Among the recent wave of large-scale attacks in Afghanistan, several hot spots in the eastern region stand out: Hesarak district in Nangarhar and other nearby districts in the Spin Ghar mountains, Kunar border areas, parts of Laghman and Barg-e Matal district in Nuristan. Fabrizio Foschini has been looking at recent episodes in the conflict in the eastern provinces, at the type of armed actors involved and the external support that enables them to operate. He finds Haqqani fighters crossing the border in the wake of the Pakistani operation on their former refuge in North Waziristan, opportunist Taleban and militia turncoats who endanger government assets, and ruthless groups of jihadi enforcers who disrupt the lives of local communities, creating new spiralling cycles of conflict through abuse and retaliation.Afghan soldiers in the mountains of Kunar during one of many operations in 2013. The province continues to be plagued by the presence of various armed groups, with conflict moving from one district to another. Photo: ToloNews
Since the beginning of spring, the long-drawn electoral process has taken the main stage in Afghanistan. But while elections have absorbed all the energies and efforts of Afghan politicians and Kabul-based diplomats and journalists, the insurgents have kept a steady pace of operations countrywide. This summer, instead of slowing down during the month of Ramadan that ended on 28 July (the normal pattern of fighting), they ratcheted up the conflict.
In two areas in particular, Sangin in Helmand (fighting also affected Musa Qala and Nahr-e Seraj) and Hesarak in Nangarhar, they have mounted major, mass attacks since early July, involving unusually high numbers of fighters and prolonged offensive action. Both offensive were repulsed, although the situation in Sangin remains volatile and fighting in Hesarak and in the neighbouring districts of Sherzad and Khugiani continues.
Sangin, together with the neighbouring districts of northern Helmand, has a history of conflict (see our previous reporting here) that makes it an ideal location for any major offensive mounted by the Taleban. Hesarak couples a strategic location close to the border with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in the place where the border comes closest to Kabul, with weak state institutions and security, making it also a desirable and easy target.
The eastern region, or Mashreq(i) as it is called in Afghanistan, comprising the four provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Nuristan, has long been one of the main focuses of the conflict (for background, read a previous AAN dispatch). In recent years, insurgents from this part of Afghanistan have managed to become more than just a local threat, even replacing other regional networks as the main facilitators and organisers for attacks inside Kabul, thanks to their presence in some easterners-dominated suburbs of the capital. Also, the eastern networks, reporting to the Peshawar Shura, have been less closely connected to the political leadership of the Taleban than the Kandahari and southern networks. Arguably, this has left them more open to the influence of both transnational jihadi groups and Pakistani intelligence.
The Afghan government has accused Pakistan of masterminding the insurgents’ operation against the Spin Ghar districts. On Sunday 10 August, the National Security Council (NSC) asked the Afghan Security Forces to take measures to counter Pakistani cross-border interference.
Mass attacks vs recurring disruption
The exact number of attackers involved in recent offensives – as that of the casualties – is difficult to verify independently. However, the Taleban do seem to be returning to the tactic of mass attacks (after trying and failing to use them, especially in Kandahar and Helmand in 2006). It is possible that militants have been trying to exploit the uncertainty and low morale caused among security forces and state officials by the electoral stalemate. More critically, the reduced support in terms of airstrikes and logistics by NATO has inevitably weakened the Afghan security forces in isolated areas (for more examples see previous AAN reporting). As UNAMA reported (read AAN analysis), the insurgents have become more confident in massing troops, something which they had been prevented from doing precisely by the constant risk of NATO bombings. This has enabled them to put pressure not only on isolated police outposts, but also on district centres, forcing the government to a prompt delivery of helicopter gunships to Nangarhar province.
The numbers of attackers in Hesarak district, for example, has been reported variously as between 500 and 1500, remarkably high figures in either case. Afghan Special Forces had to be dispatched and NATO airstrikes launched to deal with the threat. Given the timing of the attack and the sudden availability of fighters to be deployed by the insurgent networks, it seems reasonable to link the assault to the Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan which forced the Haqqani network and several of its core facilities to relocate. The most logical place for the network to move to was neighbouring Kurram agency, something it had done before (see here for our reporting on previous Haqqani ‘passages’ through Kurram). This move also brought the Spin Ghar border districts in Afghanistan, Hesarak among them, within range of attack, Kurram agency features a significant Shia population – and a decades-long history of sectarian conflict – but its central and southern parts, together with a small enclave in the northernmost tip, are inhabited by Sunnis.
Indeed, some Pakistani journalists indicated that the Haqqani fighters have relocated to Shalozan, in the small Mangal enclave in north Kurram already in late May – with the consent of the Pakistani military and intelligence, in order to preserve the network from the incoming offensive.
Around the same time the insurgents’ offensive on Hesarak started, an equally serious but briefer attempt was made against another Afghan border post from the Kurram side. On 14 July, an attack on a Border Police (ANPB) post was repulsed in Jaji Maidan of Khost province, proceeding from areas of Kurram inhabited by Sunnis and with an already established Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP) presence, where militants fleeing from North Waziristan are most likely to have moved in the wake of the Pakistani Army offensive. (1) However, if on this occasion most of the militants seem to have been Pakistanis, according to Afghan security sources, in Hesarak Afghan nationals were in the majority. This could mean that, in addition to militants crossing the border, others from inside Afghanistan were able to join the attack. Geography-wise, in fact, the Spin Ghar districts are not only prohibitive terrain to counter an insurgency, they are also located halfway between the south-eastern insurgent networks based in Miram Shah (especially after most of this has relocated to Kurram) and the eastern networks active throughout the Mashreq.
This capacity of the insurgency to shift and concentrate its forces in different areas has proven particularly disruptive in the long run, often reversing improvements in districts which had been long under the Afghan government’s or international focus. Although the Taleban offensive have been played down by the ISAF command and US diplomats have dismissed the recent “Taleban uptick” (their words) as “localized”, what is actually creating concern are the cyclical patterns of violence which periodically affect most areas of the east, as much as the sudden momentum of the insurgents here or there.
Let us take Kunar, for example. The barrage of rockets fired by the Pakistani army at border areas of Kunar has returned to levels similar to 2012, although it has largely gone underreported, drowned out by election coverage. The main difference compared to 2012 is that Pakistan has reinforced its claims to be targeting areas from which militants attack its territory with a request directed at the Afghan government to extradite TTP leader Fazlullah, whom they accuse of abetting TTP militants (for AAN background on this read here). In the meanwhile, Kunar continues to be plagued by the presence of various armed groups, with conflict moving from one district to another but making sure that it affects them all, either in the form of militant attacks or of the frequent US drone strikes – now potentially less effective and precise in the absence of ‘boots on the ground.’
The violence prevents the consolidation of state institutions and makes the lives of locals impossible in terms of sheer economic survival. It makes road trips risky or too expensive, including for getting products to market. It scares away government and NGOs, reducing the chances of paid employment. While this sometimes spurs local youths to join the rank of the insurgency, it has also sparked a number of so-called anti-Taleban uprisings in recent years which, even when spontaneous, have tended to subside and eventually be co-opted by government which transforms protest into pro-state militias. (2) The Taleban reaction has been increasingly one of intimidation and retaliation against non-supportive local communities, instead of the negotiating approach they often showed in the early years of their revival.
The current warfare is resulting in a deadlock, with neither side able to make strategic breakthroughs. The most visible effect of this type of violence is a re-militarisation, seen throughout country, with an increasing number of armed actors competing for exclusive control over local populations and resources.
There are two patterns of behaviour on the part of anti-state armed groups which, although not new, seem to best epitomize the present situation: those of turncoats and enforcers.
Turncoats turn the lights off
Around three years ago, AAN reported on the creation of a new woluswali (district) in Badpakh, Laghman province, in the framework of the first, closely scrutinised batch of the security transition. Back then the idea of reaching out to locals from an area that had not experienced the presence of state institutions for decades seemed reasonable. Unfortunately, the relatively peaceful inroads made there by the Afghan government and the United States Human Terrain Teams came with a price – the payments the latter allegedly made to local commanders with a past as either Hezb-e Islami or Taleban, to get them on board the move to create a local administration and guarantee security. Thus, some very disputable characters passed onto the pay roll of the US treasury. But the financing came to an end when the Laghman PRT left and winded up operations. Even the huge sprawl of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program (all six Laghman districts sport their own) could not accommodate all of the militia commanders. Some, who had allegedly received money for guarding (or at least not sabotaging) the most precious asset of the area, the pillars of the electric line bringing electricity from Naghlu Dam to Jalalabad, saw their wages stopped early this year.
After a three-month wait, Jan Agha, the leader of an armed group who, according to Afghan officials, had been part of a US-sponsored project akin to the Critical Infrastructure Program in neighbouring Sarobi, decided to cut the power lines. One could argue he would have made a fine revolutionary trade union leader: denying electricity to hot and damp Jalalabad in the middle of Ramadan during a summer remarkably warm by all standards is a sure way to get your bosses to pay their arrears. The problem is that Jan Agha’s people are no workers’ union, but rather dangerous militiamen with a past association with the Taleban. Moreover, the bosses do not seem to know what to do with them. In fact, the line was cut again on 1 August 2014, causing an additional night and day without electricity to the beleaguered Jalalabadis. (3)
Apart from the fact that it does not seem wise on the part of a government and of its security advisors to leave an area hosting such a prime national strategic asset under the sway of semi-legal armed groups, what is of interest is the attitude of these groups and their blurred identification with either or indeed both sides of the conflict. Locals interviewed by AAN labelled Jan Agha a Taleb, but also said that, “Of course, he was working for the Americans.” Further distinctions are for connoisseurs only.
In Laghman, some people described commanders/insurgents as “Taleban-e Pakistan” and “Taleban-e PRT.” By the first, they mean those Taleban who routinely come in from Pakistan (and who may, in some cases, be Pakistani nationals) with money and weapons to reinforce, organise and toughen the stance of local insurgent fronts. By the second, they mean local armed groups who used to be affiliated with the insurgency or even the old Taleban regime, but have accepted the offers of the PRT in order to make economic gains and preserve their assets.
Parts of Laghman province in fact feature an absence of other strong local networks occupying the security sector, as happens in other areas where there are former ‘Northern Alliance’ militiamen, and a paucity of ideologically-committed Taleban capable of enforcing a tough anti-government stance (the presence and efficiency of these groups tends to decrease with distance from the Pakistani border. Laghman, though an eastern province, is not on the border and seems to have a number of ‘pragmatist’ Taleban). There, as in other areas of the east, belonging to one of these groups can be a matter simply of choice and opportunity. Sometimes, an armed group can exist with dual loyalties at the same time. In this case, the militants are labeled dobazgir – ‘milking-two-udders’, for their ability to reap benefits from the ISAF bases and Afghan government programs as well as the Taleban leadership.
Such arrangements however do not last: community representatives from Laghman told AAN that in Dawlat Shah district, shortly after the electoral run-off, a group of Pakistani Taleban who had allegedly come to enhance the activities of local fighters, were lured into a trap by their Afghan guides and killed by the Afghan security forces: the local Taleban feared the outsiders would destroy their ‘quiet life’ and opted to set them up. (4)
Enforcers force people to take sides
Groups of outsider, and often mysterious, enforcers have also been a recurrent theme in the east in the last few years. In Khugiani district of Nangarhar, currently bearing the main brunt of fighting together with neighbouring Hesarak, a new breed of militants appeared shortly before the start of the Taleban offensive. Calling themselves Karwan-e Fedayi or De Fedayi Karwan (the caravan of those who sacrifice) they visited villages to punish those working with the government or suspected of being spies (among their latest victims was a district attorney). Remarkably, the gossip about this group in Jalalabad has them all-dressed in black, including masks or balaclavas – reminiscent of the likewise mysterious Siahpushan (black-clad) who enforced ultra-orthodox religious precepts in Nuristan a couple of years ago (read our previous blog here) – and communicating only with gestures, to avoid being identified.
According to a political analyst in Jalalabad, they do not take part in actual fighting, but rather intimidate local communities, pushing them to take sides and also target local Taleban who have gone ‘quiet’: one of those, a senior local commander, is reportedly contemplating relocation from Khugiani to Jalalabad to escape their wrath. This is consistent with what their Nuristani ‘colleagues’ did to break the informal agreement between the Afghan government and the locals of Waygal to keep the district as a ‘no man’s land’, after the place had for some years been out of government control. Its transformation into a militants’ hub, stopover and training camp by the Taleban in cooperation with other jihadi outfits has brought untold troubles onto the heads of local residents, not least in terms of NATO airstrikes. There, the black-clad militants threatened local leaders not only with assassination, but by burning their houses as well.
When enforcers copy such traditional forms of social pressure, it does not assuage the tragic consequences. A recent example is given by yet another area of Nuristan. Swarming down the mountain ridge between Poruns and Barg-e Matal, a large group of Taleban successfully attacked ALP posts near the village of Patigram on 1 August 2014 and then proceeded to burn down several houses of families considered to be pro-government. Taleban militants had recently burned houses also in a village in Alasay district, Kapisa, where shortly after, locals took up arms against the Taleban and set fire to the homes of those they considered to be Taleban sympathisers in retaliation.
The burning of somebody’s house has been part of a type of collective punishment meted out by many tribes and communities in the broader area as a part of the disciplinary power vested in the assembly of the village elders (read about this mechanism in this AAN paper). (In fact, it was adopted by the British authorities and still persists in the controversial Frontier Crime Regulations of the FATA). Traditionally (here with the meaning of ‘in times of relative peace’), however, as a sanction administered by tribal or village institutions after a collective decision, taken by a local assembly, and seen as unavoidable by the victims, it did not cause violence or damage other than damage to material. Opposition to such a measure would have probably jeopardised the possibility of that individual or household remaining as part of the community, with the known implications of danger and helplessness. (5)
With the weakening of the traditional social structures in rural areas due to massive targeting by both sides of the conflict (each side going after those among the local elders who had been co-opted by the other), mass emigration to urban areas and the loss of importance of local economic and political factors, such punishments have completely lost their previous role. They instead do cause much worse violence, as in the case of the woman who fought off the Taleban arsonists, trying to burn down her house in Barg-e Matal until she was killed along with her baby.
An act of violence once seen as playing a decisive role in ending a dispute has nowadays become a tool in the hands of rival armed groups for terrorising each other’s supporters, contributing significantly to the continuation of the crisis. It seems doubtful that groups of black-clad enforcers can be successful in cowing the whole Afghan population into cooperation, in the presence of the economic and political drivers that have kept the conflict alive and the population of the country polarised until now.
In the polarised yet opportunistic environment of the Afghan conflict, with its lofty objectives and goals lying far beyond the lives of the common human beings living and enrolling with the different sides and with its unprecedented possibilities for finding sponsors for one’s armed enterprises, no act of violence, brutal as it might be, can play such a decisive role anymore: not the fall of a district like Hesarak or Sangin, nor the shift of allegiance of an armed group from the Taleban to the government and then maybe back to the Taleban, nor the arson of a whole village for being on the wrong side. In this, unfortunately, lies the modernity of this enduring conflict.
(1) Jajis are instead one of the groups who, at least in their ancestral territory (mainly the districts of Jaji Aryub and Jaji Maidan, in Paktia and Khost respectively) where their tribal institutions are still relatively strong, have sided compactly with the government, or at least have not joined the insurgency, and are therefore often targeted.
(2) A similar pattern lies behind the recent uprising in Alasay district of Kapisa province (adjacent to Dawlat Shah district of Laghman discussed below. After many years of stalemate and unofficial deals to allow for a modus vivendi between government officials and insurgents, Taleban in the district have reportedly used a heavier hand and spurred a reaction by villagers, or the later have accepted an advantageous offer by the government to ‘rebel’; most likely both instances are true.
(3) Reportedly, it has been the insurgents instead who cut an optic-fiber cable, thus temporarily disrupting Kabul’s internet provision, on 17 July. The sabotage happened in Batikot, a district of Nangarhar where Taleban have been making inroads in recent years and now control almost fully, taxing local communities and forcing many pro-government residents to relocate to Jalalabad.
(4) Dawlat Shah and the northern part of Alisheng district experienced an anti-Taleban mobilisation in the second half of 2012, when the Taleban arrested a former jihadi commander, widely respected in the area because of his belonging to the Mojaddidi family of religious leaders, and executed some of his affiliates. Reportedly, support for his release was strong enough to transcend the different political loyalties of local residents (Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami) and their mixed ethnic background (Pashtun, Pashai and Tajik), so that eventually the Taleban had to free him. Once freed, however, he started preaching to people about the need of getting rid of Pakistani-controlled Taleban, and local residents temporarily expelled the insurgents, who mainly relocated to neighbouring Alingar.
(5) Of course there is no need to idealise ‘pure’ tribal or local customs. Something like that never existed in history: Pashtunwali and similar customary codes have survived and developed along with other types of legal systems and institutions, be it those of British colonial rule, happy to accept a shared terminology and reference to local customs although in a situation of great power asymmetry, those of the less powerful but more ambitious local nation states, like Afghanistan or Pakistan, or Sharia; and the development of their constituent parts has been certainly influenced by this co-existence. However, the extent to which these customs and institutions have deformed under the pressure of recent changes dismisses the possibility, often invoked, of explaining conflict mainly through their ‘primitive’ influence.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020