Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Transition in Uruzgan (1): The fights that don’t get mentioned

Martine van Bijlert 15 min

The daily news in Afghanistan is dotted with reports of small-scale attacks, mostly on police posts, district centres and government convoys. These reports illustrate what is going on, but do not provide a full picture: a large proportion of attacks and incidents go unreported. Although the strategic importance of the individual scuffles tends to be limited, the impression that they leave on the population, twelve years into the conflict and with 2014 approaching, can be profound. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a look at various ‘minor attacks’ that took place in the Uruzgan area over the last week and assesses what they may mean for the population’s morale.

For the last few days I have spent hours on the phone with worried residents describing the latest twists and turns in the fighting in several districts in Uruzgan and neighbouring provinces. Although there were occasional faint echoes in the local news of what was going, they were easy to miss and did not provide a full picture of the scope of the attacks. This, of course, is not new, it is always slightly random which incidents get reported on and which don’t. But it serves as a stark reminder that the rural population throughout the war has suffered much more violence than we are generally aware of and that they are likely to continue to be at the receiving end for years to come.

The details of the fighting are relevant – they provide insight into Taleban tactics and poignantly illustrate the kind of pressure populations are under – but may not interest all readers. So I will discuss the general conclusions first and provide the detail separately.

What we have seen in the area over the last week is a series of on-going Taleban attacks, mainly on police posts and other signs of government representation, in west, north and eastern Uruzgan, western Daikondi and northern Helmand. There has been a general pattern: that of an area under siege with the population feeling very exposed, the temporary loss of territory to the Taleban, the eventual arrival of ANSF reinforcements, often followed by the standing down of the bulk of the Taleban forces, after which they dissolve or move elsewhere – an evasion tactic that the Taleban have also employed vis-à-vis NATO forces, before, during and after the surge (melt away, regroup elsewhere, attack weak links).

What does the fighting mean?
The question is how to interpret such incidents, that are taking place not just in the Uruzgan area, but all over the country. Those arguing the success of the transition process will point out that the Taleban have been generally unable to hold on to the territory that they attacked and temporarily captured, arguing that this proves the effectiveness of the ANSF and their auxiliary forces. But this does not seem to be how many residents view it.

The attacks have left communities feeling vulnerable, as the loss of a police post or district centre – even if only temporarily – practically means the loss of the last signs of government presence in the area and tends to be followed by retribution. (1)

Moreover, a recurring refrain in phone calls with people reporting on the attacks was not only the belief that sooner or later whole districts would fall into Taleban hands (in particular Gizab, Khas Uruzgan, Charchena, as well as districts in northern Helmand), but that this was somehow part of an intentional strategy either on the part of the international forces or the Afghan government to relinquish territory. There is a deep-seated and widespread suspicion that is not erased when individual attacks are fought off.

A particular point of concern for many people was the limitations placed on air strikes, after President Karzai’s recent ban and the pulling out of international forces from the districts. Although it is not a full ban – the Americans reserve the right to use air strikes in self-defence – the now very limited presence of international military outside the main centres means that Afghan forces on the ground are largely left to fend for themselves.

The shift has clearly emboldened the Taleban, who have been hard hit during the last two years. It allows them to move around and attack in larger groups than has been possible for a long time. Locals, moreover, report that the emptying of madrassas in Pakistan means there are many more fighters in the area (the closure of the madrassas in Pakistan is seasonal, but there are suggestions that the inflow of fighters has been higher than usual this year, also in other parts of the country). Opinions vary on the extent to which all the little attacks are part of a thought-out strategy from the Taleban leadership, or just a response to the greater freedom of movement and a natural tendency to want to regain territory (in terms of spheres of influence) that was lost. What is clear, however, is that such attacks convey the message, most probably intentionally, that in the run up to the now almost mythical 2014 deadline, the Taleban are ready to move into whatever vacuum arises, and are already doing so in the districts where international forces have left.

Understanding the role of local forces
To understand the trajectory and impact of the fighting, you also have to look at the role of local forces. This, in turn, cannot be understood without taking into account the hybrid nature of this regime’s security infrastructure, which is a mix of formal security forces and patronage relations with armed strongmen. Alongside efforts to build up a national, non-aligned security force, President Karzai continues to administer governance and security through pre-existing relations with local powerbrokers, whether through official appointment or informal authorisation.

An example of this is the way Gizab is administered, with all security responsibilities given to Lalay, the man who initiated the 2010 ‘uprising’ and went on to become highly controversial, particularly because of his heavy-handed tactics towards personal rivals (for an analysis of his 2011 attack on Tamazan – another pro-government area – see here). Lalay’s rivals complain that “government was given to a single person” and that someone who should be in court is allowed to rule the area “in the clothes of the government.” It should then not come as a surprise that parts of the local population were reported to have joined in the most recent Taleban attacks on (Lalay’s) police posts in Gizab. As explained in earlier AAN report on Lalay’s uprising: in April 2010 it was the Taliban that was kicked out by the population, but several years earlier the population rose up against a (government) district governor that had crossed the line in terms of exploitative and intolerable behaviour, illustrating that uprisings can go both ways.

In Na Omish/Kijran, on the Daikondi/Helmand border, it is the presence of ‘outsider’ ANSF (the mainly Hazara Daikondi ALP) on the border of Taleban territory that seems to be provoking attacks and a ratcheting up of pressure through road closures. In Khas Uruzgan, it is also the ALP that bears the brunt of the attacks, in particular the forces connected to Abdul Hakim Shujai, the controversial Hazara ALP commander. Shujia has been consistently disowned by the MoI, but his force remains the main pro-government force in the district (for details see this report). Although attacks are not confined to the police posts that are under Shujai’s control, the attacks on his posts are likely to be supported by parts of the Pashtun population who resent the pressure they have come under. Conversely, large parts of the Hazara population now seem to support Shujai, despite his violent behaviour.

Northern Helmand, similarly, is not just suffering from the scramble between the Taleban and government forces, but also from the conflict over who on the government’s side will be picked to regain control of the area. In a May 2013 meeting with the President on the situation in Helmand, two rivals, Rais-e Baghran and former Helmand governor Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, are said to have entered into an argument over who should be given this task (and if one of the two gets picked, it is quite conceivable that the other will work to undermine whatever gains are made, a regular pattern in Afghan politics). It is, anyway, quite remarkable that in all these years no serious effort has been made to regain Baghran. This may be linked to the fact that Karzai feels that, through his connection with Rais-e Baghran, who in turn has links to both sides, he still somehow controls the area.

The looming prospect of 2014
Finally, the concept of 2014 as a deeply worrying prospect seems to have lodged itself in the psyche of many people in these outlying areas. They do not seem to see it as a mere date or deadline. Rather 2014 has become a code word for abandonment or, worse, betrayal. Many people expressed the belief that there was a plan, already being put into action, to hand over whole areas of the country to either chaos or the Taleban. Others expressed bitterness over who were being allowed to rule. Assurances that international forces will stay and that international engagement will continue, do little to assuage such concerns, given that the pull-out in these areas has already happened. What matters to many people is not whether Karzai and the Americans come up with an agreement to mantain an ‘enduring presence’ of US forces after 2014, but what will happen in their own particular areas in the months to come.

Appendix: What happened in the districts 

Over the last week there was fighting in the districts of Gizab, Khas Uruzgan, Charchena (Uruzgan), Sangin, Musa Qala, Gereshk (northern Helmand) and Kijran (Daikondi), as well as a significant increase in Taleban presence in Passaband district in Ghor.

For orientation: the area in question is more or less an arch starting from northern Helmand, with Baghran bordering Charchena, Kijran and Gizab to the (north)east and Passaband to the west. Khas Uruzgan is in eastern Uruzgan, across from Chora, and borders Ajiristan in Ghazni. See here for a map of the area.

Fighting in Khas Uruzgan
Over the last week Khas Uruzgan saw heavy fighting around several police posts. The last heavy attack on these posts, earlier this year, was in late April 2013; the fighting at the time lasted a day and resulted in one or two deaths on both sides. Since then there has been a steady stream of small attacks – mainly night-time shooting from afar. On 2 June 2013 fighting picked up again, with heavy weapon attacks on police posts in the Matakzai area and smaller attacks in Qala-ye Khor. One of the Matakzai police posts was briefly overrun, while the Taleban occupied strategic mountaintops around the other posts and practically closed off the main road in the area. According to local reports, the population largely left the area and were waiting in nearby villages for better times, as the fighting intensified. On 7 June 2013 the Taleban were pushed back, the police post was retaken and the Taleban fighters started to leave.

For Matakzai and Qala-e Khor, the threat has for the moment been averted, but it will return. The Taleban fighters in the meantime are on the move and are said to be on their way to a new target: Chakajoy, an area on the way to Chinartu and Tirinkot in the west, which has already come under regular fire over the last few days.

A tribal elder from Khas Uruzgan, with good contacts within the Taleban, initially dismissed the attacks as fairly inconsequential, pointing out that the Taleban were hosting a ‘Punjabi’ delegation whom they may have wanted to impress. As the fighting continued, however, he became a bit more worried and also surprised at what he called the ‘unplanned’ nature of the attacks that were being conducted across the area (hamelat-e bi-plan).

Fighting in Gizab
On 5 June 2013, while fighting in Khas Uruzgan was ongoing, the Taleban in Gizab, further to the west, launched an attack on the Sang Sikh police post (Jilizai valley close to Gizab’s district centre), as well as on multiple posts in the Khalaj area, which borders Chora district in the south. According to locals, the Taleban had already been gathering forces for weeks and there had been insistent rumours of an impending attack. The Sang Sikh police post was overrun on 6 June 2013, as was an area in Khalaj referred to as the Ghoina valley. This effectively closed off the road that connects Gizab to the rest of the province. Residents were told by the Taleban to stay in their houses for six days – the duration of the operation. There were reports that Lalay, the Gizab police/ALP commander, was considering cutting his losses and abandoning the remaining police posts. The situation seemed quite precarious.

Reinforcements arrived from Tirinkot and Chora, but the convoy was hit by an IED that destroyed two vehicles and killed the Khwoja Khedir ALP commander, Allaudin, who had come to help. By 8 June 2013, however, the tables had turned. The Sang-e Sikh police post, which had been burnt by the retreating Taleban, was retaken with the help of commandos from the 8th corps, who had been flown in from Kandahar, while Dare-ye Ghoina in Khalaj was retaken with the help of reinforcements from Chora and Tirinkot. Fighting, however, continued around the former US SOF base in Chapari, which was handed over to the ANSF in 2012.

Fighting in Charchena (also know as ‘Shahid-e Hassas’)
Charchena, in western Uruzgan, has seen similar fighting for at least a month and a similar intensification over the last few days. The local forces received reinforcements from the ANA, ALP and, according to some reports, international coalition forces. Specific mention was made, again, of the commandos of the 8th corps from Kandahar, as well as the Afghan Security Guards (ASG), which refers to militiamen who have worked closely with the US SOF. Over the years several ASG commanders and fighters have been incorporated into Uruzgan’s police. They continue to be seen as a special group, often with a particular loyalty to current provincial police chief, Mattiullah Khan.

In the course of the week, fighting died down. AAN further received an unconfirmed report that 39 Taleban fighters, who were on their way to neighbouring Dehrawud district in south Uruzgan, were ambushed by a combined force of commandos and ALP. All 39 were reportedly killed under circumstances that suggest possible war crimes. (2)

The situation in Charchena, as in many other areas, started deteriorating after the US SOF pulled out. Residents say they now fear that the Taleban may succeed in closing off one or both of the two roads connecting the district centres with neighbouring Dehrawud and the rest of the country (Charchena has a formal district centre in Hushay and an informal district centre in Sarab).

Additionally the Taleban in Charchena mined and closed off the main road that connects the Hazara areas to the north with Kandahar and the rest of the country. The road was closed in April 2013, then briefly opened in early May, to allow trucks with food stuffs into the area – in exchange for taxation – but closed again two weeks ago. It currently remains closed. This has greatly affected the area’s supply of basic goods; food prices have risen considerably. Local authorities in Daikondi estimate that the closure is affecting an area with over 200,000 inhabitants. (3) The alternative route to Kandahar involves a long detour through Daikondi, Ghazni and Zabul, to finally reach Kandahar from the north, and prices of transport have also risen. The population believes the road closure is in retaliation for the presence of a Hazara ALP police post in the Kijran joint bazaar, which is discussed in more detail below.

Fighting in Kijran
On 7 June 2013 the Taleban also started taking pot shots at a police post on the border between Daikondi and Helmand. The post is located just outside the ‘joint bazar’ (bazar-e moshtarak) on the border between Kijran (Daikondi) and Na Omish, a Hazara enclave in the east of Baghran (Helmand). A fuel truck was hit, but did not catch fire. A local Taleban commander warned the residents in the area not to travel, telling them that the road had been mined. The next day the shooting continued and was accompanied by mortar shells (toop-e hawan) fired from a nearby village. Residents were moreover instructed not to move and some people were shot at when they did (though there were no casualties). During the day, a coalition aircraft flew over the area dispensing a smoke screen, but did not otherwise intervene. Initial assessments were that the Taleban were likely digging in for a war of attrition – to keep up the pressure, rather than to engage in large scale attacks, but since the second day there have also been rumours that large groups of Taleban fighters were massing in a nearby village in Baghran district, which is making residents nervous. (4)

In February 2013, the Taleban had already launched a large attack on the same police post, which is located in what used to be the US SOF base in the area. The fighting at the time lasted almost three days and involved an impressive array of heavy weapons on the side of the Taleban and, reportedly, a force of up to several hundred fighters. The police managed to fight off the attack, but continued to feel very exposed, given that the Taleban had stepped down from their positions, but had not left. There were reports that the Taleban had called in reinforcements from Charchena and there were messages announcing another attack. The much-awaited arrival, two days later, of ANA soldiers (30 of the 70 that had been promised) provided some relief.

The US SOF built the base in early 2012 when they moved from Zard Gulan, a village on the other side of Kijran district centre, to the Daikondi/Helmand border. When the SOF team left several months later, the base was handed over to the Daikondi ALP. The presence of US SOF in Kijran had been met with mixed feelings, as the (respectively shia Baluch and Hazara) population of Kijran and the rest of Dailondi feared a deterioration of the relationship with their Pashtun neighbours, given that their area would now serve as an outpost into Pashtun and Taleban territory. The Daikondi authorities initially resisted US pressure to move their ALP forces to the former US base, but were eventually overruled by a direct order from the Ministry of Interior. It seems to be exactly this post that is proving an irritant for the Taleban, considering its closeness to Baghran, which functions as a safe haven and launching pad. During the last attack, Taleban commanders sent messages to the Hazara population of Na Omish pressuring them to tell the Kijran authorities to remove the post from the bazaar.

At the time of writing, the attacks on the ‘joint bazar’ were in their fifth day and appeared to be intensifying, with reports that on 11 June the Taleban launched an attack on the post that resulted in at least two dead on their side. One interlocutor described how the Taleban were employing a ‘system-e kammarbandi’ (literally a ‘belt system’) with an initial attack presence close to the post (around 500 m away) and an entrenched defensive position at around 8 km distance from where heavy weapons were fired. He speculated that this may not just be about the Kijran police post, but rather possibly the rehearsal of a tactic that is about to be more widely used.

Massing in Passaband 
Additionally, Taleban from Baghran have also been moving into Passaband, a largely Hazara district in neighbouring Ghor province for the last ten days or so. They have taken up positions and have brought several villages along the border with Baghran under their control. Practically, this means that, after the villages were surrounded and residents realised they would be unable to defend themselves in case of an attack, they opted to negotiate with the Taleban and agreed to provide cooperation and assistance (taxation, shelter, food, safe passage). Other villages are also surrounded by Taleban positions, but have not yet agreed to surrender. Such negotiations are, incidentally, a fluid process. When emboldened or provoked, villagers may retract their cooperation.

Taleban stronghold in Baghran
At the heart of much of the instability in the entire area of western Uruzgan, northern Helmand, parts of Ghor and Daikondi, is the district of Baghran. Baghran is one of a handful of districts that has been fully under Taleban control for years now. Neighbouring Gizab was in a similar situation, but was retaken in 2010 in a US SOF supported uprising, after years of regular lobbying in Kabul by the main khan families in the area (for details see here). Karzai’s main ally from Baghran, Abdul Wahed Haqqani (not related to the eastern Haqqanis) – better known as Rais-e Baghran (the Boss of Baghran) – does not seem to be pushing for a similar ‘treatment’. Rais-e Baghran is a former mujahedin and Taleban commander who has ruled Baghran during successive regimes. He joined the reconciliation program in 2005 and has lived in Kabul ever since. It is widely assumed that he keeps channels to his former comrades open.

Baghran district functions as a launching pad and recuperation area for the Taleban forces from surrounding areas. Recently, it has been reported that senior Taleban commanders from Baghran have been visiting local Taleban ‘fronts’ in Passaband and Taiwara (Ghor), Kijran (Daikondi), Musa Qala and Nowzad (Helmand) and Charchena (Uruzgan), encouraging them to expand their areas of operation.

In general, the Taleban have enjoyed relative control over the area stretching from the eastern tip of Farah and Passaband (Ghor) through Baghran (northern Helmand) on to Khak-e Afghan/Daichopan (western Zabul) and parts of Kandahar, to the southern hem of Daikundi. Their control is interrupted only by vulnerable pro-government police and ALP posts. It is exactly these posts that are currently bearing the brunt of the Taleban attacks in the remote areas.

(1) Attitudes towards government presence tend to be complicated, with many people holding conflicting loyalties, expectations and grudges. It is very much possible, for instance, that a person simultaneously supports certain Taleban groups based on personal loyalties, carries a deep grudge against the local government administration, is upset about the behaviour of international forces, but still laments the loss of a district to the Taleban and is lobbying for a greater (benign) government presence in the area.

(2) According to a local source 35 were killed in battle, with the remaining four, who were wounded but alive, reportedly tied to trees and left to die. Their bodies were later taken to Charchena district centre. A report on Kandahar news did confirm that a battle, with deaths, had taken place at in Charchena: “Urozgan Police Chief Matiollah says 45 armed Taleban are killed or wounded during separate operations in Sarab, Khas Urozgan and Charchino districts of Urozgan Province.” Source: Afghanistan Television, Kandahar, in Pashto 1615 gmt 6 Jun 13 (BBC Monitoring)

(3) Local authorities cited a population of 80,000 for Kiti; 55,000 for Kijran; 30-40,000 for Na Omish; 15-20,000 for the affected part of Passaband; and 15,000 for the affected part of Khedir. These figures appear to be a bit, but not overly, higher than the going CSO (Central Statistics Office) figures.
The area in question is connected to Kandahar via two main routes, one through Baghran, Musa Qala and Gereshk (Helmand); and one from Kijran through Charchena, Dehrawud and Tirinkot in Uruzgan. The Baghran road has been precarious for a long time, as Baghran has been in Taleban hands since 2006. The Charchena route, as explained, has for the moment also been closed off by the Taleban.

(4) The current attack on the joint bazaar is the twelfth attack on Kijran from Baghran since the fall of the Taleban regime. Apart from an earlier attack in November 2007 that resulted in the temporary loss of the district centre, and possibly the one in February this year, it appears to be the most serious attack on the district to date.

The attack on the Kijran district centre in November 2007 started with a smaller attack on Zard Gulan, which was quickly overrun. A few days later the district centre fell into Taleban hands. The Taleban, who mainly came from neighbouring Baghran and Charchena, may have received help from local communities who were upset over a land dispute. The situation was very tense, as there were rumours that the Taleban in Tamazan, Gizab were also gathering for a simultaneous attack on Nili, Daikondi’s provincial capital. Kijran was finally retaken through a combination of ANSF reinforcements from Nili, coalition airstrikes on Taleban positions in Zard Gulan, mobilisation of local armed civilians and the intercession of commander Sedaqat, a former Hezb-e Wahdat commander from Khedir district.

Sedaqat joined the Taleban under the Emirate, was reconciled with the Karzai government and then re-joined the armed opposition, after he felt he had not been adequately rewarded for his role in the 2007 retaking of Kijran. He was again ‘reconciled’ in 2012 and given the rank of police general, but recently appeared to be moving towards armed opposition again. Talks are ongoing.

Tags:

Gereshk Sher Mohammad Akhundzada Rais-e Baghran Passaband Lalay Kijran Khas Uruzgan Gizab Daikondi Charchena ALP Uruzgan Musa Qala Sangin Afghan National Security Forces Helmand Afghan Local Police Police ANSF

Authors:

Martine van Bijlert

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