Political Landscape

Trouble in Gizab; the fight everyone chose to ignore


On 13 September 2011 a large convoy of armed men, accompanied by US Special Forces, travelled from the centre of Gizab to Tamazan, an area bordering Daikondi province. A murky chain of events led to a confused fight between what should have been friendly forces, in what should have been a stable area. By the time the fighting died down and coalition air support was called off at least five people were dead and the Tamazan bazaar had been hit hard. Seven weeks later the area is still tense, with the different sides eyeing each other from their checkpoints, among the rubble of uncompensated damage. The population is still reeling from what, according to them, was a brutal attack ‘in the clothes of the government’.

The details of what happened are contested and everyone who tells the story, tells it differently. The single media report on the issue – the incident was carefully kept out of the press – on Radio Bamyan quoted Daikondi governor Qorban Ali Uruzgani, who said that a policeman had been killed in Daikondi after the local police of Uruzgan attacked their posts.     But the incident was even more complicated than that.

Gizab is a district with a troubled history. In the run-up to the first Presidential election Karzai carved the new largely Hazara province of Daikondi out of the northern part of Uruzgan, in an attempt to win over the Hazara vote there (which did not really materialise). The mixed Pashtun-Hazara district of Gizab (1) was added to Daikondi, to the chagrin of some of the locally prominent Pashtun families. They registered their displeasure by in essence handing over the district to the Taleban in 2005 (interpretations of what happened vary, some say that the district governor and police chief had no choice than to leave the area due to a lack of support from the centre, while others maintain that they had made a deal with the Taleban and left before they needed to). The administrative status of Gizab has been ambiguous ever since. Formally it is still part of Daikondi, but the district was temporarily placed under the authority of Uruzgan in 2006 (even though at the time there was no government presence whatsoever) and the decision still stands. (2)

The lack of government presence or attention persisted for years. Regular lobbying visits by exiled elders residing in Kandahar and Kabul, both Hazaras and Pashtuns, resulted in occasional vague plans to retake the district, but no action was taken. The population, in the meantime, regularly pushed back against insurgent rule. There were several instances in which locals blocked roads, detained commanders or beat up Taleban fighters who had overstepped the boundaries of tolerable behaviour. In early 2010 the population of Gizab ‘rose up against the Taleban’ again (see this earlier report for more details) and this time the government managed to restore at least a nominal presence.

What had tipped the balance was the fact that US Special Forces had set up camp in neighbouring Daikondi and had been on the look-out for local forces they could partner with, as part of their Village Stability Operations (VSO). In February 2010 they supported an ‘uprising’ against the Taleban in the Tamazan area, headed by several Hazara leaders and Pashtun commander Mulla Sangul. (3) As it was a mixed Hazara-Pashtun corner of the district that had never been firmly ruled under insurgent rule, the events attracted little attention. It was simply part of the local back-and-forth. A few months later in late April 2010, the centre of Gizab was taken, after a local commander, Lalay, had found himself at the wrong end of a conflict over compensation money. (When a Taleban commander demanded that he hand over the defiled government money, Lalay had refused and ended up shooting at the commander. Instead of waiting for the consequences, he decided to act and call in the Special Forces support that had been promised).

The takeover, that was described in a Washington Post article as the revolt of the Gizab Good Guys, was seen by the US military as a huge breakthrough and for the longest time Gizab was put forward as a typical example of how VSO could change the dynamics in an area (see for instance this upbeat ISAF press release in July 2010). But the odds were not that good, already from the beginning.

There were early complaints that the district had not received any army or police (or government attention in general). Lalay’s group of fighters that had been supported by the Special Forces under the VSO/ALP program, had been simply relabelled ANP when Lalay was made district police chief. In Tamazan the Daikondi police (ANP) ended up manning a handful of checkpoints (apparently on the insistence of the US Special Forces and despite initial hesitation from the Daikondi administration), while Mulla Sangul was given informal security responsibilities. This included providing guards for the local road construction project and occasionally riding out with the Special Forces. It was these two men, Mulla Sangul and Commander Lalay, who fiercely fought each other on 13 September 2011.

So what exactly happened on that day? The details as they emerged from a large number of interviews:

On Tuesday 13 September, commander Lalay travelled to the Tamazan area in a large convoy. Descriptions of the size of the convoy vary, but most seem to settle on around 25-30 vehicles with an estimated 70-100 men, accompanied by a number of US Special Forces. Most accounts described the men in the convoy as ‘police’ (ANP), given that they were commanded by Lalay and many of them travelled in police Rangers, but eyewitnesses claim that most of them had, at least initially, not been wearing uniforms. Lalay had not announced his arrival, so when the Daikondi police units warned their superiors, there was confusion – and concern – over why an armed force seemed to be approaching Nili, the capital of Daikondi which is just across the provincial border.

Then several things happened, the exact sequence of which is unclear. Mulla Sangul’s men, who were manning the road security check posts, were disarmed by Lalay’s men. One of the guards, Mulla Sangul’s brother Qayum Khan, was taken away and detained in the local clinic, that had been made into a makeshift headquarter. Mulla Sangul was ambushed by Lalay’s men. Or the other way round. Mulla Sangul was injured. Lalay’s nephew and cousin were killed. Mulla Sangul’s brother was executed. Houses and shops were ransacked by Lalay’s men. The main convoy was shot at, probably with a mortar. A car carrying US Special Forces was hit and an American soldier was injured (although there is also a single, but consistent report of an American death). Coalition air support was called in. Helicopter gunships joined the fray, a bomb is said to have been dropped on one of the security posts (although that is contested by others, who say it may have been a missile). More than 14 hours after the first shots were fired, around 03:00 at night, ISAF stood down and called back its air assets.

The fighting left at least five people dead: 1) Qayum Khan, Mulla Sangul’s brother, who was a road construction guard; 2) Mohammad Anwar, another road construction guard; 3) Hekmatullah, Lalay’s nephew; 4) Abdul Malek, Lalay’s cousin; and 5) a policeman from Daikondi, who succumbed to his injuries on the way to Bamyan hospital. Several (possibly eleven) houses were ransacked and used as makeshifts posts, most of them have still not been vacated. A large number of shops (possibly sixty-eight) were broken into and plundered. Fourteen motorcycles and two cars were taken (the cars belonged to Mulla Sangul and to another Special Forces associate, Haji Daud). A large number of families fled their houses and many of them have still not returned; some are in Nili, while others are camping out in the area. Many fighting-age men are ‘in the mountains’, as they still fear Lalay’s forces.

Lalay’s associates claim that he went to the area on the instruction of the Special Forces to establish additional security posts and to assess the security situation. They have, somewhat implausibly, tried to make the case that Mulla Sangul attacked the convoy because of his links with respectively the Taleban, Iran and the Daikondi provincial administration.(4) Most observers, however, have made comments to the effect that Lalay ‘tricked the foreigners’ and ‘dragged them into a personal dispute’. Several of them think that Lalay, or his local associates, intentionally both instigated and escalated the conflict.

There are several mixed-up layers to the story. Formally, Lalay simply asserted his authority as the district police chief to visit an area where he was involved in the roll-out of the local police (ALP). In reality, it was an unmistakeable show of force and intimidation, aimed at various audiences. First of all, it was a message to the Daikondi administration to move out and a warning to the local population to drop their ideas of establishing a separate district. The inhabitants of the Tamazan area had been lobbying the government to divide Gizab in two and to allow their area to join Daikondi. The request was recently evaluated by a visiting delegation. It is not wholly unreasonable; large parts of Gizab are difficult to access and roads are often closed for months due to snow and flooding, so the mixed area of Tamazan-Kokhur-Wagir-Barmanay in the north-west is much more connected to Daikondi. Nili, the provincial capital of Daikondi, and its access roads are in fact just across the border. (5)

The attack was also widely seen as an act of revenge. Lalay and Mulla Sangul, unsurprisingly, had a history. They both accuse the other of having sided with the Taleban in the past and of wanting to take revenge on them for having stood up to that: Lalay accuses Mulla Sangul of having supported the Taleban commanders who killed his relatives, Mohammad Yunus and Mohammad Nader, in 2008 (see this earlier report on Gizab), while Mulla Sangul claims that Lalay came with the Taleban commanders who tried to overrun Tamazan in 2008 (and were beaten back by one of Mulla Sangul’s brothers).

Moreover, with their rise to greater prominence after the area’s liberation, the two men started competing for security responsibilities. Mulla Sangul had probably hoped to help liberate the whole of Gizab together with the Special Forces, but was outflanked by Lalay when he started his own uprising. He did, on the other hand, outsmart Lalay’s relative Assadullah in the competition for the Tamazan road security contract and remained the main security entrepreneur in the area – until recently, when Lalay sent a commander to the area to head the soon to be established ALP (he was not warmly welcomed; inhabitants claim he is a drug addict).

There is now a very tense peace in the area. Both Lalay and Mulla Sangul have left, but their men are still there. Of the five security posts that were previously held by the Daikondi police, two are held by Lalay’s men, who also established up to eight new posts in the area in local homes. Mulla Sangul’s men have retaken the third post from Lalay’s men and are manning four new posts, using the tents that earlier accommodated the road security guards. A fourth official post, on the border with Daikondi, is still manned by Daikondi police, while the fifth post, in the bazaar, was destroyed in the air attack. Locals report harassment by Lalay’s men, including forceful disarmament, which they describe as Taleban-like behaviour. Some families have left because they fear their daughters may not be safe.

Lalay is currently in Kabul, where he is said to have been enrolled in the police academy, despite initial reports that his detention and prosecution were imminent. Mulla Sangul is also in Kabul, trying to raise his case with the authorities and the international institutions, seeking redress for the deaths and the damage, support for the displaced (winter is coming) and, no doubt, personal reinstatement.

So the much touted ‘success’ of VSO/ALP in Gizab did not fundamentally change the dynamics. The Good Guys ended up behaving very much like the Bad Guys they replaced. The labels ‘Taleban’ and ‘pro-government’ turn out to be transient and fluid, obscuring ongoing conflicts and acts of revenge by violent commanders that are alternately being fought and supported by the international forces.

What is often forgotten is that in Afghanistan most fights are not in the first place about on which side you fought, or whether you at some point joined the Taleban or the government or the Americans or this party or that. It is usually about how you behaved while doing so – and who you killed. It is about whose revenge you should fear. On 13 September Mullah Sangul (or his men) killed Lalay’s cousin and nephew. Lalay (or his men) killed Sangul’s brother. Whatever label they take on and whoever they ally themselves with in the future, in the absence of any efforts at some sort of reconcilitation, we can expect a sequel to the violence.

 

(1) Estimates as to the proportion of the Pashtuns and Hazara population vary, depending on whom you ask. Traditionally, local representative bodies were often made up of one (or two) Hazara for every three Pashtuns.

(2) Initially the Uruzgan provincial administration was only made responsible for Gizab’s security matters (Presidential decree 406, 24 April 2006), but later this also was made to include all logistic and administrative affairs (Presidential decree 882, 28 May 2006). The decrees remain in force.

(3) Mulla Sangul, as he is colloquially called, goes by a variety of similarly sounding names, including Hassan Gul and Ehsan Gul. His real name is apparently Sahm Gul.

(4) Both sides argue that the fight was a plot. Lalay and his associates have used the most inflammatory language, maintaining that Mulla Sangul acted on instructions of both the Taleban and Iran (although they sometimes also include ‘the Hazaras’, in an indication that this may turn into a conflict with wider ethnic overtones). They claim they have proof: a letter found in his car on the day of the fight, signed by the area’s Taleban military commander and confirmed by Mulla Omar, instructing Mulla Sangul to wage jehad against Lalay and assuring him that the Daikondi Governor, who is in touch with Iran, will help him. It does not sound very plausible. The fact moreover that this ‘proof’ only surfaced weeks after the incident, despite having supposedly been found on the very same day, suggests that it is probably fabricated, if it exists at all.

(5) The inhabitants further argue that the area used to be an alaqadari (subdistrict), that the population figures justify becoming a separate district, and that that it will be much easier to govern the area from Nili. Interestingly, even though the two main protagonists, Lalay and Sangul, were both Pashtun, the fight has been widely portrayed as a clash between the Daikondi police and the Gizab arbakai (or the other way round – it is clear that there is some confusion over the status of the various government-linked armed groups) or, alternatively, between Hazaras and Pashtuns.

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape, War & Peace