War & Peace

Fire in the Pashai Hills: A two-district case study from Kapisa


Members of the anti-Taleban uprising in Alasai - photo by Obaid Ali

Members of the anti-Taleban uprising in Alasai - photo by Obaid Ali

The Taleban are making further headway towards Kabul. In Kapisa province, 80 kilometers northeast of the capital, they have already established an administrative system governing one of the districts, Alasai. An uprising staged against them last summer by local Jamiati commanders failed,  largely due to lack of support from government forces. At the same time, in other, previously quiet districts, such as Kohband, the security situation is deteriorating because of tensions between militias run by rival commanders of the former mujahedin factions Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami. AAN’s Obaid Ali looks at the two Pashai-inhabited districts of Alasai and Kohband as examples of how the government is losing its grip on Kapisa.

Residents of Kapisa have their own way of describing the local security situation. A few years ago, reports came out about a compromise deal between the Taleban and government forces in Kapisa province. As a result, in Alasai district Taleban and police would take turns strolling around to show their control of the bazaars on alternate days of the week. This state of things has since changed with the changing balance of power. For two years now, locals say, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Kapisa’s Alasai district—not only the police but even the garrisons of the few army bases—are only allowed out of their bases, camps and offices for one hour per day, and even then, only to go to the district centre’s bazaar.

The Taleban’s shadow district governor, Mawlawi Asef, has imposed these restrictions on the ANSF’s movements. His men are now running their own court sessions in mosques and private houses, addressing people’s legal issues, mainly land and family disputes. He also founded a military council which meets regularly and advises him on security issues, as well as a finance department in charge of collecting the so-called ushr (a tax usually amounting to the tenth part of the agricultural produce) from Alasai’s residents, thus ensuring financial resources for the Taleban’s operations. There is even a ‘detention centre’ run by the insurgents located in Meryalkhel, a village just a few hundred meters away from the district centre. According to locals, this is the very village where two French journalists, kidnapped in December 2009, were kept before being transferred to Poilam village and then to Budrah (both in Alasai), before they were eventually released. Currently, locals say, more than 20 detainees are kept in this ‘prison’ run by Gol Rahim Turabi, also known as the ‘Lame Gol Rahim’, from Adenakhel village.

Alasai is a mountainous area consisting of two main valleys, Sken and Ashpei, with more than 20 villages in each. Security-wise, it is one of the worst three districts of Kapisa (the others being Nijrab and Tagab; for the latter, movement restrictions on ANSF have been reported as well). Local authorities, however, tell a different story. The provincial police chief, Khwaja Faqir Ahmad, told AAN that only the district bazaar was under the control of the Taleban, and insisted that his forces were able to ensure security for “40 per cent of the district centre.” Judging by the strict security measures enforced by the provincial police headquarters—many concrete barriers and several check posts to pass before entering the compound—the Taleban presence in neighboring areas creates grave concerns for the police. In fact, figures from an independent international organisation monitoring the security situation indicate that the overall number of Taleban attacks against the ANSF in the province has steadily increased from 129 in 2010 to 171 in 2014. At the same time, ANSF operations against the Taleban in Kapisa have remained clearly under this level, ranging from between 95 at the most in 2011 to only 34 in 2013, according to international observers (2014 saw 48 operations). The Ministry of Defense did not get back to AAN’s questions as to why the ANSF have not or could not step up efforts in the face of an increasingly bold insurgency and, on top of it, the void left by the withdrawal of international troops.

Kapisa transitioning from French to Afghan forces

The Taleban gained traction in Kapisa in 2006 and 2007, after attempted reconciliation deals brokered by politicians and tribal elders fell apart, as reported in 2011 by the International Crisis Group. According to that report it was around this time that the Taleban started an “aggressive campaign” against the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and ANSF (The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland, p. 18).

In 2008, as the French expanded their involvement in Afghanistan, responsibility for Kapisa came into the hands of French forces. In March 2009, Afghan and French forces conducted an operation against the Taleban in Alasai. Within one day and with the loss of only one life, the district came under their control. However, as soon as the French forces were tasked with other responsibilities, like protecting the main provincial highway through Tagab district, Alasai fell back to the Taleban. According to AAN research published in April 2012, Kapisa’s insurgents had by then started to unite local fronts active in the province’s mountainous stretch and mould them into a more consolidated system. The author, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini, described Kapisa then as of strategic importance: “a small province in the middle of almost everything“ that makes it “easy for insurgents to try and reach Kapisa’s capital and the neighbouring provinces.“ He also said that it was increasingly “becoming vital for the Taleban strategy of effecting a virtual encirclement of Kabul.“ Until the end of 2012, the Taleban carried out several attacks on international forces not only in Alasai, but in the whole province, leaving many ISAF soldiers dead. Also, the so-called “green on blue” attacks at that time undermined trust between French forces and ANSF. As a result, coalition forces in Kapisa suspended all ANSF training (here and here). In November 2012, the newly elected French president, Francois Hollande, pulled out his forces from Kapisa two years before the scheduled withdrawal timeline. Since then, the ANSF have faced serious problems handling security in the province.

An uprising in Alasai

The increasing strength of the Taleban in Alasai spread fear among powerbrokers who had emerged after 2001, mainly commanders linked to the former mujahedin faction Jamiat-e Islami. They saw their sphere of influence shrink rapidly. Some of them staged an uprising against the Taleban in July 2014. Commander Shukrullah, the leader of the group, told AAN that by July the Taleban had gathered hundreds of fighters from all over the province in order to capture those who still dared to defy the Taleban rule and their ‘laws’. Feeling directly threatened, ten Jamiati commanders with their nearly 50 fighters staged an uprising against the Taleban in the Sken valley of Alasai. The shooting went on for seven days, but then the Jamiati fighters ran out of ammunition. The local security forces, Commander Shukrullah complained, never came to support them. When questioned, the provincial police chief told AAN the uprising was “too far away from the district centre, 25 kilometers, to go and help.”

When the fighting ceased, the villages of Konbad, Dahrata, Qalah and Sahra’i were in the hands of the Taleban. Many houses were set on fire and the families of the commanders of the uprising—who had meanwhile fled to neighbouring Laghman province—were forced to leave the area. Jamil, a blind old man who could not escape from Konbad, told AAN that Taleban entered his house searching for weapons. Then they dragged him out and set the house on fire. (On this episode, see also this AAN dispatch.)

Attempts to make peace

Other conflicts between local powerbrokers and Taleban were handled through negotiations rather than brute force. These negotiations were helped by the fact that many members of both conflicting parties in Alasai belong to the Pashai ethnic group (1). In fact, some areas of Alasai saw relative peace until a few months ago due to cease-fire agreements that had lasted for several years. Speaking to AAN, Malik Nader, an elder from the Sken valley of Alasai and a participant to the July 2014 uprising, told AAN of one occasion, in 2006, when a major clash took place between Taleban and Jamiati commanders in the valley of Sken. Then-governor Sattar Murad (recently nominated for the Ministry of Economy) ordered the arrest of four commanders from each group. All were kept in custody in the provincial capital, Mahmud Raqi. After they spent 11 days in prison, and as a result of local elders’ mediation, both sides promised to stop fighting. The Taleban commanders promised that they would not attempt to conquer Jamiat’s territory and vice-versa.

This quasi-peace situation gave free rein to the Taleban in the areas they controlled. They imposed strict rules on the population, warning them, for example, not to support the ANSF and ISAF, and not to allow women to go out alone in public. According to Malik Nader, Taleban commander Abdul Ghafar Shafaq, who was later appointed as deputy shadow governor of Kapisa (and got killed in January 2015), intended to attack the Jamiati territories several times, but was held back by the elders. However, in the aftermath of the uprising of July 2014, the Taleban finally stormed the villages that had previously been under the control of Jamiati commanders.

The case of Kohband district

Kohband district provides a different example of how the central government is losing its control over Kapisa. Kohband district centre is located 20 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital Mahmud Raqi. Despite not hosting many supporters of the Taleban, Kohband is haunted by a variety of illegally armed groups that carry out assassinations and targeted killings on a daily basis. In one of the major valleys of Kohband, Durnama, only five kilometers south of the district centre Bolah Ghain, commanders affiliated with Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan (HIG, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) and Jamiat continuously fight each other, posing a major challenge for the provincial security department.

Their competition has a long history in Kapisa (see here, here and here). During the Soviet invasion, most parts of Kapisa province were under HIG control. After the collapse of the communist regime in 1992 and the establishment of the Islamic Government of Afghanistan led by Jamiati leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, a new chapter of enmity and hatred began among local jihadi commanders, affecting the province badly. Kapisa was split between commanders allied with HIG, mainly supported by the Pashtuns in the province’s south (where the Taleban also find more supporters today), and commanders affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami, mainly in the Tajik north of the province. In ethnically homogenous areas too, divisions emerged along the fault lines of personal or village rivalries. These feuds, endowed with a political and ideological significance, would continue for decades to come.

The split also applied to Durnama, where, according to Malik Khalil, the head of a local Pashai council, within the past 18 months alone around 25 people have been killed and dozens more injured (see media reporting about targeted killings in Durnama here and here) in a feud between two rival commanders.

Durnama valley consists of 70 villages, mostly inhabited by Pashai people. The two main rivals here are a former commander of HIG, Gol Nazim, and a former Jamiat commander, Zabet Wakil. Both have recruited hundreds of armed men and are aiming at expanding their territories and eliminating their rival. The enmity between them was renewed in April 2013, when an unknown man opened fire on Gol Nazim; as a result, a sub-commander allied with him was killed, and both Gol Nazim and his bodyguard were injured. Gol Nazim suspected Zabet Wakil of having ordered the attack and set out to take revenge. In the end, the clash involved the whole valley.

Their lasting feud has disrupted people’s lives across the district up until today. Farkhunda Rahmani, the head of the local NGO Women for Supporting Democracy, said that parents do not allow their daughters to go to school anymore, fearing they might get caught in firefights on the way, and that schools also often stay shut altogether. The Afghan National Police are not able to stop the fighting, let alone arrest the fighters or the two commanders themselves. District police chief Hamidullah complained that strongmen connected to the rival commanders prevented any arrests (reporting here) and admitted that handling the situation in Durnama was “beyond the ability of the police.”

Even the provincial governor, Mehrabudin Safi, seemed helpless. He told AAN that he had approached local elders several times asking them to mediate, but to no avail. The provincial police chief claimed both sides are “receiving financial and political support from HIG and Jamiat politicians” in the Lower House of the Parliament and in the Provincial Council. He said that he asked the central government several times to intervene and restore peace, requesting the help of MPs, senators, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense. In the end, there were promises, but no action.

The insecurity and people’s livelihoods: a vicious cycle

The never-ending story of local warlords and Taleban competing with each other has also affected aid efforts to the province. According to a humanitarian overview of Kapisa province from 2014 compiled by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the security situation has prevented access to humanitarian aid particularly for the residents of districts Tagab, Alasai and Nijrab.

Around 216 NGOs, social organizations, unions, associations and councils are active in Kapisa. Speaking to AAN, an employee from an international NGO that monitors the security situation in Kapisa, said that in Alasai most of the government’s administrative work at the district level is negotiated with the local Taleban. Sara Sirat, the head of an NGO active in cultural and social affairs, said Alasai was the only district of the province her survey group had been unable to enter.

Indeed, the particularly poor economic situation of many local residents contributes to the high rates of militancy and private feuds in the two areas observed. Mainly belonging to the Pashai ethnic group, the people of Alasai and Kohband live in mountainous areas with limited agricultural potential and few other income resources; they are largely uneducated and lack access to governmental posts (read more here). Hashmat Safi, the head of another NGO, also remarked how locals from Alasai have to travel to clinics in the capital, Mahmud Raqi, or even to Panjshir for treatment, given the lack of such facilities in their area.

The increased number and activities of Taleban and other armed groups in Alasai and Kohband districts and the inability of the local institutions to handle the situation have already created deep anxiety among locals. This phenomenon reduces the locals’ confidence in their security forces. By creating widespread insecurity and reducing state control over the rural expanse, it also enhances the insurgents’ ability to move freely across Kapisa and pose future threats to neighbouring provinces such as Parwan and Kabul.

 

(1) The Pashai are an ethnic group mostly settled in the mountainous areas of eastern Afghanistan, such as Kapisa, Laghman, Nangarhar and Nuristan. According to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development’s Provincial Profile, Kapisa has 30 per cent Dari speakers, 27 per cent Pashto, 17 per cent Pashai and Kuchi or nomads whose number varies according to the season.

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