Part two of the report on the vast and far-off western province of Farah. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looks at the threat that insurgents pose to communication routes and at the successes and shortcomings of security arrangements in the districts, complicated by poppy crops, social divides and the lack of an effective government presence.
If mass abductions of civilians were already a matter of concern last year in Farah, another worrying trend has been that of ambushes against convoys on the main Herat-Kandahar section of the ring road, which have been a long-standing thorn in the side of local security. What is more troubling is that recent efforts by ISAF and ANSF to curb them seem to have failed.
Insurgent attacks on the main road were at high levels in November and December last year, and in January they continued, with a clear focus on the districts of Bakwa and Gulistan and the section of the highway crossing them. Although insurgent activity diminished and relied more on Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the highway remained unsafe even during February, until a new violent climax was reached at the end of March.
In a matter of a few days a string of attacks took place, taking a heavy toll of casualties among ANSF, private security guards and insurgents. The biggest attack took place on 28 March against a convoy of oil tankers when it was crossing the Tut area of Gulistan. An ANA detachment came to the rescue of the private security guards, before an ISAF airstrike hit the attackers. Estimates of the casualties left by the battle range between three and six security guards, and 14 to 30 Taleban, with the addition of one ANA (read here). Whatever the toll, it does not seem to have crippled the Taleban’s will and ability to target convoys on that section of highway, as they carried out another attack in Bakwa on 2 April, while numerous IEDs have either exploded or been found and defused since.
As was the case with the convoy attack on 29 March, the oil tankers proceed from Iran and are mainly directed to the Kandahar area (in that case it was reportedly heading to Shorawak district) or even east to Kabul. The security companies involved are probably those paying the highest price in terms of casualties and material losses. They are often outnumbered and outgunned by the insurgents, and are not always as readily given succour by ANSF/ISAF as in Tut. (Locals maintain the reason behind the ANA’s speedy intervention in that case was to avenge the killing of their comrades in a similar attack three days earlier.- read here). However, it seems that the security companies involved have not attempted to broker a deal with the insurgents. Apart from one company belonging to the son of a prominent former Jamiati commander from Bala Buluk, Zabet Jalil, most involved in both transportation and security are owned by Heratis. In the words of a local district governor: ‘Most of these people don’t know who the local Taleban are to approach them, or they don’t like to come to terms with them either.’ As for Jalil, he added, there is no lack of acquaintance, but it is in the form of a bitter enmity.
According to many of the locals interviewed by AAN, there is a veritable price list set by Pakistani minders of the insurgents to encourage attacks on convoys destined at supplying NATO forces. Pakistan would be interested in avoiding attacks on fuel convoys inside its borders in view of an economically advantageous re-opening of NATO’s southern supply line. According to some sources, possession of the fuel itself would be valued as a prize by the insurgents, although incidents where the Taleban were able to seize such sizable preys and get away with that are extremely rare. A different issue is with 4×4 vehicles, weapons and other material that the insurgent can snatch from ANSF or private companies. In particular in recent times the Taleban seem to have been on the look-out for loot in their operations, leading some locals to read in it the need to make up for a reduced budget.
The most striking aspect of the recent attack however remains the incredibly high number of fighters fielded by the Taleban, probably reaching more than 100. The concentration of such high number of fighters in open terrain as in Bakwa or in that part of Gulistan had long been abandoned as a practice by the Taleban in view of ISAF’s air power..
This reminds of the easiness by which the Taleban can move into these two districts from a range of adjacent areas – the district governor of Bakwa, Mohammad Ismail, told of a rather bleak political geography, describing insurgents moving into his district from ‘every direction: from Washer, from Khash Rud, from Dilaram, from Bala Buluk, from Lash wa Juwayn, from Pakistan…’
As for the interior of Gulistan, long periods with a relative lack of incidents betray the real situation there. Large swathes of the district have long been in the hands of the insurgents, reportedly used as sanctuaries by Taleban from all over the province, and are left with little ANSF or ISAF presence. When security forces have tried to increase their presence in a prolonged operation in mid March they met with consistent opposition. A subsequent Taleban attack with mortar fire caused victims among the Italian soldiers in one of their military posts in the district (read here).
Bala Buluk district has the same degree of strategic importance and insurgent presence, but has been the object of multiple security efforts in the recent past. These culminated in the relocation of the district centre to what was arguably the very headquarter of Farah’s insurgency, Shiwan, in 2010, and in the establishment of a network of checkpoints on the ring road and on the road leading to Farah city during the last year. Although the district is still contested by a number of armed insurgents, active even in urban areas, the security arrangements have succeeded in forcing them to operate in much smaller groups (4-5 individuals on average) and to rely on reinforcements from Bakwa/Gulistan or to abandon bigger operations altogether.
The Shiwan insurgent leadership, to which the Taleban shadow governor reportedly belongs, is now more often than not absent from the area, as are other signs of their alternative ‘administration’. Taleban night letters are still distributed – I was shown a few enjoining the population to inform the Taleban ‘monitoring commission’ of any problems with the ‘mujahedin’ – but in the word of a local community representative it is more an exercise in morale boosting than a serious display of organised presence.(1) ‘Now everybody acts for himself, a young kid gathers two, three persons and carries out one or two operations – shootings, intimidations – and then starts calling himself a commander’ he added.
That Taleban in Farah are overwhelmingly local, young and uneducated, and rarely people with a connection to the Emirate of the 1990s is agreed upon by almost everybody I talked to. Of course customary accusations against Pakistan and Iran are particularly common in a border province like Farah. The neighbouring countries are blamed for providing economic support and training to would-be insurgents, or just offering them the possibility to keep engaging in anti-state operations by becoming sanctuaries. There are of course more specific charges against neighbouring Iran, who is said to be strongly committed to avoiding the construction of a dam on the Farah River in Bakhshabad, in Bala Buluk district, which would reduce the amount of water flowing into its border.(2)
Water, or the lack of it, is also a factor in making poppy the crop of choice in Farah. Opium has played a significant role in the province’s poor economy throughout the last decade, and it is now even increasing in places like Bakwa and Bala Buluk. On the day of my arrival in Farah, the car-cavalcade of the Minister of Counternarcotics Zarar Moqbel was traveling among special security measures on the road leading to the airport. The minister had come among other things to monitor this year’s eradication plan. This requires local authorities to destroy 800 hectares of poppy cultivation distributed among all ten rural districts, and it will run until 20 May. Until now some 265 ha have been eradicated, mainly around the city. Last year, 492 ha were destroyed out of a total of 17,499 ha.(3)
These figures may not seem impressive, but complying with the year’s plan would represent an improvement from 2010, when only 198 of 14,552 hectares of poppy plants were eradicated. And, as the director of the provincial counter-narcotics departments confesses: ‘We don’t have the strength to deal with more than 800 ha. They are still too much.’ He is referring to the hostility that the eradication campaign engenders among the farmers, and the often armed resistance against it, in which the Taleban take active part. (See a similar situation in Helmand described in a New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/12/world/asia/taliban-poppy-war-targets-tractors-and-police.html?_r=2&src=twrhp.) The first week of April witnessed two attacks on security forces engaged in eradicating poppy in Bala Buluk.
The Taleban are widely reported to exact ten percent of the opium production from the farmers in form of ushr or zakat (taxes) , and to exploit government efforts against the poppy to garner support for themselves. Some locals interviewed by AAN even pointed out that the start of the eradicating/harvesting season is the main factor behind the recent stepping up in Taleban numbers and activities in the province. Also, the words of the anti-narcotics official reflects another truth. The partiality of the eradication campaign is often the subject of complaints and critics, as it is believed to be biased, and the inability to cope with more than a fraction of the opium cultivation may refer to the impossibility for local state institutions to effectively target something which benefits many of their direct political allies. In fact, this was the sort of concern that even Minister Moqbel expressed once he noticed the increasing trends of poppy cultivation in Farah (read here).
Eradication is not the only field of government activity that drives a wedge between sections of the rural population and the state. According to a senior police officer, the increased focus on security has helped to improve the quality of the police and army to some extent, but the situation within the district government is bleak. No district governor regularly attends to his duty in the district: ‘They take their 30,000 Afs salary (600$) and do no not step into their districts for fear.’ (As a matter of fact, I could easily meet most of them while in Farah city.) And of course this is also true for other state officials such as judges and prosecutors. The director of the governor’s office accepts that given their low remuneration, government employees are unwilling to risk their lives, and thus suggests that a wages’ scale be adjusted according to the risk in the area where they are appointed. In any case, some judges are said to be actively topping up their salaries by accepting bribes for the release of arrested Taleban suspects.
And even the picture with ANSF is far from rosy. Those deployed in the districts have failed to establish a reassuring presence with the population, beyond the main communication lines they follow. Beyond the stretch of land they control, a local elder complained, the ANSF do not seek interaction with the villagers, even where the attitude of the latter towards the government would be positive. In this way, a few Taleban, very young and very radical, keep whole districts like Bala Buluk in check.
It is often repeated that good governance is the key to good security in Afghanistan. Farah province – notwithstanding its many shortcomings in terms of development – does feature some promising aspects, including an educated political elite. (4) Political strains within the latter are of course alive, but less likely to develop into full-scale confrontation than elsewhere. However, the arrival of a new governor who may alter power balances is always a decisive moment in a province. If newly appointed Akram Khpalwak, who has extensive links to both Hezb-e Islami and Karzai’s family, will be able to get the same degree of support and cooperation that his predecessor enjoyed by his Afghan Millat fellow party members, things will probably remain the same.
But the presence of qualified government servants in Farah risks being marred by another characteristic of post-2001 Afghan institutions: the patchy sort of qawmi system which has taken ground almost everywhere, from the capital to the last village on top of the Hindu Kush. The relevance of qawm, that is family/community/client affiliation, in motivating appointments or political mobilisation is not absent among Farah educated elite.
As a high-ranking security official from Farah says, ‘the strength of our leadership here is that it is grounded in the big families of the kings’ times, and we all know each other, whatever our tribal origin. In the last decades some people have tried to effect a topsy-turvy upheaval, and to put people of low social standing into positions of power to the detriment of the previous elites. But it cannot work here, everybody knows us and respects us because of who our fathers were.’
Belonging to illustrious families may sound incongruous for self-proclaimed ‘social-democrats’ (see part one of the report here), but it can indeed represent an asset, if not a winning card in rural areas – provided it is played in an inclusive way, and not in defence of the privileges of a restricted elite.
Roots of the Afghan insurgency have often been tracked locally in conflicts over resources between two or more different solidarity groups. As for other areas in the West, the prominent position enjoyed by the Barakzai in Farah has been used to explain the resiliency of the majority tribe, the Nurzai, and their leaning towards the Taleban. Indeed, this is true to an extent, as it is true that the tough methods employed by the former provincial intelligence chief Abdul Samad Khan, himself a Barakzai, although more effectively tackling Taleban, were probably as effective in creating new ones. (According to many locals however Samad Khan was vexing everyone, largely irrespective of qawm affiliation.)
The tribal or communal paradigm is only one of the possible fault lines where social conflicts entrench themselves. There is no protection from trouble to be found inside a tribe, a khel or even a family, until all its members are provided with fair opportunities and rights in a broader framework. Taking all of the government’s chances of working effectively in a precarious equilibrium between the major powerbrokers backed by their tribal clienteles will always leave some spots uncovered.
As many people from Farah recognise, it is the socially segmented structure of the Afghan institutions, reflected by a replicated segmentation among the population, that lies behind the infinite list of governance shortcomings, complaints harboured, and security incidents. And these divides in turn prevent the state from fulfilling the hope expressed by the deputy governor of Farah – to better empower local democrats to fulfil their potential for good governance.
(1) The effective existence of such a commission was instead confirmed by the woleswal of Bakwa for his district.
(2) The dam survey was completed in 2009, at the cost of 12 lives, between surveyors and police agents, fallen in attacks by insurgents. Since then the project has been stuck. Bakhshabad dam would provide electricity for six districts: Bala Buluk, Farah, Posht-e Rud, Khak-e Safed, Shib Koh and Lash wa Juwayn. The province currently has none. The fact that the survey was carried out by the Ministry of Water and Energy with the cooperation of Indian consultants creates, according to many, the possibility of another layer of opposition from the Pakistani side.
(3) 212 ha only according to UNODC statistics (see here). There are of course incentives for good performance, ranging from 500,000 to one million dollars worth of development projects, and Farah’s new sports stadium was built with the prize of last year’s eradication campaign (read here).
(4) Higher education and democratic credentials are by no means the sole prerogative of the present institutional circles in Farah. Famous women rights activist and former member of parliament Malalai Joya hails from theprovince, and has remained actively engaged in her home province’s civil society. Her office in Farah city was attacked in the night of 10 March 2012 by armed people who shot and injured the guards. (the Taleban claimed to have killed one of her guards here)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020