The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: southern Afghanistan

This week’s installment of AfPak Behind the Lines covers southern Afghanistan’s power brokers, border with Pakistan, and coalition operations with journalist Anand Gopal. 1. Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, is a well-known and controversial power broker in southern Afghanistan. Aside from him, who are the other major players in the area? What are ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

This week’s installment of AfPak Behind the Lines covers southern Afghanistan’s power brokers, border with Pakistan, and coalition operations with journalist Anand Gopal.

1. Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, is a well-known and controversial power broker in southern Afghanistan. Aside from him, who are the other major players in the area? What are their relationships with the Afghan central government and the coalition, the insurgency, and each other?

Ahmed Wali gets most of the attention, and rightfully so, but there are in fact a host of other important figures in the southern Afghanistan scene. In the early years after 2001, the south was dominated by three formidable governors: Sher Ahmed Akhundzada of Helmand, Jan Muhammad Khan of Uruzgan and Gul Agha Sherzai of Kandahar. They were former mujahedeen commanders who were ousted when the Taliban came to power in the mid-nineties and subsequently reinstated following the U.S. invasion. All three had poor governance records and were repeatedly accused of human rights violations, exploiting tribal tensions, drug trafficking, running private militias, and more. In fact, many Afghans maintain that these men, and their associates, were partly responsible for fueling popular resentment towards the government and creating space for the Taliban’s resurgence. 

While the three were eventually removed from their positions by 2007, they continue to attempt to project their influence in southern affairs today. A number of Jan Muhammad Khan loyalists staff government positions in Uruzgan, and his relative Matiullah Khan runs a powerful militia that commands the highway between Kandahar city and Uruzgan’s capital Tirin Kot, a key supply route for foreign forces in the area. Ahmed Wali Karzai has long eclipsed Gul Agha Sherzai as the most important power broker in Kandahar, but Sherzai still maintains an influential network in the province through his brothers, who have been heavily involved in securing U.S. and NATO logistics and security contracts. He also wields influence through loyal commanders, who maintain militias in areas such as Dand district near Kandahar city. Some of these militias are nominally part of the Afghan National Police, although their true loyalty lies with Sherzai. Only Sher Ahmed Akhundzada, the former Helmand governor, seems to have had his influence nearly eliminated in recent years, although his loyalists have been trying (thus far without success) to win leverage in the new government in Marjah. 

In addition to these there are a number of smaller players who are important on a sub-provincial level. One example is Abdul Razzik, the commander of the border police in Spin Boldak, Kandahar, who exerts considerable authority in the area and is believed to profit significantly from cross-border trade and smuggling. Another is a commander named Rohullah, whose militia protects military convoys in the eastern part of Kandahar. 

All of these warlords and commanders enjoy a close relationship with the international troops — in fact, it is largely through contracts and political support from the coalition forces that they became who they are today. Yet they have also been responsible for alienating many Afghans from the government, quite the opposite of the internationals’ stated goals. Their relationship with the central Afghan government tends to be more fraught, on the other hand. For instance, Kabul has repeatedly tried to bring Matiullah Khan and his highway militia fully under the control of the Ministry of Interior, but to no avail. 

2. Kandahar shares a long border with Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. What is the relationship between Pakistani and Afghan militants in southern Afghanistan, and how does the Chaman border checkpoint function on daily basis?

The majority of the Taliban-affiliated militants in Baluchistan are Afghan, along with some locals from tribes that straddle the border. While the area may be used by the Pakistani Taliban and other Pakistani Islamist groups as a transit corridor into southern Afghanistan, the province’s role is primarily as a rear staging ground and safe haven for the Afghan Taliban. Although the Afghan Taliban’s leadership rarely meets in one place and is scattered throughout Pakistan, a number of important figures from the group live in Quetta or in the refugee camps and small towns around it. Moreover, many field commanders from southern Afghanistan and other Taliban "bureaucrats" — functionaries and mid-level figures who are involved in finances and other organizational work –maintain homes and offices in the area.

The Afghan Taliban have received assistance from Islamist Pakistani political parties, such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal-ur-Rahman) and similar groups, which have provided shelter, logistics and even recruits at times. But beyond this there appear to be few connections between Pakistani insurgent groups and the Afghans in Baluchistan. In fact, neither the Pakistani Taliban nor any major Punjabi militant group appears to have a major presence in the province. Occasionally the Pakistani Taliban will distribute night letters or propaganda in Quetta, but for the most part they are confined to other parts of Pakistan. As the Pakistani militants come under military pressure in the tribal areas, however, it is possible that more of them could look to take refuge in Baluchistan. 

Large numbers of people and goods cross Chaman on a daily basis, much of it unregulated. The Afghan Taliban are active on both sides of the main border crossing there. They, like everyone else in the area, are involved in cross-border smuggling and drug trafficking. Moreover, there are some important Taliban commanders based in Chaman, who are there probably both for military and business purposes. 

3. Special Operations forces carry out an average of five raids per day, mostly in southern Afghanistan, one result of which is that the average age of Taliban fighters has dropped from mid-40s to mid-20s, according to the New York Times. What impact does this demographic change have on the insurgency, and what other effects does the increase in operations have?

This is quite a significant development for a number of reasons. First, the Taliban have taken a major hit from these raids and in some villages it has even thrown the group into temporary disarray. Local groups in some areas have been forced to completely alter their daily rhythms and in these places some locals say that the commanders no longer even sleep in the villages. Second, in some cases they have recently lost some able and experienced field commanders, fighters who have been with the movement since the nineties or earlier. The replacements are much younger than their predecessors and often from an entirely different generation. They tend to be more radical and less connected to or affected by the traditional levers of control in Afghan society, such authority of elders or kinship ties. This means that they are often more heavy-handed with the population than their predecessors. Third, the new generation is much harder for the Taliban’s leadership to control. The older generation had more direct experience with the leadership, especially if they were active during the nineties’ Taliban government. Some of the older members in Kandahar have even fought alongside some figures in the Quetta leadership, but the new generation has no such experience and often no interest in following orders that they don’t agree with.

The overall effect could be that it becomes harder to negotiate with the Taliban or convince insurgents in the field to join the government’s side. As time goes on and the demographic of the local-level leadership continues to change in this direction, we could be in a situation some years from now where the Taliban leadership’s ability to enforce any agreement on its members is greatly diminished. On the flip side, if this trend continues it also likely means that the insurgency will grow less popular and legitimate in the population’s eyes, creating much-needed space for the internationals and the Afghan government to try and win them over. In such a scenario the key will be whether the foreigners and the Kabul can provide security and governance, which as we’ve seen over the last eight years is easier said than done. 

Anand Gopal is a journalist currently based in Afghanistan, and the co-author of a New America Foundation ‘Battle for Pakistan’ paper on militancy and conflict in North Waziristan.

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