The US government and US media are upbeat about a new ‘uprising’ against the Taleban in its heartland in Kandahar. Such a revolt in Panjwayi district would be of particular importance given the area’s status as the birthplace of the Taleban leadership. AAN’s Borhan Osman who has travelled to the area finds, however, that what is dubbed as a ‘popular uprising’ is actually an accelerated joining of a few dozens of people to the Afghan Local Police force. This development encouraged by a new district police chief determined to fight the Taleban, has affected around 10 per cent of the whole district population. However, this new force, like the Andar ‘uprising’ covered extensively by AAN, has turned into one harassing those not sympathetic to it.
If a popular anti-Taleban uprising is to be crafted in such a deeply tribal and badly contested area as Panjwayi, anyone but Abdul Wadud, a calm, unadventurous and landless man from a minority tribe of the area, would be expected to be its mastermind. In an area where tribal affiliation is the strongest bond that brings people together for collective action, he is lacking all the characteristics naturally needed for undertaking a heavy social challenge like revolting against a harsh authority. At the top of the expected criteria would be the ability to command young male relatives as manpower, a reputed family background, and property or money that is essential for buying loyalties. But against all odds, since February 2013 Wadud is leading a formidable ‘uprising’ against the Taleban in one of Afghanistan’s worst battle zones, the Zangabad area of Panjwayi.(1)
Wadud has even been hailed by high-ranking US authorities, both military and civilian. The US commander of ISAF’s Regional Command-South Major-General Robert Abrams told reporters in a live video conference from Kandahar on 13 March 2013 that: ‘[T]his is absolutely the first time that we have seen this sort of an uprising, where the people have said, “Enough is enough”… They are in full support of their Afghan security forces. They’ve offered up their sons for Afghan local police. And the Taliban, frankly, have been kicked out of all but about four villages left in southwestern and western Panjwai district. And I suspect the rest of those villages will fall here in short order’ (emphasis added). Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry picked up the same narrative of a widespread popular uprising while talking to reporters with President Hamed Karzai in Kabul on 25 March 2013. The Zangabad ‘uprising’ also drew upbeat assessment from US media. The New York Times called it ‘the most significant popular turning against the Islamist insurgents in recent years’.
Probably, the only thing that qualified Wadud as the best choice to carve out the rebellion was a newly-appointed police chief for the district who turned out to be his (distant) cousin. Sultan Muhammad, who took over in late January 2013, is rightly described by the US commander as a man who had come with ‘renewed energy, vigour, [and] an offensive mindset’. It was Sultan’s persuasion and constant support that heartened Wadud to stand up against the Taleban. About two weeks into his new job, Sultan managed to convince Wadud to take up arms.
The trigger for Wadud’s dissent with the Taleban came on 7 February this year when the insurgents’ shadow district chief for Panjwayi Wakil Abdullah, together with a handful of fighters, knocked on Wadud’s door in Pishingian village in the afternoon asking for one of Wadud’s younger sons. The Taleban wanted to know from Abdul Hanan why he had recently visited a nearby Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoint. Wadud called Sultan right from his home to let him know about the issue. Wadud recalls that eventful day:
‘An hour later, I discreetly walked to an ALP checkpoint to where the Commander [Sultan] sent his police with a Ranger and brought me to his office. We discussed a plan till late in the evening. Then, late in the night we decided that I would let the police wait in my house for the Taleban to come back for my son and they would ambush them. Fifteen policemen came with me in the dark of the night to my house where they spent three days waiting for the Taleban group. When they did not show up, the police who locked themselves discreetly in the house, as nobody knew of them, became tired of waiting. They decided to launch an attack on a nearby Taleban hideout in Kakaran village. I followed them. The offensive was coordinated with another group of police from the checkpoint. Fifteen Taleban fighters had settled in a kishmishkhana (raisin drying house). As we launched the surprise attack, American planes chased them from the air. One fighter was killed by the police and two others were shot by the planes while on the run.’
Wadud was now in an irreversible situation. Having already earned the Taleban’s animosity, he had to keep on fighting them. He thought it best to join the ALP which had a 300-strong tashkil for the whole district – 100 of them to be supplied from Zangabad only. There, the district officials had desperately been trying to recruit since early last year, but had a tough time to find enough people. Wadud Aka (‘uncle’ as the police chief and others call him) was welcomed to fill the vacancy. He put himself, four of his sons and six distant relatives from the village into the ALP; all of them living in his house, a part of which they turned into an ALP checkpoint. Three sub-checkpoints also fall under Wadud’s command, bringing the number of his men up to 50, including over a dozen who were recruited before his joining. They have a presence spanning over almost one third of Zangabad area, mostly in its northern part.
The ALP mobilisation in Panjwayi reflects patterns from other areas in Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand. The district with its population of over 80,000 people is home to various groups of Pashtun tribes, but is predominantly populated by those from the Panjpai branch of the Durrani tribal ‘confederation’.(2) Among them, the Nurzai make up the majority in Panjwayi, followed by the Ishaqzai. The Achakzai, to which Wadud and Sultan belong, are among the few minority clans of the Durrani’s Zirak branch. The Zirak have remained the ruling elite during the post-Taleban era in Kandahar – as they were for most of the modern Afghanistan and for the whole country. (Both the Barakzai-Muhammadzai from which the last royal family stemmed and Karzai’s Popalzai are Zirak.) Among the Panjpai of Greater Kandahar, even the large Nurzai tribe is underrepresented and left out from the power balance in the post-intervention period; they accuse rival clans of having deliberately pushed them aside. A Nurzai elder in Panjwayi described this feeling by telling AAN: ‘All the Nurzais sit in the prisons and all the Barakzai, Popalzai and Achakzai in palaces.’ Economically the Nurzais are generally less affluent and often identified as more sympathetic to the Taleban who draw a sizeable number of senior political and military leaders in the south from that tribe, including Hafez Majeed, reportedly a Quetta Shura member and one of the most senior commanders in the south.
The emphasis on tribal identity during conflict times means that there are also tribal dynamics at work in the current struggle. In 2006, when several Canadian operations failed to clear the Zangabad area from the Taleban, the present provincial police chief Abdul Razeq, who was serving as border police chief in Spin Boldak then, was asked to send his men who mainly come from his Achakzai tribe to crush the insurgents. Their incursion into Panjwayi caused many Nurzai villagers to join the Taleban after they felt the fighting was taking a tribal colour. According to a Globe and Mail report, ‘word spread quickly through Panjwai that the police commander intended to kill not only Taliban but any member of the Noorzai tribe; true or not, Mr. Raziq soon found himself facing an armed uprising. His men were ambushed southwest of the village of Panjwai District Centre, and many of their bodies were left rotting on the road as Mr. Raziq retreated to the borderlands.'(4)
The tribal factor is not absent from the current disputes in Zangabad where the Nurzai are the dominant and Mako, Achakzai and Khogyani a minority. With many Nurzai in the insurgency, or at least alienated from the administration of the southern Afghan provinces, the other tribes of the area – being a minority among a disaffected majority tribe – tend to fill the government vacancies. This is especially true for the ALP in Panjwayi. The Achakzai are followed by Mako and Khogyani in the Zangabad ALP, with at least one family from each in the force. The majority Nurzai in Zangabad has mostly stayed away.
Almost all the villages and families who contribute to the Zangabad ALP are from the northern part of the area, divided by a stream from the south. Roughly more than half of the northern part is under ALP control now. Although even villages close to the ALP and other security checkpoints are still roamed by the Taleban, this happens much more reluctantly and discreetly than before. They still try to set ambushes for the ALP and fire rocket-propelled grenades at their checkpoints. At least two such incidents were reported by local people during the first week of April 2013. The south, with lesser presence of the ALP, remains mostly Taleban-influenced. Talokan and Mushan still remain the scene of an extensive Taleban presence; it is the former to where the Taleban usually retreat whenever they are pressed in Zangabad.
That Zangabad, despite the presence of almost 20 military units and posts of various kinds – including Afghan and American forces (ALP, ANP, ANCOP, ANA, US Army, US Special Forces and Afghan Special Forces) – and despite popular support for the government, as the official narratives put it, still remains highly contested seems to be simply paradoxical. But there is an explanation: local scepticism about the nature and fashion of Wadud’s adventure and whether it genuinely represents a popular uprising. If there was a collective popular will to expel the Taleban and embrace the government forces in Zangabad, the area should have easily been secured.
The movement called ‘uprising’, however, is far from collectively popular. Wadud has even failed to convince two of his eight sons and a younger brother to stand with him, which is highly unusual in this deeply tribal area. The three are reportedly disapproving of his action. Even Haji Habibullah, the septuagenarian leader of the Khogyani tribe in Zangabad, could not mobilise more than a handful of his men for the cause. It is simply insufficient to call such joining of people to ALP an uprising without wide-spread participation, if not a consensus, by the local population. Perceptions, or spun stories, like that of the ISAF Commander of RC-South about ‘the people’ participating are simply too upbeat, overrated due to the accounts from local officials and ALP-connected sources.
Nevertheless, there is some legitimate reason for surprise to see how things have turned against the tide – though to a limited extent – in this hotbed of the Taleban in Kandahar. When I visited Panjwayi in September 2012, the ALP strength was hardly reaching 150 and the district governor did not hold much hope that this would change. He told AAN then: ‘We have not managed to recruit the needed number of ALP, which is 300, because the local people do not contribute to it. They actually do not have faith in the government’s support. They think sending our sons to the ALP means risking the enmity of the Taleban unnecessarily.’
But how did the situation change so that volunteers now outnumber the ALP’s planned 300-strong tashkil? (3) As reported in our previous report on Panjwayi, the extremely harsh rules and the heavy mining of land by the Taleban, together with the bulldozing of farms and orchards by US troops, had paralysed a part of life in the area. This situation prompted some individuals – not acting on a popular collective agenda though – to not remain neutral and to enter into a struggle for life. Sardar Muhammad, 32, from Kakaran village who joined the ALP under Wadud, explains his frustration with the difficult living conditions that made him stand up for his rights:
‘I had left my home three years ago. The Taleban put [booby trap] mines at the entrance of my grape orchard. I told them not to put it at the entrance. They said it was their commander’s order and this could not be defied. There were bombs put around us everywhere. So, I moved to Kandahar city together with my family and abandoned my farms and orchards. As someone who did farming all the time, it was difficult for me to make a proper living in the city. I spent all the money I had earned from agriculture in three years on paying house rents and buying food in the city. I had no other option but to return to my village. Then the moment came when Wadud Aka asked us to join him in the struggle to rid our area of the Taleban. We took out all the mines in our lands and we are safe now.’
But not everyone is so easily convinced to battle the Taleban without carefully calculating the long-term consequences of their decision. Anyone in Panjwayi who wants to be part of such a venture has to heed the legitimacy of the forces they would be siding with, as long as they do not act as a neutral popular force. The Afghan and US forces have been part of so many military campaigns over the past seven years, during which they bulldozed their orchards, forced them to leave their houses and – at least in one case – massacred villagers that the dominant perception of the government and its allies is that of an unreliable partner that is not representative of, or even biased against, the majority tribes of the district, that it makes the population sceptical to join.
The brutal campaign of Raziq who is a close friend of ALP founder Sultan Muhammad is still in the minds of the people. At least in one case so far, Wadud was almost on the verge of another tribal battle when his men raided the house of a Nurzai tribal elder, Haji Naim, in the neighbouring village of Samizy-au-Korizy. Naim’s tribesmen were under constant pressure to contribute their young men to the ALP. But when his home was searched one night by Wadud’s arbakai (as many call it), the Nurzais were boiling in anger. A former district chief of Panjwayi and the area’s biggest landlord Esa Jan told AAN that if he had not intervened, Naim and other villagers would have confronted Wadud at gunpoint and the whole tribes on both sides would have ended up fighting each other. This would have been the counter-uprising moment.
Although, there are no concrete indications that Sultan, the man who empowered Wadud, is treating the population on the basis of tribal bias, some Nurzai do draw comparisons between the offensive attitude of Sultan and that of Raziq. Sultan has already established an image among the residents as an ‘aggressive’ commander determined to eliminate the Taleban. His men are accused of killing prisoners of war, Taleban fighters after being detained. Eight to ten of his policemen are currently in detention undergoing a prosecution process after the American forces, according to the district governor Fazal Muhammad, caught them on camera while badly mistreating detained fighters. Apart from that, Sultan’s manner of actively chasing the Taleban has proved effective. The Taleban’s shadow district chief for Panjwayi Wakil Abdullah was killed in a joint Afghan-American operation with cooperation and intelligence of Sultan’s police. He has also detained several important Taleban fighters, including a would-be suicide bomber, only in the first 10 days of April.
Sultan’s hawkish public image, on one hand, and the developing reputation of the ALP as an abusive force on the other make the people hesitant to support the government against the Taleban. This makes the massive security presence in Zangabad largely ineffective. The ALP, according to a Community Development Council member, has started harassing people and particularly threatening the non-sympathisers. He told AAN: ‘They threaten people who are not willing to take part in the ALP by [selectively] destroying their poppy farms or forcing them to pay 50,000 Afghanis every month, instead of serving with the police. They are so disrespectful of elders that I never want to face them.’
If the ALP is corrupt and abusive and the district chief is seen – though by a small fraction of people – as an extension of Raziq in the way he pursues his enemies, the population will continue to remain at the mercy of the Taleban, as they did in 2006 and ever since then.
Mistreatment by one conflict party in a contested area encourages the population to side with the other. It would be more dangerous if tribal disenchantment is also at work. In the case of the ALP, if it represents new ways of mistreatment to certain people, it will just end up polarising the population even more along anti-Taleban/pro-government and pro-Taleban/anti-government lines.(5) Such polarisation means that fears of reprisal and long-lasting community hostilities will hold people back from joining a popular action against the Taleban, even if they are badly affected by the insurgents’ tactics.
While one can draw parallels with the Andar ‘uprising’, as both arose in an area that had been subject to the Taleban’s exceptionally harsh rules and both gave way to ALP, there are some big differences. In Andar, the ‘uprising’ started with a group of Taleban with Hezb-e Islami background breaking off from the mainstream movement, on grounds of popular objections against issues such as the closure of schools. The group was co-opted by the government and local power brokers turning it into a ‘public uprising’. Then, most of the rebels gradually joined the ALP, with one group still operating independently. In the Zangabad case, it was directly a government-persuaded revolt that immediately came under the ALP and ceased when the needed number for the police force was reached.
Both the revolts successfully made the otherwise impossible project of ALP insertion into an insurgency heartland possible, under glittering titles of ‘popular uprising’ building upon the resentment towards Taleban’s tactics. In both cases, the officials attempted to present a highly manipulated and exaggerated account of events, while offering no guarantee that the new ‘liberating force’ would not turn into an equally abusive militia. It is clear that expelling the Taleban alone will not help the government win public minds if this is not followed by proper government services and development work. Replacing one abusive force by another which is seen as even less responsible only further alienates the population and makes them yearn for the return of the Taleban. Such increased alienation is clearly visible in both Andar and Zangabad, especially among the part of the population who don’t want to contribute their young men to the ALP.
(1) Zangabad, pronounced by locals as Zangawat, is located some 10 kilometres to the southwest of the district centre and 40 kilometres from the provincial centre Kandahar City. Zangabad, together with its neighbouring areas of Talokan and Mushan, forms the so-called ‘Horn of Panjwayi’ (dubbed by the Americans) which, over the past seven years, has been one of the three most restive areas of Afghanistan.
(2) The other major confederation in the Afghan south is the Ghilzai. Two other Pashtun confederations in Afghanistan are the Karlani and Gharghasht.
(3) The police chief said there were hundreds of people ready to join the ALP in both Mushan and Talokan, the two other areas of the ‘horn of Panjwayi’, in addition to many in Zangabad and Sperwan.
(4) For an extensive account of the unfolding of the insurgency and its ups and downs in Kandahar, read this 2010 paper by Anand Gopal for the New American Foundation. It discusses the tribal dynamics of the conflict in Kandahar, and how Raziq’s Achakzai militia were received in Panjwayi in 2006. It reads on page 13: ‘“People began to say that Razzik was here to kill every Noorzai he could find,” said one Noorzai elder from the district. Noorzai tribesmen rallied to fight against their invading rival; some accounts say that Noorzais from neighboring districts and even Helmand province came for backup. The Taliban quickly amassed a force of their own, portraying their moves as a defense of the Noorzais. The combined force ambushed Razzik’s men as they crossed from the Panjwayi district center toward Sperwan, inflicting many casualties. Razzik’s forces eventually retreated, and the ranks of the Taliban swelled with fresh recruits eager to defend the Noorzais against further government oppression. “In our area, the Taliban went from 40 people to 400 in just days,” recalled Neda Muhammad, a Noorzai elder.’
(5) Any action of bullying or harassment by the ALP is already being remembered for the future settling of scores. A close relative of Haji Naim told AAN he would never forget or forgive Wadud’s ‘burglary’ into his house and ‘the time will arrive to settle the accounts for this’.
Photo by Borhan Osman: from right to left Abdul Wadud and Sultan Muhammad, respectively the initiator of the Zangabad uprising and his cousin, the new district police chief
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020