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Updated: 1 month 2 weeks ago

US-Taleban Agreement Still in the Air: Disputes about a ‘ceasefire’ versus ‘reduction of violence’

Thu, 30/01/2020 - 02:55

Over the past few weeks, the Taleban first stoked expectations that an agreement with the United States was imminent, and then expressed frustration that it was not yet signed. They had appeared to be trying to edge forward to an agreement by offering to “scale down military operations” against both US and Afghan troops – and portraying this as a major breakthrough. The US has not reacted to Taleban statements at all. Even so, it seems US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been focussing on this question in his talks with the Taleban. Meanwhile, the Afghan government continues to call for a full-scale ceasefire ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations, which the US-Taleban deal is supposed to open the way for. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig investigates what a ‘ceasefire’ versus a ‘reduction of violence’ might mean, lays out what we know about the recent US-Taleban talks and the possible pending agreement, and what it all might mean for levels of violence in the country.

The resumption of US-Taleban talks

US President Donald Trump’s declaration on 8 September 2019 that the US-Taleban negotiations were “dead” did not hold for long. Negotiations had almost led to the signing of a bilateral agreement, but he vetoed it after the Taleban declined to go to the United States for a signing ceremony and one of their attacks killed a member of the US military (read AAN reporting here). Two and a half months later, on 28 November, while on his first visit to Afghanistan in office, he appeared to give the green light to further talks by claiming, “The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire and they didn’t want to do a cease-fire and now they do want to do a cease-fire.” The Taleban responded by saying they wanted “to resume the talks from where it was suspended.”

However, even earlier, in the first days of October 2019, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had visited Pakistan in attempt to find out how to revive the talks with the Taleban. Then, in mid-November, a prisoner/hostage swap took place. The Afghan government released three prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, a leading member of the Taleban’s Haqqani network, after which the Taleban let go two professors of the American University in Kabul, an American and an Australian, who had been kidnapped in the Afghan capital in August 2016 (a media report here). It was a confidence-building measure and one to which the Afghan government contributed, even though Kabul had never been part of the negotiations. (The government apparently also issued Afghan passports to some Taleban negotiators, see here.) The prisoner releases took place in the face of widespread protests among the Afghan public; Haqqani had been sentenced to death, and given that the network is usually blamed for Taleban suicide attacks causing mass casualties in the capital, there were demands to execute him. The release of the two professors seems to have fulfilled the expectation of many analysts (see for example here) that such a visible Taleban concession would be needed to get Trump to agree to allow a restart of the negotiations over the agreement.

In early December, the State Department let it be known that Khalilzad would “rejoin talks with the Taliban” in Doha. The term used, ‘talks’, indicated that the US did not yet consider the current contacts with the Taleban in the Qatari capital of Doha to be formal negotiations again. Indeed, in early January 2020, the Taleban confirmed  that formal negotiations had not started again, as Khalilzad had told them he had not yet received their response to his calls for a “reduction in violence, a brief ceasefire before signing of the peace agreement.” (Until then, it had been unclear whether he would even keep his position as the president’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan. Some diplomatic sources believed he had submitted his resignation after the breakdown of the earlier talks.)

Meanwhile, there was a brief hiccup on 13 December when Khalilzad announced another pause in the talks after a Taleban attack on Bagram, the US’s main base in the country, two days earlier. During the attack, at least two Afghan civilians were killed and 70 more wounded, as were five NATO soldiers from Georgia; the US said it had no casualties (media reports here).

On 30 December, the Associated Press quoted  “Taleban officials” as saying that the organisation’s Leadership Council had agreed “to a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan, providing a window in which a peace agreement with the United States can be signed” and that it would cover both the US and Afghan government forces.

The Taleban immediately issued a “clarification”, describing the news reports as “false and baseless” and “propaganda” that was trying to suggest a “schism” in the movement. They laid out their position with regard to a ceasefire:

The reality of the situation is that the Islamic Emirate has no intention of declaring a ceasefire. The United States has asked for a reduction in the scale and intensity of violence and discussions being held by the Islamic Emirate are revolving solely around this specific issue.

Then on 16 January, chief spokesman for the Taleban negotiating delegation in the Qatari capital Doha, Sohail Shahin, surprised everyone with a series of tweets in Pashto in which he said that US-Taleban negotiations had been resumed and that “the signing of the agreement and related ceremonies” had been discussed, seeming to indicate that the Taleban considered the text of the agreement was ready, while his comments that “this round of talks” would continue for “a few days” suggested they thought it could be signed soon (see here and here).

Shahin spoke in more detail to the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn on 18 January 2020. Again, he said the draft agreement was ready and the only issue that still needed to be sorted out was the date of the signing. He said it was “now a matter of days” and they were optimistic they might be able to sign the agreement at the “latest by this month’s [January 2020] end.” The remaining talks, according to Shahin, would be led by the head of the Doha office, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, rather than the movement’s Deputy Leader for Political Affairs, Abdul Ghani (better known as Mullah Baradar). This seemed to indicate that the talks were moving into procedural matters and the content had indeed been finalised. 

On 22 January 2020, the Taleban tone shifted from optimism to frustration. In an unattributed article on their website, “Peace talks and more excuses…!?“ and a photo of US chief negotiator Khalilzad, they wrote that “the American side wants to waste even more time on the definition of the term ‘reduction of the violence’” and was doing so on behalf of what they derisively called a “small number of people in the shaky administration of Kabul.” This article followed President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland), accusing the Taleban leaders of being involved in “drug running operations,” “getting their fifth or fourth wife” and “enjoying themselves.”

The US, meanwhile, has made no official response to any of the Taleban statements, interviews and comments. Indeed, it has not even publicly announced that negotiations, rather than just ‘talks’ are on again.

Back to square one, or to 8 September 2019?

The text of the draft agreement from September 2019, that both sides had reportedly already initialled paragraph by paragraph – a sign that only the official final signature was missing – has never been published. Even so, leaks and hints from both sides have led to a rather consistent image of it. It was to have dealt mainly with two issues: the withdrawal of all US and, in consequence, all allied foreign troops from the country in exchange for Taleban guarantees not to allow globally active jihadist groups – such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh) – to operate from Taleban-controlled Afghan territory (the details in this AAN backgrounder) and this December 2019 Pentagon report (p14). Under this agreement, the US withdrawal was to have been gradual, probably over 16 months, with the US pulling 5,400 troops out of Afghanistan and closing five bases within the first 135 days after the agreement was signed, while reserving the right to assist Afghan forces if they were attacked by the Taleban during the withdrawal period (see media report here).

Furthermore, the agreement would have stipulated that intra-Afghan peace negotiations should start soon after the signing. In September, it was understood that this would have happened within ten days, in the Norwegian capital Oslo.

This agreement was far less than originally envisaged by Khalilzad. As AAN has reported, he had originally insisted that four points should be covered – US troop withdrawal, Taleban guarantees on al-Qaeda and other international jihadists, “a comprehensive & permanent ceasefire” and the inclusion of the Afghan government in the talks – and insisting that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” The Taleban, however, never subscribed to this formula (see AAN analysis here) and during the negotiations, Khalilzad apparently bowed to their insistence that intra-Afghan negotiations and discussion of the ceasefire would be relegated to a second phase of the ‘peace process’.

Thus, the negotiations were in practice split into two phases: the first one between the US and the Taleban only (discussing withdrawal and guarantees) and the second phase, the intra-Afghan negotiations, then including the Afghan government among other Afghan actors, but without US participation (discussing the ceasefire and likely the country’s future political system). This sequence of negotiations, as intended by Khalilzad, was confirmed by a 4 December statement by the US State Department that negotiations with the Taleban “could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire.”

During the most recent round of US-Taleban talks, there was no indication that the features of the agreement had dramatically changed. (1) The Taleban had declared early on after Trump’s stopping of the deal that they wanted “to resume the talks from where it was suspended.” US officials also told The New York Times in September 2019, after Trump had stopped the agreement, “that the peace drive was not over and the deal had been neither rejected nor accepted.” This also implied that there was at least an option to stick to the agreed text. (2)

The ‘ceasefire’ versus ‘reduction of violence’ controversy

Khalilzad had come under criticism not only by the Afghan government and sections of the Afghan public, but also by members of the US Congress in September 2019, that he had given away too much to the Taleban, agreeing to remove their main enemy from the battlefield without even insisting on any form of ceasefire (see for example here, here and here). Khalilzad reintroduced the ceasefire/reduction of violence issue in the latest Doha talks, apparently without insisting on using this term, though. This was indirectly confirmed in a posting on the Taleban website saying, “In parallel with the resumption of negotiations, the American side came up with a new demand to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – namely the reduction of violence across Afghanistan. This demand was also accepted by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” It has not become clear, however, whether Khalilzad envisaged that this issue be laid out as part of the US-Taleban agreement itself, or appear in an annex or separate supplementary agreement (most likely the latter, according to diplomatic sources).

During early US-Taleban contacts, which began in Doha more than a year ago, in October 2018, Khalilzad had pressed for a six-months’ ceasefire in order to get negotiations re-started. Taleban sources confirmed this, in December 2018, although apparently they rejected his demand. Saudi and Emirati mediators, who were trying to take over Qatar’s role and had invited Khalilzad and Taleban representatives to Abu Dhabi, then suggested a three-months’ ceasefire. Khalilzad confirmed the latter in an interview with Afghan Ariana TV on 20 December 2018. “We talked about a ceasefire,” which, he said was aimed at providing “an opportunity so that all issues could be addressed through joint intra-Afghans dialogue.” However, the Saudi and Emirati efforts led to nothing, and the talks moved back to Doha.

By May 2019, with the talks in full swing, Khalilzad had apparently already dropped the idea of a formal, extensive ceasefire. Instead, he began speaking about a US “proposal for all sides to reduce violence.“ However, at that time, this issue did not receive much attention as it was overshadowed by Khalilzad’s attempts to get the Afghan presidential election postponed – originally scheduled for 20 April, but postponed to 20 July 2019 and then to 28 September – in favour of a peace deal and interim government which would have included the Taleban. This was all against President Ghani’s heavy resistance. This plan became obsolete when Ghani did not budge and pushed ahead with the election.

Khalilzad then continued to pursue his two-stage approach, the two-issues bilateral US-Taleban agreement first, to be followed by intra-Afghan negotiations afterwards. In an interview with Radio Azadi, the Afghan branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 3 September 2019, he stated that the US-Taleban agreement would not be one about the “final end of the war, but about a reduction of violence.” It never became clear, though, whether this reduction was supposed to happen during US-Taleban negotiations, around or after the signing of the agreement and/or during US troop withdrawal, nor what it would entail exactly.

The already quoted 4 December statement by the State Department confirmed this approach (and also that it was not only Khalilzad’s personal plan, as some observers had suspected) which said that the bilateral negotiations with the Taleban “could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire.” US Ambassador John Bass, who ended his Afghan posting in early January, speaking to the Afghan audience on 1 January via a Tolonews interview, also said that the US were “not insisting at this point that that there has to be a nationwide ceasefire before anything can happen.”

Issues of terminology

The problem with Khalilzad’s shift of nuance was that not everybody understood it. Media reports and, what was more important, President Trump used both terms – ‘ceasefire’ and ‘reduction of violence’ – as if they were interchangeable. This was the case when Trump cancelled the US-Taleban deal in September 2019, citing the Taleban’s inability to “agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks,” something that he said the US was insisting on, and then during his Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan when he claimed that the Taleban were ready for a “ceasefire” now. In Kabul and elsewhere, Trump’s choice of words during his Thanksgiving trip was noticed and welcomed as an important policy shift (see for example here and here). These hopes, however, were dashed again when, following a Trump-Ghani meeting in Davos on 22 January, the White House issued a readout, saying (quoted here):

 “Trump reiterated the need for a significant and lasting reduction in violence [emphasis added] by the Taliban that would facilitate meaningful negotiations on Afghanistan’s future.”

Other parties, however, have been very scrupulous with their language. (3) The Taleban, in their rejection of the 30 December 2019 AP report that the organisation’s Leadership Council had agreed “to a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan, providing a window in which a peace agreement with the United States can be signed,” said they had “no intention of declaring a ceasefire” and that the US had (only) asked “for a reduction in the scale and intensity of violence.”Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi also did not use the term ‘ceasefire’ when, speaking on 16 January 2020, ahead of a meeting with his US counterpart in Washington (and before the Taleban had said something). He stated that progress had been made and the Taleban were ready to “reduce the violence.”

Taleban spokesman Shahin made their stance absolutely clear in his 18 January Dawn interview. He said the Taleban had agreed, after a month of consultations among their leaders, field commanders and religious scholars (also mentioned in this media report), “to scale down military operations in days leading up to the signing of the peace agreement with the United States. The purpose is to provide safe environment to foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan.” He added, however, that “there is no agreement on ceasefire.” He said there would rather be “a reduction in our military operations” and that “the scaling down will be blanket and shall include all forces, including state [ie Afghan government] forces.”

In his Dawn interview, Shahin apparently tried to sweeten the ‘deal’ for the Afghan government audience by saying that its signing would lead to the commencement of an intra-Afghan dialogue, that would include the Ghani-led Kabul administration (the Taleban have thus far refused to speak to the government at all and to officials only in their private capacity) and negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire. (4) In the already-quoted 22 January article on the Taleban website, the author called the Taleban’s offer “unprecedented… in the history of Islamic Emirate,” while warning at the same time that they might drop it again if their “flexibility” was rejected. Another article on that website, however, published on 20 January, called the government in Kabul “an insignificant party.” This will not help to bolster trust that the Taleban’s offers will be kept in the end. The Taleban also already seem to be trying to encourage the US to agree to the deal, by – it seems – having reduced the number of their large-scale attacks in Afghanistan’s big cities since September 2019 (data from a list of large civilian casualty incidents compiled in this December 2019 UNHRC report. (5)

Again, there has been silence on all of this on the usual US communication channels, the Kabul Embassy, chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and the State Department. This could simply mean that the US has not made up its mind whether it wants this agreement – troop withdrawal in exchange for Taleban guarantees on terrorist jihadist groups, accompanied by a short, temporary truce.

What might a ‘reduction of violence’ look like in Taleban’s eyes?

There have been no official Taleban statements on what the Taleban mean by ‘reduction in violence’, and un-named Taleban leaders quoted in media reports have diverged on some of the detail provided in the few public statements by their officials, such as Shahin’s Dawn interview. For example, some of them have not even stuck to the official line that there is no agreement to a ceasefire. Two Pakistani newspapers, The Daily Times and The News International quoted, respectively, an un-named “Taliban leader” and un-named “senior members of the Afghan Taliban” both reportedly saying a ‘ceasefire’ was on offer. The News International also quoted a “top Taliban leader” and member of the Leadership Council as saying that “our leadership has decided to reduce attacks or whatever you call it.” This could indicate that senior Taleban are either uninformed about the terminology reflecting the current official political line, do not understand it or are ignoring it. Or the confusion is deliberately created from the Taleban’s top, as the “top Taleban leader” was also quoted as saying, “We may not announce the ceasefire publicly but would make sure our military commanders [would] implement it wholeheartedly in the areas under their control.” In any case, such statements have further muddied the waters.

These sources largely appear to agree that a short ‘ceasefire’ or ‘reduction of violence’ would be announced, would last for a week or “between seven and 10 days” and would kick in either after an agreement was reached or as a prerequisite for it. The “Taliban leader” quoted by The Daily Times said the agreement would be signed “during this period [of what he called reduced attacks].” The News International’s Taleban sources were quoted as saying that “all sides would start acting on the ceasefire from the day when Taliban and US sign a peace accord in Doha.”

The “Taliban leader” quoted by The News International also said that the movement would “not carry out any type of attack during the proposed ceasefire period. There would be no suicide attacks, IEDs, target killing anywhere in Afghanistan from our side when the ceasefire is implemented.” Afghan media outlet Tolonews quoted “sources familiar with the process on condition of anonymity” that Taleban leader Hebatullah Akhunzada had agreed that a reduction of violence in Afghanistan’s major cities would be implemented once the US signs the peace deal. A reduction of violence, according to these sources, would consist of the Taleban not attacking cities, not launching suicide attacks and not blocking major highways. The US would likely have to reciprocate, they said, with a stop to their drone attacks and their participation in Afghan forces’ night raids (see an example reported by AAN here).

The News International’s source was also quoted as saying that “our leadership has decided to reduce attacks… for the Afghan government and its armed forces.” He said that Taleban fighters would not go to areas with US and Afghan military bases and other installations, explaining, “We would not even use the road where the Afghan forces had set up checkpoints to avoid any confrontation. And would expect a similar response to the ceasefire plan.” He even claimed that it had been agreed “that neither US nor Afghan force[s] will enter [areas under the control of the other party to the conflict] or conduct any type of operation in those areas after the ceasefire is announced.” The latter stipulation – if true – would be quite far-reaching and would require the consent and cooperation of the Afghan government.

Another part of Shahin’s Dawn interview made clear that, for the Taleban, it seems to be more important to be able to remain flexible in their operations against the Afghan government forces then what terminology will be used: “It is our prerogative to see how, when and where to scale down our military operations.” If this was accepted, it would allow the Taleban to pick the area and time where they would hold fire, and where not. It is also very practical from the Taleban’s point of view: Afghan forces would probably be mainly covered by this reduction only where they use the same bases and roads as US forces. Seen from this angle, the Taleban would thus be trying to avoid harming US soldiers, so as not to risk another breakdown of the bilateral negotiations, while keeping the option open of attacking Afghan forces.

It is difficult to gauge how reliable these quoted statements are. Many come from Pakistani media outlets where reports about Afghanistan tend to be closely monitored and sometimes shaped by the country’s main intelligence service. It cannot be ruled out that these reports are designed to suggest significant concessions have been made to the US, to make a deal more palatable.

It can be said with some certainty, though, that a short ceasefire or reduction of violence is unlikely to satisfy the US. At the very least, it can be assumed that it wants assurances for the safety of its troops for the whole, lengthy withdrawal period. This is referred to in a Tolonews report quoting “sources familiar with the matter” as saying that the US had asked the Taleban for a “long-term reduction of violence.” A cryptic paragraph (6) in the Shahin seems to refer to this issue. The Dawn reported:

Asked whether the reduction in attack would continue after the signing of the peace [sic] agreement, the Afghan Taliban spokesman said the day the agreement was signed other clauses contained in the document would come into force. He did not elaborate on what those clauses would be.

This seems to indicate that, as the Taleban are trying to portray it, the new agreement might include additional stipulations on the issue of a ceasefire or ‘reduction of violence’ that were not part of the September 2019 draft.

With no comments yet from the US, we do not know whether the US is likely to swallow all of this. It is difficult to imagine Washington either leaving the matter of the terms and duration of a reduction of violence or scaling down of operations or any form of ceasefire unclear.

The Afghan government’s position

As Mujib Mashal wrote in The New York Times after Trump’s stop to the talks in 2019, the Afghan government had then hoped for a “complete reset,” with a ceasefire as a clear precondition for any resumption of talks. It had also hoped that the US would revise its position and press again for Kabul’s involvement as a third party in this phase of the negotiations, rather than it having to wait to be handed the baton after the Taleban had received what it wanted most, the assurance of US troop withdrawal and the partial start of that. This did not happen and that has obviously angered the government.

Trump’s surprise halt to the almost-deal between the US and the Taleban in September 2019, and his use of the ‘ceasefire’ word, had already convinced the Afghan government that it also could harden its public position. In October 2019, it withdrew an 2018 offer, made in the context of its Kabul Process plan (AAN reporting here and here), of unconditional negotiations with the Taleban. It stated that it now wanted a one-month ceasefire before the intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taleban could even start. This has been the official line ever since.

Consequently, the Afghan government has rejected the current Taleban offer as a mere reduction of violence instead of a full-scale, publicly-announced ceasefire. On 19 January, presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqi reiterated this position: “[A]ll allies” of the Afghan government as well as the “people of Afghanistan” were “insisting on a ceasefire.“ Earlier he wrote on Twitter that there was no exact military and legal definition for ‘reducing violence’; it was “not practical” and the government wanted a ceasefire similar to the one during the Islamic Eid festival in June 2018. That had been officially, albeit separately, announced by both sides; the Taleban observed a three-day ceasefire, while the government’s lasted seven days (find AAN reporting here). Sediqi’s position was echoed, among others, by Amrullah Saleh, former head of the Afghan intelligence service and running mate of President Ashraf Ghani in the still-inconclusive 2019 presidential election.

Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Moheb had also insisted at a multilateral conference in India two days earlier that a ceasefire was “necessary to create a conducive environment for [intra-Afghan] talks.” It would prove, he said, that “our enemies are not only serious about peace, but that it is within their control to maintain their part of a future deal.” With this comment, he referenced existing questions within the US and Afghanistan as to whether the Taleban leadership would have actual control over all their field commanders in the case of a prolonged ceasefire.

To project the government’s readiness for negotiations, Ghani decreed the formation of a “senior coordination committee on peace” led by the relatively new Ministry of Peace Affairs, headed by his former chief-of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi. (7)

The US, meanwhile, has tried to dilute Afghans’ worries that if the US agreed to the Taleban’s offer, this might not substantially change the level of violence seen by civilians. Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South And Central Asian Affairs, said in a press briefing in Washington on 24 January after a return from a visit to three South Asian countries that there would be a “focus on the reduction in violence that the Afghan people can see and feel and appreciate.” Reports that General Scott Miller, US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was attending the Doha meetings were also a sign that military details were being discussed.

Barnett Rubin, who was involved in attempts to find a negotiated end to the Afghan war under previous US administrations, told media he was convinced that “[t]he inter-relationships among the parts of the [negotiations] process are structured in such a way as to provide safeguards.” He argued that if Washington believed the Taleban were not fulfilling their obligations under the agreement, it could pause its troop withdrawal and demand further negotiations.


While it was US chief negotiator Khalilzad in 2019 who pushed for a quick US-Taleban deal, aiming at getting it signed before the US entered presidential election year, possibly in fear that President Trump might just order a troop withdrawal without an agreement and risk a breakdown of Afghanistan’s post-Taleban system, it is now the Taleban who seem to be in a hurry. They can be sure that the almost-signed September 2019 agreement was the best they could achieve, and that any continuation of negotiations would increase the pressure on them to make further concessions.

They are particularly hesitant to heed demands to agree to any ceasefire longer than the seven to ten days mentioned above under that name. This is because this would mean, as many analysts agree, them giving away their major bargaining chip before intra-Afghan peace negotiations started, namely recourse to violence. It has been widely argued that the Taleban might have difficulties remobilising their fighters after any long, full-scale ceasefire if negotiations – which could be expected to be difficult and long-winding – broke down. This is not the only reason, though. They also do not want to give in to a demand that is mainly held up now by the Afghan government, an entity they do not recognise and have so far rejected as a negotiating partner. This is particularly the case given that the US demands have been much more modest.

Much remains uncertain when it comes to the allegedly once-again finalised US-Taleban agreement and whether it is ready or not for signing. What seems clear is that the Khalilzad and the Taleban are continuing to bilaterally work toward a shared priority (although for different reasons): the removal of US troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the third – although not militarily self-reliant – party to the conflict, the Afghan government, is still being kept out of the negotiations.

The deal as it currently appears would not be a peace agreement, even though it is often called that (Shahin used the term twice in his 18 January interview, and many in the media have been talking about ‘peace talks’ for a very long time). In an optimistic interpretation, the deal would open the door for a second phase: intra-Afghan peace negotiations. Such a two-part process could be the only way to get such peace negotiations underway in the foreseeable future. However, there is no guarantee that intra-Afghan talks would indeed lead to a peace agreement and sustainable peace, for example if the US decided to complete their military withdrawal before an all-Afghan peace agreement was signed.

Indeed, whether the ‘intra-Afghan’ phase would happen at all would depend to a large extent on whether the Taleban stuck to their promise to talk to Kabul – and to do so seriously, not just as a cover for an attempted military takeover against a weakened Afghan government. It would also depend on whether the US and its allies kept up a credible deterrence against such a Taleban takeover, despite the troop reductions. The Afghan government side would also have to nominate a negotiating team that was credible, politically inclusive and widely accepted by other political forces and civil society in the country. (8)

A great deal stands in the way of any successful phase two, not least the multitude of problems that have combined to form the 40 years-old Afghan crisis and which need to be addressed when the diverse Afghan parties come to meet – undoubtedly in an atmosphere of deep mutual mistrust – to hammer out what the country’s future political system should look like and who would hold power and how that would be determined.

Meanwhile, the wrangling over the semantics of ‘ceasefire’ and ‘reduction of violence’ signifies a struggle over who shapes the discourse. The paradigm of ‘Afghan-led, Afghan owned’ talks is long dead, and has weakened the position of the third party to the conflict, the Afghan government. (The phrase never actually stipulated that the government alone should lead and own the talks, but that is how the government wanted to read it.) The weakness of the government’s position was exacerbated by the fact that various international actors (Russia, China, Qatar, Germany) brought other Afghan players, largely instead of the administration, into the game through the various intra-Afghan dialogue meetings (‘dialogue’ in contrast to ‘negotiations’; see AAN analysis here and here) and that the US accepted this, leading to Khalilzad’s invention of an “inclusive and effective national team” for the future intra-Afghan negotiations (quoted here) that would not only include representatives of the government but also of various political forces and civil society. (This could be considered either a clever means found by Khalilzad to outflank the Taleban’s refusal to speak directly with the government or a bowing to their demands.)

That the teams chosen to speak to the Taleban have been so heavily weighted against the government, in turn, heated up Afghanistan’s domestic political competition before the 28 September 2019 presidential election. This has strengthened the hands of Ghani’s domestic political opponents, such as his former partners in the now virtually defunct National Unity Government, the so-called ‘Abdullah camp’, and the ‘camp’ of former President Hamed Karzai. They used the debate between Khalilzad and Ghani about whether elections should be held before or after the conclusion of a peace agreement, and currently about whether the Taleban offer of a reduction of violence should be accepted or not (they are in favour, see a media report here) as presenting themselves as the real ‘pro-peace’ party. This is not fully unselfish as their priority seems to be to get rid of Ghani and take over again themselves. Such infighting plays into the Taleban’s hands who can afford to wait and harvest the political fallout, particularly so as there is no end yet in sight of the 28 September 2019 election. (A second round cannot be excluded, and after that, the potentially months-long process of complaints and adjudication would start anew.)

There is one large gap in the current debate about the US-Taleban deal. It seems that both sides, the Taleban and the US, are only thinking about how to reduce violence between their forces. There is no indication so far that they are discussing how this could also be achieved for the civilian population that continues to suffers record casualty levels. A halt to fighting between the US and Taleban forces in certain areas would likely reduce the immediate number of deaths and injuries to civilians as they are often hurt in airstrikes and suicide attacks on US facilities and transport. However, as we read what has apparently been discussed so far, a ‘reduction in violence’ could leave Taleban and Afghan government forces to continue to fight more or less unabatedly in areas without any US or other foreign troops’ presence (ie most of the country) until a full-scale ceasefire was reached. As a result, the population in the countryside and many small towns would likely not experience, against all assurances, the sort of reduction of violence they could “see and feel” which Alice Wells has described.

For the Afghan government, the dilemma is, again, how to respond to a possible US-Taleban agreement. If an agreement is reached over its head and it withholds its support, or protests too strongly, it may again be labelled a stumbling block to peace (as in early 2019; see AAN background here) and find its position in possible future negotiations weakened. Also, practically-speaking, it has no leverage over a US-Taleban agreement or US troop withdrawal, if the White House decides to have them. As bitter as it is, in the current diplomatic constellation, a full end of the war cannot realistically be achieved before an intra-Afghan solution, but a full end of the US involvement in the war could be. This, in turn, could result in a new and even escalated round of internal war.

The US-Taleban agreement appears to be the only visible option to get the Taleban to agree that Afghans can start to negotiate peace among themselves. However, it is a risky prospect; whether the US, particularly in a possible second Trump term, have the patience to keep sufficient troops in the country to prevent a Taleban takeover while negotiations (and possibly fighting) were still ongoing – which is what many Afghans believe is their plan once US troops are out of the way – is a wide open question.

Here, again, the question of some sort of a ceasefire would become crucial. It is difficult to imagine intra-Afghan peace negotiations without all parties finding a way to hold fire when they commence. It is also difficult to believe that the Afghan government would go into such peace talks, and the overwhelming majority of Afghans would support them, while the fighting and dying continues.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark


(1) There were some speculations that the venue might move to Germany, but this seems to be a mix-up with the intra-Afghan dialogue meetings that would move there from Qatar, as this tweet by the German Embassy in Kabul indicated. This offer was now officially made to President Ghani by German chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting on 23 January 2020 in Davos (see here). (Read AAN analysis about the dialogue here.)

(2) In September 2019, it was also understood that the agreement would be announced in the presence of international ‘guarantors’. A Taleban spokesman was quoted at the time as saying they wanted to include the United Nations, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Russia, China and possibly other neighbouring countries (media report here). Russia, China and the European Union have expressed their readiness to do so. NATO (which has troops from a number of countries in Afghanistan, and its own bilateral security agreement with Kabul) and the Afghan government were also expected to welcome and support the agreement when it was announced – with the caveat that the Afghan government would require assurances from the Taleban and the US that intra-Afghan negotiations would commence swiftly.

(3) Not so the AP or Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. On 15 January, he was quoted by Afghan Tolonews as saying that the Taleban had “in principle agreed for (sic) preliminary ceasefire even with the government… after signing [the agreement with the US]” and that this would “create [the] environment for intra-Afghan talks.” Tolonews did not give a source for Kabulov’s alleged statement and AAN was unable find a Russian source for this. On 16 January, AP again quoted “Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations” as saying that the insurgents had given Khalilzad an “offer for a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan that would last between seven and 10 days” the day before during a meeting in Doha (it was not clear whether this was the agency’s language or that of the Taleban – given the Taleban’s earlier statements, it was likely the agency’s.)

(4) This part of his remarks was not directly quoted. It is thus not clear whether the use of the terms ‘dialogue’ and ‘negotiations’ was deliberate or not. They may have become muddled in the translation or summary of his remarks, or he may have used them interchangeably. If done deliberately, it would suggest that he is sidestepping a commitment to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government, by relegating the government to the intra-Afghan dialogue (which is generally understood to refer to the ongoing Qatari-German process).

(5) This also included the 28 September election day. As AAN reported here, although it was “the second-most violent election day the country has ever experienced, (…) the day remained calmer than many feared, without the massive terror attacks threatened by the Taleban.” This does not mean, however, that there has been no violence. The increased use of assassinations, often using magnetic mines, against government officials or members of the armed forces and smaller scale attacks, many of which can be attributed to the Taleban, also continued after September 2019. (A few examples here, here and here).

(6) This part of his remarks was also not directly quoted.

(7) The Ministry of Peace was formed in July 2019 and took over the functions of the practically-defunct High Peace Council (HPC). The HPC had formally been the Afghan government’s channel for all ‘reconciliation’ issues, but had never played much of a role in actual negotiations. While not formally dissolved, the council had stopped receiving funding in most of the second half of 2019, although it continued issuing statements).

(8) In order to achieve this, Khalilzad invented the term of an “inclusive and effective national team” in early 2019 by Khalilzad (quoted here) that would include, alongside Ghani’s own team, also members from the Abdullah camp in the current government, the political opposition and civil society representatives. The suggestion was made partly in response to accusations by chief executive Abdullah that President Ghani was trying to ‘monopolise’ the negotiations (here a recent media report). It is not clear whether Ghani responded to Khalilzad’s demands. The government has announced in July 2019 already that a 15-member negotiating team had been formed (media report here), but said it will announce its composition only after the conclusion of the US-Taleban agreement (media report here).



Categories: Defence`s Feeds

The Gates of Friendship: How Afghans cross the Afghan-Pakistani border

Tue, 28/01/2020 - 03:16

There are three official crossings on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a boundary also known as the Durand Line. Two of these crossings are well-known: Torkham in the east and Spin Boldak in the south of Afghanistan. The gates that separate the two countries in the south read “the Gates of Friendship” in Pashto: “De dosti darwaza.” To cross this border in the past, all people usually did not need international legal documents such as a visa or even a passport. This has changed. At Torkham, people are no longer allowed to cross the border without legal documents. At Spin Boldak, a verbal agreement with the Pakistani border authorities still allows people to cross the border without a passport, but they often do so with difficulty. AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon looks at how the people of these two countries cross these “Gates of Friendship” and how this friendship is really considered.

Border history

Disagreement over the status of the border has been a recurring problem in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, one on which neither side wants to compromise. The de facto border that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan – the Durand Line – was drawn based on an agreement signed in 1893 between Abdul Rahman Khan, the emir of Afghanistan and Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat representing British India. Based on this agreement, Afghanistan’s territorial claims on the area from Chitral to the present-day area of Balochistan were ceded to British India.

In 1947 when the British left the subcontinent and Pakistan came into being, Khyber Pashtunkhwa (also sometimes spelt as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and the current Balochistan province were given to Pakistan. The government of Afghanistan at that time did not recognise the new state of Pakistan and Shah Mahmud Khan, the prime minister of Afghanistan, voted against the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations. The government of Afghanistan continued to claim Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan as its own territory. Government officials argued that since the 1893 agreement had been with the British, who had now left the area, it was no longer in force. (Later Afghan governments have argued that the Durand Line agreement was entered into for a period of one hundred years only; and on 26 July 1949, a Loya Jirga declared all previous agreements regarding the Durand Line void.)

Since then, none of the Afghan governments has recognised the Durand Line as an official international border, nor has the Pashtun and Baloch ethnic groups living on either side of the Durand. Two well-known Pashtun leaders – Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan (1890–1988), who is also known as Bacha Khan and Fakhr-e Afghan (Afghans’ pride), and the ‘Frontier Gandhi’ in the West, due to his non-violent struggle against British colonialism as the head of the Khudai Khedmatgaran (God’s Servants) movement that was allied with Gandhi’s Congress Party, and Khan Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai (1907–73), also a Khudai Khedmatgaran leader, who is also known as Khan Shahid – led the struggle to create a united country. They considered Khyber Pashtunkhwa and Balochistan as Afghan soil. The government of Pakistan, for its part, considers the Durand Line the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Neither side has been willing to compromise on the issue. Even the government of the Taleban, which Pakistan had officially recognised and which was considered very close to the Pakistan government, did not accept the Durand Line as an official border. (1)

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border regime

The Durand Line is almost 2,400 kilometres long and borders one-third of the provinces of Afghanistan. It has three official border crossings that have all the border crossing essentials, such as immigration, customs and security checkpoints: Torkham, Spin Boldak and Ghulam Khan. The Spin Boldak border crossing in the south connects the southern Kandahar province of Afghanistan with Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, via the Khojak pass. The Torkham border crossing links Jalalabad city, the capital of the eastern Nangrahar province, with Peshawar through Momand Dara district and the Khyber Pass. The Ghulam Khan border crossing connects Gurbaz district of the eastern Khost province to Meranshah city, the capital of North Waziristan.

Additionally, there are 18 unofficial motorable crossings and around 235 crossings that are navigable only on foot or by animal, some only with difficulty (see our analysis here). Motor crossings include Nawapas in Sarkani district of Kunar province, Angur Ada in Barmal district of Paktika province, Barikot in Narai and Khash pass in Marawara districts of Kunur province, Jaji Maidan in Jaji Maidan district of Khost province and Zanzir in Shumulzai district of Zabul province.

The Durand Line cuts through two large ethnic groups – the Pashtuns and the Baloch – that have always sought to maintain their cross-border links and have argued their right to free travel. Afghan citizens in general travel in large numbers to Pakistan. According to Afghan officials in Spin Boldak, tens of thousands of people commute through the southern border crossing on a daily basis. A survey report published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2017 gave 20,000 per day for Torkham and 25,000 to 30,000 for Spin Boldak. Many Afghans cross for work or business. Others go to see their relatives, as millions of Afghan refugees still live in Pakistan, or travel to Pakistan for medical treatment or education. In addition, Pakistani businessmen and daily workers commute to Afghanistan on a daily basis, as thousands of Pakistani residents from Chaman district, located near the border, have shops and other businesses in Spin Boldak. Those who cross sometimes do not even carry identification. “Tens of thousands of people from every province of the country cross the Spin Boldak border on a daily basis without legal documents and 500 to 600 people cross this border with visa and passport,” Muhammad Sharif Gharzai, a border commissary in Spin Boldak, told AAN on 7 January 2020.

The Pakistani government has over the past years sought to strengthen its control over the border. It has, at different times, either closed the border or tightened the border crossing rules for Afghans, especially after major security incidents in Pakistan or whenever Pakistan is politically pressured by Afghanistan or the United States over its interference in Afghanistan’s affairs or for giving refuge to terrorist-designated groups. Rules for Afghans crossing the border, for instance, became very strict after the Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP) attacked a cadet school in Peshawar in late 2014 in which nearly 141 cadets were killed (see media report here). After this incident, the government of Pakistan gradually tightened border security and did not allow people to cross the Torkham border without legal documents. Before this, people were crossing the border to Pakistan and back to Afghanistan without identification. The Pakistani government also closed one of the official border crossings – Ghulam Khan – during its June 2014 Zarb-e Azb military operation in North Waziristan. The operation was launched in the wake of an attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi that was claimed by TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). (The route through Ghulam Khan remained closed for four years. In 2018 it was reopened for limited trade, and on 19 August 2019 this port was officially reopened for all trade, as well as for personal crossings. See this report)

In early 2017, Pakistan started fencing the border with barbed wire along the Durand Line, stating that this tactic was aimed at stopping cross-border terrorists entering into Pakistan. Both the Afghan government and the Pashtun and Baloch ethnic groups strongly opposed the move. (2) Before this, Pakistan had already started to plant landmines along the Durand Line, which Pakistan said was to stop terrorists from coming to that country to carry out attacks. The United Nations and the Afghan government both strongly opposed the deployment of landmines. Pakistan has also dug trenches that are three metres deep, three to four metres wide and topped by barbed wire (see Dawn’s reporting here).

The fencing construction by the Pakistanis along the Durand Line has several times led to clashes between Afghan border police and Pakistani troops. Despite the controversy, the government of Pakistan said in January 2019 that 900 kilometres of barbed wire had been extended so far. In early November 2019, the Pakistani government said that it expected the fencing and trenches to be completed by the end of 2020.

Clashes have, in turn, regularly resulted in border closures. This was for instance the case in March 2017, when Afghan border police stopped Pakistani officials who were conducting a (Pakistani) population registration survey on Afghan territory, in the Jangir and Loqman villages of Spin Boldak district. After this turned into an armed clash, inflicting casualties on both sides, the Spin Boldak and Torkham borders were closed for nearly 23 days (see media report here). Similarly, on 14 October 2018, when Afghan security forces stopped Pakistani forces from extending the barbed wire fence into the Sro Sahanoarea of Shorabak district, clashes ensued. In response, Pakistani officials closed the Spin Boldak border, even though Shorabak district is nearly 50 kilometres from the Spin Boldak crossing. The border remained closed for two days (see media report here). (See also this 2013 AAN report about Afghan-Pakistani tensions over the border in Nangrahar province.)

The installation of the fence has blocked all motorable unofficial border crossings. The Pakistani government has repeatedly said that it will install alternative crossings. Local residents have confirmed that the Pakistani government has indeed installed alternative gates, for example in Nawapas and Zanzirs, but they say it is not yet permitting people to cross – with the exception, allegedly, of the Taleban. A local journalist in Nangrahar province, who did not want to be named, told AAN in December 2019 that the Pakistani militia does open the gates for the Taleban when they need to cross the border. All indications are that this is part of an official policy of the Pakistani government to facilitate the movement of the Taleban, who have sanctuaries in Pakistan as well as rented hospitals for their wounded fighters in some major cities of Pakistan, for example in Quetta and Karachi. (3)

How do the people commute?

In June 2016, the Pakistani government started enacting stricter border control efforts in both Spin Boldak and Torkham (Ghulam Khan was closed at the time). In Torkham, travellers without a visa were no longer allowed to cross the border in either direction. In Spin Boldak, legal documents were still not necessary, but border crossing rules were tightened. For example, no Afghans were allowed to cross the border without an Afghan national ID. According to a 2017 IOM survey report, the Pakistani actions reduced the traffic through the Torkham border crossing from 20,000 on a daily basis to a mere 2,000 to 2,500 persons. The IOM report also stated that at Spin Boldak, border rules were more flexible and around 25,000 to 30,000 individuals still crossed this border on daily basis. (See IOM’s report here.)

At the Ghulam Khan border point, now that it is open again, only people from the three southeastern provinces – Paktia, Paktika and Khost – are allowed to cross with their tazkeras (national ID card),provided they have relatives living across the Durand Line. They must give the names and places of residency of their relatives, after which the Pakistani border authorities register the names and allow them to cross.

Some people of Chaman district (Pakistan) and Spin Boldak district (Afghanistan) are provided with a simple document by the Pakistani government called a “border pass.” These passes are issued at the border. Travellers do not need to apply; they merely show their national IDs to the Pakistani border police and are provided with these passes. However, sometimes when travellers do not possess a border pass they are allowed to cross without them. The pass is valid for three months and renewable.

According to Afghan officials, as well as travellers who have gone to Quetta and returned, Pakistani officials in Spin Boldak nowadays only accept a certain type of original Afghan identification card (the most recent tazkera in A-4 size) or a passport. They do not allow people to pass with other kind of ID cards. However, Afghans without the required ID are still sometimes allowed to pass after they pay a bribe.

On 27 December 2018, a journalist who worked for a local radio station in Kandahar province told AAN, on the condition of anonymity, “Nearly ten years ago, I was working with an international media NGO. My office had issued me an ID card, which read PRESS at the top. I had that card with me for nearly two years. When I had to go to Quetta, I took that card with me. By showing that card to the Pakistani police, I was able to cross the border.” But now, he said, he needs to show his Afghan national ID card. Once when he was going to Quetta, he only had a copy of his national identity card with him and the Pakistani police told him to turn back. Some young men standing close to the border crossing called him over. “They asked me to give them 1,000 rupees [around seven US dollars]),” the journalist said. “I was sure those young men were linked to the police, as I was already aware of this, as the people who had crossed this border had already told me about them. I gave them the money and they told the police, ‘he is sick, let him pass’, and then they let me cross through the gate.” This man said at many other places he had also paid money to the police to be allowed to cross.

Muhammad Hashem, a traveller from Kandahar, told AAN, “When I went to Quetta to see my relatives, I had my original ID card (A-4 size) with me. When the police asked me for the tazkera, I showed that and the police allowed me to pass the border.” Two of the men who were with him in the vehicle from Kandahar told him, after they met again inside the terminal, that they had needed to give money to the police. He said one of the two passengers had a passport and another had a tazkera, but it had been issued during President Daud Khan’s era (1973–78).

Nur Khan, another Afghan, told AAN in October 2018 that when he went to Pakistan to see his relatives, he had crossed the border easily, as he had his tazkera with him. However, when he came back with his sister and her children, he realised he had forgotten his tazkera in Pakistan. The policeman told him to return. Nur Khan said, “I asked him what alternatives there were to cross the border. I meant for them to ask for money, so I could pay them, but he told me to be careful, as cameras were fixed nearby. After about 15 minutes, he let me go. I think it was because of the children, otherwise I would probably not have been able to come back.” Many other people told AAN that the Pakistani police in practice allow people to cross the border without documents, or without the proper documents, after they pay a bribe.

Apart from the gate at the border, checkpoints mark the road from Chaman to Quetta in as many as six different places where police take money from Afghans travelling to Quetta. Often even visa and passport holders who travel through the Spin Boldak border are compelled to give money to the Pakistani police on the road from the Spin Boldak border into Quetta city.

Different forms of national identity cards

The different forms of national Afghan identity card are a source of confusion and hassle. Afghans can have one of the more than five different identity cards that have been issued in the different eras. ID cards issued during the rule of King Muhammad Zaher Shah and Prime Minister (and later President) Muhammad Daud are passport sized and read “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” next to a logo. This ID comprises 14 pages. The IDs issued during pre-Najibullah PDPA era (1979-87) are also passport sized but with red colour (for communism) and read at the top “Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.” The ID issued in the era of the mujahedin government (1992–96) was also passport sized, again reading “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” During the Taleban regime, there were two kinds of tazkeras: one in passport size and the second on A-4 sized paper. The second one was issued right up until the Taleban’s collapse. The Taleban tazkera reads “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The current government also gave out A-4 sized ID documents. The most recent kind of ID card is an electronic version that the current government started issuing to residents of Kabul in May 2018 in a process that continues (see earlier AAN reporting here).

Pakistani border police take advantage of this situation. Sharif Gharzai, the border commissary mentioned above, told AAN in October 2018 that Pakistani officials pretend they accept only one tazkera. In response, in October 2018, a high-ranking Pakistani official in the embassy of Pakistan in Kabul, told AAN, on the condition of anonymity, “Pakistan is a different country and Afghanistan is a different country; the people who cross the border should have legal documents.” He added that as there was a concern about the different types of identity card. Afghan officials should give samples of all valid identity cards to the Pakistani border police. The official said, “At the Torkham border, we do not let Afghans cross the border without passport. In Spin Boldak, we have given this [that they are allowed to cross with only an ID card] as a special concession to the Afghans so that they can cross the border. We will soon implement the visa rules and regulations in Spin Boldak as well.” Well over a year later, this has still not been implemented.

In August 2019, Afghan border official Gharzai told AAN that a few months earlier the Pakistani authorities had said that only the people of the four southern provinces (Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Urozgan) would be allowed to cross the border without documents, and that by August they were saying that only people from Kandahar province and Spin Boldak district would be permitted to pass – this despite the fact that people from other parts of Afghanistan (such as Herat, Farah and Nimroz in the west, and Ghazni and Wardak in central Afghanistan) also go through this border. But for now, he said on 7 January 2020, “Pakistani officials have been allowing Afghans to cross the border with any kind of tazkera ID card for the last three months.” He said that tens of thousands of people still cross the border on a daily basis and that around 500 to 600 individuals cross the border per day with legal documents. According to him, “the Pakistani border police sometimes bother the visa holders as well and take money from them. When we [Afghan officials] hear about this, or when travellers complain that the Pakistanis have taken money, we talk to Pakistani officials and take the money back.” Gharzai said that although Pakistani officials still take money from those who do not have tazkeras, he thought it happened less now compared to the past. He did not say why the Pakistani government had eased the way for travellers to cross the border.

In January 2020, AAN approached travellers who had recently crossed the border, as well as residents of Kandahar province, for an update on the situation. One traveller, Asadullah Khan, told AAN that when he recently returned from Quetta to Kandahar, he did not have his tazkera with him. A Pakistani police officer did not let him cross the border and Asadullah said he quarrelled with the officer, asking him why he did not let him return to his own country. Asadullah said the police officer beat him and searched him. He had 40,000 rupees (around 300 US dollars) with him and when the police officer saw the money in his pocket, “he told me to go with him to a nearby container. When I went with him, he told me that I should give him 10,000 Rupees [around 65 US dollars] or he would put me in prison. I was very afraid so I gave him the money.” Asadullah said that when he crossed the border, he told the story to the Afghan police standing near the gate. He said, “The Afghan police told me to wait for one hour and that they would take the money back from the Pakistanis, but I didn’t want to wait.”

Muhammad Ebrahim Taj, a civil society activist in Spin Boldak district confirmed to AAN that the Pakistani border officials had somewhat eased the border crossing for travellers, but he said that the police still took money from travellers. He thought there were two reasons for Pakistani officials easing the crossings: First, Pakistani shopkeepers with shops in Spin Boldak had staged protests in Chaman district, demanding that their government facilitate the border crossings. Apparently, the Afghan government had also pressured these shopkeepers to seek redress from Pakistani officials. Second, the Afghan government had expelled many Pakistanis (mostly Punjabis) who had come to Kandahar city and Spin Boldak district, with legal documents, to work there – in the construction business but also as barbers, shopkeepers or businessmen, sharing shops with Afghans or Pashtun residents from the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. He said these two pressure tools may have made the Pakistanis ease the border crossings to some extent.

Temporary verbal agreements 

The border crossing issues along the Durand Line are the kind that would be best addressed with a permanent, bilateral agreement. The freedom to travel between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a social and economic necessity. People of these two countries are ethnically, religiously and historically interlinked. An additional consideration, at a lower economic level, is the importance of border crossings for the poor and vulnerable (eg, for shuttle trading, visiting relatives or medical treatment). At the Torkham crossing, the legal document requirements now result in weeks-long travel delays, as Afghans have to wait for their visas. If this visa system is implemented at the Spin Boldak border crossing as well, this will require a huge increase in the number of Pakistani consular employees to deal with the demand. Travellers would need to wait for weeks in front of the Pakistani consulate in Kandahar, just as they are now waiting in front of the Pakistani embassy in Kabul.

An additional complication arises for women and children, as the majority of them do not possess identity cards, due to some Afghan families traditionally not allowing pictures of women taken (keeping their faces from being exposed to strangers). Also, these men might not have considered the need for identification cards for the entire family.

Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan wants the border to be sealed permanently; nor do they want the crossings to become practically impassable. Both sides have an obvious incentive to meet and find a permanent solution to this issue. And yet, neither government has been able to find such a solution.

In practice, the agreements tend to be verbal and made on an ad hoc basis. Sharif Gharzai, for instance, told AAN that border officials of both sides had made a verbal – but not written – agreement in July 2018 that all Afghans and Pakistanis can cross the Spin Boldak border with just their national identity cards. He said that these kinds of meeting take place whenever it is necessary. Gharzai said the Afghan central government does not allow him to make written agreements about the border crossings with Pakistani officials. Although he did not say why he was not allowed to do this, an Afghan government official in the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, who did want his name published, explained. He told AAN that the government of Afghanistan is wary that Pakistan might treat any signed agreement related to the border or border crossings as an Afghan recognition of the Durand Line as an official border. All in all, there appears to be no clear roadmap to a settlement on the various issues that restrict cross-border journeys for Afghans.

Edited by Christian Bleuer, Martine van Bijlert and Thomas Ruttig


(1) Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan was the grandfather of currently active Pakistani Pashtun politician Asfandyar Wali Khan of Awami National Party, while Khan Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai was the father of Mahmood Khan Achakzai, who leads the Pakhtunkhwa Melli Awami Party. For example, AsfandyarWali, the leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), the biggest Pashtun political party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told an interviewer that Parvez Musharraf, the then president of Pakistan told him that if he could convince Afghanistan’s president at the time, Hamed Karzai, to recognise the Durand Line, the war in Afghanistan would end. Asfandyar replied that if Musharraf recognised the Line of Control with India in Kashmir, Hamid Karzai would recognise the Durand Line. Musharraf then told him that his nation would not accept this and that he was told Karzai’s nation would also not accept the Durand Line. Asfandyar also relayed how when Pakistan’s Interior Minister Nasirullah Babar had asked Mullah Omar, when the leader of the Taleban still governed Afghanistan, to recognise the Durand Line, Mullah Omar had told him, “Get the hell out of here, you treacherous man.”(See Asfandyar’s video here.)

(2) Mahmood Khan Achakzai  also strongly criticised the spread of barbed wire along the Durand Line (see here), as didAsfandyar Wali Khan (for both politicians, see footnote 1). Asfandyar, for instance, welcomed the opening of the road to Kartarpur between India and Pakistan in November 2019 – which allows the Sikh community of India to visit the tomb of Guru Nanak (who died in 1538) in that city without visa and passport – and urged Pakistan to remove the barbed wire from the Durand Line as soon as possible (see here). See also this video of a Pakistani mullah who belongs to the Jamaat-e Ulama-e Islam Fazl Rahman group (JUI-F) from Chaman district of Balochistan province, in which he condemns the fencing and the visa system.

(3) Despite the difficulties, many routes are still open for the Taleban. For example, the Taleban usually cross the border in the Zanzir area of the Shumulzai district of Zabul province or in the Bahramcha area of Dishu district of the southern Helmand province. The Taleban can even move injured fighters to their hospitals in Quetta for treatment. In 2015, when Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur had to take over the leadership of the Taleban, up to two thousand local commanders passed through these illicit border crossings (Bahramcha of Helmand and Zanzir of Zabul province) to participate in the selection of their new leaders. See AAN’s dispatches here and here. In the east and southeast, residents have told AAN that the Taleban are allowed to cross the motorable unofficial crossings whenever they want.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (28): ECC starts final, decisive phase of complaints procedure

Sat, 25/01/2020 - 02:33

The process to determine the outcome of Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election has moved into its last phase. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has started to deal with the 6,292 appeals filed against the decisions made by its provincial offices. The ECC has 15 working days to adjudicate the appeals, but it may need more time, given that the most complicated questions have been deferred to this last phase. Moreover, the ECC decisions are likely to result in renewed recounts, which could lead to even further delays. The process is carefully scrutinised, in particular by the teams of the two runners-up, as even relatively small changes in the number and distribution of the votes could change the outcome of the election. AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili answers the main questions surrounding the conclusion of the complaints process.

1. How did the first phase of the complaints procedure – complaints registration – go?

Article 91 of the electoral law provides the following timeframe for complaints regarding the preliminary results:

  • three working days for candidates or their agents to file any complaints or objections they may have;
  • 15 working days for the provincial ECCs to finalise and publish the results of their adjudications of these complaints;
  • three working days for the candidates or their agents to lodge their appeals with the central ECC, if they are not happy with the adjudications by the provincial ECCs; and
  • 15 working days for the central ECC to adjudicate the appeals, if any.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the preliminary results of the 28 September 2019 presidential election on 22 December 2019, almost three months after the vote took place. On the same day the ECC announced in a press conference that it was ready to receive complaints: the complaints process would start the following day, on 23 December, and continue for three days (AAN’s report here). After this three day period, ECC chair Zohra Bayan Shinwari told a press conference on 26 December that the ECC had registered around 16,500 complaints. Around 14,000 of these complaints were about 33 provinces, and around 2,300 complaints were about Kabul. She said that around 8,000 complaints had been lodged by the Stability and Integration team led by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, 4,400 by Peace and Islamic Justice led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, more than 3,000 by the Stable Builder team led by President Ashraf Ghani and 15 by the Security and Justice team of Rahmatullah Nabil (AAN’s background on these teams here).

Table 1: Categorisation of complaints by electoral team

No Number of complaints Electoral team 1 8,000 Stability and Integration 2 4,400 Peace and Islamic Justice 3 3,000 State Builder 4 15 Security and Justice

Source: Table by AAN using data from ECC’s 26 December press conference

ECC commissioner Qutubddin Roydar told the same press conference that “around 84 per cent of the complaints and objections” had been registered directly with the central ECC. ECC secretary and spokesman Muhammad Qasem Elyasi said that the large volume of complaints registered with the central ECC in Kabul (instead of the respective provincial ECCs) had been beyond their expectation. He said it would be time-consuming to send these complaints to the respective provincial ECCs for adjudication.

2. How did the second phase of the complaints procedure – adjudication by the provincial offices – go?

After the registration of the complaints, the ECC first divided them into 16 categories. The ECC in its bulletin number 23 said that complaints and objections could be classified based on province, subject, nature, priorities and electoral tickets. On 5 January 2020, ECC chair Shinwari provided the details (see Table 2) about how complaints were categorised.

Table 2: Division of 16,545 complaints into 16 categories

No Number of complaints Subject of complaints 1 6,881 complaints regarding the discrepancy between biometric votes and the result forms 2 119 complaints regarding increasing of votes in favour of a candidate 3 552 complaints about decreasing of votes to the disadvantage of a candidate 4 4 complaints about counting of votes of one candidate for another candidate 5 282 complaints regarding the casting of votes before the specified time 6 381 complaints about the casting of votes after the specified time 7 657 complaints about votes without biometric data 8 2,140 complaints concerning invalidation of [votes from] polling stations without any reason 9 39 complaints about missing result forms 10 36 complaints about changes to the result forms after the recount 11 1,338 complaints about suspicious votes 12 29 complaints about biometric devices 13 1,380 unjustified complaints 14 4 complaints regarding partiality of IEC staff in the recount process 15 3 Complaints about vote count in absence of agents 16 1,209 Other complaints

Source: Table by AAN using data from ECC’s bulletin 23

The ECC also categorised the complaints in terms of their nature into three sets: electoral negligence, electoral violations and electoral crimes (See Table 3).

Table 3: Categorisation of complaints in terms of their nature

No Number of complaints Type of complaints 1 1,371 Electoral malpractices 2 4,303 Electoral violations 3 3,272 Electoral crimes

Source: Table by AAN using data from ECC’s 5 January press conference

A third categorisation was based on the priority in terms of their impact on the election results (see Table 4). It is assumed that category A is the highest priority and has the largest potential impact on the election results, followed by B, C and D respectively.

Table 4: Categorisation of complaints in terms of their impact on the election results

No Number of complaints Priority 1 8,794 A 2 1,318 B 3 2,677 C 4 100 D

Source: Table by AAN using data from ECC’s 5 January press conference

This bulletin also provided a map showing the number of complaints in each province. As shown in Table 5, the provinces with the highest number of complaints were Nangahar (2,283), Kandahar (1,924), Khost (1,587), Helmand (1,439), Kabul (1,400), Paktia (1,283) and Paktika (997). Jawzjan had the lowest number of complaints (4), followed by Samangan (17).

Table 5: Provincial breakdown of complaints related to preliminary results

No Province Number of complaints 1 Nangrahar 2,283 2 Kandahar 1,924 3 Khost 1,587 4 Helmand 1,439 5 Kabul 1,400 6 Paktia 1,283 7 Paktika 997 8 Baghlan 553 9 Kunar 503 10 Ghazni 466 11 Logar 360 12 Laghman 335 13 Ghor 297 14 Herat 270 15 Nimruz 265 16 Zabul 243 17 Farah 215 18 Wardak 207 19 Kapisa 186 20 Takhar 162 21 Balkh 158 22 Nuristan 103 23 Parwan 92 24 Faryab 76 25 Badakhshan 64 26 Kunduz 63 27 Daikundi 55 28 Urozgan 49 29 Bamyan 36 30 Badghis 25 31 Panjshir 22 32 Sar-e Pul 21 33 Samangan 17 34 Jawzjan 4

Source: Table by AAN using data from ECC’s bulletin 23

3. What was the outcome of the adjudications by the provincial ECCs?

The adjudication of the complaints by the provincial ECCs was completed on 13 January 2020, within the specified timeline and despite considerable difficulties. (1) This was announced by the ECC at a press conference on 14 January, where ECC chair Shinwari said that the provincial ECCs made the following decisions:

  • 9,866 out of 16,545 registered complaints were rejected due to lack of evidence;
  • 18 complaints resulted in corrective actions;
  • 5,316 polling stations in 21 provinces were referred for recount;
  • 109 polling stations were invalidated;
  • 75 individuals were given a cash fine;
  • 71 individuals were relieved from their duties;
  • 3 complaints were introduced to judicial agencies; and
  • 111 complaints were considered exceptional cases (ie, cases the provincial ECCs were unable to adjudicate and had referred to the central ECC).

On 17 January, deputy head of the ECC secretariat, Yasin Hamraz, told AAN that the number of polling stations invalidated was actually 47, not 109. He said that 62 polling stations from Badakhshan, which had been referred for recount, had mistakenly been included in the list of invalidated polling stations. The number of polling stations referred for recount was thus 5,378, not 5,316. The ECC has not provided any details as to how many votes were invalidated from the 47 polling stations or which candidate these favoured most. The recounts, as will be discussed below, have also not yet commenced, so it is too early to predict how the election results might be affected.

Table 6 (see here for the higher resolution) shows the overview of the decisions by province (with the corrected details as provided by Hamraz).

Table 6: Adjudications by provincial ECCs of 16,545 complaints. Source: election stakeholders

The 111 exceptional cases, the ECC said, are the complaints which the provincial ECCs did or could not adjudicate and referred to the central ECC. They include four important areas of complaints that concern large numbers of votes: the 102,012 votes cast outside polling hours, the 137,630 votes that have been deemed suspicious, an unknown number of votes that are affected by discrepancies between the biometric votes and result forms, and the votes of 2,423 stations whose biometric data are missing (media reports here and here).

The IEC has included these sets of votes in the preliminary results, including votes from 298 out of 2,423 polling stations with missing biometric devices/memory cards and biometric data. On 7 November 2019, through decision number 105, the IEC ordered the audit and recount of votes from 2,423 polling stations where biometric devices or memory cards, and thus biometric data, were missing (see AAN’s reporting here). After the recount and audit, the IEC, decided that the result forms of 298 of these 2,423 polling stations should be processed, ie included in the count, because respectively the audit and recount report showed that the ballots of these polling stations had biometric confirmation stickers, no complaints had been registered against them, and the biometric devices of 82 of these stations had been checked and fount to show 1,746 sets of biometric data (they did not explain how and where they had found the biometric devices; see decision number 116, dated 21 December 2019, in Dari here). Two IEC commissioners, Mawlana Muhammad Abdullah and Mosafer Qoqandi, refused to sign this verdict.

The provincial ECCs have, in turn, ordered almost 5,400 polling stations to be recounted. ECC secretary and spokesman Elyasi said during the 14 January press conference that the plan for the recount would be shared with the IEC within two days. Now, more than a week later, the recount has still not started (more on this below).

4. How did the third phase of the complaints procedure – registration of appeals against ECC decisions – go?

According to the electoral law, complainants can register their appeals with the ECC within the three working days following the announcement of the decisions. In the end, the appeals period continued until 20 January. According to a deputy spokesperson, Zarmina Kakar, the adjudications in three provinces – Kabul, Khost and Paktika – were communicated to the parties only on 15 January. Therefore the period was extended in order not to waste the electoral campaigns’ right to appeal (media report here). (2)

ECC chair Shinwari told a press conference (see video here) on 21 January that 6,292 appeals had been made. The highest number of appeals were registered in Kandahar (1,573), Paktia (853), Nagrahar (818),Khost (772), Kabul (505) and Paktika (485). No appeals were lodged in the five provinces of Parwan, Maidan Wardak, Takhar, Jawzjan and Badghis.

Table 7 (see here for higher resolution) shows the result of the adjudication of the 16,545 registered complaints per province that may affect the outcome of the election, as well as the number of appeals. The final adjudication was as follows: 9,864 complaints rejected, 5,378 polling stations ordered to be recounted, 47 polling stations invalidated, and 111 exceptional cases referred to the centre.

Table 7: Provincial breakdown of complaints, adjudications by PECCs and appeals. Source: election stakeholders

Shinwari said that the central ECC had started addressing these appeals by going through the following procedure: categorisation, examination, analysis, scrutiny, decision, communication and implementation of decisions. Shinwari also said that the central ECC had not yet made any decisions about the decisions by the provincial ECCs.

ECC commissioner Sayed Qutbuddin Roydar said that all appeals had been registered by the three major electoral tickets – Stability and Integration led by Chief Executive Abdullah, State Builder led by President Ghani, and Peace and Islamic Justice led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – but did not provide details on how many appeals had been made by each ticket.

The two main teams, however, did release numbers. On 19 January, a member of Abdullah’s Stability and Integration team, Nur Rahman Akhlaqi, wrote in a Facebook post that Abdullah’s team had completed its process and had filed 4,370 appeals with the central ECC. A spokesman for President Ghani’s State Builder team, Ahmad Folad Hamdard, told the daily Hasht-e Sobh that their team had lodged 1,164 appeals with the ECC. If correct, this indicates that a total of 5,534 appeals could have been registered by the campaigns of the two main contenders, and a total of 758 appeals by Hekmatyar’s ticket.

ECC secretary and spokesman Elyasi said that the appeals revolved around the following issues: the discrepancy between the biometric data and the votes recorded on the result sheets, votes cast outside the polling hours, non-biometric votes, suspicious votes, and a relatively small discrepancies of votes (between one and five).

While at the 14 January press conference, ECC commissioner Elyasi said that the ECC would share the recount plan with the IEC within two days; at the 21 January press conference he said that they were still debating whether the polling stations referred by the provincial ECCs for recount should be recounted immediately, or only after the central ECC had addressed the appeals against the decisions ordering the recount. He said that the ECC had not made any decision yet, but that after categorisation of the appeals they might be able to develop a better understanding as to how many polling stations needed to be recounted and when.

He also said that different provincial ECCs had dealt with the same type of complaints in different ways. For example, in the case of complaints against votes cast outside polling hours, in some provinces the ECC had treated these complaints as exceptional cases that needed to be referred to Kabul, some offices had rejected them, some had confirmed them and some had referred the polling stations for recount. According to him, if they did the recount now, they would be implementing only one type of decision in this category of complaints. Therefore, he said, the ECC needed to first unify the decisions. (3) The unification of different decisions within the same category of complaints implies that the number of polling stations referred for recount could still significantly go up, as well as down.

Speaking to AAN on 22 January, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), Yusuf Rashid, criticised the central ECC for not having communicated a guiding, principled stance to the provincial ECCs on how to deal with the major types of disputed votes. He said that if the ECC had taken a clearer position on those votes, the provincial ECCs would have taken unified decisions. Rashid believed that different decisions about the same complaints might have also been made in the complaints process of the parliamentary elections, but since the constituency for the presidential election is the entire country, it was now easier for the different electoral tickets to recognise that this had been the case, since they were following and cross-checking the procedure in all provinces.

5. What happens now?

Officially, the central ECC now has 15 working days, starting from 21 January, to adjudicate the 6,292 appeals made by three electoral tickets in 29 provinces. If all goes to plan, the outcome of the adjudications could be expected by 8 February.

However, several challenges lie ahead of the central ECC. First, it needs to categorise and map the apparent mess created by the varying adjudications by its own provincial offices. As mentioned above, the provincial ECCs made four different types of decisions about complaints regarding votes cast outside polling hours alone.

Second, the central ECC needs to make the tough decisions about certain major blocks of votes that have been disputed by many electoral tickets, in particular by Chief Executive Abdullah. These include the 102,012 votes cast outside polling hours, the 137,630 ‘suspicious’ votes, and the votes from the 298 polling stations. Some provincial ECCs might have rejected complaints about these votes or about some of them, some might have referred them for recounts, some might have invalidated them and some might have referred them to the centre. There are probably appeals against all these different decisions by the different electoral tickets, which the ECC may decide on individually, but the ECC could also decide to deal with all similar cases in one go (which could involve block invalidation or validation, either with or without recounts).

Third, the ECC needs to come up with the final list of the polling stations that need to be recounted as soon as possible. Currently, the provincial ECCs have referred 5,378 polling stations for recount. There seems to be some appeals against these decisions. The central ECC now needs to decide whether it confirms the existing list of polling stations or adds to it or decreases it. Once the ECC is clear about the number of polling stations to be recounted, the recount still needs to take place, which may take more time.

So although in terms of procedures, the process is approaching its end, many of the most complicated questions on how to deal with relatively large numbers of suspicious, disputed or irregularly cast votes will only now be faced. The confusions and ambiguities surrounding the complaint process, and the unresolved question of how the ECC may deal with these thorny issues, make it difficult to predict whether we might still be facing a first-round winner or whether we will need to prepare for a runoff. Given the very small margin that put President Ghani above the 50 per cent threshold in the preliminary results (less than 12,000 votes; see AAN analysis here), invalidation of any of the disputed blocks of votes – or even less far-reaching decisions – could easily push Ghani’s share under the threshold.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert


(1) In the process of addressing the complaints, ECC officials had criticised the IEC for not cooperating. For instance, on 6 January 2020, head of the ECC secretariat Chaman Shah Etemadi accused the IEC of procrastinating in providing the necessary user account and password details to the provincial ECCs, which, he said, would prevent them from addressing “complaints emanating from the difference between the biometric and non-biometric votes.” The IEC responded by saying that they had already acted according to the memorandum of understanding between the IEC, the political parties and Dermalog (the provider of the biometric technology) by giving each candidate a user account and giving the ECC two accounts. Etemadi, however, said that the two user accounts were being used by the central ECC and were not available to the provincial offices (see here). This resulted in what Muhammad Reza Fayaz, deputy spokesman for the ECC, called the “wastage of the candidates’ right to appeal” since the adjudication of complaints regarding the difference between biometric voter data and the result forms now had to be referred to the central ECC, where the decision will be final.

(2) The period for appeals seems to have started in each province as soon as the adjudication of complaints was finished. For example, on 12 January 2020, Muhammad Reza Fayyaz, deputy spokesman for the ECC, told Hasht-e Sobh that a number of campaigns had filed a total of 39 appeals in five provinces against the decisions communicated by the respective provincial offices. These included 28 appeals in Zabul, two in Urozgan, three in Sar-e Pul, three in Badakhshan and three others in Panjshir. Explaining the procedure to AAN on 13 January, Fayyaz told AAN that whenever a provincial office makes a decision about the complaints, one copy is provided to the complainant, one to the person implicated in the complaint , one to the relevant provincial IEC and one to the observers.

(3) The different and conflicting decisions by the provincial ECCs seem to have been one of the main reasons for the registration of a high number of appeals. According to a member of Abdullah’s Stability and Integration team, Nur Rahman Akhlaqi, in a Facebook post on 19 January, the central ECC now faces the following list of challenges:

  • The provincial ECCs had made different decisions about the same complaints, which the ECC has to unify in accordance with the electoral law, and relevant regulations and procedures.
  • Provincial ECCs rejected many “valid and documented complaints” which the ECC has to carefully clear and ensure their transparency.
  • The previous recount (by the IEC, see AAN’s reporting here) has in many cases led to “double fraud” about which complaints have been filed and although the IEC opposes the [renewed] recount out of fear of legal consequences, the ECC should give preference to the law over “any illegal and treacherous pressures.”
  • The separation of fraudulent and non-fraudulent votes needs to be done through a QR code reader that needs to be updated based on new decisions; otherwise, they may bring back fraudulent votes which had been separated before.
  • A clear decision is needed about the votes without biometric data and the votes that were cast outside the polling hours.
  • The ECC needs to seriously deal with perpetrators of electoral violations.
Categories: Defence`s Feeds

AAN Obituary: Unfaltering women’s rights activist Soraya Parlika (1944-2019)

Wed, 15/01/2020 - 02:00

Soraya Parlika, political and women’s rights activist, has died at the age of 75. She had, said Sahraa Karimi, Chair of the Afghan Film Organisation, who made a documentary about Parlika, “dedicated her life to the life of women of Afghanistan and never left her motherland even during the hard years of civil war and Taleban regime.” This earned her the respect even among many who opposed her for having been a leading member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks back at her life.

Soraya Parlika was more than just an activist. Referring to her lasting achievements, Afghan news website Khabarnama described her as “a founder of freedoms and human rights for women of the country.” Judith Huber, a Swiss journalist who wrote an extensive portrait of her in 2003, described the “communist, Muslima and unfaltering women’s rights advocate” as “self-assured and proud,” “sparkling from energy,” humorous and with gripping oratorical skills” – a woman “with charisma.” (1)

The defining focus of Soraya Parlika’s decades of activism was women’s rights. However, as a former stalwart and leader of Hezb-e Dimukratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA), her politics were unmistakably leftist. She said: “To fight for women’s rights is politics. Without politics, the problems of women will never be solved.” She placed her feminism as part of a wider struggle, saying “I’m interested in women and in their life development, but not just women. I’m interested in all people.” She would stick to this even under the most forbidding circumstances, when women’s rights were rolled back under the mujahedin and Taleban regimes (1992-2001). In contrast to many from her part of the political spectrum, she prayed regularly. “I was raised religiously,” she said “and always remained religious.”

There have been many tributes to Parlika, including one from President Ashraf Ghani who had been her former political adversary. In 2002, as United Nations advisor to the Emergency Loya Jirga Commission, Ghani had tried to prevent “this communist” from becoming a member of the commission. In 2019, however, he said he was “saddened” by news of her death, that she had “bravely fought for the rights of women in the last four decades,” and that her name would “remain among the heroic women of this country.” Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also issued a statement of commemoration.

Soraya Parlika is credited with various achievements resulting from her decades of activism. Of particular significance was the adoption under the monarchy of a law that gave Afghan women the right to 30 days’ maternity leave (other sources say 40 days). At the time, she was a member of Sazman-e Zanan-e Dimukratik-e Afghanistan (the Democratic Women’s Organisation of Afghanistan, DWOA), (2) which, although not legal, was allowed to operate publicly and had, in cooperation with the first women in government and parliament, successfully lobbied for this law. Some years later, in a quasi-governmental position when Parlika’s party was in power, the length of maternity leave was further extended.

Soraya Parlika’s Facebook profile photo.

Family background and education

This renowned women’s activist was born Soraya  – she later replaced it with Parlika, and used both names combined after 2001 (3) – in 1944 in a well-to-do Pashtun family from Kamari, a village in Bagrami district to the southeast of Kabul. (This still photo from Karimi’s documentary appears to show her there as an adult.) She was the only daughter, with three brothers, one younger (died 1991 in Kabul) and two older (the eldest brother died in the US in 2015). Her father, Muhammad Harif, was a high-ranking government official under the Afghan monarchy whose professional career between 1933 and 1973 led him to become the head of the construction department of the Ministry of Public Works; he died in 2007. Her mother, Bibi Shirin (died in 1994), worked in the house. The family lived in the capital Kabul but still owned land in their home village.

Kamari was also the place of birth of Babrak Karmal who became state and PDPA leader after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan over Christmas in December 1979 (AAN background here). Soraya’s second-eldest brother, Abdul Wakil, was finance minister under President Karmal and foreign minister in his last year and then under Najibullah, from 1986 to 1992, (4) and signed the Geneva Accords in 1988 that led to the Soviet withdrawal completed in 1989. Both families did not only come from the same village, but the families were related to each other: Soraya Parlika’s father was the brother of Babrak Karmal’s mother, making Parlika a first cousin to Karmal.

The political opening under King Muhammad Zaher (r 1933-73) and, in particular, the ‘decade of democracy’ that followed the relatively liberal constitution of 1964, came just at the right time for Soraya. Graduating from the prominent Zarghuna High School in central Kabul in 1963, she became part of an increasing number of women who enrolled at Kabul University.

She studied economics, obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and started working in Kabul city’s housing department. She said about her choice: “The economy is the basis of each society. Only a solid economic situation allows a society’s development and political change.” In 1971, she took up an administrative post in Kabul University’s international relations department.

Soraya later said: “My mother, mainly, often said that not all Afghans lived as comfortably as we did. That motivated me to engage politically. I always carried this unconsciously in my mind.” She added that it was only later, under the Taleban, that she realised how advanced women’s rights had already been before the PDPA revolution.

Soraya Parlika at an international conference during the PDPA regime. Photo: AAWU Facebook page (undated).

From opposition to government

Soraya and her brother Abdul Wakil were among the early members of the PDPA  (there was no women among the 27 founding members). The party was founded on 1 January 1965 when she was 21. By that age, according to one profile, she was “already leading meetings of female party members.” According to Judith Huber, six months later, in June 1965, she and five other women founded the DWOA. It was led by Anahita Ratebzad, who was 12 year her senior, prominent as only one of four female members of parliament and very close to deputy party leader Karmal.

The DWOA supported female victims of domestic violence, tried to mediate with families and helped the women to go to court. It organised literacy courses, and tried to encouraged women to seek employment and to send their children to school. It mobilised women to take part in the 1965 parliamentary election, which Soraya was actively involved in, also going  to the countryside to teach women how to read and write. In 1968 she participated in demonstrations against a draft law proposed by conservative Islamic members to ban girls and women from traveling abroad to receive an education without a mahram. After one month of protests, including an occupation of the parliament, the bill was dropped.

After Soraya’s Parcham (Banner) faction of the PDPA came to power in a coup d’état in 1973 in an alliance with former prime minister Muhammad Daud, who became new head of state, she received a scholarship to study in Kyiv, then the capital of the Soviet Ukraine. With a Master’s degree in international economic relations, she returned to her job at Kabul University in 1977.

After the PDPA takeover in April 1978, Soraya became the leader of the now legalised DWOA, as Ratebzad moved to become education minister. But it was not for long: in August 1978 Soraya was thrown into jail by the Khalqis, Parcham’s intra-party rivals. The Khalqis had sidelined them, and accused them of plotting a counter coup. Soraya was tortured in the notorious Pul-e Charkhi jail in Kabul (AAN background here). Scars from cigarette burns were still visible on her hands, and she said she had more elsewhere on her body. When the Soviets sent troops to Afghanistan in late 1979, toppled the Khalqi leadership and brought Karmal to power, Soraya returned to the top position in the DWOA. But again, she was relegated to second position in Ratebzad’s favour in June 1981.

During this period, the PDPA government – thanks in large part to the DWOA and Soraya’s work – extended maternity leave to 90 days, with 180 days of possible additional unpaid leave. (5) Women were legally allowed to retire at the age of 55. These were big achievements, even though for women in the countryside and in mujahedin-controlled areas, these rights remained theoretical. Her advocacy also resulted in the establishment of nursery schools and kindergartens in workplaces. In that time, Soraya experienced the first attempt on her life. She was shot on her way home and severely wounded.

In 1986, Soraya moved to become the head of Afghanistan’s Red Crescent Society. In this capacity, she was instrumental in bringing the International Red Cross (ICRC) into the country, shuttling between Kabul and Geneva. She was removed from this post when the mujahedin took over power in April 1992.

Logo of the All-Afghan Women’s Union, established by Soraya Parlika in 1992.

Underground and civil society years

During the 1990s she remained in Afghanistan, in contrast to many PDPA members, including her brother Abdul Wakil, despite her being a well-known and easily recognisable figure. She turned down various offers from family members to join them in Europe. Judith Huber quoted her as saying: “How could I have borne leaving the Afghan women and only returned when they would be better? How could I have then talked with them with my head held high, looked into their eyes and discussed their problems and suffering as I do today?”

She changed her name into Parlika, which has no meaning in Dari or Pashto and seems to have been chosen for exactly that reason. She told a German news magazine that ‘Soraya’ was too common, and her activism could have put other women with that name into danger. She started her women’s rights work again, using the cover of the burqa to remain undetected.

In September 1992, Parlika founded Ettehadiya-ye Sarasari-ye Zanan-e Afghanistan (own translation: All-Afghanistan Women’s Union, AAWU; in some sources ‘Association’ and AAWA). (6) She had to operate undercover, talking to women in places where they could meet without raising suspicion, at shrines, weddings and funerals. There she would discuss the need to organise for the improvement of women’s living conditions. This led to the establishment of a network of underground home training courses, in literacy, handicrafts for income generation, health and hygiene and, later, English and computer skills. When the Taleban took power in Kabul in 1996 they closed almost all state-run girls’ schools and dismissed female teachers, so AAWU began to run home schools for girls, employing a number of the laid-off teachers. The schooling and the courses were held in private homes, which were changed weekly, with teaching often starting at 4am, to prevent detection.

Parlika continued living in a modest Mikrorayon apartment, with income from the family land in Kamari helping her survive. The author first met her during that time, when AAWU and other illegal political and social organisations used access to Pakistan to contact the UN and other members of the international community.

Within a week of the downfall of the Taleban regime in 2001, AAWU and Parlika – now using both her names as Soraya Parlika – came out into the open and planned a women’s march in Kabul. She told the Guardian: “We wanted to call women from all the streets of Kabul and go to the UN [headquarters in the city] and we were going to demand our rights. If we demonstrate we will throw off our burkas and we will throw them out for ever.” De facto interior minister Yunos Qanuni, whose faction of the ‘Northern Alliance’ had just captured Kabul, warned her that they could be “attacked by al-Qaeda” and the women were persuaded not to march. According to the BBC, AAWU held several smaller meetings city-wide instead. The Guardian described it as “the fastest growing women’s organisation in Afghanistan.“

The association successfully pushed for girls from home schools to be integrated into state schools at the appropriate age level (rather than the age when official schooling had been interrupted). She proudly told visitors that girls from home schools performed much better than those who had been able to continue schooling in the country (7) or abroad. She started a campaign for women’s equality to be included in the future Afghan constitution, demanding mandatory education for girls through secondary school, equal representation in parliament and the judiciary, equal pay with men, a minimum marriageable age of 18, the criminalisation of domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse, and a ban on baad (the practice of giving women or girls as brides as ‘compensation’ for crimes committed by one family against another).

At the end of 2001, Time magazine selected her as one of its global ‘people of the year’. At the same time, she was appointed to the 21-member Preparatory Commission for the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga after female Afghan employees of the UN mission in the country voted for her in a non-representative snap poll against another candidate favoured by later president Ghani. This Loya Jirga was tasked with organising the transition from an interim to a fully-elected government (read AAN background here).

Parlika at the Constitutional Loya Jirga in Kabul 2003 (to the left, in profile; to the right: later presidential candidate  and women’s affairs minister Massuda Jalali). Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

In 2002, Parlika was elected to the board of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, one of the most active Afghan umbrella groups. Over the following years, she participated in the establishment of an independent journalists association and in work for a new media law. (8) She supported Afghan businesswomen and campaigned for measures to prevent the mass self-immolation of women. This brought her much acclaim, particularly among Afghan women and abroad, including a correspondence with Senator Hillary Clinton. In 2005, she was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize as an Afghan participant of the worldwide 1000 Peace Women initiative. In 2011 and 2014, Parlika was elected by civil society organisations as a member of delegations representing them at the Bonn and London donor conferences for Afghanistan (AAN background here and here).

Parlika also went back into party politics. She participated in the failed attempt to bring together the various political groups established by former PDPA members into a single party (see the chapter “The ex-PDPA Left“ in this 2005 paper by the author). This resulted in what critics called the premature foundation, in early 2003, of Hezb-e Muttahed-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (the National United Party of Afghanistan, NUPA) under former PDPA-general and super-governor of Greater Kandahar, Nur ul-Haq Ulumi. Parlika was elected as one of the two deputy heads of the party. In 2005, she campaigned for parliament as one of 68 NUPA candidates, on a women’s rights platform, but failed, in an atmosphere of increasing violence against women. However, Kabul’s women elected her as a delegate to the 2004 Constitutional Loya Jirga.

Throughout her political career, Parlika remained true to her communist ideas, calling the April 1978 coup that brought the PDPA to power a “revolution.” A German radio correspondent wrote in 2005 when she was running for parliament: “Soraya Parlika does not deny her political roots.” But she was not uncritical, admitting that the PDPA initial reforms – among them land distribution and co-education – were “too fast” and too radical.

Her prominence as a women’s rights advocate and leftist put her at risk. In September 2003, armed men raided the AAWU office, smashing furniture and stealing the membership list. Phone threats followed. In 2006, she told a US media outlet that she had been shot at twice in the post-2001 years (one media report here).

A struggle unfinished

“I will continue my activities until Afghanistan has democracy, peace, equality between women and men, social development and the involvement of women in political, economic and social affairs,” she once said. In her last years she was sceptical about the prospects of her country, and particularly of peace talks with the Taleban. As early as 2012 she told the authors of a paper published by the German Heinrich Boell Foundation: “I am not optimistic at all. We do not know the agenda of the talks and this worries all women in Afghanistan. Women are at risk of losing everything they have gained.”

After struggling for many years with cancer, she finally left the country to join her family Switzerland after suffering a stroke, where she died, in Geneva, on 20 December 2019.

Like many leading Afghan women’s rights activists, Soraya Parlika put her political work ahead of her personal life. In one interview with Judith Huber she said of her decision not to marry: “I just did not find the time for it. Always when I wanted to marry a new problem occurred and I forgot about marrying. My [political and social] activities were more important to me.” She will be remembered for a lifetime of women’s rights activism, and according to film-maker Sahraa Karimi, for her selflessness:

Parlika was a very strong woman; she fought against her illness for many years, at the same time fighting against injustice. Her main priority in life was the women and girls of Afghanistan, their wellbeing, access to education, awareness about their rights. She was a true and unique woman who really lived the values that she deeply believed in.

Soraya Parlika, women’s rights activist, born 1944 in Kamari village, Bagrami district, Kabul province; died 20 December 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Kate Clark

Correction included 16 January 2020: According to family information, the family was of Pashtun (not Tajik) ethnicity, and the father’s name was Muhammad Harif not Hanif. We added the name of the late mother and her, her late husband’s and two brothers’ dates of death, and a detail on the relation between the Karmal and Parlika families and corrected detail on Abdul Wakil’s role in the PDPA and his ministerial assignments.

Read another obituary by Malek Setez (in Dari) here.

For further reading on the subject of women’s rights in Afghanistan, go to this 2019 (updated) AAN dossier.

Poster of the documentary film about Soraya Parlika’s life by Sahraa Karimi.


(1) When not specifically pointed out otherwise, the biographical information comes from the following sources: portraits by Judith Huber (in: Risse im Patriarchat: Frauen in Afghanistan, Rotpunktverlag, Zurich 2002) and by Suhaila Muhsini (“Profile: Suraya Parlika – Champion of Women’s Rights,” Institute for War & Peace Reporting, ARR issue 129, 3 March 2005), the Afghan Bios website and notes from several meetings the author had with Soraya Parlika. As noted, there is also a documentary film about Parlika’s life by Afghan filmmaker Sahraa Karimi, who was appointed head of the Afghan Film Authority in May 2019. Her film was shown at the 16th Dhaka International Film Festival in 2018 and received the ‘best documentary’ award.

(2) There are contradictory sources about whether the DWOA was independent or a PDPA affiliate from the very beginning. While official PDPA sources claimed the DWOA as its ‘mass organisation’, various other sources – including Soraya Parlika herself – said there were non-PDPA members in DWOA. This was also supported by Afghan poet and contemporary of the events, Rahnaward Zaryab (see his article here).

(3) This is similar to the National Unity Government Chief Executive who resigned himself to the ‘western’ need to have a ‘first’ and a ‘second’ name and added a second ‘Abdullah’ to his original first. Many Afghans, particularly women, have only one name. Many chose a second name (takhallos) which is different from western ‘family names’ (although some Afghans have started using them as family names now.) As authorities have only now stared registering births more regularly, Afghans had been able to change their names.

(4) In 1986, Babrak Karmal left the country to exile in the USSR after Najibullah was appointed new party leader, which happened on the initiative of the Soviet leadership and against Karmal’s will. After Karmal officially remained  in the position of head of state for a while, his (non-PDPA) vice president Haji Muhammad Chamakanai then officially took over in an acting position between from 20 November 1986 and 30 September 1987.

(5) The current Ministry of Justice website shows the maternity leave law, published in the official gazette on 5 June 1979, as still in force. According to Article 1, maternity leave is 90 days. According to Article 2, the mother can have altogether 270 days of unpaid leave if she requests it. According to Article 3, unpaid leave does not harm her promotion.

(6) It seems Parlika made AAWU’s name resemble that of the All-Afghan Women’s Council (AAWC), into which DWOA was restructured in 1986 under President Najibullah’s programme to “broaden the base of his government” and placate non-PDPA and non-leftists. AAWC included non-PDPA members and was led by 1960s democracy activist Massuma Esmati. AAWU initially operated out of the destroyed AAWC office in Kabul’s Shahr-e Nau in 2001 before it was able to rent another office with German funding. In the 1990s, AAWU’s name had an addendum, Dakhel-e Keshwar (inside the country), to reflect that it was able to operate in Afghanistan, in contrast to the many exile organisations.

(7) In contrast to most reports, there were state-run schools open for girls during the Taleban time – but only a limited number. For an example, see my chapter in this book: Bittlingmayer UH, Grundmeier AM, Kößler, R, Sahrai, D, Sahrai, F (eds): Education and Development in Afghanistan: Challenges and Prospects, Bielefeld: transcript, 2019).

(8) Again in 2013, see this AAN background.






Categories: Defence`s Feeds

AAN’s most-read dispatches in 2019: Peace talks and presidential polls dominate

Fri, 10/01/2020 - 02:58

As 2020 begins, we wanted to take a look back at what you were reading on the AAN website in 2019. Dominating the dispatches that were most read on our English language site were those analysing the Afghan presidential elections and the negotiations between the United States and the Taleban. Our Dari and Pashto readers were interested in these topics as well, but also reading dispatches to do with human rights, Afghan culture and pieces aimed at giving broader historical or social contexts. How Uzbeks are portrayed in western writing topped the Dari-Pashto list of top reads in 2019. AAN’s readership increased last year: the number of Pashto and Dari readers doubled and we received – for the first time – more than one million visits to the English website in a single year. AAN’s Kate Clark looks back at 2019 and forward to 2020 (data compiled by Sudhanshu Verma).

What was most read on AAN’s English website in 2019

We published 98 dispatches – our term for our in-depth, but ‘every day’ publications – last year. Topics ranged from the taboo on naming Afghan women in public to detailed reporting on the elections, from militias to migration, obituaries and book reviews to possible war crime trials and memories of the Soviet invasion and celebrations of Independence Day. We had in-depth reports on security in particular provinces and also published two special research series: one on how Afghans in districts under insurgent control or influence access basic services – schooling, healthcare and telecoms – and the other on what people think about peace, peace talks and how to end the conflict.

To ensure we cover a broad range of topics at AAN, we make sure we publish dispatches falling into seven thematic categories. Last year, the majority of our most-read dispatches fell into just two categories, War and Peace and the Political Landscape – a reflection of how much 2019 was dominated by two political ‘events’, the talks between the United States and the Taleban and the presidential elections. In terms of the seven categories, this is how the twenty most-read dispatches on the AAN website broke down:

  • War and Peace: 7 dispatches in the top twenty most-read
  • The Political Landscape: 7
  • Rights and Freedoms: 2
  • Context and Culture: 2
  • International Engagement: 0
  • Regional Relations: 0
  • Economy and Development: 0
  • Dispatches introducing long reports: 3

NB: one dispatch was about both elections and peace, so the total adds up to 21.

Among the top-twenty were also three dispatches which introduced longer, more substantial reports on: the ideology of the Taleban (published 2017); Pashtunwali (published 2011) and; an Afghan Bibliography which details publications on a range of topics to do with Afghanistan. (1)

The twenty most-read English-language AAN dispatches in 2019

1. Afghanistan’s 2019 elections (2): Who is running to become the next president?

Ali Yawar Adili

11 February 2019

Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 elections (2): Who is running to become the next president?

2. Afghanistan’s 2019 elections (6): Presidential campaign kicks off amid uncertainty

Ali Yawar Adili

28 July 2019

Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 elections (6): Presidential campaign kicks off amid uncertainty

3. Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (11): A first look at how E-Day went

Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica

28 September 2019

Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (11): A first look at how E-Day went

4. Widespread Violence yet Perpetrators go Unpunished: A new UN report on violence against Afghan women

Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig

29 May 2018

Rights and Freedoms

Widespread Violence yet Perpetrators go Unpunished: A new UN report on violence against Afghan women

5. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”: First steps in Afghan peace negotiations

Thomas Ruttig

4 February 2019

War and Peace

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”: First steps in Afghan peace negotiations

6. Pashtunwali – tribal life and behaviour among the Pashtuns

Lutz Rzehak

21 March 2011

Pashtunwali – tribal life and behaviour among the Pashtuns

7. US-Taleban talks: An imminent agreement without peace?

Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert

30 August 2019

War and Peace

US-Taleban talks: An imminent agreement without peace?

8. Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography 2019

Christian Bleuer

1 April 2019

Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography 2019

9. Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (9): Presidential poll primer

Ali Yawar Adili, Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig

25 September 2019

Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (9): Presidential poll primer

10. Symbolism of a Day: A century of changing independence day celebrations in Afghanistan

S Reza Kazemi

18 August 2019

Culture and Context

Symbolism of a Day: A century of changing independence day celebrations in Afghanistan

11. Deciding To Leave Afghanistan (1): Motives for migration

Lenny Linke

8 May 2016

Rights and Freedoms

Deciding To Leave Afghanistan (1): Motives for migration

12. Why the Taleban Should Read the Afghan Constitution

Ghizaal Haress

9 April 2019

Political Landscape

Why the Taleban Should Read the Afghan Constitution

13. The Results of Afghanistan’s 2018 Parliamentary Elections: A new, but incomplete Wolesi Jirga

Ali Yawar Adili

17 May 2019

Political Landscape

The Results of Afghanistan’s 2018 Parliamentary Elections: A new, but incomplete Wolesi Jirga

14. “Faint lights twinkling against the dark”: Reportage from the fight against ISKP in Nangrahar

Andrew Quilty

19 February 2019

War and Peace

“Faint lights twinkling against the dark”: Reportage from the fight against ISKP in Nangrahar

15. Trump Ends Talks with the Taleban: What happens next?

Kate Clark

8 September 2019

War and Peace

Trump Ends Talks with the Taleban: What happens next?

16. The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (1): A cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan

Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica

7 January 2019

Culture and Context

The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (1): A cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan

17. AAN Q&A: What came out of the Doha intra-Afghan conference?

Thomas Ruttig

11 July 2019

War and Peace

AAN Q&A: What came out of the Doha intra-Afghan conference?

18. Ideology in the Afghan Taliban: A new AAN report

Anand Gopal and Alex Strick van Linschoten

29 June 2017

Ideology in the Afghan Taliban: A new AAN report

19. Khost Protection Force Accused of Fresh Killings: Six men shot dead in Zurmat

Kate Clark

21 January 2019

War and Peace

Khost Protection Force Accused of Fresh Killings: Six men shot dead in Zurmat

20. AAN Q&A: Between ‘Peace Talks’ and Elections – The 2019 Consultative Peace Loya Jirga

Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig

26 April 2019

Political Landscape + War and Peace

AAN Q&A: Between ‘Peace Talks’ and Elections – The 2019 Consultative Peace Loya Jirga


The photograph accompanying one of our most-read English dispatches, “Ideology in the Afghan Taliban: A new AAN report”. It shows the Kherqa-ye Sharif (the Shrine of the Holy Cloak) in Kandahar. The cloak belonged to the Prophet Muhammad and was displayed to a crowd by Mullah Omar when he was declared amir ul-mumenin in the spring of 1996. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005).


What was most read on AAN’s Dari and Pashto website in 2019

The picture for the ten most-read dispatches on our Dari and Pashto website, where we published 38 dispatches last year, was quite different. The elections and peace talks also featured, but the overall breakdown was of a rough, four-way split between dispatches dealing with culture and context; rights and freedoms; war and peace and; the political landscape. Compared to the English list, there were many more dispatches from previous years, with several also having been in last year’s top ten – those looking at the portrayal of Afghan Uzbeks, legal aid, sexual harassment and political parties. (The list below also gives the link to the English version of each dispatch.) (2)

1. From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in western writing

Christian Bleuer

17 October 2014

Culture and Context

From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in western writing

2. Afghanistan Election Year (1): Who’s Trying to Become the Next President?

Ali Yawar Adili

11 February 2019

Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 elections (2): Who is running to become the next president?

3. How to End the Afghan War? A new publication on peace reviewed

Kate Clark

2 June 2018

War and Peace

How to End the Afghan War? A new publication on peace reviewed

4. Harassment of Women in Afghanistan: A hidden phenomenon addressed in too many laws

Ehsan Qaane

2 April 2017

Rights and Freedoms

5. Afghan Exodus: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route

Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert

10 August 2016

Rights and Freedoms

Afghan Exodus: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route

6. Legal Aid in Afghanistan: Contexts, Challenges and the Future

Sarah Han

18 April 2012

Rights and Freedoms

Legal Aid in Afghanistan: Contexts, Challenges and the Future

7. Inside and Outside the System: New AAN report on Afghanistan’s political parties published

Thomas Ruttig

6 May 2018

Political Landscape

Inside and Outside the System: New AAN report on Afghanistan’s political parties published

8. What’s in a Woman’s Name? No name, no public persona

Rohullah Sorush

8 March 2019

Culture and Context

What’s in a Woman’s Name? No name, no public persona

9. A Tomb in Kabul: The Fate of the Last Amir of Bukhara and his country’s relations with Afghanistan

Vladimir N Plastun and Thomas Ruttig

27 December 2018

Culture and Context

A Tomb in Kabul: The Fate of the Last Amir of Bukhara and his country’s relations with Afghanistan

10. The 2016 Insurgency in the North: Beyond Kunduz city – lessons (not taken) from the Taleban takeover

Obaid Ali

30 January 2016

War and Peace

The 2016 Insurgency in the North: Beyond Kunduz city – lessons (not taken) from the Taleban takeover

The AAN readership

For the first time, AAN had more than one million ‘visits’ in a year to its English language website – visits were up by 12 per cent compared to 2018. The number of individual readers coming to the site also increased, by almost a third. Meanwhile, the number of visits to AAN’s Dari and Pashto website almost doubled in 2019 compared to 2018 and the number of readers more than doubled. (3). The boost has come, it seems, because of interest in the elections and the peace process, with readers wanting to understand what is happening and what the consequences of these ‘events’ might be. As to the different countries which readers accessed the English website from, the scene was virtually unchanged from last year: Afghanistan still tops the list as the place where 41 per cent of our readers access the site (a proportion that has been roughly the same since 2014), followed by the United States (30 per cent) and then various European countries and India and Pakistan, at between three and seven per cent. (4)

The year ahead 

One of our last dispatches of 2019 was the 27th in a series analysing the presidential election which had been held in September. Entitled “The preliminary result, finally, but no end to controversy”, this dispatch heralded the fact that it will not be the last on this subject. Expect more, possibly many more dispatches in this series in 2020, as we cover the emerging first round results, allegations of fraud and a possible second-round run-off.

Dispatches on war and peace can also be anticipated in 2020; we hope for more of the latter than the former. There should also be developments on whether the Afghanistan ‘situation’ will be investigated by the International Criminal Court. In our last report from the ICC, in December 2019, we left the judges of the ICC appeal court going off to debate whether they should authorise such an investigation or not. Other issues will also continue to get our attention: trends in how the war is fought, including the harm done to civilians, the drug economy and developments in the Afghanistan’s political parties. Pieces on the near horizon include a report into the Afghans still in Guantanamo, a look at how well the newish local defence force, the Afghanistan National Army Territorial Force, is doing and an analysis of the political economy of Afghanistan, given its almost unique dependence on foreign aid and spending. We are also very much looking forward to publishing a history of elephants in Afghanistan.

AAN is now ten years old and to mark this, we will have a new website coming online. As to its content, in the year ahead, we hope to continue to bring you not only solid and insightful reporting on whatever 2020 brings to Afghanistan, but also insights into forgotten, but fascinating topics.


(1) Earlier surveys of what you were reading were:


“AAN’s most-read dispatches in 2018: So much war… and a little peace and justice”

Kate Clark

1 January 2019

AAN’s most-read dispatches in 2018: So much war… and a little peace and justice

“AAN’s 50 Most-Read Dispatches: War, headgear, politics…”

(This looked at the previous five years of dispatches)

Kate Clark

1 January 2017

AAN’s 50 Most-Read Dispatches: War, headgear, politics…

(2) Ten most-read Dari and Pashto dispatches, by category

  • Culture and Context 3
  • Rights and Freedoms 3
  • War and Peace 2
  • Political Landscape 2
  • International Engagement: 0
  • Regional Relations: 0
  • Economy and Development: 0

(3) Visits to the English website in 2019: 1,019,613, up by 11.6%

English website readers in 2019: 233,701, up by 30.4%

Visits to the Dari and Pashto website in 2019: 70,124, up by 96.8%

Dari and Pashto website readers in 2019: 23,154, up by 110.9%

(4) AAN English website readership by country 2019:

  • Afghanistan: 41% of readers
  • United States: 30%
  • UK: 7%
  • Pakistan 6%
  • Germany 5%
  • India 4%
  • Canada 4%
  • Australia 4%
  • France 3%
  • Sweden 3%

Readership by country 2018 

  • Afghanistan 40% of readers
  • United States 29%
  • UK 7%
  • Germany 5%
  • India 5%
  • Pakistan 5%
  • Canada 4%
  • Australia 4%
  • France 3%




Categories: Defence`s Feeds

The Largest Standing Stupa in Afghanistan: A short history of the Buddhist site at Topdara

Wed, 08/01/2020 - 02:33

A dome-shaped ancient Buddhist shrine, the Topdara stupa to the north of Kabul was described by 19th century British explorer Charles Masson as “perhaps the most complete and beautiful monument of the kind in these countries.” Since Masson’s visit in 1833, the Topdara stupa saw few visitors and had fallen into neglect until recently, in 2016, when an Afghan cultural heritage organisation began its preservation and excavation work. When AAN’s Jelena Bjelica visited the stupa in spring 2019, she found its beauty and grandeur largely restored. In this dispatch she pieces together the history of the stupa from various historical and contemporary records (with input from Jolyon Leslie).

The Topdara stupa, repairing the drum and excavating the base

As one approaches Parwan’s provincial capital Charikar on the main highway from Kabul, the Topdara stupa can be seen on the left, set against the Koh-e Safi mountains. The stupa stands like a crown on an area of high ground above the village of Topdara, surrounded by orchards and barley fields. On an early April morning when AAN visited, staff from the Afghan NGO, the Afghanistan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organisation (ACHCO)  were busy doing preservation and excavation work on the site.

ACHCO’s work on the stupa began in 2016. Three years later when AAN visited, the stupa’s drum had been repaired and preserved, and almost the entire base of the stupa excavated. The structure, however, is still scaffolded as preservation work is ongoing. The drum – the dome-shaped upper part of the stupa – was damaged by Masson when he opened it up in the 19th century (see his drawings of the stupa as well as a photo from the late 1950s on page 83 in this 2017 British Museum publication).

A view of the Topdara stupa in 2016 before the ACHCO began the preservation and excavation work. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg (ACHCO), 2016.

The Topdara Stupa in 2017. The drum of the stupa covered with scaffolding has been completely repaired and preserved. Photo: ACHCO, 2017.

The front (east-facing) view of Topdara stupa from April 2019 after ACHCO excavated the base of the stupa. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.

The back (west-facing) view of Topdara stupa from April 2019 after ACHCO excavated the base of the stupa. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.

The principal structure at Topdara is the stone stupa and its drum, which measures 23 metres across and stands almost 30 metres high above the surrounding fields. The drum is ornamented with double ‘S’-shaped curves, which give it a decorative band of 56 identical niches framed by rounded arches. The arches are supported by engaged piers, or little pillars, in a classical style, over which pointed ‘hoods’ project. These hoods are, in turn, separated by slender pilasters formed from small pieces of schist, a mineral rock. Each niche has a small aperture in the centre where figures can be fixed, now long disappeared. Facing east above this frieze is a tri-lobed arch niche where three figures of the Buddha are thought to have once been mounted. According to this 2017 British Museum publication, this assumption is based on the remains of a stucco halo of what is thought to have been ‘the principal image’ of a standing Buddha, with what would probably have been two smaller seated Buddhas on each side. (1) The frieze is aligned with a ceremonial stair that faces the valley where the capital of the Kushan empire, Kapisa, once was.

The drum stands on a square base, which measures 36 metres on each side, that ACHCO has recently excavated. They discovered that the base is also ornamented with classical style pilasters and has two pairs of stairs, on its east and west points. The base was an integral element of the rituals followed by Buddhist pilgrims, who would have circumambulated around the stupa.

A narrow outer plinth or base surrounds the main platform on all sides, also articulated with engaged piers made from schist fragments. Traces of stone paving have been found around this outer plinth, indicating that this level might also have been used by pilgrims for circumambulation. According to ACHCO, the stupa would have been plastered and painted, with gilded parasols on the apex of its dome, flanked by flags and banners that would have been visible by pilgrims progressing along the slopes below.

In 19th century English sources, stupas were generally referred to with the term ‘tope’, which may or may not derive from the Dari word for hill or mound, tappa. The name of the village and the stupa, Topdara, could then mean Valley of the Stupa. For example, English orientalist H.H. Wilson (1786-1860) notes in the first chapter of the book Ariana Antica (1841):

The edifices which have of late years attracted so much attention in the north-west of India and in Afghanistan, have been known by the general appellation of Topes, a word signifying a mound or tumulus, derived from the Sanscrit [sic] appellation Sthupa [sic], having the same import. [Ariana Antica pp 28-9.]

According to Masson’s explanation in the second chapter of the same book:

The term Tope, which is applicable to the more prominent and interesting of the structures under consideration, is that in ordinary use by the people of the regions in which they most abound. A tope is a massive structure comprising two essential parts, the basement and perpendicular body resting thereon. The latter, after a certain elevation, always terminates after the manner of a cupola, sometimes so depressed as to exhibit merely a slight convexity of surface, but more frequently approaching the shape of a cone.

Speaking about the Topdara stupa, one of the three stupas he examined “to the north of Kabul, and in the districts of Koh Daman and the Kohistan,” Masson wrote: “The next [tope] occurs at Dara, about twenty-five miles from Kabul, and is perhaps the most complete and beautiful monument of the kind in these countries, as it is one of the largest.”

Little is known about the history of the Topdara stupa regarding who commissioned it, when it was built and how it was used. Archaeological research in Afghanistan has been episodic and the number of properly excavated sites in country is still tiny, compared to neighbouring Iran or Pakistan. Serious archaeological explorations in Afghanistan only began with the creation of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922, which had obtained a monopolistic licence from the country’s then-ruler, Amanullah (more about him in this AAN dispatch). Subsequent wars, both World War II and the 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan since 1978, prevented the follow-up of much in-depth archaeological research. Masson’s written accounts from the 19th century, therefore, still offer an invaluable insight into the distant past of Afghanistan and its region.

Charles Masson (1800–53), explorer and collector of coins

Charles Masson was born in 1800 as James Lewis in Aldermanbury, which today is in the heart of the City of London. He grew up in a diverse community among Italian and French émigrés (see the British Museum publication, The Charles Masson Archive: British Library, British Museum and Other Documents Relating to the 1832– 1838 Masson Collection from Afghanistan). Although little is known about his early life, he was an educated man who started out knowing both Latin and Greek. The 2017 British Museum publication noted that Masson “certainly had a flair for languages, later learning to speak Hindustani and Persian. He also acquired some Pashto […]”.

After a quarrel with his father, James Lewis enlisted as an infantryman in the army of the British East India Company in 1821. He sailed to Bengal, where he served in the Third Troop of the First Brigade, the Bengal European Artillery, until 1827 when he deserted his regiment, then stationed in Agra, and took on the alias of Charles Masson. Under his assumed name he began a journey on foot from Agra through Rajasthan. He reached Peshawar in June 1828 and from there, several months later, travelled the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan with an unnamed ‘Pathan’ friend.

During his visits to Afghanistan he explored stupas mainly in the pursuit of coins. In the early 19th century, numismatics – the study and collection of coins – was popular in Great Britain, as was the deciphering of history through coins.

The first Buddhist site Masson visited in Afghanistan was Bamyan in late 1832, which he visited only once. Between 1833 and 1835, however, he surveyed and recorded over a hundred other sites around Kabul and Jalalabad, along the Kabul river, and in Wardak. He collected over 30,000 coins belonging to different periods of Afghanistan’s distant history and recorded the details of the stupas with the help of a camera lucida (an instrument in which rays of light are reflected by a prism to produce an image on a sheet of paper, from which a drawing can be made).

In January 1835, Lord Ellenborough, the British Governor General of India, requested a royal pardon for Masson, as he deemed him useful for the exploration of Afghanistan, a country of interest to Britain, which was soon to intervene for the first time (in the 1839-42 First Anglo-Afghan War). Masson was granted a royal pardon later that year. Lord Ellenborough’s plea described Masson as follows:

He is possessed of much science and ability. He has acquired and communicated much useful information respecting the condition of the People and Territories bordering on the Indus, and is now engaged in prosecuting his enquiries more of a Scientific than a Political nature to the north of the Hindu Kush… This person, whose private character appears to be unimpeached, except as regards the crime of desertion … seems disposed to atone as far as he can for that crime by useful contributions to the ancient history and to our present knowledge of the nations in the vicinity of the Indus.

All Masson’s finds went to the British East India Company, in return for its funding of his exploration of ancient sites in Afghanistan. The finds were sent on to the India Museum in London. When this closed in 1878, the British Museum was given all archaeological artefacts and a portion of the coins.

Masson’s accounts about the stupas

Masson’s written accounts of his explorations offer little on the history of the stupas he opened. But it was pioneer work nevertheless – like the contemporary French explorations in Egypt, it predated the establishment of archaeology as a science by almost 40 years.

Masson ventured to Charikar for the first time in June 1833. The 2017 British Museum publication on Masson writes that:

… a primary object of his ‘rambles’ in Kohistan was to find Alexandria ad Caucasum [a colony of Alexander the Great, one of many designated with the name Alexandria] or as Masson put it “to ascertain if any vestiges existed which I might venture to refer to Alexandria ad Caucasum, the site of which, I felt assured, ought to be looked for at the skirts of the Híndu Kush in this quarter.

Upon arrival in Charikar he soon discovered the Topdara stupa. In his 1842 Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab, he wrote that 58 kilometres north of Kabul and 5 kilometres south-west of Charikar:

[…] we came in a line with Topdara, celebrated for the magnificent tope it contains… Passing through [the village], we proceeded to the Tope, and I occupied myself for some time in making sketches of it. About the monument were numerous caper-trees of spices similar to that of the Baloch and Persian hills. Proceeding a little up the dara, which had a fine brook running down it, whose volume of water was considerably augmented by the earthquake of last year [June 1832], we found a convenient place to rest in, and were supplied by the villagers with mulberries.

On this first visit, Masson simply sketched the stupa and took a few bearings from a hill overlooking the plain. He opened the stupa in the same year. In Ariana Antica (pp. 116–17) he wrote:

[…] I examined it in 1833, and found in the centre a small apartment, formed by slate-stones, and containing the same materials as the mass of the building; amongst them I detected a fragment of bone, but no more useful result: the inner surfaces of the slate-stones had been covered with red lead [probably red ochre]. This was the first tope I opened, and subsequent experience led me to believe I had not proceeded far enough in the examination of the structure; in all events, it would have been satisfactory to have continued it.

The 2017 British Museum publication says that “Masson tunnelled into the dome at a point fairly high up the drum on both the east and west sides”, judging by “the visible holes that pierce the arcade of arches and pilasters.” The holes have now been repaired by ACHCO.

Although Masson’s chapter in Ariana Antica does not provide historical information about this particular stupa, it offers some valuable general observations about these structures in Afghanistan. For example, he said:

Topes must be considered as fronting the east, both because many of their basements are provided with flights of steps at that point, and because others of them have niches facing the east, over their ornamental belts. That these niches once held statues is almost certain, from the holes or apertures seen in them, as is observed in the smaller niches among the caves and temples of Bamian, which we know were occupied by statues or idols, from their mutilated remains still to be seen in some of them.

The Topdara stupa’s drum is ornamented with double ‘S’-shaped curves, which give it a decorative band of 56 identical niches framed by rounded arches. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 2019.

Masson also observed that stupas had been built on elevations overlooking the valleys. He wrote:

The locality and position of these structures demand attention. The favourite sites selected for them are at the skirts of hills, on elevations separated from each other by ravines. The topes of Kabul, Chahar Bagh [west of Jalalabad], and Hidda [sic – correct: Hadda], are remarkable for the distinct nature of their situation with reference to each other.

He also noticed [Ariana Antica, pp 48-9] that:

Water is constantly found near topes and their appendages, and it would appear to have been a leading principle in the selection of their sites, that springs of water should be at hand. It was, of course, indispensable to the conveniences of the communities secluded in the caves, and to their performance of their rites and ablutions; and it was also necessary that it should be pure and flowing from the rock.

The Topdara stupa, as Masson also described on his first visit, is also located in the vicinity of a mountain stream. During our visit in April 2019, the noisy stream, swollen from the melted snow from surrounding peaks, echoed through the nearby barren slopes. The Topdara stupa in its glory days might have been a truly meditative and peaceful site.

European discovery and explorations of Afghan Buddhist remains

Masson’s discoveries of Buddhists sites in the mid 19th century are probably the first relatively detailed accounts of this cultural heritage in Afghanistan. In fact, Europeans seem to have only become aware of the extensive Buddhist remains of Afghanistan, in particular those close to the main route between Peshawar and Kabul through the Khyber Pass, in the 1820s, the decade before Masson visited. The earliest travellers to report on the archaeological sites were William Moorcroft (1767–1825), veterinarian and superintendent of the East India Company, and George Trebeck (1800–25), geographer and draftsman, who were together on an expedition in search of new equestrian breeding stock. (2)

Some ten years later the Buddhist heritage in Afghanistan was still questioned by Europeans. In 1833, for example, Alexander Burnes (1805-41), a British explorer and diplomat associated with the Great Game and killed during the First Anglo-Afghan War in Kabul, published an article in the Journal of Asiatic Society about the Bamyan Buddhas. There he offered several different interpretations about the origins of the giant statues. He writes:

There are no reliques of Asiatic antiquity which have more roused the curiosity of the learned than the colossal idols of Bamiyan. […] It is stated that they were excavated about the Christian era by a tribe of kafirs (infidels), to represent a king named SALSAL and his wife, who ruled in a distant country, and was worshipped for his greatness. The Hindus assert them to have been excavated by the Pandus, and that they are mentioned in the great epic poem of the Mahabharat. Certain it is that the Hindus on passing these idols at this day hold up their hands in adoration, though they do not make offerings, which may have fallen into disuse since the rise of Islam. I am aware that a conjecture attributes these images to the Buddhists, and the long ears of the great figure make it probable enough.

Even in 1841 the Buddhist remains in Afghanistan were still not being fully recognised as such. An officer in the navy of the East India Company, who in 1836 was appointed to take part in a mission to Afghanistan led by Alexander Burnes, John Wood (1811–71), wrote in his book A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus: “the road by Bamiyan, although circuitous, rewards a stranger with a sight of its colossal idols, caves, and other records of the existence of a race of men unknown either to history or tradition.”

A sixth century travelogue about a journey from China to the Buddhist sites in today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan, entitled “Si-Yu-Hi” or “Record of the Western Countries” by Huan Tsang, a Buddhist monk, finally indisputably confirmed to Europeans that the statues in Bamyan were indeed Buddhas, when the text was translated into English in 1906.

It was in the end the de facto work of Charles Masson that largely uncovered the Buddhist remains in Afghanistan. Although the excavations by a medical officer from the Austro-Hungarian empire in Sikh services, Johann Martin Honigberger, in the 1830s were lauded in the 19th century, in hindsight they turned out to have been rather modest. Recent discoveries of documents point out that Honigberger only documented seven, while claiming that he examined 20 stupas. (3) Masson’s finds were much more numerous and better documented. Only in Ariana Antica, for example, he published small illustrations of a selection of 48 key sites. But this, according to the 2017 British Museum publication, “barely skims the surface of his unpublished records held in the India Office Collection of the British Library.”

H.H. Wilson in Ariana Antica said the two men “have been most distinguished for their researches amongst the topes.” He then proceeded to analyse the stupas discovered in Afghanistan and compared them with those scattered over the then-vast British Empire. He concluded:

[…] all are agreed that the topes are monuments peculiar to the faith of Buddha: there is some difference, not very material, as to their especial appropriation. Lieutenant Burnes, Mr. Masson, and M. Court, adopting the notions that prevail amongst the people of the country, are inclined to regard them as regal [sic] sepultures; but I am disposed with Mr. Erskine and Mr. Hodgson, and, I believe, with those learned antiquaries who have treated of the subject in Europe, to regard them as dahgopas on a large scale, that is, as shrines enclosing and protecting some sacred relic, attributed, probably with very little truth or verisimilitude, to Sakya Sinha or Gautama, or to some inferior representative of him, some Bodhisatwa, some high-priest or Lama of local sanctity.

Topdara – out of focus for almost 200 years

DAFA began formal excavations in Afghanistan in the 1926, focusing on Hadda, near Jalalabad. There, between 1926 and 1928, Jules Barthoux worked on a site containing the ruins of eight monasteries and around 500 stupas. The excavation yielded approximately 15,000 sculptures, only a relatively small portion of which were transferred to the National Museum in Kabul and the Guimet Museum in Paris. Other sculptures were kept in an open-air museum at Hadda, which was destroyed and looted during the fighting in the time of the Soviet occupation (1979-89).

Topdara was not the focus of DAFA’s research. However, in the Afghanistan Quarterly Review from 1953,  the founder of the Afghan Historical Society (Anjuman-e Tarikh-e Afghanistan) and the then-curator of the National Museum (est. 1931), Ahmad Ali Kohzad (1907–83) did mention the site. Kohzad wrote that the excavations of 1921 and 1922 had discovered “new sources of evidence concerning the local religion and the civilization of the Kushan era in Bagram, including small elephant statues pertaining to the guardian of the mountain.” (4) “This mountain” he said “is located on the western edge of Kapisa. In Buddhist times a great Buddhist temple had been built at the foot of this mountain, the ruins of which, according to M. Fouche, still exist at Topdara, in front of Tcharikar.”

The stupa was photographed in 1967 by Japanese sinologist and archaeologist Seiichi Mizuno, who had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan to supervise the excavation of Buddhist sites between 1959 and 1967. See his picture of Topdara on page 83 of this 2017 British Museum publication). The Topdara stupa was, however, never properly excavated until 2016, when ACHCO started its work. Whether the site hides a great Buddhist temple under the dirt, as suggested by Kohzad, remains to be seen.

The history of the Topdara stupa is still unknown. However, given its location near the site of the ancient city of Kapisa (around or in what is now Bagram, a small bazaar town mainly known for the gigantic air base nearby), ACHCO thinks the stupa may have been commissioned in around 400 CE. (5) Buddhism thrived in and around Kapisa for several centuries, as indicated by the many Buddhist monuments in this area, some explored and excavated, others unattended. Topdara seems to have been one of many stupas along the main road from Kabul to the ancient city of Kapisa, now Bagram, which included the Tepe Iskander stupa located 15 kilometres north of Kabul, and the site three kilometres south of the district centre of Mir Bacha Kot, also known as Saray-e Khwaja) (see here and here). A better-researched and documented history of the Topdara stupa, and the civilization it was part of, is, however, yet to be written.

Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert

(1) The 2017 British Museum publication, “Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan: Explorations, Excavations, Collections 1832–1835” edited by Elizabeth Errington, describes the drum of Topdara as such:

The drum is decorated with an arcade of ogee arches and Indo-Corinthian pilasters, with an upper tier of Indo-Persepolitan pilasters in the spandrels. There is a dowel hole in each archway for attaching a statue. On the east side, above this frieze, is a recessed tri-lobed arch (width 3.7m), which still contained the remains of the stucco halo of the principal image. This was probably a standing Buddha, flanked by a smaller kneeling figure on either side.

(2) According to H.H. Wilson, the first stupa that came to British attention in the region was discovered at Sarnath, in India, where an urn and a Buddha statue had been discovered by a local in 1794. This stupa was opened in 1835. Wilson also mentions explorations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), accounts of which had been published in 1799.  On Afghanistan stupas, Wilson said:

The use of the term tope in connexion with monuments of this shape was first adopted when the next building of the class was discovered in Upper India. In 1808 the embassy to Kabul, conducted by Mr. Elphinstone, when upon their way back to India, arrived at a part of the country between the Indus and the Jhelum, in which, according to the notions of Colonel Wilford, the capital of Taxiles [now known as Taxila, in today’s Pakistan], the ally of Alexander, was situated. A party left the camp to explore the neighbourhood for relics of antiquity, in confirmation of this opinion; and they met with this edifice, the Tope of Manikyala, a solid circular building of masonry, surmounted by a dome, and resting upon a low artificial mound.

(3) Honigberger spent around five months in Afghanistan in 1833. He gives a short rendering about this part of his journey in his Früchte aus dem Morgenlande oder Reise-Erlebnisse nebst naturhistorisch-medizinischen Erfahrungen, einigen hundert erprobten Arzneimitteln und einer Heilart, dem Medial-Systeme (Vienna 1851), translated into English under the title Thirty-five years in the East. Adventures, discoveries, experiments, and historical sketches, relating to the Punjab and Cashmere; in connection with medicine, botany, pharmacy, etc. (London 1852, online here). He only stated that “At Cabul … and Jellalabad … I opened a great many cupolas (tombs)” but he did not give their exact locations. He further mentioned that his collection from then had been sent to and published by the Asiatic Society in Paris in 1835. Another part of his collection which had been sent to Vienna was lost.

According to a 2017 British Museum publication, Honigberger claimed “to have opened a total of 20 stupas in the Kabul and Darunta regions, but he only documented the seven stupas containing relic deposits: Shevaki 1, Kamari 2, Seh Top 2, Kotpur 1, Barabad, Bimaran 3 and 5.” The publication further said:

However, Masson provides information on a further ten sites, bringing the total of identified Honigberger excavations to 17: the stupas of Korrindar and Topdara in the Koh-i-Daman to the north of Kabul (Masson 1841, Topes pl. IXc–d); Guldara on the southern side of the Shakh Baranta ridge and, west of Jalalabad, the Darunta sites of Kotpur 3, Passani 2, Bimaran 2, Deh Rahman 2, Surkh Tope and Nandara 1 and 2.

(4) These ‘elephant heads’ were called ‘Pilo Sara’ and ‘Pilo Solo’ in Sanskrit and Chinese before the Islamic era. In current-day Afghanistan, ‘Fil’ (colloquial ‘pil’) is also the word for elephant in Dari and Pashto.

(5) Although Buddhism could have been established in Afghanistan at any time during the last two or three centuries BCE, it is not until the advent of the 1st century CE that there is any tangible chronological evidence in the form of dated inscriptions and the inclusion of coins in the relic deposits (see here).



Categories: Defence`s Feeds

AAN Reads: An Afghanistan history covering 750 years

Thu, 02/01/2020 - 01:57

Eminent Afghanistan specialists and historians have praised Jonathan L Lee’s 2018 Afghanistan: a history from 1260 to the present as “detailed research of the highest quality” and even the new go-to “encyclopaedia” on this subject. It is indeed encyclopaedic, pulling interesting episodes out of the dark of Afghan history, but still, it is partly disappointing, says AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, who has read through the 780-page oeuvre and finds the post-1919 chapters riddled with factual errors.

This book is a gigantic undertaking in its scope. The praise heaped on it is overwhelming, although one should know to take the blurb printed on the dust cover of a book with a large pinch of salt. William Dalrymple has called Afghanistan: a history from 1260 to the present “a model of clarity [and] accuracy”; the renowned literary magazine, the Kirkus Review, an “encyclopaedia.” Chris Wyatt, of the University of Birmingham and himself an author on Afghanistan (Afghanistan in the Defense of Empire, London: Taurus, 2011), declared it “the last word on the history of Afghanistan.” The work by Jonathan L Lee, an Englishman residing in New Zealand. It came out at the end of 2018, but given its length – 780 pages – it is difficult to digest quickly.

The author’s approach – starting at such a specific time in history – creates expectations. In contrast to most authors, he starts neither too late, with the foundation of the Durrani empire in 1747 nor, at the other extreme, with Alexander the Great’s campaign, in what today is Afghanistan. The author starts instead in 1260. This is indeed a historical turning point insofar as Ghengis Khan’s invasion led to the destruction of much that existed in what become Afghanistan as we know it today, particularly the irrigation-based cultures in what is now Afghan Turkestan (northern Afghanistan). Indeed, the invasion shook power structures in the wider Central Asian region to the core. This date is an interesting choice. However, the author never really explains his reasons for this date. Instead, after a rather conventional overview of Afghanistan’s geographical situation and ethnic and religious composition, the book dives directly into describing events. Only in the very last paragraph of his conclusion does Lee write: “Afghanistan emerged from the collapse of three great empires” (p697), referring to the Saffavids, the Mughals, and the Khanate of Bukhara. That is what the book should have started with and developed from.

The book is, as such, in its width of detail, indeed encyclopaedic and gives us some strong chapters. They include thrilling accounts of the fall of the pre-Durrani Sadozai dynasty (a tribe to which former president Hamed Karzai belongs – his son bears the name of the dynasty’s most well-known ruler, Mir Wais); of the civil wars after Timur Shah’s death in 1793, the king who transferred the country’s capital from Kandahar to Kabul; of Afghanistan’s steps towards independence under Amir Amanullah (r. 1919-29); and, of the intra-dynastic conflicts of the Afghan monarchy in the 20th century. This has been done for the first time in such detail since Leon Poullada’s 1973 Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929. Particularly strong are Lee’s findings on the relationship between the Turkic tribes and empires of Transoxanian Central Asia and Afghanistan, and how the areas between the Hindu Kush mountains and Amu Darya became Afghan Turkestan; these included Amir Abdul Rahman’s far lesser known atrocities there (compared with those in the Hazarajat) which “encompassed all sections of society [or rather elites] from religious elites to the families of the former Uzbek amirs, the officers corps and rival Muhammadzais.”

There are plenty of not well-known facts and enlightening anecdotes in the book, such as that reports of Amir Abdul Rahman’s (r. 1880-1901) Turkestan atrocities

… eventually appeared in the Indian and British press, which led to a public outcry. Even Queen Victoria wrote to Salisbury expressing her revulsion of the Amir’s conduct.

Or that a woman (the widow of Amir Abdul Rahman) tried to topple his successor Amir Habibullah I in 1903 by instigating a military revolt (p414). Or that

… until 1879 there was an Armenian church in Kabul’s Bala Hisar. In the 1840s a daughter of one of the leaders of the Armenian community married [or maybe was married to] Sardar Muhammad ‘Azam Khan, who was briefly Amir of Afghanistan from 1867-8. (…) A handful of Georgian traders are also recorded as living in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, and early European explorers noted the grave of a Georgian bishop on the slopes of Kabul’s Koh-i ‘Asmayi. (Page 77 has a short rendering of the battle near Ghazni between the Georgian ghulaman (slave soldiers) of the Safavids, led by one Georgi Khan, against the Abdali and the Kakar who had refused to pay their taxes.)

This is all not surprising: Lee is best-known for his contributions to the history of northern Afghanistan, and particularly the little-known independent Uzbek khanates in those areas that came under Kabul’s rule in the 19th century. His most famous book previously was The ‘Ancient Supremacy’: Bukhara, Afghanistan and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901 (1996). One of his earlier papers, “The History of Maimana in Northwestern Afghanistan, 1731-1893”, also still makes for a thrilling read.

From Afghaniyat to ‘Pushtunism’?

In the chapters about Afghanistan’s post-independence period, Lee looks at developments through a somewhat narrower, primarily ethnic lens. He particularly focuses on the ruling royal family’s attempts at creating an Afghan national identity, by what he sees as establishing Pashtun “racial and cultural superiority” in Afghanistan. For this, he uses various terms: “Pushtunism”, at times “Pushtun”, or “ethno-nationalism,” or “Pushtun-Aryanism.” (He uses the rather unusual spelling “Pushtun/Pushtu” throughout the book; sometimes he writes “Pakhto.”).

Lee sees the beginnings of these tendencies in the pre-Amanullah years. He refers to Amanullah’s father-in-law and mentor Mahmud Tarzi’s concept of “Afghaniyya” (p441-2, or afghaniyat) as “the foundation stone of all subsequent royalist-nationalist discourse.” Tarzi’s followers, the Young Afghans, he adds, had conflated this concept “with social Darwinism, German ideas of racial supremacy and Aryanism.” Over the following parts of the book, Lee closely associates these ideas, and later policies, with ideas and ideologies – particularly German – that culminated in Nazism and the holocaust. He asserts that “some of the more radical Pushtunists claimed that the Pushtun ‘race’ was part of the Herrenvolk, or Master Race.” This seems to hint at Muhammad Gul Khan Momand, to whom Lee later dedicates a separate subchapter. (We will get back to him later.)

That is heavy artillery. However, the author does not give us even a brief analysis, or sources, of which authors and ideas influenced Tarzi’s (or Momand’s) concepts, or those later of the Young Afghans. He refers to the “Aryanist” and “German-born Orientalist Max Müller” (1823-1900; p441) but tells us how he influenced the German Nazi party, not whether he was read by Tarzi or other Afghans. It is known that there were French and British contributors to the concept of Herrenvolk (Master People) and Herrenrasse (Master Race), such as Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816-82), or Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), who had been widely read in Asia (see also this AAN analysis).

This is compounded by incorrect details, which – together with the mentioned assertions – often seem to border on bias. For example, Lee tells us (p439) that “the vast majority of citizens of Afghanistan” did not speak Pashto (author’s highlight and that “by the most generous estimates Pushtuns make up only one-third of Afghanistan’s population.” Well, the ‘most generous’ estimates, among them some Soviet ones, put the figure at 60 per cent. Just before, on the same page, the author had correctly reminded us that “[p]opulation estimates vary considerably.” Also, his assertions that Pashto was not “the language of the literate” and that “the primary native speakers of Pushtu were mostly illiterate peasants, the maldar nomads and the semi-independent hill tribes of the Afghan-Indian frontier” are problematic. It ignores that, as a result of Amanullah’s reforms of the education system, a strong Pashto-speaking segment of the Afghan intelligentsia had emerged (see this AAN paper; many of them left the country after the Soviet invasion in 1979). Lee goes as far as ridiculously claiming (p441) that “Tarzi’s advocacy for Pushtu as the national language of Afghanistan (…) was equivalent to the British government making Welsh the national language of Britain.” (There are fewer than one million Welsh speakers among a total population of over 66 million in the United Kingdom.)

Another major inaccuracy is the claim that Pashto had been declared “the only official language of Afghanistan” in 1936 (p527). In fact, Pashto was made the second official language, next to the country’s lingua franca, Dari (Farsi, Persian) which already had this status. The promotion was, in fact, part of a bilingual nation-building project, as Pashto, up to that point in history, had been relegated to the margins of official use. What in reality was an upgrade of Pashto to the same status as Dari, makes Lee’s mistake look like an attempt to establish Pashto linguistic supremacy. Indeed, this was not popular, as officials were forced to attend language courses. The measure sounds less authoritarian when one reads that even Nader Shah (r. 1929-33), his brother and children took the lessons. That the increased use of Pashto led to “chaos”, as Lee claims, referring to a British source from more than two decades later (1959), goes a bit far. There are no reports to that avail elsewhere in the literature.

The role of Muhammad Gul Khan Momand

One of the many players in Afghan history Lee pulls out of obscurity is Muhammad Gul Khan Momand (Lee writes Mohmand, but there is no ‘h’ in the Pashto original of this tribal name). As interior minister immediately after Nader Shah overthrew Habibullah II Kalakani in 1929 (AAN background here), and simultaneously provincial governor, Momand became one of the most influential politicians of pre-World War II Afghanistan. Originally a military officer, but also interested in linguistics, particularly, but not exclusively, of his mother tongue, he used his political position to become a driving force in the promotion of the Pashto language (1). James A Caron, the author of the only extensive western publication about Momand (Cultural Histories of Pashtun Nationalism, Public Participation, and Social Inequality in Monarchic Afghanistan, 1905-1960) quotes a fellow Pashtun intellectual, Sediqullah Reshtin, as saying about Momand that he “brought about political Pashto.”

Lee accuses Momand of forcibly relocating non-Pashtun “indigenous communities as well as Turkman and Uzbek refugees from Central Asia” to southern Afghanistan, “confiscating their lands and properties, which were sold off cheaply, or gifted, to a new wave of Pushtun colonists from Nangahar [sic], many of whom were members of Gul Khan’s Mohmand tribe.” (pp535-6) He also accuses Momand of “cultural vandalism,” by carrying out a programme of

… province-wide redevelopment of the main provincial towns, which aimed at the eradication of emotive symbols of indigenous culture… as the consequence [of which] most of the urban centres of northern Afghanistan lost their character and charm and were replaced by vistas of concrete uniformity.

In Lee’s word, this sometimes sounds (although he does not use the term) like ‘ethnic cleansing.’

There is no doubt about the – also forcible – resettlement of Pashtuns from the south and east of the country, the so-called naqelin, to northern and northeastern Afghanistan. How often this was accompanied with displacement, the book leaves unclear. (For a collection of secondary sources on Pashtunisation strategies in northern Afghanistan by Christian Bleuer, see here.) Lee also only gives a few examples of the alleged cultural destruction, apart from  the settlement and fortress of Minglik, on the road from Aqcha to the Amu, and “an area of several hundred [square] meters around” what he calls “the shrine of Shah-e Mardan” in Mazar-e Sharif being “completely levelled.” (The shrine’s more commonly used name is Rauza-ye Ali. There is a shrine, Shah-e Mardan, in Kabul.) (2)

Robert Byron, whose famous 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana Lee quotes in support of his argument, does not speak of wide-ranging destruction. Byron, who describes how he met governor Momand, confirms the clearing around the Rauza-ye Ali and “extravagant eccentricities” in the reconstruction of Balkh town. However, in contrast to Lee, he mentions that Balkh had been destroyed before during the short-lived Soviet military incursion into northern Afghanistan in favour of Amanullah in 1929, and does not consider it a scheme to eradicate ‘symbols of indigenous culture’. He even enjoyed a “smartened up” Mazar-e Sharif (p287):

The bazaars are new and whitewashed, and their roofs are supported on piles which let in light and air underneath. In the new town (…), the roads are edged by neat brick gutters. (…) it would be churlish not to admit that the town is the pleasanter for these improvements.

Byron also does not mention forced replacements, but seeing “Afghans from the south, Persian-speaking Tajiks, Turcoman, and Hazaras,” for example, in the bazaar of Maimana (p277). True, he describes Momand Khan as an “extreme nationalist”, but adds that this kind of nationalism existed Asia-wide and was “inevitable” in its “desire for self-sufficiency” and to “no longer be called interesting for the lack of plumbing.”

Events of mass displacement around this time, early to mid-20th century, which, in Lee’s words, sound like ethnic and cultural ‘cleansing’ are also not mentioned in other sources. While Abdurrahman Khan did inflict mass murder, wide-scale famine, torture, imprisonment and exile upon much of the non-Pashtun and rebellious Pashtun population of northern Afghanistan in the last two decades of the 19th century, the 20th century witnessed much less population displacement. Rather, lands newly irrigated as part of agricultural development projects were given to southern Pashtun settlers and exiles. In Thomas Barfield’s words, while the government’s “strategy was to overwhelm the Uzbek with sheer numbers of settlers,” land in parts of the north was “an expanding resource” thanks to land reclamation projects. As a result, Pashtun resettlement in many areas could happen without displacing other ethnic groups (Thomas Barfield, “The impact of Pashtun immigration on nomadic pastoralism in northeastern Afghanistan,” in JW Anderson & RF Strand (Editors), Ethnic processes and intergroup relations in contemporary Afghanistan. New York: Afghanistan Council of the Asia Society, 1978, p3).

Caron confirms that Momand “equated the preservation of an authentically Pashtun cultural heritage with the maintenance of a legitimate right of Pashtun political hegemony, and by extension cultural dominance.“ He adds that “bureaucrats [including Pashtun intellectuals such as Reshtin] at the center were disquieted by their sense that Momand wished to extend the hegemony of Pashtunism outside an appropriation of aristocratic court symbols, and into the realms of education, the bazaar and even the home.” This group “decided to stop the trend,” and did so. Momand was sidelined. Caron adds:

After 1946, Pashto and Pashtun culture was, by official policy, to be promoted by the state solely in the realm of publication activities, filtered through a number of periodicals and through the activities of the Pashto Tolana. The Tolana was still the premier official cultural organization in the country, but of course, reading was not a mandatory state activity. This was quite a bit less than Momand had worked for.

This part is missing in Lee’s book. Also, his accusation that Momand was responsible for “imprisoning and executing basmachi leaders” (p535) stretches what is available in other sources. (3) Under Nader Shah and Momand’s governorship in northern Afghanistan, military force was surely used to drive Basmachi fighters back over the Soviet border. There, some of them were caught and executed (Ibrahim Beg in 1931), but there is no other source claiming that Afghan forces had a direct role in ‘executing’ Basmachis.

Nazi German influence

Lee has come to the conclusion that the Afghan monarchy’s close relations with Nazi Germany in the 1930s strongly influenced their policies of ‘Pushtunism’. He asserts (p526) that:

Sympathy with Hitler’s Germany and National Socialism ran deep within the ruling elite, due in part to the government’s active promotion of Pushtun nationalism, which was increasingly conflated with ideas of racial and cultural superiority and Aryanism.”

Indeed, Afghan-German relations were close over this period. Definitely of importance is when Lee points to an academic source that clearly shows anti-Semitic elements in the policies of Abdul Majid Zabuli, the then economy minister, namely Sara Koplik’s book A political and economic history of the Jews of Afghanistan (Leiden and Boston, 2015). According to her, Zabuli’s sherkats (joint stock companies), the basis of the Afghan state capitalism economy he intended to create, excluded Sikhs and Jews from having shares. This particularly hurt the community of Bukharan Jews who had fled from Central Asia after the Soviet takeover. According to Lee, they were the main traders in qaraqul (lambskin) and, therefore, Zabuli’s main competitors. He further writes that, in 1933, the Bukharan Jews and the much older Jewish communities in northern Afghanistan were forced to relocate south of the Hindu Kush, accused “of being fifth columnists for Moscow,” followed by anti-Jewish riots in Herat in 1935 and the departure of most Afghan Jews to Palestine. Byron (p280) confirms that Andkhoi’s Jews “had been deported from here to Herat in order that the trade should be no longer in the hands of ‘foreigners’.”

But Lee wrongly states, for example, that King Muhammad Zaher and his Prime Minister Muhammad Hashem Khan attended the propagandistic 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi-ruled Berlin (p531). It was Hashem’s younger brother, and later war minister, Shah Mahmud who attended. Hitler even managed to persuade him to attend the notorious Nazi party congress that year in Nuremberg where the anti-Jewish race laws were inaugurated. This episode, intensively researched by a number of German authors, is not in Lee’s book. (Apart from 15 Persian sources, his bibliography only has English-language ones.)

It never becomes clear what Shah Mahmud thought of Nazi ideology. It is known that Hashem Khan, who visited Germany privately for medical treatment later the same year, apparently did not sympathise with Nazis ideas, and said so openly. A German source quotes him telling the German ambassador in Kabul (apparently not a fanatical Nazi) that he hoped that the Nazis would not gain the upper hand, as this would mean “the end of peace in the world.” Hashem reportedly also raised concerns about the activities of the local Nazi party group at the German embassy in Kabul, drawing large audiences with their public display of propaganda films. At that time, there was no cinema in Afghanistan and, of course, no TV yet either.

There must also be a question mark after Lee’s allegation that the Afghan team in the 1936 Olympics marched into the stadium for the opening of the games showing “the Nazi salute.” There had also been the same allegation made against other teams, including that from France. Research however shows that “the alleged Hitler salute is identified in case of most teams as the ‘Olympic salute’.” This was also given with an outstretched right arm, and could be confused with the Nazi salute. Therefore, the Olympic movement abandoned it after World War II. Lee also says that Zabuli married the daughter of a German policeman in Berlin in 1929 (p515). Again, his source is not clear, but this author, who has researched Zabuli’s political role, found that most sources say he was married to the daughter of a German-Russian trader family in St Petersburg. It is possible though that he had several wives, as his National Bank (Bank-e Melli) – founded in 1932, and which had a monopoly over Afghanistan’s lucrative qaraqul export – had branches all over the world, including in Moscow, Berlin and New York.

Lee continues by telling the reader that Zabuli, who visited Nazi Germany several times, had told Hitler “that he was prepared to depose King Zahir Shah and Hashim Khan and declare war on British India.” This is only half true: Yes, Zabuli, like other Afghan politicians, offered Nazi Germany Afghanistan’s support against Britain by starting either a guerrilla war, or even open warfare in British India, in exchange for a German assurance that after their victory over Britain, Kabul would receive back the North-West Frontier Province of British India, once separated from Afghanistan. However, the plan to topple Zaher Shah and to put Amanullah back on the throne (he was in exile in Mussolini’s Italy then) was pursued via exiled supporters of Amanullah living in Berlin, such as Sediq Khan Charkhi, according to German files. (The plan did not fly in Berlin because it did not want Mussolini’s influence in that part of Asia.) (4)

It is not correct that the Young Afghan movement, inspired by Mahmud Tarzi, the mentor of later Amir Amanullah, “was regarded [by whom?] as almost synonymous” with the first constitutionalist movement in Afghanistan of 1908/09, the Mashruta-khawahan. (There never was a “Hizb-i Mashruta” (p430ff); this was a term attributed post factum to the group.) (5) Literature usually treats the Young Afghans as a continuation of their ideas, but there was not much personnel continuity, not least because the leading Mashruta-khawahan were executed. Lee even entertains the idea that Tarzi, whose nephew was among the executed, might have betrayed the conspirators (p436). This is a serious accusation and would need more than speculation.

Osama, Mullah Omar and other issues  

Factual mistakes also dot other parts of the book’s sections on Afghanistan’s history in the 20thcentury. One of his most blatant errors is the allegation that al-Qaeda leader, Osama ben Laden, resettled from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996 on the “specific invitation” of Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (p 643). It is correct rather that Osama came to Afghanistan, namely to Jalalabad, during the mujahedin government of interim president Borhanuddin Rabbani (see for example, Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, 2004, pp9, 325-7).

Borhanuddin Rabbani was not the “President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” from 1992 to 1996 (p567). (It was the ‘Islamic State’ – although not the terrorist organisation of current days. At least in the beginning, Rabbani was also only the interim president.) Daud was not the president of the “Democratic Republic of Afghanistan” (p580; it was only ‘Republic’). Harakat-e Enqelabi-ye Islami was not founded in “the 1960s” – this was a predecessor group named Khuddam ul-Furqan (p566; AAN background here). The “bicameral system” in Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution did not consist of the Loya Jirga and the Wolesi Jirga (p561), but the Wolesi and the Meshrano Jirga (the Senate).

Shah Mahmud’s 1946 cabinet did not have “a decidedly Leftist and Reformist leaning” (p539), nor were there “Communist sympathisers” (p550). There were simply no leftists nor even just reformists in Afghanistan in the 1940s. The leftist PDPA and the Maoist Shola-ye Jawed movement only emerged in 1965. The 2012 Memories of Khalilullah Khalili, the sha’er ul-shuara (poet laureate) at the pre-WWII Afghan court and a major source of Lee for this period, describes all the hand kissing and lack of debate in the cabinet. (6) The reformists were in opposition.

In fact, it was Shah Mahmud’s personally more ‘liberal’ approach (in contrast to his brother and predecessor’s paranoid authoritarian style) that opened the way for a re-emergence of reformist groups. After becoming prime minister in 1946, he released the Young Afghan political prisoners and, for the first time in Afghan history, allowed halfway free elections in 1949 based on secret voting. Five reformists elected to the Wolesi Jirga formed a faction named Jabha-ye Melli (National Front), echoing the name of the party of their role model, the nationalising Prime Minister Sadeq Mosadeq in neighbouring Iran. Lee wrongly calls it “Jabha-ye Mardum” (People’s Front) (p549). (7) He is correct in calling the faction “critical of the government.” In June 1951, they launched the first ever vote of no-confidence against an Afghan cabinet. But this movement was not critical of “the King” as Lee claims (p549). On the contrary, its members showered him with pledges of loyalty and appeals to put himself at the front of the reforms. The king did so in 1964, but only after most of the reformists had gone through years of jail under his successor Daud (1953-63). (8) Also, describing an earlier period, Lee conflates an embryonic Afghan communist group – the “Central Committee of Young Afghan Revolutionaries” founded in exile in Bukhara in 1920 – with Tarzi’s Young Afghans (p480).

Writing about post-Taleban Afghanistan, Lee makes the current US peace negotiator and post-2001 US special envoy and ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, a “monarchist” (p642). Khalilzad’s 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ) action of removing the former king as a candidate for head of state, because he was in competition with US favourite Hamed Karzai, does not bolster this characterisation (see AAN background). Furthermore, Lee wrongly says the 2001 Bonn agreement on Afghanistan was “valid for six months” (p655) – it was valid, as its official title (“Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions“) said, until 2004 with the first presidential election. (9) Former King Zaher was not “Honorary Chairman of the National Assembly” (which is the bicameral parliament), but of the 2002 ELJ (p660). He was also not “unilaterally” given this post by then head of state Hamed Karzai; rather this was stipulated by the Bonn agreement. The ELJ did not elect an “interim President,” but instead a chairman (the title ‘president’ was only used after the first full-scale election in 2004), and ELJ members were not “nominated by elected provincial councils” (p660). Also, not “five hundred individuals, including former mujahidin commanders… turned up” at the ELJ of which “fifty… were admitted to the sessions” (p661), but rather Karzai was given the right to nominate 50 extra members, and he chose some of those commanders and warlords. In the 2009 election, after the heavily fraudulent first round of the presidential elections, Karzai did not “refuse to step down,” but he did want to avoid a run-off.

Lee also revives a few cold war myths. He says that “Marxist sympathisers were given the nod by Soviet embassy officials to go ahead with the planned coup” in 1973. Given the importance of this event, a differentiated discussion of this allegation (p580) would have been a must in a 780-page book. Khalqis were alsonot in power after this coup (p583). That Parchamis and Khalqis did not share “Daud’s obsession with Pushtunistan” is far-fetched. Lee also picks up the controversial assertion that, after the Soviet invasion of 1979, the Karmal regime “administratively” signed over the Wakhan corridor in Badakhshan (p599) to the USSR, so that Moscow could install surveillance facilities there during the time of the East-West nuclear arms race of the 1980s. (10) Finally, Lee repeats the widespread, but oversimplistic ethnic description of the PDPA’s two main factions, Khalq and Parcham, the former “a mainly Ghilzai Pushtun party” – not explaining what the Ahmadzai Ghilzai Najibullah (r. 1986-92) (and others) did in Parcham. (11) He wrongly puts the PDPA founding in January 1964 (p563), and Neda-ye Khalq newspaper, that was published for just a few months in 1951, into the post-1964 ‘decade of democracy’ (p563), confusing it with the PDPA’s Khalq newspaper.

This list of errors (which is not exhaustive here, see footnote 12) makes it look as if the author had written parts of this book from the top of his head, without much double-checking. Also, the sourcing is often thin. (Admittedly, the necessary endnotes would have expanded the book by at least another 100 pages.) Apart from all that, there is a whole series of misspellings, confused names and linguistic mix-ups. (13)

Given the above, the publishers and the author should have taken a bit more time and done more peer reviewing before throwing the book into the market. One can only hope a second edition is published – as the book’s plenty of material deserves this. (14)

Myths and demystification

There is no doubt that Afghanistan – the economically weak rump of the Durrani empire  – has been ruled and dominated up to the fall of the monarchy in 1973 (15) by a Pashtun tribal aristocracy. (AAN will soon publish a report on Afghanistan as a rentier state.) There is no doubt that its rule over the non-Pashtun areas and people now in its territory was established by brutal force, taking on genocidal aspects under Amir Abdul Rahman (r. 1880-1901) and his subjugation of the Hazaras. (It does not make it better for the victims and their descendants that such policies were widespread in that era, from the subjugation of the American West to the British Boer Wars in South Africa, or Germany’s pushing the Herero and Nama people of today’s Namibia, who had risen up against them, into the desert to die, to the Russian and Soviet conquest and re-conquest of Transoxania.) There is no doubt that there is widespread denial about these episodes of Afghan history among the Pashtun elites, and that there was never any official  taking stock or apology for these crimes. Such denial has been repeated concerning the war crimes committed in the post-1978 factional wars. There is no doubt that these open historical wounds still shape the politics of present-day Afghanistan.

It is doubtful whether Kabul’s courting of Berlin’s support can be equated with full-scale sympathy for Nazi ideology. Despite all the unsavoury elements of Pushtunist ideology and the systematic exclusion, by law, of non-Pashtuns from government positions and officers’ ranks in the security forces up to 1964, insinuating that ‘Pushtunism’ somewhat equals fascism – a regime that stands for the industrialised annihilation of ethnic and religious minorities and political opponents – goes a long step too far. Other Asian leaders who also tried to win Nazi Germany’s support, such as Burma’s Aung San or India’s Subhas Chandra Bose, cannot be characterised as Nazis. It can possibly be held in the favour of the 1930s Afghan elites that they – like most politicians in the west at that time – had no idea that the Nazis’ anti-Semitism would lead to the Holocaust. In opening up for this interpretation, the author also runs the risk of playing into heated arguments about the character of the current state and government that do very practically jeopardise not “ethnic coherence,” but political stability.

This is the more so the case, as aggressive ethno-nationalism is also on the rise among other ethno-political groups in Afghanistan, and ethno-political groups who have experienced exclusion do not behave differently when in power (AAN reporting here). This probably shows that we do not talk about a phenomenon of ‘ethnicity’ only, but about power.

It is definitely necessary to deconstruct certain Afghan historical myths, discover under-researched periods, and fill in blanks in Afghan historiography as Lee sets out to do. In doing so, the author overshoots his target in the chapters on the post-1919 period. This does a grave disfavour to the rest of the book which is, indeed, richer in detail than other recent histories of Afghanistan by a western author and, therefore, a worthy read.

Jonathan L Lee, Afghanistan: a history from 1260 to the present, Reaktion Books, London, 2018. 784pp.

Book cover photo: Reaktion Books website


(1) Momand was Nader Shah’s first interior minister, starting in 1929. Simultaneously, he served as governor, first in Paktia, then Parwan and Kapisa, then Kandahar, and finally as military governor (rais-e tanzima) of the four provinces of Badakhshan, Qataghan, Afghan Turkestan and Maimana (not only of Balkh, as Lee writes) from 1933 to 1940 and Minister of State from 1940, according to this Afghan source. (Ludwig Adamec’s 1975 Who’s Who of Afghanistan has other figures: interior minister from 1930 to 1939, and Minister of State starting from 1945; it is not clear how long he held this position.) Momand was the author of several linguistic books, including the first Pashto grammar written by an Afghan (it was lost due to the destruction caused by Habibullah II) and a Pashto-Farsi dictionary (1938). He initiated the foundation of the Pashto Anjuman-e Adabi (Pashto Literature Society) in Kandahar in November 1932 that he, in 1937, merged with other local organisations into the Pashto Tolena (Pashto Society) in Kabul, the institution tasked with promoting Pashto. (It later became part of Afghanistan’s Academy of Sciences.) In the programme of the Pashto Anjuman-e Adabi, which Momand himself presented at its founding session, there was nothing postulating a Pashto supremacy: apart from collecting and printing Pashto language texts, it stipulates that members would work towards “attracting the entire nation’s attention and optimism for the development of the Pashto language, by publishing a literary magazine.” At one point, he indeed spoke of the “Pashtun nation,” but he did not equate it with Afghanistan (the reviewers 1985 diploma thesis, here).

Earlier, in 1929, Momand had founded a Pashto newspaper, De Kor Gham, in Jalalabad, in opposition to Habibullah Kalakani, and turned the Dari-language Kandahar weekly Tolo-ye Afghan, founded under Amanullah, into a bilingual publication in 1932. In the late 1940s, he was instrumental in bringing about the Wesh Zalmian movement (later a party), one of the earliest Afghan political parties (background in this paper of the author). Momand died in 1964.

(2) Interestingly, Lee blames the destruction of the famous covered bazaar of Tashqurghan (also known as Kholm, in Samangan province), “one of the few towns to escape this cultural vandalism,” on whom[?], which is usually attributed to the Soviet forces in the 1980s and/or to a 1990s firefight between Dostam Jombesh forces and fighters of Hezb-e Islami (p537).

(3) The Basmachi were insurgents fighting Soviet rule in Central Asia across the Amu Darya, often from safe havens in northern Afghanistan, sometimes with Afghan support, sometimes persecuted, depending on how Soviet-Afghan relations were playing out. Under Amanullah, reluctantly, and under the short rule of Habibullah Kalakani in 1929, Kabul supported them. (more about Afghan-Soviet and Afghan-Basmachi relations in this AAN paper)

(4) See: Johannes Glasneck and Inge Kircheisen, Türkei und Afghanistan: Brennpunkte der Orientpolitik in zweiten Weltkrieg, Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1968, pp212-4.

(5) Lee also calls Tarzi’s attempts to create the theory of Afghan nationalism a “jumble of inappropriate ideas cut and pasted from Turkish nationalism” (p440). This might be the case, but he bases that on the argument that Tarzi’s term for nation (watan) meant the much smaller region of one’s birth “in colloquial Kabuli Persian.” Apart from the fact that this is also the case in Pashto, this is no argument, as Tarzi tried to re-interpret concepts he indeed borrowed from the religious and intellectual discourse he was familiar with.

Inexplicably, Lee repeatedly talks about a “Sunni party” or “faction” (pp412, 425) and then of a “sycophantic Royalist Party” (p487) at the court. At that time, there was no Shia influence at the court, or in Afghan politics generally, to speak of, so this term is superfluous, and there were definitely no non-Royalist ‘parties’ there. (There were a few scattered early republicans, also among the mashruta-khwahan, but in exile.)

(6) The Memories of Khalilullah Khalili, edited by his daughter Marie Khalili and Afzal Nasiri, were printed privately in Virginia (US) in 2012. Khalili calls one of the few reformers of that time, Abdul Rahman Mahmudi, “a faithful Muslim” who “would have never opted for the leftist ideology.”

(7) Lee also calls a 1940s political organisation initiated by Daud and Zabuli, the Klub-e Melli (Kabul Club) the “Kabul branch” of the reformist Wesh Zalmian movement (Lee writes Wish or Wikh) (p 548). The Club indeed was founded only after Daud’s and Zabuli’s attempts to co-opt the Wesh Zalmian were rebuffed by them.

(8) The National Front later grew to 16 members. Mobilising between 30 and 40 others of the 120 MPs for their vote of non-confidence in June 1951, they were still outvoted. Nevertheless, Lee writes that Daud, during a 1953 visit to Moscow, had been encouraged to replace Shah Mahmud, as the latter had (the still not existing) “Communist sympathisers” imprisoned. Neither were the movement’s print organs “broadsheets,” but rather small-format, hand-copied pamphlets produced on primitive print machines called Gestettner.

(9) Lee also wrongly writes that late mujahedin leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani “backed” the Rome group (which he wrongly calls “Rome Party”; p655), one of the four delegations at the Bonn conference. Gailani had his own one delegation, the Peshawar Group, led by his son, Sayed Hamed Gailani, now his successor.

(10) Reports of a Soviet annexation of the Wakhan made the rounds in the media in the early 1980s (see one media report here), but sources were usually anonymous “diplomats” or Pakistan. This 2003 UN report, giving a history of the Wakhan, including in the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, does not mention an annexation at all, while saying only that the Soviets built and manned a post at the border with China, in order to cut off Chinese support for anti-Soviet insurgents.

(11) He also makes him “Najib Allah Khan”; a title he most likely would never have used (p620).

(12) Lee refers to Arbab Ibrahim Beg, a 1940s Hazara rebel against Kabul’s heavy taxation, as “Gawsewar” (he was actually a son of Gawsewar) and a “religious leader” (p539; he was merely the son of a khan). He even makes him the father of Shia political activist Sayed Muhammad Ismail Balkhi (p550). Although they were jointly accused of having been involved in a coup attempt in 1949 (Lee dates it to 1951), they were not related to each other at all, except for their religious denomination. This error seems to originate from Khalili memoirs (see FN 6).

Abdul Hadi Dawe, a leading Young Afghan, is called “Dawai” (p437); Abdul Rahman Mahmudi, one of the five reformist MPs in 1949 was a Kabuli Tajik, not a Pashtun “Mohmand” (p563). Zaher Shah was not 19 years old (p530) when he ascended the throne in 1933, but – officially – 18 and, in reality, only 17; he was made one year older to be able by law to become king at all, as he liked to tell visitors after he returned to Afghanistan in 2002. This author also doubts that former Afghan Prime Minister Hashem Maiwandwal was an Ahmadzai (p567; there are not many Ahmadzai in his area of origin, Maiwand district, in southern Afghanistan.

The Yari brothers, leading Maoist activists of the 1960s, were from Daykundi, not from “Jaughori.” There was no PDPA splinter group called Jawanan-e Zahmatkash (p564); this is possibly a confusion with Jamiat-e Enqelabi-ye Zahmatkashan-e Afghanistan (JAZA; Revolutionary Toilers Association of Afghanistan) – which, despite the name, was predominantly Pashtun.

Fazl Hadi Shinwari was not a minister, but Chief Justice (p657); ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum was not “first deputy prime minister” (p659) but First Vice President under Ashraf Ghani.

There are also no Orakzai, Bangash and Turi Pashtuns in Paktia and Paktika (p34), perhaps only some refugees. These tribes live on the Pakistani side o the border.

(13) The first typo is on the first page of the introduction, “wulswalis” instead of “wuluswalis”, for districts. This is followed on the next page by “Nangahar” (an “r” missing) and Spingar. Spinghar, with its missing “h,” is a toponym and stands for “White Mountains” in the east of country. “Ghar” is the word for “mountain”, while “gar” is a suffix to indicate professions (kargar, worker; buzgar, farmer [literally goatherd]; zargar, goldsmith…). Instead, an “h” is superfluously added to “Khushk,” a district of Herat province, two pages further. This is not about different systems of transcription, but about distinguishing between different consonants in Afghan languages, such as “k” versus “kh” (see Kandahar and Khost). There is “Deh Kundi,” instead of Daykundi (p662), Nadd-i ‘Ali (p28) instead of Nad-i ‘Ali, or Nadali. “Tang-i Waghjan” (p501) should be Tangi-ye Waghjan (“tangi” not “tang” being “gorge”). The politician Shamsuddin Majruh lacks an “s” (p561). That such errors occur throughout the entire book is not a sign of ‘accuracy.’

Some mistakes simply should be embarrassing for a Persian speaker. Lee mixes the name of a famous 1920s governor of northeastern Qataghan province and promoter of Afghanistan’s cotton producing company Spinzar, with the name of an Afghan river harbour, calling him “Sher Khan Bandar.” Bandar means “port”; the man’s correct name was Sher Khan Nasher. Nanwayis (“bakers”) become “nanbais” (p583), Saudi King Faisal “Faizal” (p587), the Tsarendoi (the regular police) the “Defenders of the Revolution” militia (p600). Lee also mixes Dari and Pashto, claiming, grammatically incorrectly, that Daud was called “Surkh Sardar” (the Red Prince) (p559). In correct Dari, this would be Sardar-e Surkh, while in Pashto it would be Sur Sardar. The same where he calls a famous tribal leader “Loya Khan” (p538), which should be Loy Khan, as Pashto, in contrast to Dari, has grammatical genii.

(14) It should also correct mistakes that go on the publisher: the mistaken chapter headers over hundreds of pages. “Nadir Shah and the Afghans, 1732-47” is not only printed at the top of this chapter’s pages, but also in the following six ones, from page 116 to 411. This makes checking footnotes extremely difficult. The same is the case with the chapter heading “A house divided, 1933-73”, which is also wrongly put over one extra chapter. Only after rectifying these mistakes does this book have a chance to become the go-to source on Afghan historiography as it is advertised.

(15) The monarchy ended in 1973, but the 1973-78 republic, under former prince (Sardar) Muhammad Daud, can be considered as the last, short chapter of that era. After 1978, Afghanistan has been ruled mainly by Pashtuns again, with the exception of 1992-96, but under drastically changed, but still authoritarian political systems.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

“Our Lives Changed”: Afghans remember the coming of the Soviet troops

Fri, 27/12/2019 - 02:14

Forty years ago, Soviet forces entered Afghanistan, killed then President Hafizullah Amin from the Khalq faction of the ruling communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) on 27 December 1979 and brought to power Babrak Karmal, who was from the rival Parcham faction. The move was meant to be a relatively short-lived, regime change operation, but swiftly turned into a fully-fledged occupation that would last one long decade and plunge the country into an intricate, devastating armed conflict from which it has yet to emerge. AAN has spoken to a range of people about their memories of those days and how the Soviet invasion affected them and changed their lives  (interviews by the AAN team, compiled by Reza Kazemi).

This is the second dispatch about the Soviet invasion on 25 December and the subsequent killing and deposing of Hafizullah Amin on 27 December 1979. It offers Afghan memories of these events. An earlier dispatch described the dynamics that led to the Soviet decision to intervene by force and how this was part of a wider global reordering that still reverberates today.

For this dispatch, AAN team members interviewed thirteen Afghans; ten men and three women, who remember the days when the Soviet troops arrived in Afghanistan (the capital Kabul and the three provinces of Baghlan, Ghazni and Kunduz) and installed a client regime more favourable to the Soviet Union. Back at that time our interviewees’ occupations were: three low-ranking government civilian employees, one army officer, four students, two teachers, one housewife, one self-employed man and one flour mill owner. Some were pro- and some anti-regime. Some went on to become mujahedin or refugees. Many ended up deciding to leave the country altogether. Their memories reveal how shocked Afghan people were by the Soviet invasion and, in the quickly unfolding events, how difficult they found it not to take a side in the internationalising conflict. The memories also reveal how people were affected differently, depending on whether they lived in cities, such as the capital Kabul, or in the countryside, at least before the Soviet withdrawal.

The interviewees were each asked the same set of questions. Not all of them answered every question.


Do you remember the day the Soviet troops arrived in Afghanistan in Jaddi 1358/December 1979? How old were you and where were you? What were you doing at that time?

  1. School teacher, Kunduz

I was 22 years old and a school teacher when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It was a Thursday in a cold winter when things changed in our lives. I saw aircraft passing by in the sky and a white line of their smoke. It was very clear that these aircraft were transporting Soviet soldiers and military equipment to Afghanistan. Every one of us was looking at the sky and asking each other: what is going to happen.

At night, everyone was listening to the radio and following the news. In our family, my father, my three brothers and I gathered in a small room and stayed there until morning listening to the radio. It broadcast national and patriotic anthems for several hours. At one point, this was cut and a statement was delivered. It said that the followers of Hafizullah Amin had been thrown into the dustbin of history forever and people were rescued from them. Then, it was said that Babrak Karmal would deliver a speech soon. There were more patriotic anthems. Later, Karmal delivered a speech and said that Amin’s followers no longer existed and people were freed of his cruelty, tyranny and oppression. We then realised that there was a new regime led by Karmal.

  1. High school graduate, Kabul

I was 22 years old when the Soviet troops arrived in Afghanistan. I was in Kabul and had just finished high school. I was trying to take the university entrance exam, but as the Soviets came, I failed to work on my plans. At that time, I was only thinking about how to keep myself safe. I was askar goriz [evading military service]. I managed to get a medical letter showing I was sick and [therefore] unfit to join military service. I had a shop, but friends and relatives told me not to do such a business. So, I bought a car and became a cab driver [to make a living].

  1. Army officer, Kabul

I remember the night of the Soviet invasion well. I was 35 years old and was working as an army officer. I had gone to Hutkhel [area of Kabul city]. When I returned home at night, I watched the news on TV. All of a sudden, Babrak Karmal appeared on the screen with his speech, saying Hafizullah Amin had been killed. I felt the regime was collapsing. I did not know anything about the invasion of the Soviet Union. It was because at that time nobody could talk about the regime, even in their own home. The people were very afraid of the government. I became very happy when I heard that Amin has been killed because he was treacherous. He had killed thousands of people in Kabul and the provinces.

  1. Schoolboy, Kabul

I remember the night of Soviet invasion very well. We were living in Khair Khana in police district 13 [of Kabul city]. I was a grade 6 pupil in Ghaffur Nadim Primary School and I was 13 years old. I heard the sound of tanks and armoured vehicles stationed in Hazara-ye Baghal [neighbourhood in Khair Khana]. We also heard the sound of artillery and could see smoke pluming from Darulaman area. Babrak Karmal gave a speech saying Hafizullah Amin was killed because of his wrongdoings and the Revolutionary Council had succeeded [to overthrow him].

  1. Female teacher and activist, Kabul

I remember the day when the Soviet troops arrived in Kabul. I was in Afghanistan, in Kabul, in Mikrorayon 2. I lived in the blocks constructed for families of the military during Daud Khan. I was 27 years old and a teacher teaching physics, mathematics, geometry and trigonometry to girls in grades 10 and 11 in Zarghuna High School in Kabul. I had graduated from the Science Faculty of Kabul University about five years earlier. Aside from teaching, I was the deputy head of Shura-ye Zanan-e Shahr-e Kabul [Women Council of Kabul City]. The council was independent from the PDPA and had its own statute and objectives. It had provincial councils and a Kabul city council. The head of the council was someone else. We were mainly providing training for women.

On 6 Jaddi 1358 [27 December 1979], it was 10 or 12 minutes to 7 pm when Soviet troops entered Afghan soil upon the request of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and its agreement with the USSR. I say it was 10 or 12 minutes to 7 pm because I remember my husband was a military officer, a dagarman [lieutenant]. He had just returned to Kabul from duty in Bamiyan. I remember that we had hot water in Mikrorayon on Thursdays. I had a two-month-old daughter. Around that time on that Thursday, 6 Jaddi 1358, I was washing her clothes using the hot water. My husband rang and told me that he would come home for the meal and then return to his duty. By that time, the Soviet troops had begun arriving.

It was past 7 pm when I heard the sound of aircraft and tanks and the radio and television stopped broadcasting normal programmes. I called my husband, but did not get any answer. Various government buildings had been identified for the [Soviet] troops to enter.

  1. Government employee, Ghazni

The Soviet intervention is still very fresh in my mind, so I completely remember it. I was in Kabul. I was going to Ghazni on 7 Jaddi 1358 [28 December 1979]. We came across Soviet soldiers and were shocked by this sight. They did not allow us to go on. We had been unaware about the invasion the night before. They were stationed on the road. They had closed the road. I was 37 then and worked as the control manager in Ghazni Mustufiat [Revenue Department]. I had my home in Kabul city where my family lived and my job in Ghazni city to which I commuted weekly or whenever needed. I was a government employee.

  1. Government employee, Kabul II

I was then working in the transport department of the Sedarat [Prime Minister’s Office]. Hafizullah Amin had shifted from the Arg, which was then called Khana-ye Khalq [House of the Masses], to the Taj Beg Palace. The Taj Beg Palace was renovated for some 40 days and then we moved some commodities like rugs and carpets from the Sedarat and the Arg there. Amin moved there along with his family. The first storey was dedicated to his guards, attendants and cooks. The second storey was where the ministers held their meetings. The third storey was allocated to Amin and his family. It took some three months for everything to be ready, so Amin could move to the Taj Beg Palace.

On the night of 6 Jaddi [27 December], I was at home in Khair Khana area [in the north of Kabul city]. Around 8 pm we heard the sound of gunfire and heavy weapons. My cousin came to our home and said something strange is going on in the city. We at once turned on the TV. We had a TV since the time of Daud Khan. It was broadcasting the national anthem. Around 10:30 pm, Babrak Karmal appeared on TV. He was wearing a white shirt and tie. He was speaking from abroad. He talked seriously and emphatically, saying the fascist regime of the treacherous and untrustworthy Amin has come to an end. He then assured the people, whom he called his brothers and compatriots, to feel safe wherever they were.

  1. Schoolgirl, Kabul

It was Jaddi 1357 [sic]. It was winter and very cold. I remember I was in Kabul. We lived in Chardehi area and I was a grade 8 pupil at school. I remember we were all very nervous in the family. Since the 7 Saur [27 April 1978] coup, we had lived in fear and I, as a teenager, had become very involved in politics due to the nature of the discussions going on in the family. We were against the new communist rule. It was a time of nervousness. We were helpless. The city looked like a frontline in war. With no freedom of expression, we had to watch every word we spoke, even at school among our classmates.

  1. Housewife, Kabul

I was 22 years old and giving birth to my firstborn daughter and was in hospital when the Soviet tanks and helicopters and troops arrived in Kabul. My father-in-law often joked about it later, saying ironically, I had brought such a stroke of good luck to the country. People were worried and it seemed they did not know what to do. People in the hospital, especially the doctors, tried to keep us calm and assured us that it was not a war, but that foreigners had come to Kabul. It was a very long and disturbing night. I was worried about my daughter and about my husband who was at home or God knows where. The next day, when I left the hospital to go home, the city seemed very quiet. We lived in Qala-ye Wahed area where I still live. There was almost no movement on the streets and my husband was not home for the whole week. He was a university student and a member of the [Maoist] Shola-ye Jawed [Eternal Flame] party that organised anti-regime resistance.

  1. Government employee, Kabul

I was a government employee working in the Central [Grain] Silo when the Soviet troops arrived in Kabul. I was 27 years old at that time.

  1. Self-employed man, Baghlan

I was 28 years old. My father was a tribal elder and had been imprisoned by the Amin regime. I was the eldest son and so I was responsible for looking after a large family. That night, the radio broadcast mainly patriotic songs and everyone felt something had happened. But we didn’t know what exactly.

National and patriotic songs kept playing for several hours. Eventually, Babrak Karmal’s voice was heard. He gave a speech in which he called Hafizullah Amin a savage and said he no longer led the country. Karmal also announced a general pardon for those imprisoned by Amin. After hearing this, I screamed loudly because I knew my father would be released. The whole family was shouting. That night, we were only thinking about the safe return of our father, which did indeed happen later. We were all awake until morning, celebrating the collapse of Amin’s regime. The following day, when I went out, people were talking about a Soviet invasion, an issue I had never thought about. Religious scholars and some mosque preachers were saying that Afghanistan is out of our hands and the Soviets will lead it now.

  1. Schoolboy, Ghazni

I remember the day when the Soviet Union forces arrived in Afghanistan. I was in grade 6. People in our village, my teachers and classmates, were saying the Soviet forces had arrived in Afghanistan. I also learned about the arrival of the Soviet forces from the radio that was broadcasting news saying that the Russians have come to Afghanistan. We lived in Andar district and I also worked with my father on our agricultural lands.

  1. Flour mill owner, Ghazni

I think I was about 45 years old at the time. I had a flour mill in those days. The flour mill I had was working very well and I had a reasonable business. However, after the arrival of the Soviet forces, I started to think about moving the mill to the eastern part of Andar [district]. We moved to a village there because we felt safer in that village than in our own village.

Museum of war remnants, Kabul. Photo: Thomas Ruttig


Did you personally see or hear anything, either on the day or immediately before or just after? Did you do anything? What did you think about the Soviet intervention at the time?

  1. School teacher, Kunduz

The day after [the invasion], more and more Soviet soldiers entered Afghanistan through Hairatan port and I saw long lines of their tanks on the highway to Kabul.

School teachers were told by the Ministry of Education to deliver pro-government speeches in the classrooms and encourage students to sing pro-government and patriotic anthems every morning before classes started. On the other side, the mujahedin started to target pro-government school teachers. At school, we split into two parts: pro-communist government and ikhwani [a general term for the members of the mujahedin groups]. Many teachers were arrested by the government and marked as ikhwanis, while many others were targeted by the mujahedin and labelled as communists. Some mosque preachers in our district delivered anti-government speeches every Friday at the congregational prayers.

  1. High school graduate, Kabul

Before the Soviets came, the PDPA regime made a lot of propaganda. They told the people not to come out of their homes during the night. They told the people to shut their doors and have heavy curtains on their windows so that they would not see or be seen from outside. Soldiers were patrolling the streets at night.

It was before 6 Jaddi [27 December] when the Soviet troops arrived in Afghanistan. They came by land and air. The troops were settled in Kilagai plain in Baghlan and Khair Khana in Kabul. I saw them in Khair Khana. There was fighting in Darulaman area, in Tappa-ye Taj Beg [Taj Beg Hill].

  1. Army officer, Kabul

The next day, I heard that the Russians had come a day before the killing of Hafizullah Amin. They had told him to run the government from [the Taj Beg Palace in] Darulaman [area of Kabul city]. He had already moved there. Actually, the Russians wanted to kill him there because they wanted to avoid killing many people if any kind of rebellion arose [in the centre of Kabul city where the traditional Presidential Palace – the Arg – is situated]. On the second day, all of the Parchamis [members of Parcham faction of PDPA] took up weapons and were in charge of security. They were both civilians of the Parcham party and military people.

  1. Schoolboy, Kabul

I saw Russian airplanes which were bringing tanks and ammunition a few days before the invasion. Other Russians came through Hairatan port [in northern Balkh province]. The Russians had told Hafizullah Amin that Pakistan was attacking Afghanistan, so they brought ammunition and a small number of skilled Russians to instruct Afghans to repel the attack. The government had announced to the people of Kabul that when the government sounded the alarm, nobody should come out of their homes, no one should look outside of their homes and they should put black curtains on the doors and windows of their houses. On the second day, I saw red-faced Russians on tanks in the city.

  1. Female teacher and activist, Kabul

Two or three days before [the invasion], aircraft had been seen flying at high altitude over the country. Everyone thought they were reconnaissance airplanes flying at such altitudes. However, two days after the arrival of Soviet troops, it became known that those airplanes had transported giant tanks to the country.

On the following day [28 December], there were tanks and people on the streets who were not familiar to us. I tuned in to the radio and came across, I think, a Tajikistani radio channel, where I heard Babrak Karmal’s voice saying: I have arrived in Afghanistan and a new era has begun.

I wanted to find out what was happening. Parchamis were saying that this was the beginning of a new era of 7 Saur [27 April 1978, which was the initial communist coup]. I went to school on the Sunday [three days later, 30 December], when the atmosphere had changed. Some teachers and pupils had shown up, but others were absent. I searched for my husband, sending people around and trying to call him, until he was found [dead] in Charsad Bestar [400-Bed] Hospital [now known as Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan Hospital] in Kabul. Later, I found that my husband had been shot from behind by a Kalashnikov in his office in Shashdarak, with one bullet. His name had been registered as the first martyr in the hospital registry. No one was telling us anything at the beginning, but I learned this after almost a week’s time. My son was five years old and my daughter was two months old and I myself was a teacher. I moved to my father’s house with my children and raised them there.

  1. Government employee, Ghazni

I became aware of the Soviets coming to Afghanistan only the day after [28 December]. There was a lot of rumour and gossip circulating among the people. I heard people saying that the Soviets had brought Babrak [Karmal] [to power], or that Babrak had brought the Soviets [to Afghanistan]. There was a broadcast on the radio in which Babrak was talking. He was speaking on the radio and said that Amin had been eliminated. He congratulated the Afghan people on the killing of Amin and announced a kind of unity government between the Khalqis and Parchamis [two rival factions of the PDPA].

That the Soviets would come to Afghanistan in such a way was something that had been utterly unimaginable for me and many others I was in touch with. We were all caught unawares. It was a conundrum that Babrak Karmal would come to power through a Soviet invasion. We were dumbfounded at what was happening and how quickly this was happening. People were saying different things about the Soviet intervention. Some were saying it was a good thing because people got rid of Amin who was sucking the people’s blood. Others were saying it was a bad thing because the Soviets came and occupied our soil. They were saying now everything in Afghanistan would be in their hands; they would have all the authority in our country.

  1. Government employee, Kabul II

The following day [28 December], I did not go to work. The gunfire had fallen silent. I did not go to work because the fear and dread of Amin was still somehow in the air. Some three days later, someone came to my home. I was afraid that a government security agent had come and might take me away. So, I put some money in my pocket to give him [as a bribe] to leave me alone, if he wanted to do such a thing. I was wearing my piran tomban [shalwar kameez]. I later found out that he had been sent from the Sedarat [Prime Minister’s Office] to take me there for some official business. When we reached the Sedarat, it was surrounded by Soviet tanks. Inside, in the room where I was asked to go, I saw a Soviet general. For me, it was the first time I had seen a Soviet general, in that room in the Sedarat. There was an instruction for us from Comrade Karmal to go to the Taj Beg Palace to do an inventory of the things present there and to bring back anything that belonged to other offices, such as the Sedarat and the Arg. We were sent in a convoy of two tanks and four jeeps.

When we arrived in the Taj Beg Palace, all we saw were Soviets. Outside and around the Palace I saw the imprint of tanks moving around. The outside and inside of the Palace was packed with Soviet generals and soldiers. We were introduced to them and they let us go in to do what we had been assigned to do. We did an inventory of the things there, from sofas, to rugs, to carpets and anything that was there or that had been left there. I myself went up to Amin’s bedroom. It was large and had one large bed above which was written “Khalq” [Masses – the name of Amin’s PDPA faction]. No one could talk to anyone and no one could ask anything. There was a tense atmosphere. Some of the rooms I saw upstairs had piles of clothes scattered everywhere. On one stairway I saw blood. To me, it looked like a sheep had been slaughtered and dragged away, with the blood forming a trail behind it. We did the inventory and separated and took the things belonging to the Arg, the Defence Ministry and the intelligence service. We saw no Afghans in the palace: no sweepers, no guards, no attendants, no kitchen staff, no Afghans. They were all Soviets.

There was lots of gossiping in town about what had happened in Kabul and in Afghanistan. Some were saying Afghanistan had been occupied by the Soviets. Some were saying the Soviet Union was a global power and had come to help Afghanistan progress and prosper. Some were saying the Soviets had come to crush the ashrar [villains, ie the mujahedin].

  1. Schoolgirl, Kabul

My father and brothers were all involved in politics, opposing the [communist] government. We were in hiding when the Soviets arrived. We felt we were under constant surveillance and we could not get out of our house easily and without fear. We were all sitting and listening to the radio. I was mostly the silent observer, listening to the unending discussions of my father with my brothers, who were now not in contact with their fellows who believed in the same cause [anti-communist jihad]. Later, five months after the invasion, all five of them [father and brothers] were killed by the regime.

  1. Housewife, Kabul

The people did not know what was happening. Our neighbours did not know what was happening, either. There was a massive amount of propaganda being passed around. The women in our neighbourhood often said that the country had been sold to foreigners. Those who had a clue would say that it was an invasion and the country was occupied by the Soviets. People were being swayed by Khalqis or Parchamis or mujahedin, without understanding any of these groups’ agendas. It was a strange time back then for the people; a time of rushing, a time of not knowing what was happening and not knowing what to do.

  1. Government employee, Kabul

A few days before the arrival of the Soviet troops, the [communist] government had told the people to stay indoors if the alarm was sounded and to have curtains on their windows at home, during the day and night. It told the people that some [unspecified] incident might happen.

When the Soviets came, sounds of planes and helicopters could be heard during the night. The following day [28 December], I saw their tanks moving in a line from the Polytechnic Institute to Kot-e Sangi area… People were saying that wherever the Soviets went, they stayed there and did not think about getting out. I thought they would do the same in Afghanistan.

Before the invasion, Hafizullah Amin imprisoned and killed a lot of people. One of my friends and a relative of mine were imprisoned and killed at that time. So, many Afghans went to the villages and started fighting the communists and [later] the Soviet troops when they came. I did not stay in Kabul, either. I went to Ghazni [province]. Then, I migrated to Pakistan and finally to Iran.

  1. Self-employed man, Baghlan

I saw long lines of Soviet military vehicles and Soviet soldiers passing along the Mazar-Kabul highway. Their faces were red and they were armed. Some people along the highway were holding Afghan and Soviet flags and were celebrating the arrival of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. Others were merely watching the military parade of the soldiers. In our own groups, we began debating and arguing about the Soviets. Most of us were saying Afghanistan was no longer a safe place to live.

  1. Schoolboy, Ghazni

In the days after the Soviet forces arrived, I heard that the Russian forces had gone to different provinces and different military corps across the country. The Russian forces also came to Ghazni city. People who went to the city would say they saw Russian forces in their military tanks in Ghazni. They also came to our district in Andar. When the Russians went to the villages, the Afghan security forces would not tell the local people that there were Russians with them. Instead they said that they were all Afghan.

On the other side, a few days after the Soviet invasion, I saw the mujahedin not allowing people to go to Mirai, the district bazaar. They were trying to disconnect the people from the government. There were generally two types of thinking. Those people who were pro-government thought that the arrival of Soviet forces might bring positive changes, but those opposing the government thought the invasion by Soviet forces would mean a complete takeover of the country. These people would say that the Russians would force them to convert from Islam. Also, they thought that the new system would bring unacceptable changes, such as the confiscation of land or the targeting of tribal elders in the villages.

  1. Flour mill owner, Ghazni

I saw Russian forces in Ghazni city. When I had the flour mill, I needed to go to the city and buy fuel for the engine and bring it to my village. Whenever I went to the city from then on, I would see Russian soldiers there. They were in or around their tanks and they had white skin. They were guarding different parts of Ghazni city. I first saw them in front of the [provincial] governor’s house.

I was thinking about the Russians in the same way other people were thinking about them. People thought: the Red Army has invaded our country. Since the Red Army was non-Muslim, people thought they would promote atheism in our society and would not allow people to perform their religion openly. This was not acceptable for the people. We also thought that since the Russians had invaded Afghanistan, it was going to be their country now. We thought the Russians were colonising Afghanistan and annexing it into their union.

Soviet tank wreck, Hazarajat. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2004)

Did the Soviet intervention change your life – if so, in what way?

  1. School teacher, Kunduz

The major change in our lives was a split between family members and relatives. Some of our relatives followed the government, while others either remained neutral or followed the mujahedin. The new government restarted the previous strategy of Nur Muhammad Tarakai and Hafizullah Amin by arresting and detaining religious scholars, local elders and influential figures who opposed the government. Schools were shut in many villages because of the mujahedin’s attacks and warnings. Government employees were warned, told to quit their jobs and join the mujahedin.

In my personal life, I lost my job and was forced to serve as a security service member. In Kabul, I was caught by the police and immediately sent to a frontline in Kandahar to fight the mujahedin. I spent one and half years there and had no clue about my family. Eventually, I managed to flee to Pakistan where I had no contact with the rest of my family for another year. Finally, I managed to send a written letter to my father to inform him about myself and how I fled to Pakistan. After almost two years, my family joined me and we remained in Pakistan until the collapse of the communist regime.

  1. High school graduate, Kabul

I joined a mujahedin party, Sazman-e Nasr [Victory Organisation, a Shia group]. We believed the Russians had come to Afghanistan to stay forever and would not go. So, I became involved with [clandestine] political and cultural activities in Kabul against the Soviets.

  1. Army officer, Kabul

The arrival of the Russians did not change my life in any way. I was very happy because the Russians made a very good decision. The only change that came to my life was that we got rid of a traitor [Hafizullah Amin]. Some people like me had a chance to speak about the politics of Afghanistan. The people were not killed, at least not in Kabul. I continued my job in Kabul happily. I served my duty in the Najib government [last communist president, 1987-92]. I lived and worked in Kabul during the mujahedin, under the Taleban and during the government of Karzai. I retired in Karzai’s time… [But] it would have been better if Nur Muhammad Tarakai had not carried out the coup. The [communist] revolution needed to wait for 200 more years [to happen in Afghanistan]. It was what Babrak Karmal was also saying.

  1. Schoolboy, Kabul

I was not happy because I was thinking that we had become a colony of the Russians. My family and I were happy with the government of Hafizullah Amin. We never liked those who were fighting against the government. Many people left their homes in the beginning, because they were afraid of the Russians, but they soon came back to their houses. My life did not change and my family and I were not affected badly. The only thing we were unhappy with was the rule of Russians over our people and our country. They were killing people in the provinces. I completed high school and was admitted in the Police Academy of Kabul. I was later recruited as an army officer. I was thinking the war would end and the situation would change, but unfortunately it did not.

  1. Female teacher and activist, Kabul

Afghanistan was destroyed with the arrival of the Soviet forces. They caused so many problems for the country due to the impact of the Cold War. I, as an Afghan citizen, am not an exception to [the suffering]. I lost my husband. The best person [in a women’s life] is her husband. It was like my house was destroyed. My children were deprived [of their father]. However, I raised them in a way so that they did not feel it.

The presence of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan led to increased problems for the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The mujahedin who had gone to neighbouring countries turned into guerrillas and paved the way for increased assistance to the opposition, and the Soviet Union was recognised as the occupier. Opposition against the nascent Democratic Republic of Afghanistan inside the country, in the region and in the world increased and took on military, economic and political dimensions. Pakistan took a more active role in arming, equipping and dispatching the opposition back to the country and reaped huge benefits from this. After the arrival of the Soviet troops and, after that, the engagement of more than 40 countries in Afghanistan, the situation in the country deteriorated, which dealt a strong blow to the country. If we look comparatively, Afghanistan [its communist government] enjoyed only the Soviet support, whereas the opposition received support from the most powerful country [USA] and many other countries of the world.

  1. Government employee, Ghazni

Our country changed. War started and has continued till this very day. Power was in the hands of the Soviets. We were besieged by other countries. Pakistan began intervening. The US and Iran did similar things. They were counteracting the Soviets. This was what befell and devastated Afghanistan. If war had not begun, Afghanistan would have been a different country: a country like our northern neighbours, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Soviets were working to develop Afghanistan’s infrastructure, but the war that ensued allowed neither them, nor their client communist government, to work on their plans. The Soviets were a better friend to Afghanistan than Pakistan has been. In fact, Pakistan has been our foe.

My family’s life did not change much. We had a hand-to-mouth existence. I was a low-ranking employee of the government. I was content with whatever I was doing and whatever money I was making at work. I was just spending my days. My work did not change much, either. However, I was threatened by the Khalqis [here a general term for all PDPA members] on a couple of occasions. Once they took me to Kandak-e Operatifi [Operations Battalion] for detention and possibly worse, but, fortunately, my father knew several Khalqis and so he managed to get me out. I worked in Ghazni until 1365 [1986]. I was then transferred to Kabul city where I worked during Najib’s time. I quit my work for some 10 years or so during the so-called jihad, including when the mujahedin captured power in Kabul. I rejoined the government during Karzai’s time and worked as an employee in the Ghazni Directorate of Public Works. I then missed my family so much that I applied to be transferred to Mazar-e Sharif, which was granted. I retired about 10 years ago.

  1. Government employee, Kabul II

For me there was no change. I was an employee of the government. Government employees, at least in Kabul, were paid on time and were given coupons to get provisions, such as wheat, cooking oil, tea and rice. There was no degrading or humiliating treatment towards us. The Soviets were not like the Americans who go from house to house [to search them]. They were stationed in their bases.

Of course, if I look at the country, we suffered and we suffered tremendously. War began and intensified. There was war in Parwan [province] and elsewhere. People’s houses were destroyed. There were bombings. Convoys transporting food provisions were attacked and disrupted. If the Soviets had not come to Afghanistan, there would not be such a war in Afghanistan. I remember the period of Daud Khan. There was calm all over Afghanistan. Roads were open. People could travel around the country unimpeded and without fear. They could work and decide where to work in the country. There was no sound of gunfire. When the Soviets came, things got worse. War in Afghanistan became a war that involved various countries. The mujahedin, who were supported by Pakistan and other countries, said our land has been invaded and occupied by the Soviets. The Soviets and their Afghan government were calling them ashrar that had to be rooted out. We suffered a lot. Our country suffered a lot.

  1. Schoolgirl, Kabul

It did affect me. When they [Soviets] came, they killed my father and four brothers. That directly affected my life. I turned against the Soviet invasion. I became a member of a mujahedin group called Sazman-e Mujahedin wa Mustazafin-e Afghanistan [Organisation of Afghanistan’s Mujahedin and Downtrodden]. I forgot my childhood. I forgot a lot of things that a child would dream of or wish for. I became very invested in politics. This was true for many of my classmates too. We were divided into factions. I was pro-mujahedin and there were also Khalqi and Parchami supporters. You would not believe this, but I remember that whenever there was news of a protest or a call for gathering, we would argue and sometimes fight in the classrooms. I was scared that my classmates would report me. I received a few warnings that I would be imprisoned if I continued my activities. I had to hide my opinions. I remember that a few days after my father was killed, I went to school. They asked me to go to the principal and she asked me why I was sad. I lied; I said it was just because my father was dead and that it had nothing to do with the Khalqis or Parchamis or the fact that mujahedin were being defeated badly in the frontlines.

  1. Housewife, Kabul

As I said, I had given birth to my daughter. She was 40 days old when they captured my husband. He was imprisoned for three months and then he disappeared. We still have no clue what happened to him. He was captured by the Parcham party on the accusation of working with the Shola-ye Jawed group. He was captured during a meeting of the group. We know for sure that he is dead, but we have no idea how it happened and when and where. It did not end here. My brother-in-law was also killed later, then another brother-in-law, then my father-in-law. It is a vicious circle. My father was killed later during mujahedin rule. I have witnessed the deaths of my beloved ones, my family, all because of these failing and destructive politics we practice in Afghanistan. It was all a horror. I went to Pakistan to seek refuge with my two kids. I have seen hunger and misery and bad days ever since. We walked 12 days through the mountains till we reached Pakistan. I stayed there for five months until I was forced to return. It was a life of migration, struggle and sorrow for me, so you can say it has affected me personally and a great deal. This is not only my life, but the life of many others I know.

  1. Government employee, Kabul

Life became harder when the Soviets arrived and Babrak Karmal was installed in power. The PDPA was divided and they had internal problems. I was alone. I had no one at home to support my family and the government wanted me to join military service. I did not want to and so I escaped. My life changed when the Soviets came. I had to migrate to Iran. I was away from my family. Working in Iran was difficult and my family lived a difficult life in Kabul.

  1. Self-employed man, Baghlan

The only [good] change the Soviet intervention brought to our life was the release of my father from prison. He was released a month later, but our daily life completely changed. The house searches, bombardments and detaining of religious scholars and tribal elders restarted. Because of my father’s background as a tribal elder and an alleged ikhwani, my whole family fled from Baghlan to Kabul. We thought people would not recognise us in Kabul and we would have a safe life there. However, even in Kabul, we were not safe. Later, we fled to Pakistan and remained there until the fall of the communist regime.

  1. Schoolboy, Ghazni

It changed my life. We left our village for Kabul where I could not complete my schooling. After a year in Kabul, the government forced me to join the army. After some time, I became a tank driver. I had a tough life. I was mostly on the frontline, fighting the mujahedin. I would drive over landmines, but I somehow luckily survived. Back in our village, the local mujahedin grabbed our land. They did not want to return the land to us after the fall of the Najib government, but, ultimately, we got it from them. We returned back to our village after more than ten years and I started to have a normal life, away from war.

  1. Flour mill owner, Ghazni

The Soviet invasion changed my life a lot. War intensified in our village and I had to leave for another village. But I did not have that kind of active business there. I had fewer customers and people did not trust me as they did in our own village.

All the people in our area, myself included, decided to support the mujahedin. I had not joined the mujahedin, but I did help them in different ways, such as providing them with food and protection in my mill.

In the village I moved to, the Russians and the communists came to my flour mill three times. They took anything they wanted. After spending a few years there, I returned to my own village where I used to have a grape orchard. The Russian tanks had destroyed it. I had to hire people and reconstruct the walls to start taking care of my land again.

The interviews were conducted by Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Ali Yawar Adili, Fazal Muzhary, Khadija Hussaini, Obaid Ali, Reza Kazemi and Rohullah Sorush.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Thomas Ruttig.

Soviet war remnants at Kunduz airport. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005)


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

A Turning Point in World History: 40 years ago, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan

Wed, 25/12/2019 - 02:00

Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan 40 years ago today, on 25 December 1979. Two days later, on 27 December, they toppled and killed Amin’s Khalqi’s government which had called for the troops and had assumed they had come for their rescue. The resulting occupation that would last for more than ten years became the last direct Soviet involvement in a ‘hot’ war in the global Cold War of that era. What was meant to be a relatively short and limited regime change operation, ended up changing history. It became part of a larger configuration of events that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union and its dominance in Eastern Europe and what, at the time, was described as the ‘end of history’: the end of the Cold War and the final triumph of liberal democracy (an illusion that has become obsolete). In Afghanistan, armed conflict did not end with the Soviet withdrawal, making Afghans the main victims of this war. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig reminds us of the unfolding events and the history they were part of.

In an improvised intervention during a cabinet meeting in January of this year, US president Donald Trump gave us his version of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. During what CNN described as a “freewheeling” speech, he said:

Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia [again] because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. … The reason Russia was in, in Afghanistan, was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt.

Although after 40 years, people not directly involved in the events can probably be forgiven for not remembering all the details, it is useful to revisit the actual decisions that led to the intervention, as well as the wider context which made this a crucial period in world history. Our current era has been strongly shaped by what happened in that crucial year.

Coups, assassinations, invasion

The prelude to the Soviet intervention started on 27 April 1978, when a group of left-wing military officers toppled and murdered Afghan President Muhammad Daud, and most of his family, in a coup d’état. The government they put in power was dominated by the until then clandestine, pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

Announcement of the PDPA takeover in April 1978. Source: Kabul New Times.

Five years earlier, Daud, himself a member of the royal family, had overthrown a monarchy that had existed since 1747. Some of the officers who later killed him in 1978 had supported him then.

The PDPA’s policies – from land reform to enforced co-education – was met with resistance among the population. The resistance was spontaneous at first, but soon grew and became better organised and led by mujahedin organisations that operated from Pakistan and Iran with support of their regimes. Aleksandr Lyakhovskiy, a former high-ranking Soviet officer, who helped prepare the operation that unseated Amin, quoted a Soviet intelligence estimate in a paper for the Wilson Center in 2007 as saying that by the autumn of 1979 there were 40,000 mujahedin operating “against government troops in 12 of the 27 provinces of the country” and that the Afghan army, “weakened by repression, turned out to be incapable of crushing the antigovernment [sic] movement.”

The PDPA leader, Nur Muhammad Tarakai, a teacher from Ghazni province, as chairman of the Revolutionary Council and now the head of state, reacted violently and had tens of thousands of opponents – real or imagined – who were put into prison or who ‘disappeared’ (AAN background here). He, and later Amin, repeatedly asked the Soviet leadership under Leonid Breshnev for direct military support. Moscow rejected all these requests.

At the same time, from the beginning there were major internal power struggles in the faction-ridden PDPA. One of its deputies, Babrak Karmal, a former member of parliament, was exiled in a mountain resort in what was then Czechoslovakia, after having been accused of preparing another coup. (In November 2019, Frud Bezhan published a fascinating story about this episode on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Gandhara blog (more photos here).

In September 1979, Tarakai’s self-styled ‘pupil’ and remaining deputy, Hafizullah Amin, also a teacher, from Paghman near Kabul, ordered the murder of his ‘ustad’ and took power.

The killing of Tarakai shocked the Soviet leadership and, by late 1979, they had grown even more suspicious of Amin as documents published in January 2019 showed. He had not kept them abreast of his peace overtures to mujahedin leaders, particularly his co-tribal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a Kharoti Pashtun like himself), Hekmatyar’s backer Pakistan and even the US embassy in Kabul. (US documents that were declassified in January 2019 also confirmed the meetings with Amin – for the US and Soviet documents see here). Amin opponents also turned Soviet attention to earlier inner-PDPA allegations that Amin had had contacts with the CIA while studying in the US (which had prevented him from becoming part of the party leadership in the 1960s).

Moscow feared Amin could bring about “a change in the political line of Afghanistan in a direction which is pleasing to Washington,” as contemporary Soviet documents published in October 2019 put it. There had been precedents of leaders switching over to the West in the global Cold War earlier in the 1970s, including President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Muhammad Siad Barre of Somalia.

The situation for the new regime, in the meantime, had worsened. By late 1979, according to Lyakhovskiy, the rebels had managed to “launch combat operations in 16 of the (then) 27 provinces. They controlled Laghman, Kunar, Paktia, and Paktika completely” – except for the provincial centres.

According to Lyakhovskiy (p8), by late November 1979, the Soviet leadership had already decided to remove Amin from power by force. However, the removal was initially not meant to happen by means of a full-scale military intervention.

On 4 December, a high-ranking KGB officer was sent to Kabul “to prepare the operation … to remove Amin from power.” Two days later, the Soviet Politbureau decided to back the operation by sending “a detachment to Afghanistan of about 500 men [from the army’s intelligence] in uniforms which would not reveal an affiliation with the Soviet armed forces.” Officially, this was framed as a response to Amin’s request for a battalion to defend his residence and the Bagram air base. This so-called “Muslim battalion” was “dressed in Afghan uniforms.” Among these soldiers was a 22-man “special purpose detachment” from the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. They were “housed in three villas in Kabul rented by the Soviet Embassy,” according to Lyakhovskiy.

On 7 December, Babrak Karmal and another PDPA leadership member, Anahita Ratebzad, Karmal’s mistress, were flown clandestinely into Bagram base on board of a civilian Tu-134 aircraft belonging to Moscow’s intelligence chief Yuri Andropov (the Soviets had earlier brought both of them from Czechoslovakia to the USSR). In Bagram they were put under the protection of KGB paratroopers. According to Lyakhovskiy, another group of dissident PDPA leaders – Nur Ahmad Nur, Muhammad Aslam Watanjar (who had participated in Daud’s 1973 coup), Sayed Muhammad Gulabzoy and Asadullah Sarwari,. who had stayed in Bulgaria – were brought to Bagram separately.

Soon, Lyakhovskiy wrote, the Soviet leadership “was leaning more and more to the opinion that without Soviet troops it would be difficult to create the conditions for removing Amin.” On 8 December, two options were worked out by the so-called “small Politbureau” in party leader Leonid Brezhnev’s private office: “remove Amin from power using the KGB’s capabilities and transfer power to Karmal; if this didn’t work, then send a certain number of troops to the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] for these purposes.” Defence minister Dmitri Ustinov was ordered to put 75-80,000 Soviet troops on standby for “temporary” deployment in Afghanistan. Apart from Brezhnev, only four other persons participated in the meeting: intelligence chief Andropov, defence minister Dmitri Ustinov, foreign minister Andrey Gromyko and chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov. (1)

On 12 December, the “Politbureau of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union” – as this body was officially called in full (2) – signed a hand-written “Politbureau decision no P 176/125” titled “Concerning the situation in ‘A’” (see below). According to Lyakhovskiy, “[t]he record was signed by all CC CPSU Politburo members present at the meeting.” (Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin was absent.) Later, in his description of events, he puts “present” in quotation marks and adds that only the inner circle had signed the document, actually no Politbureau meeting had even taken place and all other members were ‘asked’ to sign post factum.

The short two-paragraph document is generally considered the (only available) document of the decision to invade Afghanistan. (3) However, it is framed in extremely general terms. It abbreviates using only Afghanistan’s first letter and refers only to “ideas and measures” (most likely the ones discussed on 8 December), the implementation of which it ‘approved.’ Lyakhovskiy wrote that the fact that it was handwritten and signed by Brezhnev and he had not even involved a scribe, in order to keep it top secret, proves the extraordinary significance of the document.

Here the Wilson Centers transcription of the document:


Top Secret


Chaired by Cde. [comrade] L. I. Brezhnev

Present: Suslov M. A., Grishin V. V., Kirilenko A. P., Pel’she A. Ya., Ustinov D. F., Chernenko K. U., Andropov Yu. V., Gromyko A. A., Tikhonov N. A., Ponomarev B. N.

CC CPSU Decree No 176/125 of 12 December concerning the situation in “A”

  1. Approve the ideas and measures set forth by Andropov Yu. V., Ustinov D.F., and Gromyko A. A. Authorize them to introduce amendments of non-essential nature in the course of the execution of these measures.

Questions requiring the decision of the CC should be expeditiously submitted to the Politburo. The implementation of all these measures is to be entrusted to Cdes. Andropov Yu. V., Ustinov D. F., and Gromyko A. A.

  1. Charge Cdes. Andropov Yu. V., Ustinov D. F., and Gromyko A. A. to keep the CC Politburo informed on the status of the execution of the outlined measures.

CC Secretary

  1. Brezhnev

No 997 (1 page)


Facsimile of the 1979 Soviet Politbureau decision about “A”. Source: The Wilson Center (screenshot).


However, Lyakhovskiy also argued that this decision might not have been meant to be a final one about a full-scale military invasion. He wrote:

… anyone who is remotely familiar with the process of preparing documents and their evaluation at CC CPSU Politburo meetings knows that there should also be a note with the suggestions of Andropov, Ustinov, and Gromyko. In fact, such a note does not exist. (…) On the basis of these facts and the development of the situation in Afghanistan I will take a risk and offer another version: at this meeting the Politburo discussed questions (…) regarding the conduct of the operation to remove Amin using forces already in Afghanistan. If the operation had been conducted successfully it would not have been necessary to introduce Soviet troops into the DRA.

Indeed, further attempts were made to get rid of Amin without a larger military operation. Between 14 and 16 December, Soviet snipers tried to shoot him on his way to or from the Arg, but unsuccessfully so. (They did not come into a position to shoot as Amin’s convoy was too well protected, according to Lyachovskiy.) Another attempt on his life, with poisoned Pepsi Cola, also failed. After these failures, Karmal and the other PDPA leaders were brought back temporarily to safety in Tashkent (now in independent Uzbekistan).

Amin had apparently still not noticed that something was wrong and was still asking for Soviet military forces. Lyakhovskiy quotes Soviet documents according to which Amin told the KGB representative in Kabul in meetings on 12 and 17 December 1979, “what boiled down to the following”:

– the present Afghan leadership will greet the presence of the Soviet Armed Forces at a number of strategically important points in the northern regions of the DRA…

Amin said that the forms and methods of extending military aid should be determined by the Soviet side;

– the USSR can have military garrisons wherever they want;

– the USSR can take under guard all facilities where there is Soviet-Afghan collaboration;

– the Soviet troops could take DRA lines of communications under guard.

On the day of the second meeting, 17 December, orders were given for the raid on Amin’s palace. On 19 December 1979, he relocated his residence from the Arg in central Kabul to Taj Bek palace “at the urging of his Soviet advisers,” according to late Afghan historian Hassan Kakar (Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1995, pp21-2). Kakar wrote:

The new palace had originally been the seat of the reformist King Amanullah (1919-29). Before Amin became the head of state, the Khalqi government had spent more than one billion afghanis (approximately $20 million) to repair the palace and make it a suitable seat for his predecessor, Nur Mohammad Taraki. President Amin moved into it at the urging of his Soviet advisers. (…) But Tapa-e-Tajbeg, situated on a mound two miles south of the city, could easily be attacked should the Soviet Union decide to do so.

Tarakai-Brezhnev meeting in Moscow in summer 1979. Photo: author’s archive.

Kakar wrote further that Amin “wanted to be away from the old palace, which reminded him of the many bloody events that had taken place there.” It had been the place where Tarakai tried to get rid of him (and perhaps kill him) in September, and where he had Tarakai murdered in the following month.

About the following events, Lyakhovskiy wrote:

On 22 and 23 December Ambassador Tabeyev informed Amin that his request for Soviet troops to be sent to Afghanistan had been granted in full in Moscow. They were ready to begin deployment on 25 December. Amin expressed gratitude to the Soviet leadership and gave instructions to the DRA Armed Forces General Staff to give assistance to the deploying troops.

When thousands of airborne Soviet soldiers landed in Kabul and Bagram and started crossing the land border in the north at 3pm Moscow time on 25 December, (4) moving toward Herat and Shindand airbase in western Afghanistan and to Kunduz, Pul-e Khumri and the Salang Pass in the northeast, Amin still assumed they had come to help him. Two days later, at a reception on 25 December 1979, he told those present, according to Lyakhovskiy:

Soviet divisions are already on their way here. Paratroopers are landing in Kabul. Everything is going beautifully. I am in constant touch by telephone with Cde [comrade] Gromyko and we are discussing together how to best formulate the information to the world about the extension of Soviet military aid.

In the late afternoon of the same day, a last attempt to poison Amin failed. Soviet doctors who were present – but had not been informed of the coup plan – kept Amin alive. Then, Soviet Special Forces stormed his residence in Kabul’s Taj Beg palace and shot him dead. (5) Karmal was flown in yet again from the Soviet Union and was installed as the new leader.

Front page of government-owned Kabul New Times, announcing the ouster of Hafizullah Amin, the takeover of Babrak Karmal – but not the Soviet invasion.

It still remains an open question who made the final decision to enter and act with such a large force. It seems clear, however, also from Lyakhovskiy’s account, that the Soviet leadership was thinking not only about the mujahedin threat to the government, but also that it expected – and experienced – stiff resistance from the Afghan armed forces. The Khalqis – the PDPA faction Amin had belonged to – still had the majority in the army and police officer corps (despite earlier purges, which had also turned some of the faction’s members, such as Watanjar, Gulabzoy and Sarwari, against him). It was only to be expected that they would vehemently oppose the takeover by Karmal’s rival Parcham faction. This is confirmed by Artemy Kalinovsky, another leading writer on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, who wrote (p51):

The months following the invasion were key in turning the intervention into a decade-long war. Following the use of a limited contingent of Soviet troops to put down an Afghan army mutiny at the beginning of January [1980], Soviet forces were drawn into skirmishes with increasing frequency.

The international situation had influenced the decision-making. Lyakhovskiy wrote that Andropov and Ustinov told Brezhnev in early December that “a Western-oriented Afghanistan could become a base for short-range nuclear missiles targeted at the USSR.” According to Kalinovsky (p50), it was this that had finally convinced the hesitant Breshnev. Remarkably, the Politbureau decision “Concerning the situation in ‘A’” was taken on the same day that the NATO Council in Brussels approved the deployment of new US medium-range cruise missiles and Pershing-2 missiles in Western Europe.

Turning tides

The Soviet military intervention, initially planned to be a limited regime change operation, turned into a large-scale invasion that lasted ten years. By spring 1980, there were 81,000 Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. In 1986 this number had grown to 120,000 and, finally, there were around 100,000 troops before withdrawals started in mid-1988, according to Rodric Braithwaite in his 2011 book, Afganzy (pp122, 283).

After the troops’ negotiated departure in February 1989, continued military and financial support – first Soviet and then briefly Russian when the Soviet Union disintegrated – kept the Afghan regime alive for another three years. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin deemed the engagement to have become too costly and stopped it in early 1992, the Afghan regime crumbled. One of the PDPA factions handed power to the mujahedin, who moved into Kabul without encountering any resistance on 28 April 1992. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the war – but the rest is better known history.

Trump’s assertion that the Soviet Union “went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” – a view held by many Afghans too – is only part of the truth. (6) In his 2019 book Zeitenwende 1979: Als die Welt von heute begann (Turning of Times 1979: When the world of today began, Munich 2019 – not available yet in English) German historian Frank Bösch argues that it was a series of international events in 1979, including the events in Afghanistan that, ultimately, undermined the Soviet Union and the Soviet-led ‘Eastern Bloc’, led to the rise of political Islam, with violent, terrorist jihadism at its fringes, and established a new, multipolar world.

The year 1979 had started with the Islamic revolution in Iran. The new regime, under Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, followed a doctrine that included ‘export of the revolution’ through support to likeminded groups in the region. (The Soviets initially expected the new, strongly anti-US regime would be an ally.) Later that year, Saddam Hussain took power in Iraq and soon led his country into war with Iran. On 20 November 1979, the first day of the Islamic 15th century, a group of armed millennial Islamists led by Juhaiman al-Otaibi stormed and occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca. The group called itself al-Ikhwan (The Brothers), as a reference to an uprising against the Saudi dynasty in the 1920s. They proclaimed a Mahdi, declared the end of the world and the victory of ‘true Islam’ over jahiliyya (ignorance), which, in their eyes, included the Western-allied Saudi regime. After a siege of two weeks, the group was brutally defeated with the help of French Special Forces advisers. Otaibi and 67 others were publicly executed. According an authoritative book on the events – The Siege of Mecca by former Afghanistan correspondent of the Wall Street Journal Yaroslav Trofimov (London 2007) – the brutal repression alienated many Muslims from the Saudi regime, among them Osama ben Laden. Some of them would find a common cause and an arena for their fight in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

Outside the region, Pope John Paul II’s visit to his homeland Poland in June 1979 boosted the country’s anti-communist opposition led by the independent Solidarność trade union, as well as opposition groups elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In mid-1979, the start of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the United Kingdom started a conservative wave in the west (in the US, Ronald Reagan would follow soon). On 12 December 1979, the NATO responded to the deployment of Soviet nuclear middle-range missiles in eastern Central Europe with the above mentioned, so-called Double-Track Decision (deployment of nuclear missiles and bomber airplanes able to carry nuclear weapons in western Central Europe). This brought Europe – and the world – to the brink of nuclear war.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, just two weeks after the NATO decision, ended the East-West détente, which witnessed a period of almost a decade during which East-West relations had become less confrontational due to disarmament measures. Thus, direct Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan, in the midst of global tensions, internationalised an internal political conflict which, so far, had been mainly over the question of whether to modernise (or not), at which pace and in which form.

Over time, the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan became stronger and received support from the West, most Islamic countries and China. However, it was Pakistan’s Islamist military dictatorship under Zia-ul-Haq that made sure that non-Islamist groups were excluded from this support. As a result, what started as a largely national resistance movement, over time morphed into a resistance dominated by ‘Jihadi’ armed groups.

In 1979, the Soviet leadership – like everybody else – was still unable to read the signs of the time. Boosted by the establishment of new socialist regimes in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and South Yemen during the 1970s, and by the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979, they were buoyed by dreams of a constantly expanding “socialist world system,” spanning from Moscow to Maputo, and Havana to Hanoi. This ‘historic optimism’ may well have contributed to Moscow’s hubris to decide to invade Afghanistan.

Ten years later, the financial burden of the new arms race had brought the Soviet Union into economic crisis. New Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov decided to cut costs, first in Eastern Europe (mainly by curbing the subsidised oil and gas and other mineral resources) and then, increasingly, in Afghanistan – until Yeltsin decided to completely cut Afghanistan off.

Historian Bösch wrote:

The run of history is often moulded by coincidence, but mostly by long-term changes which appear compacted at certain points of time and take on rapid speed.

In the year of 1979 rapid changes culminated in many spheres and regions. In this sense, one can talk about a ‘1979 turn of the times’ in which our present world began to emerge.

That is definitely the case for Afghanistan, as a single country, too. The Soviet war in Afghanistan would only be the first stage of a now 40-year long armed conflict, with changing and shifting participants and alliances, and severe consequences, above all for Afghans.

According to a 2005 report of The Afghanistan Justice Project,

…. [t]he Soviet occupation brought about a shift in tactics in the war. Soviet forces assassinated Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal, from the rival Parcham wing of the party in his place. Aware of the need to build support for the party, the Soviets ended the mass slaughter of intellectuals, religious leaders and others and instead adopted more systematic means of intelligence gathering and more selective targets of repression. The secret police, the Khidamati Ittila’at-i Dawlati (State Information Services), or KhAD, (…) engaged in widespread summary executions, detentions and torture of suspected mujahidin (resistance) supporters. In the countryside, the bombing became routine and indiscriminate. [It] devastated the countryside, killed tens of thousands and drove five million Afghans into exile.

Casualty figures of the Soviet phase of the war alone are estimated to have been between 800,000 and two million dead (7) and three million wounded (the latter mainly civilians); 6.4 million (one third of the pre-war population) turned into refugees, the largest refugee population in the world for many years, up to and until the Syrian war that started in 2015; two million internally displaced. Then there are the consequences from mass traumatisation to the devastated economy and destruction of the social fabric. (8) In 1989, the Afghan economist Ghanie Ghaussy calculated that Afghanistan’s direct material and potential Grand National Product losses and the damages to the capital stocks and infrastructure from the Soviet war could be estimated at approximately 13 billion US dollars. Agricultural and industrial output declined to 40 to 60 per cent of the production level of the pre-invasion period.

The impact on individual lives has been staggering and is sometimes subsumed by the suffering that followed in the next phases of the war. In memory of this chapter in Afghan history, we will reflect on what it has meant to ordinary Afghan lives and how they remember these event in a companion dispatch that will be published in the next few days.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert


(1) Kalinovsky, another leading writer on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan speaks of a “troika” only – Andropov, Gromyko, and Ustinov (see here (p49).

(2) A full list of Politbureau members during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is in this 2005 report (pp 33-4) of The Afghanistan Justice Project.

(3) According to the author’s knowledge, this document was published for the first time (in original, from a Soviet archive, and in a German translation) in Switzerland in: Bucherer-Dietschi, Paul, Albert Alexander Stahel and Jürg Stüssi-Lauterburg (eds), Strategischer Überfall – das Beispiel Afghanistan. Quellenband – Teil II, Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica, Liestal 1993, pp 680-1.

(4) Rodric Braithwaite, Afganzy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, London 2011, p 86.

(5) BBC Radio has two gripping eye-witness accounts, one told by Najiba Kasraee, a later BBC journalist, then a child that had been in Taj Bek palace during Amin’s 27 December reception and the subsequent Soviet commando raid, and one by one of the Soviet paratroopers who was involved in the raid (listen here and here).

(6) Trump also thought that “The reason Russia was in, in Afghanistan, was because terrorists were going into Russia.” Although there were no terrorists in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded, there were incursions from Afghanistan into the Soviet Union afterwards. Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, head of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service’s Afghan Bureau, responsible for directing financial and military assistance to the Afghan mujahedin from 1983 to 1987, related in his 1992 book The Bear Trap: Afghanistan’s Untold Story (together with Mark Adkin) how he organised, with CIA support, mujahedin cross-border operations inside the USSR, including rocket attacks, mine laying and ambushes around Soviet military installations near the Afghan border.

(7) The most realistic figure might be “nearly one million” (see Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, Yale 1995, p 1).

(8) Sources: Goodson, Larry P. Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban, University of Washington Press, 2001, p. 5; Wickramasekara, P., Sehgal, J., Mehran, F., Noroozi, L., Eisazadeh, Afghan Households in Iran: Profile and Impact, UNHCR-ILO Cooperation, 2006; A. Hilali, US–Pakistan Relationship: Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Burlington, 2005, p. 198. According to Gorbachov-time Soviet sources, the country’s armed forces lost 15,051 dead (Braithwaite, Afganzy, p 329) and 54,000 wounded.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Freed at Last: Three Afghans sent to Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003 are finally home

Mon, 23/12/2019 - 14:53

Three Afghans, who were detained and rendered to the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and 2003, and then transferred to the United Arab Emirates 2016 and what turned out to be further incarceration, have been released. Obaidullah and Mohammed Karim from Khost and Hamidullah from Kabul have also been allowed to return home to Afghanistan and are now with their families. A fourth man, Wali Mohammed, is still in the UAE. The four featured in a major 2016 AAN report on the experiences of Afghans in Guantanamo which looked at their cases in detail. It found the US allegations against them far-fetched and their files to be full of factual errors and gross misunderstandings. AAN’s Kate Clark has been following the latest developments (with input Ali Mohammad Sabawoon).

News that three of the four Afghans transferred from Guantanamo to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had been released from Emirati custody and repatriated came through on 23 December 2019. The three men had been incarcerated for the best part of two decades: detained by the US in Afghanistan – or by Pakistan which handed them over to the US – in 2002 or 2003. They were then rendered to Guantanamo and held there until they were transferred to the Gulf in 2016. Three of the four men sent to the UAE have given detailed accounts of having been tortured. (The fourth, Hamidullah, has not spoken about the matter.) President Obama, after having failed to close the prison camp itself, worked to get as many detainees out of Guantanamo before he left office in January 2017 and these transfers were part of that drive.

Two other Afghans were sent to Oman at this time: Bostan Karim, a businessman who had a plastic flower shop in Khost and Abdul Zaher, a choki dar from Logar. They were freed by the Omani authorities after a short spell in detention and have been resettled in Oman and their families allowed to join them. So far, however, they have not been allowed to travel. The four men sent to the UAE believed – as did their families and lawyers – that they were also heading for temporary detention and then resettlement and family reunion. Instead, for almost all of the last three years, the UAE authorities have held them in al-Rizan maximum security prison. The men were allowed family visits, but were not permitted to see their lawyers or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The three men’s release has come about because of the 2016 peace agreement between Hezb-e Islami and the Afghan government (for AAN reporting, see here). The chairman of the commission charged with implementing that agreement, Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel, told AAN that the government had been working initially to secure the release of Hamidullah, who comes from a prominent Hezb-e Islami family in Kabul – his father was the religious scholar, Mullah Sayed Agha Tarakhel, who died while Hamidullah was in Guantanamo. Then, Amarkhel said, the existence of the other three former Guantanamo detainees held in the UAE came to their attention. The government has managed to secure the release also of Obaidullah and Kamin and he said they are still “pushing for the UAE to send Wali Mohammed soon to Kabul.” Amarkhel said they had been talking directly to the UAE government. As to whether it had contacted the Americans before agreeing to release the men back to Afghanistan, he said he did not know.

The men who have now finally been allowed to come home are among the unluckiest of the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Afghans whom the US detained in the early years after 2001. As detailed in AAN’s 2016 report, “Kafka in Cuba: The Afghan Experience in Guantanamo”, the US military and CIA carried out mass, arbitrary arrests in this period as they sought information about the location of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and in their ‘hunt’ for ‘Taleban remnants’ (even though, in terms of rebel fighting forces, these did not really exist (1). Of those the US detained, 220 Afghans were rendered to Guantanamo. (2) Many were Taleban, including some senior military figures, but most were not. They included shepherds, taxi drivers and shopkeepers, children, the very elderly and individuals with mental health problems. There were also some significant non-Taleban notables and elders and those who had actively worked against the Taleban when the group held power. The American practice of paying for intelligence incentivised false tip-offs from Afghan commanders who used the US military and CIA to target their personal enemies, or to make money. The Pakistani state also handed over ‘terrorists’, again for money or for reasons of politics. Many detainees were tortured by the US military or CIA and their testimony occasionally led to further detentions. Almost all of those sent to Guantanamo were eventually released and repatriated, apart from the six who were sent to the Gulf in 2016 and 2017.

Two Afghans remain in Guantanamo, Asadullah Harun Gul and Muhammed Rahim (called (called Harun al-Afghani and Rahim al-Afghani in Guantanamo), both of whom were detained in 2007. Rahim was the last Afghan to be sent to Guantanamo and also the last detainee of any nationality that we know of who was tortured by the CIA and rendered to Guantanamo. Three other Afghans died in the prison. (3)

The cases against the four Afghans sent to the UAE

The US cases against the four men transferred to the UAE barely make sense. Moreover, their Guantanamo documents are full of strange assumptions and gross errors of fact. Full details of their cases can be read in our 2016 report, “Kafka in Cuba”, but thumbnail sketches are given below. The men’s names are given as they are most commonly spelt in their US documents, along with Internment Serial Number or ISN, which uniquely identifies each detainee.

None of these detainees were picked up on the battlefield. Nor were any accused of any specific attack. For the most part, trying to make sense of why these men were detained is more likely to succeed if, instead of looking at the allegations against them, the probable incentives, including financial or political benefits, of those handing them over or informing on them is considered.

  1. Obaidullah, ISN 762, mid-30s, from Khost. Detained by US forces July 2002; rendered to Guantanamo, 28 October 2002. Transferred to UAE and further detention, 14 August 2016.

Obaidullah was detained after an anonymous tip-off accusing him of being an al-Qaeda bomb-maker. He confessed to being a member of a cell, but retracted this soon after arriving in Guantanamo, saying he had been tortured. Evidence for this was presented later in court testimony for a petition for habeas corpus, when the state has to justify in court its detention of an individual. Obaidullah said he had been subject to sleep deprivation and physical abuse at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost. The state dropped parts of its case against Obaid rather than contest his torture claim in court. (4)

During a long-running petition for habeas corpus, much of the case against Obaid was shown to be dubious, untrue or derived from statements obtained under torture. For example, blood in a car he had driven that was alleged to be from wounded Taleban turned out to have been from his wife in labour. Yet, the many inconsistencies, wrong assumptions and errors in the state’s evidence revealed during the case made no apparent difference to the judge’s acceptance of the state’s evidence. In the end, the case rested on the original, anonymous tip-off by someone whose identity has never been revealed to Obaidullah and which he could not question and his alleged links with another detainee, a former business partner Bostan Karim, who was transferred to Oman in 2017 (and remains there). Whatever evidence that was not discounted or undermined during Obaidullah’s various hearings pointed to him possibly having been a low-level Taleban insurgent. However, nothing backed up the US claim of links with al-Qaeda or explained why it was deemed necessary to incarcerate him for so many years.

Moreover, certain US allegations against Obaid were simply bizarre, for example, that he had “helped coordinate the movement and activities of various foreign al Qaida” at a time when was a teenager and also did not speak Arabic and that he had hid and relocated to Pakistan “18 Arab al Qaeda members” at the start of the allied bombing campaign in 2001; the foreign militants fled several weeks later and quite openly. (5) 

  1. Mohammed Kamin, ISN 1045, early 40s, from Khost, imam. Detained by Afghan forces 14 May 2003 and handed over to US; rendered to Guantanamo 21 November 2003. Transferred to UAE, 14 August 2016.

 Kamin’s was the flimsiest of all the eight cases covered in AAN’s 2016 report. He was detained by (unspecified) Afghan forces in Khost city who told the US he had a GPS device with suspicious grid points stored on it. The US also deemed the make of Kamin’s watch suspicious; the Casio F_91 has been used in IEDs, but is also a global bestseller, owned by millions round the world.

The allegations against Kamin were, in any case, garbled. He was accused of being a member of, or affiliated to five different terrorist groups of different nationalities, not all of which actually existed: al-Qaeda (pan-Islamic), the ‘Afghan Coalition Militia’ (did not exist), ‘North African Extremist Network’ (did not exist), the Taleban (Afghan), Harakat ul-Mujahedin (Pakistani) and Jaish-e Muhammad (Pakistani). The US did not explain why or how this was possible. The US military also alleged Kamin had met “the Taliban Supreme Leader” after the war against the Soviets, a time when Kamin was aged between 11 and 16 years old and Mullah Omar was a village mullah in Sangesar, Kandahar province, several days’ journey away across multiple frontlines. 

  1. Hamidullah, ISN 1119, mid-50s, from Kabul, dealer in property and second-hand cars from prominent Hezb-e Islami family. Detained (probably) by the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, and handed over to US August 2003; rendered to Guantanamo 21 November 2003. Transferred to UAE, 14 August 2016.

The US deems as suspicious the fact that Hamidullah is from a Hezb-e Islami family, even though the US also supported this faction during the 1980s against the Soviet Union. It also accused him of having welcomed the Taleban in the 1990s (many Afghans did). Yet the fact that he was imprisoned by the Taleban when they were in power because he was Hezb-e Islami is dismissed.

 The US accused Hamidullah of plotting to bring the Afghan king, Zaher Shah, back to power, although why this should have been illegal or the act of an insurgent is not explained. He was accused of being in league with a coterie of co-conspirators, including groups and individuals, anti and pro-monarchist, anti and pro-American, moderate and extreme, and several that are mutually antagonistic. They included: the Iranians; the Taleban; the anti-monarchist Hezb-e Islam; several stalwarts from Jamiat-e Islami (anti-monarchist) including Mullah Ezatullah (whom the Americans label as Hezb-e Islami) and Haji Almas, both now MPs; the monarchist, pro-American former minister of defence, Rahim Wardak and; the monarchist and notoriously moderate mujahedin faction Mahaz-e Melli, which had not fought since 1992, but which Hamidullah’s Guantanamo ‘Assessment’ document described as “extremist”.

Hamidullah’s files are also full of factual errors. For example: Mullah Ezat was said to belong to Jamiat’s arch enemy, Hezb-e Islami; Taleban commander Mawlawi Kabir whom Kamin was said to have “identified” was reported by the US not only to have been a member of the Afghan National Army (he was not), but at a date before the army was founded and; Hamidullah’s father was said to have been a founding member of the Taleban (he was not). Not only are these ‘facts’ wrong, but anyone knowing anything about Afghanistan would have known they were wrong. Even someone with access to the internet could have readily discovered the errors. Hamidullah’s looked to be a clear case of a man handed over to the US military by his factional enemies as the NDS was then controlled by Jamiat-e Islami. 

The fourth Afghan to be transferred to the UAE, on 17 January 2017, in the last hours of the Obama presidency, Wali Mohammed, has yet to be freed. However, his case is as strange as the others.

Haji Wali Mohammed, ISN 560, mid-50s from Baghlan, money changer at the Central Money Market in Kabul. Detained in Pakistan 26 January 2002; handed over to US forces February 2002; rendered to Guantanamo 30 April 2002. Transferred to UAE 19 January 2017.

The US accused Wali Mohammed of being a financial backer of the Taleban and al-Qaeda. Yet, when the Taleban were in power, he had been detained and bankrupted by them after a joint venture with the Central Bank went badly wrong. (NB The deal itself was not controversial.) The accusation that Wali Mohammed was anything other than a publicly-known figure with a legal money exchange and gold-importing business rested on hearsay – the reports of foreign intelligence agencies and one detainee saying what another detainee had allegedly told him about Wali Mohammed. He himself believes he was framed by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, to protect one of its agents who owed him money after a tribal jirga asked to sort out the dispute had ruled in Wali Mohammed’s favour.

Wali Mohammed challenged his detention with a petition for habeas corpus in 2005, but only got a hearing in 2013, after repeated procedural delays and permission by the state to use secret evidence. The judge, after taking three years to decide the case, in 2016 dismissed the government’s allegation that he was an al-Qaeda financier as “not credible.” However, she ordered his continued detention because of what she believed was his association with the Taleban and the, by then, no-longer-insurgent Hezb-e Islami (Wali Mohammed’s sister is married to a nephew of Hezb leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar).

The parole-like body which decides whether to continue detaining Guantanamo detainees, the Periodic Review Board at Guantanamo, cleared Wali Mohammad for transfer in September 2016, noting, bizarrely, as he had by then been in American custody for 14 years, that his “business connections and associations with al Qa’ida and the Taliban pre-date 9/11 and appear to have ended.”

Freed, but their names not yet cleared 

None of these four men have ever been tried in a court of law. US assessments of the detainees were never about deciding guilt or innocence or determining criminal responsibility for example, for particular attacks, but about perceived risk. (6) Still, inmates have felt their guilt was assumed and they had to try to prove their innocence, although without the means they would have had if they were in a court of law. The US has set up various assessment boards over the years, but detainees were never allowed to bring witnesses or scrutinise the evidence against them. In some cases, they were not even told the exact allegations. At a review of his case in 2004, when Wali Mohammed got his first chance to speak publicly, he appears flabbergasted: how could the US accuse him of funding the Taleban and al-Qaeda when he was up to his ears in debt and the Taleban had put him in prison? In this extract from the transcript, he is being asked to respond to the allegations being read out by his Personal Representative (an officer chosen to ‘represent’ him at the hearing):

Personal Representative: The Detainee paid for a senior member of the Taliban to travel.

Detainee: I was buried in losses; I’d lost lots of money. Should I pay for my losses, or pay for the Taliban’s tickets? This accusation is not logical.

 Personal Representative: The Detainee purchased vehicles for the Taliban.

Detainee: I still had my own problems and bills to pay; I wasn’t in shape to buy vehicles for the Taliban. Should I pay my loan, or should I buy cars for the Taliban who had treated me brutally? This is not correct; you guys just think about it. (7)

From a transcript of an assessment hearing of Hamidullah in 2006, we can also see him struggling to make sense of the system of justice he was facing. Hearing allegations made by un-named sources which appeared to him to simply be based on misunderstandings, he repeatedly asks his captors to show him proof of his wrong-doing:

Detainee (through translator): I am asking you your basis for my capture. If you have any documents, records, or papers please let me know. Don’t just tell me that someone told you… You say I am al Qaida and I say I am not. Do you have proof of anything? It is up to you to show me the proof. (8)

As to the various petitions detainees have made for habeas corpus, they found American judges presuming the state to be truthful and barely questioning far-fetched allegations or correcting gross factual errors. The courts have let the state present evidence kept secret from the petitioner and allowed it to delay petitions repeatedly, often for many years, and without penalty. Judges have also spent months, or even years making decisions. “Careful judicial fact-finding,” one 2012 study of the habeas cases found, has been “replaced by judicial deference to the government’s allegations,” with the “government winning every petition.” (9) Guantanamo detainees have sought, but not found justice in America’s courts.

Even when the Periodic Review Board ruled that the four men sent to the UAE could be transferred out of Guantanamo, it did not formally decide the allegations against any of them were untrue. Rather, it decided the men no longer represented a danger to the United States “warranting continued detention.” The George Bush contention that those in Guantanamo were the “worst of the worst” has never been lifted. Yet from AAN’s study of these four men’s files and backgrounds, it is clear that none represented a threat to the US or its interests. Rather, they have been subject to extreme injustice.


That the Afghan government has followed up on its citizens incarcerated in the UAE has come about because of its peace agreement with Hezb-e Islami. Without that initiative, it seems unlikely that anything would have been done for these Afghans detained overseas. Afghan ambassador in Washington Roya Rahmani, for example, told AAN that she had received no instructions regarding the two Afghans still in Guantanamo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmen said the detainees there and in the Gulf were the Ministry of Justice’s responsibility, rather than securing their welfare being a consular duty (both interviews in March of this year).

As of today, three Afghans out of the 220 sent to Guantanamo are still in detention, Wali Mohammed in the UAE, and Muhammad Rahim and Harun Gul in Guantanamo, while the two men in Oman, Bostan Karim and Abdul Zaher, are living freely, but not allowed to travel. Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel said the government’s efforts to get all the Afghans freed and allowed to come home would continue.

This dispatch uses material researched for a follow-up report on the fate of the eight Afghans who featured in our 2016 publication. We hope to publish that early in the new year.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig


(1) Most Taleban had accepted defeat in 2001, as the author wrote in her 2016 “Kafka in Cuba” report:

There would be no Taleban ‘resistance’ to speak of until early 2003 and even that was very patchy and extremely local; it took several years for the insurgency to really take off. In reality, for anyone who knew Afghanistan and was there in late 2001, the opposite was true. The Taleban’s defeat had been total. Barely a single Afghan had rallied to their cause and the collapse they had suffered – military, political and psychological – had been swift and absolute.” (p 9)

(2) The largest national contingent at Guantanamo were the Afghans (220), followed by Saudis (135), Yemenis (115) and Pakistanis (72).  In total, men from 49 nationalities were held there.  “The Guantanamo Docket” published by The New York Times.

(3) They were: Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, died 30 December 2007 from cancer; Awal Gul, died 2 February 2011, after having been recommended for release, reportedly collapsing after exercise and; Inayatullah, died 18 May 2011, reportedly taking his own life (spellings as per US documents).

(4) See “Declaration of Richard Pandis”, pp 7-9, 8 February 2012, and “Kafka in Cuba”, pp 38-40, for more details.

(5) Arab and other foreign fighters fled on mass through Khost city to Pakistan in November 2001 after Kabul had fallen, according to interviews with eye-witnesses undertaken for BBC radio, July 2002 (no URL available).

(6) The one partial exception here are the military commissions held in Guantanamo, although these have been subject to excoriating criticism by lawyers and human rights advocates; see, for example, Steve Vladeck, “It’s Time to Admit That the Military Commissions Have Failed”, 16 April 2019, Lawfare, and Human Rights Watch’s discussion of “The Guantanamo Trials” on its website.

(7) Wali Mohammed Combatant Status Review Tribunals, 2004, transcript, p 5 (see Kafka in Cuba, p 25 for more detail).

(8) Hamidullah Administrative Review Board hearing 2006, transcript, p 8. (see Kafka in Cuba, p 55 for more detail).

(9) See Mark Denbeaux, Jonathan Hafetz, Sara Ben-David, Nicholas Stratton, and Lauren Winchester, No Hearing Habeas: D.C. Circuit Restricts Meaningful Review”, Seton Hall University School Of Law, 1 May 2012.

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Dispatch 2

Wed, 25/09/2019 - 16:34
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Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (7): Dithering over peace amid a lacklustre campaign

Mon, 16/09/2019 - 03:54

One ticket has fallen apart and one candidate has withdrawn his candidacy in favour of another. This has reduced the number of presidential candidates from 18 to 16 and left the two incumbents, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah, as the main contenders in the race. In this piece, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili and Thomas Ruttig discuss the campaigns that started, the threats to boycott the election, the security concerns and the presidential tickets that have fallen apart. They conclude that the campaign that started on 28 July and will continue until 48 hours before election day has, so far, been uninspiring and marred by disbelief that the election will take place on 28 September.

Lacklustre start and uninspiring continuation of election campaign

When the official race for the Afghan presidency started on 28 July, two months before the polls, only three out of 18 candidates officially organised public campaign events. These included the two incumbents and main contenders, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and also Enayatullah Hafiz, a fringe candidate. Ghani’s electoral ticket, Daulat-Saz (State-Builder), was the first one. It launched its election campaign at the Loya Jirga tent in northwest Kabul. The president said that he had managed to undercut the “domination of gold, force and oppression” in Afghanistan’s political system during his first term and asked people to grant him another mandate to implement “law and justice.” Ghani said that he would put into practice “Omarijustice,” a reference to the second caliph of Islam and a shot at claiming religious legitimacy for his presidency. Ghani followed this by travelling to a few provinces, for example to Paktia on 8 August (media report here), to Herat on 23 August (media report here) and to Kandahar on 14 September (see the video here). Even before the official campaign started, he had toured the country to inaugurate infrastructure projects, which his opponents condemned as unfair and illegal electioneering. Abdullah and his Stability and Integration team was second, launching the campaign in the large Uranus Wedding Palace on the main road to Kabul’s international airport. This gave him the chance to refer to and criticise Ghani’s speech. He said, “Today, someone has said that he would implement Omari justice. Listen very carefully. . . . If our people think that Omari justice was like what happened in the last five years [of the Ghani presidency], their faith would be harmed.” Abdullah –a partner in the post-2014 National Unity Government (NUG) with Ghani – accused the president of double standards in fighting corruption. He referred to the corruption charges against former minister of communication and information technology Abdul Razeq Wahidi who had been acquitted two days earlier(he was acquitted by the appeal court seven days earlier, on 21 July, though, media report here) while someone being investigated by the attorney general had, again two days earlier, been appointed as acting deputy minister of finance for revenue and customs, one of the key revenue-raising positions in government. He was referring to Walid Tamim who announced his ministerial appointment in a tweet on 26 July. All this while waiting to receive India’s agreement to go there as Afghan ambassador (see AAN’s reporting here). Abdullah called it “appointing the wolf as shepherd.” The third candidate, Hafiz, chose a different method to open his run for the presidency. With a group of aides and supporters, he went to three areas in western Kabul predominantly inhabited by his Hazara ethnic community and cleaned roads there (see media report here). No other campaigns started on 28 July. Instead, as discussed below, the 13-member Council of Presidential Candidates decided to delay their campaigns and even warned they would boycott the election. Although some candidates finally began their campaigns, the campaigns have remained insipid and affected by insecurity and the uncertainties around the now stalled peace negotiations.

Boycott threats

On the same day the campaigns started, 28 July, the Council of Presidential Candidates issued a statement warning they might boycott the election, as they consider the poll “fraudulent, pre-engineered and crisis-generating.” The council comprises 13 candidates and was formed in April 2019 (then by 11 of the 18 presidential aspirants) in response to the delay in the presidential elections and what they saw as the unconstitutional extension of Ghani’s presidential term (see AAN’s reporting here and here). Its members gave the president and his team one week to address a number of problems, such as the protection of “the independence of the independent electoral institutions,” including those “related to procurement and recruitment”; the interference of “high-ranking government officials . . . in favour of the ruling teams”; threats against government employees who do not support the teams of the NUG leaders and “deliberate insecuritisation of areas where rival candidates to the ruling team are assumed to [receive] more votes.” If that did not happen, the council’s members would instead “focus on the struggle to make the peace process successful and build national consensus for developing an accountable administration so that such an impartial and national administration undertake the responsibility for holding a free and fair and credible election.” (1) On 1 August, the Council of Presidential Candidates met the Election Support Group, which comprises key donors (the European Union; Australia; Sweden, on behalf of the Nordic Plus group; Germany; Japan; the United Kingdom and the United States), NATO and UNAMA, to communicate their above-mentioned statement issued on the first day of the election campaign. (2) Ahmad Wali Massud, one of the candidates and a member of the council who shared the news of the meeting on his Facebook page, wrote that the council was determined to use all available resources for making the election transparent before launching their campaign, which fell short of a boycott declaration.

Facing a possible boycott by at least half the candidates, Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, an IEC spokesman, told Hasht-e Sobh on 5 August that the IEC was prepared to hold the election even if it were between two candidates only. It did not come to a boycott. One by one, candidates began to launch their campaigns. Below is a timeline of the first campaign events of some of them:

  • Leader of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is experiencing his first presidential election in post-Taleban Afghanistan after his deal with the government in 2016, launched his campaign on 1 August.
  • Former NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil launched his campaign at the Loya Jirga Tent on 3 August, 7 days after the official commencement of the race.
  • Sayyed Nurullah Jalili launched his campaign at the Loya Jirga Tent on 4 August
  • Massud –not seen as one of the election favourites – (video here) launched his campaign, also at the Loya Jirga Tent, on 9 August, 13 days after the race had officially started. At that point, Massud’s ticket could have been ranked third among in terms of including powerful leaders of Jamiat-e Islami party, after Abdullah’s Stability and Integration team and that of former NSC Hanif Atmar (which included former interior minister Yunos Qanuni, another leading Jamiati, as a vice-presidential candidate). However, after the Atmar ticket collapsed (more on that below) and Amrullah Saleh (who originally belonged to the same political camp) joined Ghani, a number of Jamiat heavyweights (such as Qanuni, former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur, Herat strongman and former minister of water and energy Ismail Khan, and former defence minister Besmellah Muhammadi – who had been with Atmar) have been weighing whether to back Massud or Abdullah. The latter is still seen by many in the party as having squandered the political chances linked to his powerful position in the NUG and has drawn harsh criticism for it, for example by Ismail Khan, who had urged him not to run again. However, he might appear to be the more likely choice, given Massud’s low-key performance.
  • Shahab Hakimi also launched his campaign on 9 August. Instead of talking about the election, he said that “There is no peace nor the possibility for holding a general election. Inshallah, interim government is coming. This administration [NUG] cannot hold general, fair and acceptable elections.”
  • Latif Pedram launched his first campaign event at the Intercontinental Hotel on 15 August in which he promised to create a “Federal Islamic Republic of Afghanistan-Khorasan” if he won the election.

The election team security factor

Hours after the inaugural ceremony of Ghani’s election campaign ended, the office of his first running-mate, Amrullah Saleh’s Green Trend movement (AAN background here) in Shahid Square north of Kabul’s city centre and near the airport, came under a complex attack. The attack included a car bombing followed by a gunfight involving at least four attackers. The attack left 20 dead, including 16 civilians, and as many as 50 wounded (media report here). No group, including the Taleban and the local Islamic State franchise, claimed this attack. It was widely condemned by officials and presidential candidates such as the president, the chief executive, Atmar and Nabil (see media report here) and UNAMA. The latter’s statement underlined, “Candidates are civilians. Violence has no place in Afghanistan’s presidential campaign.” However, it had a demoralising effect for the election campaign which had just kicked off. An attack by unknown gunmen on a Ghani campaign office in Mazar-e Sharif was also reported on 1 September 2019. It resulted in a 15-minute firefight, but no one was injured.

Ten days into the campaign period, on 6 August, the Taleban, writing in English, warned voters to “stay away from gatherings and rallies that could become potential targets,” saying that it instructed “all its Mujahideen to stand against this theatrical and sham of a process” and “prevent the enemy from succeeding in their malicious plans.” They also challenged the election’s legitimacy by saying voting would take place only in selected cities and even there most of the inhabitants would not be participating. They added that while negotiations were underway “to bring an end to the occupation and arrangements for intra-Afghan understanding are being put into place,” the elections would only serve to satisfy “the ego of a limited number of sham politicians, resulting in the waste of time, money and resources.” In reaction, on the same day the palace condemned “the Taleban’s threat against the people.”It argued it was the people’s legal right, including under Sharia, to elect their leaders (using the religious term “auli-l-amr) “through direct vote.” It said that the government had made “all the necessary preparations” to guarantee this through “free, transparent and general elections.” It also said that the country’s security forces were “instructed” and “fully prepared” and would not allow anyone “to stop their participation in determining their destiny.” Meanwhile, the commander of the US and Resolute Support forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, also assured his Afghan counterparts of their “full support and readiness to work with Afghan security forces in all areas, especially in suppressing insurgents.”

On the first day of campaigning, Nabil’s team had already claimed that most of the “enemy’s threats” were against it and complained that its “security package” had not “yet been implemented” by the government. Nabil said it did not “pay much attention, and this deliberate negligence has caused serious problem for our public gatherings and provincial travels of the leadership members of our team.” He did not specify who were posing threats or their nature. (3) Later, on 10 September, a source from his election campaign who did not want to be named told AAN that threat reports came from the government,  and were mostly against Nabil himself and his first running-mate Murad Ali Murad.

The Council of Presidential Candidates also complained about insufficiency in the security measures on 24 August, saying “Security measures for the candidates are incomplete and worrisome, and the government has not provided services in accordance with professional standards. In the event of any unpleasant incident, officials at the top and Ghani should be held responsible.”

Meanwhile, after his 23 August campaign trip to Herat mentioned above, President Ghani suddenly stopped campaigning in the provinces. Instead, he started “virtual rallies” where he speaks to supporters in different provinces on the phone or through video conference. No reason was given for this measure. The New York Times Kabul-based correspondent Mujib Mashal wondered in a 30 August tweet whether this shift was reflecting “good use of technology” or a reaction to higher security threats. He said, “Politicians who at least during election times went to meet people in far away districts (away from their blast walls and armored vehicles) now talk to gatherings via Skype.” Afghan journalist Harun Najafizada, editor with Iran International, answered that question in another tweet on 2 September: “In Afghanistan security does not allow actual rallies [before] the Sept. 28th presidential polls.” The chief executive has had no provincial campaign trip yet.

It is worth mentioning that some of the election observer organisations (eg Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation (AABRAR), Afghanistan Civil Society Forum-Organization (ACSFO), Training Human Rights Association for Afghan Women (THRA)) conducted a pre-election assessment before the start of the election campaign. AAN was invited to attend the meetings. One official from the Ministry of Interior who did not want to be named told the assessment team that, even in Kabul, they had informed the candidates that the security forces could only secure campaign events held at the Loya Jirga Tent and a few other specific venues, which he refused to name.

Elections versus peace

Apart from technicalities and security threats, the campaign has been so slow for a much larger reason: it was simply not clear to the candidates and their political allies whether the election would go ahead. This uncertainty emanated from the – now defunct – negotiations between the US and the Taleban in Doha. The US made it clear that election might stand in the way of the larger aim, ending the war. For instance, on 24 August, US ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, while visiting Mazar-e Sharif, said that while both elections and a peace accord were “important for the United States . . ., [p]eace is our highest priority because it is also the highest priority of the Afghan people. And every day, we have Afghans telling us that peace is their highest priority.”

Campaign posters on the airport road. Apart from incumbent President Ghani’s campaign, other candidates started their campaign reluctantly and put up their posters around Kabul city. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 14 September 2019

The widespread assumption was that these negotiations would culminate in a cancellation of the election in favour of an interim power-sharing arrangement. This was fuelled by media reporting of rumours, such as al-Jazeera reporting almost a month into the election campaign, on 24 August, that the US and the Taleban had agreed to an interim government that would be in charge for 14 months (media report here). While both US Special Representative Zalmai Khalilzad and the spokesman for the Taleban’s Qatar office, Suhail Shahin, rejected the reports on the very day in separate tweets (see here and here), it did not dilute the suspicion that both sides might be hiding something. As AAN has already reported, even Chief Executive Abdullah, who had consistently supported the holding of the election and accordingly started his electoral campaign, modified his position – and increased his options – saying that he was “fully ready to render sacrifices before and after election to reach a durable peace in the country.” According to this report this included “quit[ting] elections for the sake of peace.” While the election looks to be the only option for moving forward after President Trump declared peace negotiations as “dead,” there are no signs to indicate that the election campaigns have picked up enough steam.

Moreover, there is a trust deficit in the election itself, resulting from the deficient previous elections. Ghani himself has called the 2018 parliamentary elections “a catastrophe” (AAN reporting here), while the EU election observation mission called the 2014 presidential election, from which Ghani emerged as the president but in the unloved NUG, a “disaster.” The findings of a survey released by Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) on 8 August showed that only 42.87 per cent of the respondents (5,200 from all 34 provinces) said they would participate in the upcoming election and  the remaining 57.13 per cent of them had no interest in voting in the upcoming election. The reasons included: electoral commissions have no freedom or the required capacity to hold the election; citizens’ votes were sacrificed for a political deal in the 2014 presidential election; and severe security threats and challenges.  AAN has repeatedly reported that necessary electoral reform has remained embryonic, making the coming election as problem-ridden as the previous ones, with electoral institutions widely considered non-credible and partial, while reports surrounding the preparations for biometric verification suggest the likelihood of renewed chaos. In addition, the election has a significant problem with inclusiveness: many voters, particularly in rural Taleban-controlled areas, are already deprived of their right to vote due to lack of security, with 2,005 out of 7,378 polling centres remaining closed.

Out of the race

1. Collapse of Atmar’s team

Even before the start of the official campaign season, the ticket of one of three election favourites collapsed. Atmar’s candidacy would have transformed the duel between the two NUG heads Ghani and Abdullah (which repeated the one between Ghani’s predecessor Hamed Karzai and Abdullah in 2009) into a three-horse race with an unpredictable outcome.

Atmar (a Pashtun from Laghman who served as national security adviser to President Ghani until 2018 and before as minister of rural rehabilitation and development, education and interior under Karzai) had formed one of the strongest and most diverse tickets. His first and second running-mates were respectively former vice-president Muhammad Yunus Qanuni, a Tajik from Panjshir and a senior Jamiat member, and Muhammad Mohaqeq, the second deputy to Chief Executive Abdullah and the leader of Hazara-dominated Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom-e Afghanistan. Atmar had also fielded a third, informal, running-mate, Alem Sa’i, an Uzbek and a former governor of Jawzjan, to tap into the Uzbek voter base usually dominated by Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is supporting Abdullah. Sa’i is a member of the anti-Dostum New Jombesh party founded in June 2017 (AAN background here). In addition to Qanuni, Atmar had cultivated other influential Jamiat stalwarts who, Qanuni said on 18 January 2019, included Atta Muhammad Nur and Ismail Khan. (4) Qanuni particularly underscored Nur’s and Khan’s role in forming the ticket, without whom, he said, they would not have been successful (see AAN reporting here).

In the end, a row broke out in the Atmar ticket about Nur’s role and his claim to the future prime ministerial post. On 24 July, Nur told Tolonews in an interview that “I am the prime minister of this team.” Six days later, on 30 July, Radio Azadi reported, based on a source close to Atmar’s electoral ticket, that at the launch of the team’s election campaign Nur wanted to be introduced as the ticket’s candidate for this prospective position but that Atmar opposed it. The report said that Atmar wanted his plan to re-establish the prime minister’s post to be mentioned in his campaign charter but that it would be implemented only after being approved by a Loya Jirga after an election victory. Atmar had laid this approach out himself in an interview with Tolonews a few days earlier, on 20 July, in which he said:

The agreement of our team is that if we win, we will maintain the presidential system hundred per cent [but] under this system, for the betterment of governance affairs [and] considering the successful experience of His Majesty’s reign [referring to the same system in place under King Muhammad Zaher [1933–73], we will create the post of sadr-e azam [prime minister] by amending the constitution who will be appointed and dismissed by the president.

What really happened might have been a bit more complicated, at least according to Sayyed Muhammad Ali Jawid, the head of one faction of Harakat-e Islami party that was part of the Atmar team. In this position, he had some insight into the team’s internal dealings. In a Facebook post on 9 August, he alleged that Atmar had signed a secret agreement with Nur to create the post of prime minister and introduce him as his candidate to the post. According to Jawid, Atmar informed the leadership council about the agreement on 6 Asad (28 July), only after the disagreement between him and Nur became serious, and asked the council members to mediate. Jawid claimed that members of the team’s leadership council, including himself, tried to do so but to no avail. Jawid also said that Atmar had accepted to announce Nur’s prime-ministership but refused to yield to his demand that the prime minister also would pick his ministers after the election victory, which Atmar considered as rendering himself powerless as the prospective president. (5) Before, on 3 August, Jawid had announced his party’s separation from Atmar’s team, citing Atmar’s and Nur’s unrelenting stances regarding the prime-ministership issue, with the result that the credibility of this team in the public opinion had “decreased to zero.” 12 days later, on 15 August, Jawid announced that his party would support Ghani’s State-Builder team.

In any case, Atmar’s team declared its election campaign “halted and suspended” on 8 August. His statement gave three reasons, but did not mention the Atmar-Nur ruckus about the prime ministerial post and the imminent implosion of the team. It rather:

  • blamed the continuing “naked interferences by the Palace’s apparatus” in the election preparation and its own lack of “confidence in the transparency of the elections and guarantees for a free and fair setting” for it;
  • blamed the deteriorating security threats to the electoral teams and their campaign activities as well as the voters; and
  • said that it had prioritised “efforts at peace” over the election.

It also said that it would reserve all Atmar’s election ticket’s legal rights and would review its “role constantly and take necessary decisions in accordance with the future political situation and developments.” This hinted at a possible resumption of his campaign. This seems to be very unlikely, though, in particular as two weeks later, on 23 August, Atmar’s second running-mate, Mohaqeq, officially joined the Abdullah team (see the video here), though he still insisted there was no discord among the team members.

On 15 August, already, Ghani’s campaign manager, Muhammad Omar Daudzai, posted a photo of himself shaking hand with Sulaiman Kakar who had been Atmar’s deputy in the office of the National Security Council until September 2018 when he resigned ten days after his boss (media report here) saying that an “experienced and patriotic personality” joined Ghani’s State-Builder campaign. Kakar, he said, would work as the deputy campaign manager. Before, Kakar was crucial to Atmar’s team and had been described as the “executive arm” of his election team. This led to media reports (see one here) that Atmar would also join Ghani’s State-Builder team. However, five days after the suspension of his campaign, on 13 August, Atmar denied these reports. Atmar replied in his short media notice:

Since last night, reports indicating that the leader of the Peace and Moderation team Muhammad Hanif Atmar, senior members of the team and in general the Peace and Moderation team plan to join another electoral ticket have been published in the media and on social media. The news is absolutely inaccurate and untrue. The Peace and Moderation team pursues its goals and programmes with full strength.

However, AAN had heard that Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Moheb, had met Atmar to persuade him to join the president’s team and that Atmar had, instead, asked to be appointed as the chief negotiator in the possible upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations.

2. Withdrawal of Rasul

Meanwhile, Zalmai Rasul withdrew from the race and also announced his support for Ghani’s team in a ceremony held on 6 August in Kabul (media report here). Rasul, who served as foreign minister and national security advisor under Karzai, did not provide any specific reasons for his withdrawal. Rasul’s running-mates, Abdul Jabbar Taqwa (a Tajik from Farkhar district of Takhar) and Ghulam Ali Wahdat (a Hazara from Bamyan), did not follow his suit and, on the same day, announced their separation from him. Unlike in 2014, when Rasul was one of the most viable candidates and came third in the first round of the election (he supported Abdullah in the second round), this time around his team was not considered as among the frontrunners.

One IEC commissioner wrote in response to AAN’s written query on 4 September that no candidate had officially written to the IEC to withdraw from the race, the ballot papers had been printed and were now being dispatched to the provinces, and that all the (18) candidates who had been cleared to contest the election are on the ballot. According to the electoral law, candidates could withdraw until 25 April when the IEC published the final list of candidates. Should they want to withdraw from the contest after this date, their names will remain on the ballot, but any votes cast for them will not be counted and their deposits will not be returned (the money would go into state coffers).

With the collapse of Atmar’s team and withdrawal of Rasul, the number of candidates has decreased from 18 to 16, leaving the two incumbents, Ghani and Abdullah, as the main contenders in the race.

Some extra institutional arrangements

As Atmar’s ticket, with its busted plan to build up one of its key members as the prospective prime minister – a position not envisaged in the current constitution – Abdullah’s team also came up with some innovation. When he launched his election campaign on 28 July, Abdullah said (his video here) that his team’s leadership had decided that his ticket would include three, not two, deputies for the position of chief executive, the quasi-prime ministerial position invented under the NUG. He then introduced the Pashtun politician Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a former finance minister and head of New National Front of Afghanistan coalition as chief executive candidate. He named a Hazara, Ghani Kazemi (the leader of one Hezb-e Harakat-e Islami faction) as his first deputy and Roz Muhammad Nur (a Turkman) as the second, while the third position would go to a – not yet announced – woman. (6) Abdullah’s move addressed what is seen as a necessity in Afghanistan’s highly factionalised and ethnicised political landscape: to have a representative of each major ethnic group on a ticket to appeal to voters of these particular groups. His ticket was still missing a Pashtun, while the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara slots were taken by himself, Enayatullah Babur Farahmand and Asadullah Sadati.

Ahadi’s acceptance of the position is remarkable insofar as he had broken away from a large political coalition, the Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan (see AAN’s reporting) in November 2018 in protest against exactly the same issue – the coalition’s plan to create the post of a prime minister.

Abdullah has also promised to form another political body, called the Supreme Leadership Council, composed of leaders of major political parties. This has in particular been reflected in his agreement with Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom leader Mohaqeq. When he left Atmar’s team and joined Abdullah’s, he was promised the post of deputy to the leader of the council. This council is to advise the president “about fundamental issues in the country,” according to Muhammad Nateqi, Mohaqeq’s deputy in the party, who himself has been promised a post as a special representative of the president in the case Abdullah wins.

Nabil appointed a Turkman, Abdul Majid Sattari, as his third vice-presidential candidate on 28 July. (7) In this, he follows Ghani, Atmar (see AAN’s previous reporting here) and Abdullah who have now introduced informal third vice-presidential candidates, so far introduced as “special representatives” of the president. These additional posts are not covered by the current constitution. According to article 60, only two (first and second) vice-presidents are envisaged and must be declared by the presidential candidates when registering to run, not during the campaign.(8) Consequently, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) warned in its 30 July 2019 decision that none of the candidates and electoral tickets could use titles such as prime minister, third vice-president or vice-presidential candidate in their election campaign.

Campaign violations

Two days into the campaign, the ECC, in its 30 July decision quoted above, issued warnings for the first electoral violations, which occurred during Ghani’s and Abdullah’s campaign launches. The ECC cited the illegal use of government’s money and facilities, such as using the Loya Jirga tent (a government venue), government equipment and vehicles and the participation of high-ranking government staff in the gatherings. The ECC said that this had violated article 98 (paragraph 1, section 31) of the electoral law, article 5 (paragraph 5), article 6 (paragraph 2) and article 7 (paragraph 1, sections 4 and 7) of the amended regulation regarding the 2019 election campaign as well as article 6 (paragraph 4) of the regulation for management of financial affairs of the election campaign of candidates. It said that the ECC members unanimously decided to issue serious warnings to both Ghani’s “State-Builder” and Abdullah’s “Stability and Integration” teams in accordance with article 30 of the electoral law (paragraph 1, section 3)and urged them to observe the procedures of the electoral commissions and other electoral regulations.

A day after the official commencement of the election campaign, on 29 July, Atmar’s team issued a “statement about illegal appointments by Dr Ashraf Ghani.” The statement said, “Former president and 2019 presidential candidate, Dr Muhammad Ashraf Ghani, in continuation of [his] illegal actions, has appointed a number of people to the important government positions . . . as heads of customs (from Herat to Nangrahar and from Kandahar to Farah) on the first day of the start of the election campaign.” It said that all these appointments had “political, electoral and campaign dimension and are in direct conflict with the electoral law, the principle of rule of law, political morality and sound competition which in turn can deal a heavy blow to the credibility of the government and irreparable harms to the election.” (9)The appointments came despite the Independent Directorate of Local Governance’s announcement on 21 July that it had halted all “new appointments and recruitments related to the agency until the end of the election” (AAN’s reporting here). Presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqi, however, insisted on 30 July that all the appointments, firings and hirings that had taken place within the government institutions were “needs-based” and covered by law.

On 9 September, the Kabul provincial ECC announced that foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani had been charged with a cash fine of 15,000 afghanis (almost 200 US dollars) for participating in Abdullah’s campaign events. It also fined two presidential advisers, Abdul Rahim Azizi and Shah Hussain Murtazawi, and the chancellor of Kabul University, Hamidullah Faruqi, with a fine of the same amount for campaigning in favour of Ghani’s team. Murtazawi was also penalised with a ban from voting. Kabul-based Pajhwok News Agency also compiled a long list of examples of the use of “foul” and “aggressive” language, which is against the electoral law.


The campaign for Afghanistan’s 28 September 2019 election has been lacklustre because of the uncertainty resulting from the – now collapsed – US-Taleban talks and US pressure to further delay the poll to not stand in the way of an agreement on troop withdrawal and intra-Afghan negotiations envisaged for after the conclusion of the deal. This and the precarious security situation even forced the incumbent – the only candidate fully committed to the election – to suspend his campaign travels outside Kabul (which he resumed only on 14 September).

AAN’s count of the IEC’s official figures from the 2018 parliamentary election shows less than 3.5 million (3,467,541, to be exact) valid votes (in private meetings, election observers have been saying that the number was even much lower). With this uninspiring campaign, AAN has heard concerns that the turnout might be much lower, especially given that there is no local election to help get the voters to polls. It is feared that the election might fail to deliver a legitimate mandate to the next president.

Even so, the little campaigning so far has been marred by accusations of irregularity and manipulation which reflect the mistrust in the unreformed electoral institutions seen by his opponents to work in the incumbent’s favour.

With the disintegration of the Atmar ticket, the election is expected to become a two-horse race between the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, and his estranged NUG ‘partner,’ Abdullah Abdullah. Together with the lack of electoral reform promised after the 2014 ‘disaster’ – an election without an official result and a compromise unloved by the two ‘partners’ who largely cancelled out each other – this constellation might increase the danger that the post-2014 election chaos might repeat itself. Under these circumstances, any result could easily be challenged – again.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kouvo


(1) Presidential hopeful Muhammad Shahab Hakimi, a member of the council, told a local newspaper, daily Hasht-e Sobh on 30 July that eight candidates had so far agreed to boycott the 28 September elections and that consultation in this regard continued. He did not provide the names of those planning to boycott.

The council’s statement listed the following as “plausible reasons of the Council of Candidates to boycott the presidential election”:

First: our recommendation for establishing a committee comprising representatives of presidential candidates, political parties and representatives of civil society organisations related to the election to assist and support holding a free and fair election to protect the independence of the independent electoral institutions and forge national and international cooperation to hold a free, transparent, fair and credible election in accordance with the law has been ignored.

Second: the organisational changes in the government not only were not cancelled but also two new ministries named State Ministry for Peace Affairs and State Ministry for Human Rights Affairs have newly been established. These have fully political dimensions and are against the basic state structure.

Third: the appointments and dismissals of senior government officials and employees which have taken place since the leaders of the National Unity Government registered as presidential candidates have not been reversed.

Fourth: the real independence of the IEC and ECC in decision-making related to procurement and recruitment of provincial staff and secretariats has not been clearly and transparently ensured. Non-transparent appointments have not only not been cancelled but have also been maintained.

Fifth: high-ranking government officials in the centre and provinces directly interfere in the election affairs in favour of the ruling teams. New posts are created in districts for this purpose.

Sixth: the head of the National Unity Government and the ruling team in the centre and provinces have launched cosmetic and campaign activities by using government resources such as inaugurating projects and celebrating independence, which are considered fully political and campaign activities.

Seventh: the National Television of Afghanistan and other government media have been provided to the ruling candidates unfairly and against the legal documents.

Eight: abuse of the national budget, especially codes 91, 92, and 95 and operative money, for campaign activities of the leaders of the National Unity Government, especially of the president intensely continue.

Ninth: abuse of government projects by the head of the National Unity Government, especially by the first lady and her office which has in essence been created against the law continue.

Tenth: Abuse of the National Procurement Commission and signing contracts through single-source method, including the contracts signed by the Presidential Protection Unit not only have not been cancelled but have also continued.

Eleventh: the relevant government institutions have not provided the necessary and appropriate resources to meet the legal and legitimate needs of other candidates and their team members, including security facilities, in accordance with the law and their needs.

Twelfth: psychological and career threats against government employees who support non-ruling electoral teams have not been prevented.

Thirteenth: unfortunately, deliberate de-securitisation of areas where the candidates rival to the ruling team are assumed to have more votes continues.

Fourteenth: unfortunately, the IEC has not had the necessary coordination with electoral tickets about the purchase and maintenance of biometric devices, training of staff in how to use the devices, cleaning the fake tazkeras, cleaning the voter list, questionable mobile polling centres and existence of hundreds of polling centres in insecure areas and other important instances which has caused serious concern for the candidates.

Fifteenth: rejecting the recommendations by credible international organisations to improve the 2019 presidential election.

(2) The commencement of the election campaign received only a lukewarm welcome from the international community. The European Union Delegation in Afghanistan tweeted on 28 July, “Today starts the presidential election campaign.” It called on Afghans to “seize this historical opportunity [and] make candidates accountable of their vision of post-conflict” Afghanistan. It also called on “candidates to make this campaign a moment of transparency [and] integrity.” A day later, on 29 July, UNAMA issued a statement saying that “all candidates and supporters are expected to engage in a fair campaign as outlined” in the electoral law, IEC’s code of conduct for the candidates and other regulations enacted by the IEC. It also called on all the stakeholders to “work toward building trust and confidence in the election process.” UNAMA reiterated its “continued commitment and support for an Afghan‐led and Afghan‐owned election” and acknowledged “the efforts made by electoral management bodies, the government and other stakeholders to hold a timely, transparent and credible presidential election.”

(3) In its statement, Nabil’s “Security and Justice” election ticket accused the government of “double standards.” It accused“the government led by the Palace” of acting “in an extremely biased, narrow-minded and selfish way in the management of the election.” Later on the same day, Nabil repeated his accusations, saying a in tweet that they were worried about “the interference and engineering of the upcoming election by the ruling team and Ashraf Ghani.” However, he said that his team would not boycott the election “at this stage.”

(4) Others include Kalimullah Naqibi, deputy head of Jamiat; Abdul Satar Murad, head of the political committee of Jamiat and former minister of economy; Engineer Aref Sarwari, former head of NDS; Abdul Malek Hamwar, former minister of rural development and rehabilitation and Baz Muhammad Ahmadi, deputy minister of interior for counter-narcotics.

(5) Jawed also gave other reasons for the disintegration of Atmar’s team:

  • broken promises, including to pay those officials of the Ghani administration who had joined his team and were subsequently fired by Ghani who also cancelled their benefits;
  • Atmar inaccessibility: “I . . . tried for more than one month through different ways to meet Atmar but he did not take time to meet. So I said to myself: He ignores people while he has not even become the president yet; if he becomes the president, meeting him would be impossible”;
  • broken relations with two former mujahedin parties, the National Liberation Front of Afghanistan of late Professor Sebghatullah Mojaddedi and the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan led by Sayed Hamed Gailani;
  • Atmar forming a special circle of close aides, “mostly” Pashtuns, where all main decisions were taken and not sufficiently shared in the leadership council.

(6) Below are short bios of candidates for chief executive and its deputies under Abdullah’s ticket. We only provide biographical detail of politicians who newly appeared on the presidential tickets. For the originally 18 tickets and their members, refer to this AAN dispatch.

  • Ahadi, a Pashtun born in 1941 in Kabul, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economy and political science from the American University of Beirut, a master’s degree in financial and administrative affairs and a PhD in political sciences from Northwestern University, US. He served as the head of Afghanistan’s central bank from 2002 to 2004 and finance minister from 2004 to 2008 (see his bio on the Stability and Integrity website here). Ahadi backed Ghani in the 2014 presidential election, but in January 2016 established an opposition group called the New National Front of Afghanistan (see AAN’s reporting here).
  • Kazemi, born in Lashkargah of Helmand province on 26 April 1963, has served as a military commander of Hezb-e Harakat-e Islami-e Afghanistan in Helmand, head of the party’s provincial council in Helmand and member of the central council of the party, representative of Harakat to the Supreme Military Council of Islamic State of Afghanistan and United Front. With changes to the structural organisation of the party, he was elected as the head of the central council of the party on 15 Jawza 1388 (5 June 2009). After entry into force of the amended political party law in 2009, he registered Hezb-e Harakat-e Islami based on the new conditions enshrined in the law. Kazemi has also served as deputy secretary general (2004) and then secretary general (2005–2010) of the Afghan Red Crescent Society. He worked as presidential adviser on disaster management from 2012 to 2015 and as an adviser to the chief executive from 2016 onward (information is extracted from his bio shared by one of his campaigner with AAN).
  • Roz Muhammad Nur was born in 1339 (1960) in Mardian district of Jawzan province. He graduated from Balkh Agricultural High School in 1359 (1980) and holds a bachelor’s degree in economy from Turkey. He served as second secretary at the Afghan embassy in Turkey from 1373 to 1381 (1994-2002), governor of Jawzjan from 1381 to 1384 (2002-2005), and then as the councillor in Afghan embassy in Turkmenistan until 1388 (2009). Since 1389 (2010), he has been active in political activities and is now picked as the second deputy to the chief executive in Abdullah’s Stability and Integration team (information is taken from his short bio shared by one of Abdullah’s campaigner with AAN).

(7) Sattari, ethnically Turkman, was born in Qurghan district of Faryab province in 1977. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economy from Selcuk University, Konya, Turkey. He has worked with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (2002–2003), international military forces (NATO) (2011–2014), civilian trainer for officers of the Ministry of Interior (2015–2016) and Turkish consulate in Jawzjan (2016–2018) and as logistics officer and then acting head of RET International (2018–2019). He has now been nominated by Turktabaran (Uzbeks and Turkmans) as the third vice-presidential candidate on Nabil’s election ticket (the information is obtained from his biography which AAN received from one of Nabil’s campaigners on 4 August).

(8) Article 60 of the constitution says:
The President shall be the head of state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, executing his authorities in the executive, legislative and judiciary fields in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

  • The President shall have two Vice-Presidents, first and second.
  • The Presidential candidate shall declare to the nation names of both vice-presidential running mates.
  • In case of absence, resignation or death of the President, the first Vice-President shall act in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.
  • In the absence of the first Vice-President, the second Vice-President shall act in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

(9) This statement apparently referred to a letter of appointment which was posted (see here) on social media on 29 July. The letter number 3710 was issued by the recruitment section of human resources of the Ministry of Finance and signed by the acting deputy minister for administration on 6 Asad 1398 (28 July) to the Customs Department of Herat Province. It approved the following appointments:

  • Muhammad Akbar, head of Kandahar customs, as head of Herat Customs (replacement)
  • Feruz Khan as head of Nangarhar customs
  • Zaherullah Jilani, son of Abdul Dayan, employee of general department of customs, as head of Kandahar customs
  • Ahmad Nawid as head of the general department of customs for operation
  • Sanaullah Ibrahimi, the technical head of the general department of customs, as head of Farah customs
  • Shams Alekozai, the head of the general department of customs, as airport customs officer.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Searching for the Afghan Snowfinch: Memories of a birdwatching journey fifty years ago

Fri, 13/09/2019 - 03:42

The bearded vulture, the rich diversity of wheatears and, above all, the Afghan snowfinch – found nowhere else in the world – are what drew a young ornithologist, Voislav Vasić, to travel from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan in the summer of 1972. In this guest dispatch, Vasić, now the retired head of the national Natural History Museum in Belgrade,* recalls his journeys in search of birds, by bus, truck, taxi, jeep, as well as on a bicycle, horse and camel through almost all parts of Afghanistan. He recalls the birds he saw, the actor-friend he made and the ornithological scandal he heard about.

Why Afghanistan?

Ever since AAN published a dispatch on the lizards of Afghanistan based on a collection of lizards I brought back from Afghanistan to Europe in 1972, I have felt the need to write about the main purpose of that journey – to discover more about the birds of Afghanistan. I also wanted to share some recollections about my journey, which was in itself highly unusual. The ‘hippy trail’ through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India was well-trodden by youngsters from western Europe in those years, but few from Tito’s Yugoslavia made that journey. Moreover, I was not a hippy. I was a naturalist driven to head east by a desire to see the particular and very special birds of Afghanistan. I knew there would be exciting birds, but in 1972, there was no pocket field guide with illustrations of the birds of Afghanistan or the region.

At the time, I was passionately interested in ‘zoogeography’, the branch of zoology that deals with the geographical distribution of animals. I had graduated in biology from the University of Belgrade in 1967 and was working at the Institute for Biological Research, Siniša Stanković. I thought that traveling from the Bosporus to the heart of Asia would give me a great opportunity to get to know and truly understand the wildlife of ‘real’ steppe and desert. Up until then, I had only encountered its miserable and modified fragments in the Balkan Peninsula. In addition, although I had climbed almost all the highest mountain peaks in Yugoslavia, my mountain climbing record was Triglav peak in Slovenia, barely 2,870 metres high. In Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, which averages an altitude of 4,500 metres, was awaiting me.

My choice of destination was greatly influenced by the emergence of a remarkable book – a handbook on the birds of the Middle East, “Les Oiseaux du Proche et du Moyen Orient” by two famous French researchers, François Hüe and Robert Daniel Etchécopar, with incredibly good illustrations by Paul Barruel. It encompassed Afghanistan, but only to a certain extent. This book inspired me to see what more I could find in this, for bird-lovers, under-researched country. There was more, of course. My classical secondary education meant the idea of visiting cities founded by Alexander the Great, which still lay scattered like a strange constellation, and the prospect of being in the presence of the great Greco-Buddhist monuments only fed my curiosity to travel more. My decision to embark on this rather uncertain zoological exploration was buoyed up my having just finished my year-long national service in the Yugoslav People’s Army. I felt strong and confident.

Voislav’s visa, issued in Belgrade, 1972. Photo: Author

Three great expectations

Of my many ornithological ‘great expectations’, I will name just three – and how I came to see them all in Afghanistan. Third-ranking was my desire to observe spectacular birds of prey, above all, the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), also known as the Lammergeier, which I had only seen once before in Macedonia, the most southerly of the six republics then making up Yugoslavia. Even 50 years ago, such large predators had already become rarities in most of Europe. In Afghanistan, on the contrary, I was to encounter a few more species of eagles and falcons that I had never seen before. Before setting out, I carefully wrote notes and glued thumbnail pictures of the raptors I hoped to see into one of my two field notebooks (the grey notebook).

Afghanistan was to be full of ornithological surprises and I was certainly not disappointed by the raptors. After the Egyptian Vulture, the Lammergeier was the most common type of vulture throughout Afghanistan, and was especially common in the central mountainous areas, where I saw it daily. It was somewhat less frequent in the lower parts in the districts of Qala-ye Naw and Bala Murghab of Badghis province. By any measure, the Lammergeier is a huge, amazing bird that feeds almost exclusively on the marrow bones of dead animals. It is attracted to carcasses that have been previously gnawed away at by jackals and feathered scavengers.

However, the most abundant vulture in Afghanistan was the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), which was found especially around villages and nomad camps, as it feeds on the worst kinds of waste. Once, in the Dara-ye Ajdahar, the Dragon Valley in Bamyan, two men suddenly appeared before me with rifles and one freshly-killed Egyptian Vulture. They offered it to me to buy. They mimed and gestured to say that it would taste great when cooked. I instantly recalled the street urchins in Kabul who had gathered around me as around any other stranger, mocking me with: “Mister Kachaloo, Mister Kachaloo!” (Mr Potato), for reasons I could never discern. Likewise, I believe these vulture murderers also thought strangers were completely ignorant and worthy of any sort of deceit. (1)

The vultures Voislav hoped to see in Afghanistan as seen in his Grey Notebook. Photo: Author

My second great desire was to get acquainted with as many as possible of the species of wheatears of the genus Oenanthe. Central Asia is the centre of diversity of these largely desert-steppe dwelling passerines (ie birds with claws adapted for perching)  with their characteristic white rumps. Every wheatear species looks similar to at least one other and it is especially difficult to identify females and youngsters in their transitional seasonal plumages. I was to encounter this problem throughout Afghanistan. I had to deal with an extraordinarily wealth of varieties of wheatear and cope with the serious problem of how to reliably identify them without a guidebook.

That is why as soon as I got to Kabul (overland from Herat), I went to the Kabul Zoo that then and now hosted a small zoological museum. It was founded by the German zoologist Jochen Niethammer, son of the even more famous Günther Niethammer, the curator-zoologist of the Berlin, Bonn and Vienna Natural History Museums. Niethammer Jr was in Kabul from 1964 to 1966 as part of collaborative programme between Bonn and Kabul Universities, where he studied mammals and birds. (2) At that time, the museum had a collection of birds whose specimens had been identified personally by Niethammer Jr.

When I got there, the zoo and museum were being run by two other German zoologists, Günther Nogge (assistant professor at the Kabul University and later long-time director of the Cologne Zoo, author of “Afghanistan, Zoologically Considered”) (3) and M Bokler (about whom I know nothing), to whom I had previously announced myself by a letter. They welcomed me in and allowed me to inspect the entire collection of birds in detail and to use the museum’s library.

A ticket to the Zoo. Photo: Author

For two weeks, I studied the stuffed birds of Afghanistan held by the museum and learned how to identify the living ones in the field. I recorded all of the information in the first of my two notebooks, the grey one, from which I was never parted. My companion for those weeks was an orphaned chimpanzee who, while I was studying birds, sat on my lap, embracing me tightly with her long arms. Thanks to that self-study at the Kabul zoo and the museum in July 1972, I was able to identify as many as eight different species of wheatear in the field. That might sound easy, but those eight species appeared to me in at least twenty different ‘morphs’, ie having different physical features, such as variations in colour and pattern of plumage, but belonging to the same species.

Voislav’s grey and red notebooks. Photo: Author

Finally, the third and most important reason for me visiting Afghanistan was my desire to see the Afghan snowfinch (Pyrgilauda theresae), a species endemic to Afghanistan. I should say here that birds fly long distances with ease so, compared to animals and plants, bird species whose overall distribution remains within the borders of one country, particularly one as small as Afghanistan, are rare. This is true unless the country is an island when the barrier of the ocean encourages distinctive evolution. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Afghan snowfinch is the only endemic Afghan bird. However, Afghanistan is a place where two biogeographical regions meet, regions known to biologists as the Palearctic, which stretches across all of Europe and Asia north of the foothills of the Himalayas, as well as North Africa and the northern and central parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indomalaya, which extends across most of south and southeast Asia and into the southern parts of East Asia. It Is such places that biodiversity is born. (4)

About the Afghan snowfinch and a wicked historical, ornithological scandal

The Afghan snowfinch is a grey-brown passerine bird that lives in the mountains about 3,000 meters above sea level. Despite its standard English name, it is not a finch but a species that belongs to the sparrow family, the Passeridae. It is very similar to the White-winged snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis), which lives in the summer snow zone of the high mountains of southern Europe (Pyrenees, Alps, Apennines, Balkan Mountains), as well as in Afghanistan.

Perhaps a better alternative name in English would be the Afghan ground-sparrow, since the most striking feature of this species is the way it nests in the burrows of rodents, most commonly, ground squirrels. As it makes its nest of hairs and feathers deep underground, at the end of the tunnel farthest from entrance, we can really consider it a subterranean sparrow.

For science, the Afghan snowfinch was a relatively late discovery. It was identified in 1937, on the Shibar Pass between Kabul and Bamyan, and described under the name Montifringilla theresae that same year by a British army colonel, Richard Meinertzhagen (1878–1967). Meinertzhagen was a controversial character, not only a miles gloriosus, a ‘boastful soldier’, a master of espionage and an adventurer, but also an ornithologist-researcher. Such combinations are not uncommon among ornithologists and other naturalists.

At the time, 47 years ago, Meinertzhagen was considered one of Britain’s greatest ornithologists, finding many new species and subspecies on expeditions across continents, around the world. However, he has since been exposed as a fraudster, a writer of fake diaries and reports, a forger of findings and a thief of bird skins from other people’s collections. One by one, all his scientific discoveries were discredited. The only one that has actually been authenticated is our Afghan endemic, the snowfinch, which he named ‘Teresa’s sparrow’.

But who was Theresa? She was also a zoologist (and according to some sources, also a member of Britain’s intelligence service during the Second World War). Theresa Rachel Clay (1911–1995) was Meinertzhagen’s cousin, thirty years his junior. She became his favourite and goddaughter at the age of fifteen, and after the mysterious death of his second wife, also his housekeeper, caretaker, associate, secretary, confidante and inseparable companion. Meinertzhagen dedicated many of his false ornithological discoveries to his cousin Theresa, including the only one that was genuine – the species known as Afghan snowfinch.

I had the opportunity to see the endemic ‘Theresa’s sparrow’ in several places along the massif of the Hindu Kush. On 8 August 1972, I also sighted it on the Siah Koh mountain in Herat province, on a 3,000 metre-high pass between Shahrak and Jam. This was then its most westerly-ever sighting. My happiness had no end and I boyishly believed that, with this discovery I had done a great thing for Afghanistan and ornithology. However, as will be seen below, I was mistaken. (5)

Minaret of Jam near where Voislav sighted the Afghan snowfinch in 1972, then the most westerly-ever sighting. Photo: Author

The red notebook

I recorded everything I observed about birds that summer into another notebook, my ‘red notebook’. This was my field diary. I then published my observations in French in an article for the international ornithological journal “Alauda” (Skylark). (6) The editor-in-chief at the time was a French ornithologist Jacques Vieillard. Like some other French and Germans of the time, Vieillard himself was also interested in the birds of Afghanistan. (7) Alas, like many ornithologists, he died of a disease while birdwatching – in his case, malaria caught in Brazil in 2010. Publishing in English scientific journals back then was not as compulsory as it is today. So, my choice to publish the article in French was not surprising at the time. (8) However, now I see that my paper “Observations Ornithologiques en Afghanistan” (Ornithological Observations in Afghanistan) and that exciting, then most-westerly record of the Afghan snowfinch is almost forgotten, and that today’s authors almost exclusively quote English sources.

Thanks to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, many memories from that journey to Afghanistan have returned to me. I took a peek at my notebooks and diaries for the first time in many years. I remembered the first bird that caught my eye. On my very first day in Afghanistan near the border with Iran in Herat province, I was fascinated by the common mynah (Acridotheres tristis). This lively, curious and noisy, colourful bird of the starling family is, as its name suggests, familiar to many, but I had never seen a living specimen before. Mynahs were originally Middle Eastern residents, but have invasively spread across the subtropical and tropical zones of the world.

I also remembered my then companion asking me what the common mynah’s Latin name, ‘Acridotheres tristis’, meant. I said it was actually a Greek-Latin name that translated as ‘Sad locust-hunter’. “Why did it hunt grasshoppers?” she asked. “It feeds on them,” I replied. “It eats them.” Ah,” she said, “Now I see. If it has to eat grasshoppers, I understand why it’s so sad.” During July and August of that year, I managed to travel to the most important (for me) parts of Afghanistan, observing and keeping notes on birds everywhere I went. I also collected some specimens of reptiles and amphibians to take back to a zoologist colleague in Belgrade. I took paths that none of the earlier naturalist explorers had travelled, not even my predecessor and unofficial role model, Knud Paludan of Denmark. (9) By all accounts, none of the ornithologists had traversed the vast Black Mountain (Siah Koh) in Herat province or visited the Hari Rud Valley, upstream of the village of Farsi, in the same province, or explored the surroundings of the minaret of Jam in neighbouring Ghor province. By bus, truck, taxi, jeep, as well as on bicycle, horse and camel, I travelled through almost all areas of Afghanistan except the Wakhan and Nuristan, which were prohibited zones at that time. At the Yugoslav Embassy in Kabul, I had been warned that almost all rural parts of Afghanistan were unsafe and it would be better to give up some of the remote stages of my planned itinerary. But at 27, not every warning can be taken seriously.

Some observations of daily life

While riding Afghanistan’s busy highways, but also the roads less travelled, I could not help noticing, as in neighbouring Iran, the striking presence of armed ‘askars’ (soldiers) both from army and the police. This fitted my general impression that the crown had difficulties managing the entire country. The soldiers had interesting hats with some sort of ears or horns on the side.

Everywhere outside the cities, I saw groups of turban-wearing civilian men, not only armed but also proudly decorated with bandoliers and cartridge belts. I liked the fact that, since the traditional costume does not have any strap over the shirt, revolvers and pistols were worn on a belt slung over the left shoulder. I was less comfortable with how they sometimes treated strangers and travellers. Typically, instead of a ‘hello’,  these men, with looks of hatred, bulging eyes and bared teeth, made two hand gestures: the first was a hand cutting the throat with the edge of the palm and the second was a sudden movement with the same hand extended upwards – meaning “There goes your head!” Later, I stopped paying attention.

In those seemingly still relatively-peaceful times in non-aligned Afghanistan, the influence of the great powers was visible to the naked eye. In Kabul and in the north of the country, along the border with the USSR, the streets were dominated by Soviet GAZ-24 Volga cars, while in the south, especially around the US hydropower plant construction site on the Helmand River, large General Motors vehicles prevailed.

A teacher acting as a taxi driver took me in his huge 1960’s Chevrolet from Lashkar Gah to Kajaki, where the Americans were then building the famous Kajaki Dam. The taxi driver asked me for 1,500 Afghanis (then the equivalent of 40 US dollars), a huge amount. The driver boasted that he was a serdar, meaning he was a tribal leader. As soon as we hit the road, he stopped by his house to bring three of his relatives with him, just in case. They all sat in the front seat, next to the driver. My companion and I were sitting in the back. Yet that trip, which started so strangely, also brought me, among other things, my first encounter with the most beautiful species of swallow – the wire-tailed swallow (Hirundo smithii) chasing insects above the waters of the Helmand River.

A straw hat for Afghanistan

Finally, I must mention my great driver-mechanic-interpreter Matin who, for three weeks drove the Toyota Land Cruiser I had rented from Hertz in Kabul. He found the things I did very strange and it was hard for him to grasp why I would expose myself to so much expense, effort and risk. Initially, he was suspicious of me, keeping a close eye on my every move. It happened once, somewhere in the middle of a mountain desert, that I sneaked cautiously, hidden behind rocks, actually towards some very timid lizard I had never managed to catch before. I was so focused on my potential prey that I was not even aware that the planned path of my attack was passing right next to Matin who was standing in the shade, resting against a boulder. Matin, however, followed my slow advance and wrongly concluded that I was preparing to strike him. Of course, he had not even noticed the lizard. I later learned that he was remembering our sharp debate that morning about the direction of that day’s journey and thought I wanted to settle accounts or just get rid of him without a witness.

Voislav’s “great driver-mechanic-interpreter Matin.” In 1971, Matin took part in John Frankenheimer’s The Horsemen, starring Omar Sharif (photo taken at the Noh Gumbad, Afghanistan’s oldest mosque, in Balkh). Photo: Author

When I estimated that the unfortunate lizard had moved far enough from his retreat among the rocks, I rushed at it with all my might. The stones at my feet shattered, and poor Matin thought his darkest fears had come true. Believing it was his doomsday, he screamed and started running away. I only became aware of all this when, after a goalkeeper’s dive, I found myself on the ground, covered in dust, but firmly holding the wriggling lizard in my hand.

Later, when I explained everything to the good-natured Matin, he felt bad. For a while, he was upset and refused to answer even basic questions. I then presented him with my straw hat which I knew he longed for. It was a perfect fit for him. In return, he gave me a shirt. It was too tight for me, but it had a secret pocket under a sleeve. What was it for? “For the hidden dagger (khanjar),” Matin answered.

It was unequivocally established and recorded (10) that for several years, Matin remembered the eccentric young man chasing and catching lizards, snakes, geckos and frogs, while only watching birds with binoculars. Matin, in his own words, was an actor. In 1971, he took part in John Frankenheimer’s The Horsemen, starring Omar Sharif, a movie based on the French novel, Les Cavaliers, by Joseph Kessel.

I am not sure, if, beyond one straw hat, I left any trace on Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan, for sure, left a very deep impression on me.

Edited by Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark


*Voislav Vasić is a Serbian ornithologist and former head for over 20 years of the national Natural History Museum in Belgrade. He is an expert in biodiversity, editor and the author of the first book on biodiversity in Yugoslavia, published in 1995, as well as of The Red Data Book of Birds in Serbia in 2018. He is specialised in the biogeography, taxonomy and the faunistic study (distribution) of birds. He is also still teaching ornithology, ecology and zoology and writes television scripts, popular books and articles on natural history and the environment. He regularly publishes about his travels and adventures on a blog (in Serbian).

(1) Note from the editor: Such scams continue, as we reported in 2013 in the dispatch “The ‘Bagram Duck’: Migrant bird killed north of Kabul and offered as game

(2) That programme resulted in these publications. 1966: Der Zug von Kranichen (Gruidae) bei Kabul, Afghanistan. Vogelwarte 23: 308–309. 1967: Zwei Jahre Vogelbeobachtungen an stehenden Gewässern bei Kabul in Afghanistan. J. Orn. 108: 119-164. 1967: Störche in Afghanistan. Vogelwarte 24: 42–44. 1967: Neunachweise für Afghanistans Vogelwelt. J. Orn. 108: 76–80. 1967. Hochgebirgs-Vogelzug in Afghanistan. Zool. Beitr. 13: 501–507. (G. Niethammer & J. Niethammer) 1970: Die Flamingos am Ab-i-Istada in Afghanistan. Natur und Museum 100: 201–210. 1976: Die Vögel auf den Basaren von Kabul und Charikar. Afghanistan J. 3: 150–157. (G. Nogge & J. Niethammer).

(3) Afghanistan zoologisch betrachtet, Scientia Bonnensis, Bonn 2012. Revue internationale d’ornithologie.

Again a note from the editor:

We mentioned another article by Nogge, “Beobachtungen an den Flamingobrutplätzen Afghanistans”, (Observations at Afghanistan’s Flamingo Breeding Grounds), in this dispatch from 2010, “Afghanistan Bird Watch.

(4) For more on Afghanistan as a centre of plant diversity notes the editor, see our two dispatches “Plants of Afghanistan 1: Centre of Global Biodiversity and Plants of Afghanistan 2: the Koh-e Baba Foraging Top Ten”.

(5) Note from the editor: On Meinertzhagen’s frauds and his relation with Theresa Rachel Clay, read this fascinating story from the New Yorker, “Ruffled Feathers.”

(6) Revue internationale d’ornithologie.

(7) Données biogéographiques sur l’avifaune d’Asie occidentale, I. Afghanistan. Paris: Alauda 37: 273–300.

(8) Paris: 1974: Alauda 42: 259280.

(9) Knud Paludan: On the birds of Afghanistan. Zoological results, The 3rd Danish Expedition to Central Asia, 25. Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening i København, bd. 122. København: C.A. Reitzel, 1959.

(10) In the book: Tout Sur l’Afghanistan by Anne Yelen. Guide reportage Nathan. Fernand Nathan, Paris: 1977.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri: Symbolic operations

Wed, 11/09/2019 - 04:04

In the last week Taleban have attacked and entered three provincial centres, Kunduz city, Pul-e Khumri in Baghlan and Farah city, before being pushed back. This dispatch focusses on the offensives against Pul-e Khumri and Kunduz, considering them in the context of the regional security of northeastern Afghanistan. It finds that key lessons from earlier attacks on Kunduz were not learned. The dispatch was largely written before President Trump decided to scrap the talks with the Taleban. AAN’s Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig had thought that, whether or not it was the Taleban’s intention, it seemed they were sending a strong signal that they would not stop fighting even after a deal with Washington. With talks now – according to President Trump – off the table and the future seeming even more uncertain, it seems that an assessment of how the Taleban have been able, yet again, to menace provincial capitals seems even more pertinent.

For the first time during the post-2001 conflict, the Taleban simultaneously attacked, entered and held positions in two provincial centres of Afghanistan, Kunduz, the capital of the eponymous province, and neighbouring Baghlan’s capital Pul-e Khumri. Both attacks were also the first large scale offensives against any provincial capital in 2019.

A few days later, the Taleban staged a third attack, on Farah city, in the west of the country, also not the first such occurrence there. There, the Taleban made a large-scale attack in 2018 (see AAN analysis here and here). The last fighting in Farah city was reported on 6 September 2019 near the provincial police headquarters, since when government forces managed to push the attackers back. On 7 September, however, the Taleban took most parts of the Anardara district centre of in the same province, including the governor’s compound and the police headquarters while the government forces held on to an army base. According to local sources, the Taleban attack on the base was ongoing.

The first of the provincial capital attacks was launched on 31 August in Kunduz, followed by Pul-e Khumri on 1 September. In Kunduz’s case, it was the third attack in a span of four years (read AAN’s previous analysis here, here and here). Both of the recent attacks occurred during the final stages of diplomatic wrangling to finalise a US-Taleban withdrawal agreement that had been negotiated since October 2018 (AAN analysis here) but seem to be off the table now, and, notably, during the presence of US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad in the Afghan capital. In Pul-e Khumri, some fighting was still on-going on 4 September, while the Kunduz clashes continued only for a day. The Kunduz offensive, however, was followed by a suicide attack on a police station two days later (more about this below). In both provincial centres, as well as in Farah, fighting continued in the outskirts and then moved to the districts.

How the attack unfolded: Kunduz

In Kunduz, Taleban fighters entered the city from three different directions and began targeting security forces. They moved from positions to the immediate north (police district (PD) 2), northwest (PD 1) and west (PD 3) of the city where they have maintained a strong presence over at least four years. Those areas administratively are part of Kunduz city, but are rural in character. The Taleban enjoy backing from the mainly Pashtun population in those areas. Taleban attacks from the west usually receive reinforcements and logistic support from Chahrdara district of Kunduz, where they have strongholds.

The Taleban started their attack in PD 1, in the early morning of 31 August. Their large presence in Zakhel-e Khomdan and Alikhel villages, in the west of PD 1, had helped them swiftly overrun police checkpoints and enter close to the city’s main chowk (roundabout), which is the acknowledge symbol of controls the city, and areas around Kunduz’s main hospital. They reportedly took control of that hospital; the defence ministry in Kabul accused them of taking the patients “as hostages.”

Attacking from PD 2 to the north of the city, the Taleban targeted police checkpoints in the city’s ancient castle area, the Bala Hessar, one kilometre to the north of the provincial governor’s office. The Taleban also have a strong presence in the outskirts of this police district and were able to quickly gather forces from Qala-ye Kow and Hazrat Sultan, rural areas further to the northeast of Kunduz city that are largely under Taleban control.

The third prong of the attack was directed against the PD 3 compound, located one kilometre to the west of the provincial governor’s office, but this offensive failed. There, the Taleban fighters had come through the Bagh-e Sherkat and Old Zakhel areas, both part of the provincial centre and located three to five kilometres away from the main chawk. These two areas have been largely controlled by the Taleban since 2015.

On the same day, 31 August, acting defence minister Asadullah Khaled, who had hurried to the city, said in an interview for Tolo News (video here) that security forces had carried out clearance operations and the Taleban had been pushed back from the city as well as from areas around it. However, Haji Zaher, a local resident from PD 2, said the Taleban had already left the area before the Afghan forces started their operations.

After the 31 August offensive on the city ended, the Taleban changed their attack plan. Instead of face-to-face fighting, they used suicide attackers to target security officials and installations in the city. In the evening of 31 August, when the security forces had almost fully cleared the city of Taleban fighters, a suicide attacker targeted Manzur Stanakzai, the provincial police chief, when he was briefing the media. As a result, at least three members of the police media section, including Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the police chief’s spokesman, were killed, along with six other civilians. The police chief and dozen others, police and civilians, were wounded. On 1 September, another suicide attacker targeted a police check-post in the north of the city, killing six police and wounded a dozen others (media report here).

Initially, the Afghan security forces failed to prevent the Taleban from entering the city. Local journalists and civil society activists told AAN that the Taleban managed to take control of some parts of the provincial centre for at least several hours. There were, however, no reports of house searches to capture government officials or of Taleban edicts ordering people to attend mosque prayers and to avoid working in the government offices as they did in 2015 when they ruled the provincial centre for two weeks. Zabihullah Majedi, a local journalist and civil society activist in Kunduz, told AAN that by mid-day the Taleban had taken control of some parts of the city in the west and northeast, where the provincial departments of anti-narcotics and mines and petroleum are located. He confirmed that they were pushed back after several hours only.  Speaking to AAN, Haji Abdul Aziz, a school teacher in Kunduz city, said the situation quickly turned unusual; the city was empty with the only noises heard shooting on the ground and helicopters in the air.

AAN contacts in Kunduz, including journalists, stated that the Taleban continue to surround the city and remain a serious threat to its security. There were reports of continued skirmishes in the rural outskirts of all four Kunduz police districts between 3 and 8 September, of anti-Taleban airstrikes and of further fighting on 10 September to the east of the city, halfway to neighbouring Khanabad district. On 5 September, fighting in PD3 lasted several hours.

Starting on that day, fighting also moved to the province’s districts. There was heavy fighting reported near the district centre of Khanabad, some 20 kilometres east of Kunduz city, temporarily closing the roads to the northern Kunduz district of Imam Saheb and to neighbouring Takhar province. Next day, on 6 September, the centre of this district fell to the Taleban after government forces had to abandon it due to a lack of supplies, while on 8 September, the district centres of Qala-ye Zal and of Dasht-e Archi also fell to them. Government troop reinforcements took both back the following day but fighting in both areas continued. Imam Saheb’s district centre was attacked by the Taleban on 9 September.

AAN’s contacts also said that the Taleban continue, after the offensive, to set up frequent mobile check points on various parts of the highways that connect Kunduz to Takhar province to the east and Baghlan province to the south, searching vehicles for government officials. This happened as close as four kilometres to the east of Kunduz city’s main chawk, on the Kunduz-Takhar highway, and to the south of the city, in Angur Bagh village, about six kilometres away on the way to Baghlan.

Landscape at the Kunduz-Qala-ye Zal road with grazing flocks.

How the attack unfolded: Pul-e Khumri

A day after the Kunduz attack, in the early hours of 1 September, the Taleban followed up with an attack on Pul-e Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province and one of Afghanistan’s major industrial hubs. The city is located on the main highway between Kunduz and Kabul, at a point where the strategic route leading north from Kabul over the Salang Pass forks into two major roads, one leading northeast to Kunduz and the other leading northwest to Mazar-e Sharif. Fighting, including in residential areas, lasted several hours and then continued to flare up over the following days.

Taleban fighters attacked security posts in two areas, Band-e Du, in the west of the city, and Diwar-e Madan in the southwest. Jawed Besharat, the spokesman for Baghlan police chief, said the Taleban attacks were repelled and the Taleban had suffered serious casualties (read media report here). Afghan media quoted an interior ministry official admitting that “security forces have surrendered the area [singular in the original].” According to Safdar Mohsini, head of Baghlan’s provincial council, “the whole city [was] closed” by the fighting. An Afghan media report said that armed residents had supported government forces against the attackers. According to AAN sources, the armed residents were members of several different local popular uprising groups led largely by Jamiat-e Islami affiliated-commanders.

Local journalists in Pul-e Khumri said it took almost two days to repel the Taleban from the city. Fighting to the north went on even longer, till 5 September, when several Afghan Air Force raids pushed the Taleban out of positions there. There was still sporadic fighting reported on 10 September.

Speaking to AAN, Rahmatullah Hamnawa, a local journalist in Baghlan province, stated that during two days of fighting, ten people, including three policemen, were killed and 35 civilians and security forces wounded. On 4 September, another Afghan journalist reported that, similar to Kunduz, the city was “still surrounded” by the Taleban. Also, traffic north to Kunduz was partly interrupted by Taleban check-posts in Baghlan-e Jadid district, at least for government reinforcements. The insurgents reportedly allowed civilians to pass. On 8 September, the Taleban claimed the capture of Baghlan’s Guzargah-e Nur district, on the border with Badakhshan; there was no independent confirmation of this report, and claims it had been recaptured by government forces.

Kunduz river, south of Pul-e Khumri.

Regional context

Both offensives followed Taleban attacks and Afghan security forces conducting what are called ‘clearance operations’ and dubbed “Operation Pamir 207”  in neighbouring Takhar and Badakhshan provinces (see interior minister Andarabi speaking about this here). The government forces’ operations had commenced in mid-June and are still on-going, also as a result of Taleban attacks on several districts centres. In Takhar, government forces concentrated their efforts on areas around the provincial capital Taloqan and the district centre of Baharak over several weeks. As a result, the Taleban were pushed back in both areas but remain a threat to Baharak’s centre (read media report here).

Only on 30 August, the Friday prior to the Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri attacks, Taleban fighters took over Chahab district centre in Takhar for a few hours, before they were pushed out again by government forces – but not before they set fire to the district compound. Fighting continued in the area, and another airstrike was reported on 4 September. There was also fighting in Baharak and Darqad districts on the same day and in Yangi Qala district on 3 September. Earlier, on 10 August, an airstrike was reported from Eshkamesh district, allegedly killing 15 Taleban, continued by more fighting that forced 400 families to flee the area. UNOCHA spoke of over 4,000 newly-displaced persons from this area in the last week of August alone.

In early September, Taleban forces attacked the districts centres of Khwaja Ghar and Yangi Qala, according to government sources. Khwaja Ghar was apparently partly captured during the third attack on 9 September. Government sources denied that the Taleban had taken the entire town while they said they were sending additional forces and that the situation would “soon be back to normal.” Yangi Qala was reported as taken by the Taleban on 10 September.

In most parts of Takhar province, the Taleban have expanded their presence over the past few years and, in 2019, carried out several offensives against security forces to further expand their territorial control towards the provincial centre, Taloqan. In June 2019, reports emerged in the media that the Taleban were active in Qulbarz, 12 kilometres north of the provincial centre of Takhar. In the same month, the Taleban targeted the district centre of Baharak, 15 kilometres to the north of Taloqan, but failed to overrun the district centre. On 28 August, a suicide bomber was reportedly caught before he could blow up the district compound of Rustaq.

In neighbouring Badakhshan, Operation Pamir 207 aimed at recapturing the Taleban-held districts of Warduj and Yamgan before the arrival of winter. The two centres were taken in the first week of September but, according to analysts, not without a preceding “massive US bombing campaign“ that forced parts of the local population to flee (see here and here). Both districts had been in Taleban hands for the past four years; they were captured on 1 October 2015 and 18 November 2015. In mid-July 2019, the Taleban captured a lapis lazuli mine in Keran wa Munjan district, and then the district centre. Keran wa Munjan was also targeted by airstrikes in late August. (More AAN background on the Badakhshan Taleban here, here, here and here.)

Leading up to the Taleban attack in Kunduz, Afghan and US forces killed a number of Taleban commanders in drone attacks and night raids. (1) These operations scattered the Taleban in the province, as they forced key commanders to change their locations several times per night in order to avoid becoming targets. The government believed these security measures sufficiently reduced the Taleban’s ability to gather forces and carry out large-scale operations, at least temporarily. It is possible that this contributed to the Afghan government forces feeling too secure, and therefore underestimating the Taleban ability to regroup and strike against the provincial capital.

Casualties and disruption of people’s lives

The Taleban attack on Kunduz caused serious casualties to members fighting on both sides, as well as to civilians. According to the Ministry of Interior, 20 security service members and five civilians were killed and 80 others wounded on the first day of the fighting (see media report here). Local journalists in Kunduz told AAN that 30 security forces and six civilians were killed and 90 others wounded during the fighting in the city.

Local sources confirmed that most casualties were the result of the two suicide attacks reported above. For the Taleban, local journalists in Kunduz said most casualties were caused by Afghan and US forces airstrikes that, in order to minimise civilian casualties, targeted only those Taleban fighters who were clearly visible in the streets. For example, a school teacher from PD3, told AAN that an airstrike targeted a group of Taleban in his area killed 14 fighters and a civilian on the first day of their attack. A local journalist said that, altogether, 40 Taleban fighters were killed and 30 others were wounded.

During the fighting, Taleban social media activists circulated video footage of a group of Highway Police that had surrendered to the Taleban in the north of Kunduz city, in an attempt to psychologically affect the security forces and locals’ morale. But in fact, apart from one security checkpoint, the rest of the forces in Kunduz successfully repelled the Taleban attacks.

Local sources in both provinces told AAN that the Taleban attacks had severely disrupted people’s lives. In Kunduz, shops, schools and government offices were shut. There was neither electricity, nor water and mobile networks were down for two days. Speaking to AAN, a local journalist from Kunduz said he had faced serious difficulties reporting about the situation because telecommunication networks were disconnected and the internet was down. Another journalist said that many people had fled because of their fear that the city could fall to the Taleban once again, as in 2015 and almost again in 2016 (read AAN’s previous reports here and here).

Hamnawa, a journalist from Baghlan, described a similar situation in Pul-e Khumri. He said the Kabul-Baghlan highway was blocked, schools and shops shut, electricity and water cut off and the prices of food items had shot up sharply. Ajmal Popal, a taxi driver in Pul-e Khumri, told AAN he had to pay 40 afghanis (USD 0.50) for a piece of bread that usually cost 10 afghanis (less than USD 0.10).

How were the attacks assessed?

The initial Taleban attack on Kunduz city continued for more than ten hours. Only Afghan special forces reinforcements, including NDS units, and possibly US special forces, tipped the balance. But Taleban groups were still holding out in parts of the north and south of the city for another half day.

Abdul Hadi Jamal, the spokesman for the Pamir Corp 217 based in Kunduz, insisted when speaking with AAN that the Taleban had failed to take over parts of the city for anything more than a brief moment. He said he considered it “more of a guerrilla attack than an attempt to take over the provincial centre.” The Minister of Interior said in the Tolonews interview already quoted above that the Taleban targeted Kunduz city to reduce the pressure on Taleban forces in neighbouring Takhar and Badakhshan.

The fact that the acting ministers for defence and interior, Asadullah Khaled and Masud Andarabi, and top US/NATO commander General Austin Miller visited the city on the first day while clashes were ongoing in other parts the city showed the enormous importance the government attached to repelling this attack and to demonstrating that all was well there. Their statement in a joint press interview with Tolo News, that security forces had been aware of the Taleban’s attack plan and security forces had been ready to defeat them, sounded hollow,  however, given the time taken to move in reinforcements and go on the counter-offensive.

The government official quoted above said the attack on Pul-e Khumri was not as heavy as the one on Kunduz. Initial casualty reports from the government side on 2 September – four civilians, two members of the security forces and 21 Taleban fighters killed, and 20 more civilians and two members of the security forces wounded– and an Afghan media report saying it was a group of only 30 to 40 Taleban who had launched the attack seemed to confirm this assessment. However, fighting there stretched over five days.

Whatever the size of this attack, it was special insofar as – in contrast to earlier attacks on Kunduz – the Taleban not only blocked the Kabul-Kunduz road in Baghlan province (usually this is done only their stronghold, Baghlan-e Jadid district), but also attacked its provincial centre.

Kunduz main road and chowk (in the background). Text photos: Thomas Ruttig (2007)


It is not clear whether the Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri (and later on Farah) were aimed at capturing the cities or rather were regular harassment attacks of the hit-and-withdraw type. The latter are often undertaken to keep defenders of government-controlled districts or provincial centres under pressure while avoiding the larger-scale concentration of forces necessary for a permanent occupation of an urban centre, that would likely provoke a powerful backlash, involving airstrikes and large-scale damage. This was seen, for example, in Ghazni in August 2018 (AAN analysis here and here). The attacks can also be read as a signal that the Taleban capabilities to launch effective attacks have not been diminished by airstrikes on their commanders and by government clearance operations.

Kunduz, a strategic province in the northeast, whose provincial capital also serves as the centre of this region of five provinces (together with Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan and Samangan), has also been the most insecure province in this region over the past five years. The Taleban took control of Kunduz city for two weeks in 2015, overran most of the city in 2016 (read AAN’s previous analysis here and here) and launched another, albeit weaker attack in 2017. However, this was not the beginning of the province’s troubles; security in the province began to erode around 2010 (see our 2015 dossier on this). In 2017, the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) categorised Kunduz as the Afghan province with the largest percentage of districts under Taleban control or influence (five of seven); by October 2018 – the last time such data was provided – all seven districts of Kunduz, including its provincial capital, were in that category (here,  p246).

Baghlan followed in this same pattern, with only some delay; it has been plagued by insecurity since at least since 2013 (see also here and here).

Looking at the recent Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, it is become clear that both cities remain vulnerable and that the Taleban presence in their outskirts, just some kilometres away, both was underestimated by local officials – and this presence has not diminished after the recent counter-attacks. If minister Khaled’s claims that he had information about the pending attack was true, preventive measures had clearly not been taken quickly enough. Lessons from earlier attacks had still not been learned, including the lack of, or ignorance of, the Taleban presence around the city, as well as weaknesses in the security belt surrounding  the city with its  insufficient number of soldiers. The major issue, however, appears to be the lack of coordination – yet again – among local security forces, the national police and army, the public protection forces and the provincial National Directorate of Security. That lead to insufficient measures being taken that could have preempt edTaleban attacks in the first place.

The recent offensives indicate that Taleban forces are still well-placed in Kunduz province and continue to pose a serious threat to the local Afghan security forces. As the two surprise attacks showed, their abilities must not be underestimated.

Farah is following the negative security trend of Kunduz and Baghlan. Abdul Samad Salehi, a member of its provincial council, told the German Press Agency (dpa) on 5 September, that government forces only control security forces bases in three districts of the province outside its capital while there was no even a check post in seven others. In the January 2019 SIGAR report (with data from October 2018), only six of 11 districts in Farah were considered ‘contested’ – the middle one of five SIGAR categories – with the other five under government influence or control. Baghlan then had 13 out of 15 districts as ‘contested’, one under government influence and one with ‘high insurgency activity.’

The attacks were also perceived by most media as a show of strength during what was expected to be the final stage before a US-Taleban withdrawal agreement. They underlined the Taleban’s repeated statement that even the then about-to-be signed agreement with the US, which was reported to include a ceasefire with the western forces, would not have covered Afghan government security forces. Now that talks with the Taleban are off, there are fears about a possible intensification of violence and a continuing uneasiness about the lack of preparedness among Afghan government forces to protect the population.

Edited by Christian Bleuer and Kate Clark


(1) Reported examples were of Qari Wasem, in Khanabad district, in August 2019 (media report here); Qari Muhammad and Mullah Najibullah, in March 2019, and Mullah Abdullah, in November 2018 in Dasht-e Archi. On 3 September, government sources claimed that the Taleban’s general commander for the province, Qari Mansur, had been killed in an Afghan commando operation. However, we use these reports with caution, as there have been cases of misreporting (see for example this AAN analysis).

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Trump Ends Talks with the Taleban: What happens next?

Sun, 08/09/2019 - 21:27

United States president Donald Trump has called off talks with the Taleban and cancelled signing of an agreement with them. The trigger, he said, was a suicide bomb which killed one US soldier and “11 other people” carried out “seemingly [to] strengthen their bargaining position.” However, voices against the ‘agreement in principle’ deal had already been mounting in Washington and Kabul, especially since the Afghan leadership was shown the text of the deal last week. Trump’s cancellation of the agreement has allowed the Taleban to promote themselves as peacemakers, and President Ghani to restate his vision of elections followed by ‘wise and precise’ peacemaking. Kate Clark (with input from the rest of the AAN team) has been looking at today’s events and their implications. She observes that, even though the prospective US-Taleban deal did not look very promising as a path to lasting peace in Afghanistan, the collapse of negotiations has left everyone wondering – what now?

After almost one year and nine rounds of negotiations between President Trump’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taleban, with a deal talked about as ‘imminent’ for weeks, President Trump has now tweeted the cancellation of the deal:

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..

….an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations. What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they….

….only made it worse! If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?

As we recently reported, talks to finalise the last details of an agreement between the Taleban and the US had been ongoing since January. In the last few weeks, it had seemed the deal was almost in the bag: on 30 August, AAN quoted several news agencies saying the deal was at the stage of  language-checking, as well as Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin saying, “We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence seeking nation.” Then, on 2 September, Khalilzad told TOLOnews the two sides had reached an “agreement in principle,” although contingent still on Trump signing off on it.

Last minute twists and turns

Then, on Thursday (5 September), the US general in charge of international forces in Afghanistan, Scott Miller, flew to Doha with Khalilzad to talk to the Taleban negotiators and the following day, it was announced that a trip by President Ghani to the US for a meeting with Trump on Monday (9 September) had been cancelled, with no explanation given (see reporting here and here). Matters appeared to be coming to a head, but it was not clear which way they were going. What Trump’s tweet has now revealed is just how far along things were, at least from an American point of view. He divulged that a secret meeting had been planned for today (8 September) at the president’s retreat in Camp David between himself and “major Taleban leaders” and “separately” with Ashraf Ghani.

That the suicide bombing in Abdul Haq Square on Thursday (5 September) claimed by the Taleban (reported on here), the second in the capital in two days, was the proximate cause of the cancellation of the deal is seemingly matched by events: the sudden trip by Miller and Khalilzad to Qatar immediately afterwards, and the cancellation of the Afghan president’s trip to Washington. Taleban violence has indeed sharpened in the last week. In a forthcoming dispatch on the Taleban’s attacks on three provincial capitals last week, (Kunduz, Baghlan and Farah), a publication which has been delayed by today’s events, we wrote that whether or not it was intentional, the attacks were “a strong signal” sent by the Taleban “that they will not stop fighting even after the pending US-Taleban agreement.”

Yet, US and Afghan government forces have not let up or diminished the ferocity of their fight, either, especially air strikes and night raids. Both sides have fought and talked. Moreover, Afghan civilians and soldiers and, albeit in far fewer numbers, members of America’s armed forces, have all continued to be killed throughout the negotiations, including in egregious attacks. So, Thursday’s attack as the trigger for calling off the deal would have to have been either the straw that broke the camel’s back, or a result of President Trump suddenly noticing what was happening on the ground, or a pretext if he had got cold feet about the nature of the deal.

It seems probable that the last possibility is the correct one. Concerns and opposition to the deal in Washington have been mounting. Prominent among those voicing fears were nine former ambassadors (read the text of their letter here). They said they “strongly support[ed] a negotiated peace in Afghanistan,” but expressed doubts that the current deal would actually lead to peace. They pointed out that the Taleban had made “no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces.” Following on from that, the ambassadors warned about the possibility of a situation far worse than the status quo, a return to civil war, as in 1992:

… [C]ould follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state. If the State totters, those with nasty memories of life under the Taliban will fight on. That disaffected group would include Afghanistan’s minorities, which together comprise a majority of the Afghan population.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also, Kim Dozier for Time reported, declined to sign the agreement because of concerns that it would amount to him effectively recognising the Taleban as a legitimate political entity, given that they were reportedly named the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ in the text.

A somewhat different version of why the deal was ditched has been reported in The New York Times by Mujib Mashal. Blaming Thursday’s suicide bombing was a pretext, he reported. “The main sticking point was the Taliban’s resistance to the American terms for how a peace deal should be finalized and announced.” Trumps’ plan, reported Mashal, according to Afghan, Western and Taleban officials “with knowledge of the peace talks,” had been to fly both Taleban and Afghan government teams to Camp David, have separate meetings with each team and then “have a grand announcement” of the deal by Trump. The Taleban had reportedly compared this proposal to “political suicide.”

The movement’s response to Trump’s tweets, more on which below (see AAN translation of their statement in Annex 2 of this dispatch) does say that after receiving the invitation to the US, they “had delayed the mentioned travel to the US till after the signature of the agreement in Doha.”

What was in the agreement?

What exactly Khalilzad and the Taleban had agreed between themselves is still not known because the text of the putative agreement is not public. However, Khalilzad had four topics for the talks, which he had said (earlier AAN analysis here) all had to be agreed for a deal to go ahead. However, as AAN reported in August, they were by then already watered down. They were:

  • withdrawal of US (and other foreign) troops;
  • anti-terrorism guarantees by the Taleban;
  • inclusion of the Afghan government in the negotiations; and
  • permanent, Afghanistan-wide ceasefire.

While topics one and two have apparently remained in the deal, although it is not entirely clear in what form, topics three and four were downgraded to a second set of negotiations which would be conducted, in Khalilzad’s words, “after we conclude our own agreements” and would involve “an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women,” rather than specifically the Afghan government (tweets from Khalilzad on 28 July here and here).

According to Khalilzad speaking to TOLOnews on 2 September, the US would withdraw 5,000 troops from five bases in Afghanistan within 135 days if conditions in the agreement were addressed by the Taliban. That withdrawal, it seems was to be the start of a full, gradual of all US troops, although the exact details of what was agreed is still unclear. That two-stage timing was potentially very problematic, as the nine ambassadors’ letter concluded:

[A] major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace. The initial US drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe that they can achieve military victory. In that case, they will not make compromises for peace with other Afghan political forces. 

Because Khalilzad has kept his cards close to his chest, it is not known what he said or promised to the various parties, the Taleban in Doha, President Trump and President Ghani, or whether he said the same things to everyone. It may be that when the text of the deal was available to all the principals, this is when it came unstuck. Various potential problems with the deal (from an American and Afghan government point of view) have been made public since it was shown to the Afghan leadership on 2 September (reported here and here).

They include, according to Time, quoting an Afghan official, that the agreement “doesn’t guarantee the continued presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces to battle al Qaeda, the survival of the pro-U.S. government in Kabul, or even an end to the fighting in Afghanistan.” The New York Times, also quoting a government official, reported that the agreement: “would not have assured national elections on Sept. 28, as Mr. Ghani has demanded. Rather than requiring a nationwide cease-fire, it calls for a reduction of violence in Kabul and Parwan.” The Taleban were also apparently reluctant to specifically name al-Qaeda in their guarantee that Afghan soil would not be used by foreign jihadist forces to launch attacks. They were also reportedly insistent that any agreement would name them the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, which, for some looked to be a step too far in legitimising the movement.

If Khalilzad had conceded any of these points, possibly after failing to force enough concessions from the Taleban (as officials told The New York Times), that could have upset his boss. It certainly upset the presidential palace, as the anti-deal briefings to journalists show. Ashraf Ghani spoke out strongly against the agreement on Thursday after seeing the text and after the Abdul Haq Square bombing: “Seeking peace with this group who is still pursuing the killing of the innocent people,” he said in a statement “is meaningless.”

Responses to the ditching of the agreement

Trump’s cancellation has allowed the Taleban to present themselves as peace-makers. In a statement, they said they had been intent on a peace deal all along, and had been about to sign the agreement and were preparing for intra-Afghan talks on 23 September. Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement had shown the Americans to be untrustworthy and would only bring them more financial damage, more casualties and a ‘jihad’ until the invasion ends.

In the Palace, meanwhile, there must be a strong sense of relief that a deal which the president was so against has been scuppered by another party. (See the text of Ghani’s statement in Annex 1 of this dispatch). After reiterating his stance that Taleban violence is the main obstacle to peace, Ghani must feel he has regained the upper hand: the deal is off, all talk of an interim government will be off and elections can now go ahead untroubled by the peace process:

The government of Afghanistan reiterates its stance on holding the presidential elections on September 28 to make sure the establishment of a legitimate government through the ballot box and to move forward the ongoing peace process with full wisdom and precision.

Structural problems with the talks

Whatever the facts of who was responsible for the scrapping of the agreement and the end to the talks – although it is still not clear from all sides’ statements whether they are indeed completely over – it seems there were always structural problems with them. There are three direct parties to the Afghan conflict and three parties which have to make peace. Only two were involved in the talks. It has also seemed all along that negotiations were driven primarily by the US and its president’s desire to get troops out of Afghanistan ahead of US elections in 2020. Meanwhile, those in the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan camp’ – the government, opposition figures, women’s activists and others – were marginalised from the start because of the US decision to accede to Taleban demands for a two-way-only negotiation.

Yet, it was also never really clear that the Taleban, especially those in the Quetta Shura and field commanders were ready to make the compromises needed for peace. Certainly, there have been none of the preparations with cadre on the ground that one would expect of an organisation negotiating an end to fighting. US interlocutors told AAN that the Taleban speaking in Doha appeared to see the current negotiations through the prism of the 1980s and believed the US, like the USSR before it, was toppling in the face of a concerted Afghan ‘jihad’. The possibility was always that getting a deal for the Taleban was a way of getting rid of their main adversary on the battlefield and that they believed they could then walk into Kabul as military victors. This may have remained their main aim all along, rather than negotiating peace with their fellow Afghans.

In the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ (IRA) camp, meanwhile, many fears have been voiced, but there has been no real effort to rally behind a unified stance to try to give their side more clout. Apart from the president’s stage-managed peace jirga (analysis here), designed mainly to stop calls for an interim government, President Ghani’s main actions have been to push for elections. All this means that, although the Palace may be breathing a sigh of relief that the US-Taleban talks are over, there is little unity or consensus on the IRA side of what should happen next.

It was always difficult to see how the agreement, or what we have seen of it, would lead to peace, but what follows now is even less clear. It is not certain, for example, what Trump does next: double down on the war or order unilateral troop withdrawals. The Taleban still have the upper hand militarily but it is difficult to see anything certain arriving via the battlefield with the exception of more violence. Presidential elections should now go ahead. However, Khalilzad’s talk of an interim government has dented confidence that the poll would actually happen. The result is that most candidates have yet to really start campaigning. Whether it can even approach being a representative and fair election is questionable.

Most importantly, what looks to be the failure of these particular talks makes a negotiated end to the war, for now, less likely. Trust has been lost; finding a way for the parties of the conflict to talk to each other again has been made more difficult. No wonder many Afghans are confused about what they should think about the Trump tweets and the apparent end to the ‘peace deal’ – and fear that a further intensification of the violence will be the major result.

Edited by Jelena Bjelica


Annex 1: The Government Of Islamic Republic Of Afghanistan’s Statement Over The Peace Negotiations

8 September 2019

The people and the government of Afghanistan pursue a dignified and sustainable peace and are committed to putting any effort into ensuring peace in the country. However, the government considers the Taliban’s obstinacy to increase violence against Afghans as the main obstacle to the ongoing peace negotiations. We have consistently stressed that genuine peace is possible when the Taliban stop the killing of Afghans, embrace an inclusive ceasefire, and enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government.

The government of Afghanistan as the main initiator, advocate and executor of the peace process, respects the decision emanated from the Consultative Loya Jirga on Peace and is responsible to follow its mandate with the Afghans playing the central role and the government owning and leading the process. 

The government of Afghanistan praises the earnest efforts of its allies and is committed to working together with the United States and other partners to ensure honorable and enduring peace in the country.

The government of Afghanistan reiterates its stance on holding the presidential elections on September 28 to make sure the establishment of a legitimate government through the ballot box and to move forward the ongoing peace process with full wisdom and precision.

Annex 2: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Declaration about the Tweet of Donald Trump Regarding the Negotiations

8 September 2019

We had fruitful negotiations with the American negotiation team and the agreement was finalised. The American negotiation team was happy with the progresses made and we ended the talks in a good atmosphere. Both teams were busy with preparations for the announcement and signing of the agreement. We had selected 23 September as the first day for the intra-Afghan talks [to begin] after the agreement had been signed and announced.

The region and the countries of the world and international organisations have backed the process. Now, the announcement by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, of an end to negotiations with the Islamic Emirate will harm America more than anyone else; it will harm its credibility, and further expose its anti-peace stance to the world; it would [result in] an increase in financial damage and casualties to its forces; it would demonstrate its political interactions as untrustworthy.

Keeping going with the negotiations, the Islamic Emirate has proved to the world that the war was imposed by others on us, and if the way of understanding is chosen instead of war, we are committed to the end of this [the negotiations].

Reacting to just one attack, just before the signing of the agreement, shows neither patience nor experience. Despite that, a little time before the mentioned attack, the US and its domestic supporters [the Afghan government], martyred hundreds of Afghans and burnt their properties. Doctor Khalilzad, gave us the invitation of Donald Trump in late August. We had delayed the mentioned travel to the US till after the signature of the agreement in Doha.

The Islamic Emirate has had a constant policy and a consistent stance. We have voiced understanding 20 years ago, and we have the same stance today as well. We believe that the American side will turn back to this stance [of negotiations]. Our past eighteen-year long policy would have proved to America that, without a complete end to the invasion and so long as the Afghans are allowed to make their own decision, we will not be satisfied by any other thing. We will keep going with the jihad because of this big aim and believe in our final victory.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

One Land, Two Rules (8): Delivering public services in insurgency-affected insurgent-controlled Zurmat district

Wed, 04/09/2019 - 03:43

The Taleban’s military dominance in Zurmat district of Paktia province has allowed them to assert their will over how government and NGO-provided public services are delivered. Their motivation varies from ideological control (education and media) to revenue generation (taxes on telecommunications and public infrastructure projects). In this district, the Taleban have expanded into tax collection to fund minor roads and irrigation canals in rural areas. Despite these Taleban advances into governance and public service delivery, they have left the hardest and most expensive work – health and medicine – to the Afghan government and NGOs. Here, AAN’s Obaid Ali, Sayed Asadullah Sadat and Christian Bleuer have conducted ten interviews with individuals and groups in Zurmat district to provide an up-to-date analysis of this specific form of Taleban governance (with input from Thomas Ruttig).

Previous publications in the series are: an introduction with literature review and methodology, “One Land, Two Rules (1): Service delivery in insurgent-affected areas, an introduction” by Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark; four district case studies: on Obeh district of Herat province by Said Reza Kazemi; Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz province by Obaid Ali; Achin district in Nangrahar province by Said Reza Kazemi and Rohullah Sorush and Nad Ali district by Ali Mohammad Sabawoon; Andar district in Ghazni province by Fazal Muzhary and; a case study on polio vaccinations by Jelena Bjelica; 

The context

Zurmat district is located to the southwest of the provincial capital Gardez and borders: Kharwar district of Logar to the north; Shwak district of Paktia to the south’ Mata Khan district of Paktika and Deh Yak district of Ghazni to the west; and Barmal and Sar Hawza districts of Paktika to the southwest. The district is ethnically dominated by Pashtuns from a variety of different tribes and sub-tribes, such as the Daulatzai, Suleimankhel, Salukhel, Mamozai, Ander, Uryakhel, Dzadran, Stanikzai and Mangal. They make up 90 per cent of the population, with the remaining ten per cent known as ‘Tajiks’, from the Marsangkhel and Khodayarkhel tribes. These are formerly Farsi-speaking Mohsenkhel Pashtuns who relocated from Ghor province some generations ago (for more background details read this and this AAN report). (1) Zurmat district , with its district centre, Tamir, has 164 villages, 55 of them large. According to Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Office, it has a population of 94,865, 51,000 male and 43,865 female.

The Taleban have a very strong presence in Zurmat, with the government only in control of the district centre and some areas close to it. The Afghan National Police (ANP) is largely based in the district centre while the Afghan National Army (ANA) has a main base there, too, as well as a presence in areas close to the district centre, such as Sahak, seven kilometres to the north; Mamozai, around five kilometres to the east and Sorkai, ten kilometres to the south of the district centre. TheCIA-led Khost Protection Force (KPF) and NDS-supported local Uprising Forces have posts along the Gardez-Tamir road (AAN reporting here). In 2018, the government disbanded the Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit in Zurmat after they committed abuses against local civilians. For defensive purposes, local government officials live close together in one particular area of town, called Khwajagan village, near the ANA base in Tamir (for a longer description, see AAN’s 2018 election dispatch from Zurmat). In mid-2018, the government also closed an ANA base in Kulalgo as part of its strategy to give up scattered bases and concentrate on securing district centres.

Background and History (1980 to 1990s)

Zurmat is one of the Taleban’s regional strongholds, as it was during the Emirate, described in a 2018 AAN dispatch, thus:

For historical reasons, Zurmat is sometimes called Little Kandahar, as a number of prominent Taleban leaders came from the area. For Greater Paktia – the three provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost – Zurmat was as important for the insurgents, as Kandahar was for southern Afghanistan. Two different networks of the Taleban are active in the area: the Haqqani network, led by Qari Shams, and the Mansur network, locally called the ‘Mansurian’ – led by Abdul Latif Mansur, a member of the Taleban leadership and relative of the network’s founder, the late Nasrullah Mansur.

Map: © Roger Helms for AAN

The local power structures in Zurmat are an exception to elsewhere in the province of Paktia. Conrad Schetter and Rainer Glassner (2) argued that:

In Paktia most of the tribes aim to stand apart from the conflict between the insurgents and the government and international troops. The tribes had successfully followed the same strategy during the Soviet occupation, whereby they allowed the insurgents and the government (as well as the international actors) to cross their tribal territories as long as no one challenged the tribal order. […]  In general, most tribal leaders just observe this ideological conflict and maintain their networks with influential actors on all sides. […] In other words, the tribal system in Paktia obstructs or at least constrains the emergence of warlordism as well as the influence of the state.

Schetter and Glassner, referring to the work of Sébastien Trives, then contrast the rest of the province to the district of Zurmat (3):

By contrast, in the southern district of Zurmat, where the tribal system with its myriads of tribes and clans is rather fragmented and tribal codes are weakened, the insurgents have gained more support than in those parts of the province, where tribal structures are more stable.

The Zurmat exception could be seen in the emergence of the powerful Mansur family network. Maulawi Nasrullah Mansur, an Andar Pashtun was born in a small village in Zurmat. He rose to prominence after he received a “religious education at Nur ul-Madaris, the madrasa founded by the Mojaddedi family, one of the best-known (and conservative) abodes of Muslim learning in Afghanistan.” (4) The Mansurs were elevated beyond their local power base in 1995 when they joined the Taleban. Their reward became evident in the number of high-ranking Taleban posts given to family members and others from Zurmat, most prominently Abdul Latif Mansur as Minister of Agriculture. He had followed in his brother’s position as the network’s leader after the latter’s assassination in 1993. In the post-2001 insurgency phase, he was reportedly appointed to the first post-Taleban regime Leadership Council in June 2003 and later,from early 2009 till mid-2010, was the head of the Taleban Political Committee, responsible also for peace talks. Subsequently, he was reported to be acting as the Taleban provincial governor for Paktia. It is also believed that he is a member of the Taleban Leadership Council (Rahbari Shura – more in this AAN paper). Currently, he serves as a member of the Taleban political office in Doha and is taking part in the ongoing Taleban-US talks there(5) Beyond the Mansur family, two other Zurmat locals have served at different times as Taleban ministers for Finance, Economy and Agriculture, and four more served in deputy minister posts. (6)

RFE/RL journalist and author Abubakar Siddique argues that the power of this family, and the way in which they have “enriched” themselves, has “undermined tribal solidarity.” (7) In terms of their relationship with the Taleban, the Mansurs and allied Zurmat locals have maintained their autonomy, run the district independent of the overall Taleban hierarchy and locally are rooted well enough to keep other Taleban branches among them the Haqqani network, out of ‘their’ area. (8) According to sources close to the Taleban, the group remains strong enough to maintain a large presence in northern parts of the district, such as Dawlatzai, Haibatkhel, Abikhel, Durunk and Muqarabkhel areas. The sources said that the head of the Taleban’s military committee for Paktia province and the shadow district governor post for Zurmat are in the hands of Mansur family members. The Mansur and Haqqani networks jointly run other posts in the Taleban’s structure at the local level.

Conflict and Security 2001-19

Saif ur-Rahman Mansur, the elder son of Nasrullah Mansur, was a leader in the fight against US troops immediately after the overthrow of the Taleban regime. In 2002, he led the resistance of over a thousand fighters, including his own men, those from the Haqqani networks and al-Qaeda-linked Arab and probably Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan-linked Central Asians, against a large US military operation, codenamed Anacondaaimed at ‘cleansing’ the mountainous Shahikot area of Zurmat from what the US considered to be forces allied with al-Qaeda, and he gained fame in the process. (9) But it was not until three years later that the Mansur network again became relevant locally. In 2005, the leaders of the Mansur family reignited the insurgency. Family leaders directed operations from across the border in Pakistan, ordering operations as far away from Zurmat as Ghazni and Logar. (10)

Local Shura discusses security-related issue in Surkai village of Zurmat province

By 2007 the Mansur network was causing serious problems for the Afghan government and the US military. Thomas Ruttig, citing a UN official, gave the following reasons for the growing success of insurgents in Zurmat: “the corruption in local government, the district’s function as a major transit corridor for Taleban fighters moving from Pakistan to Ghazni province and more central Afghan areas, intra-tribal conflicts, and the strong position of conservative ulema in the area.” (11) Corruption has continued to alienate many tribes and their leaders from the provincial and central government. Meanwhile, local intra-tribal conflict has opened the way for the Taleban to support certain tribal elements against others, while ulama from within the large number of madrassas, among them some prestigious (and conservative ones) both in Paktia and neighbouring Ghazni, have given them ideological backing.

However, the Mansur network has only had a sub-regional presence, not a national one. Its operations have been confined to north-eastern Ghazni, south-western Paktia and parts of Logar province. (12) By 2009, local observers believed that the power of the Mansur network, relative to overall Taleban command, had diminished as they lost many of their best commanders. (13) However, the power of the insurgency in Zurmat has not followed the same trajectory of the Mansur network. By 2019, the Taleban’s various local sub-networks had gained control of the entire district outside of the district centre.

There have been repeated abuses by government and US forces of Afghan civilians in the district. They include a night raid in December 2018 against a prominent local family that had been part of local, non-governmental forces that had repeatedly blocked expansion by the Haqqani network and their foreign allies from the network’s base in the Shahikot highlands into the rest of Zurmat district (the Khost Protection Force, accompanied by a least one American, killed six family members, see this AAN dispatch from January 2019). In another night raid in Zurmat in August by NDS special forces, which like the Khost Protection Force appear to answer to CIA command, eleven civilians were killed.

Afghan government forces have also killed civilians during their operations against Taleban forces, afterwards accusing the Taleban of using civilians and their homes as human shields (see accounts of civilians casualties in 2018 here and here).

The Taleban continue to easily exploit the locals’ resentment towards the Afghan government and international forces. One schoolteacher interviewed by AAN complained of the worsening security and gave government forces’ “fruitless night raids” as an example of bad government actions (see AAN reporting the latest case in Zurmat here). Another interviewee noted how quick the Taleban are to respond after this type of event, stating that they “meet elders when there is a night raid or drone attack in Taleban controlled-areas. This is largely to gain locals support and sympathy.” The civilians affected do not always follow the Taleban’s suggestions, as was the case after the Kulalgo killings.

Security and Governance Provision

A Zurmati elder described the Taleban’s powerful local presence in late 2018, adding that the insurgents control the majority of territory in the district:

Power lies in the hands of the Taleban. The government controls the district centre and some villages near the district centre. The Taleban are active in all other areas and they attend to all people’s problems. The Taleban have an active district governor. In their power structures, they have different kinds of committees that are active in every sphere.

The same elder remarked on the limited numbers and weakness of government forces in Zurmat. All other informants described the power balance similarly (Taleban control at ‘about 80 per cent’ of the territory), with two interviewees adding that the government had recently created five security checkpoints on the Zurmat-Gardez road. The exact government area of control in this district is a mere few kilometres’ radius around the district governor’s office.

The power of the Taleban and the relative weakness of the Afghanistan government was seen in the 2018 elections, when voting was only possible in the district centre (19 of 22 polling stations in Zurmat remained closed). The Taleban’s threats against potential voters worked, and the only people voting appeared to be members of the security forces, government workers and shopkeepers near the voting station in the centre (for a long voting election analysis of Zurmat, see AAN’s 2018 dispatch)

The interviewees described Taleban fighters and officials as being mostly local. One local civil society activist noted that the Taleban have been able to recruit even well-educated local young men, due to hopeless employment prospects in Zurmat.

Interviewees agree that Taleban from outside the district make up a small number of their forces, mostly from Paktika, Logar and Ghazni, with some Waziri kuchis from the border areas. However, they said it is some of the higher-ranking Taleban who are the outsiders, while the lower ranks are local. This is in clear contrast to the era when the Mansur network dominated the ranks of the insurgency from top to bottom. Almost all the interviewees described the ‘outsiders’ as being from neighbouring districts or provinces, but two noted that there are also some foreigners among the Taleban, including Pakistanis, Arabs and some Central Asian fighters.

Service Delivery

Public services in Zurmat district are delivered and monitored by the Afghan government and by NGOs, such as the International Rescue Committee, Medical Refresher Courses for Afghans (MRCA) and Hewad. In 2019, Hewad took over MRCA’s part, after it ended its presence. Respondents agree that the Taleban, controlling most of the district, have a very strong role in controlling how these services are delivered. A school teacher described the Taleban shadow administration as having “established a parallel government system that operates in the district. The Taleban’s district governor and heads of the military, education, and public outreach committees operate outside the district centre.” He said there were also are Taleban offices in the Kulalgo bazaar, Sahak, Koti Khel, Dawlatzai, Makawa and Haibatkhel areas, as contact points for the population. However, the main base for the Taleban, where most of the decisions are taken place, is in Spin Jumat (White Mosque) located in Makawa area in the north of the district that borders Kharwar district of Logar province. This means decisions largely take place in Mansur’s territorial areas.

One local elder described the arrangement:

The Taleban have various committees, each separately functioning in different spheres. Some are active in the health sector, some in education, some in conflict [resolution] and politics, and some are active in the development sector. When the government wants to implement a project, it has to have the Taleban’s permission and cooperation. The Taleban have to be involved in the project, but most of the time they prevent the implementation of projects. They do not give permission because they demanded a huge amount of money, and the government gave up and transferred the project to another district.

One key source, a local tribal elder in Zurmat, described how the Taleban allow or do not allow, government projects to implemented:

Elders and Taleban meet each other and discuss the project. If the Taleban get money, then they allow the government to implement the project, but leave their men to monitor its implementation. If they do not get their money, then they do not allow the project to be implemented.

As an example of what the Taleban do not allow to be implemented, the interviewee mentioned the Citizen’s Charter programme, which funds projects for water, sanitation, tertiary road construction and renewable energy through grants and implemented by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development implement). Another local tribal elder gave an example of a specific type of project:

Some small projects, which are initiated by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, for example, the restoration of water canals in the agriculture sector, are controlled and monitored by the Taleban. Elders always have a mediatory role between government and the Taleban insurgents.

Almost every interviewee agreed that the Taleban are regularly available for the public to meet to air their concerns. A few respondents added that the Taleban do not meet any shuras. They told AAN the Taleban do not have any respect for them, even though these shuras are local and not government initiatives, but prefer to communicate directly with community elders.

As for the failure to deliver services, a tribal elder in Zurmat stated that the government claims they cannot deliver services in many parts of the district due to insecurity. Meanwhile, the Taleban say they cannot deliver services because they have no money for development projects.


Respondents put the number of schools in Zurmat district at about 63 to 64, a number that includes primary, secondary and high schools, plus a teachers training centre. Out of these schools, 36 (20 primary schools and 16 secondary schools) are without buildings. In these cases, the students study either in the local mosque, or private houses that serve as schools, or in tents or in open areas. One informant, highly placed in the local government, noted that this number includes 13 girls’ schools that are all permanently closed. As for the boys’ schools, one teacher reported that the Taleban control most of these schools.

Ongoing construction work of a school building in Zurmat district

The Afghan government provides education services (salaries, school construction, as well as text book and stationery), while the provincial and district government, as well as the Taleban’s Education Committee, monitor the system. Several informants stated that the district government monitors schools in Taleban-controlled areas only with prior Taleban permission. As for the teachers, one key informant in the district government said “without the Taleban’s approval it is impossible to serve as teacher in most parts of the district. Before attending the education department’s exam for teacher appointment, one has to get the Taleban’s approval and agreement to serve as teacher in their areas of control.”  The Taleban have their own monitoring and control system, as described by one school teacher:

Their monitoring system is similar to the provincial education department. However, the Taleban have their own attendance records for school teachers. They interfere in school curriculum and replace school books with [others on] religious subjects. For instance, the Taleban replaced the culture study classes (based on a government-provided school book) with [Islamic] jurisprudence. They also replaced another school subject, sport, with religious studies. In general, there are no [alternative] school books for these additional subjects. In fact, it depends on teacher’s skills and knowledge of religious norms to teach the Taleban-supported subjects in schools. In a few cases, the Taleban have assigned their own mullahs to teach students.

One key informant in the district government described the work of the Taleban Education Committee:

The committee is made up of local Taleban religious figures. […] The Taleban’s education committee monitor the schools sometime once a week and some other times once a month. The committee looks at teachers’ and students’ attendance records, teaching mechanism, and the curriculum. The Taleban interfere in the curricula and appointments of teachers. For the curriculum, the Taleban added additional religious subjects. When it comes to teachers’ appointments, they also interfere in it and without their approval it is not possible to serve as teacher in Taleban controlled-areas.

Another interviewee revealed that the Taleban monitors teacher attendance and deduct teachers’ absent day’s wages. This money is allocated against their own accounts. Another key informant in the district government described something similar: “If a school teacher doesn’t appear for a day, the Taleban deduct (a day’s salary) from their monthly salary, this amount then goes to school expenses or is kept by the Taleban.” He added that the Taleban’s education committee made its own attendance records for school teachers in areas they control. He added that, usually, the local education department’s representative distributes the salaries to teachers at school in the presence of a member of the Taleban’s education committee. If a teacher’s attendance record shows that he missed classes, then the Taleban’s representative deducts a day salary immediately after the distribution of the teachers’ salaries. The same informant stated that the Taleban “regularly encourage younger students to Jihad. They sometimes carry out propaganda against the government during school visits.” Another key informant also stated that Taleban monitoring visits to schools serve another purpose, and that they “use this as a platform to talk with students and to encourage them to join the Taleban.”

There were schools for girls in Taleban-controlled areas of Zurmat up until 2016 to at least the third grade. In 2015, a local teacher predicted the Taleban would totally ban girl’s education the following year. (14) But whether or not the closure of girls’ school was a Taleban order or not, the education of girls faces many cultural and practical obstacles in Zurmat. The government informant stated:

There are a number of issues that prevent families from sending children to schools. For example: schools are far away from some villages, the lack of female teachers, some schools are out in the open, the culture issue, the negative campaign against girls’ education by some mullahs. These are the issues that have dissuaded families from sending their girls to schools.

One local elder noted that the lack of girls’ education is not the only problem. The quality of boys education is also low and “there is a lack of professional teachers.” Other informants stressed the low quality of buildings, the lack of good textbooks and, in some cases, the lack of buildings.

For graduates, there are few prospects to use their education. One well-educated interviewee said that “Zurmat has many educated youths,” but that they have few employment opportunities in the district. In most cases, the educated people either leave the district to search for jobs in Gardez, the provincial centre, or Kabul. Those that remain work as farmers or are unemployed.


According to local health workers and other informants, Zurmat district has one 50-bed hospital in the district centre, and, elsewhere in the district, two Comprehensive Health Centres (CHC), three Basic Health Centres (BHC) and one sub-centre. A local elder stated that the Afghan government (the Zurmat Heath Department) and one NGO, MRCA/Relief International deliver and pay for these health services. In December 2018, after MRCA’s contact ran out, Hewad took over this task. The NGOs currently supporting medical services in Zurmat, according to a local hospital administrator, are ICRC and Hewad.

A local elder and another key informant said that the Taleban do not interfere with the clinics and hospital, but that the Taleban’s Health Committee visits the health centres in Taleban-controlled areas. A local doctor described the relationship with the Taleban:

The Taleban don’t interfere in our work. We are allowed to run the health clinic without any issue. In fact, if there is an issue of concern, the Taleban’s health committee and the provincial health department help us out.

A local elder described a more one-sided relationship, while mistaking NGO-delivered services for government services: “health services are delivered by the government but the Taleban should be informed because without their permission nothing can be done.”

This relationship can be seen in the polio vaccinations campaigns. A local civil society activist described the situation:

The Taleban banned the polio vaccination in August 2018, for more than a month. This was only for those mobile teams that carry out the door-to-door campaign. The health centres, however, were open for those who could bring their children for vaccination there. After elders’ mediation, the Taleban allowed the polio campaign in the district, but this was only for few months. The Taleban banned the polio vaccination again in the end of April 2019 in Zurmat (read AAN’s analysis on polio vaccination here).

Women’s access to health services is problematic in Zurmat due, not just to “traditional issues”, as stated by one informant, but also due to an insufficient number of female medical workers. A local doctor said in an interview that there are 80 health workers in the district that include twenty female ones working as midwives, nurses and vaccinators, but that there is no female medical doctor in the district. The same doctor claimed that men and women have equal access to health care. However, a local elder emphasised the lack of a female doctor in the district, and that “in the absence of gynaecologists, most of the time either patients die or they face major issues.” The best that can be done, according to one interviewee, is for the female patient to be transported to Gardez for treatment. However, the lack of a good road to Gardez and the absence of an ambulance make this a difficult operation.

Electricity, media and Telecommunication

Zurmat district is not connected to the national electricity grid. Residents rely mostly on solar power and, to a lesser degree, on generators. The solar power is enough only to light rooms, charge mobile phones and watch TV. However, those who own televisions are mostly in the district centre, as the Taleban prohibit watching TV in their territory. A school teacher from the Taleban controlled-area described the Taleban’s TV policies:

Most people watch TV programmes. They use satellite dishes because of the variety of channels the dishes can broadcast. They watch news, political debates, sports and other entertainment programmes. In most cases, people hide their dishes and TV antenna from the Taleban because the Taleban prohibit watching TV programmes. If the Taleban notice that people place dishes or TV antenna on the top of their roofs, then they search the house and smash the television.    

Radios are far more widespread, with almost every household having one. The available stations broadcast news, music, cultural and entertainment programmes. The Taleban make use of the population’s radio use, broadcasting the Taleban’s official “Voice of Jihad” station.

Mobile phone ownership is widespread throughout Zurmat. Smart phones are only used by those few educated youths who can afford them, as they are, according to several interviewees, too expensive and complicated. Mobile internet is described as very slow and, in some cases, non-existent.

The mobile phone signal only works in the daytime as the Taleban force the mobile companies to turn off their services between 6pm and 7am. Roshan, Etisalat and Afghan Wireless all operate in Zurmat. MTN also had a presence until last year when the Taleban destroyed one of their towers. The Taleban have completely prohibited the state-owned Salaam Network from operating. For all other companies, they need to follow the rules (turn off the service at night) and pay the Taleban tax. A key informant described the relationship:

… telecom companies pay tax to the Taleban. If they do not pay the tax, then the Taleban will shut down their network coverage. For example, sometimes ago, the MTN Company did not pay tax, so the Taleban set its towers on fire.

Agriculture, Water and Irrigation

As might be expected with a rural Afghan district, most of the key informants cited – unprompted – the importance of the agricultural sector.

One key informant credited the government and what he called an ‘NGO’ (in fact, the World Bank-funded National Horticultural and Livestock Project) with providing services in the agriculture sector, including the provision of higher-quality seeds, seedlings, storage facilities and the digging of new wells. However, he noted that all of these projects can only be implemented with the Taleban’s “cooperation and permission.” An elder described also that projects implementedthrough the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Developmentare controlled and monitored by the Taleban. For example, some construction projects, such as bridges, irrigation water canals and cold-storage rooms for fruit, were funded by the government, but monitored by the Taleban. He added that the local Taleban even suggest through local elders to specify places where the project should be implemented. He said that, “Without the Taleban’s approval the government won’t be able to implement these projects.”Another informant noted that this is also the case with maintenance and construction of irrigation canals, which are paid for by the locals and implemented with permission from the Taleban.

There are also some other smaller construction projects for water irrigation canals in Korchi, Makawa and Menzi villages that the locals funded and constructed, but which the Taleban designed and monitored.


In 2011, the US military, based out of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Paktika, cited the economic and security benefits of high quality roads in the region and announced the imminent completion of several key transport corridors, including a road connecting Zurmat to Gardez. This asphalted road was never constructed, but is still being demanded by the local population. Nearly every interviewee in Zurmat cited the need to asphalt the current low-quality road. Several key informants stated that the Taleban had prohibited its improvement, but that they would allow construction of smaller village roads and bridges, in some cases even collecting taxes to fund the construction.

The Taleban do not have a special team to implement construction projects. Therefore, projects are implemented based on traditional construction methods and with the support of local elders. In general, these projects are of very poor quality and they need maintenance every month. In most cases, the local Taleban only monitor the implementation of such projects, rather than providing technical assistance.

The Taleban also sometimes organise public services projects. In these cases, they mobilise local financial and human resources, ie they call on locals to donate money or to provide construction material, such as cement, sand, stones or construction machinery. Then, the work is mainly carried out by locals, but monitored by the Taleban.

The largest construction project in the Taleban controlled-areas of Zurmat was the rehabilitation of parts of the 52 kilometre-long Gardez-Ghazni road. This road, leading through the Sahak area, was the main link between the two provincial capitals in the past. When US forces had a base in Sahak, they asphalted a 20 kilometre stretch between Gardez and their base to make it easier to supply it. After the US withdrawal, the base was handed over to the ANA who also use only this part of the road. The Taleban and locals also use the old road’s remaining 32 kilometre stretch that leads from Sahak via Dawlat Khan village on to the border of Ghazni’s Deh Yak district and further to Ghazni city. The Taleban organised funding by local population and called on them to take part in the primary construction work, ie using soil, sand and stone aggregates, but not yet asphalting it. The completion of this project enabled the Taleban to collect taxes from truck drivers transporting goods from Paktia to Ghazni.

Another example of a Taleban public works project was the primary construction of a 30 kilometres road that connects Sahak and Kulalgo villages, again funded by locals.

When it comes to taxes in general, the Taleban collect ten per cent of farmers’ income at the end of harvesting season. For businessmen, such as shopkeepers and market owners, taxes are payable at the end of the year or in advance at the beginning of the year. This depends on the Taleban financial committee’s decision. The Taleban’s financial committee estimate the amount payable based on the income of their business. However, the money collected is not allocated to construction or public services, but instead used to cover the Taleban’s own operational costs.


An interviewee described the justice sector as the only area that is fully controlled and implemented by the Taleban in their territory: “The only service that Taleban provide is justice. People register their cases in a Taleban court – because it is fast and without corruption.”

In September 2014, the Taleban sentenced to death and executed three men who kidnapped and murdered a child after failing to receive their ransom demand in a high-profile case. The Taleban made the execution a public event, and over 1,000 people in Zurmat watched the sentence being carried out. The Taleban ordered the bodies to be displayed for three days as a warning to others. There are no reports of other similar cases. (15)

Over the course of a few years, the Taleban have provided a much wider array of court services and justice. One local government committee member stated that the Taleban courts play “a key role in the district, where different cases are registered daily in their court.” Interviewees described most cases as being either land disputes or family conflicts.

Two interviewees, one highly placed in the district government, stated that, if a local Taleban court fails to reach a resolution or, if they refer the case to a local religious scholar and he fails to issue a verdict, then the case can be referred to a Taleban court based in Pakistan. One interviewee added that this usually does not happen as local Taleban courts resolve most disputes that come before them. Sometimes, smaller cases, such as disputes between two families, are referred to local Jirga for a solution. In these cases, if the Jirga fails to solve or if the Jirga’s decision is not acceptable, then the case can be registered to the Taleban court.


It is clear from the interviews conducted for this project that the Taleban have a powerful local presence in Zurmat that has translated into a control over public services that is stronger than that of the government. The Taleban’s presence in more than 80 per cent of the district has marginalised the government to a role as a monitor in certain sectors. This is particularly notable, for example, in education. Here the Taleban assert its will over this government-funded service, but still need the input of funds, materials and the know-how of the government-trained teachers. Here, the Taleban play a dominant ideological role – influencing the education curriculum – and a ‘law-and-order’ role – checking the teachers’ attendance records and, if necessary, deducting salaries for non-attendance. Their influence also allows them to appoint their own members as school teachers, to deny girls the right to an education, and to recruit students as fighters, as well as to deliver anti-government speeches in a state-run education centres.

The only public service that the Taleban fully deliver is the justice sector – an important part of asserting their control over the population, and also not an expensive public service (compared to the health sector, for example). The Taleban also have begun to collect money in support of public works, such as minor secondary roads and agricultural irrigation canals. This is usually project-related and not a regular payment used to build up a steady revenue from which funding could then be allocated for future projects. This demonstrates that the Taleban are in an on-going process of evolution from an all-out insurgent group to an operational quasi-government administration, also locally.

The Taleban have turned other sectors into revenue generation activities to fund their operations. Several telecommunications companies pay taxes directly to the Taleban, while improved road quality is used as a justification to collect taxes from truck drivers. Furthermore, projects must not just provide revenue to the Taleban, but this must take a form that the Taleban will not object to.

The extent of their control also has enabled the Taleban to decide where infrastructure can and cannot be constructed and to impose rules on telecommunication companies as to what times their service may be scheduled and provided.

The Taleban in Zurmat have created a system in which they can control and monitor when they need to for ideological reasons, to extract revenue for their operations, and to collect taxes to fund smaller construction projects that are important to the rural populations, such as minor roads and irrigations canals. The Taleban do all of this, while avoiding responsibility for the more expensive and complex public services, such as health. This leaves in doubt the ability of the Taleban to function in the future as a full-fledged government that is capable of delivering a full spectrum of public services without outside funding and technical assistance.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark



(1) The use of this term here is controversial. Some former Dari speakers, for example, in the large village of Kulalgo, called ‘Tajiks’ by other local groups – and ‘Dehgan’ (village dwellers) by others –, insist they are originally (Mohsenkhel) Pashtuns who relocated from Ghor province some generations ago.

(2) Conrad Schetter and Rainer Glassner (2011), “Local configurations of violence: Warlords, tribal leaders and insurgents in Afghanistan,” Sicherheit und Frieden, Volume 29, No. 4, p235.

(3) Schetter and Glassner, “Local configurations of violence,” page 235.

(4) Thomas Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, in Decoding The New Taliban: Insight from the Afghan Field, ed. by Antonio Giustozzi (2009) London: Hurst, p78.

(5) Abubakar Siddique (2014), The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, New York: Hurst, p175.

(6) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, pp79-80.

(7) Siddique, The Pashtun Question, p175

(8) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, pp79-80.

(9) Siddique, The Pashtun Question, p175.

(10) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, pp79-80; Siddique, The Pashtun Question, p175.

(11) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, p79.

(12) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, p78.

(13) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, p78.

(14) Barnett Rubin and Clancy Rudeforth (2016), ‘Enhancing Access to Education: Challenges and Opportunities in Afghanistan,’ Center on International Cooperation, New York University, p14.

(15) Vasja Badalič, The War Against Civilians: Victims of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, p243.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

US-Taleban talks: An imminent agreement without peace?

Fri, 30/08/2019 - 03:00

News coming out of the latest round of US-Taleban negotiations suggest that an agreement is imminent, but that in the desire to meet the White House’s 1 September 2019 deadline, the US have made concessions that may well complicate an actual peace agreement in Afghanistan. It appears that the US have dropped the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” principle and have relegated two of the four original topics of the negotiations to future “intra-Afghan negotiations” including the all-important ceasefire. The on-going dilemma of what should come first – peace negotiations or presidential election – continues to complicate matters. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert lay out what can be gleaned so far from the fog of leaks, rumours and conflicting statements.

There are indications that US-Taleban negotiations in Qatar’s capital Doha have been finalised and a bilateral agreement will be announced soon. In this ninth round of the Doha US-Taleban, which started last week and went into its fifth day on Wednesday (28 August 2019), involved heavy wrangling to solve what Washington’s special peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had called “remaining issues” to be “closed.” In January 2019, both sides had reached a “framework” agreement about the withdrawal and the anti-terrorism guarantees, and stated that only details needed to be hammered out. This took seven more months.

According to several media reports (here a summary of AFP, AP and Reuters reporting), the agreement has been finalised and is now going through a last round of language checking. (When Afghan politicians, Taleban and civil society activists met in July 2019 for an intra-Afghan dialogue, there had been inconsistencies in the different versions of the final declaration, see here). The document is expected to come out in English and the two official Afghan languages, Pashto and Farsi/Dari. Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin said on 28 August that “We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence seeking nation.”

Khalilzad is expected to travel to Kabul, and then to Islamabad, to familiarise the Afghan and Pakistani governments with the latest version of the agreement. The Afghan government has not been party to the Doha talks, as the Taleban refuse to hold direct negotiations with the government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah and rejected the US plan to bring it into the on-going talks. According to a Taleban source quoted by AFP (see media summary linked above), all members of their Leadership Council (Rahbari Shura, also known as ‘Quetta Shura’) “have received the draft and they are reading it carefully [while]no go-ahead signal has been given to the Taliban negotiating team” in Doha yet.He said their response may “take a day or two.”

There are indications that, if all goes as planned, there will be two ceremonies to mark the conclusion of the agreement and to present it: one in Doha or Oslo and one in Kabul, possibly as early as the coming weekend of 31 August/1 September (see here).

This would mean that the 1 September 2019 date set by the White House could still be met. The date – set as former US negotiation team member Barnett Rubin put it, in a “rush to make Afghanistan’s peace process conform to the U.S. electoral calendar”– was most recently communicated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Contours of an agreement

So far, only contours of the agreement have emerged. The talks have been accompanied by a whirling rumour mill, particularly since US diplomats started to indicate during the eighth round of talks in the first half of August that the agreement was nearing finalisation. Expectations of an imminent deal have recently been raised twice before: once in the run-up to Eid al-Azha (11-13 August) and once before Afghanistan’s independence centenary a week later. TV teams, which had already travelled to Doha before Eid al-Azha, found that they had travelled for nothing. The expectations may have been raised in an attempt to put additional pressure on the Taleban, although they seem to be unfased by such considerations.

The nature of the talks, which were held behind closed doors, meant that there is still very little solid information. Both sides have agreed on confidentiality, and have largely stuck to this agreement. Much of what has been officially stated came as scattered snippets on social media, in particular Twitter (the favoured means of communication for both the US president and his Afghan envoy). Details that are leaked often muddy the water rather than provide clarity and sometimes seem geared to either mislead or paint an overly positive picture of the talks and their progress. More confusion is created by media chasing and quoting sources “close to the negotiators” or anonymous Taleban sources, who may or may not be informed about the talks.

The picture is further complicated by the likelihood that – despite denials – talks have included subjects that both sides do not want to publicly admit to (for instance the issue of an interim government which would include the Taleban, reports which both sides have denied, see here and here).

A further key feature in these negotiations was that the Afghan-born US envoy has not kept allies, the Afghan government or the Afghan public fully abreast of the proceedings (despite assurances over the last decade that peace talks would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”). This is partly due to the sensitive nature of such negotiations and partly due to the immense time pressure Khalilzad had been put under by his president. President Trump’s desire to end an involvement he considers too expensive and his impatience to withdraw US troops was echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a 20 August TV interview where he said:

Our desire is to create conditions on the ground where we can achieve what President Trump laid out, which is to reduce what is 30, 35 billion dollars a year in taxpayer money and the loss of American lives…

It now appears that this pressure, to swiftly come up with something to show for, has pushed Khalilzad to shepherd in a deal that does not meet the criteria he set out in the beginning.

A “four topic package” becomes ‘everything – minus two’

Khalilzad’s stated position at the beginning of the negotiations was that there were four topics to discuss and that these topics were tied into a package. The principle was reflected in the phrase “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” (earlier AAN analysis here).

The four topics were:

  • withdrawal of the US (and other foreign) troops;
  • anti-terrorism guarantees by the Taleban;
  • inclusion of the Afghan government in the negotiations; and
  • permanent, Afghanistan-wide ceasefire.

The first two topics would be a quid pro quo: US withdrawal in exchange for Taleban guarantees that it would not allow groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) – including its Afghan franchise, the ISKP – to operate from Afghan soil against other countries (and implicitly in Afghanistan). While Khalilzad has indicated that he is satisfied with the Taleban’s guarantees (on which no details are available yet) and is discussing ways for the US to verify them, there are serious doubts that the Taleban would be in a position to deliver on them, as well as to the viability of close monitoring (see here and also this New York Times op-ed).

With regard to the withdrawal, it has always been clear that this was as much a wish on the side of the US, as on the Taleban’s. (In late 2018, it even appeared that the US President had to be persuaded not to announce a unilateral troop cut in Afghanistan, see here.) It is however on the details that they differ. The Taleban insist that the withdrawal must be complete and that the agreement must include a timeline – which indicates that it will probably be phased. They have apparently also asked for some form of international third party guarantees and/or monitoring. AAN heard from sources in contact with the Taleban team that this may involve a combination of technical and on-the-ground monitoring from Afghan, Pakistani and Central Asian territory. Within the US however discussions are on-going as to whether, and in what shape, to leave behind a ‘residual force.’

The Taleban have never publicly subscribed to Khalilzad’s principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Over the months following the January ‘framework agreement’ – a term that sounded more and more euphemistic – they consistently refused to make any concession on the remaining two issues that the US wanted as part of the agreement: direct talks with the Afghan government (before signing an agreement with the US), and ceasefire. Khalilzad intended to discuss a “comprehensive”, ie countrywide, and “permanent” ceasefire, including the armed parties to the conflict – ie both US and Afghan government troops and the Taleban (but not ISKP which is not involved in the negotiations). The Taleban however has insisted that after this agreement there will be a ceasefire only with the US troops. (1) Reuters quoted a “diplomat who has monitored the Qatar talks” as saying, “The U.S.-Taliban agreement will stop U.S. from conducting air strikes on the Taliban, and the Taliban will stop insider attacks on the U.S. and other foreign soldiers. … A ceasefire between the Afghan forces and the Taliban requires a separate agreement and deliberations are yet to begin.”

It thus seems that practically, Khalilzad has bowed to the Taleban blockade and has relegated two of the original four topics – Afghan government participation and ceasefire – to a second set of negotiations: the “intra-Afghan negotiations.” It also seems he has agreed on US, not Afghan priorities.

The idea of intra-Afghan negotiations builds on the intra-Afghan dialogue, which was jointly organised by Germany (2) and Qatar in Doha in July 2019 and – without Afghan government representatives – in two rounds in Moscow in February and May 2019. Khalilzad has also suggested, in response to the Taleban’s refusal to talk to Kabul, that these negotiations should not be carried out by a team of the Afghan government alone, but by an “inclusive and effective national team” (quoted here). This team would comprise of government, opposition and civil society, including women’s representatives, as in the Moscow and Doha ‘dialogues.’

Such a construction, on one hand, realistically reflects the fragmentation and notorious disunity among Afghanistan’s political forces (even within the government), and the fact that the post-2014 National Unity Government never managed to create a genuine national consensus about the contents and direction of peace negotiations with the Taleban (see AAN analysis here and here). A negotiating team only made up of government representatives would not be able to credibly speak for all of Afghanistan’s political and social forces.

Relegating a final peace deal back to the Afghan ‘factions’ also formally restores the West’s previous mantra that peace talks with the Taleban must be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.” But if such intra-Afghan talks happen while the troop withdrawal (or a substantial part of it) is already taking place, this obviously deprives the Afghan government of guarantees that it is protected during these complicated negotiations and leaves them with little to bargain with.

Such a two-negotiation or two-deal construction also puts a large question mark behind the credibility of Khalilzad’s reassurances about the US intentions with the upcoming agreement, despite his tweet on 19 August that “We [the US] are not cutting and running. We are not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We’re looking for a peace agreement.” (see here)

A government in the margins agrees to a 15-member team

The shift in Khalilzad’s approach further undermines the position of the Afghan government, which in the original idea of the four-topic package deal would have come into the Doha talks as a full third party.

The position of the government had already become precarious due to internal political wrangling and mounting controversy with the US over the place of the presidential elections, scheduled for 28 September, in the current process of talks. Starting in late 2018, Khalilzad repeatedly said the election could stand in the way of peace, since a peace deal would require changes in the political system (this based on the idea that the Taleban would view joining the existing political system as an unacceptable form of ‘surrender.’) Ghani, in response, offered the Taleban ‘reform’ of the system, in his speech at the February 2018 Kabul Process meeting (AAN analysis here). When Ghani insisted on still holding the elections, Khalilzad called the government the ‘biggest obstacle‘ to peace.

The idea of intra-Afghan negotiations through an ‘inclusive team’ has watered down the government’s status to that of just one among the Afghan ‘factions’. The Afghan government has, however, agreed – albeit reluctantly – as it realised it might otherwise be confronted with a done deal. The government has now agreed to – in coordination with other domestic players – nominate a 15-member team to participate in the planned intra-Afghan negotiations. The government insists it has finalised the list of the team members, but has not released the names. In the meantime, the government has tried to keep its leverage by insisting that negotiations could begin soon after the US and the Taleban sign their agreement.

According to various sources, Khalilzad has submitted the 15-member list (or earlier versions of it) to the Taleban, which seems to suggest they have been given a veto over its composition (see also Taleban spokesman, and member of the Doha negotiations team, Sohail Shahin quoted on 21 August as raising “questions regarding the inclusiveness of the team” and its authorities to take a final decision, and more directly in pro-Taleban media here).

The government has also tried to make sure it has a say on the contents of the US-Taleban agreement. In mid-August, a “top Afghan security official, who … did not wish to be named,” indicated that Kabul was seeking guarantees from Washington and that the agreement, once announced, would “redirect all talks to [the] Afghan government.” Ghani further upped the ante in his 22 August interview with Tolonews (video here), by stating that a US-Taleban agreement would have no “legal character” as it was an agreement with a non-state actor. On the next day, Ghani stated that his government will give the final draft of the agreement a “comprehensive discussion” before it is signed.

Without Kabul’s consent and buy-in, a bilateral agreement will lack legitimacy among large parts of the public, particularly in Afghanistan, but also abroad. This provides the Afghan government with some leverage, if not something amounting to a de facto veto. This is also reflected in Khalilzad’s announcement that he will travel to Kabul after this round of the Doha talks to “consult with the leadership of the Afghan government on the peace process and encourage full preparation for intra-Afghan negotiations”. He did not confirm, however, that the Afghan government would be allowed to review the agreement and possibly suggest changes.

No effective ceasefire

The insistence of the Taleban that after the agreement there will be a ceasefire only with the US troops means that the initial fourth topic of the agreement and key demand of the Afghan population – an agreement leading to an immediate cessation of the fighting – has been shifted to the rather precarious “intra-Afghan negotiations.” A key question then is how these will relate to and be synchronised with the troop withdrawals. US government members have repeatedly stated that a withdrawal would be ‘conditions based’, ie dependent on whether the intra-Afghan negotiations make progress. But Afghanistan has experienced various ‘condition-based’ processes in the past, only to see conditions watered down beyond recognition (for example, see this AAN paper on the security transition).

If indeed, an announced agreement will have little or no consequences on the battlefield in terms of reduced violence, this will be a huge disappointment for many Afghans. It will also represent a squandered opportunity, as the issue the Taleban cared about most will already have been conceded.

Interior Minister Wais Barmak stops on the road into Kabul to meet Taleban who have come into the capital during the 2018 Eid truce (Photo: taken by someone in the crowd and posted on social media)


What might withdrawal look like

The biggest overlap between the US and the Taleban interests has always been on the issue of US troop withdrawal: both parties want the US (and other troops – some 14,000 US and 8,500 allied troops) out as soon as possible, albeit for very different reasons. The Taleban moreover have hoped, and probably still do, that Trump would lose patience and order a premature pull-out (ie before intra-Afghan negotiations result in a second settlement). They can be assumed to calculate that, once the foreign troops are out, they will have a relatively free hand on the battlefield as well as great leverage in the negotiations.

Internally, in their Qatar office and to their fighters, the Taleban have presented the upcoming US agreement to withdraw as a “victory” over an opponent “on their knees” (see this recent video released on pro-Taleban media outlets here and here). Theyare framing this as the Afghans’ third victory over a superpower, after the 19thcentury British retreat and that of the Soviets in the late 1980s. The Taleban also seem to bank on the habit of Afghan factions to change sides and join the apparent winner when the balance of power is shifting. (Afghans familiar with the July intra-Afghan dialogue, and its follow-up, have told AAN about the on-going outreach by Afghan leaders and subsequent Taleban assurances that they would not have to fear their return to power.)

It is not yet clear what timeframe for the US troop withdrawal will be. Several options have been discussed in the media, with reports that the Taleban initially insisted on a maximum of nine to twelve months period, but meanwhile have possibly agreed to 14 months (see here and here), while the US initially suggested 18-24 months (even though this clashes with the assumption that Trump wants this to be wrapped up before the November 2020 US election). The Taleban have reportedly asked “major powers, the United Nations and representatives of Islamic countries” to act as “guarantors” of the assurances that all foreign troops will leave Afghanistan. According to this statement, ‘major powers’ would include “Russia, China, Pakistan and other neighbors of Afghanistan.”

If the agreement is announced, some form of withdrawal is indeed likely to happen in the range of these intervals, given that there are only 15 months left before the next US presidential election. The extent and speed, however, remained a question for a long time. But now Trump said in a media interview that US troop strength will be “going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there as to what happens” – the latter apparently a reference to the caveat of progress in the intra-Afghan negotiations. This means a reduction by some 5,400 soldiers. This is at the lower end of the options US media had reported earlier (here and here) that a first phase of withdrawal could reduce the current number of US troops by a range of 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted as saying a day earlier “I am not using the withdrawal word right now.”

The complex attack on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul started around 7 pm on 24 August 2016 with an explosion followed by armed assailants storming the campus. Photo: Tolonews

Anti-terrorism guarantees and the possibility of a ‘residual force’?

The main demand of the US towards the Taleban was a guarantee that groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) – inclusing its franchise in Afghanistan, the ISKP – would not be allowed to act against any other country using Afghan territory (or, more specifically, the territory under Taleban control). With regard to IS, there seems to be, for now, no problem. The Taleban consider the group an unwanted competitor in the Afghan jihad and are actively fighting it.

This is less clear when it comes to al-Qaeda. The US, for that reason, may wish to include a clause in the agreement by which the Taleban explicitly distance themselves from their former ally. With their control over parts of Afghan territory and population, which allows them to tax income, businesses and other economic activity across the country, the Taleban are less dependent on the group than they used to be, economically as well as militarily. According to US estimates, there are currently a few hundred al-Qaeda fighters in country at best (the estimate was increased in 2015). Nevertheless, publicly denouncing al-Qaeda may still prove controversial, as it could put off Taleban sponsors in Islamic countries and at least some of its own fighters.

In the US, there have been discussions whether the Taleban might agree to a sustained military US counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, and/or an intelligence presence in Afghanistan, that would focus on counter-terrorism (CT), ensure that the Taleban complied with their promises, and possibly give “advisory support to an Afghan-led counter-terrorism force”. President Donald Trump also referred to this, saying “We have to have a presence, yes. The Taliban does not respect the Afghan government. … It is a dangerous place and we have to keep an eye on it. … We’ll always have someone there” (here). The Pentagon recently reiterated that “the United States, the international community, and the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] ANDSF“ need to maintain a “robust CT force” in the country. Secretary Pompeo, on the other hand, recently tried to smoothen the waves, saying at a veterans’ meeting that “America has never sought a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, and all sides recognize that time moves on.”

The Taleban have so far repeated their position that it would be out of the question for even a single foreign soldier to be left on Afghan soil (see Taleban spokesman Shahin in Pashto here). It is quite likely that the language in the agreement will be somewhat vague or will defer the final decisions to allow an agreed position to be reached. (It is also unclear whether secret annexes may be a possibility, to provide the US what it insists upon, while providing a face-saving solution to the Taleban.) The presence of General Austin Miller, the US and NATO troop commander in Afghanistan, at the Doha talks seem linked to this topic, among other technicalities.

A remaining CT force may involve US soldiers on Afghan soil, but may not be necessary. One form how this could be done, from a US point of view at least, how it was done in Iraq where a ‘residual force’ that was left behind after the withdrawal was relabelled US embassy staff. Altogether, it was reported that the US Embassy had 17,000 staff members at that time, including “military and security contractors [with] diplomatic immunity” (which can be assumed to have represented a large proportion of the 17,000).

The CIA has also established a number of anti-Taleban militias in Afghanistan (see here and here) that will most likely continue to exist after an agreement. A commander of the Khost Protection Force was quoted as saying“If America leaves, we will remain.” The US may seek to still remotely, or directly, use such forces. It is, in that respect, not clear whether the US-Taleban agreement will also cover the presence of armed US intelligence members and private security and military contractors. (3)

An important indication of the strength of a Taleban-US agreement will be whether the US-Afghan BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) is formally annulled, revised or kept after the signing of an agreement. It is difficult to imagine that sceptics in the US will be satisfied without at least a public replacement of the BSA. The Afghan government certainly expects it to be maintained. President Ghani told personnel of the Afghan defence ministry on 13 August that “all security agreements” will be retained after the US and the Taleban sign an agreement (in Pashto here).

On the non-US troops, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has confirmed that the alliance would withdraw all its forces together the US soldiers. He said in mid-July, “We went together to Afghanistan and we leave together.” The US had earlier assured its allies that there would be no unilateral withdrawal.The allies have, so far, however not been part of any of the negotiations that will shape the conditions and timelines for the apparently joint withdrawal. Currently, there are still around 8,500 non-US soldiers in Afghanistan.

It not clear whether the agreement will contain specific provisions on what to do with the foreign fighters associated with the Taleban (see a discussion of their role in this AAN analysis). For the same reasons as with al-Qaeda, the Taleban will likely refuse to hand them over to US or Afghan authorities or to send them back to their home countries where they would likely be imprisoned or worse. The World Bank has recently started consultations with “stakeholders” on post-agreement programmes to “sustain peace after a political settlement.”

ISKP, the second largest, but by far smaller insurgent group in Afghanistan is not part of the negotiations, but the agreement might contain provisions about future counter-terrorism operations that affect them. There are widespread concerns in the US and Afghanistan that the group might become the address for Taleban defectors who do not support the agreement or are not ready to go back to civilian life. (4)

Ballot boxed delivered to Gardez (Paktia) in Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election. Photo: Thomas Ruttig


The elections vs. negotiations dilemma

A stumbling block that may prevent intra-Afghan negotiations from commencing after the US-Taleban deal is signed, is the presidential election scheduled for 28 September 2019. Preparations have already advanced. Sensitive election material has started to be shipped to the provinces, although there are delays due to defect biometric voter verification devices. Campaigning has largely been slow, except for the incumbent. The process seems to be too advanced to be stopped and the elections to be postponed for a third time, at least not without further loss of face for president Ghani who has strongly insisted on holding the poll. In his view, his political legitimacy and future depend on the win he is envisaging.

Chief Executive Abdullah who has emerged as Ghani’s main competitor again, as in 2014, (5) has supported the holding of the election. On 28, August, however, he modified his position – and increased his options – saying that he was “fully ready to render sacrifices before and after election to reach a durable peace in the country.” According to this report that included “quit[ting] elections for the sake of peace.”

The US still has a number of means at hand to achieve another delay, including leveraging their influence among allies in the Ghani and opposition camps and delaying or withholding of funding (including for the elections). At the same time, the US is also trying to use the elections as leverage against the Taleban. Their Kabul Ambassador John Bass said on 25 August, during a visit to Balkh province, that the election should be held on its scheduled time, if there were any hurdles in the way of the peace process and the Taleban refused to sign the bilateral agreement soon.

The Taleban have made clear that they oppose these elections, which they consider held under “occupation” and therefore without legitimacy. In a statement in early August, they declared a boycott, called on voters not to participate in what they called “a ruse by the invaders and their hirelings to gain validity” and warned them to stay away from campaign rallies in order “to prevent losses”. If the elections do go ahead, the Taleban may opt for a full-blown attempt to violently interrupt them. UNAMA had already called the 2018 parliamentary election the most violent since 2001, but most Taleban-attributed incidents seemed comparatively minor to what could be unleashed this time, given recent bloody attacks. Obviously, such an escalation would amount to a complete discrediting of the Taleban’s intentions, as well as a war crime.  

If the election does take place under the current conditions, it is will again lead to controversy and consternation. The electoral framework is still practically unreformed framework, the electoral institutions widely considered non-credible and partial, and the reports surrounding the preparations for biometric verification suggest the likelihood of renewed chaos. Under these circumstances, any result could easily be challenged. Delaying the election would deprive Afghan voters of the chance to make their preference known, but going ahead among controversy is also problematic. And many voters, particularly in rural Taleban-controlled areas, are already deprived by the further increasing number of polling stations that will remain closed on election day due to lack of security

Conclusion: An agreement without peace?

Starting the bilateral negotiations was arguably the only realistic way to get around the Taleban blockade on direct talks with the Afghan government. But as a means to persuade the Taleban to engage in actual peace negotiations it appears, for now, to have failed. Instead of taking more time and pushing for engagement on the full four-point package deal, Khalilzad has given in to Taleban pressure and has relegated the vital negotiations on Afghanistan’s future political system to intra-Afghan negotiations, which may or may not take place. The Afghan government has, moreover, been forced to swallow the bitter pill of being downgraded, as an internationally-recognised and -funded government, to being considered just one of the Afghan ‘factions’ in those negotiations.

Two Afghan analysts, quoted here, seem to echo the view of many Afghans when they say that

… reaching a US-Taliban deal before establishing a solid intra-Afghan [negotiations] framework where the voices and demands of the Afghan people are translated into a workable agenda, negotiated by legitimate and competent representatives of the people, cannot, and should not be supported.

Such a deal, they say, risks freezing out “the only comparatively democratically [legitimised] entity in Afghanistan” which could have represented the majority of Afghans and their desire for peace. Already there is widespread concern among Afghans that their future is being decided behind their back in a rushed and hasty manner as dictated by the political calendar in the US.

Unfortunately, the ‘Kabul side’ also does not offer much hope. Both the government and the opposition have so far been unable to overcome their notorious disunity and to grasp the chance to represent Afghans’ hope for peace.

It is clear that the US-Taleban agreement, whether it will be signed in the coming few days or whether last-moment problems delay it further, will be insufficient to bring down the violence and usher in peace – which is what counts most for most Afghans. The agreement may even lead towards greater escalation, further empowering the Taleban and increasing their options while they have still not proven that their priority is peace, not power. The Taleban’s insistence that a ceasefire will for now only involve the leaving western troops indicates that their focus is still firmly on a military ‘solution’ with possibly a power-sharing deal. The later could allow them to push out their adversaries by force, after US troops are withdrawn and a decent interval of cooperation has elapsed.

How keen the Taleban are on a withdrawal agreement has been shown by the fact that even the 16 August bomb attack in a mosque in Kuchlak, near Quetta, where a brother of Taleban leader Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada was killed, did not derail the talks. This despite the fact that the bomb may have been meant for Hebatullah himself and was generally seen as an attempt to sabotage the dialogue with the US.

Long-standing Afghanistan observer Michael Semple said he has found no evidence that the Taleban leadership is preparing for anything other than a march into Kabul:

They are telling their people: ‘We have defeated the Americans, the Americans are fleeing, and as they are fleeing they are handing us the keys to Kabul. We’re taking over.’ There is no reconciliation message…

At the same time, there have been signals over the years, not least during the 2018 Eid ceasefire, that many fighters – most of whom fight in the areas they have been born and where their families live – might be ready for peace, although probably not at a cost of a perceived ‘surrender’.

The shifts in the US’s negotiation strategy have made it plain that the agreement – once signed – will be, at best, only one step toward the long-awaited peace in Afghanistan and, at worst, a step towards further escalation of the conflict.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert, Sayed Reza Kazemi and Kate Clark


(1) So far there has been one recent successful ceasefire – or actually, two as both the government (tacitly joined by the US forces) and the Taleban both observed unilaterally proclaimed ceasefires in June 2018 that overlapped on the three Eid days. (The government’s truce was a few days longer.) For the first time, this allowed Afghans “to imagine their country in peace” after a long time, as AAN wrote. It fostered contacts and allowed fraternisation between Taleban and pro-government fighters. Many Taleban visiting government-held cities made it clear that the ceasefire did not mean they were willing to surrender (there was some slogan-shouting and many of them carried the movement’s white flag). At the same time, the government claimed that many Taleban fighters quit the movement on that occasion, which seems to have made its leadership wary about their fighters’ commitment. A recent article in the British media illustrated, in a number of interviews, the ambiguous positions vis-à-vis a possible peace deal of many fighters: “tired of war, and at times suspicious of their leaders [b]ut … also often uncompromising in their demands for an American defeat and Islamic government, with little sign they wanted to sign up to share power with the Kabul government or sign up to the country’s democratic constitution.”

(2) German foreign minister Heiko Maas said on 27 August in Berlin that his country would continue supporting “US efforts to broker a peace agreement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban… even though we know that success is by no means certain – considering everything that has happened in the country in the last decades.”

(3) The number of – declared – armed private security contractors in Afghanistan has increased more than 65 per cent since President Donald Trump took office, according to a review of Pentagon statistics (see here). The Pentagon’s most recent report on contractor personnel numbers, for the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2019, cites 2,639 (slightly down from 2,847 in the first quarter) armed private security contractors supporting the Operation Freedom’s Sentinel mission in Afghanistan, up from the 1,722 armed contractors it reported in Jan. 2017.

(4) Large-scale defections to ISKP have not happened so far, and the group is cornered in some parts of some eastern districts. Deeper ideological and religious rifts between the (Sunni Hanafi) Taleban and the IS Salafi stand in the way. But there is no guarantee that economic problems and grievances over the US-Taleban agreement might not bridge this gap. On the other hand, the Taleban dropping out of the armed conflict with the US might narrow ISKPs’ room to manoeuvre, as it might become the main target of an internationally-backed onslaught, possibly coordinated with the Taleban.

(5) This happened after the disintegration of former national security advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar’s ticket, after his candidate for second vice-president, Muhammad Mohaqqeq, and his campaign manager Jailani Popal defected to Abdullah’s team.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Why has Rural Poverty in Afghanistan Got Worse? New AAN paper on post-2001agricultural policy

Tue, 27/08/2019 - 09:57

A new AAN paper seeks to understand why agricultural policy since 2001 has failed to increase production, lift rural Afghans out of poverty or secure their food supply. It finds the answers in the stories agricultural development planners tell themselves about how to ‘modernise’ agriculture, even as they ignore evidence from the field. AAN guest author Adam Pain (*) traces how planners have kept doggedly focussing on production, supply and markets, even as people in rural Afghanistan and research on markets and labour relations tell a different story, of lack of work and households locked into debt relations. Here, Adam Pain introduces his paper, “Growing Out of Poverty? Questioning agricultural policy in Afghanistan” which outlines what has not worked in the last two decades, and what might.

The Helmand scheme . . . came under American supervision in 1946 and continued until the departure of the last reclamation expert in 1979, outlasting all the theories and rationales on which it was based. It was lavishly funded by U.S foreign aid, multilateral loans, and the Afghan government, and it was the opposite of piecemeal. It was an “integrated” development scheme, with education, industry, agriculture, medicine, and marketing under a single controlling authority. Nation building did not fail in Afghanistan for want of money, time, or imagination. In the Helmand Valley, the engines and dreams of modernization had run their full course, spooling out across the desert until they hit limits of physics, culture, and history. – Nick Cullather (1)

Rural development, of which agricultural development is an important part, is a genuinely uncertain activity. One of the ways that both policy makers, bureaucrats and practitioners deal with that uncertainty is to create stories or accounts that simplify that reality so that they can be clear about what they must do. In the 1950s it was all about river basin development. Now it is about liberal market development. The ‘will to improve’ (2) is enormous, the desire to claim success overwhelming and policy and practice proceeds often almost in defiance of what is happening on the ground.

So it has been in Afghanistan. I remember back in 2001 how quick policy makers from the international and bilateral agencies with little attention to the past were to formulate the solutions they thought were needed to respond to how they saw the problems and needs of Afghanistan. Of course the solutions were largely framed in terms of what were seen to be the deficiencies and ‘lacks’ of Afghanistan. It was not difficult to construct a policy story whereby Afghanistan’s largely rural economy – at least that is where most people live – would provide the means by which Afghanistan would be economically transformed through market based agriculture and poverty reduced.

The story drew its rationale by an appeal to history, both distant and recent, of how other countries had undergone such transformations in the past. All Afghanistan had to do, the narrative went, was to follow that route – except that it was a very simplified history and account and more of a case of ‘do as we say’ rather ‘than do as we did’ or even ‘as we do’. The policy instruments used in the past by the west, and more recently in particular Asian countries, included a whole range of tariff barriers, investments in public goods, and public support to agriculture. Western countries still protect and subsidise their agriculture. Yet Afghanistan was expected to transform itself in the face of the full winds of free trade and global agricultural markets.

A village in Sar-e Pul that feels left behind, although nationwide, rural poverty rates have risen since 2001 (Adam Pain 2010)

Not surprisingly, it has not worked. Agricultural productivity has not grown, or at least not it has not grown yet. Poverty and food insecurity rates in Afghanistan, however, have grown since 2002. Is it a case of try again, try again better and fail again better? Or is the policy story fundamentally wrong and we need a better one?

My answer to that question is that the policy story is wrong and we do need a better one. This is what this paper is about. It draws on long-term fieldwork in rural Afghanistan and critical engagement as a teacher in theories and evidence of agrarian change, rather than any specific engagement in the agricultural policy-making processes

Attempts to generalise about rural Afghanistan, of course, raise real challenges, given its diversity of cultural and geographical landscapes. It remains largely unknown, statistically: the absence of universal cadastral records, showing the extent, value and ownership of land, for example, reveals the limits of the state’s ability to make ‘legible’, to see and therefore tax, its rural population. Even knowledge of existing villages and their locations is patchy. Superimposed on this is an intervention landscape where multiple agencies and NGOs have meddled in village life, sometimes in contradictory ways, leaving few records and, often, few traces. A funding landscape where donors have favoured some provinces over others, leading to profoundly uneven allocation of resources, has compounded this heterogeneity.

So this paper has drawn its arguments from specific locations in seeking to develop a more general account of Afghanistan’s rural economy over the last 15 years or so. It has used a household panel approach drawing on an overall sample of over 300 households in different locations, a subset of which have been revisited over three rounds of study, held in 2003, 2009-10 and 2014-16. The locations have provided contrasts in terms of reconstruction funding, conflict, changing access to public goods and levels of inequality. In its final round, it included studies of village institutions and the navigation of economic life in key commodity markets.

The evidence from the field is compelling and consistent. Two key aspects are noted here. First are the accounts by informants – farmers from Sar-e Pul, Herat and Kandahar provinces – of the lack of work in agriculture:

First there is no work available in this village especially in winter time. If [a person] finds work at the village level it is not a regular job. They are able to find work for only up five days in a month in winter time. However, in summer time, jobs increase at the village level, but still it is only for two months and the wage is not sufficient. (3)

 [if I were to rank the income for people in the village] I would say working in Iran comes first, then working in construction .. and lastly agricultural income. We don’t have [so much] land in the village that people [can] totally depend on it. (4) 

The money sent… from Iran is the only source of income for the household. The harvest of wheat… is not sufficient for the household itself. From our lands, we get three kharwar [1 kharwar = 560kg] while our annual consumption is six, so we are buying three kharwar every year. (5)

Now the labour market has come down and about 65 per cent of people at the village level are free and they are not able to find work for themselves. About eight years ago, this percentage was about 10 per cent , and these 10 per cent  people were busy in agriculture activities at the village level. The other 90 per cent  of people were busy in work outside of the village. (6)

The second aspect of evidence from the field speaks to the nature of rural poverty: households locked into debt relations, forms of debt bondage and patron-client relationships offering dependent security and not much else.

People have to continue with the jamadar [labour broker] for the next year as well… Therefore, continually, people are working in the brick kilns for the jamadar to cover their loan. (7)

If I do not cook their bread and my son does not graze their cow, they will take that house from us. After that, someone else will come and live here. Because there are a lot of people that want to have such an opportunity. (8) 

Thus, while one can often find in many but not all villages a few farmers with larger landholdings who are more market-oriented, in nearly all villages, most households have little or no land and cannot secure sufficient income either in kind from the harvest or agricultural work to feed their families. They are in a sense a ‘surplus ‘population, who will probably never find work in the rural economy and are deeply constrained in the choices they have. Evidence from the field shows how strongly Afghanistan’s rural economy is governed largely by social rather than market relations. That is likely only to persist under the current conditions of conflict. What the country’s rural population needs is work and the assurance of food security. Yet, this has not been a priority in agricultural policy. Instead it has focused on commodities and markets.

A harvest of melons in Badakhshan (Adam Pain 2011)

In sum, the modernisation narrative that has driven agricultural policy-making in Afghanistan needs to change. It cannot just focus on production and supply, but must address much more structural constraints and risk. These aspects are central to the creation and perpetuation of poverty. Markets are not the solution. Indeed, as the evidence shows, they may well amplify the risks. Dreams of agricultural modernisation are just that and like the Helmand scheme before it, are foundering in their encounter with Afghanistan’s rural reality.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig


(*) Adam Pain has worked on Afghanistan’s rural economy since 2001, which he first visited in the last months of the Taleban era. This led to the establishment of the household lpanel inBadakhshan, Faryab, Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Laghman and Sari-i-pul and he led the three rounds of the  livelihood trajectory study between 2003 and 2016. He is a visiting professor at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Uppsala, and co-author of a recent textbook on rural development: A Pain and K Hansen, Rural Development (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).


(1) Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State.” Journal of American History 89:2 (2002), pp512–37.

(2) Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.

(3) Danielle Huot and Adam Pain, Afghanistan livelihood trajectories: life on the margins in Sar-i-Pul Province. SLRC/AREU Working Paper 54, 2017, p11.

(4) Danielle Huot, Adam Pain and Ihsanullah Ghafoori, Afghanistan livelihood trajectories in Afghanistan: evidence from three villages in Herat Province, SLRC/ AREU Working Paper 54, 2016, p21.

(5) Hout, Pain and Ghafoori, see FN 4, p38.

(6) Adam Pain and Danielle Huot,Life in the time of ‘late development: Livelihood Trajectories in Afghanistan 2002-2016, SLRC/AREU, 2017, p23.

(7) Pain/Huot, see FN 6, p27.

(8) Pain/Huot, see FN 6, p26.


Publication date: 27 August 2019

The full report can be downloaded here: Agricultural Policy in Afghanistan



Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Past as Prologue? What the parliamentary election results tell us about the September presidential election

Fri, 23/08/2019 - 03:57

To better understand the influences that will shape the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, guest author Scott Worden (with input from Colin Cookman)* analyses recent voter registration patterns, as well as voting patterns from the last parliamentary election, in October 2018. He found large differences between provinces and regions – in security conditions, rates of voter registration and the proportion of the population that cast their votes – meaning that some areas have a much greater potential influence on the outcome of the presidential election than others. This analysis seeks to provide a useful insight into which areas of the country may have greater relative weight in the 2019 presidential election and which may not.


Comparing past registration and voting patterns provides indications as to which areas of the country will have greater or less potential to influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. This is the case even though the risk of fraud will dominate election concerns: the impact of fraud depends significantly on a foundation of registration and turnout. As candidates and voters consider whether there is a ‘level playing field’ in the upcoming election, voting and voter registration patterns reveal several slopes in the landscape.

  • Based on parliamentary vote totals by province and region, the lowest proportion of registered voters showed up in the southeast (21%) and south (27%). Ironically, this is where registration was highest compared to population. In other words, many voters in these regions were registered, but comparatively few voted. The highest voter participation rates were in the Central Highlands and the north, where registration per capita was lowest, ie while relatively few registered, those that did were more likely to vote.
  • Overall, more votes were cast in ‘urban’ than rural areas during the parliamentary election. Candidates that appeal to urban voters are likely to have a structural advantage in the presidential race. A big question is whether urban voters have different candidate preferences than rural voters – or whether other factors like ethnicity, education, or age matter more.
  • More than half of the parliamentary votes were cast in seven out of 34 provinces, all of which contain large cities: Kabul province alone comprised 16.5 per cent of the total national vote, followed by Herat (9%), Nangrahar (8%), Balkh (6%), Takhar (5%), Baghlan (5%) and Kandahar (5%). Together, these provinces made up 53 per cent of the vote cast, although they contain only 47 per cent of the country’s population. Candidate preferences in these provinces may play a dominant role in choosing the next Afghan president, particularly if the contest is close.
  • The 15 lowest-voting provinces (Uruzgan, Zabul, Nuristan, Logar, Farah, Paktika, Nimruz, Panjshir, Kapisa, Badghis, Laghman, Paktia, Kunduz, Jowzjan and Wardak) together made up only 15 per cent of the national vote in the 2018 parliamentary election. If these 15 provinces had voted in proportion to their population, they would have comprised 29 per cent of the vote. Most of these provinces are significantly affected by the insurgency. In that sense, the Taleban significantly disrupted the parliamentary elections and have a lot of leverage to do so again in September.
  • The Central Highlands significantly over-performed in terms of votes per population in the parliamentary election. Daikundi cast 3.9 per cent of the parliamentary votes, but makes up only 1.4 per cent of the population – a ratio of 2.5 to 1. Bamyan had more than twice its share of votes cast compared to population, at a ratio of 2.1 to 1 (it has 1.9 per cent of the population, but cast 3.6 per cent of all votes). If participation rates are similar in the presidential election, the Central Highlands will represent a valuable vote block.
  • While fraud undoubtedly occurred during the parliamentary elections, it appears that the scale of ballot stuffing was lower than in past elections – helped by new biometric voter verification processes and polling station voter lists. None of the 2018 provincial level vote totals are demographically implausible. Yet with dozens of candidates running for each parliamentary seat, only a few hundred votes determined winners from losers. Large-scale fraud is more necessary in presidential elections, and high voter registration in some insecure areas preserves the risk for a return of mass fraud in the upcoming vote.
  • The biggest wildcards in the presidential election are the east and southeast. Voting for the parliamentary election there was anaemic, with only 569,000 votes or 16 per cent of the total votes cast (although these regions have around 28 per cent of the registered voters). The potential vote is much larger. Over 40 per cent of the population in these two regions registered to vote, equalling 23 per cent of total registration in the country and comprising a maximum potential two million votes. If turnout significantly increases between 2018 and 2019, this could be the biggest vote block in the presidential election.

The difficulty of electoral predictions

Electoral predictions are a dismal science in Afghanistan – both because of widely shifting political preferences and the murky data that underlies all planning and prediction efforts. To better understand the influences that will shape the presidential election, this report examines both where voters are registered and where votes were cast in the October 2018 parliamentary elections. This combined information offers an indication of which vote banks may be more potent in the upcoming presidential election.

Significant differences in security across the country have created an uneven landscape for voter participation and this will affect results. A new voter registration system, implemented in the run-up to the 2018 election, has placed further limits on who can vote, as will be seen below.

Pre-election polling would normally provide the means for predictive analysis based on voter populations. But there are few reliable political polls in Afghanistan and it is difficult to separate likely voters from the general population when creating a polling sample population. In 2014, the few public polls of presidential election preferences were met with accusations that the pollsters were biased and, in one case, threats against the international organisation conducting the poll.

The next best thing, therefore, is to examine geographic differences in voter participation, which can indicate where candidates may have political advantages. This is particularly relevant since ethnicity is probably the most salient feature of politics in Afghanistan right now and in many areas ethnicity correlates strongly with geography. The second round of the 2014 election showed that Abdullah won more votes in non-Pashtun areas and Ghani won the most votes in Pashtun areas, including in areas that did not overwhelmingly vote for him in the first round.

Generally speaking, Pashtun populations are more concentrated in the southern and eastern regions bordering Pakistan; Tajik populations are generally higher in the north, west and northeast; Hazara populations are generally higher in the Central Highlands; and Uzbek populations higher in a few northern provinces surrounding Jowzjan. Kabul province is probably the most ethnically diverse and has the largest share of population of any province – an estimated 16 per cent of the national total.

In addition to ethnicity, candidates and vice presidents will likely attract more supporters from provinces where they grew up or have tribal affiliations. Piecing this puzzle together for a particular presidential ticket is beyond the scope of this report. But the data here can be applied by others to estimate where vote blocs are stronger and weaker.


The electoral data analysed in this report has been taken from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) website. The final results of the parliamentary vote were posted station by station here and laboriously downloaded by Colin Cookman (accessible as a downloadable data file here). Cookman’s data site enables comparisons of voting and registration at the polling centre level, as well as past population estimates at the district level.

Prior to the 2018 elections, the IEC published a preliminary set of voter registration figures by province here. Although never publicly released, the IEC subsequently updated its final pre-election voter registration figures after a brief clean-up process in early October 2018 to remove duplicates and other erroneous registration. That final voter registration list was obtained from an election observer and used for calculations in Cookman’s electoral dataset.

Population figures are taken from the Central Statistics Office’s (CSO) published population dataset for 2018-19. CSO population statistics are the official source used by the government and the IEC, although historically they have been lower than other estimates (such as Flowminder, iMMAP and LandScan, which are satellite-based estimates). If the CSO population estimates are indeed lower than the actual population figures, it means that an even smaller share of the population has registered and voted than cited in this report.

For the purpose of this report, the voting patterns in the 2018 parliamentary election are treated as a ‘floor’ for the presidential election, on the assumption that at least most of those who voted in the parliamentary election will do so again for the presidential vote – and more will probably do so. The voter registration patterns, whose numbers include ‘top-up’ registration this year, are considered the ‘ceiling’ for this report, since only those who have registered will be able to vote.

National parliamentary election participation trends

An analysis of the 2018 parliamentary vote shows a historically-low turnout and significant differences in turnout between the provinces. It also showed unequal voter registration.

Low turnout in the 2018 parliamentary election

The overarching story of the 2018 parliamentary elections is one of historically-low turnout according to every metric. Based on the IEC’s final results, fewer valid votes were cast than in any previous election, both in absolute terms (3.6 million vs 4.2 million in 2010) and as a percentage of the population (11% vs 17%). Fewer polling locations were open and there were fewer reported results than ever before (4,600 vs 5,200 polling centres in the 2014 presidential election). More districts saw no voting than ever before (51 out of the 421 districts and urban centres that the IEC uses for its polling centre plan).1 Also, for the first time, an entire province had no election (Ghazni, which includes 19 of the 51 districts mentioned above). In previous elections, Ghazni cast respectively 275,000 (second round of the 2014 presidential election) and 179,000 votes (2010 parliamentary election).

It is difficult to say whether this low turnout in the parliamentary election will be repeated in the presidential election because the political dynamics are different. In parliamentary elections, local candidates and local rivalries can inspire people to vote to address local patronage demands. Presidential politics are more consequential for the nation, but can seem more remote to local constituents. This year’s presidential election will be the first not to have a local component in the form of provincial council elections since 2004. That ‘standalone’ presidential election was marked out by high levels of participation, but it took place under unique transitional circumstances and with far better, countrywide better security; it cannot be a template for what will happen this year. The lack of a local poll alongside the presidential ballot in September, some argue, means the election will attract fewer voters.

With these factors in mind, the overall low turnout in 2018 can be considered as a floor of participation that illustrates a ‘worst case scenario’ for voting participation in the presidential election.

Provincial winners and losers in the 2018 parliamentary election

There was wide variation in relative participation – votes per capita – between the provinces in 2018. Overall, the parliamentary election saw more votes per capita in the Central Highlands and fewer in the south, southeast and east. Daikundi, for example, had 132,000 votes recorded in 2018 (26 per cent of its estimated 499,000 population), while, combined, Paktia, Paktika and Khost cast 159,000 votes (just eight per cent of its estimated combined 1,955,000 population). Kandahar province cast 157,000 votes, which was only 11 per cent of its estimated population. Only 12,000 of Uruzgan’s 420,000 citizens voted in the parliamentary election – less than three per cent. Translated into a nationwide election, this would suggest that areas with high insecurity and a largely rural population would be significantly under-represented in terms of the vote.

Different levels of access to voting is significant because geographic regions have distinct political characteristics that may favour some candidates over others. Therefore, suppression of the vote in one area will tilt the playing field toward others. The constitution addresses this problem for the parliament by requiring that seats are allocated to provinces proportional to their population – thus seeking to ensure that voters in different provinces are represented in relatively equal proportions in the national legislature. In the presidential election, however, the whole nation is one constituency and all votes are weighted equally. Therefore, a province or region with more voters registered compared to its population, potentially has a greater influence on who becomes president.

To illustrate the case, in the parliamentary election, the number of votes in Uruzgan amounted to 0.3 per cent of the total number of votes cast in the country, whereas the Uruzgan population is 1.3 per cent of the national total and Uruzgan has 1.2 per cent of the seats in parliament. If this pattern were repeated in the presidential election, the influence of Uruzgan citizens in choosing the President would be roughly four times less than their population would suggest. Kunduz and Helmand are also highly insecure and also significantly under-performed on a per capita basis in the 2018 election. Together, they cast 128,000 votes, amounting to 3.8 per cent of the national total, whereas their combined population is 8.7 per cent of the national total and their parliamentary seats 6.8 per cent of the total.

While small and insecure provinces will likely have reduced influence in the presidential election, several large and more urbanized provinces will likely dominate the national presidential vote. A majority (53 per cent) of the votes cast in the 2018 parliamentary election were from seven out of 34 provinces: Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Nangrahar, Takhar, Badakhshan and Kandahar, which contain only 47 per cent of the population.

Greater urban participation

Looking more closely at the population map, one of the most salient distinctions between the 2018 election and past elections is a shift toward more ‘urban’ participation. In the 2010 parliamentary election, districts that contained a provincial capital (in most cases, the largest city in the province) contributed 30 per cent of the final vote, in line with their estimated 30 per cent share of the national population. In 2018, 38 per cent of the final vote was cast in districts containing the provincial capital, which were estimated, by then, to comprise around 32 per cent of the population.2Thus, in 2018 these urban voters had a greater influence over results than more rural areas.

At the provincial level, there is more variation and there are some extreme outliers. In Farah, 87 per cent of votes came from the capital district (21,952 of 25,200 votes for the whole province). Yet the Afghan Central Statistics Office estimates the capital district has only 23 per cent of the population (123,135 people out of a total provincial population of 543,257.) Farah, Helmand, Jowzjan and Zabul all had at least 40 per cent more of the vote coming from capital districts than the percentage of population that lives there. It is notable that each of these provinces has high levels of Taleban control outside the capital, which could explain the relative lack of votes from those districts.

Another way to measure ‘urban’ versus ‘rural’ voting influence is to look at polling centres that are closest together, based on IEC GPS data (close proximity indicates they are located in cities or villages with higher population densities) and to compare them to polling centres that have the greatest distance between them (indicating a more rural and sparse population). Overall, 41 per cent of the vote in the country was cast in the top 25 per cent most densely-concentrated polling centres. Only 16 per cent of votes were cast in the bottom 25 per cent of polling centres, that are furthest apart.

Unequal voter registration

Since the adoption of the 2018 Electoral Law, eligible citizens can only vote in the specific polling centre where they registered prior to the election. Therefore, voter registration data paints a clear picture of the maximum  vote that may occur in a given area during the presidential election.

Voter registration figures for the 2018 election indicated that only 60 per cent of estimated eligible voters (Afghan citizens age 18 or older) registered to vote (see also this AAN dispatch).3

Within that low figure, there were large disparities between provinces and regions. In seven provinces, less than 40 per cent of the estimated eligible population was registered; 43 districts had no registration at all (including all 19 districts in Ghazni, where in 2018, no election was held) and; 16 districts conducted voter registration, but no women registered to vote. The least represented provinces were Farah (6% of those over 18), Uruzgan (7%), Kunduz (8%) and Badghis (8%). Helmand, Logar and Wardak are also areas of high insecurity and had below average voter registration. Jowzjan, one of the provinces where First Vice President Dostum has ‘delivered’ the vote in previous elections to Hamed Karzai and then Ashraf Ghani, also significantly under-performed in voter registration, with only eight per cent of those of voting age registering. In neighbouring Sar-e Pul, only nine per cent registered.4  The fall in registration rates in some northern provinces due to the Taleban capture of large areas was so marked that the United Nations Secretary General in his 10 September 2018 report on Afghanistan to the General Assembly highlighted the “discontent” there and said that “some opposition figures accused the Government of a deliberate plot to disenfranchise northern communities.” (See also AAN reporting) on registration and voting in Faryab in 2018.)

Registration as a percentage of CSO population estimates was highest in the Central Highlands and the east. The eastern provinces of Nangrahar, Nuristan, Khost and Kunar also significantly exceeded the national voter registration average. Bamyan, Daikundi and Ghor in the Central Highlands registered above average as well. Kandahar in the south and Baghlan in the north were also in the top ten in of registration rates.

It should be noted that there were several strong indicators of fake registrations in insecure provinces such as Kandahar and Paktia (described in this AAN guest analysis). In Paktia, for instance, registration exceeded the estimated voting age population by five per cent. Even if the population estimates are inaccurate, this is such an extreme result that some form of fraud is indicated because that would mean 100% registration occurred in a province with significant security obstacles – well above national averages and rates in developed democracies.

Regardless of fraud, areas that have high registration numbers, like many southeastern provinces, have a high potential influence in the presidential election. Areas with low registration numbers, as in several southern provinces, are capped in the number of votes they are able to cast.

New voter registration for 2019

In August 2019, the IEC released new provincial voter registration figures, following a month-long ‘top-up’ exercise aimed at registering or updating voter rolls since the parliamentary elections last autumn. According to these figures, this brought the 2019 voter registration to 9.6 million, which includes 235,000 registrants in Ghazni – where no registration was conducted in 2018. Setting Ghazni aside, this roughly 565,000 increase from 2018 registration surpasses an earlier press-release that claimed only 317,395 new voters had been registered in the process, not including voters in Ghazni. Since then, IEC officials also stated that they had removed approximately 400,000 duplicate or erroneous voter registrations from the national list. The IEC has not yet reconciled these discrepancies.

Comparing the detailed 2019 consolidated voter registration numbers with the 2018 numbers shows that several provinces gained considerably more than others. Several small and/or insecure provinces, including Nuristan (35%), Faryab (16%), Badghis (16%), , Paktika (14%), Kunduz (13%), and Uruzgan (14%) saw the largest percentage increases in voter registration between 2018 and 2019 – although in some cases like Nuristan, this was from a low baseline and the absolute number of voter registrations involved is not that large at the national scale. Kabul, Nangarhar, Kandahar, Herat, and Faryab saw the largest net changes. These five provinces collectively added 207,000 votes to their 2018 voter registration. Within these provinces, the majority of that increase coming from polling centres in their capital districts, increasing the power of urban voting in the presidential election.

Voter registration as a ceiling on participation

As difficult as it is to predict where people will vote, it is easier to determine where people will not vote.

First, people will not be able to vote in areas where voter registration was unavailable Out of the known universe of roughly 7,400 polling centres from past elections, only 5,106 opened for registration, the deficit largely due to insecurity. Out of these, only 5,066 had registration data posted on the IEC website (representing 69 per cent of the ideal coverage). Overall, 43 out of 421 districts had no registered voters in the 2018 election, including the 19 districts in Ghazni. Moreover, during 2019, top-up voter registration was largely limited to district centres – although voters who made it to a district centre could choose any polling centre in the province to vote in. This meant that voters in more remote areas faced greater challenges to register due to a lack of affordable or safe transport and, for women, cultural norms that restrict them from traveling.

Second, people cannot vote if they chose not to register even where there was access. With a relatively short time to register in 2018 and almost no public outreach, participation was low even in areas that were accessible and secure. In Kabul province, for example, only 32 per cent of the estimated eligible voters registered. In very safe Bamyan province, only 30 per cent registered (although here there were also complaints that the IEC did not open enough registration sites). Choosing not to register is an individual voter’s choice. But cumulatively, it affects the size of voting blocs that candidates hope to draw on for electoral support.

Third, during the 2018 election, many poling centres that planned to open on polling day were closed – largely due to poor security but also administrative and staffing problems. Of the roughly 5,100 polling centres that had registered voters, only approximately 4,600 locations actually opened based on reports of valid results. Given that people are required to vote in the centre where they registered, closing a polling centre where registration occurred bars those citizens from voting.5

The consequences of uneven representation

All this means that, even if one assumes maximum participation, several provinces and regions will have more opportunity to vote than others. The lowest registration rates per population tended to occur in areas with a more active insurgency. Each of these provinces will have a significant structural disadvantage when it comes to choosing the next president.

Looking at the registration ceilings, if the same proportions of registered voters turn out in all provinces in the presidential election as they did in the parliamentary election, the east and southeast have the greatest advantage, whereas the south, west and north will have the lowest participation. This means that candidates relying on votes from the north, south and west are at a structural disadvantage when it comes to getting out the vote.

The above graph shows the difference between a province’s share of the national population and its share of national voter registration. If each province has the same voter turnout rates in the presidential election, the provinces on the left would have more influence on the choice of a president than their population would indicate. Provinces on the right would have less influence than their population would indicate.



This graph illustrates the range of potential voter participation in the presidential election by province. The top line shows per-capita registration, which is effectively a ceiling of votes that may be cast. The bottom line shows the percentage of the population that actually voted in the 2018 parliamentary election. Provinces on the left side of the scale have the most uncertain vote banks. Provinces on the right already maximised their opportunities to vote in the 2018 vote.

Based on parliamentary vote totals by province and region, the lowest proportion of registered voters showed up in the southeast (21%) and south (27%) – ironically, where registration was highest. In other words, relatively-speaking, many voters in these regions registered, but comparatively few voted. The highest voter participation rates were in the Central Highlands and the north, where registration was lowest. Both the north and the west made up for their relatively low registration rates with relatively high participation, ie while relatively few registered, those that did were more likely to vote. Jowzjan had 59 per cent of registered voter turnout and Herat had 60 per cent. Badakhshan, Balkh, Parwan, Baghlan, Panjshir and Samangan were all above the national average.

There may be several reasons for the contrast between voter registration rates and voting rates. Security conditions may have changed in the six months between registration and voting. Enthusiasm for registering to vote may be greater than the appeal of voting for particular candidates, if a person does not see a favourite they like.

Fraud is another possibility. It is possible that areas with fraudulent registration amassed potential vote banks that were not used in the parliamentary election – either because the last minute introduction of biometric voter verification upset ballot stuffing plans, or because fraudulent registration was intended to be used for presidential elections and not the parliamentary elections. If this last theory is true, then extra vigilance is needed to prevent fraud in areas that have high registration and low parliamentary voting.

Ultimately, whether a particular province or region’s electorate will make the most of the possibilities provided by its level of registration is the most difficult question to answer and relies on a combination of candidate campaign mobilisation and prevailing security conditions. The turnout for the parliamentary elections may, however, provide some important clues.


* Scott Worden is Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programmes for the US Institute of Peace. He served as an international member of the Electoral Complaints Commission during the 2009 Afghanistan presidential elections.


(1) See attached annex listing the 51 districts where there was no registration.

(2) The 2018 figures are derived from this summary table. (specifically the national total rows for the variables “capital_district_votes_pct” and “capital_pop_pct_CSO_18_19”). The 2010 population data was calculated based on the CSO’s 2010-11 population estimate, accessible by Internet Archive here.

(3) The IEC registered 8.8 million voters for the 2018 election. Election officials have historically estimated that around 50 per cent of the population is 18 years or older, and therefore eligible to register to vote. The most recent statistics from the CSO now estimate that 54% of the population (17.4 million people) is under 18. Therefore, if the national population is approximately 32.2 million (according to current CSO data for 2019), then the estimated eligible voter population is around 14.8 million, meaning that 40 per cent of potentially eligible voters had not registered and were not be able to vote in 2019.

(4) Population / registration figures by province are included on this constituency summary table, which is also the source of the regional participation calculations in the following sections. Registration data by polling center (not rolled up into district-level in the file, but that’s where these no-registration figures came from) is here (checked against the district list here).

(5) In the 2018 election, there were also eight districts that had collectively registered 94,000 voters, but had no votes recorded on election day. The overall population of these 51 districts was 2.9 million (representing approximately 1.45 million potentially eligible voters).




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