By S. Binod Kumar Singh
Continuing violence and the Taliban’s increasing brutality in Afghanistan have sparked violent ‘uprisings’ across the country, as Taliban extremists are attacked and overwhelmed by Afghan villagers, at least on occasion with nothing more than farming tools, sticks, stones, or even their bare hands. While such acts of resistance are intermittent and unpredictable, at best, some of the most noticeable of recent incidents include:
July 9, 2012: Local residents fought Taliban militants and forced the latter to pull back from the eastern Paktia Province, when an estimated 400 Taliban attacked Mirazka District in the Province.
May 27, 2012: In Andar District of Ghazni Province, 11 Taliban were killed by villagers and another 15 were held hostage. No further information about the hostages is available in open sources.
April 12, 2012: Angry residents cut off a Taliban militant’s ear after two children were killed and another two injured in a roadside blast in the Garmsir District of southern Helmand Province.
August 27, 2011: Residents in the Pirzada suburb of Ghazni city in Ghazni Province clashed with Taliban fighters who were attempting to forcibly collect zakat (alms) from locals. One Taliban terrorist was killed and another was injured during the attack.
August 22, 2011: A mob of villagers stoned to death a Taliban ‘commander’ and his body guard in the Nawa District of Helmand Province. The villagers turned on the two Taliban insurgents for the unjust and brutal killing of a local village elder.
Resistance to the Taliban’s extremist vision and one-time rule in Afghanistan is, of course, nothing new. Indeed, the Northern Alliance, a military-political umbrella organization composed of all ethnic groups of Afghanistan including Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen and others created by the Islamic State of Afghanistan in late 1996, fought continuously as a resistance force against the Taliban right up to the American intervention in the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, at which point it re-invented itself under the identity of the United Front. It was the United Front that eventually succeeded, at the end of December 2001, in retaking most of Afghanistan from the Taliban, with air support from the US led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Special Forces in Operation Enduring Freedom. Interestingly, Hamid Karzai was also an influential figure from the leading ethnic Pashtun tribe, who began a formidable armed uprising against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan at this stage. He fought off a Taliban attack on November 1, 2001, and subsequently secured control of parts of the crucial Kandahar Province – long thought to be the Taliban heartland. Although the rebellion led by Karzai was, at that time, in its infancy, it was welcomed by, and helped, the US, which had launched airstrikes in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.
Since Karzai’s revolt in 2001, there have been reports of 26 major uprisings against the Taliban, across 21 Provinces, out of the total of 34 Provinces in the country – three each in Helmand and Nangarhar; two in Ghazni; and one each in Badghis, Baghlan, Faryab, Ghor, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Kapisa, Kunar, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar, Nuristan, Paktia, Paktika, Uruzgan, Wardak and Zabul. Some of the significant incidents in these earlier uprisings include:
January 27, 2010: A 60-year-old tribal elder Hajji Malik Osman, brought together the leaders of his 400,000-strong Shinwari tribe against the Taliban and concluded a written agreement to keep the Taliban out of six Districts in eastern Nangarhar Province.
November 17, 2009: War-weary villagers of Kunduz Province took up arms against the Taliban, sick of having the Taliban encroach on their once peaceful patch of country.
July 1, 2008: Civilians confronted a group of 12 Taliban fighters in Faryab Province, sparking a clash that left two Taliban fighters dead and sent the rest fleeing for their lives.
May 10, 2007: Local villagers fought a group of Taliban militants, who were trying to attack a Governmental Police post in the Sangin District of Helmand Province. The Taliban militants, including a ‘local commander’ were killed.
August 18, 2006: Two Taliban militants detonated an explosive device outside the compound of a local security official named Madad in the old Sharan area of Paktika Province, killing the official. While trying to flee the scene of the attack, the assassins were stopped by villagers and shot dead.
Despite the campaign against them by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the progressively strengthening Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), as well as the growing popular resentment and resistance, the Taliban have, nevertheless, gained steadily in strength and intensity of operations since 2006, when they restored their campaigns with Pakistan’s visible (though vociferously denied) support. Their campaigns peaked in 2010, even as the US led war against them intensified against projections of an imminent ‘withdrawal’ of western forces from the country, with a low estimate of 10,826 fatalities in that year (partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management). A total of a least 48,676 persons, including 2,349 Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel; 4,157 Afghan National Police (ANP) personnel; 2,707 ISAF personnel; 13,314 civilians; and 26,149 Taliban have been killed in Afghanistan since 2007. There is some evidence, however, of a slowdown and a significant challenge to their dominance in wide areas of the country over the past months.
Source: Institute for Conflict Management, *Data till November 18, 2012.
The popular challenge has been conceded by, and raised concern among, elements within the Taliban leadership. On July 20, 2012, an unnamed Taliban source was quoted in the media, stating, “Taliban fighters used to control most of the Provinces, but now they are losing ground in areas like Helmand, Kunduz and more recently Kandahar, Zabul and Ghazni. They lost ground to tribal militias because they don’t let people access basic services, especially school. That is what happened in Ghazni two months ago.” An anti-Taliban fighter, Wali Mohammad, told the local newspaper, 8Subh, “The residents of Andar District [in Ghazni Province] are fed up with the restrictions imposed by Taliban. The Taliban had shut down the schools and bazaars and motivated the people to fight against the Government. To get rid of Taliban clutch we have decided to stand against them.” Significantly, an armed uprising by more than 250 men in the month of May had evicted the Taliban from 50 villages in the Andar District in Ghazni Province, which had previously been under tight Taliban control.
At least some of these ‘uprisings’, however, have a dark underbelly, and are more in the nature of turf wars within the Taliban, rather than an organized resistance against the Islamist extremists. Many of these are led by former jihadi ‘commanders’ or members, who see an opportunity to consolidate the power of their own group or faction, particularly with a view to the inevitable struggle for dominance in the projected scenario after the 2014 ‘withdrawal’ of US-ISAF troops from the country. Abdul Waheed Wafa, the Director of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, notes:
It’s too early to give it (the resistance) a name. We don’t yet know if it’s really an uprising by the people or an intelligence strategy or a Government project. But whatever it is, if it’s not managed properly, it could turn into anything. It could turn into a popular revolution against the Taliban or a crisis within the crisis. It needs to be managed by the Government.
Mohammad Arif Shah Jahan, a former intelligence chief in Ghazni, claimed that the revolt in the Province had been orchestrated by members of the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar led Hizb-i-Islami (HIG), which been engaged in a Pakistan backed war against the ISAF and President Karzai since 2002. Indeed, many of the fighters conceded that some among them had once belonged to this group, but denied they were presently organized along political lines. Faizanullah Faizan, a senior HIG ‘commander’, now playing a leading role in the uprising in Ghazni asserted: “It’s a 100 per cent civilian uprising. It doesn’t belong to any political party, but we are made up of all the old groups.”
The ambiguities of the situation have also created apprehensions in the Afghan Parliament, with members fearing that these uncontrolled ‘uprisings’ could lead to serious security challenges in the future, for the Afghan Government. During debates in the Wolesi Jirga, the Lower House of Parliament, on August 27, 2012, Afghan lawmakers claimed that “Islamist militants are taking advantage of the so-called local uprisings in Afghan villages to wrest power from the Taliban.” Similarly, on September 4, 2012, in the Meshrano Jirga, the Upper House of Parliament, members voiced their apprehensions about the militias. Rafiullah Haideri, a lawmaker from the Kunar Province claimed, “The ex-jihadi leaders wanted to use the armed groups for their protection in case the Government was threatened. These groups are not like Police, but are private militias.” Consequently, members urged the Government to closely monitor the groups that were fighting the Taliban militants.
As US President Barack Obama’s ‘deadline’ for ‘withdrawal’ of the US Forces – and consequently, the accelerated withdrawal of other ISAF constituents as well – approaches, the uncertainties of the situation in Afghanistan can only multiply. The emergence of an unmanaged ‘resistance’, led by a mix of vigilante and dubious forces, adds just another ‘unknowable’ to an already explosive mix. While Kabul may hope that these forces will create increasing problems for the Taliban, it may end up grappling with another disruptive, ideologically indeterminate, cluster, even as the gravest challenges to its authority come to a head in 2014. Tentative recognition of this problem and potential clearly exists in Kabul. There is still time for a firm initiative to bring these ambivalent factions into the sphere of Kabul’s certain influence.
S. Binod Kumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management