After the assassination in October 2018 of Kandahar’s powerful police chief and ruthless anti-Taleban strongman, General Abdul Razeq, it was feared that the security regime he installed in central parts of the province might break down without him and the Taleban might capitalise on it. Although fighting has since increased, the feared collapse has not happened. In this two-part dispatch series, AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Ali Mohammad Sabawoon ask why. In part one, they map the shifting balance of power between pro-government and Taleban forces in the province in the last years under Razeq. They look back at the reasons for his initial success in pushing the Taleban away from the provincial centre, much of Middle Kandahar and parts of the west – a combination of local tribal, political and US support. They also found a partial recovery of the Taleban in Kandahar was already under way during his lifetime. (*)
The first part of this two part dispatch series sets the geographic and strategic scene, ie it maps Kandahar province’s five sub-regions and the fronts around Kandahar city, as well as the security system Razeq established and the balance of mainly military power during his tenure. The second part looks at what changed after his assassination and under the tenure of his successor, Tadin.
A glimpse into Kandahar security in the summer of 2019
In the afternoon of 18 July 2019, Taleban detonated two car bombs in front of the Afghan National Police headquarters in Kandahar city and stormedthe police force’s counter-narcotics wing. After some hours of shooting, the eight attackers were killed, but also – according to official figures – at least 12 people, including, according to different sources, seven or nine civilians and some members of the security forces (one media report here). A doctor at the Kandahar provincial hospital said 83 wounded people had been admitted, most of them civilians.
The Taleban took responsibility for the attack (media reports here and here). Kandahar’s provincial police chief, Tadin Khan Atsakzai (Tadin being the colloquial form of Tajuddin), came out in front of TV cameras confirming the attack, but this was most likely mainly to show that he has not been hit.
It was a Taleban’s signature ‘complex attack’ that usually targets the Afghan (or foreign) security forces, but often cause more civilian than military harm. These attacks are designed to show the vulnerability of the Afghan government forces, even in areas they are nominally in control of and in an attempt to weaken their morale but, beyond that, they have no significant strategic aimto capture territory or gain control over parts of the population.
Two days before, an official in Kandahar had told an Afghan news agency that the Taleban had intensified their attacks in six districts of the province. This followed a major attack in the centre of the eastern district Maruf, where the Taleban had used four explosive-rigged Humvee armoured vehicles captured from the government forces to attack a local Afghan army base on 30 June. This resulted in 11 soldiers killed and 27 others wounded. There were also eight employees of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, who were conducting voter registration in the district, who lost their lives (media reports here and here). Also, fighting in the notoriously volatile district of Maiwand continued.
This is not an unusual situation. The province is of strategic and symbolic importance for both the government and the Taleban, not the least as it is the provincial centre. It was also the Taleban’s quasi capital when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Their movement was also founded in this province in a madrassa run by its now deceased leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Sangesar, formerly in Panjwayi, now in the new district of Zheray (in many official documents and most media reports incorrectly spelt as ‘Zhari’).
The province remains highly volatile. Fighting flares up sporadically in Kandahar’s districts, while there are frequent terrorist attacks in the provincial capital. The security situation started deteriorating just a few years after the ousting of the Taliban regime.
Kherqa-ye Sharif, the shrine for the cloak of the prophet (PBUH) in Kandahar city (more background in this AAN dispatch).
- Kandahar‘s six sub-regions
Kandahar city is a key provincial centre. The province has 15 official and two unofficial districts (according to the official government list). They can be grouped into six sub-regions. These regions have distinct patterns of fighting and government and Taleban control.
- ‘Middle-Kandahar’ includes Kandahar city, Arghandab to its immediate northwest (not to confuse with the second Arghandab district in Zabul), as well as Daman andthe unofficial district of Dand (the origin of the Karzai family). Parts of the two latter districts have been partly incorporated into the provincial centre (not unlike in Kabul). Arghandab is dominated by the Alekozai tribe, whose most prominent leader during the jihad era and after 2001, late mujahedin commander Mullah Naqibullah, was linked to the Taleban’s major domestic opponent, Jamiat-e Islami. This made it difficult for them to penetrate the district. After Naqib’s death, his son followed on from him as the local leader of the tribe and was supported by the central government of President Hamed Karzai. (2)
- The west includes the three strategically and economically districts to its immediate west – Panjwayi, Zheray and Maiwand. Maiwand is strategically situated on the important road to neighbouring Helmand province; a part of the national ring road. This western-most part of Kandahar is also important as an opium poppy cultivation area and even more so because it is on the transit route to and from Baramchah in Disho district of neighbouring Helmand province; a major drug producing and trafficking centre at the border with Pakistani Balochistan. From there (and on other smuggling routes in Helmand), a large quantity of the Afghan opium production is smuggled abroad via the Pakistani Makran coast, as far as to East Africa, and from there on to Europe. (1) Maiwand also contains the area of Band-e Timur, the home region of former Taleban supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, who was killed in a US drone attack in May 2016. This area is mainly inhabited by the Ishaqzai tribe, which is one of the major pillars of the southern Afghan Taleban insurgency. Their members reportedly have been promoted particularly under Mansur who belonged to this tribe himself (see AAN analysis here).
- Spin Boldak district to the east, along one of the main transit routes to Pakistan, is the origin of assassinated Razeq and his brother and successor Tadin and the stronghold of their Atsakzai (Dari/Persian form: Achakzai) tribe, and their particular subtribe, the Adozai; the second largest tribe are the Nurzai. The Atsakzai are also strong on the Pakistani side of the border; their political leader Mahmud Khan Atsakzai is the region’s most important politician and a key player on the national level. Spin Boldak’s district centre has the same name is the province’s major official crossing point into Pakistan (and is one of the country’s most important border crossings), with the border town of Chaman on the Pakistani side. Both are major smuggling hubs. This makes the town’s main bazaar, Wesh, an important economic hub. The road from Kandahar through Spin Boldak and Chaman leads to Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The district also has been repeatedly the arena of Pakistani-Afghan border clashes and shelling, the latest being in October 2018.
- The mountainous north with Khakrez, Shah Wali Kot, Mianeshin, Nesh and Ghorak districts, the latter being thinly populated, borders on Uruzgan and Zabul and is crossed by the major Kandahar-Uruzgan road and a parallel side road, which are mainly important for supplying the latter province. These districts are also part of an east-west corridor of relatively strong Taleban control. This reaches from Zabul through southern Uruzgan, northern Kandahar and Helmand to eastern Farah and southern Herat. They also connect with other supply and smuggling routes that go in a south-north direction from and to Pakistan. For example, north through Ghor to Faryab (which is another very active frontline; recent AAN analysis here), Sar-e Pul and Jawzjan. Shah Wali Kot district also hosts the location of Dahla Dam, the second largest structure of its kind in Afghanistan and the centre of an irrigation system (not for energy generating), where an expansion project is supposed to start this year.
- The distant east, with Arghestan and Maruf, also borders onto Zabul. These districts are inhabited by a large variety of Pashtun tribes. Arghestan’s largest groups are the Barakzai and Popalzai, with around 30 per cent each. The Barakzai are the largest group in Maruf, followed by the Alizai tribe, rivals of the Atsakzai, including in the cross-border smuggling business. For the insurgents, this area is strategically important to keep open as it provides access to safe havens in Pakistan.
- The thinly populated desert south has Registan (also known as Reg, which means “sand”, and Shaga) and Shorabak districts, as well as Takhtapol, another unofficial district. The smuggling routes for goods between Kandahar and Pakistan (not only drugs) go through both districts and provide income for the local administration, as well as the Taleban. Local people say a large number of hashish processing factories exist in Shorabak district. However, as the area is desert, there is little permanent presence of any side, and also only sporadic fighting. However, as the Taleban commander responsible for Shorabak and Reg told AAN, from time to time they attack areas in Shorabak from Pakistani territory and then fall back to tents on the Pakistani side of the border. This is also what Razeq had repeatedly alleged to media.
Over its entire east and south – from Maruf in the east to Reg in the south–Kandahar province has a long border with Pakistan.
The Pashtuns are by far Kandahar’s largest ethnic group. The Pashtuns are divided into a large number of tribes and sub-tribes with the confederation of the Durrani tribes being the largest one. It has two sub-confederations: the Panjpayi and the Zirak; the latter being the more aristocratic one (with the Barakzai, their sub-tribe, the Muhammadzai, and the Popalzai, for example), and from where Afghanistan’s kings used to come from. Kandahar’s desert south is partly inhabited by the ethnic group of the Baloch, who also inhabit nearby areas across the borders with Pakistan and Iran. They often still lead a nomadic life, and are intensively involved in the smuggling business. The picture is completed by Farsi/Dari-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras, who mainly live in cities and towns.
Grave of Malalai, the Afghan heroine from the anti-British fight, in Maiwand district.
Graveyard of the Afghan ghazis who died in fighting the British invaders in the Battle of Maiwand in 1880.
- The four fronts around Kandahar city
Razeq rose into the province’s central position of power between 2011 and 2013. This was after, first, the assassination of the provincial chief of police, Khan Muhammad Mujahed, in April 2011 (media report here), and, later, the assassination of President Hamed Karzai’s quasi proconsul for the region of Loy (Greater) Kandahar, his half-brother Ahmad Wali, in July 2011 (3). Razeq first concentrated on security in the city of Kandahar (4). Under Mujahed, security there had rapidly deteriorated. Bashir Ahmad Nadem, a journalist in Kandahar, told AAN that when Razeq came to Kandahar with his border police in 2010 – redeployed from his native Spin Boldak (5) – the city was under siege, and much of the surrounding farmland was effectively under Taleban control. He said that before Razeq’s arrival, “the Taleban held a trial in nahia [city district] two of Kandahar city and hung a person” – an example that they had a significant foothold inside the city. Kabul-based international security analysts registered a rise of the number of Taleban attacks from eight on average per month in 2007 to 42 in the second half of 2010, including many heavy attacks. A Taleban takeover of the city would have been an enormous strategic success and a moral boost for them.
When Razeq took command, first, he pushed out the Taleban from their former strongholds in the ‘farmland’ in Kandahar city’s suburbs (AAN analysis of these events from 2015 here). He started with clearing operations in Mahalajat locality. This was previously agricultural land belonging to Dand district, but was then administratively attached to nahia two of Kandahar city. This went hand-in-hand with a fortification of the city and the strategic road to the airport. The International Crisis Group in a 2018 commentary said he turned the city into a “heavily guarded enclave.”In 2014, journalists and author Anand Gopal, who has intensively researched the Kandahar region, counted 18 police checkpoints on this 15-mile drive.
However, Razeq did not start from nothing. The US troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama in 2009 kicked in during the following year with Operation Hamkari, which concentrated mainly on western Kandahar. The operation resulted in significant setbacks for the Taleban. He also brought experience with him from having been part of earlier US operations in the province.
The next fronts Razeq opened up were in Arghandab, in Panjwayi and Zheray in the west, and in Daman and other parts of Dand districts to the east. Arghandab had served as the Taleban’s main base to attack the city since 2007/08. A third front which Razeq concentrated his operations on was his home district of Spin Boldak. This provided him and his associates, including the wider Atsakzai tribe, with its economic basis, and the road linking it with the provincial capital. (6)
A fourth area he was active in was five districts in the north along the Kandahar-Uruzgan road. These were less in Razeq’s focus given their distance to the provincial capital and because they has seen the strongest increase in Taleban activity since late 2016 with some 40 per cent of the incidents registered by European Asylum Support Office, a EU institution, for the province for 2017. This situation is particularly palpable in Shah Wali Kot, the largest of the five districts. Until2017, almost half the incidents in northern Kandahar happened there and the trend has not changed substantially since. As result of the fighting along the Kandahar-Uruzgan roads, the district, like all others in Kandahar’s north, had seen the biggest conflict-related displacements province-wide as early as 2017 (see here, p164).
During this fighting, Razeq “would often lead his forces personally” as the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in 2018.
The Herat gate, another one of Kandahar’s architectonic landmarks.
- The ‘American tribe’
Razeq built his power base and military clout with the support of four forces: the US military and the CIA (7); his Atsakzai tribe; powerful local family networks, that of the Karzai family being the main one (8); and a network of commanders loyal to him. The successive commanders of the US military and the CIA viewed Razeq as indispensable to protect Kandahar given his ruthlessness and anti-Taleban prowess. This was despite various well-sourced reports and media articles about abuses committed by his forces and his network’s involvement in criminal activity. They courted him and provided him with “financial and intelligence support” and some military backing, continuing a practice established with Ahmad Wali Karzai and the Kandahar Strike Forces (KSF). (Allegations against Ahmad Wali, that he was on the CIA payroll and played a major part in the southern drugs trade can be read here; background on the KSF in this AAN analysis.) Many top US commanders and diplomats posed with him for friendly photo ops (for example, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, see here; here in 2014 with Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) Joint Command, US forces and ISAF commander General John Nicholson). Canadian journalist Matt Aikins, who intensively researched Razeq’s role, wrote that McChrystal had decided that Razeq “was too useful to cut loose” (more background in this AAN dispatch). Locally, his militia was known as the qaum-e amrikayi (the American tribe).
The US also provided major financial support in an attempt to economically cement Razeq’s hold over the areas where he had pushed out the Taleban and to supplant the local opium economy, a major income source for the Taleban (but not only for them). USAID started the large-scale, 25 million USD Kandahar Food Zone programme in Maiwand, Zheray and Panjwayi in 2016. It aimed at replacing poppy with alternative crops, an attempt to replicate what was projected as a success in neighbouring Helmand – but assessed as a bombastic failure by independent researchers (read David Mansfield’s 2017 report for AREU, p14, 40). (9)
The mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the Afghan empire in 1747 in Kandahar (in the background, the Chehel Zina hill – 40 steps – with the Greek inscription of King Ashoka, 260 BC).
… and inside the mausoleum.
- The tribal factor and patronage
Razeq’s approach included a strong tribal element. The Nurzai and Ishaqzai tribes, the largest population in the districts of Maiwand and Panjwayi, which were generally labelled ‘pro-Taleban’, became the target of his offensives in those districts. As they belong to the Panjpayi sub-confederation of the Durrani Pashtuns – in contrast to Razeq’s Atsakzai and the Karzai’s Popalzai, which belong to the Zirak sub-confederation (there are only small groups of the other Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzai, in Kandahar) – this created strong loyalties on both sides of this divide. Many influential Panjpayi figures were eliminated during Razeq’s campaign.
The important families were among Razeq’s main supporters, the Karzais, with the former president and his influence in the region and his erstwhile rival, first post-2001 provincial governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, whom Karzai had moved to Nangrahar meanwhile. Sherzai also had Razeq appointed commander of the province’s border police in Spin Boldak. The Karzais, meanwhile, after the assassination in July 2011 of the region’s unofficial strongman, Ahmad Wali Karzai’s, and a short interregnum during which current defence minister Assadullah Khaled played Ahmad Wali’s role, no longer had a strong local representative who could have taken Ahmad Wali’s role. A Kabul-based analyst called what emerged a “de facto coalition” between Razeq and the Karzai family (more in this 2015 AREU paper). This became even more important when relations between Razeq and Ghani deteriorated.
After Razeq’s assassination, the Karzai family threw their support behind Tadin. Media reports, without giving names, mentioned that Tadin was appointed on the request of “inhabitants and influential people of Kandahar.” AAN heard from local sources that the Karzai family was among the first who lobbied for Tadin to replacehis assassinated brother in what was presented as ‘tribal meetings.’ They were obviously assuming that they could play the comparatively young, militarily and politically inexperienced Tadin. (10)
Razeq built a network of local commanders loyal to him to hold the areas from which the US troop surge and his follow-up operations had pushed out the Taleban between 2010 and 2014. Theyoftenbelonged to his tribe or wider network. This corresponded with the ‘clear-hold-build’ counter-insurgency strategy pursued then by the US forces, particularly under generals McChrystal and Petraeus.
Most of these commanders were in the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the border force, but some were heads of Afghan Local Police (ALP) units. The so-called uprising forces (patsunian, in Pashto) had been common in other regions of Afghanistan (see for Ghazni here) but only played a temporary role, and only in Panjwayi district (see this AAN analysis). They were later merged into the ALP. According to local sources, these commanders collected their own local ‘taxes’.
Razeq made sure some of his allies were appointed as police chiefs of key districts, such as Panjwayi and Maiwand. Both of them, Sultan Muhammad in Panjwayi and Haji Lala in Maiwand, are Atsakzi,like himself. Haji Lala was the commander of the quick reaction unit on the Kandahar-Uruzgan highway, where he lost a foot in an attack. After he recovered, he was appointed to Maiwand district. Razeq gave Sultan Muhammad the unofficially function of a commander of the tanzima, an area encompassing a number of districts. This made him probably the most elevated ofhis sub-commanders. Also,the commanders and members of the ALP (AAN background here) are often Atsakzai. The same is the case in Zheray (with Shamsullah, better known as Shamsuk, as commander), and also Muhammad Anwar Anbiya, Razeq’s successor as commander of the provincial border force police.
Among other key Razeq/Tadin allies are Nader Khan Barakzai and Jalo Agha. Barakzai, the ALP commander in Maruf district, had been the police chief of this district when he was injured in a bomb attack in 2017. He was appointed to the ALP after he had received treatment in India. Jalo Agha, the commander of the Panjwayi ALP is a Sayed from the same district, and the brother of Fazluddin Agha, the district governor of Panjwayi (and before of Spin Boldak) who was killed by a Taleban car bomb along with his two sons in January 2012. Also, the current border force commander, Muhammad Anwar Anbiya, is an Atsakzai.
Razeq’s network also included, as Gopal stated in his reportage quoted above, “the ‘four horsemen’ (…) who are Abdul Razik’s main enforcers in the fight against the Taliban.” (11) Each of them ran a private jail. This included, according to Gopal’s sources, one police officer named Abdul Wadud Sarhadi (commonly known as Jajo) who operated from a former US military facility near the Mirwais Mina neighbourhood of Kandahar city. Gopal wrote “the speculation went [Jajo] was orchestrating this dirty war with Razik’s blessing.” Jajo was assassinated in 2014. Nevertheless, all the analysts AAN spoke to agreed that none of them were strong enough on their own to be able to replace Razeq.
Nadem, the Kandahar journalist, confirmed that the ALP in particular kept the Taleban at a distance from the provincial centre for some years and made it difficult for them to threaten the city directly. The exceptions were bomb attacks and a campaign of targeted killings that is still ongoing. This activity also kept Kandahar province out of the war-related headlines for a number of years – the intense fighting in neighbouring Helmand received much more attention (AAN analysis here), while similarly unstable Uruzgan is under-reported due to its remoteness.
On the political side, the Karzais and Razeq supported candidates for the provincial council during the elections in 2014. The same analyst told AAN that this resulted in his Atsakzai tribe being “significantly overrepresented.” A Kandahar-based Afghan journalist particularly mentioned Feda Muhammad Afghan, a member of provincial council, another Atsakzai from Spin Boldak close to Razeq. He said Afghan was now “handling the tribal issues” in the district and was already active among those who lobbied president Ghani in favour of Tadin’s appointment.
Furthermore, the power distribution in Kandahar had diversified over the years before and under Razeq. A Kabul-based analyst told AAN that important players included some of the province’s MPs and the head of the provincial council, Haji Sayed Jan Khakrezwal, who is also a close Karzai ally. The analyst said the diversification had had more of a stabilising rather than a destabilising effect. Another Kabul-based security analyst told AAN that, so far, Razeq’s sub-commanders – none of them of province-wide importance and often hated among the local population – were effectively securing their own areas of influence.
Climbing the Chehel Zina in Kandahar – and a part of Babur’s inscription.
- Human rights violations and war crimes
Razeq’s successful anti-Taleban operations came at a heavy price. His forces were accused, based on detailed investigations and numerous sources, such as Human Rights Watch (in this 2015 report) and extensive articles by journalists Matt Aikins (for example, here) and Anand Gopal (already quoted above) of regular human rights abuses, including “incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, mass arbitrary detention and extra-judicial killings during counter-insurgency operations” (see here). Media reported Razeq’s “take no prisoners” approach in 2014, when he was quoted as saying about Taleban fighters captured:
I’m thankful to my forces for killing them all and not leaving their fates to the courts, which would simply demand a bribe [for their release]. The good news is that they [militants] will all be destroyed. My order to all my soldiers is not to leave any of them alive.
On this basis, the UN Committee Against Torture spoke of “numerous and credible allegations indicating General Abdul Raziq, ANP Commander in Kandahar, as being widely suspected of complicity, if not of personal implication” in 2017. The ICG’s 2018 statement that Razeq “did not fight by the rules” was much too polite for the situation. But it was correct when they stated that “Some in the city celebrated him for it; others in the countryside were terrified.” (See more detail in this AAN dispatch.)
Sre masjed, the Red Mosque, allegedly Taleban leader Mullh Omar’s ‘house’ mosque while in power.
Razeq’s gains and the Taleban’s pushback
As aresult of Operation Hamkari and Razeq’s offensives, Middle Kandahar, Spin Boldak and parts of Panjwayi and Zheray were largely brought under government control. The mountainous north remained the scene for frequent fightinggiven that strategic roads to neighbouring Uruzgan province pass through this area. Concentrating on his priority areas, Razeq left the more peripheral districts – particularly those in the extreme east and the desert south – largely to the Taleban. But this did not mean that the areas controlled by Razeq were stable or calm. Neither did it mean that the situation remained static.
Since 2016, the Taleban have achieved a partial recovery in Kandahar province. This was mainly driven by their gains in neighbouring Helmand and Uruzgan provinces (see AAN analysis here and here, for example). This, according to a Kabul-based Afghan analyst, put those in Kandahar “under pressure to produce results, too.” In autumn that year, Afghan journalists reported a “spike in Taleban attacks“ with assaults on Afghan security forces and attempts “to overrun [the] districts centres” of Nesh, Mianeshin, Shah Wali Kot, Khakrez, Arghandab and Shorabak. This aimed, it was suggested, perhaps in some exaggeration, “to surround the provincial capital.” The distribution of these attacks concentrated mainly on Kandahar’s north, but also affected were parts of the west and the desert south.
Over 2017, the Taleban further intensified their operations. According to a EU annual report for 2017 (p161), covering the period from 1 September 2016 to 31 May 2017, Kandahar province “saw increased clashes in May 2017 after the start of the Taliban’s spring offensive.” It registered 1,762 security incidents for the province, the fourth highest number of all Afghan provinces behind Nangrahar, Kunar and Helmand. (It was approximately at the same level in the same period of 2015/16, with 1,880 incidents, see here.) UNOCHA classified the districts of Maiwand, Khakrez, Shah Wali Kot and Maruf for the first six months of 2017 among those areas from all over Afghanistan where the conflict was most severe in terms of the number of incidents, the numberof civilian casualties, and the numbers of IDPs originating from the area. The conflict remained severe also in Shorabak, Arghestan, Arghandab and Ghorak districts. In the next UNOCHA report (dated November 2017, quoted here, p86), Maiwand, Shah Wali Kot and Nesh were in the highest category and Ghorak, Khakrez, Kandahar City (with Dand), Daman, Arghestan and Mianeshin were in the category below. This indicated that the focus of the fighting remained in Kandahar’s north, but also moved closer to the provincial capital (with fighting picking up Maiwand, Arghandab and Dand), as well as to the east. In July 2017, the New York Times reported on a wave of large-scale attacks and assassinations against installations and members of the ANSF (also see AAN analysis here) that
… centered on northeastern Helmand Province and northwestern Kandahar Province, and includes the Helmand/Kandahar border area, Uruzgan Province, and northwestern Zabul. This region alone accounts for one third of the 45 districts currently under insurgent control or influence.
According to international and Afghan security analysts in Kabul, other districts – such as Maruf and Arghestan in Kandahar’s far east – were static. Most areas and the population outside thesedistrict centres were effectively under Taleban control and not much active fighting occurred, apart from frequent attacks to take over district centres. Government forces werelargely unable to go on the offensive. But the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), an EU institution which regularly reports about the security situation of various refugee countries of origin, still registered the significant number of some 200 incidents for both districts in 2017. (There are no later EASO, or other, district level figures.)
Also Razeq’s and Tadin’s home base, Spin Boldak, became slightly more volatile over these years. The Taleban attacked border police installations in the district with car bombs and in commando style at least three times between October 2015 and April 2016, causing several casualties (see here, p74). Another of these complex attacks occurred in early March 2018, when at least four policemen were killed. In May 2018, Razeq’s residence was attacked simultaneously by at least three suicide bombers killing two police guards, but missing Razeq. In June 2018, Taleban attacked a road construction company compound in the district centre and abducted 13 engineers and 20 security guards. Four security forces were reportedly killed when they tried to rescue the hostages.
In February 2017, Razeq had survived another assassination attempt by the skin of his teeth when a bomb hidden in the sofa at the provincial governor’s office killed the visiting United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ambassador and other Emirati and Afghan officials. Razeq had just left the room, a fact that naturally nurturedsome conspiracy theories. The Taleban, who initially had claimed the attack, retracted that statement apparently after they realised that Emirati diplomats were among the casualties and then denied their involvement in the attack. They even sent a delegation to the UAE to avoid harming their relations with an influential Islamic country that once had officially recognised their regime. This bombing, along with the on-going Taleban campaign of targeted killings in Kandahar City, demonstrated that perhaps Razeq no longer had full control over the city.
In the spring season of 2018, the Taleban further accelerated their attacks on government security posts and district centres across the province. It remained the focus of a series of devastating Taleban attacks against ANSF facilities. These were carried out with captured Humvee vehicles tuned into car bombs in 2018. The local Afghan security forces also suffered a large numbers of casualties with the upsurge in direct fighting. A high-ranking police officer in Kandahar told AAN in February 2018 that “We have been losing nearly 100 police in each insurgent attack since last few months,” particularly from the hands of the Taleban ‘special forces’, the Sra Qeta (Red Unit).
The government forces reacted with a large air and ground counterattack, for example,in Band-e Timur in late January 2018. According to government officials, 83 insurgents were killed during this attack. There were also reports of heavy civilian casualties. (12)
Meanwhile, Kandahar remained one of the most violent provinces countrywide. UNAMA registered the fourth highest number of civilian casualties from Afghanistan’s 34 provinces for Kandahar in 2017; the highest number was caused by IED explosions, followed by ground engagements (see here, p4, 66). According to the earlier UNOCHA report, “many of Kandahar’s districts” were inaccessible to the government (and still are). According to a widely noted countrywide BBC district study, all districts in Kandahar either had a “medium” level “active and physical presence” of the Taleban (districts attacked at least three times a month) or a “low level” one (district attacked at least once in three months), except Daman and the provincial capital.
Shrine in Daman district, Kandahar, near Samelzai village.
District centre control
In March 2017, the Taleban claimed that they controlled five districts (Ghorak, Mianeshin, Registan, Shorabak and Maruf) and heavily contest four more (Arghestan, Khakrez, Maiwand and Shah Wali Kot), while in the remaining nine districts, they did “not control any specific area” and“only” carried out “guerilla attacks”. The terrorism watch website Long War Journal (LWJ) that reported the claims considered them “to be credible.” However, official Afghan government forces and independent local sources who spoke to AAN disagreed and said the Taleban did not control any district fully at that time. Each of the three SIGAR quarterly reports in 2018 covering the time before Razeq’s assassination mentioned seven districts of Kandahar each, either dominated by the Taleban, or “contested”,while all the others were described as under government control or influence.
However, in Nesh, Mianeshin and Ghorak, as well as in Maruf, control over the district centres changed hands several times over these years. The centre of the least populated one, Ghorak, hadbeen captured three times by the Taleban, in November 2016 and September and November 2017, but recaptured by government forces again every time (media report here). In the meantime, as local sources told AAN on 4 November 2018, the government had relocated its district centre from Ghorak town (from which the whole district derives its name) to Kaikak village – the only one in the whole district it still holds – so that it still could say the ‘district [centre]’ was still under its control. The Taleban used this to move into Ghorak town, claiming control of the district. According to a local AAN source, something similar happened in Mianeshin district in 2017 after the district centre fell into the hands of the Taleban; the centre was even shifted temporarily to an area in neighbouring Shah Wali Kot district. Government and independent sources confirmed to AAN that sincethenthe original district centre and some nearby villages were again brought under control of the government. In Nesh, the Taleban tried to take over its centre in March 2017 and on 13 February 2018, but failed to do so (a short media report here). From a village called Nawa, near Nesh district centre, for example, that “violently changed hands four times between government forces and members of insurgency in March 2017,” 700 people were forced to flee (see here, p163).
Maruf centre was shortly overrun twice by the Taleban in September and October 2017.
Mosque in Samelzai village, Daman district.
During Razeq’s rule, government control and security (locally considered as the absence of Taleban control and large-scale attacks) in the province increased, and particularly so in Middle Kandahar. Taleban influence was pushed back from Kandahar City’s boundaries. But the post-script of Razeq’s rule is not one of clear successes. It is rather one of hard-won gains that were constantly challenged by the Taleban and that came with a heavy price of civilian casualties and human rights violations.
In contrast, the situation in the more peripheral districts showed that there were widely under Taleban control, but static, ie with the Taleban controlling all or most territory and population outside the district centres, and not much active fighting, except frequent attacks to take over district centres, which was only temporarily successful. Government forces were largely unable to go on the offensive.
According to various Afghan and international sources monitoring the local situation, the Taleban took over control and dug in to the more peripheral areas from where they are now increasing pressure on Middle Kandahar and Razeq’s and Tadin’s home district of Spin Boldak again.
Edited by Danielle Moylan and Sari Kouvo
Part 2 to follow in a few days.
(*) The research has been hampered by the absence of comparable sets of data for the districts level, for example, about numbers of incidents or district control. The two main andonly data providers on this so far, SIGAR and EASO, discontinued this reporting in 2018 and in 2019. Also, UNAMA’s regular reports about civilian casualties do not contain data broken down to regions, provinces or districts. The findings of the research have been discussed and double-checked with a number of political, media and civil society activists in Kandahar, as well as three analysts based in Kabul (Afghan and international), who have been watching Kandahar for their organisations for a long-time. Some of the former and the latter asked to remain anonymous, but we have tried to distinguish between them in our attribution.
Melon seller and buyers, Kandahar city
(1) See Joanna Wright, “Path finders: Drug trafficking routes proliferate through Indian Ocean“, Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2017, pp38-41.
(2) It appears that for the same reason, Arghandab – additional to Panjwayi and Zheray (the latter confirmed by local sources) – has been selected to serve as the pilot projects in Kandahar province for the establishment of the so-called Afghan National Army Territorial Forces (ANA TF) (see AAN analysis here). Provincial governor Zalmay Wisa stated as early as in March 2018 that,in order to strengthen security in Kandahar, there would be two districts with ANATF pilot projects. Although he did not mention their names, AAN understood that this would happen in the two said districts. According to a local reporter, a 300-men strong unit has been decided for Panjwayi and the first 82 members started their job on 17 December 2018 after receiving four months of training in the southern ANA corps.
Arghandab had already been the site of one of the earlier, experimental community defence forces, known as ‘Local Defence Initiatives’ (LDI) in 2009 (an AAN report here) which was transitioned into the ALP in 2010 (see here) and since then has remained relatively resilient (see AAN analysis here).
(3) Officially, the provincial governor, representing the central government that appoints him, and the chairman of the elected Provincial Council, should be the province’s main centres of power. In practice, however, Kandahar has a long tradition of quasi-‘proconsuls’ who rule over the whole southern region, sometimes called Greater Kandahar (Loy Kandahar), and also includes the provinces of Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul and – sometimes – Nimruz and even Farah. This line included Ahmad Wali Karzai, who officially was ‘just’ the head of the Provincial Council, followed by Assadullah Khaled (media report here) from September 2012 to August 2013 when he was called to Kabul to head the National Directorate for Security, the country’s intelligence service. During the latter years of the Najibullah government, between 1989 and 1992, General Nur ul-Haq Ulumi (now a presidential candidate), played a similar role as military commander of the southern military zone.
The provincial governors play a much lesser role in terms of political influence. This includes the current one, Hayatullah Hayat, who has been appointed in February 2019 to replace Zalmay Wisa, who had been wounded in Razeq’s assassination. Hayat also lacks local backing, as he is not from the province.
This 2015 AREU report by Ashley Jackson describes the current governance in Kandahar:
State institutions and formal rules lay on top of the networks of access that form the bedrock of the social order in Kandahar, providing a thin veneer of government authority and legitimacy. (…) The real power does not lie with state institutions but with the men at the centre of the networks of access that regulate political and economic life in the province.
There is no evidence from the case of Kandahar that elites, even if weak or threatened, may be induced to provide public goods or reform their behaviour. Even when elites appear to act in the public good (such as with improving civil servant salaries, as Sherzai did, or taking measures to improve security, as with Raziq), outward appearances are misleading. Access to public goods, including essentials like justice and security, is governed by a closed system in which a select few have access. If some public good has arisen as a result of this political manoeuvring, it is likely to be little more than an unintended side-effect.
(4) When the term security is used in this text, it refers to its military stability-centres ‘kinetic’ version, mainly used by the military, which is about territorial and population control. This will facilitate comparingmetrics and trends from the Razeq and post-Razeq period. It has been widely shown by a number of sources, also reflected by AAN, that the relative security of Kandahar city and some of its surroundings established under Razeq, to which official and non-governmental Afghan and other sources often refer to as positive, came at a high cost in human rights and included abductions, torture, disappearances and extra-legal killings on a large scale.
(5) Razeq was deployed there in 2010 already, even before he was officially made police chief. Before, Razeq and the fighters under his command had played an active role in US-inspired anti-Taleban operations outside Spin Boldak since 2001 when the Taleban regime was toppled (read AAN reporting). First,he served as his district’s Afghan National Border Police (ANBP) unit, de facto just a formalised local tribal militia that once (during Razeq’s childhood) had fought the Soviet occupants and later the Taleban, and which had been revived by the US forces in Kandahar in 2001 (see here and here). It controlled the lucrative Spin Boldak border crossing, including the illegal drug and other trade going through it (see here). Razeq was officially appointed its commander in 2008 only, in 2011 acting and later permanent provincial police chief,while maintaining his ANBP command. (The ANBP meanwhile had been renamed Afghan National Border Force.)
For more biographical background refer to this AAN analysis, the extensive articles by Canadian journalist, Matthieu Aikins, here and here, as well as to this paper co-authored by AAN colleague Jelena Bjelica.
(6) It was reported in 2010 that Spin Boldak’s customs post only collected one fifth of it was expected to do, according to the head of Afghan customs, indicating that much of it was ‘privatised.’
(7) There are still a number of US and Romanian troops in Kandahar under the Resolute Support Mission. They are deployed at the city’s former international airport, as well as in Camp Gecko in Kandahar city, the former compound of Taleban chief, Mullah Omar, the latter troops likely being of the CIA. The Romanians mainly serve as guards at the US/NATO-run military Kandahar airfield. Camp Gecko is also the base for the Afghan commando unit known as 0-3, successor to the CIA-managed Kandahar Strike Force (more about it here or here).
(8) Razeq’s relations with Karzai’s successor, Ashraf Ghani, were less favourable. There were numerous reports that Ghani wanted to remove Razeq after the latter had spoken out in favour of main Ghani opponents, including the provincial governor of Balkh, Atta Muhammad Nur, who was in a similar strong position of locally-based power, as was Razeq. Atta was finally removed after years of attempts to do so in early 2018 (media report here).
(9) Kandahar has been Afghanistan’s second major opium cultivating province after Helmand in 2017. In Kandahar province, opium poppy cultivation increased by 37 per cent from 20,475 hectares in 2016 to 28,010 hectares in 2017 (the record high of 33,713 hectares under opium cultivation was registered in 2014). The main opium poppy cultivation districts were Maiwand, Zheray, Nesh, Spin Boldak and Panjwayi, according to the UNODC 2017 Opium Survey. According to Adam Pain, Maiwand, Zheray and Panjwayi also remain the major poppy growing areas in Kandahar.
The Kandahar Food Zone (KFZ) was designed as a five-year (July 2013-August 2018), 45.4 million USD programme funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by the for-profit NGO International Relief and Development (IRD). KFZ was designed to identify and address the drivers of poppy cultivation in target districts of Kandahar Province (with Zheray and Panjwayi districts as primary targets) through activities that would improve access to irrigation water, expand alternative livelihood opportunities, support small businesses and build the capacity of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) to manage its own alternative development programmes. USAID granted IRD a two-year extension to continue contributing to the sustained reduction in poppy cultivation in Zheray and Panjwayi. The KFZ programme operates in two activity areas: 1) Agricultural Development to rehabilitate irrigation canals, improve water use efficiency, upgrade existing vineyards, establish new orchards, raise yields of field crops, and produce off-season vegetables under greenhouses; and 2) Government Coordination and Capacity-Building for local government agencies responsible for agricultural and rural development. The KFZ has six cross-cutting activity areas – Gender, Communications, M&E, Environment, Synergy and Sustainability – that promote behaviour change among poppy growing farmers, adoption of new technologies and farming practices, and construction or rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure, with the aim of expanding licit income opportunities in the rural economy (see here and here).
(10) There is almost no biographical data that exists about Tadin. One media report mentions that he has no military training. Even Aikins does not mention him at all in his two ground-breaking articles about Razeq. Tadin is also not known to have played any military role in his assassinated brother’s structures, but has been involved on the financial side, ie handling income and ‘taxes.’ According to sources in Kandahar, he has now been replaced by Abdul Khaleq, another Razeq brother who ran a business in Dubai and was called back to Spin Boldak.
(11) The other three were:
- Janan Mama, Razeq’s successor as ANBP commander in Spin Boldak; he was killed by a magnetic mine on 18 April 2018in Kandahar city when entering his car after a visit to the provincial governor’s office (media report here);
- Esmat, Janan Mama’s brother, had been commander of the guards at the Kandahar governor’s office at the time of Razeq’s assassination since 2013; he also succeeded his brother Janan Mama as ANBP commander in Spin Boldak after his assassination; according to local sources he was removed from both his posts by Tadin after Razeq’s killing;
- Nader, district police chief of Maruf; he fled the area after the Taleban attacked and destroyed the district administrative compound and the police headquarters on 30 June 2019 (see part 2 of this dispatch): he is reported to have left the area for Arghestan.
Names provided by Anand Gopal, email exchange on 10 July 2019, with additional AAN information.
(12) Human Rights Watch alleged in a report published on 21 February 2018, that the Special Forces Unit of the National Directorate for Security (NDS) had “summarily executed civilians [which] may have been in retaliation for recent Taliban atrocities“:
Local residents told Human Rights Watch by phone that Afghan security forces opened fire on men as they attempted to flee, killing about 50 Taliban fighters and at least 20 civilians. One witness said, “when the airplanes came we fled. But as the people were running away the forces were shooting them.” Security force personnel allegedly dragged some men from their homes and then shot them.
Human Rights Watch asked the government and the US military to conduct “a prompt and impartial investigation” of the issue. Defence Ministry spokesman, General Waziri, told the media on 7 February 2018 that the government would soon start its investigations. But AAN was unable to find any information that this has really happened.
Local sources came up with contradictory reports. Provincial police spokesman, Durranai, rejected the claim and told media that only two citizens were killed because they were assisting the Taleban and had provided shelter to them. Fakhruddin Faez, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Kandahar told AAN that the area was turned in to “a total battle ground”, but added that their “primary information” only confirmed that “two or three civilians were killed” and two other victims were unidentified as yet and that “some sources told us that they are civilians but the other sources said they were Taleban medical doctors who were treating their injured.” Haji Muhammad Nader, a member of the Kandahar provincial council told AAN, “It was a battle, and it cannot be avoided that there were civilians casualty. Sometimes in fighting some civilians are killed which could not be avoided”.
Another AAN source in Kandahar told AAN that local people had indeed given the Taleban accommodation and food, but that the Taleban knew about the attack in advance and had told the civilians to evacuate. He added: “Indeed there were no civilians in the place of attack.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020