War & Peace

The Empty Streets of Mohammad Agha: Logar’s struggle against the Taleban


Graveyard peace in Logar's Mohammad Agha district. The little flags on the picture indicate the location where victims of recent violent incidents were buried. Photo: Obaid Ali

Logar province has become a dangerous place to live for many residents. The number of violent incidents and assassinations of locals committed by Taleban has increased starkly. AAN’s Obaid Ali describes how the Taleban intimidate and exploit the people of this province just south of Kabul and how they challenge local security forces, especially the Afghan Local Police (ALP). He particularly looks at the district of Mohammad Agha, where in the past five months more than 15 people were killed and dozens of government employees, with their families, fled to Kabul while insurgents are not only dominating the security situation, but also increasingly penetrate the private lives of people.

In Mohammad Agha, everyone must look after the ‘guests’ who arrive at night. The visitors, roaming groups of Taleban, are patrolling the district and regularly knock on doors to ask for food. If villagers in this district of Logar, a province located just southeast of the capital Kabul, refuse to help, they risk being marked as spies of the government and punished – meaning beaten or even killed. Some people of Mohammad Agha have been ‘asked’ to ‘donate’ money to Taleban ‘charity,’ which usually means not much more than re-stocking the Taleban’s financial resources.

Speaking to AAN, an elder from the town of Zarghunshahr described, for example, how the Taleban had demanded the money villagers had saved up for weddings and funerals. The local Taleban council, a body that runs the shadow administrative and military affairs at district level, also issued an order (hukm) that the amounts villagers want to spend on wedding parties or funeral ceremonies must beforehand be approved by shadow governor Qari Borhan who also decides which kind of food will be served – usually he insists on ‘simple’ food only. The rule is simply a tool to extort money from locals. The Taleban will calculate the cheapest possible wedding and take the rest of the party budget for themselves.

The situation in this district of Logar – one of seven and definitely among the five districts hit worst by the insurgency (the others being Azra, Kharwar, Baraki Barak and Charkh) – illustrates a turn for the worse for the province.

Logar’s provincial capital Pul-e Alam is just one and a half hours drive from Kabul along the major Kabul-Gardez-Khost highway, and the district centre of Mohammad Agha is even closer, only 23 kilometres beyond Kabul’s city limits. It is a key strategic area for the Taleban – not only because of the proximity to the capital but also because from there, local fighters can join insurgent fronts in the neighbouring provinces of Nangrahar in the east; Paktia, Paktika and Khost in the south; and Wardak and Ghazni in the west.

The situation in Logar – never completely calm – started to deteriorate in 2011. Assassinations and kidnappings became daily news, in addition to increasing numbers of victims being caught up in the fighting between Afghan National Security Forces and insurgents. A map for USAID – put together by iMMap using “data from the United Nations’ Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS–SIOC), British embassy and open sources” and illustrating the total number of the dead and injured due to security incidents in all provinces between 2008 and 2013 – shows the figures for Logar gradually rising over the years, from 148 in 2008 to 479 in 2012 (187 in 2009, 256 in 2010, 397 in 2011). UNAMA’s Mid-Year Report 2013 on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict counted incidents and displayed figures differently, but noted the same trend. Looking particularly at targeted killings, it stated:

To counter the expansion of Government presence, Anti-Government Elements used targeted killings to intimidate local influential elders, family members of Government employees and Provincial Peace Council members. This deliberate targeting of civilians appears to stem from a limited capacity of Anti-Government Elements to effectively engage security forces and gain tactical ground using lawful combat tactics. This results in an increased reliance on asymmetric tactics, in particular targeted killings of high-profile individuals and civilians, threats and intimidation. Such tactics may also serve as a way to assert control over local populations.

. . . In the first six months of 2013, UNAMA documented 14 civilian deaths in ten separate incidents of targeted killings [assassinations] of civilians by Anti-Government Elements in Logar province. This is a 367 percent increase from the same period in 2012. . . . The increase in targeted killings in Logar province is indicative of changing political and security dynamics in the province. While civilian deaths over all decreased by 21 percent, with IED attacks, air operations and other tactics showing significant decreases, targeted killings and ground engagements increased.

The figures for 2014 are not yet available. The UN mid-year report on civilian casualties made public in July 2014 registers 4,853 civilian casualties country wide between 1 January and 30 June (1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injured), reflecting a 17 per cent increase in civilian deaths and a 28 per cent increase in civilians injured compared to the first six months of 2013. It can be assumed that casualty rates for Logar have been rising as well, although they are not mentioned specifically. One indication for this is that the UN refugee agency UNHCR said in December that Logar was among the top ten provinces producing internally displaced people (IDPs) due to conflict and fighting between insurgents and Afghan national security forces. In November alone, the agency had profiled 88 families as newly displaced – around 600 individuals.

The United Nation’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) had already in February 2014 put Logar at number eight among the most insecure provinces.

Are the Taleban changing tactics?

Sources on the ground confirmed to AAN that the Taleban changed tactics in Logar. According to Dr. Abdulwali Wakil, former speaker of the Logar provincial council, they conducted larger military operations this year instead of continuing guerrilla warfare. For example, the Taleban in October recently launched a coordinated attack on a police check post in Charkh district. Two Afghan National Police men died and five others were wounded.

Figures from an independent organisation observing the security situation on the ground, however, indicate that the overall number of Taleban attacks has not increased in Logar (compared to 2011 – when it was 240 – it has even decreased). That organisation, up to mid November 2014, saw 200 Taleban attacks in the provinces (with light and heavy weapons, but also with IEDs and suicide attacks), compared with 201 attacks in 2013 and 203 in 2012. On the other hand, the organisation confirmed that in 2014 the Afghan National Security Forces had conducted 163 military operations against the Taleban in the whole province – significantly more than, for example, 2013 when it was 128 (2012: 121; 2011: 103). Perhaps the larger number of displaced and civilian casualties stems from the Taleban’s change in tactics, turning to larger-scale operations, but it could also hail from the ANSF’s takeover of ground engagements from ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). It has already been noted that the ANSF’s track record for protecting civilians while fighting needs to improve.

Sayed Nazim Azemi, the district governor of Mohammad Agha, told AAN that he thought the change in the quality of Taleban attacks was also due to the lack of air support by coalition forces. The Taleban were “aware that the Afghan National Security Forces are now on their own, which encouraged them to plan larger, coordinated attacks.” In August, for example, local officials reported “hundreds of Taleban” attempting to storm police check posts in Azra’s district centre. The clash continued for more than ten hours, 11 Afghan National Police men and one Afghan National Army soldier died, several others were wounded (see here and here). In October, Taleban conducted another coordinated attack on police check posts in Baraki Barak district. According to local officials, six Afghan National Police died and several wounded.

There also have been a number of high-profile killings. In May 2013, for example, Taleban assassinated Mullah Bashir, a member of the High Peace Council (HPC) in central Logar. In August 2014, the district mayor of Mohammad Agha district was gunned down in his own house. In July 2013, Taleban first kidnapped eight Afghans who worked at a military base in Logar and later shot them. In April 2014, Taleban shot dead another member of the HPC in Muhammad Agha district.

The provincial police chief states that 600 Afghan Local Police (ALP) and 1,200 Afghan National Police ensure the safety of Logar’s districts. The police chief hinted at the need for increased numbers of security personnel. In some districts, like Kharwar and Azra, the ANP only manages to ensure security for the government offices in the district centres. Suicide attacks continue to diminish the number of ALP in districts. In August 2014, two ALP members were killed in a suicide attack in Baraki Barak district; in the same month an explosion near an ALP commander’s house left three ALP men dead (here and here). On 10 November, a suicide attacker detonated his explosives in front of the provincial police headquarter, killing commander Sabz Ali, Logar’s ALP chief, along with seven soldiers.

Connecting Afghanistan’s insurgency to Waziristan in Pakistan

According to former provincial council spokesman Wakil, the Taleban aim to rule the districts of Azra, Khoshi, Baraki Barak and Muhammad Agha. These areas border neighbouring provinces with high insurgent activity; controlling them opens up easy supply and back-up routes. For example, the Taleban in Azra district call in support from the Taleban front in Hesarak district of Nangarhar province; the Taleban in Baraki Barak enjoy support from their ‘brothers’ in Sayedabad district of Maidan-Wardak province.

Another goal of the insurgents could be to connect their Logar fronts with the insurgents in Northern Waziristan, Pakistan. According to local journalists, the Taleban’s networks in Logar, Ghazni, Maidan Wardak and Paktia gain direct support from Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan in Waziristan. The best route for connecting these groups leads through the districts of Azra and Muhammad Agha, which border Pakistan. The route had already been used for logistics by mujahedin during the resistance against the Soviets.

Even the young people stay at home

Today, most villages of Mohammad Agha district, even at daytime, are eerily calm. Even the young people prefer to stay at home and avoid talking to strangers. The Taleban regularly pin documents detailing their rules and edicts to mosque walls; these mostly call on people not to support the government. At night, they deliver letters to people’s door steps warning residents to stop working for government institutions or they will be killed. In the past five months, more than 15 locals and government employees have been assassinated, locals say. A resident of Mohammad Agha who wished to remain unnamed told AAN that two of his sons are serving as members of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army and that for the past nine months, he has forbidden them to come home. “I told my sons to call us instead,” he said.

In some villages, families left behind their houses and headed to Kabul. When they were gone, the Taleban sometimes planted people to occupy these homes. Those people – Taleban spies, locals say – are responsible for collecting information about the dwellers and passing it on to Qari Borhan, the Taleban’s local shadow district governor. He currently rules unhindered over the town of Zarghunshahr and the village of Bork, both located only four to nine kilometres from the district centre. Local insurgents have also imposed a curfew on everyone in Mohammad Agha, except themselves, from six in the evening until morning prayers.

Maruf Stanekzai, the head of the Stanekzai tribe, one of the dominant tribes in Mohammad Agha, told AAN, “In the past few months many innocent people in Muhammad Agha were killed by insurgents. No one is safe anymore, even in health clinics or mosques.” In the holy month of Ramadan, he said, Taleban had entered a mosque in Keshm village and shot worshippers, young men, one serving as security guard in Kabul and the other a local farmer. People are confused as to why these two men had to die. In August, he said, armed men entered a health clinic in Muhammad Agha district and shot a young man who had previously served as a soldier in the Afghan National Army (ANA).

Finding the exact number of incidents in Mohammad Agha is difficult, since there is little media coverage and the police, for whatever reason, seem hesitant to paint a negative picture of the security situation. Abdulwakil Haqyar, the local police chief of Muhammad Agha, says the security in his district was much better than in “any district of Kabul city.” For the whole year, according to him, the police registered “only two targeted killings,” that, he said, were the result of internal disputes among locals. Indeed, there are many old internal disputes, partly due to tanzim (jihadi party) affiliations of rival families that lead to cycles of revenge. However, tanzims are unlikely to be the major reason behind assassinations in Mohammad Agha district, since during the jihad against the Soviets and during the civil war Logar was mainly controlled by Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatar (HIG), and internal disputes among local commanders are rare here.

What role do foreign fighters play?

An aggravating factor seems to be the presence of foreign fighters in Logar, particularly Pakistani Taleban, but it remains difficult to separate facts from fiction. The countrywide trend is to push the blame for atrocities on non-locals or foreign forces. According to one local elder, for example, most assassinations are carried out “by foreign Taleban who are not aware of local tribal dynamics.” Speaking to AAN, Haji Ali Muhammad, a representative of Logar province in the lower house of parliament, also said there were “Pakistani, Arab and Chechen Taleban in Logar.” And indeed, in October 2013, Latifullah Mehsud, deputy head of Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), was arrested in Logar (after having spent almost 14 months in Bagram airbase, Mehsud has reportedly been handed over to Pakistan in December 2014). The district police chief adds that in a recent clash between the Taleban and security forces, an Arab fighter was killed and three Pakistani Taleban were wounded. NGOs working on the ground do report fast turnover in Taleban leadership, making it hard for locals to build relationships with them. The police chief of Logar, Abdulhakim Ishaqzai, confirmed that foreign Taleban did appear in the province, but usually did not stay long. This lack of local roots among the fighters coming and going likely contributes to the cruelty of attacks on civilians.

“Please stop harassing us”

In September 2014, elders of the Mohammad Agha district approached the local Taleban leadership asking them to stop the harassment of the local population. The Taleban, in October, indeed organised a gathering, requesting commanders to obey the layha (the Taleban’s code of conduct, more here). But elders have not noticed any change in Talebans’ behaviour.

Sometimes, though, harassment of locals has backfired. In 2013, in some districts, like Baraki Barak, Charkh and Pul-e Alam, locals staged public uprisings against the Taleban. The first was organised in 2011 by Sayed Farhad Akbari, a businessman from the Kolangar area, who since turned into the local commander of the uprising. Akbari originally owned a construction company. Speaking to AAN, he said that local Taleban commanders had called him “many times asking for money and support.” But when he rejected, his family was targeted on the Kabul-Logar highway. Akbari lost his mother, and five other members of his family were seriously wounded. Akbari said he then called upon his district’s residents to stand with him against the Taleban. He says 300 men from Sayed Taqi village in Kolangar joined him. Akbari claims his men managed to push the Taleban out of most parts of the district. Akbari also said that he “encouraged frustrated residents of other villages to do the same,” and “now 150 villages are free from the Taleban.”

The uprising had consequences for Akbari, though. In October 2013, after the assassination of Logar’s governor Arsala Jamal (here and here), Akbari was arrested by the provincial National Directorate of Security (NDS) and accused of being behind the killings. He was jailed for almost five months before being released without charges. Akbari believes that some local officials were not happy that he pushed the Taleban back. “They are intending to take the credit for the success of the public uprising,”Akbari added. That the government did not support the initiatives (even punished their initial organiser) may also mean, though, that it fears that these paramilitary units will turn into a major security challenge themselves and will be hard to disarm.

The Logar public uprising should be distinguished from some other public ‘uprisings,’ locals say. The most prominent of them, in the Andar district of Ghazi province, for example, had, as it turned out, initially been organized and mobilized by the central government aiming to push the Taleban back (read more on the Andar uprising in this AAN report). The public uprisings in Logar, though, says Wakil, the former spokesman of the Logar provincial council, had indeed been “initiated by locals to kick the Taleban out of the province.” He described the uprising as a “positive movement.” This does not mean, though, that they will spread. Many Logaris are too scared to dare stand up against the insurgency. “We cannot raise our voice against them, let alone our weapons,” one man from Mohammad Agha district said. “Their revenge will be terrible.”

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Thematic Category: War & Peace