Dispatch

Afghanistan’s War Splinters as Southern Tribes Fight for Spoils

Key cities including Herat and Kandahar could be the next to fall as Afghanistan’s nightmare continues.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
Afghan militia in Herat, Afghanistan
Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces against the Taliban in Herat on July 9. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

KABUL—Two of Afghanistan’s major cities are in danger of imminent collapse as the government struggles to contain a war that is splintering out of control. A Taliban advance on Herat in the west has cut the city off from the rest of the country. In southern Kandahar, where the Taliban have deep roots, rival tribes are taking sides, fighting for a share of the spoils when the dust finally settles.

In Herat, the capital of the province of the same name, Taliban fighters reached the outskirts on Thursday, forcing the closure of the airport. Rocket attacks on Friday hit the United Nations compound, where five members of the Afghan Public Protection Force were killed, police and security sources said. Militias led by local warlord Ismail Khan are fighting alongside the police and army, they said.

In the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban capital from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the picture is complex, hinting at a war within a war as age-old rivalries between local tribes spill into fighting over the vast sums to be made from licit and illicit trade through the Spin Boldak crossing into Pakistan.

KABUL—Two of Afghanistan’s major cities are in danger of imminent collapse as the government struggles to contain a war that is splintering out of control. A Taliban advance on Herat in the west has cut the city off from the rest of the country. In southern Kandahar, where the Taliban have deep roots, rival tribes are taking sides, fighting for a share of the spoils when the dust finally settles.

In Herat, the capital of the province of the same name, Taliban fighters reached the outskirts on Thursday, forcing the closure of the airport. Rocket attacks on Friday hit the United Nations compound, where five members of the Afghan Public Protection Force were killed, police and security sources said. Militias led by local warlord Ismail Khan are fighting alongside the police and army, they said.

In the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban capital from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the picture is complex, hinting at a war within a war as age-old rivalries between local tribes spill into fighting over the vast sums to be made from licit and illicit trade through the Spin Boldak crossing into Pakistan.

Meanwhile, government forces are stretched and resources are dwindling. People are flooding into the capital, Kabul, to escape fighting, straining already limited capacity. Nighttime curfews have been imposed on 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. The closure of border crossings has cut imports, threatening food and fuel shortages as prices start to rise, and drastically cutting government revenues.

The fighting between the government and Taliban for control of Spin Boldak has provided an opening for tribal rivalries to come to the surface, said Enayat Najafizada, the founder and head of the Kabul-based Institute of War and Peace Studies think tank.

“These rivalries in Loy [greater] Kandahar have been simmering for 20 years, and as the tribes line up either with the Taliban or with the government, weaknesses are being revealed and opportunities presented for positions to change,” Najafizada said. The involvement of the tribes, as they fight each other, is adding firepower to the battle, though analysts say the Taliban are also being aided by fighters arriving from Pakistan, threatening to overwhelm Afghan forces.

Kandahar’s war was marked by brutality, with hundreds of men kidnapped or killed, said a senior government security source.

The value of goods passing through Spin Boldak has been estimated at $1.1 billion annually. Contraband including drugs—the Taliban control opium production in southern Afghanistan—and minerals offer huge profits for whoever controls the crossing.

Until recently, that was the Achakzai tribe, which sided with the government under the leadership of Gen. Abdul Raziq, Kandahar’s former provincial police chief and warlord. He was killed in a suicide attack in 2018. He was charismatic, brutal, and effective—qualities lacking in his brother Tadin Khan, who succeeded him, but who recently escaped to Kabul.

“The Achakzai no longer have the power in Kandahar; the Taliban are taking their revenge for Raziq’s brutality,” Najafizada said. One local group, the Barakzai militias, are fighting alongside government forces, he said. Another local group, the Noorzai, had aligned with the Taliban to regain supremacy over the border regions. This could ultimately lead to a change in the balance of power in southern Afghanistan, the think tank leader said.

Kandahar’s war was marked by brutality, said a senior government security source, with hundreds of men kidnapped or killed, and their bodies dumped on the open ground. But the government official was contemptuous of the groups’ importance to the overall fight for the republic’s survival. “Let them kill each other,” said the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The Taliban’s own brutality was evident in the killing this week of Kandahar comedian and former police officer Nazar Mohammad Khasha. Video showed him in the back of a car between two Taliban who abused him and repeatedly slapped his face. He was later shot dead.

Khasha’s killing, along with reports from across the country of Taliban atrocities, including beheadings and summary murders, has reignited concerns for the fate of women, journalists, civil activists, and human rights advocates if the insurgents take power militarily. Peace talks between the Afghan government and insurgency have failed to make any discernible progress as the Taliban demand the release of more prisoners—above and beyond the 5,000 released last year—and the resignation of President Ashraf Ghani.

Amid the unfolding chaos and creeping fear of imminent government collapse, lines are growing longer for visas to countries still open to Afghans. Reports of the rising number of migrants traveling illegally to neighboring countries are mounting as people, mostly young men, flee the violence.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has warned that once all U.S. troops are withdrawn from the country by Aug. 31, the government will face an “existential crisis,” unless it can address the shortcomings of its fighting forces. The Afghan Air Force is under pressure, as planes and helicopters are not being adequately maintained, the senior security source said. This is impacting resupply of ground forces, as well as evacuation of injured fighters, and could hit plans by the Ministry of Defense to retake five important border crossings, he said.

Senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban now have control of up to two-thirds of the country’s 400 districts. Taliban battlefield losses are not known, but the sources said the republic loses 200 to 300 soldiers and police in fighting across the country every day. Recruitment is not keeping up with losses.

Civilian casualties have risen alarmingly this year, with more than 60 percent attributed to the insurgents. The U.N. said the number of civilians killed and injured in the fighting in the first half of this year, more than 5,100 people, was almost 50 percent higher than for the same period last year. The U.N.’s Afghanistan mission tweeted that there were “more than 230 civilians injured” in and around Kandahar since July 16, though the real figure is believed to be much higher amid reports of kidnappings, disappearances, and summary executions.

“We have no security, and if we cannot have peace we will have no choice but to leave this country,” said 50-year-old Sayed Ali Agha.

As people across Kabul line up for bread and visas, they’re also lining up to sign a petition calling on the international community to protect them from the violence. “Afghanistan has been a buffer for the rest of the world against terrorism,” said the president of the National Integration Movement of Afghanistan, Hamdullah Nazek. “It is our right to be protected, too, from the violence of international terrorism.” The petition already has 35,000 signatures, he said. He is hoping either the U.N. or the International Criminal Court will accept the petition and use it to “pressure the international community to meet its obligations to ensure peace for Afghanistan.”

The petition notes that the Afghan government was left out of the February 2020 deal between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and the Taliban, which gave the insurgents political legitimacy but did not oblige them to quit producing and trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of drugs each year or stop attacking Afghan security forces or civilians.

“The United States and its allies assured Afghan people when they came here in 2001 that terrorism would be defeated, that drug cultivation would be stopped, and that they would bring democracy,” said Nazek, formerly the governor of Kandahar’s Dand district, now under Taliban control. “None of this has happened, and the Afghan people deserve to know why.” The petition also calls for investigation into government corruption.

One of those waiting in line to sign the petition showed off what he said were scars from bullet wounds suffered while fighting the Taliban in Logar province, south of Kabul. 

“We have no security, and if we cannot have peace we will have no choice but to leave this country,” said 50-year-old Sayed Ali Agha. “Perhaps signing this petition, so the world can know how we feel and how we are suffering, will take us a step closer to peace.”

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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