Yahyakhel district in Paktika province was once as pro-Taleban as it is now pro-government. The turning point came in 2011/2012, with the formation of a tribal militia, which was soon formalised into an Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit. Unlike many other ALP units, it has enjoyed local popular support and control. It has not abused the population and managed, largely, to protect them from Taleban attack. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary and Kate Clark have been looking at why and how Yahyakhel has bucked the trend and what that says about the community defence force model, even in what many consider the Taleban ‘heartland’.
Fazal Muzhary made five trips to Paktika in June 2016 and 2017 to carry out research for this publication and made follow-up phone calls from Kabul. He interviewed three local journalists, three tribal elders (none directly involved in setting up the ALP), a civil society activist who was involved in setting up the tribal militia, an ALP commander and three businessmen. He also spoke to two of Paktika’s MPs and cross-checked details and information with a UNAMA analyst. Most of the interviews were face-to-face. Not everyone wanted to be named.
This dispatch is published as part of a joint three-year project (funded by the Netherlands Research Organisation) by AAN, the Global Public Policy institute (GPPi) and the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani exploring the role and impact of militias, local or regional defence forces and other quasi-state forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The surprising turn-about in Yahyakhel
In 2010, “Yahya Khel largely belonged to the insurgents,” wrote an American anthropologist embedded with United States forces. (1) Taleban operated openly and Yahyakhel was a prominent transit point for Taleban weapons and fighters. Locals said security incidents were so routine that shops and businesses remained shut half the day and schools were closed. RAND scholar Linda Robinson noted that fighting in Yahyakhel was “so fierce” that the conventional US military unit stationed there was pulled out in 2011. (2) Then the situation flipped. From being in the top third of the most violent districts in 2012, it is now in the bottom third of the least violent, according to security statistics. (3) Schools and businesses are no longer shuttered. While the Taliban are dominant in much of the rest of Paktika, in Yahyakhel, pro-government forces have managed to protect both population and territory.
Locals point to their ALP unit as the reason for this change of circumstances. This is surprising given the reputation of the ALP as a whole and particularly in Paktika. The Afghan Local Police were borne out of a 2009 US Special Forces initiative to mobilise local community and tribal forces to substitute for what the US military considered were failing government forces and to try and marshal communities against the Taleban. However, as the programme expanded nationwide, ALP units were frequently captured by local powerbrokers and/or local ethnic, tribal or factional interests. Many have had a record of predatory and abusive behaviour against local population. Even internal US Special Forces assessments suggested that, at best, only a third of the ALP units were successful in countering the Taleban, a third were useless or indifferent and a third counter-productive – for instance, where their criminal, factional, or abusive behaviour pushed communities toward rather than against the Taleban (see this backgrounder for a review of research on ALP and similar local defence forces since 2001.
The ALP in Paktika exemplified complaints that the programme empowered unruly militias rather than protective community forces. The man in charge of the ALP at provincial level when the Yahyakhel ALP was set up, Azizullah, had previously commanded one of the most notorious CIA auxiliary forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan Security Guards. He was a committed fighter against the Taleban, but also accused by the United Nations and others of extrajudicial killings, detention abuses, sexual assault and extortion. Robertson reported Azizullah visiting and advising the Yahyakhel ALP in its early days. (4)
The success of the ALP, which was essentially a US-driven local mobilisation programme, is all the more surprising given that the Taleban insurgency in Yahyakhel initially grew out of a community backlash against those very same international forces. A spate of US night raids and detention operations from 2004 to 2006 targeting key religious figures in the community generated the first Taleban recruits and created fallow ground for the movement to galvanise popular support. The fact that the community would then place any trust and community support in an initiative promoted by the same international forces is, at the least, unexpected.
Yahyakhel is one of the few examples of an outstanding ALP unit and, moreover, one that emerged out of less-than-promising circumstances. AAN’s investigation into what happened in Yahyakhel to turn the situation around says much about the nature of Taleban support and control. Even in a region that could be framed as the movement’s natural ‘heartland’, community support proved neither inevitable nor unassailable. However, the Yahyakhel experience also points to particular factors which made ALP success possible there. Those factors do not exist in every district. Nor are they possible to reproduce.
Background to Yahyakhel – a persistently peaceful district, until recently
Yahyakhel is a small district, one of 19 in Paktika, unremarkable except for two factors. First, it sits along what became a major supply route into and out of South Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan for the mujahedin in the 1980s and then the Taleban in the 2000s. Both have used it to ferry men and materiel in from Pakistan and on to Ghazni and central Afghanistan. Second, unlike much or even most of Afghanistan, it largely escaped conflict for decades – from 1978 until about 2004. During the fight against the Soviet army, mujahedin control of the road to the provincial capital, Sharana, prevented government troops from reaching Yahyakhel. (5) After the Soviets left and intra-mujahedin fighting broke out in many parts of the country, including in other districts of Paktika, Yahyakhel was again spared. Although people in the district are divided into three tribes, the Sultankhel, Yahyakhel and Ghaibikhel, as UNHCR wrote in 1989 it was the “strength of local tribal relations” that prevented internecine bloodshed. According to Paktika MP Nader Khan Katawazi, the two main factions in the district, Mahaz-e Melli led by Pir Gailani and Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami led by Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi, “lacked active fighters” and co-existed relatively peacefully. This was in contrast with, for example, Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami which fought each other in Gomal district to the south. In 1994, the transition to Taleban control was almost bloodless, (6) as was the Taleban’s fall from power in 2001. (7)
This long period of peace left a lasting legacy. Unlike most other areas of Afghanistan where traditional social structures have been changed and damaged by war, displacement, mobilisation and assassination, the tribal structure in Yahyakhel has remained intact and resilient. It still has the capacity to assert itself to protect community interests, and to govern effectively. This would prove an important asset in the later development of the ALP, although it first proved a boon to the Taleban.
The Taleban mobilise in Yahyakhel
Interviewees told AAN it was not until early 2003 that the Afghan government got round to appointing officials to the district. By this time, the Taleban had already started organising, taking advantage of the vacuum in authority. However, local residents said that, while Taleban fighters had free movement in the district, they did not threaten security. US forces arriving in summer 2004, according to a member of that force, Lieutenant Robert Anders, (8) who reported that local people were “excited” about the forthcoming presidential elections and said that security was “very good.” Anders said that American soldiers were deployed to Yahyakhel only “to support the security of the voter registration process” ahead of the elections that autumn. However, they appear to have embraced the much wider mandate of trying to wipe out what they perceived to be the local Taleban network. In what Anders described as “bloody October,” US forces launched night raids and arrests in the district, arresting a prominent mullah and a number of other locals.
The spate of night raids and attacks would continue for two years and dramatically reshape security dynamics in the district (see a list of the major raids between 2004 and 2006 in footnote 9). While Anders argued that the raids left the Taleban in Yahyakhel in “disarray” and “scrambling to reorganise,” locals say this was the point when the Taleban emerged as an active military force in the district. It is possible that the stepped-up US presence and raids simply provided Taleban already present in the district with meaningful targets, motivating more Taleban attacks and activities. However, locals say the night raids and attacks galvanised opposition not only among local people generally, but among religious figures in particular. The attacks, which frequently targeted madrassas and mullahs, spread fear among the religious community that they were under attack. Taleban recruitment was boosted. Locals also said that after the night raids, people in general considered the Americans to be invaders and that this hostility extended to their allies, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), both police and army.
These comments suggest that a collective sense of being under attack led the population to more fully embrace the Taleban. One civil society activist said people welcomed Taleban fighters into their homes during this period, even slaughtering sheep in their honour – a sign of great respect. “People strongly supported the Taleban,” the civil society activist said. “No one from this district was working in government employment. They had no problem getting locals to host them.”
One of those taking up the Taleban cause, according to multiple sources, was a young man by the name of Qudrat. His story says something about the importance of individuals in Afghanistan’s war. Qudrat was from Yahyakhel, but had been studying in a madrassa in Sharana when the campaign of night raids began in Yahyakhel. Fearing the violence might be extended to all religious figures, he fled to Pakistan. While there, Qudrat came into contact with Taleban fighters and when he returned to his home district, it was as an insurgent. He was briefly arrested and detained at Bagram. When released in approximately 2009, he was given command of his own group because of his reputation as a fierce fighter.
The key to Qudrat’s power lay not only in his fearlessness in the face of foreign soldiers, but also in his respect for the community and the pragmatism with which he dealt with his Afghan enemies. Interviewees mentioned that in his first year as a commander Qudrat was harsh towards Afghan soldiers and policemen, but then changed his mind; he told his fighters not to kill them because their main target should be American soldiers. Interviewees also said he did not kill anyone on suspicion of spying and granted amnesties to those who left the ANSF. When local residents asked him not to stage attacks from civilian houses – which put them at risk of being targeted – he stopped doing so. Community trust in Qudrat was so high that he felt no need to mask his face when moving around the district: he trusted that locals would not report him.
It was this local support that made the Taleban so strong in Yahyakhel. Community backing enabled Taleban fighters to carry out numerous attacks on the convoys of Afghan and American soldiers moving to Yahyakhel or on to neighbouring Khairkot district. The degree of support and cooperation was so high that one local journalist described how Taleban taking part in attacks would park their motorbikes and give the keys to local people asking them to take the bikes home. Taleban could then escape on foot, returning to collect the bikes, sometimes weeks later.
However, the mutual respect between Taleban and the community was not to last. Qudrat was targeted and killed in an airstrike in 2011. Two lower-level commanders named Omar and Qader, who were also both former madrassa students, succeeded him. They showed far less enlightened leadership. They started using civilian houses to attack government and international forces, harassing or showing indifference to locals’ requests to stop this practice, and killed two former policemen whom Qudrat had given amnesties. Locals said that Taleban at this time even engaged in what they described as “immoral activities.” The tipping point came when the insurgent leaders threatened 170 local people, among them 70 tribal elders. They accused them of spying for the government and ordered them out of the district. By expelling these elders, Omar and Qader created the nucleus of a counter-insurgent force.
Counter-insurgency and the rise of the ALP
Locals interviewed said the Taleban were expelled from the entire district on a single day in September 2011 after a small tribal militia was raised and, together with Afghan government and US Special Forces, attacked Taleban positions. The prompt to action had come, MP Nader Khan said, when President Hamid Karzai visited Paktika in summer 2011 and taunted the expelled elders as to why they had taken no action to get their district back. One of them, Nur Muhammad, was spurred to action. He consulted the local Afghan National Army commander and other officials, and US special forces on organising a counter-force against the Taleban and helped organise the recruitment and US training of fifty militiamen. According to local accounts, for an entire night and day, this tribal militia, backed by Afghan and American soldiers and air support, fought the Taleban. By evening, they had cleared the district of insurgents. The militiamen then started setting up posts. The following week, Nur Muhammad and his men went from house to house, asking residents to join and/or support their militia. The community did so. The number of what was officially re-hatted as ALP in late 2011 had swollen to 300 by the spring of 2012. This ALP force was intentionally drawn from all three main tribes in the area equally.
According to residents, security in Yahyakhel improved rapidly thereafter. The bazaar opened fully and government forces were able to drive through Yahyakhel to Khairkot district where American forces had a military base. Local people also started to seek government jobs, including with the Afghan National Police (ANP). Yahyakhel’s high school opened in spring 2012, along with a couple of other schools which had been closed when the Taleban were in control. (All the schools in the district are for boys, then and now.)
Accounts by two US observers (10) put a longer timeline on the establishment of the community defence force and do not mention any tribal militia; indeed, one of them, Linda Robinson, says “…the Afghans were at odds over who should lead [the ALP], with their choices reflecting rivalries among the three subtribes in the area.” (p188) Rather, the US observers suggest a slow build of ALP and popular resistance from November 2011 to May 2012with Robinson suggesting the ultimate catalysis for ‘flipping’ Yahyakhel was a Taleban attack on the bazaar on 10 May 2012, during which, she says, the newly-formed ALP saved local children from harm (p189). Robinson also describes security improving much more slowly. (11) Despite the discrepancies, both local and international accounts offer a similar overarching narrative: that the mobilisation of the ALP secured what would become a decisive and enduring turn against the Taleban. That transformation has held to the present.
Locals argue that, because the Taleban had been beaten so badly and driven from the district, it was difficult for them to re-group and win back territory. The Taleban made some attempts to woo the ALP back over, AAN was told, encouraging them to re-join the jihad against the ‘real enemies’ — the Americans — and then sending letters containing death threats. However, with no territorial control, they could do little more. In a district which no longer had safe houses and where the enemy knew the terrain as intimately as the insurgents, it was immensely difficult for them to ambush convoys or launch operations, let alone to then escape.
Without such community support, Taleban warfare became largely restricted to laying IEDs, launching ‘green-on-green’ insider attacks (as with a March 2012 attack which killed nine ALP), and suicide attacks (including the May 2012 attack on the bazaar and a September 2013 on district headquarters). The most notorious of these attacks came on 23 November 2014 when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a volleyball match in Paraw village in the Ghaibikhel area. Paraw was known as an ALP hub and it could have been assumed that, along with ALP, family members, guests and friends would also have been present. Indeed, the attack not only killed two ALP commanders and ten ALP policemen, but also 53 civilians, including 21 children. A further 85 civilians were wounded, among them 26 children. “Ball bearings,” said UNAMA, “had been attached to the explosives load for the purpose of maximizing harm.” The Taleban officially condemned the attack, but a pro-Taleban website provided an apologist account with a detailed justification.
The prevalence of such indiscriminate targeting in a local, previously Taleban-leaning community illustrates the significance of the changed dynamics in Yahyakhel. First, the use of suicide attacks indicates how seriously the Taliban took the ALP threat. Suicide attacks are relatively costly to carry out because they need specially selected and trained individuals, reconnaissance and other specialist resources. In addition, even if they have military targets, suicide attacks typically kill large numbers of civilians. The Taleban usually deploy them only in large city centres where such ‘spectaculars’ generate terror in the (rarely Taleban-supporting) urban population, putting pressure on the government and gain media coverage. They have been far more unusual in rural communities like Yahyakhel, with the exception of attacks on the ALP, particularly in the first years after they were set up (for detail see AAN’s “Enemy Number One: How the Taleban deal with the ALP and uprising groups”. The fact that the Taleban deployed suicide attacks against the ALP in Yahyakhel and elsewhere is a sign of the bitter enmity they bore this ‘community defence force’ that had mobilised from among people the Taleban considered their own. Second, these attacks were also significant because they tended to reinforce the reversal in community support against the Taleban. For locals, it seemed that the Taleban now considered the whole populationtheir enemy. This may help explain why the transformation of Yahyakhel from pro-Taleban to pro-government has lasted.
An enduring pocket of stability
As a result of the change in dynamics in 2011, Yahyakhel is now an island of relative stability and pro-government control in a province where most of the districts are either in firm Taleban control or are sharply contested. Local businessmen and school-teachers speaking to AAN described life in Yahyakhel as “normal” for daily business. Several residents of Yahyakhel said the situation was very good and residents were happy. The Yahyakhel ALP has reinforced its gains over time. By improving people’s security and respecting local civilians, communal backing has been strengthened further.
One recent measure of security in Yahyakhel is that it was one of the districts in Paktika where parliamentary elections were held and went smoothly. Turn-out was estimated at 17.5 per cent by civil society observers, with women as well as men participating, “in considerable numbers,” one local journalist reported to AAN. Candidates’ observers were also able to monitor the poll in the district. (See AAN analysis.)
The main security force in Yahyakhel is still the ALP – interviewees said it is active all over the district and is the main provider of security. However, the general pro-government tilt of the district has led to a willingness to engage with other parts of the Afghan government and security institutions, at least to a limited degree. The ANP are present in the district headquarters and are involved in civilian policing and some limited resolution of disputes, for example, over business or land. “If people have any problems,” said one businessman Haji Qader, “they go to the district centre and the ANP will resolve their disputes.” Apart from the ALP, the government is not particularly present, but its distance may also suit the people of this independently-minded district, with a preference for local people policing their own territory. The limited government presence also means that opportunities for graft and friction from government officials are minimised.
According to ALP commander Salaam, the insurgents control only a very small piece of territory in the district – two villages, Wrabani and Asghar, in a remote area bordering Omna district. He said the Taleban have no freedom of movement in the district apart from there and in the Atta Khuna desert, which borders the Mutakhel area of the district. From their strongholds, they can still, very occasionally, stage attacks. For example, a rare, recent attack, took place on 25 February 2018 when interviewees reported explosives mounted in a motorbike detonated in the crowded bazaar, killing a policeman and three children and wounding 16 others (no-one claimed responsibility for this attack, although, again, the Taleban seem the most likely perpetrators). Generally, however, the Taleban have had trouble launching operations in Yahyakhel because they have remained almost completely pushed out of the district.
Analysis of the ingredients for success: mobilisation
Framed in the logic of the ALP, Yahyakhel appears a resounding success story for the counter-insurgency – not only an important instance of shutting down Taleban access to a key part of their supply route, but an example of the logic of local force mobilisation working. Looking at the reasons for its success, however, it is clear their absence may also be behind the failure of the ALP elsewhere.
The ALP experience in Yahyakhel (as also in Shajoy in Zabul) and Andar district of Ghazni province) shows, yet again, that community support cannot be assumed by any party, neither the Taleban nor the government. In this case, although the Taleban did not know it (and nor did anyone else), community support was up for grabs, given the right circumstances.
As to what those circumstances were, both international and local accounts recognise that the US Special Forces and the tribes each had a role to play in the creation of the local defence force, but differ in how much weight they give each party and who was the catalyst. The US accounts treat the US Special Forces’ role as decisive and make no mention of the tribal uprising or of any indigenous desire for change. Certainly American and Afghan government support was significant for training and supporting the counter-insurgents. However, the idea that the initiative and drive for this enduring turn to government support could have come from forces whom locals saw as hostile invaders is hard to swallow. It is already difficult to understand how the US association alone did not turn local people against the emerging ALP force.
Instead, the local narrative holds more traction: locals supported the ALP because they had come to fear and dislike the Taleban and despite, not because of American support or government instigation.As one of the local journalists recounted: “People had become fed up with the Taleban. This unhappiness changed their thinking. They started hating the Taleban instead of the Americans.” He said the same cause was behind people’s reassessment of the government, even though its record was also dire: “The Afghan government hadn’t done anything in terms of reconstruction or positively contributing to the lives of local people. Misbehaviour by the Taleban towards local people just resulted in them seeing the government as a better alternative.”The Taleban’s expulsion of 70 tribal leaders does seem significant. This created a coherent, socially powerful group which opposed the Taleban and which was able to organise against the movement.
The key element appears to be that local tribal structures were still relatively intact. Even if, as according to the US Special Forces’ account, the self-defence force was not a local initiative but the result of outside persuasion, the US forces would have found unusually favourable ground; in Yahyakhel, the community, when provoked, was strong enough to mobilise a response. Yahyakhel’s unusual circumstances, its long history of escaping conflict from 1978 to 2004, meant that unlike most other places, the old elites and social structures there had not pushed out of the way by the new commander class. In Yahyakhel, neither the tanzims (political-military, mainly former mujahedin, factions) nor commanders are very important. Another group often significant to current security dynamics because they are more likely to support the Taleban than other Afghans is also comparatively weak in Yahyakhel and for the same reason. Because of the dominant tribal structures, mullahs are comparably weak in this district.
Thus, the strong, relatively healthy (and population-motivated) tribal structure in Yahyakhel as well as the absence of other potentially negative forces created the right ingredients for a community defence force to emerge. In 2011, as the Taleban became abusive and deaf to locals’ complaints, the tribal system in Yahyakhel was still resilient enough to provide a strong framework for organising a community militia. This was particularly so given the arbaki tradition native to this part of Afghanistan (12). When the Taleban expelled the group of 70 plus elders, they created a nucleus of angry opponents who were able to leverage those community structures into meaningful rebellion.
While these structural factors appear most significant, the experience in Yahyakhel also points to the role played by particular leaders or personalities. Even with all the preconditions there, it is unlikely that Yahyakhel would have shifted to the government during the period of Qudrat’s control – he was popular, in tune with local dynamics, and able to win and maintain popular support for the Taleban. Certain individuals also played a role in eventually reversing that support, with tribal leaders like Nur Muhammad demonstrating an ability not only mobilise tribal forces, but to do so in a way that was cohesive and inclusive. This illustrates the key role charismatic individuals often play, on both sides (see for example, Haji Gul Agha in Shajoy district, Zabul province, who turned the ALP round from abusive militia to a force which defended the community).
One other thing to stress is that the Yahyakhel ALP is a genuine community defence force. This differs from the much more common pattern, of ALP units presented as representing ‘the community’ when a little digging revealed this to be false, often egregiously so. Instead, their capture by factional, criminal, ethnic or tribal interests or by strongmen inevitably undermines the prospect for genuine community support and may provoke local conflict and facilitate abuses of the population. Such co-option of the ALP has also undermined the idea of community defence forces and tarnished the reputation of the ALP nationally. (For examples of ALP units presented as representing their communities which were not, see AAN case studies of Shajoy in Zabul, Andar in Ghazni, and Gizab and Khas Uruzgan districts in Uruzgan province (see here and here, especially footnote 3).)
Analysis of the ingredients for success: sustaining a ‘good ALP’
We asked a selection of our interviewees (two of the businessmen, the civil society activist, the three tribal elders, the ALP commander, the three local journalists, MP Katawazi, a Taleban supporter from neighbouring Omna district and a UNAMA analyst) why the ALP had worked in Yahyakhel, in terms of maintaining security for local people and, in contrast to many other ALP units and uprising forces, not abusing or predating upon them (see, for example, Andar district in neighbouring Ghazni province where uprising forces and ALP rapidly drove the Taleban out of much of the district, but then quickly lost what community support they had due to their abusive behaviour). The responses of our interviewees suggest sustained success in Yahyakhel came down to the nature of the community and the way the force emerged out of it in an inclusive, accountable way.
First, they pointed to the local nature of the Yahyakhel ALP. Men are recruited locally and operate in the villages in which they live. There is therefore a strong constraint against them behaving badly towards their own people and a strong urge to protect them. Second, all interviewees pointed to the fact that the ALP has stayed under the control of the tribes. This helped maintain control of the ALP force once it was established and curb unruly behaviour. “All the ALP men,” one of the interviewees told AAN, “are accountable to the elders of the three major tribes. “MP Nader Khan also said that the elders “have considerable control over the ALP men and therefore they cannot do anything wrong.” To give US Special Forces credit, this was how the ALP model was supposed to work – with local ties and loyalties holding forces to account. However, in practice, because of the difficulty of mobilising genuine community forces, together with the pressure to get boots on the ground and the pressure of powerful Afghan politicians keen to subvert the process, this has been the exception rather than the rule with the ALP.
Thirdly, the force was formed in a way that brought all three tribes together equally, working in partnership. A recurrent issue in other districts where ALP have been established is that the force has been monopolised by one ethnic or tribal group, at the expense of others, tending to ignite rather than attenuate local conflicts. In Yahyakhel, however, steps were taken early on – by local actors – to include recruits from each of the three dominant tribes residing in Yahyakhel district, Sultankhel, Ghaibikhel and Yahyakhel. Several tribal elders and those involved in the initial mobilisation described it as a roughly equal split, with each tribe contributing approximately 100 persons to the ALP. One tribal elder said this helped involve all the tribes in the ALP so that no tribe could complain that they were “sidelined.” This approach transformed the situation, he said, because it reduced the risk that inter-tribal rivalries would spur one side to support or join the Taleban.
The ALP in Yahyakhel offers a seductive picture of local force mobilisation. It has been able to hold the district by reducing the Taleban’s ability to move and strike. It also did so quickly – an overnight turnaround by locals’ account – and this transformation has been sustained. From the local perspective it has achieved what has been incredibly rare in a country benighted by violence – dampening the conflict locally, reducing the bloodshed and allowing the population to live in relative peace. The ALP appears to have been able to do this by living up to the model of local self-defence with local buy-in and accountability, marrying security and governance gains.
However, while the Yahyakhel ALP offers a tantalising success story, the explanation of why it has worked also suggests a limited ability to replicate it. Because of its conflict-free history, there was both a strong and coherent community which could organise a local defense force, and an absence of powerful individuals or factions who would seek to co-opt it. While such a social make-up is not unique in Afghanistan, it is in limited supply. The repeated cycles of conflict, factional mobilisation, displacement and the ‘war economy’ have created far more communities dominated by strongmen and tanzimpolitics than by representative community structures.
The ALP also worked in Yahyakhel because the tribal leaders who mobilised the force took a fairly egalitarian and inclusive approach. This may also be more difficult to achieve in the many other communities where a zero sum mentality dominates relations between different tribes, ethnicities, and groups. Lastly, even with all these favourable underlying factors in Yahyakhel, a spark was needed to spur counter-Taleban mobilisation, and that spark came from the Taleban’s misconduct, rather than because of international or Afghan government initiatives. Locals supported the force not because of American or government actions, but because they had come to fear and dislike the Taleban.
The Yahyakhel example stands for the proposition that where community forces work, they can work very, very well. But the reasons why they work and the factors that can lead to their mobilisation lie almost entirely in local structures, politics, and personalities. These local factors are difficult to control or manipulate from the outside. That means that, while a good local force may bring huge counter-insurgency dividends, especially a reduction in violence, international or Afghan actors will be hard-pressed to bring about or spur those gains.
Edited by Erica Gaston and Sari Kouvo
(1) In 2010, Kathleen Reedy, an anthropologist working for the US military’s Human Terrain System (which sought to understand the local population – the ‘human terrain’ – in areas of Afghanistan where the US military was deployed) visited the district and reported that “Yahya Khel largely belonged to the insurgents.” Kathleen Reedy blamed failures in the Afghan government for pushing people into the arms of the Taleban (she did not mention any actions of the US military):
…there were schools and public clinics in the main village, but these were poorly stocked, poorly staffed and closed whenever the insurgents said to close them. Development projects were few and far between. There were regular attacks on the District Centre and most of the population were scared to be seen talking to any American or Afghan officials.
She reported that when locals ‘opened up’ to her, it was not to complain about insurgent intimidation, but the problematic “local politicians.” Talking to the district governor, they said, was as effective as “‘writing their concerns on ice on a hot day.’” Most of the time, she said, he stayed in his compound, rather than going out and interacting with the people he governed. “While he would go out into the bazaar surrounding the District Centre, he only did so when his Coalition Forces counterparts strongly urged him to do so and provided him an escort, nor would he go farther than that.” “[He] did nothing to improve their lot in life, so they had no reason to support him or the government he presented.” Indeed, [the] people of Yahya Khel tacitly offered their support to a political-judicial alternative, namely, the insurgency.”
(2) Linda Robinson, “One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare”, Public Affairs New York, 2013.
(3) We wanted to see if local people’s sense that Yahyakhel had become more peaceful could be backed up statistically and consulted a data base of security incidents (the compilers asked for it not to be named). The ‘security incidents’ here could be could be ground fighting, IEDs detonating or being discovered, targeted killings and ANSF or international military operations, but not criminal activity unless conflict-related. The ‘author’ of the incident, whether insurgent, international military or ANSF is not differentiated. The data base only goes back to 2012, the first year of the ALP, but even so, the trends are interesting. They say something both about improving absolute security in Yahyakhel and its relative security compared to the other 18 districts in Paktika.
Between 2012 and 2017, the number of security incidents in Yahyakhel fell by more than four-fifths, while the number of security incidents for the province as a whole fell by only three-tenths. The trend towards security improving over these years can also be seen by ranking Yahyakhel and looking at the proportion of provincial-wide security incidents it suffered:
2012 Yahyakhel was sixth most violent district (out of 19), with 5.9% of the security incidents recorded in Paktika province as a whole
2013 Eighth most violent district; 4.4% of security incidents
2014 15th most violent district; 3.3% of security incidents
2015 13th most violent district; 2.7% of security incidents
2016 12th most violent district; 3% of security incidents
2017 17th most violent district; 1.6% of security incidents
2018 13th most violent district (along with two others); 1.4% of security incidents
Another way to look at the situation would be to imagine if security incidents were distributed equitably across the province; each district would then receive 3.7% of the attacks. Looked at this way, Yahyakhel went from having more attacks than the mean in the years up to 2013, to fewer since 2014
(4) Since the earliest days of the US intervention, Azizullah had been in charge of one of the so-called ‘campaign forces’ in Paktika – covert CIA or US Special Forces-run auxiliary forces that generally enjoyed a reputation for unaccountable behaviour. He was accused of carrying out or having command responsibility for extrajudicial killings and detentions, sexually assaulting young boys, looting and extortion. (For detail, see Julius Cavendish, “Afghanistan’s Dirty War: Why the Most Feared Man in Bermal District Is a US Ally,” TIME, 4 October 2010, and Human Rights Watch, “‘Today We Shall All Die’: Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity,” 3 March 2015, at pp31-39.)
Robinson (see footnote 2) who visited Yahyakhel in March 2012, the month the ALP was hit by an insider attack, reported Azizullah coming to the district: “At the provincial police chief’s request, Aziz stayed on for several days [after the insider attack] to provide additional security and participate in meetings with the elders. Aziz left behind a squad of his own men to work with the team as they sought to find a new commander and shore up the shaky morale.” (p189) Robertson refers to Azizullah as a commander with “the campaign forces.” According to AAN reporting, at the time, however, he had “recently” been appointed head of the provincial ALP (See Kate Clark, “CIA-proxy militias, CIA-drones in Afghanistan: “Hunt and kill” déjà vu”, 26 October 2017. It is possible he may have been wearing two ‘hats’.
Azizullah was killed by the Taleban on 28 June 2018.
(5) Government forces were not able to reach the district, said UNHCR, as the road to Sharana, the provincial capital, was blocked by the forces of Qasim Akhundzada, an Ettehad-e Islami (Sayyaf) commander. Mostly, the district was used by the mujahedin as a supply route, leading it to develop into a thriving commercial centre and staging post
(6) A local journalist described how the Taleban, then a relatively-unknown, new armed group, came to the district in 1994, saying they had come in the name of Islam. They first introduced themselves to the elders and influential religious leaders who welcomed them, and that stopped others resisting. The fact that two of the most influential factions in Paktika, Harakat-e Enqelab (the Nasrullah Mansur wing) and Hezb-e Islami Khales (and its regionally influential commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani) had both received the Taleban movement favourably – and joined their forces to it – also helped win over the residents of the province to the new group. Only one Hezb-e Islami commander in the province, Khaled Faruqi, a brother-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in the Charbaran area of neighbouring Omna district, opposed the Taleban takeover, but he was defeated in a day’s fighting.
(7) In 2001, the transition was without bloodshed. Tribal elders told AAN that when the Taleban left the area after their government was toppled, they themselves took control of the district centre. This was the pattern for all of Loya Paktia. (See author’s previous analysis.)
(8) Robert S Anders “Winning Paktika Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”, Author House, 2013.
(9) Locals named the major raids during this time, as follows. (Their accounts agree on what happened, but are often hazy as to the exact dates of incidents. The authors have added exact dates where the media reported them):
- Around 2004: The first major, well-known raid was on the home of a mullah in Khadala village, Muhammad Yaqub. One local journalist said Yaqub had worked in the Taleban government, although at the time of the raid, he was not an active member of the resurgent Taleban and only joined the insurgency after the raid.
- Around 2005, US soldiers also raided Yaqub’s madrasa, also in Khadala village, with no major casualties reported. A little later, they arrested him and detained him in Bagram for three years. According to a second local journalist, by this stage, Yaqub was still not involved in actual fighting, but was recruiting others to Taleban ranks using his madrassa. Some of Yaqub’s students would go on to become important commanders. They included Omari from Mutakhel village of Yahyakhel, Qader from Ghaibikhel and Asadullah Khanjari from the Segana area of Khairkot district. Yaqub is currently living in Quetta and is one of the key Taleban members from Yahyakhel.
- Around 2005, US soldiers raided the home of another mullah, Asadullah Khadalai, also in Khadala village. He was a respected intellectual and religious figure with many followers in the community. Asadullah had also worked in the Taleban regime, although not in a major position. Many people saw the raid on the house of a respected local figure as a major insult and this considerably magnified the fear among religious people, such as mullahs and madrasa students, that they were being targeted. After the night raid on his house, he joined the Taleban insurgency, becoming shadow provincial governor and later deputy shadow governor for Paktika province.
- Late 2006, US soldiers attacked Asadullah’s madrassa and, AAN was told, killed some pupils, mostly small boys in the lower grades (casualty figures could not be confirmed). The US military told media outlets that al Qaeda members had been visiting the madrasa that day.
(10) The first mention of the creation of an ALP from an American ‘author’ comes from C Lowell Lofdahl, who described himself as working for BAE Systems on information technology, COIN and ‘irregular warfare’ and said he went to a ‘shura’ in November 2011 made up of government officials, ISAF officers from Kabul and local leaders, “who were being asked to support VSO/ALP.” VSO or Village Stability Operations was the name given by the US military to community defence forces which it had stood up; this project turned out to be the pilot for the ALP. The shura involved, he said, “having [sic] the local leaders… stand up and say they were ready to support VSO/ALP by identifying and vouching for local military age males who would be trained to be ALP, with the idea being that even though they wouldn’t be able to fight as well, they could tell who belonged from who didn’t belong, something with which international forces had a tougher time.”
A few months later, in March 2012, RAND scholar Linda Robinson, visited Yahyakhel with a US Special Forces team which, she said, had been the first such team to arrive there in about mid-February 2012. She also describes attending a shura of elders, ANP and the district governor (who did not live in the district but came to work when he thought it was safe enough) which was led by Nur Muhammad. That shura, she said, voted to set up an ALP unit. Three weeks later, in early March, she writes that 174 recruits were chosen, vetted, trained by the US special forces team and graduated in a ceremony in front of senior US commanders and Afghan officials. In mid-March, she said, in a “regular meeting” between US special forces team and Yahyakhel shura, they nominated representatives to deal with government departments and discussed who should command the ALP. By the end of 2012, ‘Western Paktika’, as Robinson described it (it would include Khairkut and Yusufkhel as well) had a total of 511 ALP “which provided an indigenous line of defence separating the bad lands of the border with Pakistan from Highway One [the Kabul to Kandahar highway].” (See “One Hundred Victories”, cited in footnote 2, pp 188-190).
(11) Robinson dates the opening of the bazaar to the coming of the US Special Forces team and their work on setting up the ALP. A sergeant, she wrote “marvelled at how much had changed since the team first visited in Yahya Khel a month before [ie February 2011]. The bazaar had been closed, but now that local police had been nominated and trained, the shops lining the main street were open and bustling…” She also describes Yahyakhel district centre as still coming under fierce insurgent assault in early 2012 – with attacks from four routes – and said the US Special Forces headquarters building in the district centre was attacked repeatedly by Taleban with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms. Her account of the continuing menace of IEDs does tally with local memories, however. When she arrived in Yahyakhel in March 2011, she describes the Special Forces driving over fields and irrigation channels – destroying them in the process – rather than use the main road. “[T]he main east-west road,” she wrote, “was a notorious road, seeded with mines that had killed and maimed coalition troops and civilians.”
(12) Historically, arbaki are a Loya Paktian institution, a force that is local, tribal, unpaid, voluntary, non-state and temporary. It is established to help implement the decisions of a jirga, secure the territory of the tribe or community and maintain law and order (see Osman Tariq’s paper “Tribal Security System”. Since locally recruited defence forces were raised outside Loya Paktia, the term has generally become an insult, now generally used by Afghans to refer to undisciplined, abusive, pro-government militias.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020