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Inside the Volatile Afghan Province Ruled by 130 Militias and Warlords

Citizens of Afghanistan’s Ghor province are getting caught in the crossfire as warring factions battle for money, power, and control of the drugs and weapons trade.
Photos by Ali Latifi

When he first heard that Ahmad Khan, the acting educational director of his native Saghar district was shot dead by then unknown gunmen, Taj Mohammad, 28, feared for the safety of his family.

His suspicions came to a head when it was revealed that Ahmad Khan's January killing was the work of his long-time rival, Ahmad Shah, a Taliban-allied commander, who hails from the same tribe as Taj Mohammad.

Shortly after the revelation, Taj Mohammad said his family's life was thrown into a tailspin as residents loyal to Ahmad Khan began to seek retribution for his death.

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Though Taj Mohammad said his family had little contact with Ahmad Shah, forces loyal to Ahmad Khan in the southwestern district began to take out their anger on anyone they saw as connected to the commander.

"They burned more than 140 households, nothing was spared," he said.

Haji Sultan Khan, Taj Mohammad's 55-year-old father, said his car and store — his main source of income in one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces — were also burned.

"They even burned the donkeys," Haji Sultan Khan told VICE News.

Fearing for their lives, the family relocated to the provincial capital, Firoz Koh. Their story is not unusual. At an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp, they joined 27 other families, all of whom had fled their homes due to the dozens of warring factions that control the province.

More than 130 militias control 70 percent of Ghor province, making it one of the most volatile and insecure provinces in Afghanistan, and a nightmare for the 600,000 people who live here.

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Internally displaced people from Pasabad district who fled fighting between rival groups in an IDP camp in the provincial capital, Firoz Koh. (Photo by Ali Latifi)

The militias are comprised of 6,500 men, who work for a variety of different players. Some are Taliban or other allied insurgent groups bent on overthrowing the Western-backed Afghan government. Some are tribal militias allied with a hodgepodge of the province's different ethnic groups. Others are militias funded and armed by local strongmen and warlords.

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The groups fight among themselves over control of the drug and weapons trade, Afghan government projects, roads, villages, money, and power. And that fighting has repeatedly left the local population caught in the crossfire.

Locals said the the central government has largely ignored the insecurity caused by the militias.

As proof of the inattention of the Kabul government, locals point to the fact that only 1,500 members of the nation's security forces are stationed in the province, with the majority relegated to the capital.

This is especially troubling given the province's strategic location connecting the north and southern parts of the country.

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The Harirod River flows from the border areas of Bamiyan province into Ghor and leads to neighboring Herat province.

Abdullah Haiwad, who served as governor for two years starting in 2011, describes the security situation in his native province as "a fire burning from below."

Speaking to VICE News at his home in Kabul, Haiwad said Ghor's insecurity often goes unnoticed specifically because of its central location.

"You can't easily transport weapons from Jalalabad [in the east] to Kunduz [in the north] directly," Haiwad said.

"But you can send them from Pakistan to Kunduz or Faryab [also in the north] through Ghor."

In fact, the province has become one of Afghanistan's main transit points for illegal arms and drugs, which fuel many of Ghor's tribal militias.

The arms trade is so prevalent that locals have reported several instances of families asking for specific weapons as part of a woman's dowry before marriage.

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Though the Taliban have increasingly made inroads into the province, Ghor poses a special challenge for Kabul.

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Insecurity has greatly limited access to the villages and districts of Ghor. Local residents say venturing even a few kilometers outside Firoz Koh, the provincial capital, is fraught with danger, as warring local commanders have set up checkpoints along the roads. 

Unlike other provinces, insecurity in Ghor is fueled by a diverse array of groups loyal to dozens of individual commanders rather than usual suspects of the armed opposition, namely the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami.

This insecurity has affected all aspects of life in the province.

Shahla Khatebi, the Provincial Director of Women's Affairs, said the danger posed by the warring factions has greatly limited her directorate's work.

"We can't go out into the villages and districts, where the people are most in need, so most of our work has been relegated to Firoz Koh."

In 2011, an investigation by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting found several cases of leaders of the militias abducting, abusing, and selling off local women.

'They burned more than 140 households, nothing was spared. They even burned the donkeys.'

Though there has been some progress — earlier this year Seema Joyenda was appointed as the province's first-ever female governor — Khatebi said women "cannot raise their voices when there is an active fight just outside their doorsteps."

Even relatively safer districts have not been spared the affects of the insecurity.

Gholam Nabi, a member of a community development council in Dawlatyar district, said much-needed infrastructure projects have also suffered as a result of the infighting.

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"Often times when a project is left incomplete or unsuccessful it is a direct result of the security situation," Gholam Nabi told VICE News.

Related: Millions of US Dollars May Have Gone to 'Ghost Schools' in Afghanistan

Haji Sultan Khan, 55, said his store and car were both burned by supporters of a local commander.

Combined with the harsh winters that leave the province largely inaccessible for up to six months each year, the insecurity has also taken a heavy toll on the economy.

Many of the IDP families in Firoz Koh reported having to leave behind their agricultural land when escaping the violence in their home districts.

Mahmoud, 35, who came to Firoz Koh from Pasaband three years ago, said previously, men could go to neighboring Herat province for work, but that the insecurity has now made that impossible.

'I will build a school in your area, but if anything happens to it, it's your head.'

"If you aren't caught in the middle of the firefight, you have to maneuver through dozens of check-posts, each belonging to a different group asking for a tax," Mahmoud said.

Though he says conflicts between a mix of Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak and Pashtun ethnicities have long been a part of Ghori society, Haiwad, the former governor, said a lack of economic development has only further fanned the flames of conflict as commanders fight for limited resources.

Rather than marginalizing the commanders, Haiwad said local leaders must learn to accept on-the-ground realities and work with them.

Related: Hillary Clinton Sought Advice on Afghanistan From Former Bill Clinton Advisors

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Shah Mamor Shehab, who runs the Jam-e Ghor news site in Firoz Koh, says the insecurity in his home province has only further deteriorated in the last three years.

During his tenure as governor, Haiwad said when he embarked on development projects he would go directly to regional commanders and tell them it was their responsibility to maintain the projects.

"I would say: 'I will build a school in your area, but if anything happens to it, it's your head.'"

Haiwad's approach is in direct contrast to Joyenda, the current governor's plans for facilitating reconciliation among the groups.

"I want to bring together representatives of every group, every community, including those few power-hungry men that are the cause of the suffering of so many, and have them sit in one room face-to-face in serious dialogue," Joyenda told VICE News.

Haiwad questions the longevity and effectiveness of such approaches.

"I've had armed men from my own tribe swear to me that they will end the fighting only to hear that days later they shot dozens of people in their own homes," Haiwad said.

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

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