Jun 4, 2012

New Battles and Old Wants in Nuristan

posted: 02-06-2012 by: Fabrizio Foschini
The killing of the deputy shadow governor of the Taleban for Nuristan, apparently in a drone strike on his native village of Amshuz, Waygal district, represents just the last chapter in what has already been a rather intense fighting season in the province for two months. A perennial candidate for insurgent takeover, Nuristan witnessed some emergency deployment of Afghan troops and Coalition airstrikes early this year, and also some initiatives by the provincial authorities to quell the insurgency by way of reconciliation and road building. However, as AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports, the most basic problems still remain to be addressed in this most remote corner of Afghanistan.

If one accepts the sad reality that in modern Afghanistan spring has come to be defined by levels of Taleban activity and the announcement of their new offensive, rather that by the wonders of nature, then, despite the unfavourable altitude, this year, spring certainly arrived in Nuristan long before it did in Kabul. The fighting season was inaugurated in Barg-e Matal by an ambush on an ANP convoy south of the district centre on 15 March; the insurgents then proceeded to intimidate local villagers against working with the government. The location of the incident looked like an attempt at cutting off Barg-e Matal from the rest of Afghanistan for the purpose of conquering it later in the year. However, soon it was the turn of its southern and more populated neighbour, Kamdesh, to become the focus of insurgent attacks.
The control that a Hezb-e Islami commander, Mawlawi Sadeq, himself a former insurgent, exercised on behalf of the state in and around Kamdesh’s district centre was badly shaken by direct attacks on checkpoints belonging to his men, a mix of Afghan Local and National Police (ALP and ANP), on 29 March and again on 8 April. The Taleban came close to overrunning the administrative centre and were stopped only by a timely influx of reinforcements sent by the government during the following days. The deployment of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and of ANA commandos in particular, beginning on 12 April, proved effective in cleaning the villages around the district centre of insurgents and inflicted heavy losses on them, although this came at the cost of some civilian casualties in at least one place, Pa’indeh, where Taleban fighters had been occupying abandoned houses inside the village. 
Although no attempt has been made since to dislodge the Taleban from outlying areas of Kamdesh district (like Bazgal, Pitigal, Kamu and Paprok), the reaction of the government has been remarkably swift and resolute, at least compared to similar occasions last year. During those days in April it was also possible to witness a more intense than usual awareness in Kabul about the dire situation of Nuristan, as the debate over the state of its neglect shone out through the press and reached into parliament (read here). If this amounts to a new commitment on the part of the Afghan state to this ‘lost’ province is still hard to tell. It is certain, however, that despite the support that NATO helicopters lent to the ANSF operations in mid-April, and a more recent airstrike that on 23 May which killed the Taleban deputy shadow governor, ISAF is completing the winding down of its role in Nuristan. Two years after most of the US troops withdrew from the province, the hollow announcement of the transition of security to the ANSF was made. In the next few months, the US troops will ‘relinquish responsibility’ over the western half of Nuristan (where, in fact, they have never been, except for the PRT set on the border with Laghman province), while apparently keeping their options open as to possible future intervention in the eastern border districts. 
The ANSF, for their part, do not seem to have increased their presence or morale dramatically. Behind the promises of reinforcements and increased attention on the part of the central government, the reality is particularly bleak. The ANP quick reaction force in Nuristan, the most effective state security presence in the province, saw its salaries withheld for three to five months in late 2011; in all probability, they were pocketed by the provincial authorities and some MoI officials (read here). 
The issue became public in March this year, and later, on 29 April, the Minister of Interior was questioned about it in the Senate. The theft of 21 million Afghani (roughly 440,000 USD), later revised down to 10 million Afghani (200,000 USD) certainly constitutes a major blow for the morale of a force deputed to defend one of the toughest areas in Afghanistan. The current provincial governor, Tamim Nuristani (who also served in 2006-2008), accused his predecessor, Jamaluddin Badr, and the former provincial chief of police, Shams ur-Rahman Zahid, as being behind the theft. Badr rejected all responsibility, pointing to the fact that he has been out of office since late August 2011. Shams ur-Rahman was recalled to Kabul shortly after having been given a new appointment in Farah in January 2012, and has apparently been put under arrest (read here).(1) In the meantime, the new governor and chief of police announced the recovery of part of the embezzled salaries .
However, as locals interviewed by AAN pointed out, determining who is really behind the scam makes only a small difference. Nuristan is at present so completely beyond the reach of anti-corruption investigations that it is possible for every set of provincial authorities to perpetrate such schemes and pocket any resources flowing in, quite undisturbed. So complete is the lack of information about what is going on in some districts of Nuristan that salaries do not even need to be stolen from real policemen. More often the latter are fictitious, just appearing in the paymaster’s books to swell the salaries allocated for a certain area. And this phenomena is not limited to the security forces. In a province like Nuristan, it can apply to all categories of state employees, from administrators to teachers. 
An extreme case is that of Mandol. The district is, in the words of locals, ‘awoluswali in name only’. This is why a large delegation of its people arrived in Kabul at the beginning of May and have been trying to raise some awareness in government about their situation. On paper everything is correct: 85 teachers work in the district under the vigilant eye of 240 security personnel. But the reality, the delegation describes, is that the district – which has a population of 60,000 (official estimates allow for 20,000) - do not receive the money for a single functioning school. Meanwhile, the security commander, who was appointed three months ago, has been the first to set foot in the district in years, even though he receives salaries for only 70 men. This state of things has been going on for the best part of the last ten years, according to one delegate from Mandol, who said in a trans-Nuristan assembly held in Parun on 13 May: 
…the provincial authorities have, at different times, appointed some of their own lackeys to different positions, but these employees never set foot in our district, and have either remained with the honourable governor in the provincial centre(Parun) or in Jalalabad. Appointments were made based on financial or political transactions and when these employees started claiming all the budget for themselves, the honourable governor would sack them and replace them with other people who would accept the tems of the transaction set by the provincial authorities… 
Nor has the district been connected by road to its closest neighbour, Doab, or for that matter, anywhere else. As one of the delegates put it, ‘Local residents have been deprived of Afghan citizenship when it comes to infrastructure and logistics’; in practice this means that to reach Kabul they fare better crossing the passes leading into Panjshir. This also meant that in early March when an avalanche hit a village in the Mandol, the area was completely cut off from the provincial centre and humanitarian help gathered by international organisations took several weeks to reach the district. It reportedly got looted on the way by an insurgent commander of Nurgram district. 
Lack of communications has been a thorn in the side of Nuristan as far back as human memory can go. No wonder that road construction figured prominently in the programme announced by Tamim Nuristani as soon as he was re-appointed governor (read an interview here and also here). The old project of the so-called Titin-Kordar road has been resumed with a lot of fanfare. This would connect Western and Eastern Nuristan through Nurgram and Wama districts, and thus put the provincial centre of Parun in more direct contact with Kabul, as present transit via the Pech valley is far from safe or granted - Tamim announced in January that he had negotiated the passage of food and basics on the road with elders in Gurbuz, Dirah, Gosalak and Wama, but government employees could not pass. Additionally, two other road projects have been spoken of: that of a road connecting Waygal to Parun, and, finally, one to join Mandol with Doab and the rest of the world. However, locals keenly remember how the road construction scheme started during Tamim’s first tenure, only to collapse amid allegations of corruption.
If the government is trying to expand his hitherto tiny presence, the insurgents are raising their stakes, too, and upgrading their objectives in range and scope. If, this year, the provincial capital of Parun has not been threatened yet, Kamdesh has become, in the words of locals, the ‘fateful battleground. Mawlawi Sadeq, whose de facto rule in Kamdesh until now had been somehow tolerated by insurgents, has been reportedly unable to negotiate a sort of arrangement with them in the aftermath of the fighting in March. This seems to be true also at a non-military level, as, shortly prior to their onslaught at the end of March, the insurgents launched a highly dramatic rehearsal of ‘Taleban style’ governance. A mysterious group of masked militants has been busy enforcing religious sanctions in villages throughout the district.
The appearance of a Department of Vice and Virtue lookalike in Nuristan is indeed a new development (even for a province to whose forested slopes all sort of creatures have already been attributed, from the Bengal Tiger to Bin Laden).Never did local Taleban, or even the local religious authorities at the time of the independent Emirate of Nuristan, ruled by Mawlawi Afzal (2), try to interfere with the customs of the population in such a brazen way. There are, of course, different explanations as to the origin and significance of this group. Accusations about the role of Pakistan are frequently made – for example the governor linked the group to the leader of Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Shari’at-e Muhammadi from Swat, Mullah Fazlullah - helped by the fact that many of the Siahpushan (also called Torpushan, after their ‘black-clad’ attires) are reportedly from outside the area.(3) However, the group seems to have drafted a couple of youth from every village in the district for the purposes of intelligence and acceptance among the communities, and both the commander and the chief of the commissariat are apparently of local extraction.   
Another explanation often invoked is that the timing of the group’s appearance points to the ‘hardly coincidental’ scandal of the salaries scam, and the diversion created by the Siahpushan. A sudden worsening of security in places with similar predicaments is not uncommon in Afghanistan, and different local reasons mix with geopolitical ones to try and provide an explanation. People in Mandol, for example, firmly believe that the brief appearance of the Siahpushanbetween them and Doab was meant to prevent recent efforts at re-establishing at least a semblance of functioning district administration.
The Siahpushan may also be related to the state of the fighting. In recent years in Nuristan, US troops and their Taleban opponents, appearing alongside a plethora of Pakistani militant outfits and al-Qaeda, have been reasonably matched and have kept each other busy. This year, the Taleban may well feel that, left without international opposition and with an Afghan government largely absent or entrenching itself behind Hezb-e Islami commanders to survive, it was time to try and improve the moral standards of the Nuristanis. 
This could be an alarming premonition of what the peripheral areas of Afghanistan will look like if, after the ISAF withdrawal is completed, the ANSF falls back on strategically important areas.(5) More sadly, it also gives an idea of what kind of governance a resurgent Taleban would be interested in and able to provide for the population in areas they get to control. Houses burnt down, embroideries cut away from clothes with scissors, a ban on cigarettes and chewing-gum and people beaten for not having a satisfactorily hairy face are at the furthest end of what may be judged beneficial for the inhabitants of a province already bereft of everything, from food items to clinics, and abundant only in armed foreigners (and these not ISAF by now). 
But, of course, the Siahpushan’s major goals seem to be the same as the Emirate’s Vice and Virtue department - to scare the population into cooperation, and encourage coherence in the ranks, in this case, to avoid the development of a modus vivendi with local government institutions, or, even worse, the possibility of some sort of reconciliation. Although the prospects of massive reconciliation of Taleban in Nuristan appear unlikely, reaching out to insurgents has been a major field of activity for the new provincial governor’s team.(6) The provincial peace council was finally inaugurated on 31 March 2012, and the first (and so far only) group of Taleban reconciled on 24 April. Although the government highlighted this unduly as a major success by the government – in a province where militants go by the hundreds – it showed that the insurgency was not a monolithic block. 
There are also hints that the Taleban, too, can commit mistakes in dealing with local communities and do not always get away with this. Some three months ago, an NDS agent in Parun went back to his home district of Waygal to visit his family. He was no high-ranking person and apparently very religious himself, but was kidnapped and then beheaded by the Taleban there. This reportedly spoilt the relations between the local shura and the Taleban, which had already become tense after an attack by ANSF/ISAF last September sparked by the concentration of insurgents in the district centre. This resulted in several civilian casualties, after which locals asked for a removal of foreign fighters.(7) This time, it developed into a personal enmity between the relatives of the victim and the militants. People tend not to appreciate their brothers, or sons, or cousins being butchered only because they tried to find a job – be it with the government or the insurgency – to make a living. The subsequent reconciliation of Qari Yaqub and Mawlawi Abdul Khalil, the only two ‘acknowledged’ Taleban out of a group of 15 individuals reconciled, is explained by locals on these grounds: they ‘could not move freely anymore’. In Afghanistan, this is a circumlocution usually indicating somebody who is living under the threat of reprisal in a blood feud. 
Even the recent killing of the Taleban deputy shadow governor, Shaikh Jamil ur-Rahman, who was also specifically in charge of Waygal, may possibly be linked to the changed attitude of locals on the ground. The airstrike that killed him may well have been directed on the basis on information obtained after the arrest of a Taleban facilitator and ‘liaison officer’ in Aliabad of Kunduz a week before, as some analysts have hinted. Still, when a senior commander gest killed by a precision strike in his own village in the middle of an area under well-established insurgent control, it is likely he has also been betrayed by locals.
Whatever the truth, similar instances of hostility towards insurgents on the part of local communities will not automatically lead to increased support for the state, especially if an effective long term institutional presence is not established in remote areas and the façade of existence of some districts is not turned into a real public administration, thus showing clearly to the local communities the advantages of siding with the government.
  
(1) According to some locals interviewed, Badr has been able to avoid detention on the issue mainly thanks to his political connections in the National Assembly (he is a long term protégé of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and of the Senate speaker, Fazl Hadi Muslimyar). Also, his ambition to participate in the political life of Nuristan seems undaunted. Around the time of the Taleban attacks and the salaries’ issue in March, reports out that he had formed a covert organization by the name of Mahaz-e Islami, which would probably be instrumental in mobilising his Salafi networks for political purposes.
(2) Mawlawi Afzal established an independent Salafi state over a portion of Nuristan, mainly Barg-e Matal and parts of Kamdesh, from the mid-80s. It subsisted by raising revenue from mujaheddin supply convoys, but when it later supported the expanding Taleban movement it incurred the hostility of Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami, and ceased to exist after the death of Mawlawi Afzal in 1997. 
(3) There are is always a great deal of reports about Pakistani ambitions in this area, especially in the border valleys of Bazgal and Pitigal (and Gawardesh in neighbouring Nari district of Kunar). These are exemplified by the somewhat contrasting rumours that Pakistan has been: distributing identity cards to locals; Pakistani militants and sometimes regular troops have been trying to force locals out of border areas claiming these are Pakistani territory  that Pakistani intelligence is trying to relocate families displaced by the recent fighting from Pitigal into Chitral in order to exercise leverage on the Afghan Taleban fighters, and so on. While these claims are of course difficult to verify, the area is certainly regularly swarmed over by Pakistani militants, mainly from Swat, while the Pakistani security forces on the other side of the border do not appear to have the ability, or the will, to stop them. 
(4) Or, we could hypothesise that they are a misinterpreted folkloristic revival – a significant portion of the Kafirs, before becoming Nuristanis after the Afghan conquest and conversion in 1895-96, were called siahpush by Afghan and British sources, because of their dark garments. 
(5) Earlier this month for example, the Taleban judged two murderous robbers and delivered them to the victims’ relatives to be executed, which makes another Taleban ‘law&order’ leitmotif, in Nimruz – another province without strong Taleban roots dating back to the 90ies .

(6) In fact, given Tamim Nuristani's personal and familial relations with some of the insurgent leaders, some locals would have it that the government’s plan is to informally delegate control of Nuristan province to the extended family of the governor, hoping for the level of violence to subside. 
(7) The local shura, which got control of at least the centre of the district, after the cleaning operation last year had left it in some sort of no man’s land, is being supported by Nuristan provincial council and benefits from the fact that both parliamentarians from Nuristan hail from Waygal. The effective presence in Waygal of the newly appointed district governor is not confirmed, but the situation is anyway slightly more encouraging than last year, when Taleban control over the district was complete. 

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