly, financial and political overtures from government officials, according to people present in meetings between the provincial authorities officials and the general in Feroz Koh. He tried to rein in his men and to turn them against Taleban shadow governor Ahmad Shah, but appears to have either miscalculated his clout or mishandled the effort. His attempt to bring Qari Rahmatullah and Faruq to heel came at a time when the two were actually poised to outgrow him in influence after having served as leading Taleban commanders in the valley. General Murghabi was subsequently killed in October 2014 by Taleban shadow governor Ahmad Shah’s men, but many observers in Ghor believe his own commanders (including Faruq and Rahmatullah) helped in the assassination. Taleban sources said Murghabi had embarked on an initiative to form a popular uprising against the insurgents and was plotting to assassinate Ahmad Shah; so, the latter’s men killed him pre-emptively.
Despite the widely-held belief that some of General Murghabi’s own commanders had helped in his assassination, his son Shah Wali managed to detach the Murghabi commanders from the Taleban and instead set them on a path to avenge the general’s killing. They attacked Ahmad Shah’s village in the adjacent Charsada district, setting his home on fire and forcing his family to retreat to Faryab. They almost cleared the valley of Taleban. More than a dozen people were killed in fighting between the two sides in the weeks following General Murghabi’s death. The fighting risked dragging two tribes, the Murghabis and shadow governor Ahmad Shah’s tribe, the Malek, into a continuing dispute as both drew support from their respective local bases. Elders from other tribes in nearby areas intervened to prevent the conflict blowing up into a wholehearted tribal conflict.
General Murghabi’s son, Shah Wali, was backed in his campaign against the Taleban by other Murghabi commanders, including Ghulam Faruq, Qari Rahmatulah Karim, Taj Muhammad, Mullah Abdul Rahman Muzammil, Abdul Shakur and Alauddin. Shah Wali also inherited the respect and status of his father among Jamiat-e Islami notables and provincial government authorities. When visiting Feroz Koh in 2015 and 2016, he was given a special escort by the provincial police during his meetings and tour of the city, according to people in the local government.
Shah Wali and his commanders were hailed from that moment onwards by the then governor of Ghor, Sayyed Anwar Rahmati, as a popular uprising. But although they had fought the Taleban, this had actually been an act of personal revenge and the commanders had hardly done anything to prove it was a popular uprising that served the government’s interests. On the contrary, they had been, for years, a source of persistent banditry, kidnappings, livestock theft, hostage and ransom-taking, as well as occasional murder. Moreover, although in their fight against the Taleban, the Murghabi commanders received logistical support and reinforcements from ANSF and the respect Shah Wali received appears authentic, his commanders, according to local officials in Feroz Koh, had for years, also been extorting money, food and fuel from senior civil servants, as well as from security officials in the provincial capital. According to one witness, a security official last year dispatched a truckload of foodstuffs and an oil tanker to the Murghab Valley to Faruq and Rahmatullah and when asked why he was doing so, replied that he was forced to so by the Murghabi network. From talking to several officials government employees in Feroz Koh, it seems they feared a direct threat to their lives if they did not comply, at least to some extent, with the Murghabi commanders’ demands for supplies.
It was these same commanders who were branded as Daesh by the provincial officials following their murder of Kasi villagers on 25 October 2016. Rumours that the group had links to IS stemmed from the very development which had earned them the title of a popular uprising group – their break in autumn 2014 with the Taleban. The Murghabi network was therefore being labelled as both Daesh and a popular uprising force at the same time.
How did a ‘popular uprising’ morph into ‘Daesh’?
Rumours that the Murghabi commanders had announced their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) emerged in the months after the death of General Ahmad Khan Murghabi in October 2014. It is unclear on what grounds these rumours were based. All that local officials and residents could point to now is that some of Shah Wali’s commanders have reportedly been bragging that they had developed relations with IS in Syria. Apart from this, there has been no solid evidence that confirms the rumours or makes it clear what they can be traced back to. According to sources in the local government with knowledge of the Murghabi commanders, the latter’s reported proclamation of allegiance with Daesh, if true, was not a result of the development of mutual relations between the two, but of the Murghabis merely adopting the brand, as it served them well in their campaign for revenge against the Taleban. Local government officials at the time did not take the alleged claims of links to IS seriously. The Murghabi network did not show any change in behaviour or tactics suggesting they had actual links to IS, nor are there verifiable reports of the group having raised IS flags in the areas under its control. The commanders’ rumoured announcement of allegiance indeed came months before IS announced its extension to ‘Khorasan Province’, which meant there was as yet no ‘official’ representative of the group present in the region with whom they could have connected.
After the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) emerged as an IS franchise in 2015 for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the Murghabi commanders, according to a couple of sources, tried to seek the endorsement of ISKP leaders. One account told to AAN by second-hand sources said that the Murghabi commanders had dispatched about two dozen fighters for training to Nangarhar in July 2015; several were killed and the others returned home. A Taleban source familiar with the insurgency in Ghor said the Murghabi commanders had, at least once, met and received funds from an ISKP recruiter in Pakistan, but the source did not believe the relations between the two developed into any sort of operational link. There also seems to be no evidence that ISKP accepted them as a local cell.
It is possibly this uncertainty about the affiliation of the Murghabi armed group that led to contradictory descriptions by local residents and officials during 2015 and 2016. While the group was squarely described as belonging to Daesh following the killing of the Kasi villagers on 25 October 2016, it had previously been referred to as Taleban, a pro-government force or merely an illegal armed group. For example, when the Murghabi network fought Mullah Ahmad Shah’s men in the Gorken area of the Charsada district in July 2015, local officials hailed them as an uprising loyal to Shah Wali; the ANSF joined the Murghabi network in the battle for Gorken, an important Taleban stronghold. However, in another incident in the same year, in October 2015, when Faruq, Taj Muhammad and Abdul Rahman Muzammil stoned to death a 19 year old girl named Rokhshana for alleged adultery, local people and officials said they were members of the Taleban. This description was then picked up, pretty well unquestioningly, by local and international media. In another incident involving Faruq and his men in winter 2016, in which he tried to kidnap a rich police official from Kasi, the attackers were referred to merely as Murghabi bandits. (Faruq was wounded in that incident.) In its last attack before the killing of the Kasi villagers, when it kidnapped five Hazara students in early September 2016, the group was referred to by the provincial authorities sometimes as Taleban and sometimes as a criminal gang. (2)
If the Murghabi network had had actual relations with Daesh, they should have stopped their gangsterism and acts of plundering, something they only intensified after their supposed announcement of allegiance in 2014. The Murghabi commanders also continued trafficking drugs in the areas under their control, specifically the Murghab Valley, which has long been an important trafficking route between the north, specifically Faryab and Sar-e Pul provinces, and the southern hub of opium production and sale, specifically Helmand (more detail in this previous AAN dispatch). A real affiliation with ISKP would also have meant a departure from their previous targeting pattern driven only by criminal and economic incentives. Instead, there has been no shift of tactics to show a new political and ideological affiliation.
What further leads one to doubt any sort of formal relations between the Murghabi network and IS(KP) is the total absence of references in the rhetoric of ISKP to a presence in Ghor. The Murghabi network, or a supposed Ghor cell for that matter, have never featured in ISKP propaganda, despite its constant desire to show it is expanding its territory. Moreover, there was no comment from IS or ISKP in reaction to the news of the 25 October killings when officials declared Daesh had perpetrated the carnage. (3)
Aftermath: Trying to clear ‘Daesh’ from the Murghab Valley amidst government discord
Following the carnage in Kasi, deep anger boiled up against the Murghabis, not just the bandits but the whole tribe – not just from the Khudayar and Sultanyar tribes who had seen ‘their’ people murdered in Kasi, but from residents of Feroz Koh generally. Thousands of people marched in Feroz Koh on 26 October 2016 to demonstrate against the killing and participate in the funerals. The dominant feeling described by participants to AAN was a desire for immediate revenge. This prompted influential local leaders to try to calm the protestors down. One of these leaders was General Mohayuddin Ghori, commander of the 207 Zafar Army Corps based in Herat, who earned popularity among Ghoris during his career in the army since the 1980s (during Dr Najib’s era). Speaking to the protestors, he vowed to avenge the killing to the last drop of his blood. In the meantime, he urged the people not to act independently and to coordinate their plans with the government forces under his leadership.
Apart from the carnage of 25 October 2016, there has been a general ill-feeling among the urban ‘tribes’ of Feroz Koh towards the Murghabis that has built up gradually over the last several decades. The recent killing refreshed old resentments. Local elders said the October mass killing was reminiscent of another aggression against the Khudayar and Sultanyar in the late 1980s or early 1990s that was even more atrocious – on both sides. Residents recalled that the Murghabis, angered by the killing of a notorious bandit named Abdul Khaliq (reportedly a relative of General Ahmad Khan Murghabi) by a Khudayar elder, pillaged the villages of the Khudayars and Sultanyars, including in Kasi. In revenge for Abdul Khaliq, the Murghabis killed more than a dozen men and abducted and later ‘forcibly married’ 15 to 20 women and girls. The incident left a deep-seated feeling of antipathy towards the Murghabis.
The old grudge and the new anger following the killing of the Kasi villagers in October 2016 has been directed, not just at the perpetrators, but at the entire Murghabi population. Even those hailing from Murghab who live in Feroz Koh have found themselves a target of growing resentment. Some Murghabis went into hiding following the massacre. They reportedly included well-known people with official positions and political clout in Feroz Koh. Those who were seen as having supported the Murghabi network in their incursions into the city suburbs, such as the residents of Ghalmin, an area that connects Feroz Koh to the Murghab Valley, are now also perceived as accomplices, according to people who took part in the demonstrations following the killing.
On 30 October 2016, as the three-day funeral ceremonies for the dead ended, hundreds of armed people from across Ghor started to gather in Feroz Koh under the command of their local commanders and warlords with the aim to attack the Murghab Valley. Their mobilisation coincided with a build-up of various ANSF units for a ‘clearing operation’ targeting the valley and its vicinity. Government officials and locals reported the mobilisation of about 1,500 men, almost half of them independent militias led by warlords. A source involved in the logistics for the operation said that, while the militias came with their own weapons and motorbikes and some brought their own food (slaughtered sheep and bread) and blankets, food and blankets from the government were also distributed. On the ANSF side, General Ghori was officially assigned to lead the operations, including being in overall command of the independent militias whom he urged to act in tandem with the ANSF. Special forces and commandos were also dispatched from Kabul to take part in the operations, but were put on reserve. Additionally, the Afghan Air Force was also reported to be taking part in the operation, dubbed Khashm-e Feroz Koh (the wrath of Feroz Koh).
However, a week after the onset of the operation, Sultanyar and Khudayar elders complained that the government was not fully determined to actually send its forces into the Murghab Valley. The combined forces arrived at Ghalmin, at the entrance to the valley where, on 6 November 2016, they were described as being in a state of standstill. While the target of the operation was apparently the armed groups from the Murghab Valley allied with Qari Rahmatullah, the Taleban also seemed to have mobilised their fighters to attack the ANSF. The movement’s media published reports of clashes in Ghalmin saying that “puppet forces” were trying to enter the Murghab Valley. For the Taleban, an extension of government control into Murghab would mean a direct threat to their strongholds in Charsada. Some locals reported that the ways from Ghalmin into Murghab Valley had been heavily mined, complicating the combined government forces’ advance.
With the government forces and local militias still lying in the trenches ready to attack the Murghab Valley, two issues are looming large: the lack of clarity about who the enemy is and a deep disagreement within the government on how to curb this network that has long haunted Ghoris, and to assure them that the government is indeed working hard to deliver justice.
The absence of a clearly defined enemy complicates the local conflict and politics and risks turning this into a festering tribal dispute, with all involved bent on settling scores. People who closely witnessed the mobilisation of the popular militias said that the target of the operation was the population of the Murghab Valley in its entirety and that the militia commanders saw all Murghabis as complicit in the attacks, both recent and historical, by Murghabi armed men against other residents of the province. One journalist who talked to a security official in charge of overseeing parts of the operation said the official implied that the ambiguity about the nature of the enemy was deliberate. According to the reporter, the official hinted that it was clear to everyone that Murghabis as a whole should be targeted.
The government blessing given to the participation of independent militias only exacerbates the already fragile security situation of Ghor – particularly given the abundance of weapons and warlords who run their fiefdoms with income from extortion and drug trafficking and whose private militias well outnumber ANSF in the province.
Taming the Murghab Valley, as seems to be the aim, is not going to be easy. Murghabi leader Qari Rahmatullah has been busy in recent days rallying residents of the valley to the defence of the tribe. According to some observers in Feroz Koh, the Murghabis have mobilised a force of around 1000 armed men. A Murghabi figure close to the late General Ahmad Khan, Din Muhammad, has reportedly taken a leading role in this mobilisation. He used to be based in Feroz Koh running his personal business and has long been seen as a key figure in facilitating the flow of resources from Feroz Koh to the Murghabi network. General Ahmad Khan’s son, Shah Wali, is reportedly also actively supplying his tribesmen with weapons.
The possibility of the aftermath of the massacre escalating into another episode of violent score-settling along tribal lines, is underlined by the fact that the Murghabi commanders have again targeted the Sultanyar and Khudayar tribes. On 4 November 2016, the Murghabi network kidnapped 10 Kasi villagers from their farms in the Kutos area near Kasi.
Internal rifts within the national unity government and apparent partisan interests have cast shadows over the government’s ability to respond to the carnage in a way that satisfies the growing grievances of Sultanyar and Khudayar. Soon after the killings, Abdullah and Ghani separately and without coordination sent compensation packages (consisting of 100,000 Afghans for the dead and 50,000 Afghanis for the wounded) to the families of the victims. The compensation money in Abdullah’s name was seen as a move to try to defuse resentment against the Jamiat-backed Murghabis. The partisan politicking intensified after the mobilisation of forces for the Khashm-e Feroz Koh operation. According to a source present in a meeting of senior security officials in charge of coordinating the operations in Feroz Koh, on 31 October 2016, it was reported that Dr Abdullah (or his office) had called General Ghori three times in 24 hours to discuss calling off the operation, or at least minimising its e. (4)
Following the start of the operation, President Ghani visited Feroz Koh on 4 November 2016 and participated in a meeting with Sultanyar and Khudayar elders. He vowed that the government would avenge the death of the people and that the operation would go on until it had “eliminated the enemy.” However, the lack of a tangible advance towards the Murghab Valley despite the strong show of force upon launching the operation, and the new incident of abduction of the Kasi villagers on the same day as President Ghani’s visit, Koh has deepened local misgivings about the government’s willingness to stop the Murghabi network from their attacking Feroz Koh residents. Kasi elders questioned how the Murghabi armed men could infiltrate the village and safely take away the hostages to Murghab Valley, despite the presence of more than 1500 forces at the gates of the valley, in Ghalmin. Talking to AAN, several of them suspected there were people within the government and security forces who were helping the Murghabi network, thus allowing them to continue their atrocities and keep the urban tribes under pressure.
Why call the Murghabi network Daesh?
When local officials labelled the Murghabi network as ‘Daesh’ on 26 October 2016 they would have known exactly who they were talking about. It was well known to officials and Ghoris that the group that perpetrated the mass murder were local bandits, but local officials still called them Daesh. It made their job of explaining how this atrocity had happened on their watch more simple: there was nothing they could have done, indeed they were blameless, since the extremely brutal ‘Daesh’ had been at play. Branding the killers as Daesh also continues to serve as a useful SOS to try to get attention from central government.
Sounding the alarm in such a way is not a new phenomena. (In September 2014, for instance, security officials in Ghazni province announced that Daesh had massacred 60 villagers in the remote and mountainous district of Ajristan. When AAN looked into that incident, it found no signs of IS, but rather an intensification of the Taleban battle against local, pro-government militias. Unable to repel the escalating offensive, the then police chief appeared to have found it useful to cry wolf in order to obtain urgent support from central government and foreign forces.) The residents and notables of Ghor, however, were not impressed with the local authorities’ framing of the Kasi murderers as Daesh. Former governor Qazi Abdul Qadir Alam wrote on social media that labelling the culprits as Daesh was misleading the public and was counter-productive. Addressing local officials, he wrote:
By attributing this small gang to Daesh and the Taleban, you are aggrandising the actual perpetrators … All residents of Ghor are familiar with Faruq and Rahmatullah; they are not Chechens, Arabs or Uzbeks. They come from a specific area of Feroz Koh, and, for the last several years, have resorted to banditry, murders, looting and theft of livestock. Reporters and the media should not distract public attention from the actual culprits by naming them Daesh. … If you call them Daesh, you are creating allies and comrades for them and causing the government to procrastinate about taking action against them, since this government is slow in making decisions against Daesh and Taleban.
The Daesh branding of this group by government officials in Ghor was nothing short of a deliberate attempt to mislead. That the media comfortably went along with the tale was worrying. It also shows the risk of creating ‘realities’ on the ground, when officials and journalists use each other as sources for the same incident, thus corroborating what is in fact not true. Creating a false façade for an atrocity in order to cover up a mess that has been long coming might have seemed like a good plan for local officials trying to escape responsibility for the situation, but the journalist should have checked their facts – particularly as they were so obvious. In the end, such false alarms only complicate. They get in the way of identifying the core problem, as facts become distorted and confused. They also hamper the combatting of the actual threat of ISKP. Indeed, ISKP probably received a propaganda boost from the false claims. It also seems to have given them new ideas, as it only started talking of a ‘presence’ in Ghor after government officials had fabricated it. (5)
Edited by Kate Clark.
(1) The Chahar Aimaq are an ethnic group in the west of Afghanistan. Its name translates as “four tribes” (the word Aimaq is Mongolian). They are Sunni and Dari speakers. Usually, the following “four tribes” are mentioned as the main groups: the Taimani, the Feroz Kohi, the Timuri and the Jamshedi. In some sources, a group called “Aimaq Hazara” (who are also Sunni) replaces the Timuri. Apart from that, there are around 250 smaller ‘tribes’, some called “the lesser Aimaq”, some sub-tribes (‘clans’) of the four or five main groups. The latter include the Khudayar, Sultanyar and Rezayi mentioned later in the text.
(2) The students were kidnapped on their way from Feroz Koh to their homes in the Lal wa Sarjangal district. According to provincial officials, the kidnappers demanded the release of Abdul Rahman Muzammil, a commander who had been convicted by a Kabul court of involvement in the killing of the 16 members of the wedding party in 2014 and sent to Pul-e Charkhi prison. During the student kidnapping, one of the hostages was killed, while the remainder were freed about two months after their abduction, in return for the release of several of the group’s members who had been arrested by NDS in Feroz Koh following the kidnapping of the students.
(3) IS(KP) claimed an attack in Ghor on 14 November 2016. An Afghan military helicopter was shot down by armed men in the Murghab Valley, during the operations that started in late October. According to local officials, the helicopter was damaged beyond repair and had to make an emergency landing, but no one was injured. The Taleban, which had been reporting about their response to the ANSF and allied militias’ Murghabi operation in their daily briefs, were the first to claim the downing of the chopper. ISKP’s claim came hours later.
(4) Dr Abdullah’s office has been asked for a reaction but did not respond, despite repeated prompting.
(5) See under footnote 3.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020