An ‘Afghan Summer’ of revolt
[Below is Part Two of David H. Young’s analysis of the summer uprisings in eastern Afghanistan. Read Part One here] It remains unclear why Afghans appear more resistant to Taliban rule this summer than in the past. Perhaps the Taliban have been making even more burdensome demands than usual, increasingly aware that American and NATO ...
[Below is Part Two of David H. Young’s analysis of the summer uprisings in eastern Afghanistan. Read Part One here]
It remains unclear why Afghans appear more resistant to Taliban rule this summer than in the past. Perhaps the Taliban have been making even more burdensome demands than usual, increasingly aware that American and NATO forces are heading for the exits. Or perhaps Afghans are seeing the drawdown as a wake-up call that ensuring their own security is more vital than ever. Both explanations are simplistic, if only because the uprisings taking place across Afghanistan are, like nearly every other phenomenon in the country, occurring in isolation from one another, ever dependent on local actors and factors.
Still, with the Taliban as resilient as ever, it is understandable for American and Afghan officials to capitalize on the uptick in local resistance to Taliban predation. Given that there are certainly not enough resources to support all the uprisings, examining options in Kabul becomes a game of odds determined by how far into the future officials care to look. Where, for example, should they invest their precious resources: in the less capable popular revolt that is organic and loyal to the government, or the proficient uprising that aggressively fights the Taliban, despises the government and is brimming with former Taliban members and others with a history of fighting the government? It all depends on one’s perspective.
With most ISAF tours lasting nine months to a year, it’s tempting to play the short game and prioritize capability over loyalty, hoping the next brigade commander can control the fallout. Similarly, Afghan security officials, while there for the long term, are also under tremendous pressure to show results or be shown the door. And though it is difficult to discern loyalty and capability when any given uprising has so many moving parts, there are, inevitably, a number of telltale signs.
While most budding revolts beg the government and ISAF for support, many in Ghazni’s Andar District, where the most robust rebellion is taking place, claim they do not need help, particularly from the government. Daud Sultanzoi, a former member of parliament from Ghazni told RFE/RL, "Anti-Taliban movements cannot have a sponsor and be identified with this government. As soon as this government touches anything it turns into evil. The government doesn’t have the credibility to be the backbone for such uprisings. These uprisings need energy, which has to come from the people." While certainly an insightful observation, to not have to rely on the government for resources is a luxury that actually makes their endeavor more suspicious, not less. More than 250 Ghazni rebels have reportedly engaged the Taliban in 33 firefights since late May, and even if exaggerated, the fact that they have cleared more than 50 villages representing more than 4000 people and held those areas for several months is a testament to their firepower and supplies. Not even wealthy locals in Ghazni can afford to sustain that kind of campaign. Yet their supplies are coming from somewhere.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Asadullah Khalid, currently the Minister of Border and Tribal Affairs, is helping the rebels secure ammunition "independently of the government" because his family is from Ghazni province, though not the rebelling districts. (Khalid fought alongside the Northern Alliance, he has been governor of Ghazni and Kandahar, and President Karzai recently appointed him Chief of NDS. He has also been accused of running drugs and abusing detainees in private Kandahar prisons.) Afghan officials often have a destructive tendency of wearing multiple hats (Khalid is also serving as "Chief of Security for the Southern Zone"), and it is likely that men like Khalid are plugging rebels into their respective procurement networks to facilitate this rebellion without official sanction or government funds. Khalid even brought in allied commanders from other parts of Ghazni to lead the uprising, much to locals’ chagrin. Unsurprisingly, then, the revolts have spread southward through Ghazni, closer to Khalid’s home district of Nawa more than 100 miles to the south. And this potential hijacking may run deeper still.
An additional likely sponsor (either through or in addition to Khalid) is Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), one of the lesser-known Afghan insurgent groups prevalent in the north and east with a long history of fighting Soviets and other Afghan groups. After many senior figures of HIG broke off to form an influential political party, its militant wing continues using proceeds from an extensive criminal network to attack ISAF and Afghan forces. HIG has been active in Ghazni for decades and regularly engages the Taliban in turf wars. The question, then, is whether this uprising started as an organic rebellion, remains one, or was never one to begin with. Granted, much like in the rest of eastern Afghanistan, if you have stockpiles of weapons and you are fighting the Taliban independent of the government, locals out of old habit will usually assume you are HIG, so reports of the group co-opting the rebellion may be exaggerated. Then again, there is plenty of evidence that HIG is deeply involved in this effort. Clouding matters further is the tendency among ‘rebels’, ‘militants’ and ‘criminals’ to mix roles and networks, almost to the point where many of these gunmen are loyal only to themselves, the next buck and a hint of glory.
Faizanullah Faizan-a former Hezb-e Islami commander, governor of Ghazni, and Andar native-is reportedly raising money and political support for the rebellion on behalf of his party in Kabul, as well as arranging logistics on the ground. He recently acknowledged that the rebellion’s fighters come from "all the old groups" but insisted that the effort is "100% civilian." (The fact that Faizan was ambushed and nearly killed by three men (including a Pakistani suicide bomber) for his role in facilitating the uprising illustrates that the Taliban are not willing to concede the territory without a fight.)
Other indicators suggest the rebellion was never organic. The New York Times and Newsweek noted that much of the resistance was the result of a split within the Taliban in Ghazni, when some members turned on their brethren for their particularly brutal tendencies originating in Pakistan. This, too, is quite normal. In any given village cluster, there are local Taliban and foreign Taliban (frequently Pakistanis, or Afghans who have spent much of their lives in northwest Pakistan). The foreigners control the money flow and thus everything else, and they frequently bring a brand of Islam with them that the local Taliban cannot justify within their communities, causing tremendous friction. Yet these are hardly reformed insurgents. Al Jazeera reported that in an attempt to bribe the Taliban into opening the schools in Ghazni, locals offered to fight ISAF forces side-by-side with the insurgents, but the Taliban refused. Nor does such an offer sound like much of a sacrifice or particularly abnormal; the overall Ghazni commander, Lutfullah Kamran, is reported to have told local elders that "he would fight the Americans, but his first priority is securing his people’s future." And once those bigger fish are fried?
With the U.S. combat mission ending in 2014 and an unknown number of residual forces remaining afterwards, rural Afghans in the east are hedging their bets by providing ‘passive’ support to the Taliban-i.e., failing to report Taliban activities for fear of retaliation. Yet for key members of the Ghazni resistance to be so willing or eager to ‘actively’ support the insurgency by attacking U.S. and Afghan forces suggests that this particular rebellion is of an altogether different nature than those sprinkled across the rest of the east. Ironically, then, the rebellions that draw the least attention are frequently the ones worth supporting the most.
ISAF Commander General John Allen recently described a more robust and legitimate government assistance being provided to uprisings in Kamdesh, Nuristan, one of the least accessible places on Earth. The Afghan National Army is "resupplying in Kamdesh using Afghan Army helicopters," he said. "They’re getting up there. [The Afghan Army is] doing it. They’ve inserted commandos up there. They’re resupplying local elements up there. They’re maintaining the ANP [Afghan National Police] in some key checkpoints and strong points." Unquestionably, this is the proper way of assisting an uprising and a security force under siege, not by giving a Karzai loyalist a wink and a nod to do everything quietly and with zero accountability. Sadly, as I saw with uprisings in Nuristan, the terrain makes sustained governmental support almost impossible, and inevitably the population submits to the Taliban’s will until the next time the group goes too far. The formula, however, is sound and has worked in areas with more favorable terrain, such as in neighboring Laghman, where another rebellion is underway. Mysteriously, Laghmani rebels have only received food and a small amount of ammunition from their government.
Regardless, despite a wave of optimism sweeping ISAF, these uprisings do not (nor will they ever) collectively resemble the Anbar Awakening in Iraq; these rebellions are isolated, have always been widespread and are rarely resilient enough to stave off the Taliban for long. In fact, nearly all of these summer revolts will not have staying power, and despite its resources, the revolt in Ghazni may be among them. The resistance is facing violent internal and external threats, leaders of the resistance are being targeted, and at least 8% of their 250 rebels have already been killed. Village clusters along the AfPak border have a history of defending themselves with traditional defense forces like arbakais and lashkars, but their opposition is similarly equipped with a finite number of small arms, not the arsenal that the Taliban brings to bear. With an enemy like the Taliban, rural Afghan communities will rarely be able to defend themselves indefinitely without legitimate, robust, and overt government support. True, areas like eastern Ghazni welcome whichever militant group can keep the peace and permit daily life to continue, but exploitation and widespread abuse is inevitable once the honeymoon ends. Andar also welcomed the Taliban years ago because it brought a reprieve from daily threats and bloodshed. Until it didn’t.
The ultimate trajectory of the Ghazni uprising remains unknown, but ISAF and Kabul officials are failing to allocate vital resources through legitimate channels to the less prominent and organic rebellions throughout the east. For better or worse, the Ghazni rebels have what they need for now. Kabul should not leave the others to rot.
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.
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