The South Asia Channel

The anatomy of an anti-Taliban uprising

The anatomy of an anti-Taliban uprising

Revolt is a loaded word, conjuring up images of the Free Syrian Army, the Anbar Awakening, and the Libyan civil war.  In small pockets across eastern Afghanistan, however, farmers, shopkeepers and others are taking the fight to the Taliban over the group’s abusive tendencies.  Though entirely isolated from one another, instances of violent resistance to harsh Taliban rules have spiked this past summer-brought on by school closings in Ghazni, music bans in Nuristan, beheadings in Paktia and murders in Laghman, among other causes.  While a small number of Afghans admire the Taliban, most who support it do so because they are coerced, or believe that the group is less predatory than the government, though that’s hardly an endorsement.  So what precisely does it take for Afghans to stand up to the Taliban, and what are their options?

When I served in eastern Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to the U.S. military, I closely monitored the Taliban’s relationship with the local population and discerned a number of red lines the Taliban could not cross, depending on the retaliatory options available to their victims.  While working closely with a dozen or so of these nascent rebel groups in Laghman and Nuristan Provinces, I noted that the amount of Taliban abuse most Afghans will endure before considering rebellion in one way or another depends on a number of inter-related factors (incidentally, the calculus for whether Afghans will join the Taliban due to government abuse is similar): the severity of the grievance, the locals’ ability to retaliate, and the community’s resilience to withstand inevitable counter-attacks if they do rise up.  More specifically, they ask:

1.      Does this abuse or restriction prevent my family from earning a living or even surviving?  ‘Prevent’ is the key word here.  Afghans will walk an extra five miles every day to avoid a Taliban checkpoint on the way to a bazaar, and as long as they are able to get to the bazaar, the obstacle can be classified as a mere nuisance.  If, however, the Taliban is restricting movement to such a degree that there is a threat of being shaken down or attacked every time Afghans leave their home, the Taliban is playing with fire. 

2.      Does it prevent the men in my family from receiving an education?  Again, as long as they get the education, even if the Taliban dictates that Islam should be taught in a certain way, such slights are likely to be overlooked in the face of overwhelming force.  Tactful members of the Taliban will usually encourage changes in a ‘dangerously westernizing’ curriculum through intimidation but stop short of actually closing them by force, given the value Afghans place on education and their willingness to fight for it.  

3.      Do I have the support I need (fellow fighters, weapons, fortifications) to retaliate?  Afghans make decisions collectively, so if the village elders do not support a counter-attack, it will rarely happen.  If an individual retaliates without consulting his elders, he risks becoming a social pariah or being thrown to the wolves when the Taliban comes hunting for payback. When the community does approve, it is usually in the form of revenge for a very specific grievance (such as a murder), targeted accordingly and proportionately to convey to the Taliban that the community does not intend to start a war but rather to secure limited retribution and make it known that a line was crossed.  For instance, a specific Talib may be singled out and attacked for a crime he committed.  Sometimes the Taliban will allow the retaliation to go unanswered and sometimes they won’t.  If the retaliation simply entails chasing the Taliban out of an area with sticks, the insurgents are likely to let it slide and come back in a few days as though nothing had happened.  Yet frequently the leader of an uprising will be beaten or executed if he is viewed as a threat, rather than simply helping his community blow off a little steam.  

4.      Do I have the support I need to retaliate continuously and maintain a heightened defense posture indefinitely?  If the goal is permanent expulsion of the Taliban or if the community knows any retaliation will be met with a harsh response, they must feel confident that their supply of ammunition and fighters runs deep.  Men have to quit work or school and devote all their time to defense; all movement and communication becomes riskier and more costly; intelligence networks of spotters and infiltrators have to be established and maintained; and savings are spent in days on matching the Taliban’s capabilities, including makeshift bunkers, RPGs, PKM machine guns and even DSHKA heavy machine guns.  If the community lacks the resources or connections to live under siege or project power at least a mile in every direction, they will not survive permanent enmity with the Taliban. 

Careful not to push the community too far, the Taliban dances a fine line as well.  Abuse the population too little and they won’t fear you, but abuse them too much and you give them nothing left to lose.  Inevitably, the Taliban either misread the population’s redlines or arrogantly exceed them, confident that no one would dare challenge their writ no matter how cruel they are.  When faced with a possible rebellion, the Taliban will frequently roll back their demands (re-opening schools, for instance) and the population will resume its previous indulgence of modest though frustrating restrictions, such as the requirement to stay at home at night.  And the dance continues. 

Ultimately, it is not rare for Afghan civilians to fight the Taliban independent of the government; far harder is sustaining the battle beyond the adrenaline rush of the first few days or weeks.  Once a community warns or attacks the Taliban, they become perpetual targets in repeated and intense firefights requiring ample ammunition that most civilians lack.  Moreover, any area where the Taliban can exert control is remote and by definition difficult for Afghan and NATO forces to reach, so the concept of ‘back-up’ becomes laughable to these minutemen.  Once locals retaliate or decide to revolt, then, where do they get help?

Extended family and friends are the first people these fighters ask for assistance.  Nearly every family in eastern Afghanistan has at least one very old weapon, typically an AK-47 with maybe one magazine of ammunition-enough for a single brief encounter with the Taliban.  Families and friends will loan out these weapons and offer their sons (especially if they are unemployed) to help defend rebel homes and safe houses, sure to come under Taliban fire in the coming months.  Next, depending on how reliable and trustworthy local law enforcement is, these fighters will ask for ammunition, sand bags and other supplies from the District Chief of Police, who may give a token offering-despite it being illegal to do so-simply out of sympathy and guilt that he and his men lack the resources to help in any meaningful way. 

Next they will ask any senior official in the provincial government who will listen, including the Chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Chief of Police, and the Governor himself.  They may make progress here if they are well connected, but the best the rebels can hope for is that powerful provincial figures will call in favors to wealthy civilian colleagues who are in a position to offer money and men to their cause.  Alternatively, rebels may get referred to Kabul or to the U.S. military, both of which work jointly on the most legitimate form of assistance any anti-Taliban fighters might secure-namely, sponsorship under the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program or some variant. 

In 2010, the Afghan Ministry of Interior developed the ALP to train groups of several hundred local men to secure and defend their own communities, frequently in secluded and key locations that restrict Taliban movement (e.g., at valley mouths).  They currently number about 16,000 with an additional 14,000 planned before the drawdown of NATO’s ISAF combat forces in 2014.  In contrast to other Afghan police units deployed to these areas from elsewhere, these men have a greater stake in their community’s security and superior knowledge of its people and terrain.  The program has been hailed by ISAF as a key ingredient to stabilizing volatile areas where traditional military and police are unable to patrol, while human rights groups have lambasted it as simply the latest installment of predatory government-sponsored militias in Afghanistan. 

Regardless, Afghans and particularly members of nascent uprisings are clamoring for ALP sponsorship as the next logical step in permanently expelling the Taliban, insistent the program is the perfect mix of local initiative and distant governmental support.  When I met with leaders of these rebel groups, for instance, they would frequently mention ALP before I even learned their full names.  Most rebels are banking on support of some kind from their government, but many are surprised and dismayed to learn that Kabul either won’t or can’t help, despite their shared goal of defeating the Taliban and the government’s terrible track record of going it alone. 

The ALP waitlist is long and subject to many months of preparation, horse-trading, ethnic rivalries and personality clashes at the provincial and national levels.  Because it takes many months to get an ALP unit off the ground (even after it has been approved in Kabul), the U.S. military also relies on a number of ad hoc substitutes or precursors to the ALP, which allows ISAF to fill a security void without as much red tape.  As with the ALP, the results of these programs vary considerably, with some securing the population and others exploiting it.   In the last year, most U.S. efforts have been shut down by President Karzai, who sees these groups as a threat and competitor to Afghan forces. Regardless, most ‘uprisings’ fail to secure any kind of sponsorship, as neither Kabul nor ISAF have the resources or flexibility to offer anything of substance to such a large number of groups in equal need.  That Special Operations Command recently suspended all ALP training for a month to better screen for infiltration threats only furthers the backlog, though for an entirely justifiable reason.    

Ironically, despite the widespread resentment of the Afghan government, there is no shortage of local minutemen begging for support simply because-for many of them-the government is the only game in town.  Yet there are some uprisings that are refusing Kabul’s assistance, even when it is forthcoming.  At first glance, of course, any group that can fight the Taliban without government support frees up resources for other much-needed efforts, but there is a dreaded word in Afghanistan for civilian groups of fighters with well-stocked armories-militias-and they typically behave like the Taliban with a different name. 

This summer’s uprising in Ghazni, for instance, has been so overwhelmed by factionalism, co-option and internal conflict that it has become a case study in the perils of encouraging the wrong rebellion. 

[Continue reading David H. Young’s analysis of the Ghazni uprising here]

David H. Young is a conflict resolution expert based in Washington, DC, and was a civilian advisor to the US Army in eastern Afghanistan.  His website is www.justwars.org