War & Peace

Trouble in Khas Uruzgan: Insults, assaults, a siege and an airlift


Khas Uruzgan is one of the places where Hazaras and Pashtuns live in an uneasy co-existence, trying to maintain peaceful relations while often finding themselves on different sides of a larger conflict. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

After three months of near non-stop fighting in Khas Uruzgan, a mixed Pashtun-Hazara district in northeast Uruzgan, the Taleban decimated the district’s Afghan Local Police (ALP) and forced most of the other security forces back into the district centre. The attack was not just part of a wider, concerted effort by the Taleban to put pressure on key districts. It was also a very personal hunt for the forces of ALP commander Abdul Samad after his behaviour had become, according to local sources, “intolerable.” AAN’s Martine van Bijlert unpacks a story that includes the cutting of beards and worse acts of dishonour, a reprieve due to an argument over sheep and camels, and then a tunnel, an explosion and an airlift. The story ends much as it started, with Taleban forces still massing (although conflict over the leadership in neighbouring Zabul has pulled fighters back and forth) and the government contemplating sending back an abusive commander.

The latest spate of fighting in Khas Uruzgan, full of poignant detail, illustrates why the war in Afghanistan is so complicated. It shows the continued corrosive role of abusive auxiliary forces that alienate local communities from the state, but are central to the government’s tenuous hold on districts. The use of such forces is partly a legacy of the US military’s counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies. The fighting in Khas Uruzgan also illustrates the different ways in which communities lobby, negotiate with and petition whomever may help them in their search for protection and relief. It showcases the central role of loyalties and enmities when it comes to who fights (or supports) whom, as well as the fluidity of these relations. Finally, it also provides insight into how the war may be evolving; the US military has retreated into a more limited (and more opaque) combat role – but is still playing a role – and both the Afghan government and Taleban are trying to figure out their internal differences and lines of command.

The district itself is relevant for several reasons. It is one of the places where Hazaras and Pashtuns live in an uneasy co-existence, trying to maintain peaceful relations while often finding themselves on different sides of a larger conflict. Conflicts around abusive commanders have reverberated within the wider ethnic communities up to the national level. Khas Uruzgan also provides a throughway to the Taleban from Zabul and Ghazni to northern Helmand and Ghor (through Gizab); freedom of movement in Khas Uruzgan thus eases the massing and movement of troops. Most years have seen fighting around the district’s centre and security outposts.

The siege (May-August 2015)

The most recent onslaught on Khas Uruzgan started in mid-May of this year. After a few days of low-level fighting, the Taleban, on 18 May 2015, launched a large pre-dawn attack on the district centre, which culminated in heavy fighting around the qomandani (district police headquarters), the woleswali (district governor’s building) and the nearby Shah Zaman School. The fighting lasted several hours and left twelve policemen and the school’s principal (Abdul Alem Khan, who used to be the district’s governor) dead. The district’s leadership requested urgent reinforcements from Tirin Kot, Kandahar or Kabul, warning that the district could well fall. In the end, it was Abdul Samad, the local ALP commander, who came to the rescue and forced the Taleban to retreat in what some locals described as quite a resounding beating.

In the days and weeks after, the Taleban returned, attacking security outposts and steadily overrunning several of them (see for instance reporting here). By late May 2015, Abdul Samad’s stronghold in Nawa Sultan Muhammad was surrounded, while his posts in other areas (in particular Nawa Shali) were coming under heavy attacks. On 30 May 2015, local officials reported that the Taleban had again approached the district centre to a distance of 500 metres. The Taleban, however, did not attack the centre and focused on Samad instead. As described by a local source, “After Abdul Samad defeated the Taleban [during the May attack on the district centre], they launched some attacks on army posts, but that was just to keep the government busy. Their real target was Samad.”

The siege of Abdul Samad’s posts lasted several weeks. MP Haji Obaidullah Barakzai, who has been a vocal supporter of Samad ever since Samad backed him in the 2010 parliamentary elections, launched a loud lobby in Kabul to garner support (although the MP’s reputation for exaggerating probably did little to secure support for the embattled ALP chief). Finally, after several weeks, reinforcements were sent in July 2015 – reportedly 20 ANA soldiers from Kandahar and a stockpile of ammunition – as part of Operation Tofan (Operation Storm).

At the same time, former ALP commander Abdul Hakim Shujai (a Hazara; Samad is Pashtun) attacked the Taleban from Siahbaghal in the north, forcing them to briefly fight on two fronts. AAN has previously reported on this controversial commander (here and here); he was removed from his official post as Khas Uruzgan ALP commander in 2012 (although for a long time after, he was said to still command a large number of ALP posts). An arrest warrant for overly violent behaviour was issued but never seriously followed up. (1)

As a result of the reinforcements and the opening of a second front, government forces managed to push back the Taleban and reopen the roads. On 12 July 2015, national broadcaster RTA reported that the areas in Uruzgan that had been overrun by the Taleban (“as a result of their pre-planned group attacks, which forced local people to leave their villages”) had been retaken and that the war in Uruzgan was over.

The victory was, however, short-lived. The ANA reinforcements stayed for two weeks only and once they departed, the Taleban siege of Samad’s area was resumed. On 1 August 2015, local authorities acknowledged that the ALP forces in Nawa Sultan Muhammad were again under siege, while the media reported that the area was on the verge of collapse after four days of heavy fighting. Samad managed to hold out for three more weeks, but by that time he had gone from reigning as the reinstated and uncontested ruler of Nawa Sultan Muhammad to being holed up in his own home in Dehan-e Sangu, with his family and the remnants of his forces, again cut off from supplies or reinforcements.

The situation finally became untenable on the night of Friday 21 August 2015. The Taleban, who had encroached on the qala, the fortress-like home where Samad was holding out, managed to dig a tunnel from their positions and place explosives close enough to blow up, or at least badly damage, one of the walls. The exact details, on the method, the extent of the damage and the number of casualties, are contested (see for instance here), but it was clear Samad’s position was becoming impossible to defend.

Saving Samad

The next night, on Saturday 22 August 2015, Samad was airlifted out, together with his family and remaining men, by helicopters of the Special Mission Wing and flown to Tirin Kot. The evacuees included his two wives, several children, including the young son of a brother who had been killed in the fighting, and around two dozen remaining supporters. (2) Over the previous few weeks, many of his men had died, including his brother Wali, while another brother, Mirwais, was wounded, as was Samad himself.

The airlift was accompanied by at least one US gunship, referred to by locals as a ‘jet,’ that is said to have fired “on anything that moved” (which, according to one local source, may not have been that much, given that most Taleban fighters had hunkered down either in houses or in fortified positions). There were also local reports of bombings, either on the evening of the airlift or earlier, reportedly aimed at destroying parts of Samad’s stockpile, but this could not be independently confirmed. Several sources claimed that Samad’s retreat allowed a large amount of weapons and vehicles to fall into Taleban hands; Samad not only had a large stockpile in his own house/base, but had apparently also been squirreling away weapons and ammunition in a nearby, hidden weapons cache.

Praise for the airlift

On 23 August 2015 the Resolute Support (RS) press department released a statement praising the conduct of the forces that evacuated Samad, while completely ignoring the failure of the government to support him in the many weeks that led up to this “complete success.” (3) The description of Samad’s forces, moreover, reads like a dispatch from a parallel universe, in which the ALP were the protectors rather than the besieged and in which those rescued were “oppressed villagers”:

Afghan Special Security Forces launched a complex operation to provide relief to Commander Samad and his Afghan Local Police… The local police unit had been guarding villagers and family members for weeks from attacks by the Taliban in this narrow valley at an elevation of 2,800 meters.

Landing within 50 meters of the besieged compound, the four helicopters and elite members of an Afghan National Mission Unit recovered close to 60 villagers and family members. In accordance with the orders by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Lieutenant General Raziq, the Afghan Special Security Forces relocated the oppressed villagers from Khas Uruzgan to a safe location.

The local population had quite a different view, as we shall see below.

The command lines of the rescue operation were murky. As described in the RS press statement, the operation was launched on the orders of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Lieutenant General Abdul Razeq, by Afghan Special Security Forces, using four Mi-17 helicopters from the Afghan Air Force and “elite members of an Afghan National Mission Unit.” The latter reads like a term specifically dreamed up to obscure the fact that the operation involved forces with no formal ANSF designation. In this case, they are likely to have been drawn from Abdul Razeq’s semi-private forces and dispatched to Uruzgan to rescue a fellow Achekzai tribesman.

On Sunday 23 August 2015, the night after the airlift, the remaining three or four posts which had managed to hold out until then – Shash Pokhta, Gudar, Qadam Shali – were also vacated and the men, those who had not yet fled, were pulled back into the district centre. This left one ANA post in the north in Shashpar and one in Dehan-e Qala-ye Khor, about five kilometres to the west of the centre. The Taleban in response moved in on the district centre, with Taleban fighters apparently moving freely in the bazaar. There were conflicting reports as to whether the woleswali (district administration) and qomandani (police headquarters) had been relocated inside the former US camp Anaconda, where they could be better defended, in anticipation of a possible attack.

What prompted the onslaught: beards, violence and assaults

Khas Uruzgan, like most districts, has seen its fair share of abusive security forces – from the early Afghan National Police, to the Afghan Security Guards (ASG) that functioned as an auxiliary force to US Special Operations Forces and, most recently the ALP. Abdul Samad, a former Taleban commander who joined the ALP in early 2012 after he had fallen out with the movement, had originally not been among the worst. Over time, however, the misconduct of his men escalated, until it had reached a point that people described as intolerable.

First there were the ‘normal’ pressures and humiliations that are not uncommon, but do add up to create grievances, such as the fining of communities after they ‘failed to prevent’ IED attacks or for failing to fly the Afghan national flag. There were the ubiquitous killings – some in the heat of a fight, others after or without a fight, which were basically summary executions. None of them were forgotten and most of them were waiting to be avenged.

And then there were recent punishments that seemed specifically intended to humiliate. For instance, in mid July 2015 – during the lull in the fighting, when Samad felt both strong and vengeful – his men rounded up several groups of elders in the Nawa Sultan Muhammad area and forcibly cut their beards. This is a calculated insult (see a video of one of the groups here), intended presumably to punish the men for cooperating with the Taleban.  A few of the men were also beaten and the community was reportedly forced to pay a fine of 14 lakh Pakistani rupees (around 13,500 dollars).

But what really seems to have tipped the scales were the stories of Samad’s men going to private houses and doing bi namusi (dishonour, a phrase often used for sexual assault). Most sources were reluctant to speak in any more detail than this, but after some prompting at least one concrete incident could be identified in the Adozai area, where, at around the same as the cutting of the beards, a teenage girl from the Melizai tribe was said to have been forcibly taken from her home and brought to the ALP post in Dehan-e Sangu. There, she was reportedly raped and killed. Previous to this, Samad had ordered the population to leave the doors of their houses open at night, in case his men wanted to search the premises – an order that seemed designed to insult and instil feelings of humiliation and powerlessness.

This is not the first time that allegations of sexual assault have surfaced against the ALP in Khas Uruzgan, but it does appear to be one of the rare instances in which all sources agree that the assault did indeed take place – including government officials in Tirin Kot, speaking privately. And although it was apparently not Samad himself who committed the assaults – his brother Wali, who was killed, is said to have been the main culprit – he is still blamed for not reining in his men and for giving orders that left the population defenceless. (4)

A large number of families (reportedly 200, although this may be an exaggeration) is said to have left the area and are now camping out in tents in the open field in Warni, near Ab Paran. There is little prospect of humanitarian support, given that both the area and the roads leading to it are under Taleban control. The displacement may have also been prompted by the sustained fighting over the last few months, but according to most sources the families left because the prospect of possible assault was intolerable. As one elder remarked, “These people don’t flee killing or beating or stealing. But they flee bi namusi. … And those who could not leave, lived in fear.”

Lobbying the Taleban

In response to the pressure, delegations of both men and women are said to have travelled to Pakistan to ask the Taleban leadership for help to get rid of Samad. Several families sold or leased out parts of their land to raise money, so they could buy light and heavy weapons and ammunition. Many families in the affected areas also sent men to join the upcoming fight on the Taleban’s side.

The first attacks were reportedly initiated by the local communities who were enraged by the behaviour of Samad’s men; they were then joined by Taleban fighters, initially from the area and then increasingly also by Taleban from further away. Whether this is true or not, it provides a powerful narrative of a population rising up against oppression and assault, that in the Afghan context is difficult to discount (and that uncomfortably mirrors the stories of communities rising up against the Taleban).

What is more likely is that the local anger coincided with the wider Taleban effort to move troops to vulnerable or strategic districts. Khas Uruzgan has regularly come under heavy attacks in the past, with Taleban forces easily moving into the district from Zabul (in particular neighbouring district Daichopan, but also Khak-e Afghan and Arghandab) and Ghazni (particularly neighbouring Ajiristan). The number of fighters is not clear. Most sources spoke of 700, 800, even 1000 fighters having massed for the various attacks (including local men who had recently joined in response to the ALP behaviour, the regular local Taleban and fighters from outside the province). The figures may be exaggerated, but there was clearly a large concentration of fighters that local communities either supported or tolerated.

Shujai joins the fight: sheep, camels and negotiations

Some of the most grievous misbehaviour seems to have taken place during the brief period in July 2015, when the siege on Samad’s positions was temporarily lifted and Samad’s forces felt in control again. One of the reasons the Taleban were forced to retreat at that time was because Shujai’s fighters joined the fray, forcing the Taleban to fight on two fronts.

Shujai, however, did not seem to have joined the fight because he wanted to help Samad, (5) but rather because he saw an opportunity to solidify his position as the local defender of Hazara interests. His attack was in response to a recent raid by Taleban/kuchis (nomads) from Ajiristan – the two terms were used interchangeably in the various interviews – who had gathered up to 200 sheep from local Hazaras and carried them off to Ajiristan. Shujai’s response to the theft was part of a familiar pattern, in which Pashtun and Hazara forces (whether linked to the government or to the Taleban) alternately attack each other, close the roads or take each other’s elders hostage, in order to force the other side to the negotiating table.

In this case, Shujai also made use of the fact that the Taleban were preoccupied with the siege of Samad, and were battling a stronger force after the arrival of the ANA reinforcements. This meant his attack came at a bad time for the Taleban, who urgently dispatched local Pashtun elders to the Hazara areas to try to solve the case.

After two meetings, both sides (ie the Hazaras from the area and the kuchis/Pashtuns from Ajiristan) agreed that the sheep would be returned to the Hazaras and that the Hazaras, in turn, would pay the people of Ajiristan the equivalent of two camels. (Apparently two camels had also gone missing and although it was not clear that the Hazaras were responsible for the loss, they agreed to compensate them). Both sides also agreed that the road to the district centre would be reopened, at least for civilians. Shujai then retreated from the fight, after an attack that had lasted two days.

The agreement has since crumbled: the sheep have not been returned, nor have the camels been compensated. After several rounds of excuses – the sheep are still on the way, we couldn’t find all of them, etc – the Ajiristan side finally made it clear, on the day after Samad was airlifted, that they no longer intended to return the sheep. Tensions rose, and Shujai gave them a 24-hour deadline, threatening to resume the war if the agreement was not honoured. Meanwhile Shah Wali, the local Taleban commander, requested all sides to wait until he came back from a trip to gather ushr (a religious tax). The situation so far remains stalemated, with neither side apparently very keen to start a new war over livestock, particularly since the road, possibly the most important part of the agreement, has stayed open.

The role of internal Taleban politics and the death of Mullah Omar

As in other districts, the public acknowledgement of the death of Mullah Omar, in July 2015, at least two years after the fact, did not affect the Taleban’s ability to mass troops and launch coordinated attacks. A local elder claimed this was because of the presence of “foreign advisers” among their ranks: “There are still Punjabi advisers, who travel to and from the area, making plans,” he said. “If this were not the case, the different Taleban factions would be fighting each other. In general, the local Taleban have few resources, other than what they can get from ushr and from the locals. So if a Punjabi comes with a plan and money, of course they will do it. Also, everyone with a personal grudge can use the situation for their own goals. And in this case, the local people had no other option than to fight [because of Samad’s behaviour].”

The smouldering internal power struggle within the Taleban since the news of Mullah Omar’s death, did however affect the flow of fighters to and from the district. In the immediate days after Samad’s departure, locals reported that an additional force of up to 150 fresh Taleban fighters was on its way from Zabul, travelling in small groups of motorcycles. But by 27 August 2015, the plan had been, at least temporarily, overtaken by the standoff in Zabul between Mullah Akhtar Mansur’s forces and those loyal to Mullah Mansur Dadullah – in the local press invariably referred to as a standoff between the Taleban and Daesh. (6) As a result of the standoff, Taleban forces were redirected back to Arghandab and Khak-e Afghan, where they were massing in a show of force against Dadullah’s men.

After a first clash on 30 August 2015, local elders in Zabul continued their shuttle diplomacy between both sides in an attempt to stave of massive fighting, while both sides were trying to intimidate the other side into pledging allegiance to their leader.

By 31 August 2015, Taleban forces started trickling back into Khas Uruzgan and on 1 September 2015 the news spread that Mullah Akhtar Mansur’s and Mullah Dadullah’s forces had come to an agreement, the day before, to leave each other in peace. This seemed to be backed up by reports from Khas Uruzgan that a large force of Taleban was now massing again, including a large reinforcement from Zabul. Current indications are that the Taleban are preparing for a renewed assault on the district centre.

Current situation

One of the consequences of the increased Taleban presence in Khas Uruzgan has been greater pressure on the Hazara communities, in an attempt to enlist or enforce their support. The population of Palan area, for instance, were asked to provide safe passage, which would give the Taleban a shorter route to the district centre and Samad’s stronghold. In addition, the Taleban demanded that people who were working (or had worked) for either the international forces or the government would present themselves so that the ‘Emirate’ could decide how to deal with them. They apparently had a detailed list of 116 names. Similar instructions were given to the population of Shashpar area, who were asked to expel the remaining ANA post from their area and hand over the weapons. The Hazara communities, as is often the case, are trying to stall in the hope that they can hold out until the pressure eases.

Around the district centre of Khas Uruzgan, both sides have been consolidating their positions. The ANA and ANP have ventured out of their bases in the centre and have started commandeering houses to use as makeshift security posts, while the Taleban presence has been waxing and waning over the last few days. There has been sporadic firing, with deaths on both sides, but in essence, both sides are waiting.

Samad, in the meantime, may be airlifted to Kabul for further treatment, but is currently still in Tirin Kot awaiting instructions. Government officials, off the record, admitted there may be a problem in sending him back to the area, but claimed that the issue “could be solved.” For now reinstating him does appear to be the plan and he is said to be looking for new ALP recruits among his own tribal networks, in particular in Spin Boldak. (7) All of this despite the obvious likelihood of retaliation from both sides: against Samad from both Taleban and local residents, and from Samad’s side against those he holds responsible for the attacks. (8) It is clear that his return is unlikely to lead to further stability.

Previous AAN reporting on Khas Uruzgan has included an overview of “the fights that don’t get mentioned,” in particular in the mixed Pashtun-Hazara areas (including Khas Uruzgan) in the summer of 2013; a report from April 2013 on Shujai’s complicated role, the abuses, the arrest warrant and how he eluded it; a 2011 report that compares an ISAF press release to the abuses that had preceded the shura it describes (with a central role for Hazara ALP commander Shujai and Pashtun ALP commander Neda Muhammad);  a 2010 report on how the Hazaras of Khas Uruzgan almost swept the 2010 parliamentary election (until whole polling centres were disqualified); and a 2009 report on the kidnapping and release of “a very high-ranking dog”. 

 

(1) Shujai is part of a lineage of former US SOF-linked Hazara commanders who could largely behave as they pleased. But where the behaviour of the other commanders had been somewhat mitigated by the fact that their relatives and tribesmen lived in the area, Shujai and his men, as outsiders from Malestan, had fewer reservations than their predecessors. In the summer of 2012 he and his men went on a rampage, in several Pashtun villages, that attracted so much attention that the government felt compelled to order his arrest (details on earlier abuses here and on the arrest warrant here).

Many Hazara leaders had also long felt uncomfortable over Shujai’s actions, as they feared his misbehaviour might irreparably damage local Pashtun-Hazara relations. However, as the feeling of siege grew among Hazara communities, Shujai was increasingly seen as a safeguard against being violently overrun.

(2) Most local sources put the remaining ALP forces at around 20 (of the 80 that he started out with), while the most detailed source mentioned 22 family members and 29 soldiers. A Resolute Support press statement speaks of close to 60 “villagers and family members” (although using the label “villagers” for ALP forces that have been under a siege of many weeks is somewhat odd). Many of Samad’s men were killed in the fighting, including two of his three deputies (his third deputy has reportedly been detained for fleeing while the forces were under attack).

(3) The statement was clearly designed for an audience not aware of the developments on the ground and is awkward for several reasons. It is, first of all, unclear why the RS mission should release press statements on behalf of the Afghan Security Forces. It also seems slightly disingenuous to give details of the Afghan helicopters, but not of the accompanying international military air support. And the angle of the piece – a successful evacuation – cannot not hide the fact that the operation was necessary in the first place because the government had failed to supply and support its own forces for weeks on end.

Full text of the RS press statement (which was reprinted word-for-word by several news agencies, including Khaama and Pajhwok):

ASSF conduct successful operation in Uruzgan

KABUL, Afghanistan, August 23, 2015 – Afghan Special Security Forces launched a complex operation to provide relief to Commander Samad and his Afghan Local Police (ALP) members in Khas Uruzgan, Uruzgan province last night. 

This operation included four Mi-17 helicopters from the Afghan Air Force, which launched during hours of darkness from a base in Kandahar province. 

The local police unit had been guarding villagers and family members for weeks from attacks by the Taliban in this narrow valley at an elevation of 2,800 meters.

Landing within 50 meters of the besieged compound, the four helicopters and elite members of an Afghan National Mission Unit recovered close to 60 villagers and family members. 

In accordance with the orders by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Lieutenant General Raziq, the Afghan Special Security Forces relocated the oppressed villagers from Khas Uruzgan to a safe location.

According to a senior coalition advisor, “This complex operation involving multiple aircraft flying during hours of limited visibility and in difficult terrain was a complete success and saved dozens of lives. It is a remarkable example of the capabilities of the Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force.”

The Afghan Security Forces are committed to continuing operations in order to provide stable security in Uruzgan province.

RS Public Affairs Office

(4) Samad and his brother Wali joined the ALP at the same time in February 2012. Wali was in fact the reason Samad could no longer return to the Taleban: Samad, himself a Taleban commander, had at the time been detained by his peers on suspicion of being in touch with the Americans. They had beaten him badly, breaking his arm in the process. When Samad was escorted home to hand over his weapons, his brother Wali killed one of the Taleban fighters who had accompanied him, thus sealing a new enmity.

(5) Shujai had apparently repeatedly been asked to come to Samad’s aid by Haji Obaidullah, who in 2012 had been one of the strongest public voices calling for Shujai’s arrest. Haji Obaidullah, undoubtedly sensing the irony of the request, tried to repair relations by apologising for his past behaviour and calling the earlier accusations  a mistake. Shujai then insisted that Obaidullah would publicly retract the accusations and denounce his earlier insults—which he didn’t.

(6) The conflict between the two sides originally surfaced after a young local commander loyal to Mullah Dadullah Mansur provided shelter to a large number of foreign militants’ families from North Waziristan earlier this year (for detail on the foreign militants, see this AAN report, under the heading “IS that isn’t IS”). Their presence alienated the local population when the militants started forcibly taking over people’s houses. Now that Dadullah has refused to acknowledge the leadership of Mullah Akhtar Mansur, the conflict is widely portrayed as a clash between Taleban and Daesh. The Taleban have incidentally denied the clashes.

(7) There is a large concentration of displaced families from Khas Uruzgan in Spin Boldak, in particular in Wish and Chaman, whose integration was facilitated by tribal ties. The displaced left at different times and fled a wide array of threats, including targeting by the Taleban, US military or government linked forces, personal enmities, as well as the general disruption of war.

(8) A local elder from the area commenting on the plans to return Samad to the area, remarked that “The Tirin Kot people will try to use him like a bomb in their hand.” Samad himself had, reportedly, initially asked Kandahar police chief Abdul Razeq permission to launch an operation in Spin Boldak, specifically targeting the families of the Taleban responsible for the assault. He now seems to have changed his mind.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Thematic Category: War & Peace