Pakistan

Ghorband – A Valley Once Friendly


In May, we have been reporting about the deteriorating security situation in Eastern Afghanistan. There, it appears, an ‘insurgency corridor’ has been emerging, through which insurgents ‘will be able to move unhindered from the Pakistani border to Laghman, and from there into Kapisa and Kabul provinces’*. The killing of the Bamian Provincial Council (PC) chairman by insurgents in the Ghorband valley of Parwan on 3 June and a general sharp deterioration of the security situation in the province seems to indicate that the corridor has even penetrated deeper and a bridgehead might have been established west of the Salang highway. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig summarises the situation in that part of the country.

Although first report of still minor incident came trickling in since fall 2007, it was still easy going well into 2008: You took the Salang route from Kabul, turned left before you reached Jabal us-Seraj into the Ghorband valley, follow the rapid river of the same name, drive up the serpentines to the arid Shibar Pass after some hours of bad roads and finally descend to Bamian to see what the Taleban left of the buddhas.
First incidents, attacks near the Shibar pass, were still seen as a freak thing. Some people assumed that Bamian’s inhabitants – who had since long been complaining about neglect from Kabul and that only areas with insurgent activity would benefit from aid project – had finally drawn a conclusion from that and fired a few shots to draw attention. After all, although it is peaceful over there they are still armed; Hezb-e Wahdat has preserved some firepower. More likely, though, it was criminal activity.

But then came the first peaks, in May and August 2008. A roadblock here, an IEC attack there, and the incidents never really stopped again, except in a few late winter/early spring months. This coincided with the beginning of the asphalting of the road two years ago, said to be a US$75 million project; as usual, there are reports that the construction attracted the Taleban’s attention and that the construction companies paid them to guarantee their workers’ security. The road to Bamian through the Ghorband was declared vulnerable for foreigners first. (The second direct access route to Bamian from Kabul, through Wardak, had become dangerous much earlier.)

But this year, the killings of Bamian PC head Jawad Zahak** and of Siahgerd district’s deputy police chief Zia-ul-Haq on 3 June, an attack on Shinwari district centre on 9 June and the failed attack of a suicide bomber against the provincial governor on 21 June have raised the fear that the security situation along this road might have reached a new quality, although mainly the districts of Siahgerd – with a significant Pashtun population – and Shinwari – with a Pashtun majority – are affected. The fact that already during the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga elections women were not allowed to vote in those two districts, speaks for their conservative character.

To a lesser degree, also Surkh Parsa district is affected by insurgent activity, but more as a transit route. This district is inhabited by Sunni Hazaras which traditionally are at odds with their Shiite fellow-Hazaras in neighbouring Bamian and therefore have always supported Hezb-e Islami(HIG). (Funnily enough, Surkh Parsa was declared a ‘peace district’ earlier this year under the DIAG programme, as government daily Hewad reported on 16 March.) The Sheikh Ali, and the Charikar portions of the Ghorband remain basically insignificant security-wise.

In the wake of the June events, traffic through the Ghorband now has also become more dangerous for Afghans, as local inhabitants and travellers who pass through the area regularly recently told the Kabul-based dailyMandegar (15 June, read the article here). Their reports point to the presence of both Taleban and HIG groups in the Ghorband. The Taleban have officially taken responsibility for Zahak’s killing, although some reports indicate a HIG involvement. Parwan’s governor stated that a Taleban group from outside the province committed the murder.

The eyewitness quoted by Mandegar further speak of the Taleban spreading ‘propaganda in mosques and schools on a daily basis’ and ‘even demand food and water from the people in open daylight’. There are also reports of nightletters that called for girls older than nine years to stay away from ‘madrassas’ (schools) and demanded that government employees dropped their jobs. Apart from this, there also is pure robbery when, as a traveller reported, armed groups ‘quickly descend from the mountains, block the road and take away everything they can get – watches, money etc’. In two of the four Ghorband valley districts, the insurgents have a stronger presence than the government. Government officials, meanwhile, say that insurgency presence is ‘negligible’, but that’s clearly window-dressing. (Others seem to exaggerate insurgents nubers, due to different interests.)

Mandegar newspaper also reported that both HIG and Taleban groups are present in the area. The Pashtun areas of the Ghorband have traditional been pro-Hezb in the times of the Jihad (there were even rumours that Hekmatyar was based in the Ghorband for a while during the 1990s) but the Taleban have absorbed some of these structures during their regime.

There is clear evidence that the current intensification of insurgent activities is a result of the declaration of the Taleban’s Badr spring offensive; the number of incidents went substantially up immediately after that happened. Direction came clearly from Quetta; not only Ghorband’s Taleban but those of all Parwan operate under Mulla Omar’s leadership. Local Taleban networks that had lied low for many post-2001 years have been mobilized, a provincial shadow administration has been set up. Recently, the Taleban have appointed a shadow governor for the province and new shadow district governor for Shinwari, Siahgerd and also for Koh-e Safi, further east, traditionally another HIG stronghold.

Logistical support first came from the South, from Wardak (Jalrez) and Ghazni through Surkh Parsa – which indicates that there might have been some HIG cooperation. But of late, fighters came in from Kapisa the East (districts of Tagab and Nejrab which have seen more influence from the Quetta shura recently), from Ghandak , Kahmard and Saighan, Tajik minority areas in Bamian, and also, rather unintended, as a result of IMF/ANSF operations in Tala wa Barfak district of Baghlan further north – the latter area had previously supported the HIG and then the Taleban during their regime***.

Another dimension is the traditional Jamiat-HIG, or Tajik-Pashtun rivalry in Parwan. With the Pashtuns a minority overall in the province, they have complained about a heavy hand of some heavy-weight Jamiat commanders and their networks since the fall of the Taleban regime; this includes MP Haji Almas (who has fluctuated between HIG and Shura-ye Nazar), former Parwan police chief Maulana Seyyedkheli, killed in Kunduz on 10 March, and governor Basir Salangi.

They are associated with former communist army officers like Gen. Abdul Wahid Babajan who is from Bagram; he just has been appointed commander of the Northern police zone, succeeding slain Gen. Daud****. Another local strongman, and former Jamiat commander, is Amir Abdul Sattar. Even if unsuccessful in both his candidacies for the Wolesi Jirga (in 2005 he was vetted out and last year he just did not make it), he remains strongly entrenched as one of Siahgerd district’s major land and flock owners, and keeps an armed retinue. These old commanders networks in fact actively undermined the DDR process; in September 2004 they even fired at UN inspectors involved in heavy weapons cantonment when they tried to visit the Ghorband.

Today, they basically control Parwan’s administration; most if not all of the nine Parwan district governors are reportedly Jamiatis. According to local sources who want to remain anonymous, they actively contribute to the insecurity in order to ‘prevent a free competition’ for their jobs through the IDLG. And, what counts even more, the Jamiati network controls the big business in Parwan, i.e. the substantial contracts around the largest US base in Afghanistan, Bagram, with all its command and detention facilities. Under these circumstances, Ghorband almost automatically remained Parwan’s backwater.

Interestingly, the Quetta shura has appointed a Tajik from the Jabal-us-Seraj area as their shadow governor for Parwan about two months ago. This reflects their similar approach further North (see our 2011 report ‘The insurgents of the Afghan North’ here) and clearly points to their intention not to limit their activity to the Pashtun minority. (And there have been spectacular attacks in the Tajik areas of Parwan, like the attack against the Bagram airbase during a visit of then US Vice President Dick Cheney as early as in February 2007. In May this year, a former local mujahedin commander, Atequllah, was killed in Jabal-us- Saraj district by unidentified armed individuals, in what could be another example of the Taleban assassination campaign.

Mandegar also quotes widespread popular distress in the area about governmental neglect although it is only ‘less than a hundred kilometers’ away from the capital. Residents complain that the National Solidarity Program (NSP) only has one office in the Ghorband, in Siahgerd, and is often closed.

NATO and the Afghan government quickly reacted to the upsurge in violence. They started a clean-up operation on 23 June during which Mulla (aka Qari) Matiullah, head of a local Taleban network operating in the Wazghar and Qemchaq side valleys of the Ghorband (in Siahgerd district)***** which had been reinforced by fighters from Tala wa Barfak, and some 15 fighters were arrested. Matiullah was one of three local Taleban commanders who operate(d) in the Pashtun parts of Ghorband, with 20 to 40 fighters each. Another one, Mulla Azizullah, had already been a Taleban commander in the area during the Emirate; but the chief commander then was a Kandahari, Mullah Abdul Wahed, who was recently reported killed in this home province.

The clean-up operations apparently have not been as successful as they should: In ealy July, Taleban attacked a large ANP convoy in Siahgerd district with RPG fire. And if Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan is to be believed, the Ghorband Taleban were responsible for the crash of a military cargo airplane (with an Azeri crew) late on 5 July (read his statement here) that was reported as a pure incident elsewhere in the media.

If the negative security trend continues, it can have serious consequences:

1 – The second main connection between Kabul and Bamian might be closed for unescorted movements. This would make access to Bamian either very complicated (through Mazar in the North, but there are also insurgent pockets along that road) or would force travelers to rely on the airways.

2 – The Taleban might increase their Eastern ‘insecurity corridor’ (see our earlier blog on this here) further westwards, crossing the strategic Salang highway and linking up with supply routes from Wardak/Ghazni.

3 – Even though it was said by the government recently that the road to the Hazarajat through Qarabagh district in Ghazni has been reopened, with ANA post along the route – although this seems to be more wishful thinking than reality, as travellers who were not able to go through there confirm -, general access to the Hazarajat would become even more difficult, as the feeling of vulnerability amongst the local population there would grow.

4 – If the Taleban – as the strongest groups amongst the insurgents – really did the Zahak killing, it would represent the first targeted attack on a high-ranking representative of the Hazara community since a very long time. Earlier Taleban statements had indicated that they – in contrast to the pre-2001 period – are respecting the Shia community. Although a PC chairman is not exactly a government representative – a category the Taleban see as ‘legitimate’ targets – but the difference between government and elected bodies might be lost on the Taleban.

5 – Generally, it would constitute another move forward into areas that hitherto had been virtually insurgency-free, and closer to the capital.

(*) Read it in full here.

(**) It was reported that ‘a force of two dozen AOG c[a]me down on the main Bamian-Parwan road in Siagerd [district], anticipating the transit of [Zahak]’, kidnapped and later killed the PC chairman and ‘engaged the ANP in several clashes around the [District Administration Centre]’.

(***) This network also covers Dushi district at the northern end of the Salang Pass, along an even more important major route.

(****) Babajan owns a large security and logistics company that provides security and logistics for Bagram airbase and has family ties to one the owner of the largest trucking companies in the country, Afghan International Trucking. When without an official police position from 2006-11 (he was moved into the police reserve), he still controlled up to 10,000 fighters (including the Bagram guards) – but was nevertheless officially declared DIAG-compliant in 2008 after handing-over three dozen AK-47.

(*****) The main Ghorband valley has 18 side valleys: Ail wa Kafshan, Namakab, Wazghar, Qemchaq, Foranjel, Sheikh Ali, Dara-ye Turkman, Dara-ye Sorkh, Dara-ye Parsa, Yakhdara, Dara-ye Taikhan, Dara-ye Sayyedan, Fundoqestan (an important archeological site of the late pre-Islamic/early Islamic periods), Oshtordara, Dara-ye Shewa, Dara-ye Qolikhor, Dara-ye Aistama, Qolilich.

Tagged with: ,
Thematic Category: Pakistan, War & Peace