A short time ago in a part of Afghanistan far, far away, Islamic State wanted to establish a province of its dark empire, but a tribal force awakened to fight back. However, this tale of noble local fighters protecting their tribe from religious fundamentalists is more complicated than it appears on first sight, as the line between the light and the dark side begins to blur.
The bearded man looked as nondescript as the traditional guest room, furnished with simple mattresses and cushions, in a house in a slightly desolated village in Rodat District, close to the main road in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar. But when I met him in early February, he claimed to command a tribal fighting force of around 350 armed men in the nearby remote mountainous districts of Achin and Spin Ghar, bordering Pakistan’s tribal area.
Having already fought the Soviets in the 1980s, he and his men have once again taken up arms against an invader—this time the self-styled caliphate—after its disciples gruesomely executed ten of their tribal elders in Achin in October last year, by forcing them to sit on bombs before detonating them, he said. And this is just one of the unprecedented barbaric acts that ISIS has committed since it emerged in this faraway border region at the beginning of 2015, and that even shocked Afghans who, after a lifetime in a war-torn country, are used to atrocities.
Our host, who hails from Spin Ghar, explained that the execution only inflamed the uprising. According to him, locals from the Shinwari tribe already turned against Islamic State when, sometime in autumn 2015, the presumptive caliphate’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic rules clashed with tribal traditions, echoing al-Sahwa, the 2006 “Awakening” of Iraqi Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda. Interestingly, he mentioned the confinement of women to their houses, banning them from helping with the work on the fields as has been done for centuries in this subsistence-farming society, as one of the main reasons for the initial uprising against ISIS. In the beginning, tribal fighters routed the black-clad warriors, who fled to the mountains, he claimed. But the caliphate struck back and took bloody revenge on the tribal elders by literally blowing them to pieces, and again took over swathes of the Shinwari region in and around Achin.
“We want to attack Daesh, but the government does not let us, as they want to integrate the uprising into the regular forces first. But the situation is out of control and the government should not stand in our way,” the commander complained in early February. Accordingly, the tribal fighters were restricted to defending their approximately thirty outposts and bases, as well as patrolling where they could.
At that time, tribal elders were talking with the government in attempts to resolve the issue. And given the politics, it is a complicated issue. The Shinwari uprising is supported by Haji Abdul Zahir Qadir, the first deputy speaker of the national parliament, who is from Nangarhar but not himself a Shinwari. Known neither for moderation nor quietness, back in November last year Qadir openly accused Afghanistan’s National Security Council and “people within the government” of supporting Islamic State in one of his ranting speeches in parliament and displayed his actions as proof that a local resistance is needed. In return, his critics claimed that the “tribal uprising” is no more than Qadir’s attempt to establish a private militia to advance his personal gain.
But even within the Shinwari tribe, there are fractions. For example, one observer asserted that, while parts of the Shinwari support the government, one sub-tribe is linked to the Taliban, with yet another connected to ISIS. As another example, Haji Obaidullah, a leader of the Shinwari tribe and member of Nangarhar’s provincial council, said in his house in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, that because of the government’s lacking support, and in spite of plans to do so, the tribe has never risen up and that fighters in Achin were rogue militiamen whose activities have been stopped by the government according to the wishes of the people. Confronted with this, the commander sitting in Rodat retorted that Haji Obaidullah had never supported the tribal uprising, and that his allegations are all lies.
Some also argue that the tribal uprising might not be much better than ISIS. Given some remarks from the commander, this appears to be not entirely groundless. Unmoved, he recounted that at the end of December 2015, his men beheaded four captured fighters of the alleged caliphate, after Islamic State had done the same with four men from the uprising. In response, the government has arrested one of his men. But the beheading was not enough, and the men from the local uprising put the severed heads on small stone piles at a road checkpoint in Achin to warn others. In fact, the commander himself stated that as their enemy does not play by the rules, neither should they. “If they kill our elders, we should kill theirs,” he said nonchalantly. But in a place like Afghanistan, and in view of the devastating civil war of the 1990s, such an “eye-for-an-eye” approach is a dangerous prospect.
But there are probably more arcane reasons that concern the Afghan government. A local resident of Achin claimed that while the tribal fighters are not Taliban themselves, they have very close ties to the Taliban, as often a brother or other relative fights for the emirate, as the people in Nangarhar refer to the Taliban. In fact, the same man further alleged that the uprising would tightly cooperate with the Taliban, and that this is the real reason for the government’s reluctance to support the tribal fighters: it fears that once ISIS is defeated, fighters in the uprising would reveal their true colors and turn against the government to reestablish the Taliban emirate. Supporting this, another of the guests in Rodat later confided that, after having overheard nightly conversations between the commander, himself allegedly wanted by the government, and another local, he is convinced that the commander and his men are all Taliban.
Tellingly, back in Jalalabad, Mahmad Hoshim, a malek or tribal leader of the Shinwari tribe from Nazyan district, only answered hesitatingly to these accusations and failed to clearly dispel such worries. In fact, he acknowledged that since the Shinwari are a large tribe, there have been Shinwaris that supported the Taliban, and that they and maybe others, so far neutral or pro-government Shinwaris that have been disillusioned by the government’s lacking support, would rather join the emirate of the Taliban than the official Islamic Republic once the common enemy of ISIS is defeated. Given this, his assurances that the Shinwaris want to stand united with the government against the tyranny of the self-declared caliphate sound hollow—despite the likelihood that he really believes it.
In the meantime, the situation on the ground is changing. Government forces launched clearing operations against Islamic State on February 16, claiming to have retaken Achin two days later. According to officials, fighters of the local uprising cooperated with the government in recapturing the district. However, and although an article published by the Wall Street Journal states that certain local uprising groups in Nangarhar’s districts of Kot, Achin and Nazyan have been taken under the umbrella of the the government’s so-called People’s Uprising Program, when contacted by telephone in early April, locals asserted that friction between the uprising in Achin and the government had not been resolved, and that the government did not coordinate its operations with the tribal fighters. And while even the government qualified that Islamic State is still present in some areas of Achin, local sources were already alleging in early March that the caliphate had once again struck back, having reversed initial government successes and regained control of most of Achin, with government forces confined to the district center and its immediate surroundings. Therefore, although the current situation in Achin could not be independently verified, the story of the opaque tribal uprising against Islamic State seems to continue.
In any event, this episode magnifies a general problem in Afghanistan. In view of the fact that regular government forces are apparently not able to lastingly secure remote areas and—given that in the vast mountainous terrain of Afghanistan such areas are the rule rather than the exception—might well never be able to control large swaths of the country directly, the central government in all likelihood has no other choice than to cooperate with local forces. According to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article, such cooperation is already being initiated in form of the People’s Uprising Program, corresponding more or less to the so-called Village Stability Operations advocated and conducted by U.S. forces in the past.
But if you can’t tell your friends from your enemies, this is a treacherous path to follow. In this regard, remarks that Abdul Qayum Rahimi, the director of the People’s Uprising Program, gave the Wall Street Journal imply that the government is aware of the danger of abusive pro-government militias, but might be willing to take the risk. However, and at least as far as it could be determined, there seems to be no public mention of the possibility that local uprisings could simply be Taliban that have opportunistically chosen to disguise themselves as tribal resistance fighters for the time being, in order to try to garner government support for their current fight against ISIS. If this has not already happened, especially given the story of the dubious commander in Rodat, this possibility should be strongly taken into consideration—not only by the Afghan government, but also by its international backers, in particular the United States, whose Central Intelligence Agency is allegedly financing the People’s Uprising Program.
This said, the Afghan government and its supporters face a likely double bind: on the one hand, they have to resist the temptation to support unknown elements that could well be abusive pro-government militias or, even worse, possibly disguised Taliban or groups linked to them, to secure short-term gains against the current threat from Islamic State (which would, however, fuel the insurgency in the long term). On the other hand, and especially in view of the phantom menace of ISIS, inaction or even only hesitating for too long can also have a devastating effect, as this might drive pro-government or neutral elements to the Taliban insurgency too, as hinted at by malek Hoshim.
So in the end, the Afghan government and its international backers might, in the absence of truly noble local warriors, be left with only bad options. However, having only bad options is not necessarily an excuse for doing nothing, just as urgency should not be an excuse for implementing hasty measures which might well result in backlashes. Or to put it otherwise: unlike in a galaxy far, far away, in Nangarhar it is hard to determine who is on the dark side of the Force, and one might wonder if there is a light side at all. But to paraphrase Yoda, contrary to the quick and easy path of the dark side, no one ever claimed that it is easy to do the right thing – especially not in a far, far away war-torn place like Afghanistan.
Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan, writing mainly on military and security issues. His articles are regularly published in Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy.