Will a local anti-Taliban revolt in the south affect the future course of the country when NATO forces exit in 2014?
In the summer of 2012, something remarkable appeared to be happening in Afghanistan; something that both the central government and its NATO backers had been hopeful of for more than a decade – an uprising against the Taliban by local people.
Over a few weeks in the Andar district of Ghazni province, about 150km south of Kabul, the inhabitants managed to do what NATO and the Afghan army had failed to do in years; they kicked their former overlords out of their own backyard.
The revolt was hailed by some optimistic Western observers as a turning point in the long struggle against the Taliban, so far-reaching in its implications that it might even determine what happens nationwide after US troops withdraw in 2014.
Others have since been more sceptical, arguing that all was not as it seemed. The ‘uprising’ was really just one faction fighting against another, said these detractors. The Taliban, a less homogenous group than is often portrayed in the West, were merely squabbling among themselves.
Whatever the truth of it, the revolt was successful and continues to be today. Though there are still Taliban in Andar, they no longer exert the almost complete domination they enjoyed a year ago, and those who threw them out remain in charge of key communities across the region.
But what is behind this new element in the Afghan conflict and why has it emerged now? Do the rebel movement’s widely-rumoured internal factions and fractures mean that it is merely just another expression of regional warlordism – of a kind which has long distorted Afghan politics? Or is it genuinely significant, a popular front in which ordinary people have come together to provide an alternative narrative to the dire future predicted for Afghanistan when Western forces pack their bags and leave?
People & Power asked Afghan filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi to go to Andar to find out.
In My Enemy’s Enemy, he meets a core group of Andar rebels and their charismatic leader, Lotfullah Kamrani. Known to his followers as ‘The Engineer’, because of a computer science degree, Kamrani explained that the uprising began when he and a small group of his friends went to complain to the local Taliban about their harsh treatment of the community. The choice they were given in response was stark.
“Either you take sides with the government, or you hand your guns over to us, or we’re at war. They gave us 30 minutes to decide. The fighting began before the 30 minutes were up…”
Confusingly, Kamrani admits having fought for the Islamist group Hizb-i-Islami against NATO and Afghan government troops before the uprising began. This ambiguity – though not unusual in a conflict in which people frequently change sides according to which way the local political wind is blowing – may go some way towards explaining why the rebels have yet had little in the way of concrete help from Kabul or the coalition.
In other words, the rebels may have won plaudits for evicting the Taliban, but they aren’t completely trusted. Perhaps mindful of the need to attract that support, ‘The Engineer’ does his best to portray his small force as a genuine army of the people, being constantly reinforced by eager young locals. They only fight, he tells Quraishi, because the Afghan authorities have never been able to protect them.
“In the last 10 years there were battles and wars going on in this area and the government couldn’t come here. Meanwhile the Taliban were committing atrocities against the people. So they were upset at both the Taliban and the government. People thought we could give them their rights and speak out for the innocent.”
Quraishi is taken on a tour of the area that ‘The Engineer’ says is now under the rebels’ control and visits at least one school that has been re-opened in defiance of a Taliban ban. He also meets some of the “recruits” who have turned up at the uprising’s headquarters, but confesses it is difficult to know whether their enthusiasm for the struggle is genuine or if the episode has been staged for his camera.
One volunteer tells him that he and his cousin have come to join up because ‘foreign’ Taliban – or ‘Punjabis’ – have turned up in his village. Being outsiders, he suggests, they are more prone to oppressing the locals. Later, Kamrani ostentatiously sends another potential recruit, a schoolboy in his early teens, back to his books and tells him he should study rather than fight – though he’s careful to first relieve the boy of the family Kalashnikov that the youngster had brought with him.
As the days unfold and Quraishi sees the men in basic training and sets off on night-time patrols into enemy territory, it is hard to view this small force as a truly significant military threat to the Taliban once the NATO and coalition forces pull out. But what they do seem to represent is a potent kind of localism – a very Afghan desire for people to be left in charge of their own affairs after years of interference from external forces. That kind of sentiment can be infectious. If repeated across the country, what has happened in Andar may yet shape Afghanistan’s future.
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