The heavy fighting that took place in the Sangsar area of Kandahar province on April 14 and 15 is indicative of the critical security situation in this most strategic region of southern Afghanistan. It is widely reported that 41 militants and six policemen were killed after Afghan security forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition helicopters, attacked a suspected Taliban hideout in and around the village of Sartak (about 40 km south of Kandahar city).
Even before this major engagement, security in Kandahar province was sharply deteriorating, with a significant increase in suicide bombings and small-arms attacks. On April 3, a suspected Taliban militant tried to assassinate the chief of police of Arghandab District. The attack was foiled by the police chief’s bodyguards. Moreover, on April 1 a suicide bomber targeted a joint Canadian-Afghan military convoy in the Maiwand District. According to Afghan National Army (ANA) Lt. Gen. Rehmatullah Raufi, only the suspected suicide bomber was killed in the attack (Pajhwok Afghan News, April 1). Later during the day, purported Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif claimed responsibility for the attack (Ariana TV, April 1).
Furthermore, according to Afghan state TV, a suspected suicide bomber attacked the ANA in Arghandab District on March 31, killing only himself. In yet another suicide attack, this time in Kandahar city, the suspected bomber injured five local residents (Afghan State TV, March 30). These suicide bombings were followed by a bold attack on a police checkpoint that killed four policemen and injured three others (Azadi Radio, April 3). Following these increasingly bold attacks, Kandahar’s provincial governor, Asadullah Khalid, claimed that four “terrorists” had been detained and that they had already confessed involvement in three bomb blasts and one suicide attack (Pajhwok Afghan News, April 12).
Kandahar: The Taliban’s Headquarters
The Taliban movement (in its current form, at least) was born in Kandahar province in 1994 when Mullah Omar was appointed leader. The symbolic significance of Kandahar was so strong that even when the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, Mullah Omar and his hardcore supporters decided against relocating to the Afghan capital. Throughout the reign of the Taliban (1996-2001) and beyond, the local population has remained loyal to this enigmatic movement. The enduring strength and popularity of the movement is partly rooted in the Taliban’s synthesis of rural Islamic values and Durrani Pashtun culture. Broadly speaking, Pashtuns have tended to see the Taliban as symbols of the revival of old Pashtun glory. It is this Pashtun nationalism that is the driving force of the current insurgency.
In an interview with Terrorism Monitor, Afghan political analyst Razaq Mamoon said that there are historical antecedents to the current insurgency in Kandahar province. “From the time of Ahmad Shah Durrani (a Pashtun king during the 18th century), Kandahar has produced political and military leaders, just as today it is producing terrorist and insurgent leaders that are leading the fight against the foreign-backed [Hamid] Karzai government,” Mamoon explained. According to Mamoon, “the former kings—Abdur Rahman Khan, Zahir Shah and the republicans such as Dawood Khan—were all Kandahari…The Taliban regime was an extreme case of this norm as most of its top brass hailed from Kandahar. The Taliban were trying to tell the world that Kandahar is the center of Afghanistan.”
This intriguing historical factor notwithstanding, Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid has stressed geographic factors in the deteriorating insurgency, claiming that the Taliban “chose Kandahar province because of its ‘geopolitical’ position and because it borders Pakistan” (Aina TV, March 31).
The Insurgent Landscape
According to the Afghan Islamic Press, Mullah Omar has claimed that a stream of young Afghans are volunteering for suicide missions in Kandahar and other provinces (Gulf Times, March 18). This was followed by reports that Taliban and other Pashtun insurgents were planning as many as 500 suicide bombings in Kandahar and neighboring provinces (Aina TV, March 31). While these figures may be bravado, it is undeniable that the rate of suicide bombings has increased dramatically in the past month. At the very least, this is a sign of the Pashtun militants’ determination to make the southern regions of the country as unstable as possible.
In a message to the Karzai government, a popular daily warned Kabul to take new Taliban threats seriously (Rahe Nejat, April 2). Previously, the daily warned that following its ouster in late 2001, the Taliban had meticulously re-organized into small groups and was a growing menace to southeastern provinces generally and Kandahar specifically (Rahe Nejat, March 2).
The central questions revolve around the precise identity of Kandahar’s insurgents and the specific factors that motivate them. It seems that ordinary people and the government are seriously split over this issue. In an interview with Terrorism Monitor, “Omar,” a Kandahari resident, blamed the insurgency on the destruction of opium fields. “Government officials only destroy the opium lands of poor farmers, but they do not touch the opium fields of rich people who have connections to the government,” Omar said.
Meanwhile, in an exclusive interview with Terrorism Monitor, the defense commission chief of the Lower House (Wolisi Jirga) of the Afghan parliament and a representative of Kandahar province, Noor ul-Haq Ulumi, maintained that the insurgents are hardcore Taliban and “those who come from abroad.” Moreover, Ulumi said that most of the suicide attackers and armed men are poor, hail from the lower classes of Kandahari society and are clearly dissatisfied with some government policies. “Some of the attackers have lost relatives in U.S. bombings, or they are generally dissatisfied with government officials…the neighboring countries exploit these conditions and support marginalized people in Kandahar,” Ulumi said in a thinly disguised reference to Pakistan.
The Role of Shuras
The local shuras (councils) exercise general control over the villages not only in Kandahar, but in most other Afghan provinces as well. The leaders of shuras are mostly tribal elders from the district who enjoy the support of local people. These district shuras have the most effective role in altering the peoples’ ideas about the government and other movements in Kandahar province since the majority of the population is rural-based.
In a recent report on Kandahar’s security situation, the Senlis Council, a drug policy advisory forum, claims that due to a lack of government control in many districts of Kandahar, especially the ones bordering Pakistan, the shuras continue to provide support to the Taliban because they offer protection against the eradication of opium fields (Senlis Council Report, March 16).
The Senlis Council also held a two day symposium in Kabul, during which it was claimed that out of the 13 districts in Kandahar, the central government only has control over Kandahar city, its surrounding highways, transit borders, Kandahar airport and isolated areas of some districts. It was also claimed that “in the Arghandab, Sha Wali Kot, maywand and Panjwayi districts, the government has minimal control” (Senlis Council Report, March 16).
In response to increasing attacks in Kandahar province, Afghan Defense Minister Abdur Rahim Wardak announced a new defense and security strategy. This strategy ostensibly “includes new tactics to combat the terrorist groups and Taliban insurgents” (Taraqi, April 4).
Moreover, the replacement of U.S. forces with Canadians and the expansion of NATO involvement in Kandahar bodes well for counter-insurgency operations. While many Kandahari residents believe that Canadians forces will not be able to stop the insurgency, they are optimistic that Canadians will be able to deal “justly” with the opium problem (Fajre Omid, April 4).
In the final analysis, a comprehensive counter-insurgency plan will require the Afghan government and local Kandahari officials to devise a single and clear strategy and stick to it over a prolonged period. The central aspect of this plan must focus on the role and political sympathies of the shuras and how this can be altered to isolate the Taliban and Pashtun nationalists.