A short time ago in a part of Afghanistan far, far away, Islamic State wanted to establish a province of its dark empire, but a tribal force awakened to fight back. However, this tale of noble local fighters protecting their tribe from religious fundamentalists is more complicated than it appears on first sight, as the line between the light and the dark side begins to blur.
The bearded man looked as nondescript as the traditional guest room, furnished with simple mattresses and cushions, in a house in a slightly desolated village in Rodat District, close to the main road in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar. But when I met him in early February, he claimed to command a tribal fighting force of around 350 armed men in the nearby remote mountainous districts of Achin and Spin Ghar, bordering Pakistan’s tribal area.
Having already fought the Soviets in the 1980s, he and his men have once again taken up arms against an invader—this time the self-styled caliphate—after its disciples gruesomely executed ten of their tribal elders in Achin in October last year, by forcing them to sit on bombs before detonating them, he said. And this is just one of the unprecedented barbaric acts that ISIS has committed since it emerged in this faraway border region at the beginning of 2015, and that even shocked Afghans who, after a lifetime in a war-torn country, are used to atrocities.
Our host, who hails from Spin Ghar, explained that the execution only inflamed the uprising. According to him, locals from the Shinwari tribe already turned against Islamic State when, sometime in autumn 2015, the presumptive caliphate’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic rules clashed with tribal traditions, echoing al-Sahwa, the 2006 “Awakening” of Iraqi Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda. Interestingly, he mentioned the confinement of women to their houses, banning them from helping with the work on the fields as has been done for centuries in this subsistence-farming society, as one of the main reasons for the initial uprising against ISIS. In the beginning, tribal fighters routed the black-clad warriors, who fled to the mountains, he claimed. But the caliphate struck back and took bloody revenge on the tribal elders by literally blowing them to pieces, and again took over swathes of the Shinwari region in and around Achin.
“We want to attack Daesh, but the government does not let us, as they want to integrate the uprising into the regular forces first. But the situation is out of control and the government should not stand in our way,” the commander complained in early February. Accordingly, the tribal fighters were restricted to defending their approximately thirty outposts and bases, as well as patrolling where they could.
At that time, tribal elders were talking with the government in attempts to resolve the issue. And given the politics, it is a complicated issue. The Shinwari uprising is supported by Haji Abdul Zahir Qadir, the first deputy speaker of the national parliament, who is from Nangarhar but not himself a Shinwari. Known neither for moderation nor quietness, back in November last year Qadir openly accused Afghanistan’s National Security Council and “people within the government” of supporting Islamic State in one of his ranting speeches in parliament and displayed his actions as proof that a local resistance is needed. In return, his critics claimed that the “tribal uprising” is no more than Qadir’s attempt to establish a private militia to advance his personal gain.
But even within the Shinwari tribe, there are fractions. For example, one observer asserted that, while parts of the Shinwari support the government, one sub-tribe is linked to the Taliban, with yet another connected to ISIS. As another example, Haji Obaidullah, a leader of the Shinwari tribe and member of Nangarhar’s provincial council, said in his house in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, that because of the government’s lacking support, and in spite of plans to do so, the tribe has never risen up and that fighters in Achin were rogue militiamen whose activities have been stopped by the government according to the wishes of the people. Confronted with this, the commander sitting in Rodat retorted that Haji Obaidullah had never supported the tribal uprising, and that his allegations are all lies.
Some also argue that the tribal uprising might not be much better than ISIS. Given some remarks from the commander, this appears to be not entirely groundless. Unmoved, he recounted that at the end of December 2015, his men beheaded four captured fighters of the alleged caliphate, after Islamic State had done the same with four men from the uprising. In response, the government has arrested one of his men. But the beheading was not enough, and the men from the local uprising put the severed heads on small stone piles at a road checkpoint in Achin to warn others. In fact, the commander himself stated that as their enemy does not play by the rules, neither should they. “If they kill our elders, we should kill theirs,” he said nonchalantly. But in a place like Afghanistan, and in view of the devastating civil war of the 1990s, such an “eye-for-an-eye” approach is a dangerous prospect.