A recent Washington Post article recounts how a group of local villagers in Gizab district revolted against the Taliban and kicked them out – with the help from US and Australian Special Forces. It reads as a good news story.
A quoted US commander described the takeover as “perhaps the most important thing that has happened in southern Afghanistan this year”, while a State Department official said they were looking for patterns: “If we can find it, we’ll be on the verge of breakthrough.” It’s the kind of optimism that comes from treating everything as a unique event, without history or context, and from believing that those who have chosen us as their allies must be the “good guys”. But rather than a turning point, it was part of the regular ebb and flow of power relations – not necessarily good or bad, mainly ambiguous, highly fragile and utterly reversible.
Gizab, a rather remote district in northern Uruzgan, was taken by the Taliban in 2005 when the district governor and local police chief left their stations and didn’t return (which is how districts usually fall into Taliban hands). Since then regular lobbies, often made up of the displaced elders in Kandahar, travelled to Kabul asking the government to act and retake the district. In May 2008 the Afghan government did explore the possibility of a military operation. Discussions were held with the international military; the governors of Uruzgan and Daikondi were tasked to draft a plan of action; while Uruzgan strongman Jan Mohammad tried to muster the necessary military force by mobilising local commanders who had left the area (among others the Timuri from Khalaj and the Karimzai khans). They were willing but non-committal and the plan never developed beyond its initial meetings.
In December 2008 the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) appointed a district governor from a neighbouring area, even though the district was not in government hands. The man visited the district at some point, but did not venture beyond the safe, self-governed Hazara area in the northwest and never really took up his job. There had also been plans to move the district centre to the Hazara area, which would have meant the immediate nominal restoration of government control – although nothing else would have changed – but this also did not materialise. (The eagerness at the time to re-establish a government presence, however nominal, was undoubtedly linked to the upcoming 2009 elections.)
The events described in the Washington Post article now seem to suggest that where the government failed to act, the “people of Gizab” succeeded to return the district to government control. It was not the first time the “people of Gizab” rose against the Taliban; the district is rife with conflicts and those who are not linked to the Taliban often give as good as they get. In April 2008 for instance a local Taliban commander, Mullah Hafez, was detained, badly beaten and humiliated (among others by cutting or pulling out his beard). Two cousins from the main Karimzai family, Mohammad Yunus and Mohammad Nader, were subsequently killed in May 2008 for their role in Hafez’s humiliation. And there had been several other instances in which locals had blocked roads, detained commanders and beat up Taliban fighters who had overstepped the boundaries of tolerable behaviour. Such acts of “popular revolt” were often instigated by members of the main khan families (like Mohammad Yunus and Mohammad Nader), as part of an ongoing feud or in an attempt strengthen the hand of their clan; or by students from the main madrassa’s, often with the blessing of the districts powerful mowlawi’s.
What was different this time, was that there was a place to go for support. The US Special Forces team, working out of neighbouring Daikondi, had actively been on the look-out for potential local defence forces. One of their initial partners of choice had been Sedaqat, a Hazara commander from Khedir district in Daikondi (see also AAN’s recent report on the Local Defence Initiative). His main claim to fame is the kidnapping of two French NGO workers in 2008 and his grudge over not having been given a government post in exchange for his role in retaking Kijran district in November 2007. There were tentative plans in early 2010 to include him in operations in Gizab or even Helmand, but a subsequent SF rotation seems to have dropped the idea and Sedaqat is now back in his role of local troublemaker. The SF then turned their attention to a few Hazara villages in Gizab, where local forces were recruited to participate in operations against their Pashtun neighbours – a risky move in an area where inter-ethnic relations are fragile (there have been reports of recent misbehaviour by the Hazara recruits).
Some of the Pashtun villagers in central Gizab had also been in touch with the Special Forces, so when one of them got in trouble, he called his newly made friends. Lalay, also known as Lala Jan, had come under immense pressure after an argument with a Taliban commander over government compensation money (see also the Washington Post article), which had ended in a firefight. He decided not to wait until they came for him, gathered a few friends, set up a makeshift check post, “arrested” a few Taliban and called for help.
Several forces came to his aid, including members of the Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), American Task Force No Mercy (I kid you not) who provided air support, as well as Uruzgan’s strongman Mattiullah and his forces. Mattiullah, who has recently started wearing an ANP uniform, has no formal (government) security responsibilities, but he has been given semi-formal posts as head of the Provincial Police Reserve (PPR) and the highway protection force Kandak-e Amniat-e Uruzgan (KAU) – legitimized mainly by his longstanding and close cooperation with the US and Australian military. (The ISAF press release on the Gizab events refers to his forces as ANSF. And although he does have several hundred men on the police payroll, they remain directly loyal to him and are often deployed to commercial security activities.)
With the help of the outside military forces the district was swiftly cleared and a unit of “local guardians” was set up. There are however reports that, now that most of the international troops have left, they are already starting to feel alone and unsupported (despite the remaining presence of a small SF training team from Daikondi and the first installment of 300 salaries*). Rumours that the Taliban leadership is planning to retake the district, probably in response to the triumphant publicity, obviously do not help.
Lalay was appointed local police chief, which currently means that he heads the local guardian militia, as no police have been sent up yet. He is from the same Karimzai subtribe as the two cousins who had been killed, so it should come as no surprise that Mullah Hafez, and several others, did not survive the revolt. The new district governor, Dr Abdullah, and deputy police commander, Seifullah, have returned from Kandahar to take up their posts. Dr Abdullah was Gizab’s first district governor after Karzai came to power.
The appointments represent a return to power by local khan families of two of the local Achekzai subtribes. This is not necessarily problematic, but the potential informality of the set-up (locals in local government, heading local forces) provides ample opportunity for another round of factionalism and exclusion. In April it was the Taliban that was kicked out by the population, but several years earlier the population rose up against a district governor that had crossed the line in terms of exploitative and intolerable behaviour. The fact that the Special Forces have decided that Lalay and his men are the “good guys”, just because they asked for their help, does not mean they will necessarily help win hearts and minds.
People from Gizab have complained for years about the neglect of their predicament. The message over the years has always been the same: It will be easy to get rid of the Taliban, there are not that many and the people will join in – but what happens after is what is important: who gets appointed, how will they behave and will the government pay attention to the needs of the people. That questions still looms over Gizab.
* The money is being disbursed by the MoI but comes from US SF funds earmarked for the newest incarnation of LDI: the “Afghan Public Protection Force – Village Stabilisation” (APPF-VS), which unlike its earlier versions explicitly has reintegration of former insurgents as one of its objectives (but that is for another blog).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020