War & Peace

The Sane Heartland of Afghanistan: a visit to Ghor’s Lal wa Sarjangal district


Peaceful in the middle of nowhere: the mainroad and bazaar of Lal. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Ghor is currently the subject of a series of dispatches by AAN’s Obaid Ali in which he describes the province’s multitudinous problems, not just threats from the Taleban, but also a host of other armed militias, their leaders entangled with the government, fighting each other and predating on the people. The one recurring bright spot in his reports is Lal wa Sarjangal, Ghor’s most eastern (and only Hazara district) district; it is also the most western district of the Hazarajat. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, has visited the district and says it is actually a bright spot for the whole country.

It was in 2000 that I first visited Lal wa Sarjangal (it has two population centres, Lal and Sarjangal, hence the long name, which is usually shortened to Lal). I was reporting on the ravages of drought, driving from Kabul to Herat, passing through frontlines between Taleban and Northern Alliance “controlled” territory – although out in the sticks, a frontline might just be a chain across the road and opened by a smiling youth giving his salaams and wishing us, at least, a safe journey.(1)

Lal, in my memory, was bleak, flattish upland, already cold at the end of September and feeling absolutely in the middle of nowhere, not the most striking place in a long and memorable journey. But my interest was sparked when a delegation of the district’s roshanfikran (educated people, intellectuals) came to see me in the BBC bureau in Kabul a few months later. They told me how they had got tired of the local commanders, all of whom were from Hezb-e Wahdat, but retained jihad-era rivalries; some were from the Wahdat faction led by Ustad Muhammad Akbari (now an MP), while others were allied to Muhammad Mohaqqeq (also now an MP) and (now second vice president) Karim Khalili. Akbari had decided to go into an alliance with the Taleban, as he told me in 1999, so that the “civil war” would not be fought out over Hazarajat, while Mohaqqeq and Khalili, were fighting the Taleban, as part of the Northern Alliance.(2)

“We were getting tired of the commanders fighting each other in our district,” said the head of the delegation, a doctor, small and with wonky ears, “so we negotiated a ceasefire.” After that, he said, they took their campaign further. “We decided that, actually, their main problem was illiteracy, so we arranged classes for them.”

Surely, I thought, Lal must be the sane heartland of Afghanistan. This same group of roshanfikran, before September 2001, building on their peace efforts, decided to make Lal neutral in the conflict – not Taleban or Northern Alliance – on the grounds that war itself was the main problem in Afghanistan. As a mark of the district’s neutrality, they chose the United Nations flag to fly over the administrative centre in Sar Jangal. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig remembers the same group approaching the UN’s pre-9/11 political mission, UNSMA, where Thomas then worked as the senior political officer. They told him how they had kicked the fighters out of a part of their district, apparently a dead-end valley, which they cut off and posted a youth armed with a stick at the entrance.

Returning in October 2012 on the last stage in a trip through the Hazarajat (see AAN’s travel tips and sites to see here) was to find a district that seemed to have embraced all the best possibilities of the post-2001 settlement. Like the rest of the province, Lal is inaccessible and neglected, poor, miles from the markets and borders and major economic centres, snowed in during the winter months and too high up and with too late a spring to produce much in the way of crops. What it is producing is educated youngsters, girls and boys. We saw groups of teenage girls walking to school over the mountains and were told that, like their brothers, they will walk a couple of hours through the snow to get to courses in the winter. Families send their sons and daughters to university in Kabul and some are even happy for their girls to stay in the dormitories there. Richer families send older children to stay with relatives in Kabul to get them to schools where standards are seen as higher and better preparation for getting into university.

Lal is safe and friendly. People wanted to talk and seemed to assume that, as westerners, we might be useful – doctors, for example. So what has gone right in Lal that, against the odds of climate and geography, it seems to be thriving? There has been little aid, but from the reception we received, it appears to have been useful. (The International Assistance Mission, among the foreign NGOs, has had a particularly long history here. Dan Terry, murdered in Badakhshan in 2010, and his wife Seija worked in Lal from before the war (read AAN’s obituary here). The local government appears to be not particularly effective, but also not intrusive or predatory. There are no Taleban and no foreign soldiers.

The key thing, of course, is that in this 100 per cent Hazara-populated district,(3) the Taleban can make no inroads, which has also made it of little interest to foreign donors or departments of defence. More fundamentally, the post-2001 political settlement has produced a state which is more inclusive for Hazaras than, historically speaking, anyone can remember. (For a look in detail at the situation of Hazaras post-2001, see this.) Even though Lal has few political links to that far away centre, these are still, relatively speaking, good times.

Yet, Lal’s position does make it vulnerable. East to Bamyan province, the roads are fine, but travelling westwards can be difficult. We were told the story of an NGO driver who was kidnapped on the road from the provincial capital, Chaghcharan, and taken out to Dawlatyar district where the village met to decide what to do with him. He reported children listening in as the adults debated whether to behead him or not. Lal’s inhabitants have until now been able to keep levels of security never achieved – or long since lost – elsewhere in Ghor, but they are in the unfortunate position of being estranged from their own provincial capital. And Kabul does feel a long, long way away.

(1) At Jam minaret further west on the road beyond the provincial capital, Chaghcheran, a horse-ride from the main road in 2000, we were given a lunch by the local commanders; half way through, I realised half were officially Taleban, the other officially with Jamiat-e Islami. They laughed roguishly when I mentioned this, saying it maximised returns for the area to get the support of both of the warring parties.

(2) One of the enduring cleavages from the jihad is between two of the Shia Islamist mujahedin groups, Sepah-e Pasdaran, led by Muhammad Akbari and Sazman-e Nasr, led by the late Abdul Ali Mazari with Muhammad Mohaqqeq and Abdul Karim Khalili also leading figures. These two parties were the most powerful among the eight Hazara Shia parties which were brought together under Iranian pressure to form Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, usualy knows as [Hezb-e] Wahdat) in 1989. Later during the civil war, Wahdat would fragment, as described by the Afghanistan Justice Project:

As Mazari’s conflict with the Rabbani-led administration intensified from early 1993
onwards, Akbari’s Sipa Pasdoran re-emerged as the pro-ISA [Islamic State of Afghanistan] faction of Wahdat. Supported by Massoud, Akbari’s faction was involved in several rounds of conflict with the Mazari and Khalili faction of Wahdat, both in Kabul and Hazarajat. This factional rivalry was the basis for many intra-Shia abuses.

In 1995, Mazari’s Wahdat, pushed to the wall in Kabul by Ahmad Shah Massud’s ISA forces, went into alliance with the Taleban (who killed Mazari). Roles were reversed in 1998. After Bamyan fell to the Taleban, Akbari went into alliance with them, becoming the most powerful Shia figure in the Emirate, without an official position but controlling the Hazarajat’s centre, Bamyan, under the supervision of a relatively small Kandahari Taleban unit. Meanwhile, Khalili and Mohaqqeq fought on against the Taleban, bringing the majority part of Wahdat into the Northern Alliance.

Post-2001, the party fractured further into four groups all bearing some variation of the Wahdat name, led by Akbari, Khalili, Muhaqiq and Qurban Ali Erfani. (For more background, see Thomas Ruttig’s 2006 paper about Afghanistan’s political parties here.)

(3) Hazaras are one of the very few communities which the Taleban have not been able to make inroads into, as AAN’s report on the insurgency in the north showed.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace