War & Peace

Why Farah?  A short history of the local insurgency (II)


Mullah Muhammad Rasul, a leader of a self-declared “dissident" Taleban faction and a native of Bakwa district in the western province of Farah, pictured here in November 2015 addressing a gathering of supporters at Bakwah in the western province of Farah. PHOTO: Javed Tanveer - AFP

Mullah Muhammad Rasul, a leader of a self-declared “dissident" Taleban faction and a native of Bakwa district in the western province of Farah, pictured here in November 2015 addressing a gathering of supporters at Bakwah in the western province of Farah. PHOTO: Javed Tanveer - AFP

The Taleban have been a persistent and growing force in Farah since 2001, rebuilding their strength quietly after the US invasion and then seizing territory in remote districts. Insurgents now challenge pro-government figures for control of valuable trade and smuggling routes, assisted by the disarray among their opponents as the provincial government is hobbled by frequent changes of leadership and mismanagement. AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig with input from Graeme Smith provides background to the Taleban’s latest attack on Farah.

This is the second of two dispatches that analyse the recent Taleban attack on the city of Farah. The first dispatch, focused on the attack and its immediate aftermath. This second dispatch situates the attack within the broader framework of post-2001 developments in Farah.

Mujahedin stronghold and post-2001 Taleban area of retreat

The Taleban were never fully defeated after 2001, maintaining armed groups in many parts of Afghanistan. This included Farah province, where the Taleban retained a strong presence, particularly in the area of Shiwan village (sometimes written ‘Shaiban’) in Bala Boluk district. According to UN information seen by AAN, “thousands of Taleban” remained there after the fall of their regime in 2001, with “no efforts made by central government or Coalition Forces to disarm these inactive Taliban” (emphasis added by AAN). As in other provinces throughout the country, many Taleban had stopped fighting and returned to their communities, waiting to see what developments would occur under the administration of then-interim leader Hamid Karzai, and whether they might be able to join the political process. (1)

Shiwan is inhabited primarily by ethnic Pashtuns from the Alizai tribe (2) who are known as naqelin, or Pashtuns who migrated from their original home area. Many of them are Alizais forcibly moved from Musa Qala district in Helmand by the Afghan monarchy some 100 years ago and resettled in Shiwan. This explains the close links between the Taleban in Farah and the movement’s strongholds in Helmand (AAN analysis here). Other naqelin from Musa Qala were also moved further north to Shindand district, another hotbed of Taleban activity in neighbouring Herat province. This may explain the Farah Taleban’s close connections to the movement’s leadership in the greater Kandahar region. (3) 

There is a history of revolt in Farah. Bala Boluk district was one of the first areas in the country to rise up against the Soviet occupation that started in late 1979. The so-called Sharafat Koh Front (“mountain of honour” front) emerged, named after a landmark in its area of operation in the district. The area was originally called Lwar Koh, or High Mountain, a range whose highest peak reaches 2,553 metres and cuts through the Ring Road (Highway 1) between Kandahar and Herat. This forbidding geography made the area difficult to control for the Soviets and later the Americans. This same region was also the 2015 birthplace of a self-declared “dissident” Taleban faction under Mullah Muhammad Rasul, a native of adjoining Bakwa district. Rasul had been one of the Sharafat Koh Front’s commanders, associated with the mujahedin organisation, Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami (see AAN analysis here).

The insurgency’s comeback

During a visit by the author to Farah in 2006, the commander of the local US Provincial Reconstruction Team reported recent shelling of his compound. He said this was the first-ever attack on the PRT compound and it may have been a significant moment for the insurgency in Farah. The commander warned that the province was already a “combat zone”. Local sources confirmed later that the shelling had resulted in the arrest of Taleban commander who had previously been considered ‘inactive’.

In 2006, the Taleban leadership sent missions to Farah to reactivate former fighters, as it had already done in other provinces. In September 2006, Mullah Abdul Manan – not Mullah Omar’s brother but a pre-2001 district police chief in Farah – had established himself as Farah’s insurgency leader with the support of the Quetta Shura, mainly in Bakwa and Bala Boluk districts, but also in Anar Dara. The local drug mafia, linked to Baloch smugglers further south in Nimruz, with their century-old connections with Iran and Pakistan, was already involved in weapons smuggling from Iran, to the benefit of the Taleban. This may have been assisted by the small Baloch minority in Farah.

From then onwards, Taleban activity intensified on an annual basis in a pattern familiar to other provinces, including bomb attacks and assassinations as well as attacks on district centres. The violence steadily closed in on the provincial capital. As early as November 2004, attacks on UN and other aid convoys were already reported in Farah province. The first mid-ranking official was killed in August 2006, as insurgents ambushed Gulistan’s district governor Nesar Ahmad.

In May 2007, the Taleban sent more fighters to their strongholds in Shiwan in Bala Boluk and Diwar-e Sorkh village in Khak-e Safed, and warned local residents to evacuate the area as a clash with government forces was imminent. This led to population movements to villages near Farah city. (3) By the same year, the districts of Bakwa, Gulistan, Bala Boluk, Poshtrud, Delaram (4) and Khak-e Safed, with the exception of their centres, were under Taleban control. On 29 May 2007, the Taleban captured Poshtrud district centre in the first of such assaults, but only for two hours. In November that year, Khak-e Safed, Gulistan and Bakwa were also temporarily held by the Taleban and sections of the Ring Road in Farah were closed “on a daily basis,” according to a report by an international organisation seen by the author. In March 2009, Mullah Rasul was appointed shadow governor of Farah by the Quetta Shura. (5)

An attempt by a joint Afghan-US mission to push the Taleban from their stronghold in Shiwan in May 2009 turned into a disaster, with one of the highest civilian casualty losses of the entire war. Reuters reported, “140 villagers” killed,93 of whom were children “and only 22 were adult males.” Afghanistan Rights Monitor said in the same year that 113 of the killed were civilians, with “at least 26 women and 61 children.” (6) In October 2009, Afghan and US forces temporarily managed to capture Shiwan. In the same year, Taleban in Khak-e-Safed district warned civil servants to step down from their posts.

On 22 June 2010, the Taleban attacked the provincial governor’s compound in Farah city for the first time. They used an IED, injuring the head of the provincial council who was there for a meeting. In July that year, the Taleban organised a spectacular jailbreak from Farah prison. They smuggled in explosives with which inmates blasted open the front gate. In May, July and September 2012, Taleban fighters launched a series of ‘complex’ and bomb attacks on the governor’s compound, killing ten people in total. During this period the insurgents also conducted an assassination campaign in Farah, killing at least five high-profile figures. Among the dead were the controversial former Purchaman district police chief and governor Salim Mubarez; a former Jamiati-turned-Taleb-turned-Jamiati; the NDS district chief of Qala-ye Kah; and two other former Taleban commanders that had changed sides after 2001 and became district chiefs or Afghan Local Police commanders (AAN analysis here). In April 2013, nine Taliban suicide bombers killed themselves and 44 other people in an attack on a courtroom in the Farah governor’s compound where their comrades were on trial.

The Taleban failed twice in their attempts to take over Khashrod district of neighbouring Nimroz province in December 2016 and August 2017 and Bakwa in November 2016, although they temporarily succeeded in Gulestan in December 2015.

Attacks on the outskirts of Farah city began in October 2016 with fighting that lasted for over a week. The Taleban came as close as two kilometres to the city centre, to an area called Bagh-e Pul and had to be pushed back by airstrike. When the Taleban closed in on Farah city in Poshtrud district in early 2018, as reported above, this also had immediate effects on the general situation in the city. The Washington Post reported that “robbery and theft surged in the [provincial] capital as the conflict neared. Families fled to neighbouring provinces amid the chaos, and angry protests broke out.” It quoted a local resident as saying that “we have two governments — one on the other side of the river, and one on this side.” Provincial council members warned that Farah city was “on the verge of collapse.” During this period, locals feared the encirclement of the city as the insurgents took positions to the north and northwest across the Farah River and also about eight to nine kilometres south and southeast of the city, including in the Hasan Ghagh area. 

Misgovernance, factional conflict and drugs

Some of the reasons for the bad situation in Farah were the corruption and rivalry among local pro-government strongmen who have undermined security, as well as the increasing convergence of interests between the drug trade, elements in the local administration and Taleban networks. At that time, there were only 20 to 30 policemen formally assigned to each district centre. Even if the official roster reflected the reality of personnel strength in the field, such numbers would have been too small to protect even the major towns.

The situation was exacerbated from the beginning by factional conflict. In Bala Boluk district, Zabet Jalil rose to prominence in the years after 2001 as the nephew of the powerful Noorzai tribal leader and Wolesi Jirga member Mohammad Naim Farahi. Jalil was pitted against former Taleban commander Mullah Sultan in a conflict over transport and smuggling routes, leading from Herat south to Nimroz and Iran. Ismail Khan in Herat, as the self-declared ruler of western Afghanistan, was vying for control of his neighbouring provinces and took Jalil’s side in the dispute. Jalil became head of the largest transport company in the province, serving mainly the coalition troops. Jamiat-e Islami and Hezb-e Islami competed for influence in a number of districts, making them vulnerable to Taleban infiltration. Armed conflict also erupted over land disputes in Gulistan and other districts. All this led to significant loss of civilian lives. But not too many people in Kabul noticed, as Farah – at the far western border – was remote and there were many more problems near the capital.

The provincial leadership, including governors and chiefs of police, changed on an almost yearly basis. Sometimes the central government appointed leaders from within the province, and sometimes from outside. Nothing worked. By the end of 2009, Farah had had ten provincial police chiefs and seven governors. After that, the frequency of these changes only marginally slowed down.

Farah’s government officials competed over the seven unofficial border crossing points to Iran, at which they collected customs – and apparently pocketed most of it. This allegedly continues. In a programme aired on Ariana TV on 22 January 2018, Homayun Shahidzada, a political commentator from Farah, said every day over 100 tankers of poor-quality oil were imported from Iran through Farah. But the taxes and tariffs paid “do not go to the government, but into pockets of mafia.”

Shahidzada further accused the provincial governor, the chief of police who has now been replaced, the head of customs and the NDS as well as the chairman of the provincial council and some other members of being “part of the mafia.” On 23 January 2018, Kabul daily Etilaat-e Ruz estimated the value of Farah’s total revenues collected at the border as five billion Afghani per year (around $70 million US dollars).

 Over the last years, the Taleban have increasingly taken over some of the ‘taxing’ of the cross-border traffic. They have also been collecting taxes on inland routes. Etilaat-e Ruz reported on illegal mobile ‘customs offices’ on the highway connecting Farah and Nimroz in the south, and toward Herat, in the north (read report here).

The fight for control over transport and smuggling routes is deeply connected to Farah’s drug economy. In Afghanistan’s west, it is the largest and countrywide the seventh largest poppy-growing province. Growing and trafficking the produce is much of the population’s main source of income, particularly in Bakwa, Bala Boluk, Khak-e Safid, Gulistan, Poshtrud and, less significantly, Purchaman districts, according to UNODC. Not coincidentally, those are the districts with the earliest and strongest Taleban presence. According to UNODC figures, the area in the province under opium poppy cultivation rose by almost 40 percent from 2016 to 2017, from 9,101 to 12,846 hectares. (7) This has also spurred on the US military under its new strategy, which now also targets heroin labs as part of an attempt to deny the Taleban key income sources (AAN analysis here). In early April 2018, US and Afghan forces targeted 11 “Taliban narcotics production facilities” in Farah and Nimruz, according to a Resolute Support press release. 

Although the number of security forces in Farah increased from the mid-2000s, to “about 6,000”, as the Washington Post reported in early 2018, (8) this was “less than half the number in next-door Helmand.” But official numbers might still be exaggerated. The article further quoted Abdul Sabur Khedmat, a member of parliament from Farah, as saying “60 percent of the police are ghost officers.”  

Others suggest that Iran has undermined the government in Farah. MP Belqis Roshan, when talking to AAN on 16 May, claimed Iran supported the Taleban with ammunition and other logistics, an assertion that is widespread among local government officials (see here and here). Others, such as governor Salangi, deny this but officials in western Afghanistan told the author as early as in 2006 that they found it difficult to publicly speak against Iran, given its strong influence in the region. 

Although there is no doubt that Iran has been influencing the situation in western Afghanistan for decades and that there is some Taleban presence in Iran, the extent of its involvement is not clear. Some allegations might also serve as a pretext to cover up the shortcomings in provincial and central governance, and might represent an appeal to the current US administration in the context of deteriorating relations with Tehran.

Conclusion: A long build-up to a strong presence

 For some days in mid-May it looked as though the Taleban might take Farah city. This would have been their biggest military triumph since the capture of Kunduz for two weeks in 2015, including some near-misses in 2016 and 2017. The attack in Farah ended without success after three days, but the Taleban maintain their pressure on the city. Continued fragility of the provincial capital and district centres seems likely, as Taleban raids give the insurgency fresh supplies of weapons, ammunition and vehicles. Local insurgent commanders may have greater self-interest in cementing their control of lucrative checkpoints, rather than mounting ambitious assaults on well-defended government centres, but the movement’s leadership will continue to see the overthrow of a provincial capital as a way to show the world the Taleban’s potency. Given that the Taleban were never fully defeated in Farah and that their presence – as well as their capabilities and resources – have been rebuilt over the last decade, they remain a threat and one that is unlikely to be defeated militarily.

 

(1) Many of the Taleban remained armed after 2001 — as witnessed by the author in Ghor province in February 2002, for example, as well as in Paktia province, where a Taleban hideout was attacked during Operation Anaconda in March 2002 (see a 2002 Time magazine reportage here).

(2) This tribal affiliation partly explains the intra-Taleban split in 2015 (media report here) and the emergence of the “Rasul faction”. Rasul is an Alizai, a tribe that felt sidelined under the rule of Taleban chief Mullah Mansur (2012-15), an Eshaqzai. Mansur was felt to have promoted members his own tribe at the expense of other tribes in the Taleban leadership. The long-standing enmity between Alizai and Eshaqzai was exploited by the Afghan government, which supported Rasul in his efforts to break away from the Taliban and build a militia that often cooperated with government forces. (more AAN analysis here).

(3) In contrast to the NATO and UN categorisation of Afghanistan’s regions, which puts Farah in the west with its centre in Herat, Farah (and Nimruz) are traditionally seen as belonging to southern Afghanistan, the region sometimes referred to as Loya Kandahar (“greater Kandahar”) now, also encompassing Helmand and Zabul. (Farah’s and Nimruz’s attachment to the west also has to do with western Afghan strongman Ismail Khan’s ambitions in that region.) Even more traditionally, the Kandahar region was known as the southwest, while Loya Paktia was referred to as the south (as, immediately south of Kabul).

(4) This group was led by Mullah Sultan, an influential tribal elder and leader of the post-2001 ‘inactive’ Taleban. He initially refused to join the new insurgency, but involved himself later again, in mid-2005, was arrested and held in Bagram in 2006. He apparently became inactive again following his release in 2007. 

(5) Delaram was listed under Nimroz province in 2013.

(6) Rasul already ran into trouble with the Quetta Shura after the killing of his rivals and leading Farah Taleban commanders during a joint Afghan-coalition operation in August 2009. The Taleban leadership launched an investigation into the possibility that Rasul might have had a hand in the killings.

(7) Report not online, in the author’s archive.

(8) The area under cultivation, however, was higher in previous years, beginning with 2007 (and with the exception of 2009).

(9) According to an Afghan media report, this included two battalions of the Public Order Police from Herat and two from the Herat army commando.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace