Hearts, minds, and revenge: local resistance to the Afghan insurgency

Taliban corpses.jpg

Afghan police look at the bodies of two Taliban militants who were killed in the Char Dara district of Kunduz province May 8, 2009. Source: Wahdat

On the blustery Sunday afternoon of Feb. 8, 2009, a frenzied mob of angry Afghan villagers from the Dara-e-Noor district of eastern Nangarhar province joined provincial police forces in the hunt for Taliban assassins responsible for gunning down a highly respected local elder — Qazi Khan Mohammed (known affectionately among locals as Malik Baba) — who had also served as the secretary of the Nangarhar Provincial Council. The vigilante posse pursued the attackers and eventually cornered the Taliban hitmen, forcefully tethered the pair to a tree, and proceeded to kick and punch them to death.

Most media reporting on the incident, such as The New York Times, described the vigilante attack as both an “uncommon response from villagers” and “one motivated at least in part by an angry fear that Afghanistan’s deeply corrupt judicial system would turn the killers loose.” But in fact, local resistance to Taliban and other illegally armed groups has been widely recorded across the country for the past several years, and recent examples indicate that local resentment and hostility to the brutal behavior of the Taliban remain omnipresent.

In the past week alone, local villagers In Helmand and Ghazni provinces have reportedly killed two Taliban commanders and a bodyguard of one of the commanders, and injured another. Unconfirmed reports sent to The Long War Journal suggest that two Taliban fighters were killed by locals after the militants established an illegal checkpoint on the Parwan-Baymian highway in northern Afghanistan earlier this month.

On Aug. 22, two Taliban fighters accosted a local elder named Yaar Muhammad as he and his sons were waiting to celebrate Iftar at a local mosque in the village of Tekh Zaber, in Helmand’s Nawa district. After ordering Yaar Muhammad to come speak with them, the Taliban opened fired and killed him. Yaar Muhammad’s sons quickly subdued the Taliban fighters, and a melee ensued with villagers kicking and beating the Taliban assassins to death with stones, according to local officials who spoke to The New York Times.

Five days later, residents in the Pirzada suburb of Ghazni City clashed with Taliban fighters who were attempting to collect zaakat (alms) from local residents, the Ministry of the Interior confirmed in a statement to The Long War Journal and Pajhwok News. One insurgent was killed and another was injured, according to Afghan authorities.

Oppressive acts conducted by Taliban fighters — such as assassinations, the forceful taxing of local residents, and kidnappings — have sparked violent reactions from numerous Afghan communities. In many of these cases, unarmed Afghan villagers have overpowered their Taliban attackers with nothing more than farming tools, sticks, stones, or even their bare hands.

While these incidents remain sporadic and highly unpredictable, some local communities are transforming into anti-Taliban bulwarks to prevent further insurgent expansion. For instance, late last summer local villagers from Tarbuz Guzar, a small hamlet straddling the banks of the Kunduz River, established a fortified compound to help defend their village from marauding Taliban forces. The 50-man militia was entirely funded and armed by local residents at first; the ethnically diverse Tarbuz Guzar militia (initially a mixture of ethnic Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Tajiks) sought more practical help from the local Afghan government.

Similar cases of local resistance to Taliban expansion occurred in Wardak and Uruzgan provinces as far back as 2008, prompting the controversial initiative from NATO and the Afghan government to help formalize local defense units and tap into the naturally occurring anti-Taliban rifts among locals. The most established of these efforts, the Afghan Local Police initiative, recently marked its first year of existence on Aug. 23. According to US military reports, the ALP currently consists of more than 7,000 officers spread over 40 districts and is continuing to grow. The ALP is projected to reach 10,000 members by December 2011.

Below is a brief assessment of local resistance to Taliban activities across Afghanistan since 2006.

Aug. 27, 2011: Residents in the Pirzada suburb of Ghazni City clashed with Taliban fighters attempting to collect zaakat (alms) from locals, the Ministry of the Interior confirmed in a statement to The Long War Journal and Pajwhok News. One insurgent was killed and another was injured, according to Afghan authorities. The Taliban denied those killed were militants, but admitted religious students were killed in the vicinity who were asking for assistance. Source: Pajhwok News.

Aug. 22, 2011: Angry villagers stoned to death a local Taliban commander and his bodyguard in southern Afghanistan after the militants killed a 60-year-old man accused of aiding the government, Afghan officials said. The stoning happened in the Nawa district of Helmand province. The episode began when two armed insurgents roared up on a motorcycle to a mosque in the village of Trekh Zaber, where Yaar Muhammad, a local farmer, and his two sons were waiting to celebrate Iftar, the evening breaking of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.The men ordered Muhammad to come to them, and as he did, they fired their weapons, killing him instantly, said Hajji Hayatullah, a district council member. As Muhammad fell, his sons jumped the two gunmen and pulled them off their motorcycle. Other villagers joined in, officials said, beating the men to death with stones. Source: The New York Times.

Nov. 21, 2010: Afghan security forces killed two Taliban and wounded three more in an operation to clear militants in western Herat province. The operation started in the Kapgan area of Pashtun Zarghon district. Security forces also recovered three Kalashnikovs, two rockets, and some other weapons, he said. Pashtun Zarghon district chief Abdul Rasheed Popal said the operation had been launched at the locals’ request after the Taliban tried to kidnap a speaker at the mosque. Security forces also recovered three Kalashnikovs, two rockets, and some other weapons. The villagers saved the man after chasing off the Taliban with guns and sticks. Source: Pajhwok Afghan News.

April 2010: Local residents from the village of Gizab, in Tamazan, Day Kundi province, set up roadblocks in the city to prevent insurgent reinforcements from entering their village, after previously detaining a Taliban leader and several of his subordinates. Gizab had long been used by the Taliban as a rest-and-resupply area for fighters traveling to battlegrounds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Source: NATO and The Washington Post.

July 19, 2009: Villagers in a remote Afghan village stood against Taliban fighters in the eastern Nangarhar province, and killed three insurgents and held 11 others, a private television channel reported. The report indicated a band of militants attempted to kidnap a local Afghan policeman in the Achin district, prompting local villagers to engage the insurgent group, killing three, including two suspected foreign fighters. Source: Xinhua.

Feb. 9, 2009: A frenzied mob of angry Afghan villagers from the Dara-e-Noor district of eastern Nangarhar province joined provincial police forces in the hunt for Taliban assassins responsible for gunning down Qazi Khan Mohammed (known affectionately among locals as Malik Baba) — the secretary of the Nangarhar Provincial Council and a highly respected local elder. The vigilante posse pursued the attackers and eventually cornered the Taliban hit men, tethered them to a tree, and proceeded to kick and punch them to death. Source: The New York Times.

July 1, 2008: Afghan civilians confronted a group of 12 Taliban fighters in the desolate northwestern province of Faryab, sparking a clash that left two Taliban fighters killed and sent the rest fleeing for their lives. Among those killed was Abdul Hamid Akhundzada, the newly appointed Taliban shadow governor for Faryab. The clash came a day after Taliban insurgents attempted to kidnap local aid workers working to build a well in Faryab’s Qayar district. Villagers caught up with the small band of militants the following day and after a brief confrontation, shot the Taliban commander dead and chased the remaining fighters away using sticks and stones. Source: The Long War Journal and Voice of America News.

May 10, 2007: Local villagers fought a group of Taliban militants who were trying to attack a governmental police post in the Sangin district of southern Helmand province, killing three, including a local commander, the Interior Ministry reported. Source: dpa – Deutsche Presse-Agentur .

Aug. 18, 2006: Two militants detonated an explosive device outside the compound of a local security official named Madad in the old Sharan area of Pakitka province, killing the official in a brazen assassination attack. While trying to flee the scene of the attack, the assassins were stopped by villagers and shot on the spot. Both gunmen died from their wounds. Local police officials identified the attackers as “the enemies of Afghanistan,” a term Afghan officials used to describe Taliban militants. Source: Pajhwok Afghan News.

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10 Comments

  • Neonmeat says:

    This is good to hear.

  • evenhead says:

    I have the deepest respect for these people. They are standing up and defending themselves. I can understand why the ALP would be controversial, I mean the fear of them turning into vigilante mobs is there, but at this point I’d have to say that vigilante mobs are better for them than the citizens cowering in fear

  • Max says:

    “Most media reporting on the incident, such as The New York Times, described the vigilante attack as both an “uncommon response from villagers” and “one motivated at least in part by an angry fear that Afghanistan’s deeply corrupt judicial system would turn the killers loose.”
    Although I would normally discount the NYT on almost any subject, this sounds believable for the simple reason that we know that the Afghan government has been doing precisely that for as long as I’ve been reading the LWJ (probably 5-6 years).
    Who wouldn’t get angry that people who had murdered others or committed other crimes had been let loose by the local authorities after they “promised” to be good muslims and not do it again? I don’t blame the people of Afghanistan one bit for their vigilante actions when their government is largely dysfunctional.

  • Gerald says:

    Awesome is too weak a word to describe this article. These latter day Talibs have started to lose the Fear/Respect that gave them power.

  • Alex says:

    Very interesting. Have these mostly been isolated or is this a sign of a trend? Maybe something the Afghan Local Police initiative can latch on to?

  • Soccer says:

    The Taliban deny this is happening, and say that these are all “fake stories”.
    Although they did mention that “American puppet spies” are being paid in order to “ambush mujahideen” while the spies were wearing civilian clothing (ie. dressed up like a villager) so they would make it look like the “common Afghan was going against mujahideens”.
    They also said that a group of “puppet spies” tried this same thing yesterday, and they lost 37 spy agents in a firefight while 2 “mujahideen” “embraced martyrdom”.

  • Mr. Nobody says:

    The truth lies somewhere in between, as is the case with everything that happens in this part of the world. The true story of ALP has not been told and may not be known for a decade or more. It is true that many villagers are disgusted by the judiciary process in Afghanistan and they are taking steps to ensure that the problem won’t be bribed out of jail at the Provincial level and return to their village. I’m sure there are old scores to settle as well. A little frontier justice. ALP is a very complicated process as you may very well imagine and extremely risky. However, the Special Forces troops have been quite successful at identifying leadership within the community and then building a solid foundation with that leadership. The Green Berets are admired and respected for first their ability as warriors. The tribes trust strong warriors who can stand toe to toe with them against the Talib intruders. The key to ALP is getting the local population to understand that the Infidels are in their land for a limited time only. That they are their because of the Taliban and Al Qeada. They must understand that the Taliban are there to change them forever. That they would destroy their tribal life and instill their wahabbi brand of Islam by force. This is not the traditional tribal way of doing things. Once the light bulb comes on that we are the better of two evils because we don’t want to change them and will one day be gone. They almost always show up for training to defend their way of life with their new, temporary friend.

  • A Hawk says:

    One of the surprises when I was in Afghanistan (I worked for an intel unit) was that the taliban really weren’t popular. During the campaign in Helmond, Marines were surprised to discover little Afghan boys playing with homemade U.S. Marine ‘action figures’ or dolls.
    The power the taliban hold over the locals is that they have created a ‘myth’ of their inevitable return to power. The locals really don’t seem to believe that they have a choice.

  • Pundita says:

    Great report! And I was struck by the comment from A Hawk, “The power the taliban hold over the locals is that they have created a ‘myth’ of their inevitable return to power. The locals really don’t seem to believe that they have a choice.”
    I have heard that before and wonder if there is a NATO failure at strategic communications because there must be ways to create a counter-narrative. Or perhaps there simply needs to be networking, or more networking, between villagers — via cell phones or local radio (?) media — who have fought the Taliban and won. Sort of citizens creating counter-swarms to Taliban swarms.

  • Eddie Mac says:

    I wish the world news on major TV broadcast station would report like this. The scary part is that they don

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