Armed militants have overrun Afghan Local Police (ALP) and a public uprising unit’s posts in the Mirza Olang village of Sayad district in Sar-e Pul province on 6 August 2017. Dozens of civilians were reportedly killed. There is another dimension, however, that created widespread international media reporting about the incident: claims by local officials that Taleban and Daesh fighters – usually fighting each other – had committed the atrocities in a “rare joint” operation. AAN’s Obaid Ali explored the insurgents’ configuration in this area and found no Daesh presence there (with input from Thomas Ruttig).IDPs from Sayad district in Sar-e Pul's provincial capital. Photo: ToloNews.
On 3 August 2017, the Taleban carried out a large-scale assault against positions of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and public uprising units stationed in Mirza Olang village, roughly 15 kilometers south of Sayad district. Its population mainly consists of Shia Hazaras. Afghan media, quoting local officials (see for example here), reported a large number of civilian casualties. (The Taleban denied that allegation, see here.) On 8 August 2017, the release of 235 hostages was reported, but provincial authorities said more were still “trapped.” A local ALP commander told AAN about 40 families were caught up in the fighting and their fate remains unclear.
UNAMA stated that it was investigating the reports. If the reports about the civilian killings are confirmed and local Taleban commanders are responsible, it would represent a departure from the repeatedly declared official Taleban position that the Shia minority is not considered a target and would be tantamount to another war crime.
The Taleban attack on ALP and uprising positions in Mirza Olang, however, corresponds with patterns observed in other provinces more generally. In Baghlan province, for instance, the Taleban conducted a large-scale offensive against ALP and public uprising bases led by a Hazara commander in 2016 who refused to surrender his security checkpoint at Surkh Kotal (read previous AAN analysis on this here). ALP units have also been targeted in Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, in some cases over long periods of time (AAN analysis here, here and here).
Sayad district borders Qush Tepa and Darzab, both also highly contested districts of neighbouring Jawzjan province in the west and southwest and Belcheragh district of Faryab and Kohistanat district of Sar-e Pul in the south. Kohistanat was captured by the Taleban in July 2015 and remains largely under Taleban control. The militants consider Mirza Olang a strategic area from where they can threaten Sayad’s district centre as well as the highway leading to Kohistanat district of Sar-e Pul further in the south. Both districts have been in the focus of Taleban activity in this remote northern province for a number of years. Their most recent attack on Sayad occurred in April this year. Kohistanat has been largely controlled by the Taleban since summer 2015, and its district centre has changed hands several times over the past two years, in July 2015 and again in late July this year, only to be reclaimed by Afghan government forces two days later (reporting here and here).
Eyewitness: how the resistance collapsed
The ALP and public uprising units in the village are led by Hazara commanders. In total, they were able to muster only under 70 fighters from the Hazara community: 36 from the ALP unit and from the 30 public uprising forces.
Gul Hussain Sharifi, the leading ALP commander in Mirza Olang, told AAN the Taleban had been besieging the security checkpoints for two years. According to him, the local government ignored several requests to send in reinforcements. For the recent clash, he added, the Taleban had gathered fighters from all around the province, and the limited number of the local security forces were not able to defeat them. After a day and half of intense clashes, one ALP member and four public uprising fighters were killed. Eventually elders from the village approached him, asking him to retreat with his fighters as otherwise all of them would be captured or killed by the militants. (According to established guidelines, elders vet the ALP members from their villages.)
In early morning of 6 August 2017, Sharifi told AAN, he and his fighters and members of the public uprising group members fled to provincial centre all along with their families. That led to the collapse of the security checkpoints, after which point other villagers also fled the area. Only ten families along with four elders stayed in the village. According to Sharifi, some families who intended to flee got stuck in the Mirza Olang valley where fighting was going on. He said that “35 civilians who wanted to flee from the village were shot dead by militants.”
Habib Qasemi, another ALP commander in the area who resisted against the Taleban in the recent assault and managed to flee to provincial centre, told AAN that over the past two years most of the public uprising fighters had left their jobs due to a fear that the area will fall into the militants’ hand. In that period, he said,their number dropped from 150 fighters to only 30. He said that “this is not enough force to protect this strategic area.”
Taleban structures in Sayad
The Taleban had established a strong, multi-ethnic foothold in Sar-e Pul at least by 2012 (see AAN analysis here), starting from first pockets in 2009 (see this AAN report, p4). The province is another example where they successfully recruited and integrated non-Pashtuns; most of the positions in the local Taleban structures are held by them (AAN’s previous analysis on this here). This leaves limited potential space for Daesh-affiliated groups, and there have been no reports that such cases were successful over the longer term.
A recently published report by Kabul-based The Liaison Office and German institute BICC mentions two cases from late 2015 when “influential local commanders—a Tajik affiliated with Hizb-e Islami in Kohistan and an Arab described as Salafi Taliban—had independently ‘invited’ Daesh to their respective area to increase their power base“ through “Urdu-speaking Pakistani guests.” Reportedly, the ‘guests’ left the province again after about a month, and there was no indication that “a link had been created with [Daesh’s Afghan headquarters in] Nangarhar and the Daesh Shura.” The report also mentions that the Taleban’s difficulties with guaranteeing a steady flow of supplies to local commanders might encourage them to look for other sponsors.
In the case of Sayad, Mullah Nader leads the Taleban in the district. He is an Aimaq from Al-Malek village in Sayad and served as a group leader during the Taleban’s Emirate in the 1990s. After the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001, he laid down his weapons and ran a small business (most likely drug smuggling) in Kohistanat district. He was arrested by government forces in 2003 and later managed to escape. He has been reported active in the area again at least since 2010 and re-established the Taleban movement in the province by mobilising fighters from his town and his network of drug smugglers. Since then he has served in different posts in the Taleban’s shadow administrative and military structure. Recently, Mullah Nader has been appointed as the Taleban’s shadow district governor for Sayad.
According to sources close to the Taleban in Sar-e Pul, he has strong family relations with Sher Muhammad, another Taleban mid-level commander in Sayad. Sher Muhammad (alias Ghazanfar) is also an Aimaq, from Kandah village of Sayad. He received a religious education in Sar-e Pul and is currently leading a small group of 25 fighters, mostly his relatives and villagers.
After the recent attack and the killings in Mirza Olang, many media outlets quoted Sayad’s district governor Sharif Aminyar, claiming that Ghazanfar is Daesh-affiliated. Speaking to AAN, provincial council member Aref Sharifi also said there was no difference between Daesh and the Taleban in the district and that both groups cooperated and conducted coordinated offensives against security forces.
The recent attack on the Sayad security posts was led by Mullah Nader. Ghazanfar and his fighters fought with them under the Taleban banner. The Taleban also claimed Ghazanfar as their commander after the recent fighting in Sayad (read here), indirectly, though perhaps not intentionally, assigning responsibility to him for the killings of civilians in Sayad.
According to sources close to Taleban in Sar-e Pul, before the fighting, Ghazanfar had reportedly visited Daesh-affiliated commander Qari Hekmat in his area of operation in Qush Tepa district of Jawzjan. According to onging AAN research, Hekmat is an Uzbek and former Taleban commander who had been expelled from the movement after a dispute over taxation with the Taleban shadow provincial governor and ‘unauthorised kidnappings’ and subsequently declared allegiance with Daesh. He largely controls Qush Tepa district. (The Jawzjan insurgency will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming AAN’s dispatch.) It is possible that Ghazanfar even declared allegiance to Daesh as the New York Times reported.
According to those sources, however, Mullah Nader reached out to Ghazanfar and brought him back to Sayad with his group of 25 fighters and under the Taleban banner.
The Taleban’s large presence, their obvious intention to eliminate rival groups and their superior manpower and resources limit the space for Daesh to establish a footprint in areas such as Sayad, and in fact in most areas of northern and north-eastern Afghanistan (read our previous dispatch on this here and here). With Salafist influences and sympathies for Daesh spreading among some limited religious circles and younger fighters, or due to funding and supply issues, local commanders might find it opportune to signal readiness to ally to Daesh, or at least explore the option. This seems to have been the case with commander Ghazanfar. His case and research quoted above also show that the Taleban are still able to rein in such commanders in most cases. In this light, to interpret the Sayad attack as a joint ‘Taleban-Daesh’ operation stretches the facts too far.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020