'They come from ISI' - Afghan colonel on insurgent threat
Lieutenant Colonel Nasratullah Nasrat, the commanding officer of the 3rd Kandak (Battalion) of the 1st Brigade of the 203rd Afghan Army, meets with Captain Aaron Tapalman, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry. Photo by Bill Ardolino/LWJ.
COMBAT OUTPOST SABARI, AFGHANISTAN: To maintain the fight against the insurgency as US forces begin to depart Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force is banking on a strategy of accelerating the development of indigenous security forces. Many functions hitherto executed by US troops have been passed to the Afghan army and police, and most American operations in the country now take place in partnership with Afghan forces.
In Paktia and Khost provinces, the area of operations (AO) for ISAF's "Task Force Duke," the number of partnered missions is estimated at "about 80 to 85 percent of all operations," according to its commander, US Army Colonel Chris Toner. Having also held a command in the area five years ago, Toner sees great improvement among the security forces, particularly the Afghan Uniform Police, and to a lesser extent, the Afghan National Army (ANA). His assessments of progress in those entities are lent credibility by his dour take on the Afghan Border Police, whom he describes as "just as bad as they were five years ago."
But within the Sabari district of Khost province, a historic center of operations for insurgent groups and one of the most troublesome areas in Task Force Duke's AO, US advisers offer mixed, though ultimately negative assessments of their local partners. American officers have some praise for the Afghan Uniform Police, and single out their new police chief as an enthusiastic leader. But that force is small; fewer than 60 officers police the district. Thus, the main local security responsibility in Sabari resides with about two companies of Afghan National Army (ANA).
Americans who work with the ANA in the district on a daily basis are cynical about their partners. US soldiers grant that their Afghan counterparts conduct some operations effectively, communicate with the population infinitely better than they can, and are generally willing to fight (or at least "willing to shoot," according to one soldier). But the Americans offer scathing reviews of the ANA's tactics, initiative, supply and administrative capability, and general ability to do anything without direct US support. Some bright spots exist: Americans dub certain Afghan non-commissioned officers and junior officers as "superstars" who "get after it." But because advancement in Afghan society is often reliant on ethnicity and tribal ties rather than merit, these competent individuals are frequently supervised and held back by less qualified or energetic officers from different social strata.
The events during a recent patrol reported by The Long War Journal highlight some good and bad characteristics of the Afghan Army in Sabari. The negatives are significant: the ANA were tactically inferior (something this reporter has thus far witnessed to varying degrees on patrols with different Afghan units in Khost), and they deserted their American partners when the patrol took contact. On the positive side, the ANA do regularly patrol, they suppressed the above attack effectively before retreating, and the soldiers' rapport with the population is good. While many civilians held the Americans at arm's length, the ANA were greeted with ease and even friendliness by many of the locals. This augurs the possibility that Afghan security forces could represent a viable face of government authority in place of the traditional insurgent power brokers in the area, if they can hold their own against rebels after US forces diminish.
The events of the patrol mentioned above require context: the Afghan contingent was led by a platoon leader deemed among the worst by his American partners. In an incident last month, the lieutenant, who is believed to frequently smoke hash, began to abusively question a four-year-old boy in a nearby village. When an American stepped in to intercede, laying a hand on the lieutenant, members of the ANA platoon cocked their weapons and "drew down" on the US soldier before the situation was defused. In contrast, other platoons are better led, and even some of the soldiers working for the troublesome officer show skill at counterinsurgency. But the Americans' inability to instigate the removal of such an incompetent leader, due to suspected tribal and family ties, highlights the inherent challenge of building a viable force that can stand up to the Taliban after 2014.
This reporter recently sat down to interview Lieutenant Colonel Nasratullah Nasrat, the commanding officer of the 3rd Kandak (Battalion) of the 1st Brigade of the 203rd Afghan Army. An ethnic Pashtun with 25 years of experience in the Afghan Army, Nasrat has spent his entire career stationed in Paktia and Khost provinces. Two things seemed especially notable about his answers: Nasrat's disbelief that the US will really withdraw by 2014, and his blunt assessment of Pakistan's role in the Afghan insurgency. It has been this reporter's repeated experience interviewing leaders of indigenous security forces that there is a strong cultural bias toward pinning responsibility for the violence on foreigners, while absolving locals of blame. But in the case of this interview, Nasrat's assessment of Pakistan's role in destabilizing Afghanistan actually mirrors assessments by multiple US officers and intelligence officials, with the difference that it is on the record.
[Note: This interview took place before the aforementioned problematic patrol.]
The Long War Journal: How have Paktia and Khost changed in the past year? Has security in the area gotten better, gotten worse?
Lieutenant Colonel Nasratullah Nasrat: I've been serving in Khost mostly. As far as Khost, it has improved, especially the road that we're trying to emphasize, the KG Pass. It's one of the main roads that leads from Khost to Gardez, which is in Paktia [province].
LWJ: What type of operations are your men doing to improve security?
LTC Nasrat: I control five districts: Sabari, Bak, Jaji Maidan, Khalander, and Musa Khel. Sabari and Bak district are where we engage with Coalition forces and work on missions together.
LWJ: How is that working out?
LTC Nasrat: It's really good, it's been improving. We take security patrols every day, sometimes it's less or more, depending on the situations. In the other three districts where we don't engage with Coalition forces, we take control ourselves as the ANA. We go on patrol ourselves and take charge.
LWJ: How many troops do you have in Sabari?
LTC Nasrat: We have two companies in Sabari.
LWJ: Describe who the enemy is; who are the people who are fighting your forces and American forces?
LTC Nasrat: They go by the name Talib, but we know they come from ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate).
LWJ: Can you elaborate? Why do you believe the insurgents are products of the ISI?
LTC Nasrat: Then where do they come from, the sky?
LWJ: But what specifically indicates the relationship? What clues do you have that ties the insurgents back to Pakistan?
LTC Nasrat: Well, historically, it's Pakistan's fight more than it is ours. They're the ones who have the resources, and we lack the resources coming from Pakistan's ISI. So where are the Afghan Taliban getting the resources from? The Taliban in Pakistan have been under pressure. They are pressured to come here and fight, and the ones that do come here, the majority are Pakistani.
LWJ: Explain to me what type of support you believe the ISI give to insurgents here.
LTC Nasrat: Qazi Hussein Ahmad and Maulana Fazlur Rahman, they are Pakistani Taliban [leaders], they work for the ISI. The ISI provides them with resources and of course money. And they're the ones who are fighting in the name of religion in the worst possible ways. And they're the ones who are looking for other people to provide them resources - whether it's weapons, money, anything - besides the resources they get from the ISI. They are the ones who hire poor people who need money, leading them to [attack Afghan and Coalition forces]. They just want to keep the war going in Afghanistan, they just don't want to let it go.
[Note: Nasrat clarified that the two individuals he named, as well as many of the individuals he refers to as "Taliban," are those associated with Hizb-i-Islami.This was likely a translation error related to "Islamic Party," however. The two men are associated with the organizations Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islami Fazlur Rahman (JUI-F), both of which use radical madrasas to recruit fighters for the Taliban, as well as maintain ties to the Pakistani security forces.]
LTC Nasrat: Those two men are the leaders, they are like Haqqani Network leaders, but they are not Haqqani. ISI gives those men money, and they distribute money to the insurgent organizations to keep the fight going in Afghanistan.
LWJ: And some of these organizations are local?
LTC Nasrat: They are in Pakistan. But everything comes from the top, which is ISI. They convince the people to fight in the name of Islam for the wrong reasons and have them fight here. Khost is only a popular focus because of the Haqqani Network.
LWJ: But it is my understanding that even though Haqqani is currently based in Miramshah in Pakistan, they are originally from Afghanistan, and they have many Afghan operatives.
LTC Nasrat: Yes, Haqqani is Afghan, but the other two I mentioned are from Pakistan.
LWJ: But aside from those two and the insurgent cells they fund, it is my understanding that Haqqani is fighting here too.
LTC Nasrat: Yes, and they are also linked with the ISI. Yes. And I've even heard he [Siraj Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network] has kind of a rank within the ISI as well, though it is a rumor.
LWJ: So Haqqani, Hizb-i-Islami, other Taliban, they are all fighting within Sabari?
LTC Nasrat: The Taliban has two groups. One is the local Taliban. The local Talibs are not strong at all. The other group [outside Taliban] is linked to Haqqani and ISI. Those are the most dangerous insurgents, they care about nothing and are afraid of no one. And the third group are those who are linked to [Qazi Hussein Ahmad and Maulana Fazlur Rahman]. It's a mixture of all of these groups, who include local people who are poor and get involved for money.
LWJ: It's my understanding that the Americans have taken as many as over 500 mortars and rocket attacks in past years, and this year it's only been a little more than 50 thus far; it's also my understanding that Haqqani and Hizb-i-Islami were hit pretty hard by US and Afghan special forces. Do you think this lull in the fighting is because the insurgents are weak, or because they are waiting until the Americans leave?
LTC Nasrat: The enemy has many faces. They may emphasize on one area [for a time], but they never stay in one place. So, as far as security, yes, it has gotten better, but for the most part the insurgents get pressured in one place so they move and start up in a new location. Recently [insurgents] have been active in Musa Khel (a district immediately west of Sabari), now it has quieted and the insurgents are constantly moving around. Especially the night raids conducted by US Special Forces and Afghan commandos have scared them out of the area because that's when it's best to capture the enemy. They don't quite know what kind of missions we have, but they have realized [it is hurting them] and have been pressured [to move].
LWJ: What other places are they operating from now?
LTC Nasrat: They are looking for a weak place. And when they find a weak place, where there are less Coalition forces, they target it.
LWJ: Do you believe the insurgents are licking their wounds, gathering their strength and waiting for the Americans to leave, at which point they'll renew attacks in Sabari?
LTC Nasrat: Yes. I think they are waiting for that, and they assume, hope for, that the Americans will one day leave. But I can't confirm it.
LWJ: And when that day comes, when the Americans leave, do you believe you are equipped to handle the insurgents?
LTC Nasrat: Of course. My men are ready to fight if they are provided the right resources, like weapons.
LWJ: Explain to me the strengths and weaknesses of your Afghan Army. You say they are ready to fight, but what are the resource issues?
LTC Nasrat: Their strength is pride and ego. They don't back down when they have a duty to do, they will stand and fight, even if they have nothing to fight with. They have a lot of pride, courage, and enthusiasm in them. But their weakness is, they don't have the right weapons.
LWJ: You say weapons, but what about other resources: equipment, food ....
LTC Nasrat: Food-wise we are good to go, equipment-wise we are good to go.
LWJ: But from speaking with various Americans throughout Afghanistan who advise the Afghan Army, I tend to hear that while Afghan soldiers may fight, that the army has trouble with logistics. For example, obtaining and maintaining fuel, food, equipment, and other more mundane administrative areas, without American support. To what extent do you have these issues and how do you plan to address them?
LTC Nasrat: Yes, with logistics we can be a little weak and that's just a military thing. The military is a little weak in providing us things like, for instance, fuel. That is something I have to find a way to get on my own. So we do get help from Coalition forces as far as fuel, as well as air support, but as far as everything else, even our military, from the top [echelons], there are certain things they can't provide because maybe they don't have the resources.
LWJ: So as the Americans pull out, how do you plan to fill that gap [in logistics]?
LTC Nasrat: I can't really answer that, it's really not up to me. It's up to the [Afghan] government. I don't know what will happen.
LWJ: How does the everyday citizen in Sabari district - the farmer, the shopkeeper - view the Americans, the Afghan forces, and the insurgents?
LTC Nasrat: There are two kinds of people in the district. One group includes those who want to work with us but they fear the Talibs and can't do much. And the second group works with the Talibs and they don't really like us. The percentage is high for the first group, but I can't give you an accurate number.
LWJ: I've heard that the district government here in Sabari is weak, that it has very few hired officials, and I've also heard that the tribal structure is very fractured and also very weak. Given those conditions, what is the durable alternative to the insurgent groups? What will be a stable force that average citizens can look to besides the insurgents?
LTC Nasrat: I agree, [the government] is weak. We have men's shuras [tribal meetings]. And if the government is weak and they can't look to the Coalition forces or the Afghan Army, we have male shuras where the citizens can talk about problems and how they can fix them.
LWJ: I've heard that the tribes are weak and the tribal system is fractured here, though. Some of the tribes don't get along with each other, and some of the tribes don't have as much authority as they have in the past. Elders bemoan that "Pashtunwali [traditional tribal code] is dead." Do you see that changing?
LTC Nasrat: There is a person in the area who has authority, his name is Khan Zorman [an elder with the Zambar subtribe of the Sabari tribal confederation], he is the tribal leader.
LWJ: You think he has enough authority to bring the disparate tribes together?
LTC Nasrat: Yes, he is the tribal leader. He will do it through tribal shuras.
[Note: Sabari has a weakened tribal system in comparison with other areas of Afghanistan. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, many members of the large Sabari tribal confederation fled to Pakistan. In their absence, other tribes and Kuchian (nomads) moved into the district after their departure. The lingering effect is a diminution of central tribal authority and a fair amount of infighting between the members of the Sabari tribe, who returned to vie with each other and the newcomers. This presents challenges to ISAF and Afghan government efforts to engage the tribes as a cohesive counterweight to powerful insurgent groups. Zorman is considered the most respected tribal leader in Sabari, but even his power is finite relative to Coalition goals. He is also believed to play both sides of the fence.]
LTC Nasrat: In the shura there are also some members of the Taliban who are part of it. And when Zorman is in the district, he doesn't even need to ask the government for anything, because he handles all issues.
LWJ: Some of the Taliban participate with the shuras?
LTC Nasrat: The local Taliban; they don't come to the shura, but they have a say in the shura, and they want to find out what is going on in the shura.
LWJ: What do you think is the long-term security solution here? What is going to stabilize Sabari, especially after US forces leave?
LTC Nasrat: That's not going to happen as long as Pakistan is involved. As long as Pakistan is there, there will never be security, because they don't want that.
LWJ: So how do you personally deal with that, as a man who has fought for years?
LTC Nasrat: That's a very hard question, it would take me an entire day to answer it. We don't accept the border with Pakistan; parts of Pakistan belong to Afghanistan.
LWJ: Yes, but how are you personally going to deal with this fact: when the Americans pull back, and Pakistan is still supporting these insurgents fighting in Afghanistan, are you resigned to the possibility of fighting a war for the rest of your life, or is there a solution?
LTC Nasrat: Even if I have to die, I will protect and provide security for Afghanistan. It is my duty and what I signed up for.
LWJ: What do you think of the looming American withdrawal [ostensibly by 2014]?
LTC Nasrat: Of course security will go bad. I don't think just here [in Sabari], I think international security will worsen. In my opinion, I don't think the US will really withdraw anytime soon.
LWJ: Do you read or watch the news [about withdrawal]?
LTC Nasrat: Not so much, I usually don't. I know a few are going to withdraw, but I don't think that all the Coalition forces will be leaving. There will be some sort of security here.