The Micro-Level of Civil War: The Case of Central Helmand Province

Sep 26, 2012

The official aim of the war in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qa`ida a safe haven.[1] The conventional narrative of this war, however, places the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government against the Taliban and the Haqqani network in a war over the political future of the country.[2] This narrative is deceptive and ignores the overwhelming localism of the conflict.

This article will assess the history of central Helmand Province’s “micro-conflicts,” which revolve around factionalism, land and water, and the opium industry. It argues that the war in Afghanistan and civil wars more generally are best understood by a two-fold approach that examines alterations in social relations over time. This approach: 1) assesses local conflicts at the micro-level and understands how these aggregate into larger-scale conflict and effects; and 2) shows how macro-level political shifts destabilize existing social relations at the micro-level.[3] Without using both avenues of analysis, understanding of any civil war will be incomplete.

In Afghanistan, Western senior military leaders and decision-makers have focused on dispositional macro-level accounts as if larger events were disconnected from the micro-level.[4] This article is intended to serve as a small corrective measure.[5]

Afghans engage in violent and non-violent politics for predominantly local reasons that often have little to do with any national or transnational cause. Conflict in Afghanistan is driven by a confusing aggregation of “micro-conflicts”—the localized, enduring conflicts and rivalries driving politics within the government and the larger insurgency. A large-scale counterinsurgency campaign has not resolved or substantively addressed these micro-conflicts; it has only aggravated them. Moreover, this argument implies that a national reconciliation process between the Afghan government—itself a house divided many times over—and the leadership of the loosely structured Taliban movement will not mitigate these micro-conflicts and lead to peace.

More often than not, these micro-conflicts are decades old, each with unique histories at the provincial, district, and village levels. The constant recurrence of conflict in Afghanistan during the last 30 years can be traced to these micro-conflicts. Indeed, their constancy is one of several reasons to understand the last three decades of conflict in Afghanistan as a civil war with multiple phases.[6] People choose sides (factions within the government, factions within the insurgency, narcotics cartels, or a mixture of all three) based on where their enemies sit, their own family loyalties, and where they believe they can best access resources to prevail against their local opponents. The case of central Helmand Province illustrates this dynamic.

Factionalism: U.S. Development, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the Mujahidin Civil War
From the 1950s to the early 1970s, the United States funded a large-scale agricultural development project, the Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority.[7] Modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the project aimed to improve and expand irrigation systems in the Helmand river valley to increase the province’s arable land. From 1952 to 1973, successive waves of migrants from across Afghanistan settled on these new lands, disrupting traditional patterns of land ownership and inter-tribal relations.[8] The arrival of these tribally diverse migrants had a long-term destabilizing effect that upset the balance of power among Helmand’s “indigenous” Pashtun tribes, originally granted land there by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the 1700s.[9]

Still, Helmand’s traditional power-brokers—the khans of the province’s “original” tribes—managed to maintain a modicum of stability. Khans were (and, in far fewer cases, remain) elite landholders who served as arbiters of disputes, landlords, providers of “social credit,” political and social leaders, and patrons of mullahs and religious scholars. They connected the state to the community, interacting with government officials, and serving as proxy officials.[10]

When the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the regime of Mohammad Daud Khan in 1978, the party’s radical Khalq[11] faction instituted a series of land, economic, and debt reforms that attacked the khan system in Helmand and elsewhere. To the Khalqis, the khans were oppressive feudal overlords who kept Afghan peasants mired in backwardness. While there is some truth to this assessment, it ignores the benefits the khan system provided for both state and society—namely stability.[12]

Taking advantage of the disruption caused by these reforms, opportunistic “climbers,” like the infamous Akhundzada family of a lesser branch of the Alizai tribe, the Hasanzai, began to launch attacks against the khans and their supporters, as well as the Afghan state and Soviet troops who intervened in 1979.[13] As Antonio Giustozzi explained, this phenomenon was not exclusive to Helmand: “new social groups emerged with a vested interest in prolonging the conflict, while existing social groups were transformed by it. Communities everywhere armed themselves to protect against roaming bandits and rogue insurgents.”[14]

As rebellion spread and Helmand’s “moral economy”[15] fragmented, families, tribes, and sub-tribes split along the lines of competing national-level mujahidin parties with provincial franchises.

Membership in these parties was not primarily based on preference for one ideology or the other, but rather on which party would best serve local interests for local conflicts and as a reaction to the Soviet intervention in 1979. For example, Helmand had one of the largest Khalqi membership bases in the country,[16] as the relatively impoverished and disenfranchised migrants had the least to lose and the most to gain politically, socially, and economically from Khalqi reforms at the expense of the traditional elites and earlier migrants who had been allotted more land.[17]

Hizb-i-Islami was the most popular anti-Soviet mujahidin party in the Barakzai-dominated river valley between Gereshk and Lashkar Gah.[18] The Barakzai were the old rural elite of Helmand Province who had the most to lose to Khalqi reforms and usurpers. The Akhundzadas joined the anti-Soviet Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami mujahidin group. Rivals in other Alizai sub-tribes joined other mujahidin parties, out of opposition to the Akhundzadas.[19] Yet Helmandis did not reliably choose their faction solely based on tribal or sub-tribal membership. Other factors included inter- and intra-family feuds, local village disputes, and land disputes. For the most part, the Hizbis in Helmand cared little for the revolutionary Islamist doctrine of the party’s national leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.[20] For them, his group served as a convenient provider of weapons, materiel, and logistics for local conflicts as well as anti-Soviet and anti-government resistance.[21]

Upon the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the later collapse of the Najibullah regime, the province endured a confusing civil war between mujahidin parties and various state-sponsored militias. This war ended shortly after the Akhundzadas’ Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami consolidated control over most of the province.[22] The Taliban swept through the province in late 1994 and early 1995. Many mujahidin fled to Pakistan and Iran, while others joined the Taliban.[23]

During the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban in Helmand were mainly overthrown by militias led by Sher Mohammad Akhundzada and his allies. Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, who had married into the Karzai family, became Helmand’s first post-Taliban governor in 2001. He worked to sideline mujahidin and former Khalq rivals until he was fired in 2006 for heroin trafficking.[24] When he left the governor’s office, he was appointed to the upper house of the Afghan parliament and, remarkably, claimed to send 3,000 of his own men to fight on the side of the Taliban, his former enemy.[25] Sher Mohammad Akhundzada was not taking up the Taliban’s cause, but rather ensuring that the men in his patronage network would still be paid, thus maintaining his powerbase in Helmand.

During Sher Mohammad Akhundzada’s rule and since, factional disputes have defined violent and non-violent politics in Helmand. It is one of the few provinces where former Khalqis are politically ascendant, occupying key district governor and senior police slots as well as the provincial governor’s office. More often than not, these former Khalqis enjoy antagonistic relationships with former mujahidin counterparts and especially former Hizb-i-Islami commanders. These former mujahidin are often also in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), but others—and their children—have joined the insurgency. Just as people joined various mujahidin parties or the government to gain allies and resources to pursue their local interests, people join the Taliban movement for the same reasons.[26]

At the Root: Land and Water
The Khalqi land reforms represented one of several land tenure regimes that have been in place in Helmand since the end of the reign of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973). Land reforms were enacted by Mohammad Daud Khan, the PDPA regime, various mujahidin parties in the early 1990s, the Taliban, and the current regime.[27] As noted by Conor Foley, “if the root cause of the conflicts that wreaked such devastation in Afghanistan could be summarized in a single word, it would probably be ‘land.’”[28] Since Helmand has a predominantly agricultural economy, land is the foundation of all wealth in the province. The alternative is poverty. In the case of Helmand, there are three important land-related problems driving conflict: competing claims, state refusal to recognize land claims, and land usage.

Competing claims to land are common causes of tension between brothers, families, villages, and tribes. Land disputes have determined on which side of the fence people stand: with the government (or a faction therein) or with the insurgents (or a faction therein). It is not uncommon for multiple families to have a legal title to the same land from different regimes.

The state’s refusal to recognize land claims is at a crisis point. The Afghan government currently only recognizes land claims for which they have issued deeds as well as for “customary” deeds dating before 1975.[29] This has left those who received land in the Daud or PDPA reforms without a legal claim. It also alienates those granted land from the Taliban in the 1990s, such as the Ishaqzai in Sangin. The end result is the vast majority of rural landholdings in Helmand are not recognized as legal by the Afghan government. This is part of the reason why the Ishaqzai, for example, are seen as a “troublesome” tribe affiliated with the Taliban. Affiliation with the Taliban provides them some measure of protection against the government’s predatory tendencies.[30]

Occasionally, corrupt or indignant Afghan officials will take a hard line on “squatters”—a term that can be applied to a farmer whose family has been working the same land for 20 years. For example, the former mayor of Lashkar Gah and the police longed after the village of Muhktar north of the provincial capital overlooking the Helmand River, which began as a refugee settlement over a decade ago and has since matured into a sizable village. The mayor occasionally directed his allies in the police to foray into the village and allegedly destroy homes, sometimes killing civilians.[31] These actions incentivize cooperation with the insurgency, if only for protection against the state.[32]

Disputes over land usage typically relate to poppy cultivation. The size of a plot, land quality and water availability can determine what crop is economically feasible for a farmer to grow. As such, growing poppy is—for these reasons and others—often not a matter of choice, but a question of survival. The costs of agriculture are considerable, requiring an investment of cash or credit in fertilizer, fuel for diesel-powered water pumps, labor, and transport to bring crops to market. After all of this money is spent by farmers—particularly tenant farmers and those with small landholdings—and the bulk of their licit crops are set aside for self-consumption, it becomes difficult for them to turn even a modest profit. These factors, combined with the family expenses mentioned above, make poppy a more appealing crop due to its higher value.

This is especially the case in areas with lower quality agricultural land in Helmand.[33] In these areas, the water level in irrigation ditches is so low and the ditches so deep that farmers must subsist on water pumped up from these ditches and wells using diesel-powered pumps.[34] This makes their yearly expenditure in fuel enormous.[35] The necessity of growing poppy to compensate for such costs brings them into conflict with ISAF and parts of the state. When poppy is eradicated, enduring hatreds arise that drive people to support the Taliban.

If conflict in Helmand can be primarily attributed to land tenure, the narcotics trade is a close second.[36]

Poppy and the Opium Industry: The Renewable Resource of Conflict
Although poppy had long been grown on a smaller scale in Helmand, the Akhundzadas legitimized its broader cultivation in the 1980s and turned it into a province-wide industry. Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami controlled the supply of poppy and Hizb-i-Islami ran the processing centers in an uneasy, often disrupted, balance of power.[37] Poppy cultivation was briefly banned by the Taliban in the late 1990s, but experienced a resurgence following their overthrow.[38] Poppy is the renewable resource of conflict in Helmand. Conflicts between various factions within the government and between the government and the insurgency are often driven by competition over access to and control over the narcotics industry.

Helmand has been the largest poppy-producing province in Afghanistan by a considerable margin. With the eradication program in Helmand wiping out only three percent of the yearly crop, at the cost of alienating struggling farmers whose meager poppy profits barely get them and their families through the year, the utility of this counternarcotics program is questionable at best.[39]

In Helmand, there is a “Gray Nexus” among the Afghan government, narcotics cartels, the insurgency, and the population based on a common interest in poppy cultivation, processing, and trafficking. The insurgency serves as a protection and transportation racket for the cartels. It also plays a role in surging migrant farmers to help with the harvest in the spring and, in some areas, the insurgents offer farmers protection against eradication efforts. Poppy cultivation and narcotics trafficking represent the most important source of revenue for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.[40] Government officials profit by allowing and facilitating trafficking. It is not uncommon for government officials in Helmand to be more directly involved in cultivation, processing, trafficking and facilitation. Poppy profits, which are modest for farmers, provide enough cash for a family to meet its costs of living. These profits also serve as a form of insurance for family illnesses, failed crops, drought, and any needed repairs.[41]

It is vital to use two avenues of analysis to understand the conflict in Helmand Province and civil wars more generally: 1) assessing local conflicts at the micro-level and understanding how these aggregate into larger-scale conflict and effects; and 2) understanding how macro-level political shifts destabilize existing social relations at the micro-level.

The complex micro-conflicts that drive conflict in this part of Afghanistan are unique to Helmand, but equally complex local issues are at play in every province and every district in Afghanistan. These micro-level developments are linked to important shifts at the macro-level. Two important findings can be observed.
The Afghan state implemented political, economic, and social reforms that attacked the prevailing system of social arrangements and hierarchy on the micro-level in Helmand in the mid- and late-1970s and 1980s. These reforms destabilized this system, broke its “moral economy,” and created incentives for cross-boundary opportunism. Different social groups that lived side by side for decades, despite longstanding tensions, began to engage in violent attacks against each other, politicizing pre-existing social identities and forming coalitions and alliances with macro-level organizations—including the Khalq faction of the PDPA, Hizb-i-Islami, Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami, and other mujahidin and militia groups.

At the same time, Pakistan likely seeks to prevent a strong Afghan government from emerging, as Islamabad prefers a weak buffer state to maintain strategic depth against India and avoid encirclement. To achieve this, and to keep a modicum of stability in its own restive Pashtun regions, Pakistan must also blunt Pashtun nationalism. Exploitation of these micro-level conflicts through and with limited support for the Haqqani network and the Taliban allow them to accomplish all of these goals.

Focusing solely or mostly on either the micro- or macro-level of analysis will provide an incomplete understanding of a conflict, leading to poorly gauged policy and strategic prescriptions in the case of military intervention, development aid, covert assistance to one or more parties, or even “moral support.”

Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy and a Ph.D. Candidate at the King’s College London War Studies Department. He previously served on a U.S. Army Human Terrain Team with the British-led Task Force Helmand.

[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” U.S. White House, December 1, 2009.

[2] ISAF’s official mission: “In support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, ISAF conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.” See Also see “Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan,” International Crisis Group, March 26, 2012; Richard Barrett, “Talking to the Taliban,” Foreign Policy, August 20, 2012; Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Thwarting Afghanistan’s Insurgency: A Pragmatic Approach toward Peace and Reconciliation (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2008).

[3] Charles Tilly, Identities, Boundaries & Social Ties (London: Paradigm, 2005), pp. 23-44.

[4] In public statements, senior military and ISAF leaders discuss the insurgency as a macro-level phenomenon rather than as an aggregation of local conflicts. See, for example, Michael O’Hanlon, “O’Hanlon: My Interview with General John Allen,” CNN, March 26, 2012; “Martha Raddatz Interviews Gen. John Allen in an Exclusive from Afghanistan,” ABC News, March 5, 2012; Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

[5] Modified segments of this article will also appear in the forthcoming co-authored report: Talking to the Taliban: Ending the Chaos of Good Intentions (London and Washington, D.C.: The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, the Center for National Policy, forthcoming).

[6] Ryan Evans, “The Once and Future Civil War in Afghanistan,” The AfPak Channel, July 26, 2012.

[7] Richard B. Scott, Tribal & Ethnic Groups in the Helmand Valley, Occasional Paper #21 (New York: The Asia Society Afghanistan Council, 1980).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] For more on khans, see: John W. Anderson, “There are no Khans Anymore: Economic Development and Social Change in Tribal Afghanistan,” Middle East Journal 32:2 (1978); John W. Anderson, “Khan and Khel: Dialects of Pakhtun Tribalism,” in Richard Tapper ed., The Conflict of Tribe and State in Iran and Afghanistan (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983).

[11] The Afghan communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), split into two factions in 1967, two years after it was founded. The Khalq faction, led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, was more radical than the Parcham faction and also more predominantly Pashtun—Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group which is concentrated in the south and east of the country. While the Parcham faction was content to pursue a communist state more patiently, the more radical Khalq faction launched the Saur Revolution in 1978, overthrowing the regime of Mohammad Daud Khan. See Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 82, 92-95, 111-121.

[12] Rubin, pp. 111-121, 142-145; Scott.

[13] Mad Mullahs, Opportunists, and Family Connections: The Violent Pashtun Cycle (Williamsburg, VA: Tribal Analysis Center, 2008); Putting it Together in Southern Afghanistan (Williamsburg, VA: Tribal Analysis Center, 2009); Afghanistan: Helmand’s Deadly Provincial Politics – Competition and Corruption (Arlington,  VA: Courage Services, 2009).

[14] Antonio Giustozzi and Niamatulah Ibrahimi, Thirty Years of Conflict: Drivers of Anti-Government Mobilisation in Afghanistan, 1978-2011 (Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2012).

[15] The moral economy approach begins with the assertion that human interchange and economic activity are “submerged” in social relations and that “historically, the provisioning of humans—the securing of their livelihood—was located in, or integrated through, noneconomic institutions (e.g., kinship, religion, and politics).” Economic relations are thus an integral part of social relations and while they are variable across cultures and geography, “they are molded, in their ends and instruments, by non-economic forces.” See William James Booth, “On the Idea of the Moral Economy,”  The American Political Science Review 88:3 (1994): p. 653; Samuel Popkin, “The Rational Peasant,”  Theory and Society 9:3 (1980): pp. 411-471; Jeremy M. Paige, “Social Theory and Peasant Revolution in Vietnam and Guatemala,” Theory and Society 12:6 (1982): pp. 699-736.

[16] Personal interviews, Gereshk, Parschow, and Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, January, May and August 2011. All interviews cited were conducted in the author’s capacity as a Human Terrain Team Social Scientist between November 2010 and August 2011. The interview subjects were all Afghan nationals and included farmers, merchants, security force officials, elders, and militia leaders. Also see Antonio Giustozzi, Empires of Mud: War and Warlords in Afghanistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 64-65.

[17] Scott; Giustozzi and Ibrahimi.

[18] Personal interviews, Gereshk and Babaji, Afghanistan, January and March 2011.

[19] Putting it Together in Southern Afghanistan; Antonio Giustozzi and Noor Ulla, “‘Tribes’ and Warlords in Southern Afghanistan, 1980–2005 (London: Crisis States Research Centre, 2010), pp. 9-13.

[20] Ibid; personal interviews, Gereshk and Parschow, Afghanistan, January, March and April 2011.

[21] Giustozzi and Ullah.

[22] Ibid.; Anthony Davis, “How the Taliban Became a Military Force,” in William Maley ed., Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan Under the Taliban (New York: New York University Press, 1998); Rubin, pp. 245-264.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Personal interviews, Gereshk, Afghanistan, January 2011; Damien McElroy, “Afghan Governor Turned 3,000 Men Over to Taliban,” Telegraph, November 20, 2009.

[25] McElroy.

[26] Personal interviews, Gereshk, Afghanistan, January-February 2011.

[27] Richard F. Nyrop and Donald M. Seekins, Afghanistan Country Study (Washington, D.C.: American University, 1986), pp. 183-189; Land Tenure and Property Rights in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: USAID, 2010); Liz Alden Wily, Land Rights in Crisis: Restoring Tenure Security in Afghanistan (Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2003), pp. 42-50.

[28] Conor Foley, “Housing, Land, and Property Restitution Rights in Afghanistan,” in Scott Leckie ed., Housing, Land, and Property Rights in Post-Conflict United Nations and Other Peace Operations: A Comparative Survey and Proposal for Reform (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[29] In 1975, the first of a series of land distribution laws in Afghanistan began. The Afghan government’s current position is designed to restore landholdings to the “golden era’” of King Zahir Shah, before the Daud and PDPA land reforms. See Liz Alden Wily, Rural Land Relations in Conflict: A Way Forward (Kabul: Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2004).

[30] The Afghan state tends to adhere rather strictly to Tilly’s observation that war-making and state-building are, in essence, large-scale organized crime. See Charles Tilly, “War and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Peter Evans et al. eds., Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 169-191.

[31] Personal interviews, Mukhtar village, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, December 2010.

[32] Ibid.

[33] This information is based on the author’s work with the Human Terrain Team from the Task Force Helmand Area of Operations, which encompassed Nahr-e-Saraj district, eastern Nad-e-Ali district, and Lashkar Gah Municipality, from November 2010 to August 2011.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid; Giustozzi and Ibrahimi, p. 45.

[37] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2009).

[38] Ibid.

[39] This information is based on the author’s work with the Human Terrain Team at main operating base Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, from November 2010 to August 2011.

[40] Michelle Nichols, “Taliban Raked in $400 Million from Diverse Sources: U.N.,” Reuters, September 11, 2012.

[41] Ibid.