War & Peace

Unheeded Warnings (2): Ghazni city as vulnerable to Taleban as before


One of the three civilian cars that were destroyed in a night raid on 30 November 2018 in Alizai village of Andar district. Photo: Author/2018

One of three civilian cars that locals said were destroyed in a night raid on 30 November 2018 in Alizai village of Andar district. Photo: Author/2018

The Taleban may have been pushed back out of Ghazni city after their five-day siege in August, but they have continued to expand into new territory around the city. They now have full control of eight districts in Ghazni province. They control the Ghazni-Paktika highway and continue to put pressure on the Kabul-Kandahar highway. In this, the second of a two-part series, AAN’s Fazal Muzhary, who visited Ghazni before the August attack and several times since (and with input from Ali Yawar Adili), finds the city still vulnerable to another Taleban attack. An upsurge in night raids and airstrikes has limited Taleban movement, but also caused civilian casualties and impelled some people to leave their villages. As yet, these have had no impact on the Taleban’s control of territory in this strategic province.

The first part in this mini-series, “Unheeded Warnings (1): Looking back at the Taleban attack on Ghazni” can be read here

Increasing Taleban control of the districts

Levels of anxiety among the inhabitants of Ghazni city that the Taleban will attack again has not diminished in the four months since the insurgents’ onslaught in August. People from various neighbourhoods, such as Bazazi, the Kandahar bus stand, Gudali, Pashtunabad, Qala-ye Jawz, Rauza and the Ali Lala Saheb all described to AAN how they had lost confidence in their government’s ability to protect them. They have seen that the government has redeployed Afghan National Police (ANP) to only some of the security posts on the outskirts of the city that were taken over or destroyed by the Taleban in August 2018. Meanwhile, they have also watched with dread as the Taleban have expanded their control over several more districts in the province, including ones close to the city.

Residents’ views are shared by elected representatives and officials from the province. MP Abdul Qayum Sajjadi, for example, warned of a possible second fall of Ghazni in a statement that he shared on Facebook on 15 October 2018. He urged President Ashraf Ghani to order an anti-Taleban clearing operation in the province (see his remarks here in Dari).

Speaking at the ceremony to introduce a new provincial police chief on 23 October, governor Wahidullah Kalimzai raised his concerns that the war “was still intensifying, the security forces stepping back and the Taleban are tightening their siege of Ghazni city” (more about this below).

According to provincial council member Abdul Bari Shelgarai (quoted here), in September the Taleban had full control of six of Ghazni’s 19 districts – Deh Yak, Khwaja Omari, Ajristan, Jaghatu, Jaghatu and Khogyani– as well as the central district, with the exception of Ghazni city itself (see Ghazni’s profile here here),

The governor’s spokesman, Aref Nuri (quoted in the same news report), played down the situation and claimed the Taleban controlled only three districts, namely Khwaja Omari, Ajristan and Nawa. However, Nuri admitted to AAN that the government considered districts to be under government control if government security forces were present somewhere in the district, even if their presence was limited to only a few security posts. He insisted the government had the ability to retake these three districts, but there were “not enough forces” to protect territory once they were recaptured.

On 20 September, the Taleban claimed they had captured another district in the province, Abband, on the main Kabul-Kandahar highway about 76 kilometres south of Ghazni city. Shelgarai told AAN the district had not fallen to the Taleban and that the police were able to hold the attackers back. He added, however, that the Taleban remained in control of most areas of the district.

By early November, the number of districts definitely in Taleban hands, ie with the insurgents controlling the district centre and no government officials present, had increased further – to eight. The Taleban took complete control of Andar (apart from two military bases) on 15 October and Khugyani on 5 November (see this Pajhwok report, and other reports here and here).  On the day Andar fell, the Afghan National Police (ANP) unit stationed in the district compound abandoned their position and moved to a nearby military base in the Chahrdiwal area. The ANA also has control over another military base in Senai village of the district. The ANA are currently holding a purely defensive position in both. Even so, in a phone interview with AAN, Nuri insisted the government still controlled Andar, even though, as the author has witnessed, Taleban fighters are now in the district compound, which had been controlled by government forces in late October 2018. (More detail on the situation in Andar can be found below.)

Elsewhere in Ghazni province, the insurgents attacked the district centres of Jaghori and Malestan in late October 2018 and came close to capturing both on 7 and 10 November. The attacks set off mass displacement and fears that the Taleban might even push further north into the Hazara-inhabited districts of Maidan-Wardak province (more detail in these AAN analyses, here and here).

The Taleban have since been repelled from both districts, but they continue to control major transport routes through Qarabagh, Nawur and Gilan districts. Although most schools in the two districts, which had closed following the Taleban attack, have now reopened for this year’s final exams, some remain closed, especially in areas of Jaghori bordering Gilan and Muqur in Ghazni and Khak-e Afghan in Zabul provinces. IDPs have been reluctant to return to these places after the Taleban blocked roads leading to the two border districts on 9 December (here).

On 18 November, the Ministry of Interior announced it [sic] would establish two territorial army companies (tolai) and mobilise 600 locals within the framework of public uprising forces in the Jaghori and Malestan, to maintain security in their areas. The Territorial Army is a new local defence force under the command of the Ministry of Defence, while uprising forces are supposedly spontaneous rebellions organised by locals against the insurgency, generally funded and often organised by the National Directorate of Security (NDS). Neither fall under the Ministry of Interior’s remit. Local sources, including a district security official who asked not to be named, told AAN that the Taleban had ordered local people in Jaghori to ask the new government security forces dispatched to the area after the attack to leave the district. They had also ordered the people not to allow the formation of uprising forces or territorial army units in their district.

The situation in Ghazni city

As for the provincial capital, the Taleban are maintaining a considerable presence in many areas along the outskirts of the city. AAN spoke to several local residents including a driver, Esmatullah, who said he and other locals had seen Taleban in the Qala-ye Mirai area, no more than three kilometres south of Ghazni’s police headquarters. Other residents, such as drivers and labourers living in this area, confirmed the presence of Taleban fighters there. A businessman in the city, Naqeb, told the author the Taleban had free movement in the Gudali area, about three kilometres to the northwest of the police headquarters. When President Ghani made a second trip to Ghazni city on 27 September, the Taleban used those positions, notably in the Jangalbagh area, a little further out, about five kilometres to the northwest of the city, to fire rockets into Ghazni to disrupt his visit. On 21 November, the author witnessed the Taleban rocketing the city again, when General Scott Miller, commander of NATO and United States forces, visited (media report here). One of the rockets hit a private health clinic about 300 metres from the author’s own residence, in the centre of the city. Luckily, there were no casualties.

The Taleban’s ban on telephone companies operating between seven and ten o’ clock in the morning, already in place between 4 and 20 September, further stoked public concerns. Although the Taleban have not actually lifted this ban, phone companies currently only operate intermittently. Government officials mostly communicate with the help of the state-run Salaam network. Other networks only cover the city and limited areas along its outskirts; sometimes conversations are cut off.

More detail on Andar district, now under full Taleban control

Andar is one of the districts on the fringes of Ghazni city’s suburbs. Its centre, Mirai, is merely a 30-minute drive away. For Andar’s population, the district’s takeover by the Taleban on 15 October actually normalised public services. Full control by one side has proved a better situation for civilians than their district being contested. A week after Afghan security forces abandoned the district centre, the town reopened. Shops that had previously had to shut because of the fighting, as the Taleban tightened their grip on the district compound, the ANP forces’ last bastion, in May 2018 (see AAN’s previous dispatch here),are again open; it is ‘business as normal’.

The Taleban gave permission for the Sultan Shahabuddin High School to move back into its old building in the district centre on 25 October; it had to leave its premises there in 2006 when Taleban attacks intensified that year. Education officials had relocated the school to Narmi, a Taleban-controlled village where it continued to operate in a primary school building. The school was managed by the Taleban, but funded by the government. Andar district hospital also relocated back to the district centre on 25 October; it had been moved to the Zakuri area in the spring of 2018, when the Taleban increased their grip on the district town. The relocation of both hospital and high school to the district centre came as a relief to local residents. One teacher, Atiqullah, told AAN “The primary school building was very small for housing two schools. Therefore, most of the students would attend classes in an open space, which was a trouble both for teachers and students.” The building in Zakuri, where the hospital had been temporarily moved to, had originally been demarcated as a basic health centre, which was also already in operation before the hospital moved there. Both doctors and patients were struggling due to a lack of proper facilities and space.

There will be more detail on this in a forthcoming dispatch in our ‘Service Delivery in Insurgent-Affected Areas’ series: see the first two dispatches here (https://demo.theinfosolution.com/aan/one-land-two-rules-1-service-delivery-in-insurgent-affected-areas-an-introduction/) and here (https://demo.theinfosolution.com/aan/one-land-two-rules-2-delivering-public-services-in-insurgency-affected-obeh-district-of-herat-province/).

Andar district has been plagued by back and forths in government and Taleban control of the last two years. The last time the Taleban had control of Andar district centre they closed the district centre including most of the businesses in the bazaar. This was ahead of the 2010 parliamentary election, but the district centre was only reopened in 2012 after a group of people, mainly from within Taleban ranks, rose up against the Taleban: this was when the term wulusi patsun (‘popular‘ or ’people’s uprising’) was coined (see AAN analysis here, here and here).

During these years, the district centre remained mostly accessible to civilians, and intermittently to the government, ie it was not in Taleban hands, but officials also could not necessarily get in or out, at least by road and in safety. Over the 2014 presidential election period, the government made efforts to secure the district centre, but since then, it has wavered between being accessible and inaccessible, until 15 October 2018 when it came, once again, into Taleban hands.

Three weeks after the Taleban took complete control over Andar, on 4 November 2018, they set very strict controls on polio vaccinations. They told health officials they could only vaccinate children in village mosques explaining this was because of security threats and attacks to their fighters and to minimise operations against them. Local residents told AAN the Taleban thought the vaccinators were collecting intelligence data. The upshot is that vaccinators cannot go from house to house, as they usually do. This is significant: going house-to-house is far better for children and the only way to ensure coverage is near enough complete. Ghazni’s public health department head, Zahir Shah Nekmal, warned in an interview with Azadi Radio, that under these conditions, they would stop the entire three-month vaccination effort until the Taleban changed a policy that he considers amounts to a ban. The Taleban have not given in, however, and, for now, Andars’ children are not being vaccinated (see media report here).

Main roads cut off by the Taleban

Since they attacked Ghazni city, the Taleban have also been blocking key roads. The road to neighbouring Paktika province was already cut off before the Taleban attack on Ghazni city and the takeover of Andar district centre, and remains closed both to government and civilian cars and trucks. It runs past the ANA base at Chahardiwal which does remain in government hands. On 29 September, Taleban fighters ploughed up sections of the highway in various villages, such as Khani Qala, Zur Shahr, Chahardiwal, Urzu, Alamwal and Rahimkhel, to prevent government reinforcements being sent either from Ghazni city or through Paktika province, or from Paktia further east, where the army’s regional corps headquarters is based. As a result, civilians has also been hampered from using this route.

Instead, since May 2018, they have had to use alternative routes through villages in the district that are under firm Taleban control (see AAN’s previous dispatch for details here).  On one of those routes, near Jani Qala, the Taleban established a revenue collection check-point in early May, where they charge almost every truck that passes through.

Of even more concern to local people is the closure to traffic of the Kabul-Kandahar highway, aka Highway One. On 6 October, the Taleban spokesman announced they had closed the highway to their ‘enemies’ and that, due to possible bombardments and fighting and the possibility of civilian casualties, bus drivers should not use the road until further notice (see Pajhwok report (see Pajhwok report). After a few days, the Taleban allowed civilian cars through again, but – as in Andar – set up a checkpoint for revenue collection in the Mushaki area in Qarabagh district about 50 kilometres to the south of Ghazni city. According to local sources aware of the Taleban’s plan for this area, this blockade, seems to be permanent, aimed at boosting the insurgents’ revenue collection and interrupting ANSF vehicles along this major national highway. Residents told AAN that, as of early December, the Taleban have been hiring civilian tractors and bulldozers to work on levelling an alternative route, an old road that passes near Nur ul-Madares, the famous seminary in Andar district near Mastaufi village, through western parts of Andar district. Once the road is levelled, Highway 1 traffic will be diverted through this 50 kilometre long stretch; the public is well aware of this plan – see this Facebook post, for example).

Changes in the provincial administration

On the government side, Ghazni police chief Farid Mashal, whose forces led the only significant resistance against the Taleban during the attack, was replaced on 13 October. When asked for the reason, the governor’s spokesman, Aref Nuri, told AAN that Mashal’s security personnel had been misusing power and violating the law. He said Ghazni’s residents had gone to President Ghani and, based on these complaints, he replaced Mashal and his team. According to Nuri, most of the complaints were about “extorting money from drivers and being involved in immoral activities by harassing youngsters.” Moreover, multiple sources told AAN these policemen were “sexually harassing youngsters.” Nuri said that not one of the policemen had been arrested because there was no evidence or complaints about specific cases that could be registered. Additionally, according to this media report (see here), local residents told Shamshad TV that security personnel would “arrest boys and sexually assault them.” One local journalist, confirming such misbehaviour, told AAN that the police chief had also proved ineffective in controlling the situation during his three-month probationary period, because the situation had worsened and this was the reason why he was replaced. The governor’s spokesman also confirmed this as another reason behind his replacement.

Mashal was replaced by Ghulam Daud Tarakhel, who previously worked as commander of the 505 police zone in the southern province of Helmand. Aref Nuri told AAN that Daud had received police and military training both at the police academy in Kabul and abroad, and had military experience. In his introductory speech, Tarakhel responded to governor Kalimzai’s concerns, saying he knew Ghazni very well and would try to take steps to improve security in the province. However, the only change seen so far has been the redeployment of ANP forces to some of the security posts destroyed by the Taleban during the August attack. These redeployments have not changed the situation as they were not followed by any operation to dislodge the Taleban from Ghazni city’s outskirts.

Airstrikes, civilian casualties & new changes

Since the Taleban were repulsed from Ghazni – or decided to leave the city (which, is not clear, see part 1 of this mini-series here), there has been an increase in night raids and airstrikes by Afghan and US forces in most districts of the province, according to different districts’ residents the author spoke with, as well as witnessed by the author personally in Andar and Deh Yak districts. The joint nature of the night raids was also confirmed by the governor’s spokesman. It seems they are mostly carried out by Afghan commandos, with US military present (see media reports here: (see media reports here, here, here, and here), As for the airstrikes, residents reported Afghan helicopters were firing rockets, but not bombing, which they said was being carried out by the US air force. It is actually extremely difficult to tell from the ground what aircraft is releasing bombs, whether Afghan or US, and whether plane or drone.

Residents have also reported that, while some Taleban fighters have been killed in the strikes, they have not suffered major casualties. Moreover, these airstrikes and raids have proved ineffective in dislodging Taleban fighters from areas they control, even those close to the city. For example, the Taleban could still attack the newly set up ANP post in the Spandeh area on 22 November, an attack the author himself witnessed. Another example was the 27 November roadside bombing of American soldiers in the Shahbaz area, which had been under government control before the August attack. In this attack, three American soldiers were killed and another three, along with a contractor, were wounded (media report here). The Taleban immediately took responsibility for the blast and claimed in a statement that the convoy had been on its way to an operation (see pictures of the destroyed military vehicle).

The roadside bombing also proved that US troops are actively supporting the Afghan forces in Ghazni now. According to Aref Nuri, the US soldiers have been based in Ghazni since mid-November 2018. He gave no details about their numbers or whether they were special or regular forces.

The increased numbers of night raids and airstrikes have certainly led to casualties among both militants and civilians. However, the scale of the casualties and who is being killed is disputed. AAN has been trying to get a sense of the casualties by comparing Afghan official sources, which tend to exaggerate insurgent deaths and downplay or deny any harm done to civilians, Taleban sources, which do the opposite, and local civilians.

The Afghan government and local officials claimed their operations have resulted in a large number of casualties among the insurgents. Speaking to AAN on 16 December, the governor’s spokesman said that as many as 36 airstrikes and ground operations had been conducted since mid-November 2018 in different districts of the province. As a result, he said 146 militants had been killed and 90 wounded. Moreover, he said the deaths had included 43 Pakistanis, 40 of whom were killed in Nawa and Gilan districts and three in Qarabagh. AAN looked through the statements published on Facebook by the governor’s office in November ; in total, they listed 248 militants as having been killed and another 59 wounded.

The author spoke by phone and face-to-face with several residents from Gilan and received a list of seven named civilians whom residents said were killed and 14 others whom they said were wounded in airstrikes and shelling by Afghan security forces based in neighbouring Jaghori district (1). AAN also spoke to people in Muqur, Deh Yak, Andar, Waghaz, Qarabagh and Khogyani districts. The numbers of Taleban casualties given by residents did not  add up to those given by the governor’s spokesman, but they did confirm some of them. Almost all said the night raids and airstrikes had also caused civilian casualties and destruction to civilian property, which, they said, had not been reported by officials. In one incident on 30 October, according to AAN’s sources, seven madrasa students were killed and their teacher, Mullah Ehsanullah, was wounded, during a night raid on their seminary in Sarbeland Qala village in Waghaz district. Local residents who visited the area said no Taleban fighters had been there. However, the governor’s office, once again on its Facebook page, posted a statement in which officials claimed that 17 insurgents, including two commanders, had been killed in this joint Afghan-US raid. The statement said that no civilians had been killed.

In neighbouring Andar district, foreign soldiers, accompanied by the 01 unit of Afghan National Army’s commandos, raided Alizai village and the Nur ul-Madares madrasa on 30 November. A 44-year old villager named Naser was killed in the raid. Relatives of the victim told AAN the joint forces took him from the room where he was sitting with other family members to an empty room, from where the family members heard a few shots. When the raid was over, the family members found his dead body in that room. Nazer was a farmer, but, since spring 2018, had also been working as an observer on the polio vaccination campaign. He is survived by his wife, who is pregnant, five daughters and four sons. Four other people were arrested, including a cook, a madrasa guard and two other villagers. Additionally, the soldiers burned three civilian cars, one of them belonging to a local doctor, Najibullah (see photos of his car here). Elders from Andar went to Ghazni to complain and met governor Kalimzai, who told them he was unaware of the arrests, but said civilians would be released if proven innocent (see the governor’s statement and photos of the meeting here).

Another night raid was reported in Tasang village in Deh Yak district on 1 December. Locals told AAN that about 15 Taleban fighters had been killed. For once, the numbers just about tallied with the government’s; it said as many as 16 Taleban fighters had been killed in the raid, which also targeted Daulat Khan village (see here). Meanwhile, the Taleban claimed in a statement that their fighters were aware of the raid and had ambushed the joint forces, as a result of which three American soldiers and seven Afghan commandos had been killed (see their statement here). Local residents also told AAN that airstrikes after the raid had demolished six civilian houses and four mosques.

Residents in Wali Qala and Kadai villages in Khogyani district told AAN that two civilians and three Taleban fighters had been killed when Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers raided a house on 5 December. They sent a delegation to Ghazni city and met governor Kalimzai, who promised he was going to personally probe the incident and would share his findings with them (see his statement here).

A more recent night raid took place in Sulemanzi village of Deh Yak district, where, according to one media report, three civilians were killed and another four arrested. However, locals in the area told AAN that two Taleban had been killed and four civilians arrested. They said the Afghan and US forces also destroyed a private clinic, a house and three mosques.

As a result of these operations, both civilians and the Taleban have changed their behaviour. For example, in most of the villages where Taleban fighters are visibly present and could be targets of airstrikes or night raids, people are leaving their houses at night and staying in nearby villages. Based on interviews with residents and site visits by this author, it can also be reported that the Taleban have considerably reduced their movements in areas where they had previously been seen. According to residents, the local Taleban leadership has told their fighters not to move with weapons in areas where they could be targets of night raids and airstrikes. Moreover, in some areas, when Taleban are on the move, they do not travel in groups larger than two or three people. Before the increase in airstrikes, both local respondents and the author had witnessed the Taleban moving in larger groups.

Conclusion

While the Taleban did not keep hold of Ghazni city after their August attack, their positions outside – including even in some of the suburbs – have not been put under any pressure by government forces. The Taleban have also taken complete control of six districts since August and now fully control eight districts, except for a very limited government presence in a few security posts. In addition, five other districts are highly contested. These are Aabband, Giro, Gelan, Qarabagh, Waghaz, and Zana Khan. In these districts the government maintains a presence in the district compound and a few other areas, while the rural areas are under Taleban control. After the deployment of US soldiers to Ghazni in mid-November, there has been an upsurge in airstrikes and night raids which have limited the Taleban’s ability to move, but not changed the overall balance of power. The districts of Jaghori and Malestan, following the attack on them in October and November, are calmer but still far from safe.

The main loss in all this is, of course, the people killed and injured and those displaced from their homes. However, the war in Ghazni and the Taleban’s control of much of the province have political implications too. Without a major and sustainable government troop offensive, it is difficult to see how the parliamentary elections, delayed in September (see AAN background here and here), will be able to go ahead, nor the presidential election, apart from in the provincial capital and some district centres. Both are due to be held  on 20 April 2019.  To hold a more substantial and representative election in Ghazni province the government would have to retake eight districts and remove the Taleban from contested areas before April; indeed, it would have to do this much sooner if preparations and campaigning in the province were to happen. Voter registration was not conducted in Ghazni’s districts, and even in Ghazni city, it was incomplete. For the moment at least, it is difficult to see any sort of meaningful election taking place in this embattled province.

 

Edited by Thomas Ruttig, Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark

 

(1) The list AAN received consists of the following civilians killed in Gilan district alone since early November 2018, particularly in the Rasana area.

Killed:

  1. Shahzadi, wife of Nazar Muhammad.
  2. Bakht Bibi, wife of Abdul Malik
  3. Wife of Muhibullah
  4. Muhammad Khair
  5. Zmarai, son of Khudaidad
  6. Saat Maluk, son of Nazar Muhammad
  7. Abdul Samad, son of Ghulam Muhammad

Wounded:

  1. Razia, daughter of Abdul Malik
  2. Kamela, daughter of Abdul Malik
  3. Rahmat Bibi, daughter of Abdul Malik
  4. Muhammad, son of Abdul Malik
  5. Abdul Waris, son of Abdul Hanan
  6. Abdul Sadiq, son of Ghausuddin
  7. Nabiullah, son of Khudaidad
  8. Sharifa, daughter of Muhammad Khalil
  9. Mirwais, son of Habibullah
  10. Rahimdad, son of Mangal
  11. Alaf Khan, son of Daulat Khan
  12. Abdul Hanan, son of Abdul Ghaias
  13. Nur Khan, son of Jankhan
  14. Haji Taleb

 

 

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