Afghanistan harnesses anti-Taliban militias as insurgency spreads

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan
Published 01.06.2015 23:06

Mohammed Omar, the commander known as "Pakhsaparan," or the "wall-breaker," barked out commands at his bandolier-draped fighters, part of a patchwork of anti-Taliban militias in northern Afghanistan seeking to augment hard-pressed Afghan forces in a strategy fraught with risk.

The Taliban recently came close to overrunning the city of Kunduz in the most alarming threat to any provincial capital since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, as the insurgency spreads across the north beyond its traditional southern stronghold.

With Afghan forces suffering record casualties as foreign troops pull back, Kabul is increasingly relying on former mujahedeen strongmen with checkered pasts as a bulwark against insurgents – a gambit observers say is akin to fighting fire with fire.

Powerful among them is Omar, popularly known by his battlefield moniker "Pakhsaparan" for his touted ability to flatten walls, who controls hundreds of fighters in his fiefdom on the banks of the Khanabad River in Kunduz province.

"This is a people's uprising," Omar said, with a trimmed snow-white beard and a deep booming voice as he showcased his militia to Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Kunduz, wielding assault rifles, lugging rucksacks with RPG warheads and draped in bullet-ladden bandoliers.

"The people are prepared to send their sons to the frontlines to fight against the Taliban, to defend their home, their country, their honor and their government."

Kabul has denied arming militias, but Omar admitted receiving ammunition from the government, and the venue for the interview inside the provincial governor's compound was testament to the support he draws from local officials.

The mobilization of militias represents a complete departure from previous government efforts to disarm these groups, blamed for devastating Afghanistan during the civil war in the 1990s and setting the stage for a Taliban takeover.

It also lays bare the shortcomings of the multi-billion dollar U.S.-led effort to develop self-reliant Afghan forces, suffering large daily casualties and struggling to rein in an ascendant insurgency on their own as the war expands on multiple fronts.

"Afghan military and police are incapable of fighting without us," a sub-commander under Mir Alam, an ethnic Tajik and one of the most influential militia leaders, told AFP at his base near Kunduz.

"They don't have an intimate knowledge of these lands as we do. Without militias Kunduz will fall to the Taliban," he said, sporting a fat gold ring studded with a turquoise gemstone.

President Ashraf Ghani's government has been widely slammed for a "leadership crisis" that has resulted in a protracted delay in the crucial appointment of a minister of defense

Kabul scrambled for a response when the Taliban nearly stormed Kunduz in late April, rushing in reinforcements from other provinces, but also calling Mir Alam, who was in neighboring Tajikistan at the time, for help.

As the Taliban has flooded the region this fighting season causing the war's center of gravity to shift north, a disturbing pattern is emerging with the serial numbers of several weapons seized from insurgents matching those issued to Afghan forces, militiamen said.

"It is the government's job to investigate how that is happening," said Alam's sub-commander, requesting anonymity.

The Taliban has been pushed back from the fringes of Kunduz, but it is still a quicksand of instability.

Local residents describe the Taliban as a Trojan horse, infiltrating the city despite a ring of security to orchestrate a spate of regular bombings that have whipped people into a frenzy.

"They may not have stormed the city, but they have a reach deep within it. They are everywhere, they are among us, and that is scary," civil society activist Marzia Rustami told AFP.

Rustami said she was shattered by a recent bombing that killed Noor-ul-Huda Maulvi Zada Karimi, a cleric who frequently took to the airwaves to denounce the Taliban and advocate women's rights.

Haji Amanullah Utmanzai, a Kunduz elder, said local militias controlling unruly patchworks of fiefdoms and blamed for human rights abuses were hardly restoring security.

"Put an armed guard in everyone's house in Kunduz and even then no one will feel safe," he told AFP.

"Militias are abusive, forcibly collect taxes from people, steal harvests from farmers and create a gulf between people and the government," he said.

But the provincial government insists "uprising forces" supplement Afghan troops by acting as crucial tripwires for the Taliban.

But the exact number of militia forces in Kunduz seems unknown, with estimates ranging from 2,000 to 10,000, and observers say that in itself indicates a lack of government oversight.

After the interview, dozens of Omar's men left the governor's compound, walking out of the gate in single file under the afternoon sun.

Many piled into pickup trucks and hatchbacks, some cramming into open trunks, honking their way out while others prowled the streets on foot, rifles perched on their shoulders.

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