War & Peace

Finding Business Opportunity in Conflict: Shopkeepers, Taleban and the political economy of Andar district


Mirai Bazaar, Andar District, Ghazni Province - March 2013. Photo: Fazal Muzhary

Mirai Bazaar, Andar District, Ghazni Province - March 2013. Photo: Fazal Muzhary

Even in times of war, people still need to buy food and other essentials and shopkeepers still need to sell. But when frontlines shift and military masters change – due to insurgency, uprising or rising government power – how can shopkeepers react to try to survive the situation? Indeed, how can they try to find benefit or manipulate frontlines and road closures to their advantage? AAN researcher Fazal Muzhary has been collecting the stories of shoppers and shopkeepers in the Andar district of Ghazni, especially those living in Taleban-controlled territory, and finding how the political economy of a district can shift during conflict.

In 2009, Taleban fighters closed down the main bazaar in Mirai, Andar’s district centre, ahead of the elections (see here). They said the closure would only be for the election day to stop people from voting. However, the bazaar never completely reopened. Some shops would occasionally open for people living in nearby villages and government officials living in the district centre, but generally, custom fell away. Most of the bazaar has now been closed for more than five years. Shops that had been under construction remain unfinished and abandoned. This has been a significant set-back for Mirai, which had seen a rapid expansion in the last years of the Taleban regime and early years of President Hamed Karzai’s government (between 1998 and 2004).

Mirai and Andar generally are important: the district lies on the Kabul-Kandahar highway and the Taleban have used it as a place to launch attacks on military convoys and other targets; it is also on one of the gateways to Ghazni city. For Mirai, even before the 2009 elections and the closure of the bazaar, there had already been economic decline.(1) This was not just due to the struggle for control over the area between Taleban and government forces, but also rivalries between local businessmen. The prolonged conflict in the area provided some locals with a cover to settle old scores and new blood feuds and for manipulative business dealings. Merchants running shops in villages in Taleban-controlled areas, without even being pressured by the Taleban, provided the insurgents with free fuel and food. In return, these traders expected, and in some cases even encouraged, the Taleban to instigate insecurity and so divert customers to their shops and make it too dangerous for residents to go to the bazaars in the main towns of the district, such as Mirai.

These arrangements were often successful and benefitted both these particular shopkeepers and the Taleban. They also presented the insurgents with an opportunity to show off their power and limit access to the main government-controlled population centres. They were able to strategically divert business to towns or shops under their influence in return for in-kind and financial support from the shopkeepers. The Taleban impact on local communities, therefore, has not just been through directly bringing insecurity, but also through affecting the political economy.

The district centre of Mirai was not the only bazaar which the Taleban have stopped access to. They also effectively shut down the bazaar in the town of Mullah Noh Baba (named after a local shrine) which lies on the Kabul–Kandahar section of Highway One, which cuts through the far west part of Andar district (more of which later).

The Andar Way Of Advancing Business In Taleban-controlled Areas

 One shopkeeper to benefit from the shutting of the Mirai bazaar was Haji M*, who lives in the village of Nazarwal, about eight kilometres to the south of Mirai. Local villagers told AAN he had supported Taleban fighters when they first returned to the area in the summer of 2004 by giving them fuel for their motorbikes and top-up cards for their mobile phones. Locals appreciated what they called his generosity in providing land for a madrassa and some living expenses to students. Even people in remote villages in the north and eastern parts of the district would talk about how popular and thriving the business was in the shop of Haji M’s. Since 2004, it had grown from being a small village shop to the largest general store in the area.

As the local community praised Haji M’s generosity, he would proudly tell them he could meet most of their demands and they should not bother traveling to Mirai for their purchases. He would even boast how he alone had managed to close down the Mirai bazaar because his store was so good. However, in reality, all of his success was due to the presence of the Taleban fighters in the area and their assistance in manipulating the economic environment. Haji M encouraged the Taleban to block the road to Mirai to prevent villagers going there, and to tell them to use local shops instead. The majority of local villagers had no choice but to go to his store.

However, in late June 2012, the Taleban were pushed out of Haji M’s village in the wake of the 2012 ‘Andar uprising’ which saw some central areas of Andar change hands (the uprising was sold by the government as a ‘popular uprising’, but was actually more complex and murkier, involving Hezb-e Islami and the creation of a (rather predatory) Afghan Local Police (ALP) force. AAN tried to uncover the complexities in a serious of reports (see here, here and here).

With the uprising, Haji M lost his business monopoly, as the Taleban were no longer able to control the movement of the villagers. It was now supporters of the uprising (in Pashto referred to as patsunian) – some of whom later became members of the ALP, while others continued to fight the Taleban independently – who were now asking Haji M to provide them with free fuel. When he refused, they arrested him and took him to their security check post nearby, where he was beaten and accused of supporting the Taleban. A relative of Haji M told AAN the patsunian asked the businessman for money and when he refused to pay, they beat him again. Other sources familiar with the incident stated that the patsunian also questioned Haji M about how and why he had been able to afford to provide free fuel and monetary support to Taleban, but deny the same assistance to the uprising. According to local villagers, the supporters of the uprising were trying to make Haji M confess that he had assisted the Taleban because support their aims and beliefs.

Access to Mirai Remains Problematic

The 2012 uprising initially raised hopes among the local population that Andar district centre bazaar in Mirai would be reopened, but these hopes were rapidly crushed by the supporters of the uprising themselves. At first, when the ALP and patsunian took control of the villages that used to be in Taleban hands, several stores reopened and locals started to again travel to Mirai to do their shopping. In the first year of the ALP’s presence in Mirai, the bazaar functioned normally and only in a few cases did the ALP question shopkeepers from Taleban-controlled areas about their links to the Taleban.

However, about a year later, the ALP turned into an abusive force. Its fighters started harassing both customers and shopkeepers, who for the most part lived in the Taleban-controlled villages. The ALP were trying to find additional resources to sustain themselves because they were reportedly no longer satisfied with the limited support they received from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and international military forces. With harassment on the rise, shops were forced to close again as the number of shoppers dwindled.

Coming back to Haji M: when the ALP finally released him days after his arrest in 2012, he decided to leave Nazarwal and move to the northern part of the district, which was still controlled by the Taleban. The ALP members kept his shop closed for two years and allowed most of his stock to spoil. In 2014, he decided to return to his village and restart his business. Although the ALP did not prevent him from returning and did allow him to reopen his store, his business has never returned to the same level as when the area was under Taleban control.

Scenarios of Other Affected Businessmen

About seven kilometres to the west of Mirai, in Alizai village, we find another shopkeeper, Nabi*, also assisting Taleban fighters in exchange for their support for his business. Unlike Nazarwal village, Alizai has remained under control of the Taleban. Nabi has been providing top-up cards, fuel and food to the Taleban fighters since they first returned to his area in early 2004, mainly supporting them in exchange for their blocking the road to the Mirai bazaar and essentially forcing locals to come to his shop. Over time, however, Alizai village became the main base of a group of Taleban fighters in the area and therefore also the target of several night raids and military operations by ISAF soldiers and US Special Forces. Although business declined during the period of the night raids and military operations. Alizai village remained the primary market for the villages in the surrounding area, therefore allowing Nabi to continue to benefit from his arrangement with the Taleban in the longer run.

Other businessmen have not been so lucky – or so canny. One man, a vet who had been operating in the Mirai bazaar since the 1990s, had to close his business when the Taleban closed the bazaar in 2009. He did not dare reopen his practice because the Taleban had warned all shopkeepers not to return to the Mirai bazaar. Even if the vet had managed to reopen his practice, the majority of his customers would still have been too afraid to travel to Mirai. The vet, along with other businessmen and service providers, cut their losses and moved their shops and practice to a bazaar in the town of Chardiwal, about six kilometres to the east of Mirai along the Ghazni-Paktika road. Chardiwal, unlike Mirai, does not have any government officials in residence and has been under Taleban control since 2009. Chardiwal presented a good alternative for most locals who used to frequent the Mirai bazaar and therefore also for many businessmen. Having to switch business to another bazaar, however, came at some cost, in terms of moving stock, cultivating a new customer base and, in some cases, competing with other similar businesses already operating.

A similar dynamic played out in the case of Mullah Noh Baba, where the town’s virtual closure due to frequent attacks on NATO supply convoys along the Kabul–Kandahar highway led to a rival bazaar in nearby Kalakhel experiencing a boom and expansion. It is located in a Taleban-controlled area. As the road through Mullah Noh Baba continued to be the focus of Taleban attacks, local customers, who had always been caught up in the crossfire between Taleban fighters and government forces, felt it was safer to go to Kalakhel village. While the lack of security in Mullah Noh Baba was a push factor, the merchants of Kalakhel also actively promoted their bazaar as a safe alternative.

According to a doctor who was working in a nearby clinic, the main instigator behind the final closure of the Mullah Noh Baba bazaar was a merchant in Kalakhel who provided fuel, top-up cards and shelter to the Taleban fighters. Zaman* who is one of the richest men in the area and owns a large store in Kalakhel reportedly received support from the Taleban in diverting customers. The former small town of Kalakhel has been thriving since the closure of Mullah Noh Baba bazaar with locals opening several new stores, pharmacies and car workshops in order to meet the demands of the new customers.

We see then shopkeepers like Zaman from Kalakhel village and Nabi from Alizai village, both areas still controlled by the Taleban, able to manipulate the security situation to ‘grow’ their businesses at the expense of shopkeepers in government-controlled areas. However, as seen in the case of Haji M, Taleban support can also ruin a businessman if and when pro-government forces retake his particular area.

ALP Rent-Seeking Behaviour

The conflict between the insurgency and the government in Andar has not been the only factor influencing the local economy as the ALP has also learned how to profit from the local communities.

In the early days of the ‘Andar uprising’, supporters would only ask locals in the villages under their control either to provide food or pay money. However they later started to arrest suspected people or people coming from Taleban-controlled villages to the bazaar and would then release them for money. (For more, see previous AAN dispatches: here and here)

In late May 2014, for example, a local Taleban commander, Rohullah, who had supported the ‘uprising’ and later joined the ALP, arrested Mullah Faiz Muhammad from Tut village, which is in the far southeast of Andar district, when he visited Mirai, accusing him of supporting the Taleban. Commander Rohullah detained and beat the mullah; he was able to later buy his freedom for 180,000 Pakistani rupees, the equivalent of 1,800 US dollars. In early June of the same year, ALP members detained another mullah in Mirai, the imam of a local mosque, under the pretext of interrogating him, again about his alleged relations with the Taleban. Such detentions and extorted payments for release resulted in a widespread frustration among locals, especially after customers, concerned about these developments, stopped coming to the bazaar. Shopkeepers in the Mirai bazaar once again decided to close their remaining businesses.

A local businessman also related to AAN how Chardiwal, which represented an alternative to Mirai, also saw a similar fate due to continuous fighting between the Taleban and the ALP. Since early 2014, Chardiwal bazaar has seen several attacks from the Taleban on ALP posts nearby and on Afghan government supply convoys passing through the town. These attacks stopped locals shopping in the bazaar. At the same time, ALP members would occasionally come to the town and arrest anyone they said they suspected of working with the Taleban. Sometimes they just detained individuals for ransom –some arrested individuals were reportedly killed when their families were not able to pay up, for example, according to a shopkeeper in Chardiwal from Shamshai village, on 3 September 2014, ALP members arrested an 18-year-old boy from Shamshai on charges of spying for the Taleban and later killed him. Such incidents left the local population upset and scared as they felt these arbitrary detentions could happen to anyone.

According to a local pharmacist, the number of customers from the villages in the area coming to Chardiwal had increased steadily between 2009 and 2013. Simultaneously, the rents for shops rose from 300 US dollars to 600 US dollars per year. However, as a result of the Taleban attacks on the Afghan National Army (ANA) and ALP and the predatory behaviour of ALP fighters, customers soon decided to also no longer go to Chardiwal. By this time they had abandoned both Mirai and Chardiwal. Instead, they chose to shop in the small town of Ibrahimzi, which is about six kilometres to the northeast of Chardiwal and twelve kilometres to the northeast of Mirai. Locals, discussing this with AAN, speculated about whether the pressure on them to go to Ibrahimzi had also been brought about by businessmen there supporting Taleban fighters to persuade them to ‘divert’ business. Several sources in Chardiwal, however, said the shift was mostly down to the bad behaviour of the local ALP. Since mid-September 2015, Chardiwal has returned to its previous status as the main bazaar town in the area because the ALP and ANA soldiers, as well as the Taleban fighters, have become less prominent.

Politics, security, economy

The various cases from Andar district indicate that areas are not always just contested because of the desire to control territory, but that secondary aspects such as control over the local economy can be equally important. Although the dynamics noted above focus primarily on political and security dynamics between the Taleban, and the government and ALP, it is the businessmen and the local communities who are primarily affected by the changes with regard to shifting access to particular bazaars. While certain businessmen have been able to benefit from the presence of the Taleban, the majority of merchants and especially customers have had to bear an added burden. It costs time and money for both traders and customers to travel to a new bazaar, given that prices are often higher and transport costs have to be factored in. The presence of the ALP and its activities have further victimised local residents, not just directly, but also in terms of the market place. When considering the deteriorating security situation in other parts of the country, one can only wonder if similar trends can be found elsewhere in Afghanistan and what could be done to prevent local economies from being hijacked by conflict actors or manipulative businessmen.

* Name changed for the protection of the individual.

 

(1) According Christoph Reuter and Borhan Younus (“The Return of the Taliban in Andar District: Ghazni,” in Giustozzi, Antonio (ed), Decoding the New Taliban: insights from the Afghan field, Hurst & Co: London, 2009, p204-6), Andar saw its first Taleban attacks in 2003, relatively early on in the insurgency. As more attacks took place in Andar and elsewhere in Ghazni province, the reaction of the government armed forces become increasingly more violent and indiscriminate, as “the government reacted in the usual way, capturing anyone they found near the attack site. … When the Taliban attacks intensified in the spring of 2005, men of former ethnic Tajik militias from north and northeastern Afghanistan, now incorporated in police and army, were sent into the area to curb the Taliban insurgency. This initiative curbed the insurgents’ activities somewhat, but the public turned further against the government.”

During search operations, government forces also looted money and valuables in reaction to Taliban attacks on the ANSF. “In Mirai village, virtually the backyard of the district headquarters, where the militias-turned-security forces were based, they sawed the people’s grape vines. This was widely considered as a revenge action in the heart of Taliban land by former Northern militias, whose gardens and grape orchards were destroyed in the same way by the Taliban in the late 1990s (in Shamali).”

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