A War of Attrition in Farah Province

posted: 13-03-2013 by: Fabrizio Foschini
With the withdrawal of foreign troops taking place countrywide, it is inevitable that not all provinces fare the same, given the differences in insurgents’ and government’s degree of attention. Farah, a province where transition was scheduled late by all standards, has experienced a serious deterioration in security, even before the transition was over. The second half of 2012 brought increased targeting of government officials and a regrouping of insurgent networks, and that trend has continued into 2013. The Taleban seem to be exploiting the opium harvest and the unpopular eradication efforts by the government to further establish their presence. It remains to be seen if the recently announced deployment of the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) along the Herat-Kandahar highway, in the place of private security companies, will help address the chronic insecurity problems of that stretch. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini offers an update on the security situation of the western province.

2012 has been a veritable annus horribilis for Farah: shortly after AAN last reported about the province in April 2012 (see blogs here and here) the insurgents mounted a string of high-profile attacks against the seat of the local government, and the situation worsened throughout the province during the second half of 2012. 
Governor Akram Khpalwak had hardly taken up his new job at the end of April 2012, when on 17 May a commando of insurgents tried to storm his office, engendering a fire fight in which his deputy Yunus Rasuli was wounded while fighting back the assailants. The western province found itself increasingly under the pressure of Taleban attacks. Less than two months later, on 7 July, another attack on the governor compound was attempted, this time with a suicide bomber and rockets. Never in recent years had the security of Farah’s provincial capital been violated so blatantly. Incidents inside the perimeter of the city continued unabated, ranging from assassinations to attacks with multiple explosive-rigged vehicles. Quick, unpredictable attacks with hand-grenades thrown by passing motorcyclists repeatedly hit police checkpoints, NGO compounds and government offices. On 4 November 2012, a hand-grenade was hurled into the MRRD compound where a conference with national and international partners was taking place, causing injuries to some of the participants. 
Although high-profile targets, such as those described, managed to catch the attention of the international media, it is another strategy, that of the day-to-day war of attrition against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), that constitutes the insurgents’ major asset in trying to overturn the balance of power in the province in their favour. 
The constant trickle of casualties that they have been able to inflict on officers of the police and National Directorate of Security (NDS) at isolated checkpoints or when on leave has in particular become a factor of concern during the last months. In January 2013, for example, two policemen were shot by a Taleban “killing squad” on motorbikes when patrolling a park in the centre of Farah city, and another was killed while off-duty and when visiting his in-laws’ house in Bala Boluk district. Only days ago, an IED killed one policeman and two passers-by in the centre of Farah city. 
This sort of operations have been able to reach higher-ranking targets too. Only during the last months of the year, several assassinations took place in Farah. On 10 November 2012 at noon, the car of Zmaray Farahi, the NDS chief for Qalah-e Kah, was ambushed on the main road to the district centre, and he was killed in the firefight. On 26 January 2013 the same fate befell chief of police of the same district, substantiating previous local reporting about the presence of a cell of insurgents linked to the Haqqani network in Qalah-e Kah and in neighbouring Shib Koh, which seems to have brought a more confrontational approach to these otherwise relatively quiet districts. 
Previously, a lone attacker had also attempted to kill the provincial chief of police, Abdul Samad-e Shamsuddin, in Farah city’s main mosque during the congregational prayer marking Eid al-Adha on 26 October 2012, closely missing his shot before being arrested. 
Local insurgents have also been keen to target their former affiliates who have reconciled with the government and, a not uncommon instance in Farah, are now serving in the ANSF. They are for this very reason specifically targeted by insurgents, and often more vulnerable to infiltrators and insider attacks. On 20 November 2012, Mulla Nur Mohammad, who had left the insurgency two years ago and had become the commander of an Afghan National Police (ANP) unit in Bala Boluk, was blown up while travelling close to Farah city airport in what appeared to be a carefully-planned Taleban operation. 
The turn of the year brought a spat of insurgent attacks against government officials. On 31 December 2012 the chief police of Khak-e Safed survived with injuries a mine explosion which killed his bodyguard, while the next day the insurgents were able to claim the life of the local Afghan Local Police (ALP) commander and one of his bodyguards in the same area. On 2 January 2013 a large group of insurgents attacked the residence of the district governor of Bala Boluk, the strategic district connecting Farah city to the main Herat-Kandahar section of the Ring Road; they were repulsed only after a long-drawn battle. 
This targeting campaign, which is by no means limited to Farah(1), has been particularly disruptive in this vast and chronically undermanned province. The increased attacks on the ANSF, especially against NDS, ANP and ALP at the district level, respond to a precise logic. The insurgents’ objectives appear to be to disrupt the ANSF morale, to limit their movements and their ability and willingness to operate, and to reduce the appeal that joining the security forces may have for the unemployed youth. 
This tactic fitted well with the Taleban’s so-called “economy of forces” strategy put in place last year in response to the overwhelming firepower displayed by NATO troops, which had in many areas severely depleted the insurgents’ ranks. But now NATO has started withdrawing, even if the schedule for the security transition took place at a slow pace compared to other provinces. Six districts – Farah, Anardarah, Bala Boluk, Lash wa Juwayn, Qalah-e Kah and Shib Koh – were transferred to the ANSF in December 2012 and the transition of the remaining is starting only now. The PRT closure is not expected before December 2013, but the overall number of US and Italian troops is already shrinking, as is their level of operativity. Many of the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in the districts have been closed and the foreign troops are now almost invisible outside of the remaining bases according to locals interviewed by AAN. 
As in other provinces, attacks against foreign forces have probably not been the priority for insurgents for a while, who have in past faced heavy casualties doing so and who may be better off waiting for them to leave. The ANSF and other government officials, however, are more easily put under pressure through less costly tactics such as opportunist targeted assassinations, IEDs on their routine movements, intimidation of relatives and of communities supportive of government projects, and suicide bombers directed against checkpoints, barracks and recruits. The insurgency, after a year spent focusing on maintaining its grip on rural communities in areas where it had been hit hard by NATO/Afghan military operations in 2010-2011, is now contesting, if not the control of the territory, at least the Afghan government’s ability to make its presence more than symbolic in many rural areas. 
However, the impending withdrawal of NATO ground troops (2) from provinces like Farah, if not backed up by efforts from the Afghan government to fill the eventual security gaps, may embolden the insurgents to assume a more ambitious stance. The vast distances that characterise the province, the Taleban grip on the rural population of many districts and the relative exposure of the provincial capital itself may allow more definitive Taleban gains in the near future. 
Khak-e Safed has long been one of those areas, where insurgents have maintained a strong presence despite repeated efforts to dislodge them – for example, an ALP program mentored by US special forces was launched since an early stage in the district. However, the ALP in the district has been subjected to numerous insurgent attacks, including by infiltrators. Khak-e Safed, whose transition has been announced a few weeks ago, still represents a veritable thorn in the side for the local government. A notorious Taleban commander from the district, Mulla Zakir, reportedly spends most of his time in hiding southwards, often beyond the border in Pakistan, but other field commanders have risen through the insurgent ranks, and they seem to have the same ruthless and radical approach as their boss, as indicated by threats directed at schools in Khak-e Safed and in neighbouring Anardarah last January. 
Recently, insurgents from Khak-e Safed and the neighbouring districts seem to have established a strong presence in Diwar-e Sorkh, a hamlet strategically situated between the roads leading from Farah to Shindand and from Farah to the Ring Road, on the border between Khak-e Safed and Posht-e Rud districts. From there, the Taleban are able to operate in both districts and in nearby Bala Boluk, as they linger also dangerously close to Farah city, which is roughly 20 kilometres away. The area is also the district’s main poppy-growing ground. 
In fact, the opium harvest season is giving the local Taleban more opportunities to pick up a fight against the ANSF from an advantage point. On 5 March 2013 they ambushed a joint ANA/ANP eradication party while it was defusing two IEDs placed on the main road leading to Khak-e Safed district centre: the insurgents first exploded a third remote controlled bomb, and then they attacked the ANSF at close range. The battle left two dead per side and ten more wounded among the government forces. The days after, the ANSF had to force their way through in Diwar-e Sorkh, killing four more insurgents in the process and sustaining two casualties. Insurgents additionally exploit the government’s opium eradication campaign waged around this time of year, to gather support from local communities, whose livelihoods, in districts like Khak-e Safed and Bala Boluk, closely depend on opium crops. 
If the operations of the last days in Diwar-e Sorkh were conducted solely by the ANSF, the remaining form of US support came in the form of a drone strike which killed a Taleb commander and two of his men in the neighbouring village of Pasab on 10 March 2013. As often in these cases, the identity of the victims is not easy to ascertain: the Taleban spokesman claimed they were only religious preachers. The combination of Taleban long-term presence and influence, military operations and forced eradication risks tilting the population against the Afghan government. 
Posht-e Rud district, which basically constitutes the agricultural hinterland of Farah city, also seems to have been left exposed to Taleban operations. Local reporters claim that the ANA recently abandoned its only base in the district. This could have obvious repercussions on the morale of the remaining ANSF – a few policemen and the local ALP unit. In a recent instance, it was reported that six policemen had deserted their checkpoint in the district to join the Taleban. 
According to local sources, the government response has so far been unsatisfactory in that no additional troops were sent in the wake of the security transition and the deterioration of security in the province. As Abdul Khaleq Nurzai, the woleswal (district governor) of Khak-e Safed, told AAN: 
‘The Afghan security forces are exactly those which were already here. No additional army or police has been deployed except for this eradication campaign. The foreign troops have left two weeks ago, they abandoned all their outposts and did not hand over anything to the ANSF. What they could not carry away with them they burnt on the spot, even the generators.’ 
Actually, the only remedy put in place by the government seems to have been to reappoint Abdul Samad-e Shamsuddin, the former chief of NDS and a local prominent political actor known for his ruthless methods with insurgents – real or suspected – to face the deteriorating situation in the province. A few months back, a respected professional cop, Nur Aqa Kintuz, had been appointed to head the provincial ANP. The two appointments, each very different, have both pro and cons. Kintuz, although appreciated for his professionalism, is sometimes seen as an outsider and an elderly figure and therefore as unable to be pro-active enough in the actual fighting operations. Abdul Samad, on the other hand, is generally considered to be effective, but also to have a polarising effect because of his past record of enmities in his home province. 
A different development is taking place along what always constituted the other major security problem of the province, the Herat-Kandahar section of the Ring Road. Here, government efforts to improve security took the shape of the deployment of the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) to provide security to convoys on the road. This was announced shortly after, on 8 February 2013, Tolo TV reported about the failure of private security companies to guarantee safe passage on that portion of the Ring Road – even pointing at their collusion with the insurgents to the detriment of rival companies. Indeed, the Farah stretch of the Herat-Kandahar highway is one of the worst in terms of security, even worse than the road that crosses Helmand and Kandahar provinces. 
Recently, attacks on convoys and the abductions of simple passengers had started anew, after a period of relative quiet. Most of the logistic and security companies come from and are owned by businessmen from Herat or from Kandahar (an exception being a large company belonging to Zabet Jalil, a former mujahedin commander from Bala Boluk). Local reporting stereotype both, describing the Herati companies as unable to arrange compromises with the insurgents and those from Kandahar as only too willing to strike deals to preserve their business or to damage rivals. The replacement of the private security companies with units than are accountable to the government is a long-awaited step here as in other parts of the country. People from Farah indeed hope that a government-run force may be better able to manage transport security in a standardised way, but experience cumulated in the dire straits of the last years has taught them to be wary of early hopes.
(1) To remain within the boundaries of the Western region, there appears to be a similar recent expansion of assassination tactics in Herat and Nimruz. In Nimruz, in particular, attacks against isolated ANSF servicemen, even inside Zaranj city, have increased. Although in both provinces political motives behind assassinations are also common, which are sometimes only opportunistically claimed by the Taleban, recent attacks on government officials in and around Herat (read here and here) do seem to bear the mark of the political insurgency.
(2) On the other hand, remarkable US military installations remain at the airbase in neighbouring Shindand district of Herat province. The airbase, where the US are also training Afghan pilots, has expanded to reach a perimeter of almost 20 miles, and it is difficult to believe that it will be abandoned anytime soon. The role of US troops there in supporting the ANSF in their fights against insurgents with airpower will depend on future developments within the Afghan government, seemingly intent on restricting the possibility of ANSF requests for NATO airstrikes, and by the outcome of the negotiations on the US-Afghan strategic agreement.