Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Descent into chaos: Why did Nangarhar turn into an IS hub?

Borhan Osman 22 min

Armed groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) have tried to establish a foothold in five of Afghanistan’s provinces, but only in Nangarhar have they succeeded. There, IS Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghanistan-Pakistan franchise of the Islamic State, landed on fertile ground with a fragmented insurgency, bickering provincial elites, a tradition of Salafi networks and a host of local and foreign militant groups. In this second of three dispatches on the Islamic State group, AAN’s Borhan Osman chronicles events in Nangarhar in the years leading up to the emergence of ISKP in the east of Afghanistan.

Screenshot from a video of a ISKP training in Nangarhar published in 2015Screenshot from a video of a ISKP training in Nangarhar published in 2015

The first dispatch in this series looked into who pioneered ISKP, its fights on different fronts, its peak and its failed attempts to establish itself outside Nangarhar. The third dispatch will look into the group’s propaganda, ideology and the appeal of what it represents as Salafi jihadism in Afghanistan.


ISKP’s battle for Nangarhar, a summary

ISKP in Nangarhar emerged publicly in May 2015, but had its first clash with the Taleban in December 2014. Within a month of its public emergence, it had captured most of the territory of eight districts, becoming the dominant insurgent group there. After being fought back by the Taleban and pounded by US air strikes, ISKP’s territory had shrunk mainly to four districts. These four districts remain heavily contested. Unlike in other provinces where ISKP was eliminated quickly, ISKP managed to hold onto territory and has proved reasonably resilient in Nangarhar for the last one and a half years.

 The group’s tactics have been beyond the pale, even by the standards of the current Afghan conflict, which can be very brutal. Beheadings and public executions have become ISKP’s trademark, with victims including elderly civilian men. It has also forced tens of thousands of families from their homes which its fighters chose to settle in, and forcibly closed schools and even clinics. ISKP has turned Nangarhar into its national headquarters. This year, it has remained confined there, and on defensive. For more details, see the previous part of this series.


In February 2015, months before IS-related activities were reported in Nangarhar, groups carrying IS flags were already making inroads elsewhere in the country, in Helmand, Farah, Logar and Zabul. AAN had then warned that the east, Nangarhar in particular, was more likely than other areas to become a hub for the IS local franchise. There were different reasons for this which, together, turned fears into reality.

The emergence of ISKP in Nangarhar has to be seen against the backdrop of the weakened position of the two prime actors who should deter ISKP encroachment, the government and the local Taleban. The weakness of these anti-ISKP forces was coupled with the vitality of two pro-ISKP forces: small militant groups lacking fixed loyalties and the Salafi militants fighting in the ranks of the insurgency. Both are abundant in Nangarhar. It was a combination of these four factors which helped ISKP take root in the province. As for local communities, in essence, they are neither necessarily a hostile nor a friendly fifth actor. However, they have been consistently undermined in recent decades and had become too divided to stand as a bulwark against a new and extremely brutal armed group, which has unleashed  a campaign of beheadings and has blown up elderly people with explosives.

Each of these elements deserves some elaboration in order to explain the context in which the ISKP threat unfolded in the province.

The abysmal condition of the Nangarhari elite and local administration

ISKP emerged and grew in a political-military vacuum that had plagued Nangarhar for years. The two main military-political forces which maintain a binary control over most of Afghanistan, the Afghan government and the Taleban, were both in disarray. While these two actors may be hostile to each other, they are both equal enemies of ISKP. Had either of them been more powerful in Nangarhar, it would not have been so easy for the new group to establish itself.

On the government’s side, public frustration with provincial political elites, caused by unaddressed rampant corruption, coupled with a failure to deliver services effectively, is felt across Afghanistan. As a result, in Nangarhar as elsewhere, the political elite has been increasingly confined to their palaces. In the countryside of the province, the sense of alienation from provincial leaders appears to have been particularly strong. As reported in detail by AREU’s David Mansfield, the political and security situation in Nangarhar has been in consistent decline since late 2011. Political elites have been busy jockeying among themselves for power, leaving the rural population at the mercy of insurgents. Inevitably dragged into power politics, officials in the local administration seems to have been largely paralysed by the never-ceasing competition among the ruling families. The political infighting absorbed the will and energy needed for combating the expanding insurgency.

In addition, the security sector in Nangarhar was affected not only by local political turbulence, but also by the changed posture of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in confronting anti-state armed groups. From 2013 onwards, when the ANSF took over the lead role in combat from international forces, they have mostly been on the defensive. The gradual drawdown of international forces led to shrinking government territorial control and, by 2014, most parts of the districts along the Spin Ghar mountain range to the south and east of Jalalabad had been almost totally left to insurgent groups. The ANSF only kept a nominal presence in the district centres. According to a local government official, the government helplessly watched the situation deteriorate, with no hope of regaining control over the lost territory. Ironically, these districts contribute a very high proportion of soldiers to the ANSF serving in other parts of the country, while their own home areas were left with no security or state control. The near-absence of government control in those districts meant the ISKP did not have to confront one of the two potential key opponents when trying to establish a foothold in the province.

Local politicians, absorbed by their internal power struggles in Jalalabad and Kabul, failed to notice the descent of the countryside into insurgency and failed to flag up the havoc being wreaked in their constituency.

A fractured insurgency

The near-absence of the government in southern districts of Nangarhar would normally leave the Taleban to fill the void, as is the case in most other parts of the country. However, this did not happen in Nangarhar where the insurgency was arguably the most chaotic compared to other parts of Afghanistan in the years prior to ISKP’s emergence.

Compared to the relatively close-knit structure in its southern heartlands, fighters in parts of the east, Nangarhar particularly, have always been hard to rally under a single command. According to Taleban sources familiar with the movement’s operations in the east, Nangarhar has never had a well-disciplined insurgency. While there has been an abundance of people willing to fight, most commanders have sought a quick rise to fame and seniority who competed for positions which pitted them and senior leaders against each other. There was fighting for power, for example, between Mawlawi Kabir, the senior-most commander in the east, and his subordinate, the Nangarhar shadow governor, Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed. The latter was reshuffled to Khost in 2009 as Quetta found him not sufficiently obedient to Kabir. He was later relieved of all positions. Mawlawi Kabir was also subsequently removed from all his duties around 2012, partly due to his autonomous style of leadership, but also partly because of his inability to finely consolidate the eastern insurgency. (1)

In the districts as well, the insurgency in Nangarhar had long been characterised by loose networks trying to override each other’s rule. Taleban shadow governors in most of the southern and south-eastern districts had constantly have had to struggle to exert control over their fighters. While this had been the case since 2007, the fragmentation became even deeper from 2012 onwards. (2) Chains of command were often blurred. When there were complaints among the local population about the fighters, it was difficult to find out who was in charge.

Under the cover of this messy insurgency, fighters engaged in criminal activities, much more so than in other provinces. For example, this author has recorded widespread cases of unexplained killings of ordinary individuals, assassination of influential local elders and ransom-driven kidnappings in the southern districts of Nangarhar from 2013 to late 2014. Testimonies from local inhabitants to the effect that the violence was gradually becoming more tumultuous match assessments by international organisations monitoring security in the field. Detailed data from one of these organisations show a consistent and sharp rise in incidents of insurgent activities turning into criminal violence in Nangarhar. According to this mapping, Nangarhar consecutively topped the list of provinces with regard to violent crimes from 2011 to 2014, with incidents skyrocketing in 2014. The increase in insurgent-related criminal activities in Nangarhar was coupled with a corresponding decrease in the presence and operations by ANSF and international forces over the same period. (Although not exactly the same – the decrease in pro-government military operations began in 2012 – the two periods do overlap for the most part.)

The Taleban in southern and south-eastern Nangarhar not only provided a loose cover for various militant groups who actually had their own control and command systems, but also suffered from an internal lack of cohesiveness. In this province, even within the Rahbari Shura-based Taleban network, fighters sometimes followed their own rules and methods. In interviews on ISKP’s radio Khelafat Ghag, some of the local fighters who later defected to ISKP have revealed that they kept a clandestine network of the mowahedin (Salafis) within Taleban groups. While these fighters and commanders had individually been known as Salafis, the fact that they maintained a network within the Taleban structure was not known. They revealed that they would covertly act as they wished, ignoring their commanders. They talked about targeted killings, killing spies whom their “corrupt commanders” would usually fail to punish because of political considerations or connections; they even spoke about purging the ranks of the ‘mujahedin’ of those members who had been working in tandem with “the apostate spies,” a reference to (pro) government people. They also complained about being mistrusted and constantly monitored by their non-mowahedin comrades. The defectors also described how the Salafis, in return, monitored their group leaders for “illicit activities”. (More on the Salafis further down).

The internal fragmentation of the insurgent networks in Nangarhar meant the Taleban, by far the strongest anti-government force in the rest of the country, were unable to function as an alternative to the government. There is often a binary pattern of control – either the state or the Taleban controls territory and other actors are unable to capture territory for themselves. This also means there is usually no truly ungoverned space, places where there is no ‘rule of law’. In areas under Taleban control, a shadow administration usually supplants the government, as the insurgents establish their own mechanisms of governance, security, law and, in some places, even service delivery. (3)

The Taleban in Nangarhar, however, as government forces lost territory, were unable to stand as a force that could keep a semblance of order and serve as a shadow government. This had a direct impact on the fate of the movement’s battle with ISKP in this province. In Helmand, Farah, Logar and Zabul provinces, emerging pro-IS groups were defeated relatively easily by the Taleban. In Nangarhar, the two sides remain stuck in fighting without a decisive victory for either.

A pool of diverse militant groups to recruit from

Most importantly for ISKP, they found in Nangarhar’s southern and south-eastern districts, a pool of small militant groups from which to recruit. A glance at the profiles of several dozen ISKP members in Nangarhar show that it did draw from these various small groups, which are mapped below. This diversity is not seen elsewhere in Afghanistan. These groups, Afghan and foreign, followed their own modus operandi. They either used Nangarhar as their operational base, or temporarily settled there in transit to other places. The groups included some originating from the Afghan Taleban under nominal Rahbari Shura command, although not all were really loyal to it, as well as various Pakistani groups and branches of international organisations, such as al-Qaeda.

There has been a total of 13 groups operating in south and south-western Nangarhar, simultaneously or at some point, in recent years:

Afghan groups:

1. The mainstream Taleban under the leadership council’s (Rahbari Shura or ‘Quetta Shura’) command

2. The Tora Bora Jihadi Front (operating mostly in the three districts dominated by the Khogiani tribe, namely Khogiani, Sherzad and Pachir wa Agam. The Tora Bora Front was officially dismantled and integrated into the mainstream Taleban in October 2015. In 2008-2009 at its peak, the Front was the second largest insurgency network in Nangarhar. Read more about it here

3. Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (mainly active in Chaparhar, Kot and Sherzad districts)

4. Salafi groups, nominally under the chain of command of the mainstream Taleban, but, in practice, operating outside it (present mostly in Chaparhar, Kot and Bati Kot districts)

5. Fedayi Karwan, a semi-autonomous, mysterious Taleban group within the Afghan Taleban (in Khogiani and Sherzad districts)

6. Mysterious units of Siahpushan (plural: black-clad and masked) fighters. It has remaimed unclear, even to the local population, whether they belonged to the mainstream Taleban, were part of a Salafi network or were independent groups. The Siahpushan have mainly been active in southern districts (Khogiani, Pachir wa Agam and Shirzad) since 2013. They acted, both as the Taleban’s internal disciplinary force, punishing fighters found to be too moderate, and as a group intimidating less supportive communities into backing the insurgency.(4) Read here  them in an AAN piece from 2014.

Among the foreign groups, the following have been the most notable:

1. Al-Qaeda (on the move, mostly between Khyber Agency, in Pakistan’s FATA, and Kunar, without a particular area of focus in Nangarhar)

2. The Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistani (TTP) under Mullah Fazlullah, which operated mostly in southern and eastern districts

3. Lashkar-e Islam, a group based in Khyber agency of Pakistan, operating mostly in Nazian and Achin districts. It had, for a long time, enjoyed friendly relationships with the local political elite and some government officials in Nangarhar, before recently allying itself with ISKP.

4. Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a group of Mohmand Agency-based militants that broke away from TTP in summer 2014. It is mostly active in Lalpura, Goshta and Momand Dara districts

5. Junud-e Khorasan, a much smaller TTP splinter group that emerged in early 2014 from the Mohmand Agency-based Taleban, operating mainly in the same districts as Jamaat ul-Ahrar. This group has not been much heard about since early 2015.

6. The Amr bil ma’ruf Wa Nahi An Al-Munkar, a Salafi-oriented group originally led by Haji Namdar from Tirah, in FATA, (assassinated in 2008 by TTP), operating in Nazian and Achin

7. The pro-Pakistani government group, Ansar ul-Islam, founded by a Sufi-oriented Afghan pir, Saif al-Rahman, and later taken over by an Afridi mullah from Tirah Valley from where the group emerged; it spilled over at times into Nazian and Achin – reportedly with the support of the Afghan Taleban. The group was severely undermined by the TTP during a series of clashes in the spring of 2013, an offensive led by then commander of TTP for Orakzai agency, Saeed Khan, who later became the leader of ISKP.

The presence of these groups in Nangarhar is the result of several phenomena and developments. Most notable are the already mentioned absence of government control and the chaotic nature of the Afghan Taleban’s shadow governance. Others are that the province borders the militancy-ripe tribal areas of Pakistani and military operations by the Pakistani army which pushed militants from FATA into Nangarhar. There are a number of unofficial crossing points, not controlled by either government, many of them open year-round, which makes Nangarhar an easily accessible refuge for Pakistani militants.

The Tirah Valley, which encompasses parts of Khyber and Orakzai agencies, has long been the main crossing path for local and foreign militants to or from the South and North Waziristan agencies. In 2014, Tirah was flooded with insurgents fleeing the Pakistan army’s (selective, anti-terrorist operation codenamed Zarb-e Azb in North Waziristan. The subsequent relocation of some of these militants to Khyber forced the Pakistani army to launch a follow-up, ‘cleansing’ operation there. According to the Pakistani army’s spokesman, Major General Asim Bajwa, the operation in Khyber chased  the militants onto the Afghan side of the border (to Nangarhar). Other Pakistani officials have said Tirah and surrounding areas hosted 2500 fighters in winter 2015. Many of the groups that originally operated in the neighbouring tribal agencies (Khyber and Mohmand, in particular) had at some point already spilled over into Nangarhar in retreat. These Pakistani groups and (especially in the early years) al-Qaeda fighters would also use Nangarhar to reach other parts of Afghanistan. From the Pakistani tribal agencies, and possibly also urban centres, they would pass through Nangarhar to continue east and northwards, to Kunar, Nuristan and even Badakhshan, travelling through insurgency-controlled terrain in all these provinces.

The influx of these militant groups into Nangarhar challenged the Afghan government to the point where the situation remained utterly beyond its control. At the same time, some officials considered the possibility of turning the existence of these various groups on Afghan soil, particularly the Pakistani ones, into an opportunity, by supporting them to continue to fight the Pakistani government. Other officials seem to have comforted themselves by assuming that the Pakistani militants were less prone to become a threat to the Afghan government than the Afghan Taleban. One Afghan government official told AAN the presence of various Pakistani-originated groups was even seen as a tool to undermine the control of the Afghan Taleban. “Amid the widespread turmoil,” he said, “the dominant thinking in the government was that no matter who operates under whatever name and brand, the important thing is that they do not explicitly raise an anti-government flag or swell the ranks of the [Afghan] Taleban.”

The small foreign and Afghan groups, often lacking fixed loyalties, as well as units belonging to larger networks such as the TTP – which started to disintegrate following the death of its then leader Hakimullah Mehsud in November 2013 – provided a potentially fertile recruitment ground for ISKP. Members of smaller and loosely structured groups are far more accepting of a new, incoming brand than fighters belonging to a powerful and dominant network. Smaller networks might also be looking for relevance, finding in IS an attractive international, jihadist brand and hoping also to tap into its famous abundance of resources. The same motivations would also be applicable to disenchanted members of local groups competing for resources or trying to settle scores.

Members from almost all of groups listed above, which were still active in Nangarhar, defected to ISKP as it pushed deep into Nangarhar. From the Quetta Shura Taleban, the most remarkable defection has been a former shadow provincial governor, Gul Inam Sirat, who came to ISKP along with several of his commanders. They switched back to the Taleban in April 2016, after almost a year with ISKP. There were also small scale defections from the Tora Bora Jihadi Front. Fearing that groups still loyal to the Front would join ISKP in larger numbers, its leader, Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed. was forced to dismantle his faction under pressure from the Rahbari Shura, in October 2015. It merged fully with the mainstream Taleban. While most groups like Tora Bora contributed only small numbers to ISKP, some joined ISKP wholesale. A case in point is Lashkar-e Islam which has partnered with ISKP, fighting alongside it, in a near merger. Another possible case of collective defection is that of the mysterious Siahpushan ‘units’. Since ISKP has emerged, the siahpushan have totally disappeared from the scene. According to sources which have been part of the local support network for the Afghan Taleban and therefore well aware of insurgency dynamics, the most likely explanation for the siahpushan’s disappearance is their merger with ISKP. Similarly, the Salafi groups operating under the Taleban banner have also disappeared, only to re-emerge under ISKP.

Salafis provides a local foundation for ISKP

Nangarhar has a long history of Salafis being active in its religious-educational fields. During the past decade, Salafis have been present in the ranks of the insurgents, as well. Afghan Salafis generally (and beyond Nangarhar) often did not have a good footing within the Taleban, given the latter’s staunch adherence to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. These relations have, at times, been confrontational, particularly during Taleban rule in the 1990s.

During the insurgency period, two factors contributed to a reduction in the distance between the two groups. The first is an increased tolerance by the Taleban of Salafism. This author, having talked to Taleban both during the years of the ‘Emirate’ and the insurgency finds the current level of acceptance of Salafism unprecedented. The second factor is what could be called jihadi pragmatism. In areas with a significant Salafi presence, such as Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar and Badakhshan, the two groups have little other choice but to work together. The Taleban movement, in order to keep its monopolistic control of the insurgency while gaining local support, had to absorb fighters from the ‘unorthodox group’ in such areas. For the Salafis, the easiest and most practical option for participating in the insurgency was to accept the Taleban’s leadership, and fight in the movement’s ranks because, alone, they were not numerous enough.

This cooperation has not always been smooth. The Taleban have expelled some staunch Salafis from their ranks in instances where their adherence to Salafism negatively influenced the movement’s reputation. For example, they disarmed two Salafi commanders in Farah – Abdul Malik and Abdul Raziq (aka Mehdi) – as they were making local communities uneasy by preaching Salafism, while fighting in the insurgency. That led to pitched battles between them in May 2015, with the Salafis having come under the flag of IS. Similarly, in the most prominent case, the Taleban demoted and later stripped of all authority its former deputy chief of military commission, Abdul Rauf Khadem, after his distribution of Salafi books in the south, where people are highly sensitive to Salafism. Khadem also pledged allegiance to ISKP to lead the first Afghan cell for the group.

In the eastern provinces, where Salafis constitute a considerable part of the religious landscape and enjoy influence in local communities, the alliance between them and the Taleban has had a mixed fate. In some instances, such as the Qari Zia ur-Rahman network in Kunar and the broader Salafist network, Jama’at al-Da’wa ila-al-Quran wa-Sunnah (JDQS), Salafis seamlessly became the backbone of the Taleban in their areas. They remain an integral part of the Kunari Taleban till today. In other cases, such as in the southern districts of Nangarhar (notably, Kot, Bati Kot and Achin) and most remarkably Chaparhar, the relationship between the two have been fraught with distrust.

Upon the officially formation of the Khorasan chapter of IS, most of the local Salafis in Nangarhar within the Taleban, who were already sceptical of the movement , swiftly pledged allegiance to ISKP. Thus, they became an indigenous base for ISKP, which ISKP needed to have a chance of becoming acceptable locally. Although, even in Nangarhar, not all the Salafis have supported ISKP, the bulk of them did join the new group. In places like Chaparhar and Kot, these groups joined ISKP en masse. By mid-June 2015, altogether eleven out of the 14 Taleban delgeys (a unit of 20-30 fighters) only from Chaparhar had defected to ISKP, according to local residents and people with good knowledge of the internal developments of the insurgency in Nangarhar. Most of them were known to have had Salafi tendencies. Some of the delgeys were former Hezb-e Islami who had tacitly held on to their loyalty to Hekmatyar; in Nangarhar, being Hezb and Salafi has not been mutually exclusive. In Bati Kot and Achin districts, more than half of the Taleban groups with a known Salafi ideology defected to ISKP. (Achin never had that many Salafi groups, though.)

Defections from the Taleban in Nangarhar and Kunar (as reported in a previous piece, considerably changed the composition of ISKP, which before, had consisted solely of Pakistani militants who would not have found an easy foothold in these areas without the guidance of local fighters.

It seems also that many of the, so far, non-violent, scholarly Salafis came out with moral support for the group. That was partly so in Nangarhar, but more prominently in Peshawar where the alma mater madrassas of many of the eastern Salafis are located; some of the Peshawar-based Salafi leaders have at times served as recruiters for ISKP.

The fifth factor: a breakdown of social structures

A fifth force to be reckoned with in determining the possibilities of an external group gaining foothold in a specific area is the local community. In a normal situation, the community would remain hostile to an external, predatory armed group. However, in times of conflict characterised by the absence of a central authority and the rule of competing armed groups, local communities are not necessarily hostile to the encroachment of a new armed group. How they react to both new and ‘sitting’ insurgent groups, depends on how strong they are.

In recent years, in a number of locations in Nangarhar, local communities have led uprisings against the Taleban when their behaviour was considered beyond the pale. The Shaikhan sub-tribe of Shinwari, which makes up most of the population in the Dur Baba district, for example, has managed to convert their district into an insurgency-free zone, chiefly thanks to strong social-tribal solidarity that has served as a bulwark against militants of all sorts.

In contrast, the Shinwari community in other districts, such as the largest Shinwari district, Achin, as well as in Deh Bala and Nazian showed no signs of the sort of internal social bond that could have stood up to the various militant groups. The Shinwari community in these districts seems to have merely watched as the behaviour of predatory militants went from bad to worse, culminating in their grouping under ISKP. Exploiting the unresponsiveness of the community, ISKP, after repelling the Taleban in July 2015, oppressed  the population in ways not seen before in Afghanistan. The group forced many residents of the district’s Mamand valley to leave their houses and abandon their belongings as war bounty and murdered dozens of villagers, including by blowing up 11 of their elders by placing explosives beneath them in a field. ISKP got away with this brutality without seeing any strong response from the community, the majority of whom were forced to leave, while others remained behind to live with the group. The community, already in disarray, could not stand against ISKP; it had been left completely vulnerable to such savagery. Those tribal elders who did stand with the Taleban to drive the ISKP out did so under the control of the Taleban. Theirs could not be classified as a community-driven initiative.

The roots of the passivity of the Shinwari community in Achin, Deh Bala and Nazian should be sought in the near total breakdown of the social structure of the tribe in these districts. The same is also true, to some extent, for the Mohmands in Kot and Bati Kot (which have a relatively mixed tribal structure, but is dominated by the Mohmands). However, the Shinwaris, being on the border with Pakistan, have been the gatekeepers to the Mohmand districts and one can argue that the areas dominated by Mohmands have been overwhelmed by the spillover of militants from the Shinwari districts. The erosion of the traditional power structure among the Shinwaris is in large part due to a power struggle within the Shinwari elite, the tribal elders.

Shinwari elders do acknowledge that the tribe’s communal solidarity has declined hugely compared to the pre-war era, when the whole tribe would rally behind their recognised and uncontested leaders. The conflict has gradually shattered that unity ever since it started from the late 1970s. Today, there are simply too many ‘leaders’ trying to speak for the tribe, meaning the Shinwari are virtually leaderless, as none of them exert uncontested authority or have sufficient popularity to lead the whole. In interviews with AAN, many of the ‘first tier’ leaders blamed each other for the woes the tribe has suffered during the past decade. They were only sometimes self-critical, for not acting in the best interest of the people and not showing the leadership qualities traditionally cherished. The blame game was accompanied by accusations that (other) tribal elders had jockeyed for state power and resources (in addition to the resources provided by the US military under its counter-insurgency programme), in pure self-interest. Under the cover of fighting militants, some leaders had even allied with the US military in what, sometimes appeared to involve bombing their fellow Shinwaris, under the so-called Shinwari Pact.

This ‘pact’ goes back to late 2009, when the US military reached out to a number of Shinwari tribal elders from the Sepai sub-tribe with a proposal to mobilise their tribesmen to stand against the insurgents. The Sepai maleks (tribal elders) agreed, in return for money, weapons and development projects. The outreach by US forces was inspired by one of the Sepai maleks, Malek Niaz, who had risen up against a group of militants, mostly Afridis from Khyber Agency, that year. Niaz’s men reportedly killed a dozen militants (whose affiliation remains unclear, but were suspected of being Lashkar-e Islam) and captured 14 others. The captured men were handed over to US forces in Jalalabad. It was Niaz’s efficient move that the Americans hoped to support and turn into an uprising. Niaz was joined by other tribal elders, all exclusively from the Sepai sub-tribe, in signing the pact. This development reportedly endeared him and the other signatories, such as Malek Usman) to the local and central administration, specifically to then minister of interior Hanif Atmar and Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Sherzai.

Allegedly in partnership with governor Gul Agha Sherzai, the Sepai tribal elites started to exploit their elevated position with the government and US military in order to extort local resources, specifically casting their eyes on large pieces of land. Niaz ordered his tribe to occupy a huge 15 square kilometre piece of desert land – what the Shinwaris call razgha – a direct encroachment on pasture claimed by another Shinwari subtribe, the Alisherkhel. When the Sepais started to establish camps on the razgha, fighting erupted between the two sub-tribes. The ANSF was deployed to avert escalation but was accused by each side of favouring the other and even of killing tribesmen. At one point, in October 2011, after the Sepai lashkar (a tribal militia) had attacked a compound hosting a meeting of senior provincial officials and damaged a US helicopter, the dispute also drew in US air power. It killed dozens of Sepai tribesmen. According to reports, the attack was a result of dissatisfaction among some Sepai tribesmen over a proposal requiring both sides to disarm and vacate the land. (Read more about this dispute in an earlier AAN dispatch from October 2013.)

After two years, the partnership between foreign forces and Sepai maleks, as well as support to them from the governor, gradually evaporated. But that happened only after both sub-tribes, which include all the residents of Achin, had paid a huge price. The waste of lives and money to no avail badly undermined the power and status of the Sepai maleks. The Alisherkhel, for their part, feeling overwhelmed by the rival sub-tribe’s support by government and foreign forces, resorted to calling for support from the militants of Khyber Agency, including Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e Islam fighters. The same fighters were later wooed by the Sepai maleks, using them for defence against the Afghan as well as the Pakistani Taleban, the TTP. Both the Afghan Taleban and TTP had, in one way or another, found a helping hand from some part of the tribe. By 2014, militant groups, including TTP, Lashkar-e Islam and Afghan Taleban, had become a force to reckon with for the tribal elders, whose own authority had been undermined by the infighting. Compared to 2008-2009, when most of the Shinwari land was insurgency-free, the area sank into an abyss of chaotic militancy. In April 2016, there was bitter consensus among the dozen tribal elders that AAN talked to from Achin and Nazian about the key role of the community’s own leaders in allowing various militant groups to gain a foothold in the Spin Ghar district.

Some of the leaders interviewed by AAN also provided names of influential individuals who had facilitated the arrival and settling of specific Pakistani militant groups into different parts of the Shinwari land. In essence, some of those who were blamed in this way did not contest the claims, but instead tried to justify their actions.

As in the fight over the razgha, the intensification of chronic disputes over land, in which tribal elders played a huge role, has also contributed to the diminishing of the traditional power structure of the tribe. While intra-tribe land conflicts have a centuries-old history among the Shinwaris of Spin Ghar, they have rarely reached a point where external forces were invited to intervene. However, that is what happened in the self-destructive feud over the razgha. Ironically, this would be the very place that would later turn into a headquarters for ISKP: the Mamand Valley in Achin.

Shinwari leaders who once befriended militants for their defence against other militants or rival sub-tribes have equally suffered from the recent surge in violence. One of the ‘second-tier’ Sepai maleks, Muhammad Yunus, who once sheltered Lashkar-e Islam fighters, was among the 11 blown up in summer 2015 by ISKP for siding with the Afghan Taleban. Alisherkhels’ villages in southern Mamand have become an undisputed ISKP turf with most of the tribe’s leaders and tribesmen leaving their homes and properties for the militants to live in. The two most prominent members of the Sepai elite have fared no better. Malek Niaz was forced to leave his huge fort so that it could be turned by ISKP into a command centre. It was subsequently bombed to ashes by the US air power in the summer of 2015. (Niaz died in February 2016 and his family was unable to bury him in his native Mamand because it had become ISKP stronghold.) Malek Usman, too, settled in Kabul and several of his family members were killed or wounded in a January 2016 suicide attack at his home in Jalalabad. The attack happened as he was celebrating the release of his son who had been held hostage by Pakistani militants. Usman has no doubt that the suicide attack was carried out by a segment of the same Mohmand Agency-based militants who had kidnapped his son. He had previously received threatening messages from these militants. For the release of his son, he had reportedly sought the help of the Afghan Taleban.

The intra-tribal infighting that devastated the Shinwaris’ resistance against local and foreign predators is a far cry from how communities have normally stood resilient against external threats in Afghanistan. Traditionally, communities in Afghanistan have had a solid social structure with internal centres of power enabling them to navigate their way through conflict. This social structure, when intact or at least partially preserved, includes mechanisms for self-defence. However, recent experiences from the current period of insurgency shows that, if unable to defend themselves through their own armed force, local populations will work with whatever they consider the lesser evil to save themselves as best they can.

Usually, in Afghanistan, in order to prevent total anarchy and establish some sort of order and security, communities have worked, for example, with Taleban groups, which are often made up of local men – although they do not ‘represent’ the community. Communities have found ways to influence the actions of these groups, pushing their demands by pressing the armed group for workable compromises (See this report for an example of how community demands drove changes in Taleban behaviour with regard to education.) Unless accepted (and supported) by local communities afraid of a greater evil, the insurgency would not have been able to take such deep roots in the wide swathes of the country where Taleban networks are now in control.

For communities, the main survival mechanism during conflict are strong internal power structures, according to which the population rallies around recognised leaders, and collective decisions can be made which have to be followed by everyone. Communal solidarity becomes the key to the community’s power. Such a solidarity was lacking among the Shinwaris, who became the prime victims of the violence unleashed by militant groups, the worst of them ISKP.

The Shinwaris paid a particularly high price for losing their internal solidarity since several other factors came together to make what unfolded in the Shinwari areas inevitable. A negligent government and feckless politicians on the one hand, the absence of the dominant non-state actor that usually fills the state’s void with a shadow government on other hand, and the influx of small militant groups and of radical Salafis all worked together to create an ISKP dystopia in the Shinwari areas of Nangarhar province.


Edited by Ann Wilkens, Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark


(1) Mawlawi Kabir has recently come back to the senior ranks of the Taleban, as a member of the Rahbari Shura, in 2015. Read more about him in an earlier piece on the Taleban leadership here.

(2) The chaotic state of the insurgency in the east has hardly been paid sufficient attention by the media, the government or its international backers. Among the research community too, it had not been studied seriously until the emergence of ISKP. Some studies may even have contributed to the poor understanding of the nature of the eastern insurgency by consistently portraying it as more organised and effective compared to the south. See for example this report (page 10) from 2013 and this (page 866) from the same year. Contrary to these findings, it seems the insurgency in the eastern provinces generally, and in Nangarhar particularly, has had a relatively more fragmented and unpredictable command and control system.

(3) For example, the Taleban have recently been involved in constructing bridges and paths using taxes from villagers in a number of provinces, including Nangarhar, Baghlan, Kunduz and Ghazni.

(4) AAN reported spottings of siahpushan in Khogyani in August 2014  and in Nuristan in 2012. It seems the siahpushan were not synonymous with another group, Fedayi Karwan, (which the above-linked dispatch suggests was the case).


Daesh ISIS ISKP Islamic State Khorasan Nangarhar