Afghanistan uses anti-Tal­iban mili­tias as in­sur­gency spreads


The com­man­der known as Pakhsaparan, or the “wall breaker,” barked out com­mands at his ban­dolier-draped fighters, part of a patch­work of anti-Tal­iban mili­tias in north­ern Afghanistan seek­ing to aug­ment hard-pressed Afghan forces in a strat­egy fraught with risk.

The Tal­iban re­cently came close to over­run­ning Kun­duz city, in the most alarm­ing threat to any pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal since the 2001 U.S.led in­va­sion of Afghanistan, as the in­sur­gency spreads across the north be­yond its tra­di­tional south­ern strong­hold.

With Afghan forces suf­fer­ing record ca­su­al­ties as for­eign troops pull back, Kabul is in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing on for­mer mu­jahideen strongmen with check­ered pasts as a bul­wark against the in­sur­gents — a gam­bit ob­servers say is akin to fight­ing fire with fire.

Pow­erfu l among them is Mo­hammed Omar — pop­u­larly known by his bat­tle­field moniker Pakhsaparan for his touted abil­ity to flat­ten walls — who con­trols hun­dreds of fighters in his fief­dom on the banks of the Khan­abad River in Kun­duz prov­ince.

“This is a peo­ple’s up­ris­ing,” said Pakhsaparan, with a trimmed snow-white beard and a deep boom­ing voice as he show­cased his mili­tia to AFP in Kun­duz city, wield­ing as­sault ri­fles, lug­ging ruck­sacks with RPG war­heads and draped in ban­doliers of ammunition.

“The peo­ple are pre­pared to send their sons to the front­lines to fight against the Tal­iban, to de­fend their home, their coun­try, their honor and their gov­ern­ment.”

Kabul has de­nied arm­ing mili­tias, but Pakhsaparan ad­mit­ted re­ceiv­ing ammunition from the gov­ern­ment and the venue for the in­ter­view — in­side the pro­vin­cial gover­nor’s com­pound — was tes­ta­ment to the sup­port he draws from lo­cal of­fi­cials.

The mo­bi­liza­tion of mili­tias rep­re­sents a com­plete de­par­ture from pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment ef­forts to dis­arm th­ese groups, blamed for dev­as­tat­ing Afghanistan dur­ing the civil war in the 1990s and set­ting the stage for a Tal­iban takeover.

It also lays bare the short­com­ings of the multi-bil­lion dollar U.S.-led ef­fort to de­velop self-re­liant Afghan forces, suf­fer­ing large daily ca­su­al­ties and strug­gling to rein in an as­cen­dant in­sur­gency on their own as the war ex­pands on mul­ti­ple fronts.

“Afghan mil­i­tary and po­lice are in­ca­pable of fight­ing with­out us,” a sub-com­man­der un­der Mir Alam, an eth­nic Ta­jik and one of the most in­flu­en­tial mili­tia lead­ers, told AFP at his base near Kun­duz city.

“They don’t have an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of th­ese lands as we do. With­out mili­tias Kun­duz will fall to the Tal­iban,” he said, sport­ing a fat gold ring stud­ded with a turquoise gem­stone.

‘Good mili­tia, bad mili­tia’

Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani’s gov- ern­ment has been widely slammed for a “lead­er­ship cri­sis” which has re­sulted in a pro­tracted de­lay in the cru­cial ap­point­ment of a de­fense min­is­ter.

Kabul scram­bled for a re­sponse when the Tal­iban nearly stormed Kun­duz city in late April, rush­ing in re­in­force­ments from other prov­inces — but also call­ing Mir Alam, who was in neigh­bor­ing Ta­jik­istan at the time, for help.

As the Tal­iban have flooded the re­gion this fight­ing sea­son, caus­ing the war’s cen­ter of grav­ity to shift north, a dis­turb­ing pat­tern is emerg­ing: the se­rial num­bers of sev­eral weapons seized from in­sur­gents match those is­sued to Afghan forces, mili­ti­a­men said.

“It’s the gov­ern­ment’s job to in­ves­ti­gate how that is hap­pen­ing,” said Alam’s sub-com­man­der, re­quest­ing anonymity.

The Tal­iban have been pushed back from the fringes of Kun­duz city but it still ap­pears a quick­sand of in­sta­bil­ity.

Lo­cal res­i­dents de­scribe the Tal­iban as a Tro­jan Horse, in­fil­trat­ing the city de­spite a ring of se­cu­rity to or­ches­trate a spate of regular bomb­ings that have whipped peo­ple into a frenzy.

“They may not have stormed the city but they have a reach deep within. They are ev­ery­where, they are among us, and that’s scary,” civil so­ci­ety ac­tivist Marzia Rus­tami told AFP.

Rus­tami said she was shat­tered by a re­cent bomb­ing that killed Noor-ul-Huda Maul­vizada Karimi, a cleric who fre­quently took to the air­waves to de­nounce the Tal­iban and ad­vo­cate women’s rights.

Haji Amanullah Ut­man­zai, a Kun­duz el­der, said lo­cal mili­tias, con­trol­ling un­ruly patch­works of fief­doms and blamed for hu­man rights abuses, were hardly restor­ing se­cu­rity.

“Put an armed guard in ev­ery­one’s house in Kun­duz and even then no one will feel safe,” he told AFP.

“Mili­tias are abu­sive, forcibly col­lect taxes from peo­ple, steal har­vests from farm­ers and cre­ate a gulf be­tween peo­ple and the gov­ern­ment,” he said.

But the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment in­sists “up­ris­ing forces” sup­ple­ment Afghan troops by act­ing as cru­cial trip­wires for the Tal­iban.

“There is no such thing as good mili­tia or bad mili­tia. Any mili­tia fight­ing the Tal­iban are good,” deputy Kun­duz gover­nor Ham­dul­lah Dan­ish told AFP.

Dan­ish in­sisted the gov­ern­ment was main­tain­ing a tight grip over the armed groups to pre­vent any abuse.

But the ex­act num­ber of mili­tia forces in Kun­duz seems un­known, with es­ti­mates rang­ing from 2,000 to 10,000 — and ob­servers say that in it­self in­di­cates a lack of gov­ern­ment over­sight.

Af­ter the in­ter­view, dozens of Pakhsaparan’s men left the gover­nor’s com­pound, walk­ing out of the gate in a sin­gle file un­der the af­ter­noon sun.

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