More than five months into the Andar uprising, the anti-Taleban rebellion supported by the government and US forces has failed to unite the local tribe under its banner. Differences between participating groups have further sharpened as the government’s attempt to turn it into its proxy (and integrate it into the Afghan Local Police) has become more evident. A series of skirmishes that followed the uprising has taken the lives of more than 100 local people, and neither an end of the fighting is in sight nor the end of Taleban presence in the district. A frequent visitor of Andar, our guest blogger Emal Habib finds the overall situation, at least so far, much worse than ever before. In another update about the development of the Andar uprising, he looks at the dynamics of the ongoing conflict in Andar.
‘Those old days when there was only Taleban in control are now gone. They look like the golden days compared to what is going on now,’ yearns Haji Safiullah, 43, a resident of Atal village in Andar. ‘The arbakai might have opened the schools which were shut down temporarily by the Taleban, but they have brought much bigger headaches.’
One of the new headaches for the Andar population is the presence of armed youth, who are acting as militia forces without any accountability or control. Safiullah, who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia where he earns a living by running a shop, was visiting his relatives in Miryani village when he was stopped by arbakai fighters. They took his car and never returned it. His crime: visiting a village frequently used by Taleban for mounting recent attacks on the arbakai. In a similar case, three residents of the neighbouring Waghaz district were robbed of their car, mobile phones, and other assets when the arbakai found out that they were returning from the Taleban’s head judge for the district of Andar to whom they had turned to solve a dispute.
After talking to local residents in Andar, it appears that Haji Safiullah’s feeling of insecurity resonates widely. This comes from the fact that a normal resident of the area never knows who the different armed groups are that they are encountering, to whom they are accountable, and what code of conduct they follow, if any at all.
The uprising is now clearly divided into three completely different groups, united only by a common enemy. The first group, new NDS chief Assadullah Khaled’s loyalists, is a loose alliance of different commanders who are often at odds with each other over leadership but appear to be emerging as the dominant force. The second group is a minority of the remaining Hezb-e Islami members who originally instigated the rebellion. They now seem to be stuck in the middle, with the choice to either continue their fight independently (and, by that, increasingly acting in defiance to Khaled’s group) or to surrender to the Taleban. A third group that finds it difficult to remain with either group, but had already taken up weapons and entered into conflict with the Taleban, is joining the Afghan Local Police that has been newly introduced to the district, supplied by the government and trained by the US Special Forces. NDS and the Afghan National Army have also deployed some of their own forces in the area, making it one of the most heavily militarised zones in Ghazni. But the Taleban are also still around, roaming freely and calling the shots in most parts of the district.
The scope of this problem is not the same all over Andar. The cluster of villages immediately to the west and south of Mirai, where the uprising started, suffers the most. It has been heavily militarised by the presence of the different armed groups, each with its own chain of command. Among the groups affiliated with the uprising, locally referred to as an ‘arbakai’, there are two main factions: one loyal to NDS chief Asadullah Khaled and led in practice by Lutfullah Kamran and a smaller one linked to Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The latter were the original instigators of the uprising, but Khaled, then still the Minister of Tribal and Border Affairs, managed to divert the anti-Taleban rebellion from its original ideological trajectory while inserting local mujahedin-era commanders such as former governor Faizanullah Faizan and Wali Muhammad as well as Kamran, who belongs to a younger generation.
At the initial stage, both groups – the Hezbis and Khaled’s men – worked under the unifying brand of a ‘national uprising’, and it looked like the Hezbis had been co-opted. But now, at the third stage of the developments, it seems they want to reclaim (or maintain) their independence as Hezbis and might, if pushed hard to subordinate themselves to the dominant faction, either abandon their campaign altogether or, even worse, (re-)join the Taleban.
Not much is left of the Hezbis’ original strength, though. They have been reduced to two groups with six to eight members each, one led by Imran in Payendi village and another by Eng. Abdullah, based in Kunsaf. The family of the uprising’s instigator, Rahmatullah, has suffered a number of losses. His father Mulla Abdul Salam was killed on 24 October in Ghundi village in a shoot-out triggered by the burning of a home of a co-villager Taleban fighter by him and some arbakai fighters. Earlier, in the beginning of October, Rahmatullah’s brother Abdul Malek, who had been in Taleban detention, was killed by his captors who claim that this happened during a US rescue operation for him. Rahmatullah is still in Kabul and has never gone back to Andar after being wounded in the very first skirmish with the Taleban on 13 May. He remains in touch with his former followers in Andar but does not command them any more. Rahmatullah’s cousin Yarghal, also called Qahraman and also a Hezbi, was killed in a battle in Kunsaf village during which the Taleban held the arbakai’s stronghold for several hours and burnt the arbakai’s posts on 22 September.
At the same time, Hafiz, one of the staunchest Hezbi commanders from the mujahedin era (the older generation of Hezbis in the uprising), has disappeared. There are speculations that he either went to Pakistan or fled to Ghazni city to get out of trouble, after giving up the struggle against Khaled’s faction, beaten by their commander Wali Muhammad. One of his sons has very recently defected to the Taleban who gave him a hero’s welcome.(1)
Still, the Hezbi remnants fly their own flags over their posts. They seem to have opened negotiations with the Taleban (a local Taleban commander claims his side initiated them). Letters have been exchanged between the two sides to pave a way for a solution: handing in their weapons to the Taleban and leaving the rebellion or joining them. Early this month, the Taleban also posted night-letters throughout the villages that are home to the arbakai, except Payendi, urging their enemies to lay down their weapons in return for amnesty. The letters also assured the residents of the villages that had accommodated the arbakai that ‘there would be no actions of revenge against anyone’ if these villages were retaken by the Taleban. (The arbakai had warned the villagers of the Taleban’s retaliation in case the villages fall back to them.)
According to the Taleban commander already quoted, they also tried to negotiate amnesty with Rahmatullah who had split off from the Taleban. But he said the talks failed after they found out that Rahmatullah was playing a ‘double game’, on one hand repenting of his uprising-related actions and showing interest in persuading his friends to surrender while failing to meet the conditions established by Taleban as part of the talks.
The NDS-controlled faction for its turn is divided internally by a longstanding rivalry for leadership. While ex-governor Faizan was pushed into the number one position by Khaled from among eight initial candidates, other field commanders, such as Lutfullah Kamran and Wali Muhammad all had more fire-power on the ground (as well as late Jan Muhammad, also known as Tor, who had once beaten Faizan during a feud and was killed in fighting with the Taleban). ‘Faizan is just a symbolic leader’, Amanullah Kamrani, a member of the provincial council, said. ‘My brother Lutfullah is the real one’.
Apart from Khaled’s NDS and the Hezbi faction, a third player is now being introduced to the area: new Afghan Local Police units. They will be deployed on Andar’s borders with other districts to establish a security circle around the area and will draw heavily from those in Khaled’s arbakai who were discontent with the uprising’s structure and unsure about its future.
The ALP was officially introduced to Andar on 21 October during a ceremony in the district’s headquarters in Mirai, attended by head of the ALP Department in the Ministry of Interior (MoI). Prior to the ceremony, the first group of fifteen ALP members had completed their training, twelve of them coming from Payendi village, the epicentre of the arbakai, which together with few other villages supplies most of the manpower to the uprising. According to district chief Muhammad Qasim Disiwal, fifty more will be trained in a second group by US Special Forces after their vetting is completed following the Eid holidays. The ALP for Andar was under consideration by the MoI for more than a year following disparate requests by Ghazni officials and the provincial council, but it was only officially approved in early October by the MoI.
Local officials have conflicting expectations about how the introduction of the ALP to Andar will influence the uprising. While the provincial governor’s spokesman Nabi Jan told AAN that all of the uprising members would be integrated into the ALP so ‘as to ensure their future by becoming part of the official institution and to be distinguished from the irregular militia and from the Taleban by having uniforms and training’ (lately, at least one non-uniformed arbakai member was killed and two were wounded in a ‘friendly fire’ incident by US forces whose air support was called in by rebels during fighting with Taleban in Mukam village, according to the villagers), provincial police chief Zerawar Zahid and district chief Disiwal told AAN that the ALP and arbakai would work ‘shoulder to shoulder’ to eliminate the Taleban from the area and that the uprising would not be dismantled. The Hezbi faction, however, has rejected offers to join the ALP.
Other military actors in the field are Afghan National Army and NDS units who have established their own posts around the areas held by the arbakai. The presence of NDS posts seems to be a new development under its new director and might indicate a stronger role of the Afghan intelligence (with its independent armed units) in the battle against the Taleban that, so far, has been mainly carried out by the army or the police.
The 200 ALP members, dozens of police and NDS officers, and a couple hundred uprising (arbakai) fighters, whose numbers are shrinking, however, due to defections and casualties, seem to be far from sufficient for protecting a district that has approximately 400 villages and has long remained a hotbed of the Taleban resurgence since 2003. The 102 lives lost(2) among the Andar tribesmen on all sides, including civilians, during the five and a half months of the uprising, as counted by MP Hussaini, have ended neither the insecurity in Andar nor the Taleban’s control over most parts of it.
An uprising by only a fraction of the residents of a few villages(3) against the remaining hundreds of villages who are either tacitly supporting the Taleban or rejecting both sides is unlikely to change the appalling situation of Andar for the better. Substituting the Taleban for any other armed actor can only be achieved if the public is convinced that a better alternative is available. That is not the case with the arbakai and the other factions involved in the uprising, partly because they are perceived as attempts to establish influence from outside.
(1) The Taleban have announced a prize of 50,000 Pakistani Rupees (Pakistani Rupee is the main currency in transactions in Ghazni) for anyone defecting from the arbakai. Garlanded with flowers, the defectors receive a welcome tour of several villages put on by the Taleban.
(2) This number, given to AAN by Khial Hussaini, counts only the Andar victims and excludes any police, army, Taleban, and Hezb victims from other districts. The author’s estimation is that, accordingly, this year has become the bloodiest for Andar since the fall of the Taleban in 2001 with such a large number of casualties unseen even during the climax of the fighting in 2006 and 2009.
(3) Hussaini told AAN, ‘There are only six villages totally under the arbakai’s full control; I bet anyone can find a seventh village. A dozen more villages remain as buffer zone between the Taleban and the arbakai’. The same villages are, at least as yet, the only contributors to the developing ALP. The newly-deployed NDS and ANA posts are also stationed in this same area situated adjacently to the south and west of Mirai, the district’s main town and home to the local administration.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020