War & Peace

Under the Mountain: A pre-emptive Taleban spring offensive in Shindand


Joint security operations by Afghan forces, including significant airstrikes, took place in Zerkuh area of Shindand district in western Herat province in mid-March 2016. (Photo Source: Pajhwok News, 12 March 2016)

Joint security operations by Afghan forces, including significant airstrikes, took place in Zerkuh area of Shindand district in western Herat province in mid-March 2016. (Photo Source: Pajhwok News, 12 March 2016)

Throughout March 2016, Shindand district in Herat province witnessed heavy fighting. Clashes between two rival insurgent groups were followed by a string of ANSF military operations. With substantial help from Quetta, the local pro-Mansur Taleban group has swept away a pro-Rasul outfit that had recently proved less aggressive towards the government. This new outbreak of long-standing tensions in Shindand has thus resulted in a Taleban advance in the strategic Zerkuh area, a large but unknown number of displaced people and higher levels of violence against civilians. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini examines the complexity of the conflict and its background, the legacy of which still seems to influence the way different actors play it out.

A recent spate of fighting has once again put Herat’s Shindand district in the spotlight (see previous AAN reporting here). Between 7 and 9 of March 2016 infighting between two rival Taleban groups caused massive casualties in the district, which led to the eviction of one faction, that of Mawlawi Rasul’s supporters led by Mullah Nangialay, from their home turf in the Zerkuh area of the district. Successive military operations by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and, lastly, a limited comeback by Nangialay’s fighters in the area, have not significantly altered the gains made by the pro-Mansur Taleban group, led by Mullah Samad.

The fighting was significant, not only for the number of casualties, but also for the involvement of Taleban fighters sent in from Quetta and for the implications of a shift in the balance of power in the broader western region. Shindand, which borders restive areas of Farah province, has long been one of the most violent, least state-controlled areas in Herat. The causes of its conflict are, however, to be found more in the competition among the local political elites – and the external patronage they were able to secure – than in the infiltration of insurgents from bordering areas.

A background of Shindand conflict

Shindand residents found themselves in an odd situation at the fall of the Taleban in November 2001. As the only district of Herat with an overwhelming Pashtun majority, they had ended up supporting the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan ­– the Taleban regime – during its contested conquest of Herat in 1995 and its subsequent tenure there, and they had reasons to fear reprisals. As soon as it was clear that the Taleban would abandon Herat city, powerbrokers in Shindand made a move to prevent them from using their area as a last stand against Ismail Khan’s troops’ push from the North. Only a few of the Shindandi leaders who had held important ranks within the Taleban regime fled; the rest organised into a local shura and braced themselves for what was to be expected: retaliation for their support of the Taleban.

A few days after he captured Herat on 12 November 2001, Ismail Khan attacked Shindand. The forces that had organised as a local council withdrew to the Zerkuh area immediately to the south of the district centre, a valley thickly dotted with villages where a significant portion of Shindand’s population resides. Zerkuh had been at the core of local politics from the times of the jihad, from where mujahedin fronts operated when the communist government was in control of the district centre and of Shindand’s main strategic asset – the military airbase built by the Soviets in the 1960s. Zerkuh had already resisted Ismail Khan’s attacks in the years between 1993-1995, when relations between the then amir of Herat and the Pashtun mujahedin from Shindand, formerly affiliated with Hezb-e Islami, had deteriorated, until the latter welcomed and assisted the Taleban’s conquest of the city. (1)

The military leader in Zerkuh at the time of the fall of the Taleban was a strongman from Farmakan village, Amanullah. For the next two years, between 2002 and 2004, people in Zerkuh withstood attempts by Ismail Khan to capture the area, as well as a de facto blockade that severed their connection with the provincial capital and forced them to travel to Farah for all their needs. The ethnic polarisation stirred by the confrontation helped them enlist some support from Pashtun politicians, such as then Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai.

No doubt there were several former Taleban among them, and Amanullah himself had in the past cooperated with the regime. However, they managed to avoid becoming a target of NATO operations, insisting on their willingness to accept the new government and establishing links to President Karzai. Instead, when in April 2004 the Kabul government, with US support, orchestrated the removal of Ismail Khan from his position as Herat governor, Amanullah and his men played a pivotal role, attacking Herat from the South and advancing as far as the city airport.

Although Amanullah was not given any official position, he remained highly influential in Shindand. He had a hand in the appointments of successive district governors and enjoyed good relations with the Afghan government and its foreign supporters, as well as the Taleban, who, in the meantime, had started to reorganise and mobilise. In 2006, however, he was killed in a local blood feud. As often in contemporary Afghanistan, there can be several different motives for a political killing, given the numerous actors and competition involved. In the case of Amanullah, the motive was likely revenge in the context of a land dispute that had recently seen Amanullah’s supporters kill a former local ally, Arbab Bashir. And then there was the fact that the latter was a Barakzai, a minority tribe in Nurzai-dominated Zerkuh, but one heavily-patronised by important national politicians. Finally, there was also the long-standing vendetta with Amanullah’s arch-enemy, Ismail Khan, by then a minister in Kabul but never disconnected from the politics of his province of origin.

Whether it was provincial or national powerbrokers, who patronised local appointments, the district leadership posts in Shindand gradually slipped into the hands of Amanullah’s enemies. When in April 2007 a US airstrike killed two of his brothers, along with a number of other civilians, the family’s former ties to the Taleban took over. Raz Muhammad, aka Jawed Nangialay, Amanullah’s son, brought the closest relatives to Quetta and officially joined the Taleban. In the following months, Shindand was the stage of more airstrikes that ended in massive civilian casualties. Zerkuh, in particular, with most of its traditional elite antagonised by the government and on the run, underwent a significant radicalisation and became a bastion of the insurgency. Despite being based mostly in Pakistan, in subsequent years Amanullah’s son, Nangialay, would become the most renowned Taleban commander in the district. Many of Amanullah’s former sub-commanders joined the Taleban as well, either for ideological reasons or for opportunity.

The ANSF were unable to keep the valley under tight control, despite the presence of US army outposts. From 2009 onwards the government started to rely on militias recruited among the local armed groups, first as part of the Local Defense Initiative (LDI) and then under the banner of the Afghan Local Police (ALP). Shindand’s ALP, one of the first in the country, was established almost exclusively in Zerkuh, which accounted for most of the 325 ALP slots allocated to the district. On one hand, the establishment of the ALP managed to decrease anti-government activities of the more opportunistic armed groups. Indeed, many militiamen formerly affiliated with Amanullah and Nangialay, often with links to the Taleban, were recruited into it. One of Nangialay’s cousins, Haji Amir Muhammed, a former Hezb-e Islami commander who had previously been cooperating with the US Special Forces, became an ALP officer. Complaints that the recruiting process had been influenced by powerful individuals and by the foreign troops present in Zerkuh were made by some tribal elders and by local authorities. In particular, vociferous complaints by Lal Muhammad Omarzai, then district governor and long-time rival of Amanullah’s family, show that Amanullah’s Nurzai sub-tribe, the Qulizai, if not the actual fighters now connected to Nangialay, were given a large share of the ALP positions in Zerkuh.

The establishment of the ALP thus created a rift within the district’s security forces, with splits and often conflicting loyalties between the Afghan National Police and the ALP or among the latter’s ranks. This state of affairs resulted in a steady trickle of assassinations and retaliations, with abuses often carried out against civilians. This stood in the way of a normalisation of life and society in Zerkuh and kept local tensions alive among the different communities inhabiting the valley (as many as eight Nurzai sub-tribes, plus some Barakzais and Tajiks). Anti-government propaganda continued to find fertile ground among the population, and the more ideological Taleban groups soon started to target the ALP with a deadly campaign of attacks on check posts and the assassination of commanders. By late 2014, most of the ALP commanders that were still alive had relocated to Herat and their militiamen had either defected or been cowed into inaction. The Taleban were increasingly putting pressure on Shindand district centre.

It is at this stage that, in late 2014 or early 2015, Nangialay decided to move back to Zerkuh and to reside there permanently, even bringing back his family from Pakistan.

Climax, stall and new fault lines of conflict

Despite initial reports that his return to Shindand had bolstered Taleban activities there, Nangialay’s anti-government activities gradually lost momentum – at least in comparison to the other main Taleban leader in Zerkuh area, Mullah Samad. The latter, an ideological Taleb who had previously run a madrassa in Farmakan village, was in charge of the Taleban front controlling the southern part of Zerkuh valley, which is less populated, more rugged and further away from the district centre. Samad had proven to be the most active insurgent leader during Nangialay’s absence, and even after the latter’s return he turned out to be the more aggressive of the two.

Nangialay’s sudden departure from Pakistan may have been linked to differences within the Quetta leadership. His family background justified the assumption that his main aim was to re-gain his father’s role in Shindand by all means, and this could have raised doubts about his ideological commitment among Taleban leaders. It is possible that he had developed concerns for his safety, prompting his return – or flight – to Shindand. His abandoning Quetta and distancing himself from the Taleban leadership also meant relinquishing economic benefits. He was clearly on the lookout for new patronage when, shortly after his homecoming, rumours started to circulate that he was about to join Daesh. (2) It is hard to say whether it was lack of material resources that led to his quiet behaviour, or rather paved the way for a preparatory phase to establish a tacit pact of non-belligerence with the local authorities. Looking at the spatial distribution of forces in Zerkuh, however, it is apparent how the northern area that Nangialay controlled in 2015, approximately one-third of Zerkuh, largely coincided with the extension of the previous ALP program (which had bases in Bakhtabad, Urayen, Sonuwghan and Farmakan). This area represents the most strategic part of the valley, a sort of buffer that partially shields the relevant government assets of the district centre and the airbase from the more remote areas to the south adjoining Farah province. Nangialay’s inactivity enabled the beleaguered government forces to have some much needed respite. Indeed, problems started to arise between Nangialay and Mullah Samad’s groups, including armed clashes in September 2015. A Taleban commission sent there to adjudicate the dispute reportedly ruled that Nangialay had to leave and hand over command to Mullah Samad.

In early November 2015, Mawlawi Rasul and his deputy Abdul Manan Niazi visited Shindand to lobby Nangialay for his support (for background and bios, see a previous AAN dispatch here). Given the challenges to his leadership by Mullah Samad and the pressure he was subjected to by the mainstream Taleban, either to fight the government or leave, the adhesion Nangialay offered to Rasul was probably more strategic than ideological. Nangialay was appointed military commander for the Western region by the pro-Rasul faction. Heavy clashes occurred between Nangialay’s men and Mullah Samad’s forces on 10 and 11 December 2015, with the latter taking more casualties. No side managed to make a breakthrough, though, and a standstill ensued.

The stalemate lasted for a few months, until one side was able to receive significant reinforcements. These came in the form of a mobile column of Taleban fighters sent in by Quetta in the early days of March 2016 to help Mullah Samad mount a major attack on Nangialay’s territory. Reported numbers of these reinforcements vary, with figures as high as 1000 quoted by some local sources interviewed by AAN, consisting of a majority of pro-Mansur fighters originally from Shindand or from neighboring Farah and Helmand provinces, and including a certain proportion of Pakistani (as well as Panjabi) fighters. What everybody agreed on was that these were part of the shock troops used as ‘troubleshooters’ by Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, that had until then largely been employed to fight the Daesh threat in Nangarhar or the dissident Mansur Dadullah/IMU front in Zabul. Locals from Shindand claim they recognised the leader of this contingent as Pir Agha, the by now notorious commander of the Taleban ‘Rapid Reaction Force’ for the southern region.

Their arrival bolstered Mullah Samad’s faction, which had likely hitherto enjoyed a larger following. In a determined sweep, they managed to completely evict Nangialay’s fighters in just two days, on 7 and 8 March 2016. Fighting was brief but vicious: the first day saw the most casualties with Nangialay’s men falling back on a defensive line at Chahar Qala, within sight of his headquarters in Farmakan, which he had to abandon. By the end of the second day, with his troops demoralised, outgunned and outnumbered, and after having lost many vehicles in the fighting, he was forced to leave Zerkuh altogether to Mullah Samad. His fighters, together with their allies from Abdul Manan Niazi’s group, dispersed to other districts of Herat and Farah provinces, some reportedly travelling as far as Gulestan district of Farah where another prominent pro-Rasul commander, Baz Muhammad, gave them shelter.

A number of Nangialay’s supporters who had previously been part of the ALP program sought shelter in the ANSF base in Shindand district centre with Nangialay’s cousin, Haji Amir. Whether it was because Haji Amir managed to procure not only shelter, but also to lobby for pro-active support from the ANSF for his kinsfolks, or because the ANSF command in Herat had grown reasonably concerned about the shift in the balance of forces in Zerkuh, the ANSF reaction to these developments was unusually swift. Reinforcements were moved in and less than a week later, from 13 to 15 March 2016, military operations, including significant airstrikes, took place within Zerkuh, targeting the victorious Mullah Samad’s faction. The ANSF however did not seem to be interested in holding ground as much as limiting the extent of the Taleban victory and now unified control of the valley. Mullah Samad’s insurgents seemed committed to consolidating their gains in northern Zerkuh, despite the fact that Pir Agha’s contingent had reportedly left immediately after the battle against Nangialay. An incident occurred in Azizabad on 11 March 2016, where a mixed ANA/ANP convoy coming from Herat to the Shindand district centre was ambushed by insurgents coming from Farsi district (the Taleban shadow governor of Farsi was killed in the encounter). This showed that the Taleban acted coordinately to try and stop reinforcements getting through by seeking support from neighboring districts. In the following days, hit and run attacks on ANSF checkpoints were carried out by insurgents, some up to the gates of the district governor’s compound.

The ANSF military operations took a second, more vigorous turn around the end of March. On 27 March 2016, a commando raid penetrated deep into Zerkuh, hitting Nangialay’s former base in Farmakan during the nighttime and killing a number of Mullah Samad’s fighters there. In the following days clashes between the ANSF and the Taleban continued in the Shahrabad and Bakhtabad areas, that is, at the entry of Zerkuh valley. Yet again, despite increased government focus on Shindand – on 29 March, Herat governor Muhammed Asef Rahimi visited the district centre – and claimed that as many as 30 villages in the district had been cleared of insurgents (Herat TV News, 27 March and 2 April 2016). Local reporting suggests that no real attempts were made to establish stable government positions in Zerkuh; at least not directly.

In the meantime, Nangialay was reported to either have surrendered to the government or to have travelled to Herat to seek government support. Besides these unconfirmed reports, it is remarkable how the second ANSF offensive resembled a preparatory operation to weaken Mullah Samad’s grip on his newly conquered areas and possibly allow Nangialay to stage a comeback. This is exactly what happened in the first week of April. According to locals and security analysts in Herat, some of Nangialay’s fighters reorganised and established three checkposts in the Chahar Mahal area in the northernmost tip of Zerkuh, a few kilometres south of the district centre.

Pro-Mansur Taleban have long accused their rivals of being on the government’s side. At the onset of the attack on Nangialay led by Mullah Samad and Pir Agha, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, one of the Taleban’s spokesmen, released a statement to the effect that the operation had been aimed against “local bandits and Arbaki militiamen” who were “being backed by Kabul administration troops and aircraft.”

Too close an association with the government can, quite understandably in a place with a history of conflict and radicalisation like Shindand, lead to a loss of prestige. If Nangialay had indeed sought government support, he must have resented this being made public. In fact, one of the Shindandi elders interviewed by AAN hinted that one of the reasons for Haji Amir to facilitate the extension of ANSF support to his cousin was to weaken Nangialay’s position inside their Qulizai clan, so he could enhance his own chances at leadership, or at least to make the former Taleban commander look less charismatic and more dependent on the state. Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported that Nangialay released a video clip in which he denied surrendering to the government and that a spokesperson for Rasul’s Taleban faction had instead accused local supporters of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, that is Mullah Samad, to have handed over the Zerkuh areas under their control to the government forces based on a deal (Islamic Press News Agency, 27 March 2016).

It seems plausible that since late-2015, Nangialay had started to try to fit into his father’s shoes, that is: to keep one foot in the Taleban camp, in particular in the faction allowing him more room for manoeuvre in his relations with the state, and one foot in the (local) government. Given his charisma, family renown, and the strategic location of Shindand for all Taleban operations in the north-west, the pro-Mansur Taleban faction could not tolerate such a state of affairs in view of their announced spring offensive. (3)

Another reason for the timing of the decisive Taleban military operation in early March 2016 is probably related to the area’s poppy cultivation. Taleban spring offensives in areas like Shindand or Farah, where opium production is extremely widespread, usually take place after the harvesting in late April. The earlier attack on Nangialay in Shindand can also have been motivated by the will to expand their territory in order to increase the share in the taxation of opium, the Taleban’s ushr, which is collected right before the harvest. The present state of affairs would mean an increased revenue for Mullah Samad, unless the viciousness of the fighting in March, that must have kept many locals away from their fields at the critical time of saw, ‘weeding’ in the local parlance, had spoilt Zerkuh’s production this year.

Shindand crisis: what are the short and long-term consequences?

When reports about the scale of the fighting in Shindand first made it to Herat at the beginning of March 2016, the humanitarian community grew concerned about the possibility of a major crisis in a non-accessible area. There were reports of retaliatory violence and looting against communities that had supported Nangialay (including gruesome tales of mass beheadings. The local authorities from Shindand claimed that as many as 2000 families of internally displaced persons (IDPs) had left Zerkuh. In this scenario, OCHA took the somewhat bold step of deploying a mission to the conflict area. This mission reached Shindand district centre by 17 March 2016, but could not find evidence of a large number of IDPs having taken shelter there. Allowing for exaggerated figures provided by local authorities, it seems likely that a number of displacements indeed took place. Those among Zerkuh’s residents who could afford it, members of the elite or people with some previous connection there, probably moved to Herat city, while the rest went to neighboring districts of Farah or temporarily left their homes but not Zerkuh altogether. It is quite possible that the majority of them did not choose the district centre as a destination due to the mistrust that many residents felt towards the government given almost a decade where the valley had been out of the control of the government. Perhaps, more simply, it was because the district centre itself, almost on the frontline, offers little protection for those whom Mullah Samad’s Taleban would want to target.

The extent to which Samad’s winning faction affected reprisals on Nangialay’s supporters is, however, unclear. Tales of ferocity surrounding, in particular, Pir Agha’s troops could have spurred families with ties to Nangialay to move out. But attempts on the part of Mullah Samad to bring the situation back to ‘normality’ came soon afterwards. He reportedly allowed the only clinic in the valley, which had been shut during the fighting and which is located in Nangialay’s former territory, to re-open. In gatherings on 21 March 2016, he assured relatives of the losing side “that the Islamic Emirate does not hold personal animosity towards anyone.”

Even if there was no mass retaliation in the conquered areas, levels of violence against Shindandis living in and out of the district have increased as a result of the conflict between the Taleban factions, putting additional pressure on a population already traumatised by years of conflict. There have been incidents that can be understood as reprisal killings for the support given to one faction – or efforts to intimidate potential supporters of the other side. On 8 April 2016, gunmen attacked a house in Chahar Mahal, the same village in northern Zerkuh where Nangialay’s fighters have been able to re-deploy, and killed two of the residents. One of them, Suleiman, was reportedly the father of one of Nangialay’s lieutenants.

A few days earlier, on 4 April 2016, Haji Aref Godandar, the recently elected head of the Shindand Qaumi Shura (People’s Council), was killed in broad daylight in a central area of Herat city, while his teenager son was injured. The Taleban claimed to have ambushed a “hireling commander” at dawn. Haji Godandar was in fact, as his takhallus (‘nickname’) implies, no more than a trader and tribal elder. He wielded influence in Shindand, however, and the Taleban may have thought it better to eliminate a potential catalyst of support in the district.

The extension of violence to the far away provincial capital may be an isolated occurrence, but recent developments in Shindand, which constituted a significant victory for the pro-Mansur Taleban, mean a further deterioration of security there. In the best case scenario, a string of attacks, assassinations and retaliations (commonly seen during the 2009-14 ALP experience) might repeat itself, only, this time, much closer to the district centre. At worst, the Taleban will be able to mount more ambitious operations from their redoubt of Zerkuh as part of their Operation Omari. Despite the government reaction and the re-establishment of some degree of control for Nangialay at the entrance of Zerkuh valley, his is not a buffer that guarantees to hold anymore.

Shindand is a strategic area not only for Taleban movements and operation planning in the northwestern region, but also for the government and allied western troops. Shindand airbase, although currently mostly reduced to the role of training ground for Afghan pilots, remains one of the largest military airfields in the country suited to host air forces. Shindand also has a long and chequered history of US Special Operations Forces’ activities. Furthermore, given that much of the current involvement of allied western troops in the Afghan conflict consists of air support and special forces operations, recent tactical decisions in Shindand appear to bear the imprint of previous militia experiments. Perhaps this is with the aim of defending a long-term strategic asset – the airbase – at minimum cost: with the lives of militiamen who do not even belong to the ALP, but rather to a different insurgent outfit rival to the mainstream Taleban.

However, past experience should have proved to the Afghan and NATO commands that playing up rival militias in a fragmented environment like Shindand, no matter how remote the link of patronage is, only makes the game there tougher and eventually helps the roughest players to emerge, to the detriment of the long-term security situation.

 

(1) Ismail Khan himself hails originally from Shindand district, although the district never constituted a power base for him, and in fact was often outside of his grip. Strikingly, this populous but peripheral district is the birthplace of many important political leaders, both among the local Farsiwans (now mostly referred to as Tajiks) and the Pashtuns, for example Alauddin Khan, late deputy of Ismail Khan and one of Herat’s most respected mujahedin, and Humayun Azizi, former minister and current governor of Kandahar.

(2) According to some locals interviewed by AAN, these rumours were circulated by Nangialay’s rivals inside the Taleban, in order to create concern among the Iranian security forces about the possible presence of an ISIS group on their borders and to limit Nangialay’s potential for movement in that direction.

(3) There are, of course, other additional layers of conflict brought up by local analysts, which connect the recent developments to the political landscape of Herat and involve other players as well. The past connection between a lesser Taleban commander from Zerkuh’s small Tajik community living in the Emarat area, Kamran, who sides with Mullah Samad, and the former amir of Herat Ismail Khan was mentioned as a sign of the continuing enmity of the latter towards Amanullah’s family and the role he could be playing in Shindand’s conflict.

 

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Thematic Category: War & Peace