KABUL // When a power cut plunged Kabul into darkness for several weeks this winter, the Taliban’s strength in a mountainous region of northern Afghanistan became a national concern.
The blackout occurred after the collapse of a ceasefire agreement between prominent officials and elders mediating on behalf of local insurgents, ending months of fragile peace in the Dand-e-Ghori area of Baghlan province.
A number of pylons were damaged in the fighting – cutting off the electricity supply line that runs from Uzbekistan to the Afghan capital. Exactly who was responsible for this is still disputed.
Power has now been restored but the controversy over the failed truce and the subsequent bloodshed has only intensified.
The Afghan government still promotes the possibility of negotiations to end the wider war with the Taliban, claiming direct talks are due to take place in Islamabad this month. But the Taliban maintain their stance has not changed and continue to demand the removal of UN sanctions against them, the release of prisoners and formal political recognition.
The recent events in Dand-e-Ghori underline the complexity of even low-level deals between the two sides.
Residents told The National the peace agreement restored order in the area and described the Taliban as local people motivated to take up arms because of years of ethnic discrimination and official corruption.
However, the truce collapsed after it was sharply criticised by some Afghan MPs and sections of the Afghan media who claimed it gave the Taliban undue legitimacy and allowed them to carry out attacks elsewhere.
Following its collapse and the subsequent rise in violence, some residents say thousands of civilians have been forced to leave their homes. This is disputed by the government. The displaced include Fazel Rabi Latif, a teacher who fled to his brother’s house in Baghlan’s provincial capital, Pul-e-Khumri, after the high school at which he taught was hit by a mortar.
“Besides the casualties, [the unrest] has caused other problems and all kinds of damage,” he said. “People have had to stop work, they have left behind their animals, houses and farmland without making any plans.”
The main road connecting Kabul to northern Afghanistan runs through Baghlan and the province is of strategic importance to the country, with any major breach in security having the potential to spread quickly into surrounding areas.
Dand-e-Ghori is home to ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras but much of the population is Pashtun. It is close to Pul-e-Khumri, making it an ideal staging post for attacks on government installations there.
The peace deal in Dand-e-Ghori was struck last September after heavy fighting erupted near the end of Ramadan and the provincial capital came under increasing threat.
A high-ranking delegation from the government including the minister of borders and tribal affairs, Gulab Mangal, and senior figures from the ministries of interior and defence, travelled to Baghlan to talk to local officials.
Among those they met was Alam Jan Mujahid, a Baghlan provincial councillor, who told The National soon afterwards how he lost his temper with them.
“What have been your achievements?” he asked the delegation. “In each operation you are losing bases and the way you are blindly shooting artillery is not Islamic.”
At his suggestion, the visiting officials decided to meet a group of elders and a truce was signed.
It was agreed that the Taliban would not attack the main road or any government checkpoints in the area. They would also not cut off access to Dand-e-Ghori and would vacate their fighting positions.
In exchange, the government agreed to stop firing artillery into Dand-e-Ghori and to halt the arrests of local men accused of having Taliban links unless there was sufficient evidence they had committed an offence.
The elders who signed the deal included Haji Sardar Khan Mosazoi, who comes from the village of Jina Ahmadzai and is the older brother of a prominent local Taliban commander.
Mr Mosazoi said the problems in Dand-e-Ghori began in 2008 or 2009 when the security forces started to harass students of a local madrasa.
The madrasa had about 200 students and at least 10 teachers. As well as offering the usual lessons such as Islamic law and jurisprudence, it also ran classes for Muslims who wanted to memorise the Quran.
According to Mr Mosazoi, the students were frequently stopped, questioned, searched and arrested for no apparent reason. Ethnic Pashtuns travelling into Pul-e-Khumri were regularly detained by the Afghan intelligence service, he said.
In the end, the people took up arms and assumed control of Dand-e-Ghori. They included Mr Mosazoi’s younger brother, Sayed Ahmad Hanafi, who is popularly known as Mawlawi Mamor.
Married and with two daughters and two sons, Mawlawi Mamor was a teacher at the madrasa who is now imprisoned on the outskirts of Kabul. The Taliban’s local leader and the former head of the madrasa, Mawlawi Hilal, is still at large. He is believed to be in his late 30s.
According to Mr Mosazoi, two years after the insurgents took control of Dand-e-Ghori, the government recaptured the area in 2011 and set up militias to maintain security. When the militias continued to harass residents, the Taliban soon seized back control.
The Taliban appear to have widespread support in Dand-e-Ghori. After driving the militias out they moved around the area freely, kept schools open and allowed work on building a medical clinic to continue. They also established their own judicial system.
“They had courts which were loved by the people,” said local elder Mohammed Yousef Ahmadzai. “People were happy with them – there was no bribery, corruption and nepotism. If there was a dispute between two men it would be solved in a single day.”
Mr Mangal, the minister of tribal and border affairs, has defended the failed truce and said it should act as “a lesson” for the government.
Shams-ul-Haq Barakzai, a provincial councillor, agreed that it had helped local residents.
“The reason for all these problems is that the central government and the local government didn’t pay enough attention to the people of this area,” he said.