After a siege of almost two months, the centre of the strategic district of Zurmat in Paktia province fell into the hands of the Taleban on 2 July 2021. This followed the successive collapse of 11 of the 14 districts of Paktia to the Taleban within six days in late June/early July. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Sayed Asadullah document and analyse the domino effect that swept Paktia. Having spoken to local officials, civil society activists, analysts and ordinary citizens, and monitoring reports in the Afghan media about the southeastern region, they reconstruct how the districts, protected by over 1,000 ANSF and other forces, fell so quickly, with special attention on Zurmat. The authors explore Taleban strategies, government weaknesses, the shifting loyalties of local populations, the role of tribal elders and the history of violence in Zurmat – all of which carried the Taleban to the gates of the provincial capital, Gardez.Afghan police officers at the site of a suicide attack on the police headquarters in Gardez, Paktia province.
Photo: Farid Zahir/AFP, 18 June 2017.
“Surrounding the cities” is a well-known strategic phase in what mainly leftist, ‘guerrilla movements’ have called the ‘protracted peoples war’, based on a concept developed by Mao Zedong. It aims at forcing the enemy to exhaust themselves trying to defend the cities while their trade and communication lines falter, using the countryside as a staging ground and its population as a recruiting pool. While it is not known whether the Taleban have studied Mao’s, Ché Guevara’s or Regis Debray’s handbooks of guerrilla warfare, their current strategy seems to be taken from these textbooks.
The Taleban have long tried to lay siege to a number of district and provincial capitals. As AAN has recently shown, they have now moved to take a large number of those besieged district centres and, subsequently, started attacking provincial centres.
One of the target cities appears to be Gardez, the centre of Afghanistan’s south-eastern region, comprising three provinces – Paktia (of which Gardez is the capital), Paktika and Khost. Together, they are also known as Loya Paktia (Greater Paktia) as they were all one province under the same name once. While the encirclement of Gardez is not complete, the Taleban’s 2 July takeover of Tamir, the district centre in Zurmat, was a major step in this direction. Moreover, as local analysts agree, and subsequent AAN research has confirmed, the fall of Zurmat was a major achievement for the Taleban as it happened after almost two months of government forces’ resistance, while all other districts in the province gave up without much of a fight. The impact on the morale of soldiers as other districts were falling like dominoes and the failure of the government to send supplies and reinforcement finally forced the Zurmat administration to agree to a withdrawal brokered by local elders.
The preparation: The Taleban intimidation strategy
Prior to this year’s offensive, the Taleban did not completely control any of Paktia’s 14 districts. Analysts who have closely observed the region over the long term told AAN that the offensive followed eight relatively calm years without larger outbreaks of fighting in the region of Loya Paktia. The population, small Pashtun tribes which still have a considerable degree of internal coherence and autonomy, had stayed equidistant from the government– which they largely preferred to the Taleban despite criticism for what locals perceive as a general lack of support from the centre – and the insurgents. Over the years, the tribes had successfully persuaded the Taleban not to set up permanent bases in their areas in Paktia. That was not a big problem for the insurgents, as they were able to operate almost unchallenged across the near border with Pakistan. As a result, fighting and related damage were kept at a minimum, and the district centres remained under government control. However, the Taleban were moving regularly in the area, particularly in the remote mountainous parts of the countryside, exerting significant influence on the local population.
Over the past three years, this situation started to change. The Taleban increased their presence in the province, established a more permanent presence in remote areas and started still relatively limited hit-and-withdrawal attacks on district centres (read, for example, this AAN analysis). This included, for example, what local authorities called a night-time “coordinated attack” on the district centre of Mirzaka in June 2020, which would have fallen to the Taleban, a resident told Pajhwok if it had not been for close air support for government forces. There were Taleban attacks in Dzadzi Aryub and Tsamkanai also in July 2020. Meanwhile, the government, apparently satisfied with the status quo, appeared to have become too complacent to strengthen its own position – or was just unable to do so.
The Taleban used their dominance in rural areas to force the government to abandon its presence in at least one district through what was described as a ‘tribal agreement.’ In Lezha Mangal, a ‘temporary district’ ) dominated by the large Mangal Pashtun tribe and was already largely under Taleban control, tribal elders confirmed to AAN in June 2020 that they had brokered an agreement with the Taleban back in 2018. Haji Ali Baz, a local tribal elder, told AAN that it was agreed that the government’s presence would be limited to the district centre, and neither side would venture into the areas controlled by the other. This agreement resulted in all of the government security posts outside the district centre being dismantled. In the words of Haji Ali Baz, this led to the end of the fighting, which had “caused a lot of trouble for the people.”
Taj Muhammad Mangal, a member of the provincial council in Paktia, said that security had “improved compared to previous years when the Taleban had regularly been attacking the district administration centre and government security posts.” He said the agreement in Lezha Mangal also covered issues such as education, security, the use of the forests (often a contentious issue between neighbouring tribes in the region), the regulation of bride prices (AAN background here) and dispute resolution. People in the area still controlled by the government were given a free hand by the Taleban to solve disputes through the jirgas, rather than referring them to the government or the Taleban, though Haji Ali Baz said that in the areas where the Taleban has control, people did turn to them for conflict resolution. However, he also said the Taleban often referred them back to the tribal elders’ council, which they themselves consulted in all other affairs, only acting as a last resort where the council could not reach a resolution.
In October 2020, the Washington Post quoted the (then) provincial governor Halim Fedayi as confirming that the Taleban had stepped up the number of low-level attacks and had “consolidated the territory they have held for years and broadened intimidation campaigns into rural areas both contested and government-held.” He also said that slower and less frequent US intelligence sharing with local security forces and shortage of air support for surveillance had led to “low” morale in the Afghan forces. The newspaper also quoted other local security officials saying that Taleban “checkpoints have multiplied” and “have become permanent” while “their bases are being visibly fortified.”
Before their attack swept through the province, the Taleban employed a combined “persuasion and intimidation” strategy, as one Afghan analyst described it to AAN. The analyst said the Taleban employed “a comprehensive strategy, creating an environment of fear that they are coming with big attacks.” With that purpose, they “offered money to some tribal elders to convince the district authorities to join them. They were approaching the mothers of soldiers saying that they would kill their sons, so they were reaching out to their sons saying that the Taleban are going to attack you and they will kill you, so please come back home.”
Another part of the Taleban intimidation strategy was an amnesty for government forces and employees. It had been made public with the start of the offensive through word of mouth and loudspeakers at mosques near ANSF bases, AAN contacts confirmed. It was also published on local pro-Taleban accounts on social media, adding a threat (otherwise “we will surely be happy to kill you”) and derision (“during the full month of siege, no one asked you and no one came to you”).
The analyst said this strategy had been designed by a six-member commission established by the Taleban for the south-eastern region, headed by Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Sharayi, the deputy judiciary head for the Eastern zone, with Ibrahim Haqqani as his deputy. The commission also “dealt with the different layers of the Taleban and the different commanders” to keep them on this line.
The Taleban also made direct contact with government authorities and used targeted killings and IEDs to increase pressure and fear. Simultaneous to the well-reported assassination campaign in Kabul in late 2020/early 2021, the same unfolded in Paktia, both in Gardez and the districts, although to a much lesser extent. The October 2020 Washington Post report quoted above said that “[t]argeted killings are on the rise, school attendance is down, and Taliban fighters are expanding their areas of influence, according to residents and officials” in Paktia. The most prominent victim was AyubGharwal, deputy chairman of the Paktia provincial council, who was shot dead in a central area of Gardezon on 19 September 2020, reportedly by “unidentified gunmen”.
In February 2020, three Wolesi Jirga members from Paktia who were on their way to conflict resolution in the border district of Dand-e Patan were ambushed in Tsamkanai district, resulting in the injury of a policeman. In the same month, a motorcycle bomb attack at Paktia University in Gardez killed a policeman, a case in which the Taleban publicly rejected their involvement.
As an example that this worked, the analyst said, “there was no [military] pressure on Tsamkanai, Dand-e Patan and Janikhel [during the offensive] but hundreds of forces reportedly surrendered to very few Taleban.” Tribal elder Qureshi described the situation with almost the same words: “The Taleban send elders of the tribe to the districts and battalions in their area, telling them that we would not fight with you if you surrender and leave the place.”
The retreat: How the Paktia dominoes fell
The start of the US and allied troop withdrawals from Afghanistan (and with it a sharp reduction of US close air support to Afghan forces, a decisive factor in many battles) created increasing operational space for the Taleban to wipe out the government’s presence in many rural areas, including the southeast. The Taleban answered President Joe Biden’s unilateral postponement of the end date of withdrawal from May to August with a show of force resulting in the collapse of over half of the country’s district centres (see AAN analysis here).
In Paktia, the last US troops had already left by March 2021, including from a facility in the Gardez ANA base. According to reports from local journalists, this was followed by increased Taleban activity and over a widened geographical area starting from April 2020. (The journalists also complained that authorities limited their access to information about the developments related to the Taleban offensive.) Fighting remained sporadic.
The domino-like fall of 11 of the 14 districts of Paktia to the Taleban within six days in late June/early July was prepared by a wave of attacks immediately after the Islamic festival of Eid ul-Fitr (12/13 May 2021). For example, a truck bomb near a military court in Gardez killed at least five people on 14 May. On 29 May, Taleban attacked the border police in Dand-e Patan, resulting in 14 policemen being killed.
Around 5 June, the first signs of a large imminent Taleban offensive became visible, according to Pajhwok. The Taleban ordered the local population to temporarily evacuate their homes located near the district administration centres and ANSF installations and the houses near the province’s two main roads, to Zurmat (to the south of Gardez) and Dand-e Patan (to the north of it) and not to move around in those areas. Known pro-Taleban Facebook accounts published the same message, which was also announced by the mullahs in the mosques and sometimes personally relayed by the Taleban to the households. Some of those houses were turned into ambush bases, local people told AAN. This covered practically the entire province.
The Taleban then blocked the two main roads by planting mines. In the report quoted above, Pajhwok said it had obtained photos and videos showing the Taleban digging up the Gardez-Zurmat road and some side roads. The measures blocked the way for the local population and prevented transportation of patients to health clinics in the district centres and Gardez. The Taleban insisted on being informed if people had to leave the village (including to visit clinics) and at times helped families with patients to avoid mines by using side roads. However, many people could only walk, and – according to media reports and various local AAN contacts – several patients in urgent need of healthcare died before reaching a clinic. Pajhwok further quoted Haji Rohullah Mangal, a tribal elder, saying that the Taleban had turned dozens of vehicles back to Gardez. A Zurmat resident said they had also restricted the residents’ movement in the district market since the week before, that all shops in the bazaar had been closed for several days, that they forcibly drove people from their homes and set up “centres” in local mosques. It also quoted residents saying that the Taleban had captured a base (vacated before by the ANSF) and some posts in the Muqarabkhel area of Zurmat, and people were worried about the forthcoming fighting and expected food shortages.
By then, Paktia civil society activists said, 7,000 families, mainly from Zurmat and Mirzaka, had fled their homes after three weeks of fighting. At a press conference held in Gardez on 14 Juneand reported by Ettelaat-e Ruz daily, Obaidullah Marhuni, director of refugee and returnee affairs in Paktia, spoke of 5,000 families fleeing.
But the major offensive was still to come. It started at Mirzaka (according to Afghanistan’s National Statistics and Information Authority, NSIA, still a ‘temporary’ district), situated halfway on the main road between Gardez and the border with Pakistan. This initial Taleban operation aimed to disconnect this major land-based supply line between the provincial capital and the six districts in Paktia’s northern half. Mirzaka’s district centre fell on 19 June after a ten-day-long siege and heavy fighting. The local garrison – mainly from the ANA-Territorial Force (AAN background here), the border forces (formerly and locally still known as the ‘border police’) and Public Uprising forces (Dari: Khezesh-e Mardomi; Pashto: Patsunian, a quasi-militia force that emerged from the defunct ALP, background on this AAN special report) ) – finally withdrew to Gardez, according to an anonymous provincial council member quoted by Ettelaat-e Ruz. This was confirmed by Janat Khan Tsamkanai, a member of the provincial council, who told another Afghan news outlet, AVA Press, that the border forces who had been based there due to the lack of availability of other forces, had to withdraw under Taleban pressure. The then still acting provincial governor Fedayi (he was replaced soon after), however, called it a “tactical retreat” to “protect civilian lives”.
The fall of Mirzaka came as a surprise. The district was known for its largely pro-government population and had a relatively high density of government forces because of its strategic position on the province’s major road toward the border. In 2019, its population had taken a jirga decision, which held till 2020, not to allow the Taleban in and threatening to sanction anyone violating this, an analyst told AAN. The agreement obliged mullahs – contrary to a ban by the Taleban – to read the janaza (funeral rites) for government fighters who were killed and prohibited the Taleban from capturing government soldiers visiting their families in the district.
The second domino was Ahmadkhel (also: Lezha Ahmadkhel), the next day (20 June), when the ANA base in Ahmadkhel on the road to the border fell into the hands of Taleban. They reportedly killed three soldiers and captured three others.
Next was the important border district of Dzadzi Aryub, one day later on 21 June, when its garrison of ANA-Territorial Force members (formerly members of the now-defunct Afghan Local Police/ALP) and border police withdrew. The Taleban had besieged the garrison for 23 days. Fighting had spread to Aryub’s outskirts by late May, with sporadic clashes at security checkpoints, as Afghan daily Ettelaat-e Ruz reported quoting local tribal elder and Kaftan (the Pashto form of Captain) Ekhlas, Aryub’s district chief. At that point, Ekhlas and Paktia police chief General Najibullah Sartar still claimed that there were enough troops in the district to hold the Taleban back. However, Ekhlas had already acknowledged that security problems were increasing in some areas along the road to Gardez. Sartar also claimed that there were enough supplies for the “checkpoints and bases of the security forces [in] Aryub, Chamkani, Dand-e Patan, Janikhel and the rest of Paktia’s districts.” However, on 21 June, they were proven wrong, as the district centre fell into Taleban hands.
Over the period of the siege of Aryub, the border police, in particular, had seen many defections, and tribal leaders persuaded members of the civilian administration, often via their relatives, to give up their jobs and go home to save their lives, according to local AAN sources. AAN’s sources reported suspicions that the local border police commander, Mirza Gul, had colluded with the Taleban before, as he was now “with them” (though it was unclear whether voluntarily or as a prisoner). They also said local elders had made a deal with the Taleban that all weapons, ammunition and equipment would be left in the district administrative compound when the garrison was surrendered. This deal made by local elders was confirmed by Taleban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, quoted by Azam News. He also said government forces had “joined the mujahedin.”
Abdul Malik Dzadzai, chairman of the Paktia Provincial Council, told AAN on 5 August that the Taleban collect ushr and zakat in the district. He said since the day the district fell to the Taleban, all services had been suspended and the road to the district had been closed.
On 22 June, Muhammad Rahman Qaderi, a member of the provincial council, confirmed to Pajhwok that “all border districts “of Paktia had collapsed, ie also Dand-e Patan and Lezha Mangal (the latter technically not directly at the border but locally labelled as such). Provincial council chairman Dzadzai told the news agency those districts had been on the verge of collapse for the past 20 days and were finally captured by the Taleban due to a lack of reinforcement from the government. AAN’s local sources also mentioned this as the main reason.
With the fall of the Dand-e Patan district centre, the cross-border trade revenue fell to the Taleban. On 4 July, officials at the Paktia Chamber of Commerce and Investment told Tolonews that the Taleban collected millions of afghanis daily there. The government has suspended all imports and exports on this route after the district fell to the Taleban, and “very few cars” pass through there daily, according to Dzadzai. However, an alternative route via Lezha Mangal, Ahmadkhel, Dzadzi Aryub and Logar province finally connects to Kabul. On that route, the Taleban are collecting the tax. According to Dzadzai, the government should reopen the trade as the current suspension was hurting local traders who now use the Taleban-controlled alternative route.
Tsamkanai, also not directly at the border, but hosting the main Afghan customs station for the area and the large cross-border import/export bazaar at its centre Shahr-e Naw, fell on 23 June, according to Ettelaat-e Ruz. Local sources told Azam News, the local ANA battalion’s base, the police headquarters and all security personnel in the district were captured by the Taleban without a fight. According to the same report, the Taleban said they seized a large number of weapons, vehicles and ammunition in the district and were now in control of the main bazaar. This also seems to indicate a brokered surrender and withdrawal by the government forces.
On 24 June, Sayed Karam, Ahmadabad (also known as Ahmad Aba – the province stronghold of President Ashraf Ghani’s Ahmadzai tribe in the province) and Rohani Baba fell. While there was heavy fighting in Sayed Karam – which borders the provincial capital – and Ahmadabad before its garrisons withdrew to Gardez, the police-only garrison in Rohani Baba gave up without resistance and also retreated to the provincial capital. The district police chief, Second Lieutenant Muhammad Islam, was reportedly killed in skirmishes the previous week, on 16 June. A Zurmat civil society activist, Abbas Hekmat, told AAN that he was the only government representative in the unofficial district who resided in a private house
On 24 June, a high-ranking government delegation travelled to Gardez on an emergency inspection tour. It was led by Shamim Khan Katawazai, the head of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG), a former presidential advisor and Paktia governor (he is from neighbouring Paktika). The delegation also included members of parliament from Paktia. As a result, the government sent in the 333 commando unit and the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a CIA-trained, equipped and (at least until recently) led militia, to take back Sayed Karam, Ahmadabad and Mirzaka districts. The government counter-offensive was accompanied by Afghan Air Force strikes and caused many casualties on all sides.
The counter-offensive indeed succeeded in taking back the three district centres on 24 and 25 June, only to lose Mirzaka again to the Taleban, who had sent additional forces from Zurmat a day later. One analyst said the regular ANSF forces were unable to hold Mirzaka. In Zurmat, in the meantime, fighting stalled, but the Taleban siege was kept in place. The local government justified the new withdrawal with the need to avoid more civilian casualties.
In the district centres of Sayed Karam and Ahmadabad, the government only has a military but no civilian presence. Fighting in both districts continues, though at the time of this writing the intensity of the battle had reduced in Ahmadabad after the government brought more areas of the district under its control. The Taleban still control Machalgho Dam, which is important for local irrigation. In Sayed Karam, the Taleban repeatedly attacked the district centre in the following days.
At the time of writing, most of the sporadic fighting is concentrating on the Badam Kanda area, three kilometres outside the district centre, on the way to Mirzaka district. The bazaar of Sayed Karam has been repeatedly closed because of the fighting, which included airstrikes and artillery fire by government troops. As a result, most local people have left the area for Gardez. Ahmadabad, meanwhile, is less volatile, with only occasional clashes.
Local officials in Paktia told ToloNews (here and here) that before the Taleban lost Sayed Karam and Mirzaka, they took equipment from the district offices and set the rest, including documents, on fire. They also claimed the Taleban had blown up a major hospital under construction in Sayed Karam district. Pajhwok quoted Muhammadullah, head of the company building the hospital, alleging that the insurgents had previously demanded more than seven million Afghanis to allow the construction of the hospital and had opposed ongoing construction when he rejected the demand. He also said some of his workers had been beaten and their money and mobile phones stolen by the Taleban. In addition, the officials said they had captured Pakistani Taleban fighters during the operation (more about this below).
Assassinations continued after the Taleban started their offensive in Paktia, including a number of prominent local politicians and members of the security forces. In mid-April 2021, Muhammad Rahman Qaderi, a Paktia’s provincial council member, told Afghan media that 16 people had been assassinated in the provincial capital and the districts since ‘the weather had warmed’, (ie after winter). According to him, the victims included tribal elders, prosecutors and members of the security forces. Local officials gave an even higher figure. At the time, they told AAN that Sardar Khan Malangzoi, a member of the provincial council, two tribal elders, two prosecutors and 16 other civilians had been assassinated in the preceding month alone. (Other local sources, however, said Malangzoi was killed over a conflict about a construction project on disputed land. He was wounded in a shooting on 20 March and later died of his wounds in hospital.) According to local sources, a number of civil society activists were also assassinated in this period. This was followed by the killing of Aziz-ur-Rahman, a second-year student at the Gardez Technical Institute, and the wounding of his brother Muhammad Taher in the provincial capital on 21 April. (It was not clear why they had been targeted.)
On 6 May, Hazrat Muhammad Rodwal, district governor of Ahmadabad, was ambushed on his way to break the fast during Ramadan; he and one of his bodyguards received injuries. On 1 June, Ataullah, a wakil-e guzar (neighbourhood representative) and another civilian were reported killed. On 2 June, Haji Akbar, another tribal elder, was shot dead in Gardez. He had reportedly been critical of the Taleban’s military activities, and his family blamed the Taleban for his killing. On the same day, a policeman was killed in Gardez. Sayed Karam police chief Homayun Hemat was killed in a mine blast on 3 June. On 11 July, one member of the Afghan intelligence was killed and three of his colleagues wounded in a roadside bomb blast in the second police district in Gardez.
There were also incidents of civilians being killed during the fighting triggered by the Taleban advances. Zarmina Shams, head of the regional office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Gardez, told AAN in late July that they had registered 68 civilians – among them, ten women and 18 children – killed and more than 20 other people injured in the period between 26 Saur (14 May) and 30 Saratan (17 July) in the entire south-eastern region. The figures were based on information collected from hospitals and clinics, the police and the media. However, she said “very little” had been reported by the population and that the number of casualties could be higher because of “lack of access to information in most districts.”The reported cases came from Mirzaka, Zurmat, Ahmadkhel, Ahmadabad, Sayed Karam and Gardez disricts. She went on to say that the Taleban were mainly responsible for those killed by roadside IEDs, while others were victims of government forces’ artillery fire that had hit residential homes.
At that point, the Taleban offensive in Paktia left only the provincial capital of Gardez, parts of the two districts to its immediate northeast (Sayed Karam and Ahmadabad) and the three districts dominated by the Dzadran tribe (Wazi Dzadran, Shwak and Gerda Tserey – where control is largely exerted by the KPF that has also recruited anti-Haqqani Dzadran) in the hands of the government – and Zurmat district which was already under a Taleban siege. This was the major prize the Taleban tuned to now.
The last domino: The capture of Zurmat
1. The importance of Zurmat
Zurmat is of unique strategic importance within Paktia for several reasons. First, it borders the provincial capital in its southwest and at a crossroads between long-time Taleban strongholds, Logar’s Kharwar district in the north, Ghazni’s Dehyak and Zana Khan in the west and Paktika’s Mata Khan, Sarhawza and Neka in the south. Second, the district centre of Zurmat, Tamir, is only two kilometres away from Gardez’ city limits. Despite having been inaugurated several times, the government was unable to pave the Gardez-Zurmat road, which leads to Paktika province due to a lack of control over the area. For the same reason, the road from Gardez to the unofficial districts of Rohani Baba to the east was started in 2020, but its asphalted stretch only reaches Ibrahimkhel with its base of the Khost Protection Force (KPF).
Secondly, the district has been a Taleban-influenced stronghold throughout the post-2001 period. The first attack on the UN in Afghanistan in this period – the shooting at a single vehicle, fortunately without harm – took place in Zurmat on 6 July 2003, with the perpetrators apparently fleeing to the Minzi area. Zurmat is sometimes called called “Little Kandahar” as many influential Taleban leaders came from there, including nine of their pre-2001 ministers and deputy ministers. Most prominent were the members of the Mansur family (or ‘network’), belonging to the local Andar (Sahak) tribe – more detail in the AAN report. Therefore, in contrast to much of the rest of the country, to which Taleban leaders were often deployed from other regions, in Zurmat, the Taleban relied on locals to administer the district before 2001. Currently, the two top Taleban leaders in the district reportedly come from Andar district in neighbouring Ghazni – more about this district here. Andar tribal communities also live in Zurmat.
Because of the Taleban’s strong roots in the district, Zurmat became the focus of one of the first large US-led anti-terrorism operations – Operation Anaconda – in March 2002 (more on this below) a few months after the 2001 intervention (more about this below). Anaconda focused on the Shahikot valley in the Arma area, largely identical to today’s ‘unofficial’ district of Rohani Baba.
Thirdly, Zurmat is the most populous district of Paktia, housing approximately 100,000 people, according to NSIA. This is more populous than the provincial capital Gardez. Rohani Baba, separated from Zurmat in 2017, has an estimated 23,000 people.
While the local economy is dominated by subsistence or semi-subsistence farming, the district is economically well-off relatively. Many young locals work in Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries or India and send back money to their families. There is strong involvement in trade and smuggling with Pakistan (timber, locally grown hashish from nearby provinces, mainly Logar). The local Ahmadzai tribe owns an important number of transport companies in Afghanistan. Afghan analysts say the population has therefore been satisfied with the status quo (ie Taleban dominance without much fighting) for fear their properties might be destroyed.
Fourthly, in contrast to most other districts of Paktia, which are relatively tribally homogenous, Zurmat comprises a number of ‘mini-tribes’ and subgroups of larger tribes which, despite being summarised under the common name of ‘Zurmati’ by outsiders, are divided, making it easy for outside forces to instrumentalise these divisions to establish influence. These tribes include some mainly or exclusively present in Zurmat, such as the Daulatzi, Minzi (other name: Akekhanwal), Salukhel, Mamozi, Uryakhel, Haibatkhel, Alijankhel, Kutabkhel, Shamozi, Nekbikhel and Mullayan, and segments of larger regional tribes such as the Suleimankhel, Mangal, Dzadran, Stanikzi and Andar (locally known as Sahak) and makeup 90 per cent of the population. The remaining ten per cent, from the Marsangkhel and Khodayarkhel tribes, are formerly Farsi-speaking Mohsenkhel Pashtuns who are locally known as ‘Tajiks’. They mainly live in Kulalgo village (one of the biggest in Zurmat) and migrated there from Ghor province some generations ago (for more background, read this, this and this AAN report).
One analyst told AAN that because most pro-government people have left Zurmat over the past decades because of increasing Taleban threats, Zurmati ‘diasporas’ now also live in Gardez and the Kabul neighbourhood of Arzan Qemat. The analyst estimated these communities represented 20-30 per cent of the district’s original population.
As a result of these factors, Zurmat was largely under stable Taleban control. Before the recent complete Taleban takeover, locals would describe their degree of control as roughly “80 per cent” of the district’s territory. Local Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were limited to the district centre or nearby areas. They are composed of a battalion (kandak) of the Afghan National Army ANA (about 120-strong) with its headquarters in Tamir about a kilometre away from the district administrative centre under the command of Colonel Abdul Karim Zahed, an Afghan Uzbek. They also had two smaller bases outside Tamir, in Mamozai, around five kilometres to the east, and Muqarabkhel, also to the east, on the road to Rohani Baba.
Even before the intense fighting reached Zurmat, the government-backed forces had adopted a defensive position around Tamir. On 23 and 24 June, the garrisons outside Tamir were relocated to the district centre base in the night. Smaller bases and outposts belonging to the Tamir ANA battalion in other areas close to the district centre, such as Sahak, seven kilometres to the north, and Surkey, ten kilometres to the south of the district centre, were closed earlier, in April and May. A major ANA base in Kulalgo had already closed as part of the four-year ‘ANDSF roadmap’ strategy developed under strong US influence to give up scattered bases and concentrate on securing district centres in mid-2018 (see also this US military report.
The Afghan National Police (ANP) was largely based in the district centre, in a compound with the civilian administration. According to the official Ministry of Interior tashkil (structure), there should have been 100 police, but, according to local sources, there were no more than 30 in reality.
Numerically the biggest force in the district was made up of between 250 and 370 members of the Uprising forces. The Patsunian, who have swelled in numbers from only 50 in 2018, were deployed to 23 locations, mostly securing the Gardez-Zurmat road and Rohani Baba, keeping this important communication line open, but precariously so. Most of the Patsunian were actually from other provinces, Nangrahar, Laghman and Khost, or other districts of Paktia.
Finally, the KPF, deployed there from its original base in neighbouring Khost province in late August 2018, controlled several villages near Tamir. Its main base was located in the Ibrahimkhel area near Gardez.
For defensive purposes, civilian government officials lived close together in one particular area of Tamir town, called Khwajagan village, near the ANA base (for a more detailed description, see AAN’s 2018 election dispatch from Zurmat). There was also a small office of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s main intelligence outfit, but it did not have a separate fighting force.
2. The story before the story
The Taleban influence in Zurmat also resulted from how the US military conducted its anti-terrorism operations in the region. The district became a hotspot of fighting almost immediately after the US-led intervention began in late 2001, in what the US called mopping up the ‘remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.’ Between 2 and 16 March 2002, “2,000 coalition troops, including more than 900 Americans [from the US Army 10th Mountain Division], 200 U.S. Special Forces and other troops, and 200 special operations troops from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Norway, New Zealand, and Afghan allies” – mainly Northern Alliance-related militias from Logar and Paktia – participated in Operation Anaconda. Anaconda was what US military journalist Adam Geibel called a “major effort to clean out remaining al-Qaeda fighters and their Taliban allies”, including “some Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Pakistanis” in Zurmat’s Shahikot valley.
Shahikot, an isolated mountainous area filled with caves, had previously been used by Paktia mujahedin in their fight against the Soviets (1979-89). According to Geibel, the US-led forces attacked a group of originally “only about 150 to 200 men” who had retreated there after the Taleban defeat by the US-led coalition with “about 500 fresh fighters” joining in, coming from Khost and Waziristan in Pakistan. They included elements of what would later be described as the Haqqani and the Mansur networks (more about them below). Under the command of Saif ur-Rahman Mansur (reported killed in 2008), the Mansur ‘network’ had become a local subdivision of the Taleban in the mid-1990s and was centred in Zurmat.
Operation Anaconda left widespread destruction. Much of the civilian population left (prompted by the Taleban)– over 2,600 families in all. According to UN reporting, there were still 235 civilian casualties, and it can be assumed that the “many hundreds” of enemy fighters claimed killed by the US military may have included these civilians. Local sources told the UN at the time that 2,500 houses, two madrassas, 21 mosques and infrastructure such as bridges and karezes (subterranean irrigation channels) had been destroyed. When one of the authors visited Gardez in February 2007, only 542 families had returned, after a slow return that only began in 2005.
AAN colleague Kate Clark, then still freelancing, reported from Shahikot in 2006 for the New Statesman that the villages were “still largely in ruins” then. Her sources spoke of40 civilians having been killed in Operation Anaconda. One eyewitness said: “Our ears bled from the noise of the bombing. I don’t really want to talk about it – I’ve not been right in my head since.”
The Taleban sought to boost their legitimacy from the participation of their prominent local leaders in this fight, as a commemoration on their website published on 7 March 2021 shows, though it fails to mention the widespread destruction and civilian cost of the battle:
19 years ago in ShahiKot valley of Zurmat district, Paktia province, for the first time the Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan led by Mullah Saifur Rahman Mansoor (may Allah accept him) fought against the foreign invaders and laid the foundation of a historic resistance against the invading forces. (…) The battle of ShahiKot has a special place in our jihadi history because it revived the fallen spirits and low morale of the Mujahideen.
After Shahikot, major ‘anti-terrorism’ operations continued in Paktia – such as Operation Khyber in August 2007 in Gerda Tserey, which borders Zurmat, and Operation National Treasure in January 2008 in Zurmat –, leading to more civilian casualties, “often through the use of ground forces,” as the UN reported. In 2007, the UN had reported that the local ANP in Zurmat district:
[H]ave been the focus of a number of serious allegations of human rights abuse over the last 9 months. These allegations include arbitrary arrest and detention, the planting of ‘evidence’ on suspects, theft of property during searches of individuals and their premises, extortion and extra-judicial execution. Similarly, Paktya’s National Security Directorate (both the intelligence gathering unit, and the investigative and prosecutorial element) have been accused of arbitrary detention, extortion and torture.
AAN has repeatedly reported on the fatal ‘kill-or-capture’ operations, aka ‘night raids’, which resulted in serious allegations of extra-legal shootings of civilians in Zurmat district. These were carried out, according to eyewitnesses, by a mixture of Afghan and US forces. This included the ANA shelling villages in early January 2016; the killing of eleven civilians on the night of 11 and 12 August 2019 in Kulalgo village by what seemed to have been a mixed US-Afghan commando that raided several homes; or the shooting of six civilians in Surkai village allegedly by the KPF on 30 December 2018. These cases only represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what looks like serious war crimes and human rights abuses conducted or condoned by the local US forces.
As a result, people in Zurmat – including many who had initially supported the government – have felt increasingly alienated from the government in Kabul and the international military.
3. The defeat of Zurmat
Zurmat’sdistrict centre had been under siege for almost two months, since Ramadan (12 April to 12 May this year). This forced the government to hastily pull back small outposts and even larger bases from the rural areas of the district to protect Tamir.
Checkpoints had already been relocated to the KPF base in Ibrahimkhel before, as a result of the government’s ALP disbandment, after the US had stopped funding it (AAN reports here: and here). In Zurmat, former ALP units were integrated into the new ANA Territorial Force (ANA-TF), partly the ANP, and mainly into the Uprising Forces concentrated in specific, but fewer areas than before – the district centre and some nearby villages.
The Patsunian continued to secure the Gardez-Zurmat road and Rohani Baba but lost checkposts under Taleban pressure. ALP-turned-Patsunian commander Muhammad Nabi already predicted then that “If Uprisers weren’t guarding the Gardez road, by which supplies reach both Paktika and us, Zurmat district centre would fall.”
The Taleban moved freely in the remaining areas. Local sources described to AAN how they even patrolled close to Gardez city in the late afternoons, set up checkpoints, and searched vehicles there.
In order to be able to contain this, the government announced a curfew in the villages near the district centre and the base during Ramadan. This meant that even during the holy month, the population could not go to mosques to perform the traditional tarawih prayers and Quran readings at night.
When the Taleban started to prepare their attack after Eid ul-Fitr in May, people were forced to leave their homes and all villages around the district centre. Tribal elder Haji Adam Khan announced over the loudspeakers at the mosque that the Taleban were planning to attack the district centre and that people nearby should leave their homes while others should stay indoors.
Abbas Hekmat, the civil society activist, told AAN many nearby villages – such as Uryakhel, Kharshi, Nibkhel, Kalahsan, Baturo, Ezzatkhel had been “completely emptied.”All phone networks were down over the same time. The district market had been closed for about a month. People were locked in their houses and were not allowed to go outside. They were only able to sneak out to pick up food from nearby shops.
One civil society activist in Zurmat described the difficult conditions facing local families due to the fighting. His family, he said, had a house near the district centre and was forced to evacuate it and move to relatives’ houses, meaning they were unable to irrigate their land and their wheat dried up. He said the Taleban were living in mosques and the houses vacated by those who fled. They forced people to provide them with bread and other food, and “this is while most people themselves have nothing to eat.” He said, “the Taleban used my house and turned it into a junkyard. A few days ago, I went to get some household items, but when I arrived home [I saw that] all the boxes and windows were broken.”
Juma Khan, another resident of Zurmat district, echoed these statements to AAN on 23 June. He said:
The wheat harvest was due, but because of the fighting, people were not able to go and collect it. The Taleban did not allow us to go to our fields. Everything remained in the fields, and everything was destroyed.…
I was living my life, busy with my agriculture in the village and taking care of the necessities of my house. [Now] my life is very ruined. Everything I had is destroyed, burnt because of the fighting, as I saw when I visited the village [after that]. Now I live on donations and have nothing to eat. I do not know what to do or where to go. At the moment, I am waiting in Gardez to find someone to employ us.
We want peace. We ask the government and the Taleban to stop the war and have mercy on these poor people and save them from such misfortunes.
Dr Rozi Khan, another tribal elder from Zurmat, told AAN on 12 July that several houses were severely damaged or destroyed by government troops’ long-range artillery fire coming in from Gardez during the Zurmat siege.
In mid-June, government troops tried to break through to Zurmat from Mata Khan in neighbouring Paktika province but gave up after two days and retreated again. This was confirmed by Zurmat’s District governor Abdul Rahman Khan Zurmatai speaking to Ettelaat-e Ruz newspaper. He said he had launched his own attack to meet the troops (and receive supplies) halfway at Muqarabkhel. But when the regional army corps headquarters called its troops back – according to Zurmatai on orders from Kabul where there were fears that Mata Khan could fall – he also had to retreat. As a result, control over the roads fell to the Taleban, and “the garrison of Baba Rohani police headquarters left and handed over the area to the Taleban.”
Finally, Tamir fell in two phases on 1 and 2 July, after almost two months of resistance, and without a final stand-off.
First, on 1 July, the district administration, the police, the NDS personnel and some Patsunian members (others had laid down arms and disappeared before) based at the district headquarters compound gave up and left for neighbouring Paktika province, according to local AAN sources. In Paktika, the government still controls the capital Sharana and most district centres, a situation similar to that in Paktia before the recent Taleban offensive.
District governor Zurmatai, speaking to AAN from Gardez on 15 July, said that he had only 45 policemen, 12 NDS staff members and 14 Uprising members under his command. He said after eight other districts had fallen, fighting around his headquarters intensified. Taleban came from other districts with heavy weapons, and there was shelling day and night. Several of his people were killed or wounded during the fighting; some defected. Zurmatai said the Taleban had more than 500 men, divided into two groups, one fighting at night and another during the day.
Zurmatai accused the ANA battalion nearby, in Zurmat, of not sending support, despite his urging and despite, as he claimed, that they had not been under attack. Finally, Zurmatai said, he had to give up resistance as he did not receive reinforcements from the government. Haji Zahir Oryakhel, an elder from Zurmat, confirmed this to AAN. He said that during the 50-day siege, “no one came to help them” and, therefore, he finally had to give up.
Local tribal elders confirmed to AAN that the army garrison had brokered a separate withdrawal. This allowed the Taleban to concentrate their attacks on the defenders in the district administration centre. District governor Zurmatai, who had been in charge for over one year, said the elders had also been in contact with him but that he had refused a deal and kept up the resistance. AAN was unable to talk to the ANA for their version of events.
Second, the local ANA battalion handed over the base and left for Gardez on 2 July. As local eyewitnesses (including members of the provincial council) confirmed to AAN, the soldiers were allowed to take one light weapon each with them and drive out in a number of Ranger (unarmoured police) vehicles. However, they had to leave all heavy weapons, the other vehicles and the ammunition behind. Taleban fighters on motorbikes escorted them along the road to Gardez, on which mines and IEDs had been cleared for this purpose. All other roads remain mined, local residents told AAN.
Local sources and analysts told AAN it seemed that the Taleban had pulled together both local Taleban and additional forces for their attack on Zurmat. Tribal elder Oryakhel and the analysts confirmed that both Haqqani and Mansur Taleban had participated (the former being numerically stronger), working together despite occasional conflicts. Oryakhel said it was not clear who had worked where, as the territories of both are known, and the Haqqanis did not work in the Mansur area and vice versa, but that “in reality, they are all one.” He also said that the Taleban had supporters among the population, housing them at night and providing food.
Oryakhel said there were additional fighters “from Waziristan and other [Afghan] provinces”, which various other sources have confirmed. The ‘Waziris’ could refer to both Pakistanis (from the eponymous Pashtun tribe which also lives in an Afghan enclave in Barmal district in Paktika) and Afghan students from madrassas in Pakistan, a traditional recruiting ground for the Taleban. Various other local sources also told AAN they heard speakers of Pashto dialects from Waziristan and Urdu speakers among the attackers.
One analyst said there were reports of a Taleban ‘red unit’ (their special forces) having been part of the attack on Zurmat, reinforced by Waziris and Taleban fighters from kuchi tribes. It is not known whether they are still in the area, but he also said that it seemed that after the attack, control was handed over to “local Taleban.” Local sources also told AAN that there was a mix of local and Waziristani Taleban involved in the takeover of their districts.
After the capture of Zurmat, fighting moved even closer to Gardez. The Taleban captured several checkpoints in its vicinity, including in its rural police district 7. Sayed Masum Shah Sadat, a lawyer from Gardez, told AAN on 6 July that the Taleban were present within one kilometre of the provincial NDS headquarters, located at the edge of the city toward Zurmat. Habibollah Sarab, a reporter in Gardez, told AAN on 7 July that there is fighting “every night” in the city’s fourth and fifth police districts, areas that have become the new “front line of the war.” More people had fled their homes because of the fighting.
Ezatullah Sadat, a local reporter in Gardez, told AAN on 12 July that people in the city were “very worried about their future, especially journalists, civil society activists and government employees.” He said some people who served in the government had moved their families to Kabul and were trying to get transferred to the capital.
1. Life under the Taleban in Paktia
After they took Zurmat, the Taleban installed their own military and civilian district governors, Rahbar Mobarez (which could be a name or his title, as the names mean “leader” and “fighter”) and Borhan. (The Taleban anyway do not use their real names, but noms de guerre.) A video appeared on social media showing Taleban fighters coming and congratulating them in their new office.
One day after the capture of Tamir, the amnesty granted to local officials by the Taleban was publicised again. Tribal elder Rozi Khan, speaking from the Zurmat district office on 12 July, said the Taleban had contacted several directors of government departments and the town’s mayor, requesting that they resume their work, and guaranteeing their security. The tribal elders were “sitting with the Taleban daily, discussing various issues.”
Khalil Qureshi, a civil society activist in Zurmat, said a day after the public announcement of the amnesty, several people who were in the local police came and surrendered to them. They were later let go and have been seen “walking freely” in the bazaar. Tribal elder Haji Adam Khan confirmed the same for Uprising members. It is not clear whether any pledges had to be made, and in which form, but local sources say they assume that the former government people had to promise not to return to government jobs. Some were reportedly told that they would be informed when to come again and would be assigned administrative jobs. There were no reports of any punishments being meted out to them.
This is part of the reason why, after the takeover of Zurmat, the analysts and local contacts interviewed have described the Taleban’s behaviour vis-à-vis the local population as “quite soft.” They prevented the looting of the district administrative centre, the ANA base and the ANP headquarters, not allowing anyone to enter. Oryakhel confirmed this, saying the Taleban had only seized the ammunition and vehicles.
The Taleban also allowed the people displaced by the fighting, or sent away before, to return. According to Oryakhel and Qureshi, the Taleban patrolled the bazaar to ensure security, and the hospital was open to patients, as some doctors had returned to their duties. Most roads, including those to Ghazni and Paktika, were reopened, except the one leading to Gardez that remained mined. Phone networks, and even internet connections, were reactivated after a few days. The Taleban had appealed to people to return to work.
The civilian administration had stopped working when the district centre fell, and the local council members were “keeping away from the Taleban” because they were known as those working with the government. In general, he said, the Taleban have respect for the elders. Oryakhel added, “let’s see what the Taleban do about development projects – and what the government does.”
Local sources further said that, with one exception, there were neither arrests nor harassment of the local population; “(male) people were free to move.” The exception, they said, affected Haji Zarif Khan, head of a Zurmat charity group and one of AAN’s sources before the Taleban takeover, because he had gotten into a fight with Taleban members after a roadside explosive device had killed his relatives. Zarif was released on 8 July after the intervention of local elders. Some youth, including civil society activists, however, had left Zurmat centre for the villages as a precautionary measure.
This ‘soft’ approach is in line with a Taleban statement published on 7 July on their website saying that
All schools and educational institutes are fully open, the media is allowed to operate in a free and neutral manner within Islamic injunctions, clinics and health centers are able to work without any constraints, and NGOs along with other independent organizations are also able to operate freely.
Civil servants, journalists and workers of various service providers can also live and perform their duties without any fear or threats.
Moreover, all national traders, merchants, investors and businessmen across the country are being assured that they and their goods will be protected and none will face any obstructions or problems.
However, it is worth noting that schools and institutions of higher education had been closed until very recently countrywide due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, boys schools and clinics in Zurmat had been running in coordination with and under the supervision of the Taleban in areas under their influence. The 13 girls schools in the district had reportedly been “permanently closed” since about 2016. They were located in private homes and functioned up to the sixth grade with an abbreviated curriculum tolerated by the Taleban. Reports indicate that their closure was not because of Taleban pressure on them but as a result of the Taleban appointing mullahs as teachers, resulting in the government – who had paid the school’s teachers before – refusing to send them salaries since they were not Ministry of Education-approved teachers.
Other cultural and practical obstacles contributed to schools being out of service even before the Taleban took control. Many families were not sending their children to schools as they are often far away from their villages, there was a dearth of female teachers and school buildings, and “the negative campaign against girls’ education by some mullahs” (see AAN reporting here), has discouraged attendance.
Taleban bans on women taking jobs or injunctions on not leaving the house without a mahram (male chaperone) also did not have a huge impact, as these were not common practices anyway, even in Paktia’s government-controlled areas. Watching TV had been banned long ago.
All this, as one analyst told AAN, amounted to “no change” in the actual living situation of the local population. Qureshi said people were now “happy” with the Taleban. The “negative thoughts that they had about them before” were gone, as they provide security and have developed close ties with the tribal elders, he said.
However, another local analyst told AAN that there also was “unhappiness in the general population.” The observer said they were critical because of “allegations that groups within the Taleban are [dismantling] vehicles and sending weapons … to Pakistan. With all the corruption, they still prefer the government over the Taleban.” He reported that those who were unhappy would resent the “need to accommodate and obey the Taleban” but that, after many years of war, there was also “no will to fight them.”
Khaled, a shopkeeper in Tamir, told AAN that if the people in the district are safe and there is no war, “that is all for us [we need].” He said the local people were “deprived of everything for 20 years, and no kind of service was provided to them by the government, but on the contrary, they were bombed intensively.”
Meanwhile, the Taleban claimed on their website that tribal elders of various tribes and from various districts of Paktia had announced their support for their Islamic Emirate in a meeting in Ahmadkhel district on 9 July.
2. Government measures
The Taleban’s organisation and ability to amass and coordinate fighters stand in stark contrast to the divisions and disorganisation reported on the government side. Various contacts in the region claimed gaps in the security forces’ command and slow government reactions had contributed to the defeat and negotiated withdrawal. Provincial council chairman Dzadzai and parliament members from the province told the media that gaps in the command structure of the local security forces, a lack of coordination and even mistrust within the civilian administration contributed to the surprisingly quick advance of the Taleban. Dzadzai also criticised a “lack of attention for the security situation” by the central government. He and the MPs also suggested that corruption, particularly in the lucrative border district of Dzadzi Aryub, played a role. For months, Paktia did not have an NDS director; deputy director colonel Najibullah Tutakhel was only the acting director.
On 5 July, the government sacked the entire provincial leadership and appointed new people. General Nabi Gul Ahmadzai, a military officer, became the new provincial governor; Tutakhel was made full head of the NDS provincial office and General Abdul Qayum Baqizoy, an experienced officer who has served in many provinces in this capacity, new police chief. All three are from the Loya Paktia region. (In 2014, Baqizoy suffered the same fate as his predecessor in Paktia and was dismissed after Taleban advances in Helmand, where he had served for only four months.) General Dadan Lawang was appointed the new commander of the regional army corps.
The new authorities announced forthcoming military operations to take back the districts lost to the Taleban on 5 July, after which AAN contacts in Zurmat said the local population was now afraid of government forces’ airstrikes.
Taj Mohammad Mangal, a member of the Paktia Provincial Council, told AAN on the same day that the situation in Paktia was changing with the arrival of a new army commander and a new governor. He spoke with hope of a large number of soldiers who had left their posts in some parts of Paktia but had since returned to their duties, strengthening the morale of forces. The analysts were more careful. One confirmed to AAN that the ANSF’s strength very much depended “on who is in the lead – but let’s see.”
There was also public mobilisation in Gardez. On 27 June, hundreds of male residents took to the streets of Gardez, holding Afghan flags and weapons, chanting anti-Taleban and anti-Pakistan slogans and pledging to join the Uprising forces, as shown by Pajhwok.
Among the organisers was Sayed Naqibullah Tutakhel, head of the Paktia Tribal Unity Social Council, and local youth groups reportedly linked to the Jamiat-e Islami party which has a strong following among the Gardez Tajiks. According to local officials, hundreds of young people from Gardez and the districts joined the demonstration, during which the Jamiat and the head of the provincial council reportedly handed out weapons.
Situation update 14 August 2021
Sayed Karam district fell to the Taleban again last night. Fighting is also ongoing in Ahmadabad district, in two police districts in outer Gardez (PD 4 and PD 2) and around some government checkpoints inside the city. However, a local source told AAN that the fighting in Gardez is not yet very intense as provincial government officials and tribal elders meeting to discuss a possible surrender of the city to the Taleban. On the morning of 14 August, the Gardez bazaar remained closed.
According to local sources, on 13 August, the Taleban also captured five districts in neighbouring Paktika province. This province had been relatively quiet so far. The first district to fall was Mata Khan – at the border with Zurmat and close to the provincial capital Sharana. Later, Yusufkhel, Janikhel, Yahyakhel and Khairkot also fell. Fighting was ongoing in Sharana centre and the main bazaar, which was reported to have been captured by the Taleban on the morning of 14 August. There were also reports that the provincial governor and some members of his administration had fled to neighbouring Khost. According to reports on social media, the commander of the local ANA corps responsible for the entire southeastern was in the process of surrendering. At the time of this writing, AAN was unable to verify these reports.
From Khost, there were reports that the Taleban had warned government security forces and the public ‘not to go to war or be killed,’ and encouraged them to surrender and ‘not ruin your city’. According to these reports, ANSF wanted to lay down arms, and as a result, the Khost Protection Force had taken over.
The recent Taleban offensive in Loya Paktia appears to have been concentrated first on Paktia and the city of Gardez, its regional centre. Achieving this would cut the roads and supply lines to Paktika and Khost provinces, where the government still controls most district centres. The provincial capital of Gardez is now vulnerable, and the Taleban already operate at the city limits. Khost and Paktika might be the next targets for a similar roll-over, as recent flare-ups in fighting in Musakhel (Khost) and the siege of Mata Khan (Paktika) seem to point in that direction.
Several factors combined to trigger the quick, domino-style fall of most Paktia districts from government into Taleban hands. Firstly, a lack of coordination between government armed forces and the government’s inability to send supplies, reinforcements and Afghan Air Force close air support undermined the organisation and morale of fighters on the front line. This is a widespread phenomenon, as AAN has described in earlier case studies (also see AAN analysis from Kunduz, Ghazni and Janikhel/Paktia).
Secondly, the Taleban’s complex strategy of persuasion and intimidation vis-à-vis increasingly unnerved and demoralised government forces, mining key roads between districts, targeted killings, mobilisation of extra fighters, including reportedly from madrassas in Pakistan, and the quick redeployment of their best fighting forces (the so-called ‘red units’) to hotspots of fighting saw district centres isolated and demoralised. Thirdly, the Taleban were able to secure support from local leaders, whose shifting loyalties are based on a long history of violence in Paktia from both sides of the conflict and a desire to limit further damage to civilians and their livelihoods.
Third, tribal elders played a key role in this very culturally conservative region, where almost zero public visibility of women is a norm. It is not clear whether many of them sympathise with the Taleban or whether their mediation attempts were mainly motivated by a desire to avoid harm to their communities and their properties, which played out in favour of the Taleban and against a (local) government on the defensive, practically retreating from many areas.
With many of those opposing, fearing or targeted by the Taleban having left years ago and civil society activists keeping a low profile, the remainder of the male population seems to be content to accommodate what they cannot change: the takeover of the Taleban. This has already been shown by an earlier AAN series (One Land, Two Rules).
The key district of Zurmat was a special case in this round of the conflict, with its local government forces putting up a two-month-long resistance to the Taleban in one of the insurgents’ historical strongholds. Finally, they also had to give up, overwhelmed by the rapid collapse of district after district and the readiness of some within the ranks to make a deal with the Taleban.
A question often heard in the region is: Why have almost 1,000 ANSF and other forces have surrendered to 200-300 Taleban on motorbikes? Although this seems to underestimate the Taleban’s numbers and capacities, their ability to move forces around rural areas unchallenged, bring in additional fighters from madrassas on the Pakistani side of the border and possibly their ability to recruit locally, it also indicates that strategy and morale can trump numbers.
Edited by Hannah Duncan and Aunohita Mojumdar
This article was last updated on 14 Aug 2021