The much-publicised anti-Taleban ‘uprising’ in Ghazni’ s Andar district is almost one year old, yet no side has managed to consolidate its control over the area. Violence has not let up during the last 12 months and the year ahead looks set to be just as bloody. Our author, Emal Habib, has been closely following developments in one of the most complicated and controversial stories of the Afghan war and says people’s discontent with both warring parties continues as local power brokers try to revive tribal and jihad-era factional differences in order to control the area. He concludes that the transformation of the once proudly hailed ‘popular uprising’ into what some are now calling an ‘American(-made) uprising’ could be a bad omen for the prospect of real popular movements in Afghanistan.
All but a few dozen of the fighters of the Andar anti-Taleban uprising have now joined the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and received training from American Special Forces. It is perhaps the last phase in the arc of the uprising which saw a Taleban splinter group made up of fighters with a shared Hezb-e Islami background revolt against the Taleban over the right of local children to go to school transformed into a government co-opted militia backed by different provincial power-brokers and eventually its integration into the Afghan Local Police (ALP). (Read our guest author’s three previous blogs on Andar here, here and here.)
In the eyes of other pioneers, the uprising has become stigmatized as too many players, irrelevant to the original cause, misrepresented the uprising. Their initial noble cause, they say, has ended up serving ignoble purposes. Mulla Rahmatullah, a former Taleban commander and initiator of the rebellion, who has since lost his father, brother, uncle and cousin in the fight with Taleban, lashes out at later leaders as mafiosi who were only ever after material gain and fame. (For a detailed who is who in the rebellion, refer to our first reportage on the issue here.) ‘We gathered on pure popular and ideological grounds when we staged the uprising,’ he told AAN. ‘Many of our friends have died and many returned home convinced that the goal to free the people’s will from the tyranny of the Taleban had been achieved.’ Now it was up to the local people, the government and the internationals to keep up the security and use it for reconstruction and providing services. ‘But those claiming to speak for the uprising these days, while seeking their own gains from it, are the kind of mafiosi who have had nothing to do with the uprising and its main aims’, Rahmatullah adds. And they were only able to do so because the government failed to come up with an effective programme for the area and was unable to utilise the peace the uprising created.
Another early leader, Lutfullah Kamran, who took control after the first couple of weeks, controversially in the eyes of Rahmatullah, claimed that turning a genuinely popular revolt, which condemned the government as corrupt and unjust as well as the Taleban, into a fighting force run by the government had not been their aim. It had been forced on them, he said, ‘by the shortage of weapons and supplies to continue the fight.’ Even so, he told AAN, the ALP in Andar was a ‘synonym’ for the uprising. ‘We still call ourselves the uprising movement. The ALP follows the same line and rules [as before],’ he claimed. ‘We are not like the other ALP units.’
That the uprising ended up by throwing itself into the arms of the government and the American forces might have been an expected, given that from the beginning it lacked both a cohesive command and a clear vision. It did indeed swiftly fall victim to power-hungry local politicians and became divided on many lines – with new divisions still emerging. This has not remained hidden from the eyes of the local population and as a result, they call the uprising – unanimously and pejoratively – an ‘arbakai’ (here meaning an armed militia).(1)
Unfortunately, the violence of the struggle has not let up. Over the winter, as the transformation of popular rebel group into ALP continued, the fighters expanded their foothold by capturing more villages from the Taleban in the south of the district and to a small extent in the east. These villages had already been abandoned by the Taleban and have served mostly as buffer zones. However, the vast majority of villages in Andar remain under Taleban control. Few Taleban were killed during winter operations by Afghan forces and the ALP although the latter suffered a serious blow when 17 of its current and would-be members were killed in a single Taleban attack last month in Habib Godali village which is 2 kilometres west of the district centre.(2) In another attack in mid-March, two ALP members were killed while shopping in Ghazni city in a drive-by shooting. The Taleban have also had two key local commanders wounded and a former commander killed in addition to several foot soldiers killed during the winter clashes and operations (one report here).
In our last piece on Andar, we reported on the shrinking number of those fighting in the name of the uprising, ie not ALP, particularly among those who had started the uprising and had links to Hezb-e Islami. That development has continued.
The Hezb faction is now almost gone. Faizanullah Faizan, who from the beginning tried to show himself as the real leader of the uprising but never held actual command, has completely disappeared from the scene after a scuffle with another uprising commander, the non-Hezbi, Wali Muhammad. Another former Hezb commander and ex-MP who also backing the uprising, Abdul Jabar Shilgari has also fallen silent.(3) Young Hezbis, whom Rahmatullah calls the real representatives of the uprising, have mostly returned home. Only a small group still operates independently, along with another group of apparently independent rebels led by Wali Muhammad. The rest of the fighters follow Kamran and are members of the ALP. He still speaks about the ‘popular uprising’ while wearing an ALP uniform(4) and even though the Andar ALP conducts joint operations with regular Afghan forces and US troops. According to the Andar district governor, Muhammad Qasim Disiwal, the remaining few dozen uprising fighters will also join the ALP if they are willing. ‘The problem was that we had only a 200-strong ALPtashkil,’ he said. ‘Now, we have got an increase to 300 approved by the government which means we can now integrate all the remaining uprising members into it.’
Locals, however, who judge the new force by its actions, do not differentiate according to which tashkil it falls under or what kind of uniform its members wear, as a local teacher explained: ‘Their treatment of the people did not change. They are the same arbaki guys. They only changed their façade. They continue to harass people for [alleged] sympathy with the Taleban and continue to force people to provide them with food and blankets. They also force villagers to join the ALP and get training.’
Such alleged hostile and aggressive treatment, especially of residents of the newly conquered villages, is forcing many families to send their young men out of Andar or even of the country(5) in order to prevent them from been forcibly recruited or accused of Taleban links. Such behaviour has caused public antipathy towards the anti-Taleban fighters in general in most parts of Andar.
It was this antipathy that made hundreds of residents of Andar and the adjacent Deh Yak district (where the first squad of 50 ALP was deployed) stage a rare demonstration last month (read the reports about the demos here and here). The people of these districts have probably never publicly protested against local actors before. The lack of a culture of demonstrating and local disunity makes it difficult for them to even think of coming together for such an untraditional action and yet they did.
Many locals now question the very purpose for which the rebels rose up. In addition to forcing residents to feed them, robbing and expelling people from their villages, and even killing people, the arbakai have failed to honour, except in part, the initial raison d’être of their uprising: to re-open or keep open schools in the face of a Taleban closure order. The rebels did manage to prevent the Taleban from closing the district’s main school (in Mirai town) and, ironically, the Taleban have kept open many of the schools in areas under their control; when they felt the public’s pressure, they realised, belatedly, that closing schools merely helped justify the rebellion and the presence of the arbaki. There are seven (out of a district total of 44) schools in areas under arbaki control and they only kept five open. Families with children at these schools were too afraid, given the turbulent security situation, to send their children to class and, at the same time, teachers with connections with those living in Taleban-controlled villages feared angering the insurgents. Moreover, some older students loyal to the uprising were carrying their weapons into school which made students whose families remained neutral feel bullied and they also decided not to attend.
Even worse for the arbaki in this deeply conservative community is the widespread perception that they have a poor religious morality, this among a population which venerates the most subtle manifestations of religiosity among their rulers. For example, when news spread on the morning of 27 February that the 17 ALP members who had been killed had spent the night before having a (male-only) party of music and dance at their checkpoint, it made some people say they welcomed their deaths.
Indeed, the perception has spread that the arbaki not only lack virtue, but are also ‘anti-mulla’. This has stemmed from incidents where mullas were humiliated – madrassas closed and mulla-imams expelled or forced to flee from villages where the arbaki have settled. In at least one incident, thearbaki turned a mulla’s home into a checkpoint after they had expelled him. The perception that the arbaki is anti-mulla has been exacerbated by the rhetoric of a handful of educated Andar youth who are based in Kabul who write on social media and in a publication named Patsun (Uprising) which has been printed once or twice only and claims to be an outlet of the Andar uprising. They mainly question the huge influence madrasa-educated mullas command in Pashtun society, blaming the backwardness of the people largely on the clerics and their way of thinking.
In such a conservative, ‘mullacratic’ society as Andar’s, being anti-mulla is tantamount to being anti-Islam and the perception of such anticlericalism risks negating the purpose and fight of the arbaki as a locally-inspired force. Andar, being home to the famous Nur al-Madaris madrassa, has for decades served as the religious hub for the whole south and south-east of Afghanistan, supplying top-level mullas, madrassa teachers and imams. Attacking them in such a provocative way further strengthens the suspicion of the local population that the arbaki are mere mischief-makers who just want to get money and jobs.
Now that the Afghan new year has arrived and the fighting season is expected to resume, the military situation in Andar probably awaits further complex developments. Both sides are making plans. Some Taleban sources have spoken to AAN of their intention to end the rebellion and the ALP in Andar once and for all, while local power brokers living in the capital say they are also crafting plans to rid the area of Taleban. The former member of parliament from Andar, Khial Muhammad Hussaini, told AAN he is lobbying to convince President Hamed Karzai to send a larger force to Andar which would be better coordinated and enjoy ‘better community representation’. Hussaini, who at the beginning was a fierce opponent of the uprising, calling it ‘an American project’ and accusing it of fratricide initiated by ‘blood-thirsty and dollar-hungry Hezb-e-Islami circles’, is now trying to save it, apparently to secure his future political grip on the area.
Khial has emerged, as his jihad-era rival, the Hezbi Abdul Jabar Shilgari, has fallen silent. Khial, who was a commander of Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islamiduring the early 1990s before it lost its dominance to the Taleban, has showed increasing interest in securing influence within the Andar ALP. He successfully lobbied for temporary command of the whole Andar ALP to be given to one of his former commanders, Alozai (one name only). Since Alozai was never involved in the uprising, this symbolised Khial’s surprise triumph over Lutfullah Kamran, who had been the best-situated candidate and was supported by the other former MP, Shilgari. Kamran was demoted to deputy. Then the positions of the two were recently switched once again, with Kamran becoming commander and Alozai his deputy.
The realignments of power and the struggle for dominance in Andar district in the last year have revealed long dormant tribal sentiments to be again at work. Different sub-tribes of the Andar are set against each other: the majority Lakankhel (from which Khial and Alozai hail) versus the minority Bazikhel (to which Kamran belongs) and Jalalzai (Shilgari). According to Shilgari, Khial’s entire game is aimed at stirring up public sentiments in order to secure support for his possible candidacy in the still distant parliamentary elections of 2015. Both Khial and Shilgari failed to keep their seats in the last election, as only two votes were cast in the entire Andar district. If there are no Taleban on the ground in 2015, the two notables will surely run again; they appear, now, to be trying to pre-position themselves for that event.
The ordinary people of Andar, meanwhile, are worrying about the long-lasting consequences of stirring up inter-tribal, inter-village and even inter-family hostilities. They fear a most dreadful scenario. They see the year ahead as likely to have more serious confrontations between newly arriving Taleban fighters pursuing new tactics. Meanwhile, they see the ALP as likely to grow, mopping up the remaining armed men of the uprising into its ranks. It seems too optimistic to believe that the 300-strong ALP will be able to fight for and control each of the over 400 villages of Andar, establishing a sufficient number of posts to keep the Taleban away. Rather, it looks like the battle will continue to be bloody and unwinnable on both sides.
The evolution of the uprising and the way it has led to new factional and tribal fissures and its subsequent rejection by significant parts of the local population should serve as a warning when assessing other local conflicts which are called uprisings, such as the recently much-hyped one in the ‘Taleban heartland’ in Panjwayi district, Kandahar province. There are many reasons for caution against any upbeat narratives about such movements, especially in the early stages. Areas where the Taleban have been strong and oppressive enough for the population to rise against them are usually off-limits for the media. The real situation on the ground is therefore mostly unclear. So, it is difficult and complicated to draw a clear picture of what the ‘uprising’ is and what it is not. Local official narratives which serve the spin machines of both the Afghan and US governments needs to be treated with the utmost caution, unless there is good independent source backing up claims.
Another problem that tends to emerge with such movements is leadership and command. Although at the outset they may have a single general leader, the leadership becomes highly contested soon after the uprising attracts public attention, especially if many players – who may have contradicting visions – start to intervene in order to hijack or co-opt the uprising. Such players can include government officials.
Unclear chains of command and lack of a mechanism for regulating the rebels’ operations pop up as another element of concern behind such uprisings. That the rebels do not know to whom and under which law they are responsible for their actions in areas where there is no monopoly of force and which have been lawless – or at best have held to customary laws – makes uprisings vulnerable to actually becoming a new abusive and tyrannical force.
Worst of all, since it is difficult to imagine all residents of a hitherto Taleban-friendly area turning against them at once, it is likely that the whole population would become divided on pro-Taleban and anti-Taleban lines. This can spark long-lasting community-level hatred or even hostilities – as has been seen in Andar. Score-settling can then follow, with local power brokers seeking to benefit by pitting one part of the population against another. Keeping all these risks in mind, even the most genuine uprisings can engender more fighting and insecurity, rather than peace and prosperity. The situation in Andar one year on, tells all of this too clearly.
(1) Arbakai is singular and refers to a group or a single fighter in it; arbaki is plural. Originally a strong and unpaid (except for locally provided food allowances and ammunition) community protection force traditional in south-eastern Afghanistan (Loya Paktia), the meaning of arbaki has changed to denote a government or foreign-backed local force which fights, not for the protection of the local community, but because they are paid by outsiders and therefore act as irresponsible mercenaries. The term is now used for the ALP in many parts of the country.
(2) The killed men were 11 active ALP members, most of whom were former uprising members, and the remaining were undergoing enlistment. Three Taleban fighters posed as applicants for the ALP and were inside the ALP checkpoint in the Habib Godali village during the night. In collaboration with a raiding group, they shot the 17 men in their sleep. They had gone to bed past midnight as they had spent the night before partying.
(3) Shilgari has, from the beginning of the uprising, spoken in its name, appearing frequently on TV and implying it was ‘his’ group. But since last autumn, he has disappeared or disengaged from representing the uprising in the media.
(4) In a recent al-Jazeera dispatch, Kamran and his group were still featured as the main uprising group, even though they had already integrated into the ALP and were wearing ALP uniforms.
(5) When people have to leave their homes in this area, they usually go to work in Karachi, Dubai or Iran for labour. That has been the case for many dissenters under different governments.
Photo: Attan dance in Andar’s district centre Mirai, on Eid, August 2012 (Emal Habib)
This article was last updated on 16 Oct 2020