War & Peace

How outside interference politicised the Achin land conflict


Reading the news in the morning sometimes brings big surprises. Even before a suicide car rammed into a US military convoy on Kabul’s Dar-ul-Aman road yesterday, causing the heaviest death toll among ISAF troops ever in the capital, the AAN office was already puzzled by another event: the latest bloody outcome of the years-old land conflict in Achin district of Nangrahar and the confused reporting about it, wrongly suggesting a major clash with insurgents. Fabrizio Foschini and Naheed Esar Malikzay pieced the story together (with the help of Thomas Ruttig).

‘Insurgents attacked a convoy of Afghan and international troops on Friday in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, setting off a gun battle that left about 30 militants dead, NATO said.’
This short piece of news was originally written by theAssociated Press on 29 October. The news agency did not source the information more exactly, and AAN was unable to find an NATO/ISAF press release on the incident. But the report was widely picked up by online and printed press across the world, including the New York Times and Kabul-based Tolo News(click here and here). Its content, however, is far from being un-problematic.

At a closer look, the dead are members of the Shinwari tribe, they were armed without doubt, and had engaged in hostile activities against Afghan and international security forces. Still, this hardly allows for them being easily labelled ‘insurgents’. Their main purpose for their belligerency was not organised insurgent activity or waging jihad, but to defend their claims to a tract of land in front of a rival group. They had been doing so for years now, and the matter was well known – or at least should have been known – to all parties involved, the government, the NATO troops and the media. It is even more striking that some of the dead tribesmen, belonging to the Sepai sub-tribe of the Shinwar, had in all probability been part of an anti-Taleban arbaki created under an initially much-commended deal between the US military and the tribal elders less than two years ago.

How come that those heroic tribesmen, whose resistance against the Taleban had spurred enthusiastic comments by the US commanders and media (read the first report about them from 2009 here in the New York Times), are now lumped together with their former foes as ‘insurgents’?

It is a long story, in fact, and it must be told from the beginning. But let’s first have a look at the most recent facts, trying to avoid undue categorizing. Nangarhar’s governor Gul Agha Sherzai announced earlier this month (click here) his firm intention to solve the hoary conflict between two Shinwari sub-tribes, the Sepai and the Alisherkhel, who had been confronting each other over a piece of land both claim for one and a half year*. (According to some sources, the conflict is much older, 70 or 80 years.) Apparently, an agreement was reached late on 26 October, to the effect that the rival camps would accept disarmament, a tiga (a moratorium on the conflict, including a cease-fire, as stipulated by pashtunwalai) of three or even five years, and government ruling over the issue. In the meantime both sides would vacate the land they had occupied. The next two days were scheduled for the disarming of the two rival sub-tribes, but while this worked with the Alisherkhel, things did not go smoothly with the Sepai on Friday, 28 October.

Sporadic exchanges of fire had occurred since the morning, but events took an unexpected turn when a Sepai lashkar attacked a compound hosting a meeting of the provincial authorities, including provincial governor Gul Agha Sherzai. They also shot at and damaged a US helicopter, an act which apparently triggered the retaliatory strikes that produced most of the casualties among the tribesmen.

The conflict originates from the dispute over a desert tract of land of approximately 5,000 to 8,000 jerib (that is between 10-15 square kilometres) in the northern part of Achin, on the border with Shinwar district, situated roughly between the territory of the Sepai sub-tribe in upper Achin (Spin Ghar mountains) to the south and that of the Alisherkhel in neighbouring Shinwar to the north. The area, which stretches west of the main road connecting the district centres of Achin and Shinwar, and has been asphalted with the US PRT’s money recently, had not been occupied by significant settlements until recent times, although there are some villages inhabited by Alisherkhel close to it. In early 2010, a group of Sepai made the first inroads, reportedly setting up a private school in Siahchob village, on the border of the deserted area. The Alisherkhel reacted swiftly, demolishing the building which, according to them, was the first step towards their rivals’ encroachment.

Shortly after, however, the Sepai entered the empty area and put up tents and huts to occupy it. Again, the Alisherkhel retaliated, attacking the settlers and forcing them out in March 2010. Undaunted, the Sepai were able to stage their comeback even thanks to the heavy weapons they had received through the mentioned arbaki program supported by the US military, which had started in late 2009.

At that time, a Taleban group had apparently attacked a Sepai village in upper Achin district, possibly because locals were not cooperative with them, targeting some tribesmen who had taken up jobs with the government. (The New York Times further traces the origin of the conflict to the Taleban kidnapping of two Afghan engineers, in violation of a Shinwari elders’ veto – read the full story here.) The Sepai fought back the insurgents, who are said to have been mainly Afridi from Khyber agency. In the aftermath, looking for support in view of the expected Taleban retaliation, two Sepai tribal leaders, Malik Niaz and Malik Osman, approached – or were approached by – US special forces, the so-called ‘Americans with beards’.

The following pact, under which the Sepai maliks were to receive weapons, ammo and money (200,000$ cash, plus the promise of control over the spending of an additional million dollars in development aid), in exchange for raising and keeping an arbaki militia unit to oppose Taleban activities in their area, was highly publicized as a significant development for the country’s security. These arbaki – then still called Community Defence Initiative, a term later abolished in favour of Afghan Local Police – were a core idea of Gen. Petraeus’ plan to emulate the ‘Sunni Awakening’ against al-Qaida in Iraq in the Afghan context.

Dexter Filkins wrote in the New York Times (22 Nov 2009) that the US are supporting ‘anti-Taleban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban [which has] so encouraged the American and Afghan officials that they are planning to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland’ and specifically mentions the Achin [Sepahi] arbaki: ‘One of the most striking examples of a local militia rising up on its own is here in Achin […].’

Filkins called it ‘one of the most ambitious — and one of the riskiest — plans for regaining the initiative against the Taliban’ – but he does not mention any latent tribal conflict in the area. His report shows, though, that the US forces responsible for arming the Sepahi were aware that the two arbakai leaders only led ‘a branch of the 12 Shinwari [sub-]tribes’. More significantly, they seem to have chosen to ignore the potential for intra-tribal conflicts between sub-tribes**. Instead, they decided to interpret the conflict as one between the ‘tribes’ and the Taleban, swallowing the ambitious Sepai maliks’ announcement ‘that others [from other Shinwari subtribes] will join them’.

In a matter of few months, the Achin arbaki project proved ineffective, as it was evident that the Sepai were using the weapons thus received to fight their tribal rivals instead of hindering Taleban activities (read a Washington Post article about this here). But the damage was done. Notwithstanding an occasional massive deployment of Afghan security forces to prevent hostilities from resuming, the two sides faced each other in makeshift trenches on the contested land, and occasional outbursts of fighting made the death toll rise – and consequently decreased the possibility of a negotiated settlement. The Alisherkhel, facing a better armed enemy, were in turn approached by Pakistani insurgents just across the border (reportedly Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e Islami) who promised to support them. The real extent of this Taleban support is not clear – it could have amounted just to opponents’ slandering on part of the Sepai, or to Alisherkhel’s claim for attention from the government. It did, however, threaten to sour relations between US troops and the Alisherkhel who already complained of the favours lavished on the Sepai, when ISAF search operations were mounted in Alisherkhel villages.

Several attempts at solving the issue were indeed organised by provincial and national authorities since the start of the conflict. A first jirga was headed by Wahidullah Sabawun, one of the many advisor-ministers on tribal affairs to Karzai, himself a Shinwari from Kunar province (and former HIG member). Its participants suggested the division of the land in equal shares. But this proposal was superseded by another jirga including parliamentarians and representatives from the other two major tribes of Nangrahar, the Khugiani and Mohmand, which gathered in December 2010. This jirga obtained a deposit of 40 million Pakistani rupees (around US$ 460,000) from the two warring factions to guarantee that they would accept its ruling. This was to the effect that the contested land in Achin should go to the Sepai, while the Alisherkhel should receive another piece of land near Torkham, the possession of which was also disputed among the two sub-tribes. Reportedly, the Alisherkhel would not accept the jirga decision (the signatures of twenty of their elders were required), thus they lost their money and the conflict went on. Then, a commission sent by Kabul under Assadullah Wafa, another advisor-minister, brought a President’s farman ruling that the land was actually state-owned. This development made both the Shinwari sub-tribes very suspicious; they assumed that Kabul would take over the land.

In the meantime, in fact, all sides were getting nervous about the loss of lives, money and time caused by the dispute. The Sepai and Alisherkhel would not renounce ownership of the barren piece of land they had suddenly started to covet. Even if the spokesperson of the Alisherkhel jirga claimed then to AAN that the occupied land had been previously their malchar(pasture), both sides admitted that they valued more its potential for building residential complexes (it is a flat, stoneless if dry expanse, indeed, which might be made inhabitable by drilling deep wells).

The tenacity of the two sides in fighting for a piece of land should not surprise. Nangrahar is the most densely populated province of Afghanistan, being also a favourite stopping place for refugees returning from Pakistan. Demography has pushed to its maximum the value of estates in central areas with a main road connection. Inhabitants of mountainous and remote regions like the Sepai of upper Achin naturally crave to gain access to them. The Alisherkhel, settled in a more central area with trade facilities, resent losing land – even land that was until now utterly unproductive – to their rivals.

And the conflict has been fuelled by external factors too: not only the interference by the US and Afghan central government which emboldened the Sepai maliks, but, according to local sources, also a different kind of political game played by regional powerbrokers. Governor Sherzai and his main adversaries on the Nangrahar’s political mainstage, the Arsala family, are rumoured to support opposite sides in this and other, frequent land conflicts that alight in the province. Insurgent activities and the opium growing and trafficking – both regular features of a border district like Achin and increasingly of its more centrally located neighbour Ghanikhel – may provide additional points of view on the longevity of the conflict.

Whatever the main drivers of the conflict, in the Achin case it is remarkable how the Sepai passed from being plainly supported by the provincial and central government, in their quality of ‘auxiliary troops’, during the first stages of the dispute, to being harshly opposed by the governor, incensed by the assertive demeanour of their maliks or more inclined to listen to the grievances of the Alisherkhel businessmen after the Sepai ceased to be strategic allies of the US troops. The Sepai themselves had been angered by the stopping of all the promised US-sponsored projects (only 167,000$ of the development money had been spent according to the WP article mentioned above) after the re-kindling of the tribal conflict in spring 2010 (read more about it here).

The mood before the agreement of Wednesday, 26 October was not optimistic altogether. Press reports in early October had already described the two sides’ intransigence and bitterness (read here, for example). However, few where expecting things to go as bad as they did. The tougher stance taken by the provincial governor, and his will to resolve the issue once and for all, possibly driven by the need to settle a strategic area in view of the incoming batch of transition and a possible reduction of the NATO troops deployed in the eastern districts of Nangrahar, was also evident. When the Sepai fighters targeted the tent where Sherzai was meeting with other authorities, reportedly killing four policemen and one of his own bodyguards, he is said to have gone berserk and to have ordered the harshest military response.

As reported by local sources, the Sepai protested that they had committed on disarming only after the huts built by the Alisherkhel on the contested land now had been dismantled. Some maintain that it was the youngsters, who had spent months taking turns in the trenches, who could not accept letting down their weapons – and accused their elders to have been bribed into accepting an unfair deal. But this might be not just a generational gap. Reportedly, even Malik Niaz and Malik Osman were already in a thoroughly confrontational mood before the disarming attempt started. One thing for sure, the 30 dead and wounded (or 50, according to Malik Osman’s claims) will not restore Sepai’s goodwill in the Afghan government and the ISAF troops. Nor have the Alisherkhel being thoroughly satisfied with the outcome. The risk is there that two important sections of a major tribe, whose members had previously showed limited inclination in joining the insurgency, will be more receptive to Taleban outreach.

The Taleban in fact have already started to exploit the dead by releasing a statement on the incident through their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed (a rough working translation of which is given below). The text of the statement is particularly well-calibrated: it condemns the excessive use of force of the government, although under the reasonable pretext of protecting state land; it castigates the authorities for failing to address their own abuses in land issues***; and it call on all Muslims, and in particular on the Shinwari, to avoid referring to government and foreigners for the solution of their disputes.

Whatever the future effects of this incident and of the Taleban entreaties on the Sepai, the press should try and not loose sight of the difference between ‘fighters’ and ‘insurgents’. Calling the Sepai casualties ‘insurgents’ is just not saying things as they are, and open the door for dangerous finger-pointing. This is even more worrying on the part of Afghan media, which should be particularly concerned about the easiness with which fellow Afghans – whatever their faults – are labelled insurgents if it suits the occasion. The bloodbath that happened on Friday is the outcome of the tribesmen’s stubborn and opportunistic behaviour as much as of the government incompetence in dealing with a land dispute (or with land disputes in general) and the undue and irresponsible interference of ISAF troops who likely were largely clueless about the underlying conflict lines in a sensible tribal context.

The latter is probably the clumsiest aspect of the whole drama. The enthusiasm shown by the military for this kind of enterprises, clearly reflected in early press reports written before these projects – as they often do – collapse, is remarkable. And so it is their belief that those ‘militias represent a reassertion of the country’s age-old tribal system’, overlooking that, in this age-old context, the presence of an islamist insurgency and that of ISAF troops – even though bearded ones – descending from helicopters with bags full of money is a conspicuously incongruous one.

* The Shinwari are one of the more numerous Pashtun tribes of eastern Afghanistan, constituting the majority of the population in Deh Bala, Achin, Dur Baba, Kot, Shinwari and Nazian districts of Nangrahar and also of some areas of Kunar, in particular Shigal district.

** Sepai are one of the (usually counted as) four major Shinwari divisions, the rest being Alisherkhel, Mandozai and Sangukhel (the latter inhabiting mainly Khyber Agency on the Pakistani side of the border). Every sub-tribe is of course further subdivided along patrilinear segments: competition for prestige and resources was for example reported even between the two Sepai maliks at the centre of the arbaki deal, they belonging to the rival Rahimdadkhel and Haidarkhel sections.

*** Interestingly, the Taleban mention as an example the Hesar Shahi dispute in Rodat district. This features a big business enterprise by Najib Zarab (a wealthy local businessman allegedly favoured by governor Sherzai) to build a sharak (residential township), called ‘Ghazi Amanullah’. The local inhabitants claim they have been trying to build houses for themselves on that land for a decade, and that their requests of being allocated a share of the townships have been ignored. Pointing to Hesar Shahi does not only provide a well-known example in Nangrahar, but also suggests that the Taleban would support the claims of the disaffected inhabitants of Rodat.

Note of the spokesman of the Islamic Emirate about the bloody incident in Nangrahar

Yesterday more than one hundred civilians, in a cruel attack by foreign troops and their shameless followers, were killed and injured in Achin district of Nangrahar province.
Those civilians, who had gathered in Achin district of Nangrahar province for a legal land dispute, were, under orders of the foreign-directed Afghan governor (Nangrahar governor), attacked by foreign troops terrestrial and aerial attacks which resulted, as witnesses said, in the killing and injuring of more than 100 civilians.
Probably Nangrahar’s corrupted rulers had done so to protect government land, but their illegal act cannot be acceptable in view of all the people killed.
If Nangrahar government workers really care about civilians’ property, then they should also stop the corrupt people inside the government, which made Afghanistan the first place in the world for corruption.
If corrupt government heads in Nangrahar province want to portray themselves as the real protectors of people’s belongings and for that reason kill civilians to protect government land, they should first stop occupying people’s land in Hesar Shahi area and then protect government lands in other places.
The Islamic Emirate sends its condolences to the families of the martyrs, and hope quick recovery for the injured.
The Islamic Emirate asks Muslims of all the provinces, including Nangrahar, to solve their internal conflicts through Islamic and Afghan traditions, jirgas and discussions, and not through the servants of foreigners or the foreigners themselves. Because the servants who are in the government have sold all the holy values to the foreigners, and now how can they solve your internal problems? We particularly call on the respected Shinwari tribe to strongly avoid the intromission of those servants in their internal conflicts.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace