War & Peace

Transition in Uruzgan (2): Power at the centre


“Only the dead see the end of war”. The encryption on the monument for fallen foreign soldiers in Camp Holland, the main international military base in Uruzgan, might end up a sad prediction for many inhabitants of this southern province. As foreign forces prepare to leave, Uruzganis are ever more worried about the future. Deedee Derksen reports from Uruzgan that fear, insecurity and uncertainty play into the hands of local strongmen.

Officially the thousands of foreign troops in Uruzgan are leaving only at the end of this year. But these days they spend most of their time packing up. It is a massive job. The camp must be dismantled; its pieces shipped through Karachi to the United States, the Netherlands and Australia, the main three Western nations that have been involved in Uruzgan (although the last Dutch troops left in 2010).

Fighting season has started. The Taleban, who control districts in Helmand bordering on Uruzgan, are attacking police checkpoints and villages in districts west and north of the provincial capital Tirinkot. But it is mostly the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), together with the Afghan Local Police (ALP) – local uniformed militias under control of the Ministry of Interior — trying to repel them. The foreigners – in their own words – only mentor them and hold daily coordination meetings on the camp with local security officials.

As to the physical footprint of Camp Holland, future archaeologists might pore over fossils of Dutch herrings, American pop-tarts and makeshift Australian barbecues constructed from fuel barrels. Part of the camp will become a base for the ANA and ANP. The desert will devour the rest. Hesco walls come down, leaving iron threads like strange, contorted skeletons. The dusty wind is already taking over.

What is the foreigners’ legacy beyond the Hesco walls? How will Uruzgani history books judge the American-Dutch-Australian decade? It depends, of course, on whom you ask. In Chora, the bespectacled chemist, author of four books on the area, is happy with the support he and other members of the majority Achekzai tribe and Barakzai received from the Dutch and the Australians. This support, he said, compensated for rule by the Popalzai – the tribe from which President Karzai hails and which is a minority in Uruzgan.

Next-door to Camp Holland, however, provincial ANP commander Mattiullah, a Popalzai, views my arrival as a Dutch visitor warily. He prefers the Americans. US Special Forces backed him and his uncle, late Jan Mohammad, the former governor of Uruzgan. Mattiullah calls the president a close friend.

That each Western contingent has had its own tribal darlings makes for a complicated international legacy in the province. Uruzganis of all stripes work together peacefully when shipping out the opium harvest, like a few weeks ago. But the rest of the time countless armed conflicts wrack the province. Some are small, some large, but few show any sign of declining. In some cases foreigners aggravated them. Many accuse the US Forces, for example, of relying too heavily on strongmen like Jan Mohammad. Jan Mohammad, who had been close to President Karzai’s family since the 1980s, his relations with the US Special Forces and his reputation as an effective Taliban hunter to target a wide range of tribal leaders and former Taliban officials, writes Martine van Bijlert in Decoding the Taliban. Many of them then joined the insurgency, including Mullah Shafiq from Mirabad, Mullah Gul Badu from Tirinkot district and Mullah Amanullah from Darafshan.

American officers – and to an extent their Australian counterparts – argue, on the other hand, that the Dutch were wrong to try and sideline Mattiullah and Jan Mohammad (they insisted on Jan Mohammad’s removal as Uruzgan governor in 2006 and prevented Mattiullah from becoming provincial police commander in 2007). In hindsight some Dutch officials agree. Their policies towards Mattiullah put them in an awkward position, they say. Publicly they denied working with him, but in reality he secured their convoys on the road from Kandahar to Uruzgan.

While the contradictory policies of Western forces in Uruzgan often exacerbated rather than resolved local conflicts and even led to rearmament of some controversial groups, the foreign military presence did prevent open warfare in Tirinkot. This despite the fact that most soldiers never left their camp. Camp Holland was a self-sustaining place, far removed, physically and mentally, from daily life in Uruzgan. Croissants, lettuce, shrimps and meatballs arrived from Dubai. The lives of many soldiers revolved not round fighting, but round the café on the base where they would congregate at night. But at the same time the presence of thousands of well-trained troops with state of the art weapons was enough to dissuade potential troublemakers from starting an open war in the provincial capital at least. Camp Holland’s closure could lift the lid off a pressure cooker.

When the international troops depart, provincial police chief lieutenant-general Mattiullah will be the most powerful man in the province Uruzgan. He first appeared on the scene when Hamed Karzai was drumming up local elders’ support – with cash, weapons and equipment from American intelligence – for efforts to oust the Taliban in the weeks after 9/11. Mattiullah was enlisted into Karzai’s small band, not because he was significant (at the time he was in his twenties and had actually been conscripted as a foot soldier in the Taleban’s army), but because he was the nephew of Karzai family’s staunchest ally in Uruzgan, Jan Mohammad. One of Karzai’s first actions was to meet with Taleban leaders to secure Jan Mohammad’s release from a Taleban prison in Kandahar.

When Karzai appointed Jan Mohammad as governor of Uruzgan shortly after the fall of the Taleban, his nephew assumed control of one of four kandaks (a kandak is an Afghan military unit) in the 593rd brigade of the Afghan Military Forces (the brigade had between 700 and 800 fighters). Sultan Mohammad, an elder from the Barakzai tribe, commanded the brigade at the time. He looks back bitterly at his brigade’s experience of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program, implemented by the UN-led Afghanistan New Beginnings Program. Everyone gave up their weapons, he said. Everyone, that is, bar those in Mattiullah’s kandak. They, like men in units elsewhere favoured by the Karzai government, moved into the ANP. Unlike military units, the police were not disarmed.

So started Mattiullah’s career as commander of the Highway Police. It was immensely profitable, with the opportunity to tap foreign funds by protecting convoys travelling on the increasingly hazardous road from Kandahar to the military base in Tirinkot. In this sense Mattiullah was more successful than his uncle, who was slower to access foreign money.

Their local networks differed too. Jan Mohammad’s initially consisted of old allies from the jihad era. They came from different tribes, although the Popalzai dominated. As governor he appointed allies as district chiefs and police commanders. Mattiullah’s main commanders, however, were close friends from his village Turi, near Tirinkot. He recruited them when Karzai was in the province in 2001, then into his kandak and the highway police. Many now hold top positions in the ANP. Most are Popalzai.

When the Dutch deployed to Uruzgan in 2006 they suspected Jan Mohammed of drug trafficking and human rights violations and insisted on his removal. Karzai removed him from his position as governor and made him an adviser-minister for tribal affairs in Kabul. From there, Jan Mohammad’s hold on Uruzgan weakened, though he continued to exert influence behind the scenes until his assassination in July 2011. Mattiullah’s star, on the other hand, rose. His militia expanded, and while the highway police was abolished in 2006, he still provided security for foreign convoys (under the name Kandak-e Amniat-e Uruzgan, an Operational Police unit which is technically part of the ANP). Mattiullah himself speaks of 570 men in his command at that time and 1,100 now. Of those, around 130 men also assist the American and Australian Special Forces in their operations.

In early 2007, he handed in 264 weapons to another disarmament program, the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG). But many were so old that an American officer apparently asked to take one antique rifle home as a souvenir. Nobody seems to have pressed Mattiullah to fully join the program. The reason then was probably the same as the one he gives now to justify that his (at least partially) illegal armed group secures the highway (he admits that of the 1,100 men, 800 are not registered and only 300 are official police). The government, he says, cannot afford a force sufficiently strong to protect the route. As international troops depart, he has asked the government for an extra kandak: soon money to pay his unregistered men will have run out as his income from the provision of security on the highway will diminish substantially when foreign forces leave. Until now, he says, the government has refused.

In 2011 Mattiullah became the provincial police commander – a position the Dutch had successfully prevented him getting four years earlier. In addition to the Kandak-e Amniat-e Uruzgan he now commands 2,300 national and 1,800 local police. He has also been able to appoint district police chiefs and district governors. Recently he saw an ally appointed as provincial council chairman (councilors are elected but then select their own chair). Council chairs often travel to Kabul so can be a useful vehicle for complaining about other officials.

Remarkably, local critics of Mattiullah are much less vocal than a few years ago. An elder from one of the former Taleban strongholds in Uruzgan, who, like his fellow tribesmen, constantly complained about abuse by Mattiullah’s men a few years back, favours him being provincial police commander. His reasoning is pragmatic. ‘The Taleban have been chased away from our area for now, but they are still at our gates’, he says. ‘Mattiullah may not be the ideal police chief, but although he is not educated he is strong. When we are sure that we are safe, then we can ask for someone educated.’

Other elders follow the same reasoning. They might not like Mattiullah, but they no longer complain about what they call now ‘his past mistakes’. A former high-level official in Kabul, who comes from the south, is not surprised. ‘The foreign troops are pulling out, and the local population is not sure if the internationals keep their promise of supporting them’, he says. ‘At the same time they distrust both the government in Kabul and the Taliban. So they choose local strongmen.’

The traditional powerbrokers of the south, tribal elders, no longer feature in the calculation, says a former western official with much knowledge of Uruzgani politics. ‘The international military have undercut their influence by supplying other local strongmen with money and weapons.’ They have created new power bases.

One of the Uruzgani elders who previously opposed Mattiullah says that in his area, traditionally a Taleban stronghold, villagers have come to an understanding with the local ANP commander, an ally of Mattiullah. They meet regularly. The commander informs them of planned operations. When the police arrest someone he check with the elders whether the person is indeed an insurgent. ‘Now we have no more Taleban in the area’, the elder says. ‘People support the government.’

Villages across Uruzgan try their best to come to similar arrangements with local powerbrokers – whether on the government or insurgent side. Many are anxious about what the future holds. Some men say they recently started carrying weapons again. The former high-level official in Kabul says the Uruzganis have reason to worry. ‘It is a strategic province. If you want to take the south it is a good place to start – it is tribal and isolated and easy to capture. From there you can stage attacks south on Kandahar or Helmand or north on Ghazni. It is not unthinkable that the Taleban will try to recapture Uruzgan as many of their old leaders hail from the province.’

But he also sees another scenario. With President Karzai controlling the levers of state, whatever candidate he backs is likely to perform well in next year’s presidential elections. But if not, and if the polls throw up a result unfavourable for Karzai and his southern allies, like Mattiullah, Uruzgan could again become the source of southern resistance. Sounds far fetched? Well, yes. But the fact that it’s a scenario proffered by a former senior official shows just how uncertain things are for the province.

Further reading:
1. Unruly commanders and violent power struggles: Taliban networks in Uruzgan by Martine van Bijlert in Decoding the Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi, 2009. Published by Columbia University Press/Hurst.

2. The Taliban in Zabul and Uruzgan by Martine van Bijlert in Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion, edited by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, 2013. Oxford University Press.

3. The man who would be king: The Challenges to Strengthening Governance in Uruzgan by Susanne Schmeidl, The Liaison Office, November 2010. Published by Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’.

4. Other AAN blogs on Uruzgan:

* On the killing of Jan Mohammad: Who was Jan Muhammad Khan?

* On Mattiullah becoming provincial police commander: Uruzgan’s New Chief of Police: Matiullah’s Dream Come True

* On Dutch-American tensions over Mattiullah: The Story of ‘M’: US-Dutch Shouting Matches in Uruzgan

5. AAN was quoted in media on Mattiullah’s Highway Police  herehereherehere and here.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace