Farah is the fourth largest province in the country and yet a frequently forgotten expanse in the Afghan Far West. It is also a doggedly contested battleground of insurgents and government, as recently shown with a spat of attacks on supply convoys and security forces that inflicted heavy casualties between the end of March and early April. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini, returning from a recent visit to the province, reports on its political elite and the security situation.
An attack on a convoy of oil tankers transiting on the ring road of Afghanistan is not unusual, but for it to end with an airstrike causing dozens of insurgent casualties (reported here) and following a string of similar ambushes that claimed the lives of security guards and Taleban drew widespread attention. In other areas, such remarkable incidents may have signalled the beginning of the fighting season at the end of the winter lull. Only, there was no such break in Farah this year, and sporadic fighting has continued throughout the last three to four months.
And yet at first sight, the main city of Farah, that goes by the same name, seemed exceedingly relaxed – and even pleasant. Its sunny alleys are free from traffic and garbage, and remarkably they are mostly asphalted and in good condition. The small, neat bazaar is shaded from the fierce sun, and a few new parks join the ancient citadel, Qala-ye Faraidun, and its adjacent grove, in providing residents with some spots for siesta.(1)
The mayor of Farah, moreover, claims to have successfully curbed attempts by the mullas of a city mosque to encroach on land assigned for a public park – and this during the tense days following the burning of copies of the Quran on Bagram base. The mayor is one of the local leaders of Afghan Millat party and therefore a great supporter of the former governor, Rohul Amin.
Former governor Amin enjoyed a full four-year term in Farah, making its administration one of the most stable in the country. His replacement by former Paktika governor Akram Khpalwak,was officially announced last week. But the fact that an outsider (Amin is from Kunar, and allegedly his birthplace is Bajaur) could govern over the province for such a long time and without serious challenges was possible thanks to the political support of Afghan Millat at both the local and Kabul levels, and some degree of power-sharing with other locally influential political groups.
The political elite of the city is distinctive in being mostly made up by secular politicians. In fact, the only state organ where former jihadi leaders are prevailing according to residents, is the Provincial Peace Council. The top echelons of the provincial administration, where most of the lay political formations are represented, are dominated by two major groups: Afghan Millat and former Maoists,(2) who compete for positions and resources. Yet both groups refer to themselves as social democrats, and share to some extent a common political background and attitude.
Stability and some degree of cooperation were desperately needed when Amin’s term of governorship started in order to stem the rising tide of the insurgency. In 2007 several district centres had been repeatedly overrun by insurgents in the face of a scarcity of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and ISAF troops. As Mokhtar Raheb, the director of the governor’s office, recalls, a general attack on the city was expected at any time.
‘Now the security situation is much better’ says Deputy Governor Yunus Rasuli, another pillar of the provincial administration with almost five years of service. ‘We have moved the line of security from one kilometre outside of the city to maybe 40 to 50 kilometres.’ (3)
Success has been more limited in the field of development. Notwithstanding infrastructure improvements inside the city, Rasuli says only one asphalted road connects Farah city to an outlying district. (Actually, one road has been built up to Posht-e Rud district centre, while the administrative centre for particularly volatile Bala Buluk district has been moved to Shiwan as part of security arrangements, thus finding itself on the main Farah-Herat road; this leaves eight district centres without proper road connection.)
One of the few good roads of the province is that leading to Shindand, the district in neighbouring Herat province that is home to a sprawling US base believed to house unmanned drones. This road cuts across Khak-e Safed district without touching its district centre. Together with Bakwa, Bala Buluk, Gulistan and Posht-e Rud districts, Khak-e Safed, is one of the districts where security is unanimously considered bad (4). Its woleswal, or district governor, Khodaidad Nurzai, does not hesitate to term its security the worst. In fact, the district accounts for almost half of the total security incidents recorded in the province in recent times. Although not as vast as other districts, nor as strategically located, it has experienced trouble since an early stage of the current war and at an increasing level. This can be explained partially because of its border with historically troublesome Shindand. The Taleban shadow governor for Khak-e Safed is indeed said to be Mulla Akhtar, a former deputy of Amanullah, the Shindand Taleban strongman killed in 2006 in the context of a drawn out political feud.(5)
The most feared Taleban commander active in Khak-e Safed is without doubt Mulla Zakir. A much younger and obscure character, he has become notorious for the mass kidnappings, torture and – often -brutal executions he has inflicted on civilians somehow connected to the government or simply uncooperative. He is widely thought to be behind the abduction of 35 villagers from Gulistan on 10 July 2011 whose apparent guilt lay in being relatives of Sayed Muhammad, a former Taleban commander from the area who had reconciled with the government. Sayed Muhammad’s family to this day states that his participation in the Taleban movement ended with his role as district governor during the Emirate, and that he has been targeted because of his reluctance to join the insurgency. The event ended with the execution of seven of the abductees and the release of the rest after a ransom was paid, but in the following months similar incidents prompted as many as 100 families from the area to become displaced around the provincial capital (6).
Mulla Zakir is not to be found in Khak-e Safed nowadays, and he reportedly moves between Pakistan and the remote Gulistan district. However, his most recent exploit seems to have been organising the killing of nine Afghan Local Police (ALP) agents in Ranj village, in the eastern part of Khak-e Safed. Various explanations have arisen as to the real motive behind the attack. Ahmad Shah, the commander of the ALP post was a former taleb who had reconciled through the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) only four months ago, and rapidly made his way into the ALP. Originally from a village near Farah city, he had previously acted as mali, the treasurer, to Mulla Zakir. He fell out with his boss over the disappearance of a sum of money entrusted to him – he reportedly argued that the house where the money was hidden had been targeted by an ISAF/ANSF night raid, but this did not save him from a severe beating at the hands of Zakir’s deputy, Mulla Malik. Shortly afterwards he reconciled with the government, making himself a top target for Mulla Zakir’s revenge.
But among the rest of the small ALP garrison, probably only a couple of other people had a Taleban past, and it is they who allegedly acted as insiders for the insurgents. These in fact were able to surprise the police as they slept in the middle of the night and slaughter them. The two ALP agents whose bodies were not found disappeared only to be reportedly captured a few days later by the provincial police under the accusation of being accomplices. What is clear is that the ALP is being massively targeted in Khak-e Safed and Posht-e Rud, the districts where the local militia project started last year, and this targeting amounts to more than personal hatred between some of them and the Taleban.
Not only is the ALP more easily infiltrated by insurgents, but it represents a direct competitor for the Taleban in terms of recruiting jobless, uneducated rural youth and putting a gun in their hands. There are 200 ALP in Posht-e Rud, the first district where the project started, and 150 in Khak-e Safed, while another ALP project is about to be inaugurated in Bala Buluk. The small military bases manned by US troops in the two districts mentioned first have disappeared in concomitance with the development of the ALP units there. In exchange, dozens of US special forces are semi-permanently quartered with the ALP in the two districts, to monitor and train it, and to coordinate US support at critical times.
Alongside the opportunity for jobs, the ALP package promises the delivery of development projects, and these are most sought after in a province like Farah which has witnessed none of the showering of funds and reconstruction of its southern neighbours. So, in Khak-e Safed, where until now only the district centre building has been refurbished with PRT support, after it had been ransacked by insurgents in 2007, positive views on such a project may rely at least partly on local expectations for economic benefits.
One of the few projects recently implemented in the district has been the refurbishment and cleaning of irrigation channels, funded thorough the local development council and by a program of small grants of the APRP; in fact it provided 21 former Taleban fighters with a job opportunity.
The reconciliation of Taleban fighters, although not as sizeable as in other western provinces like Badghis or Herat, yielded some results. The provincial peace council claims to have successfully contacted and ‘processed’ 171 insurgents from around 20 different fronts (mainly from Khak-e Safed, Bala Boluk and Bakwa) in its year of existence. However, if its mixed composition of former mujahedin and Taleban could be considered suitable for reaching out to insurgents, it leaves the council exposed to accusations of favouritism in the reconciliatory efforts and the distribution of economic aid to the reintegrees. This aid consists of a contribution of 5,000 Afs for each reintegree (10,000 for commanders) per month, for a period of three months, and critics of the program allege that members of the council try and channel funds and projects to their own former party members.
Part Two of the report will follow
(1) As for an issue once dear to global media, Farah women do not seem to favour the use of the integral veil, chadri or burqa, as it is called here, and crowd the bazaar wrapped in their flowery chadors under the auspicious reminiscence of Merman Nazo, the mother of Mirwais Hotak (the head of an Afghan statehood in the early 18th century), after which the city’s main chowk is named. Nazo was an emancipated woman of her times: A renowned poet, and a part-time diplomat and warrior.
(2) The foundation of Afghan Millat dates back to the 1960ies (it was officially registered in 1966), and the party is currently led by Anwar ul Haq Ahady, the Minister of Transportation and Commerce. Traditionally defending the interests of Pashtuns, it has recently sought to improve the inclusiveness of its party membership, while altogether assuming a pro-Karzai stance. Maoists had a distinctively strong presence in Farah during the decade preceding the Soviet Invasion. They subsequently fought against the Soviets, either organised in aJabha-e Mu’allemin (Teachers’ Front), or individually enlisted inside mujahedin fronts. Many Maoist sympathisers eventually joined other, more mainstream parties in the post-2001 political environment.
(3) Farah’s central district is still considered a dangerous environment and features a fair degree of insurgent activity and police operations. Around Nawruz, five persons including two women and a minor were detained in a house at the outskirts of the city. Allegedly, they wanted to target a New Year’s event for women held in one of the city’s parks (read here and here).
(4) That security in the other five districts is considered good depends on the point of view of the interlocutor. Arguably, there are no districts in Farah which could be considered completely safe. Anardara hosts a small but resilient Taleban presence, and together with Qala-ye Kah, also referred locally as Posht-e Koh, features another type of non-government armed presence in the person of Sher Ahmad, the former Jamiati governor allied to Ismail Khan in the 1990s, who is currently biding his time between dissatisfaction with the government and open insurgency. Shib Koh is apparently infiltrated by Haqqani network operatives, while Lash wa Juwayn lies on a border frequented by drug smugglers. Also the remotest Porchaman, where the local district governor Salim Mubarez, a former Jamiati who had switched to the Taleban in the nineties, is reportedly ruling as a king on his own right, features a Taleban presence. Its being usually quiet security-wise depends on its importance as a supply route to the North for the insurgents.
(5) He is also believed to be responsible for organising, together with Mulla Abdul Hamid from neighbouring Anardara, the kidnapping of two Italian officers in Shindand in 2007.
(6) In the same month of July, 31 employees of a demining company were kidnapped from neighbouring Bala Buluk and 15 community elders from Porchaman; in every occasion the abductees were split in smaller groups to hinder researches, and some of them were executed. The reasons for this practive are mixed, intimidation of locals overlapping with the need to gather funding through ransoms, but kidnappings remain one of the most common tactics employed by insurgents in Farah.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020