The Anatomy of an Anti-Taliban Uprising

12 09 2012

Foreign Policy
12 September 2012

[My latest piece for Foreign Policy, in Part One and Two]

Part 1

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.

Part 2

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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