Author: Fazal Muzhary Date: 4 March 2016
In early January 2016, an Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) operation in Zurmat, a southern district of Paktia province, resulted in civilian casualties. According to local residents, the Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers’ heavy shelling of villages they suspected to be Taleban hideouts caused the most harm. Abuses, such as beatings and the use of schools and civilian houses for military purposes, were also reported. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary looks into reports of abuses – both by the ANSF and the Taleban – during the January operation as a case study of the increased threat to civilians during military operations, and also of how difficult it can be to ascertain what happened.
Afghan security forces began their operation in Zurmat on 2 January 2016, ending it ten days later, on 12 January. (1) According to Colonel Fazle Khuda, a Public Relations officer at 203 Thunder Military Corps in the provincial capital Gardez, the joint operation (codenamed Khyber) was carried out by the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Police (ANP), the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP). Afghan Special Forces were also told to stand by in case government forces faced strong resistance, however they were never called in, he said.
The aim of the operation was to repel insurgents from one of their strongholds, Sahak, an area north of the district mainly inhabited by the Sahak tribe. Ultimately, the operation aimed to undermine the Taleban’s ability to mount attacks from the area. Although it was declared a success by Afghan government forces, it does not seem to have changed anything for the better. Local officials talking to AAN have expressed doubt that the Taleban were ever cleared from the area. It seems that the insurgents did not engage the ANSF in a serious manner, but rather left the area on motorbikes when security forces approached and returned after the operation came to an end.
According to local respondents, there wasn’t any large-scale ground engagement between Afghan soldiers and the Taleban fighters during the operation. According to a local who works as a teacher in Gardez, when government forces arrived in the area, the Taleban only fought back on the first day, but the fighting was not intense. One Taleban fighter and two soldiers were killed during those skirmishes, according to residents.
Fighting continued over the next ten days. Most of the Taleban fighters moved to the Daulatzai area, from where they could fire at the ANA and then retreat. The soldiers then responded by shooting in the direction from where they came under fire, often causing local casualties.
On the last day of the operation, on 12 January 2016, both the Afghan government and the Taleban claimed victory in Sahak, quoting inflated casualty figures. According to the 203 Thunder Military Corps Commander General, Asrar Aqdas, who was quoted in a statement sent to media outlets by the governor’s office in Gardez, 61 militants were killed, 21 wounded and another eight arrested (see Khama press report here). The statement said two vehicles, two motorbikes, 510 kg of explosives and 32 mines were also found and then destroyed. The figures were double-checked with Fazle Khuda of the 203 corps in a recent AAN interview and he confirmed these were indeed the official figures.
The Taleban fighters, in a report on their website (see here) on 12 January 2016, also talked up their ‘successes.’ As a result of “strong resistance by the Taleban fighters,” the report claimed the government soldiers who had used heavy weapons and military vehicles had “faced a severe reaction” and “left the area shamefully.” Their report claimed 25 commandos had been killed, 14 wounded, five ‘tanks’ (usually referring to armored vehicles) destroyed and weapons and ammunition seized, while only one of their fighters was supposedly killed and another three wounded.
However, tribal elders and other sources from the area who talked to AAN did not confirm the high figures given by either side. According to a tribal elder who did not want to be named, one Taleban fighter and two ANA soldiers were killed as a result of the operation. Figures given by local officials were also much lower, and probably more realistic. Zurmat district governor, Kiftan Ekhlas, told AAN that only three Taleban fighters were killed during this operation, an account categorically rejected by Fazle Khuda.
Background on Zurmat: Loya Paktia’s meeting point for two Taleban network
With its centre located 26 kilometres to the west of the provincial capital Gardez on the main Gardez to Ghazni highway, Zurmat is the largest district in Paktia. It has played a central role, during both the 1990s’ Emirate and the post-2001 insurgency, in terms of its representation of senior Taleban military and civil leadership (more background here). It was the centre stage for one of the largest American-led operations to topple the Taleban, Operation Anaconda, in the Shahi Kot mountains in the southern half of the district from 2 to 16 March 2002, although the Taleban fighters were not completely pushed out. Over the last 15 years it has never come under complete government control. Zurmat was difficult for the international forces as well. The densely populated district with its flat plains connects Paktia to three provinces (Paktika to the south, Ghazni to the west and Logar to the north) making it a crossroads for Taleban fighters who use it to freely move between these three provinces.
Most of the Taleban fighters who fight in Zurmat belong to both the Haqqani network as well as Abdul Latif Mansur’s, nephew of Nasrullah Mansur, the leader of a splintered faction of Harakat-e Nawin-e Inqilab-e Islami (New Islamic Revolution Moment). The focus of the operation, Sahak, is also where Latif Mansur’s wider family residence is. Mansur’s fighters are in the majority in the district, while Haqqani fighters are smaller in number.
The January 2016 operation was preceded by several small attacks by Taleban fighters in different areas of the district, mostly targeting Afghan National Army (ANA) check-posts as well as government convoys passing through Zurmat district on the Ghazni to Gardez highway.
The January 2016 operation itself was mostly centered on the relatively quiet area to the north of Tamir, the main district town, where the district governor’s compound is located. As Sahak has long been almost fully under Taleban control, it had not seen much fighting between Taleban fighters and government forces that tended to avoid the area in the past.
Civilian casualties and abuses
When government soldiers were preparing to leave Sahak on the evening of 11 January 2016 at the end of the operation, Taleban fighters attacked their convoy in the Ibrahimkhel area. This triggered indiscriminate shelling by government forces, which wounded one person at a nearby filling station, according to local residents. The wounded civilian was first taken to the hospital in Gardez, but when family members complained, security forces helped to send the wounded man to Kabul for further treatment.
According to several inhabitants of Zurmat who talked to AAN, Afghan security forces had often fired mortar rounds during the operation into nearby villages, whenever they came under attack from mobile Taleban teams. The shelling, according to their reports, hit several villages, among them Pan, Tarakai, Mangalkhel, Haideri Qala, Pakikhel, Mado Qala, Abdul Rahimkhel, Daulatzai, Sheikhan, Sangikhel and Liwan. The locals described the shelling as ruthless and indiscriminate. They said heavy shelling would follow only a few shots fired by the Taleban. Afghan security forces also set up a temporary base close to the main clinic, as well as in a high school in Sahak.
Taleban fighters were also ruthless, attacking the Afghan forces from within villages and areas close to local houses, which made those inhabited areas into military targets.
According to local residents, four civilians including two women were killed and another six wounded as a result of the ten-day operation. Moreover, residents in a few villages were beaten up when government soldiers checked their houses. The local people AAN spoke with claimed that none of those killed, wounded or beaten were Taleban or had links to them.
Local residents brought up several specific cases of civilian casualties. One girl, who had recently got engaged and was soon to be married, was killed in the village of Pan when a mortar shell landed in front of her house. In the village of Tarakai, a man and a woman from the Kotikhel area were riding on a motorbike when ANA soldiers shot at the couple, killing the man on the spot. Local residents claim the woman died later due to the shock from the death of her husband. Fazle Khuda, the army PR officer, claimed in an interview with AAN that the man had been a Taleb. Lastly, one man was killed and another wounded when a mortar shell hit a house in Mado Qala.
In addition to civilian deaths, locals were wounded in the villages of Pakikhel, Daulatzai, Sheikhan, Haidari Qala and Mado Qala as a result of ANA shelling, according to local sources. For instance, in Haidari Qala, the son of a madrassa teacher, Mullah Jasim, was seriously wounded when an ANA mortar hit his house. In Neknam, ANA soldiers set up a temporary base in the area’s main high school. According to a local resident who spoke to AAN by phone and did not want to be named, ANA soldiers stole lab equipment and computers and made a mess of the school’s classrooms, using them “as bathrooms.” Fazle Khuda rejected this claim. In the houses where the Afghan soldiers set up temporary posts, they reportedly used the firewood locals had collected for the winter. Such incidents happened in Shamulzi, Ibrahimkhel, Khadarkhel and Sangikhel villages.
In the early days of the operation in Neknam, ANA soldiers did not allow residents from nearby villages to go out and purchase food for days, creating a food shortage. When villagers asked the soldiers for permission, they were told to borrow food and other items from neighbours and help each other until the operation had ended.
Another local source said that on the first day of the operation, ANA soldiers beat people while searching their houses. Two young men in Taraki village, the son of Karim and the son of Mohammad Yar, were said to have been injured, incurring broken bones and head injuries. A tribal elder from Sahak said Afghan security forces had beaten people in Sangikhel, Mangalkhel, Taraki, Kotkai, Pan and Samandarkhel.
Although the exact dates of these incidents could not be ascertained, other sources, such as the spokesman for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Paktia, Adel Azizi, and Zurmat’s district governor Kiftan Ekhlas, confirmed the killing, wounding and mistreatment of a number of local residents, although they did not provide details. Ekhlas said it was difficult to identify who had killed the civilians because both warring parties shot at each other, while the AIHRC spokesman said it was difficult for them to identify individual cases because of security reasons. But the 203 Army Corps Public Relations officer, Fazle Khuda, did confirm such incidents in general terms, when he said that “of course people are killed and wounded, because there is fighting ongoing and rockets are fired.” However, he rejected the specific accounts and said that Taleban fighters had forced civilians to speak out against Afghan security forces.
Reactions to the operation
In the midst of the operation, on 8 January 2016, a number of Zurmat residents, provincial council members and the AIHRC spokesman held a gathering in Gardez during which they protested against the mistreatment of civilians by government forces (see one media report here). During the gathering, the AIHRC spokesman said that certain non-Pashtun soldiers did not care about Pashtun locals during the operation. When asked for more details by AAN in a phone interview, he declined to elaborate further on the behaviour of government forces.
ANSF’s pursuit of short-term goals at heavy cost in the battle for hearts and minds
Operation Khyber, which aimed to clear the insurgents’ operational bases from Sahak, seems to have achieved little. The ANSF entered an area that had long been run by the Taleban, but were not able to hold for long. This is a pattern seen in many other places. The heavy cost of alienating the local population, who may be more familiar with and supportive of the Taleban, seems to override the short-term benefits of winning a battle against insurgents in their local heartlands.
It is difficult to establish exactly what happened in Sahak. As in many other areas, reports of civilian casualties are often ignored, while government officials tend to rely on what local officials report. It is clear, however, that both sides endangered local civilians: the Taleban, with their use of guerrilla tactics, including using civilian areas as staging grounds for attacks; and the Afghan government forces that, as highlighted in a recent UNAMA report on the protection of civilians, do not take sufficient care of the population’s safety, even while trying to win the battle for hearts and minds.
(1) More recently, and seemingly unrelated to Operation Khyber, another newsworthy military development in Zurmat was one in which the Afghan National Army (ANA), on 25 February 2016, abandoned a military base in the Kulalgo area of Zurmat. Local officials called it a tactical retreat (read this Pajhwok report), while military officials said it was due to an order from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to abandon unnecessary bases. The base, which was on the main Ghazni-Ghardez Highway near the Kulalgo bazaar, had been set up by US soldiers in the past and had been handed over to the Afghan army after the US military left. Last autumn, Taleban fighters attacked the base and fighting lasted for one and a half weeks. Now MoD officials appear to believe its presence is unnecessary in the area.