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Pacha Khan Zadran

Also known as Aghi Badshah Khan Zadran or "the iron grandpa", the 87-year old anti-Taliban commander Pacha Khan Zadran controlled Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces and was for a time the most powerful warlord in southeast Afghanistan. Pacha Khan Zadran, by some accounts, helped Osama bin Laden escape Tora Bora. In spite of his Pashtun origins, Zadran was never an ally to the Taliban, although he was captured by Pakistani soldiers in December 2003 while heading for the tribal areas in Pakistan, a stronghold of the Taliban resistance.

The rugged terrain of the Khost-Gardez (K-G) Pass, and its legacy as a mujahedin stronghold along the southeast approach to Kabul, have been challenges to the completion of an efficient and safe road in the area. The significance of the K-G Pass is highlighted by three characteristics: geographically, the range rises to 12,700 feet, separating the Khost basin from eastern Afghanistan; politically, it is dominated by the Zadran tribal arc; and the K-G Pass lies across the most direct Kabul)Karachi route )- a strategic artery linking the two countries.

The K-G Pass and surrounding Zadran tribal arc have long been difficult for outsiders to control. The Zadran arc stretches across the boundaries of three provinces - western Khost, northern Paktika, and southern Paktya - in districts where the Zadran form a majority or sizable minority. The Zadran are a Pashtun tribe, dwelling primarily in Afghanistan, based in villages dotting the small, scattered valleys that crease the K-G massif. The tribe is estimated to number 120,000, with an unknown number who may be long-term refugees in Pakistan.

Two notable leaders of the Zadran are Pacha Khan Zadran or PKZ, who has reconciled and supports the Afghan government; and Jalaluddin Haqqani, chief of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network Taliban (HQN), a criminal-terrorist syndicate with origins in the anti-Soviet jihad. HQN is one of the main sources of anti-Afghan and Coalition activity, aligning itself with foreign fighters and other militants infiltrating into Afghanistan and operating along its eastern border. Haqqani declared that the new K-G road would never be built.

The Zadran consist of numerous sub-tribes, and like many tribal groupings in the region, are internally fractious, without consistent alignments, and suspicious of outsiders and formal government at all levels - significant obstacles to any major endeavor in this region.

In 2001, just a few kilometers outside of Gardez, Pacha Khan Zadran occupied another center of power. Arguably Afghanistan's most erratic warlord, his 3,000-strong army patrolled the jagged, mountainous routes from Gardez to the tribal areas of Pakistan, hunting for al-Qaeda members and cooperating with American forces. Zadran lobbied for the governorship of the province for himself. In late April of 2002 he started lobbing rockets into Gardez in a campaign that killed 36 civilians. A rival clan in the city returned fire, sending artillery back into Zadran's valley over the heads of US special forces, literally catching the Americans in the middle. Zadran came to be described as the Abdul Rashid Dostum of Afghanistan's southeast: an unsavory but necessary ally.

Before September 11, 2001, Zadran was living as a refugee in the tribal areas of Pakistan. When the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda began, the US-led coalition needed local proxies to prosecute the war in the Pashtun-dominated southeast. Zadran had fought against the Soviets and the Taliban, and soon began receiving large amounts of US cash and recruited an army of foot soldiers. Zadran and his extended family ran the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika for a few weeks until he was chased out of Gardez by local tribal elders. In August, Karzai said he wanted Zadran arrested for murder, much to Zadran's nonchalance. "Karzai wants to arrest me? He has mental problems," he said, holding court before nephews, cousins and Kalashnikov-armed guards. "Look at Karzai," he bellowed. "He has arrested himself. He has surrounded himself with 30 American guards who go everywhere with him." The congregation chuckles and Zadran continues. "The loya jirga was not the real loya jirga. It was a DC loya jirga. He is not the people's choice. Karzai must resign."

Without a strong army, Karzai had little chance of controlling warlords like Zadran. The US still needed his help to hunt for al-Qaeda, although officially they are no longer cooperating with Zadran. As an American diplomat in Kabul put it, "Al-Qaeda is hunkered down waiting for an opening and a defection from a regional warlord could provide the cover that allow these guys to climb out of their holes." Pacha Khan Zadran may be vain, power-hungry and rebellious, but his help can be worth the aggravation.

Originally a staunch supporter of the US war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, for a time he proved to be beyond Washington and Kabul's control. Zadran was an ally of Karzai and the United States, as well as a signatory to the 2001 Bonn agreement, but later took up armed opposition against the central government. His renegade forces were based in Paktia province. In November 2002, US paratroopers seized an enormous cache of weapons and ammo--42 truckloads full--belonging to Pacha Khan Zadran. US intelligence officers said that while Zadran was supposed to be a US ally, he was selling those weapons on the side to al-Qaeda. US officers suspect that some of the al-Qaeda rockets launched into American forward bases near Khost came from Zadran's fire sale. The Americans destroyed many of the weapons they seized and gave the rest to the fledgling Afghan national army.

When Mr. Raz Mohammad Dalili was appointed governor of Paktia province in 2002, he faced opened opposition from Zadran, who warned him not to come to Paktia because if he did, Zadran would certainly fight him. The central government, weakened in the event that it could not enforce its own decisions, issued a stern warning to Zadran to make peace or suffer the consequences. A government statement called the disruptive warlord and his followers "bandits" and "enemies of Afghanistan." The former King of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, had also expressed deep sadness over Zadran's refusal to accept the central government's authority over Khost and Paktia. In the past, Zadran had invoked the ex-King's support in his fight to maintain power in his fiefdom. His sphere of control extended from the Pakistan border to 60 miles outside of Kabul and was dotted with tax-collecting, armed road blocks.

He reportedly told tribal elders in 2002 that if they did not back him in his bid for the gubernatorial seat, he would call US planes against them. This was shortly after the accidental bombing in December 2001 of Qalaye Niazi , a village in eastern Afghanistan where the Pentagon directed a B-52 bomber and two B-1Bs to destroy a suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda camp. More than 100 civilians died when the raid occurred during a wedding party in Qalaye Niazi, scarcely a terrorist stronghold. Zadran was accused of wiping out rivals by triggering the US blitz of a convoy of elders on December 20, 2002, which killed up to 65 people. It was common knowledge that US special forces relied on him because of his impeccable anti-Taliban credentials. While Zadran hailed the bombing as necessary to purge terrorists, he rejected accusations of manipulating air strikes and claimed that he did not know where the Americans got their intelligence.

When Karzai's interim government appointed Zadran governor of Paktia province and head of the southern zone in January 2004, he was prevented from taking the provincial seat by local tribal leaders who rejected his rule. "All the administrations of Khost are in our hands except for the department of education," said Kamal Khan, Zadran's brother. "And 11 out of 12 districts of greater Paktia province are with us and under our control." Greater Paktia is the name given to the four Pashtun-dominated provinces of Paktia, Logar, Paktika and Khost in the southeast. After Zadran tried to capture the provincial capital of Gardez and left thousands dead in the bloodiest episode of internecine fighting in Afghanistan, Karzai made a deal with the local tribal leaders to replace the problematic Pashtun leader. Since then, Zadran and his brother Kamal -- the former governor of Khost -- sought to claim Paktia and Khost provinces despite Karzai's refusal. Zadran's efforts have centered on rallying Pashtun ethnic sentiments and calling for the overthrow of Karzai's government, which he claims is overrun by the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.

Abdul Wali Zadran, a son of rogue military commander Pacha Khan Zadran, was appointed to head the Wazi Zadran District administration in the eastern Afghan province of Paktiya. In March 2004 Paktiya Governor Asadullah Wafa and a number of U.S. officials placed the tribal turban on Abdul Wali Zadran's head as a symbol of his new authority as the chief of Wazi Zadran District, a newly established district. While differences remained between Kabul and the elder Zadran, the establishment of the new administrative district meant that negotiations between Haji Pacha Khan Zadran and the government were in progress. Zadran was a signatory of the 2001 Bonn agreement and an ally of both Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and the United States before he went into armed opposition the following year.

As Afghanistan spiralled into marginal anarchy and competing factions cannot be policed by international peacekeeping forces, Zadran was striving to claim as large a stake as possible. He faced Karzai's opposition, since Karzai cannot afford to have a competing Pashtun leader rise in the predominantly Pushtun-populated country, particularly in the eastern region, a Pashtun stronghold. The United States was caught in the midst of clan warfare as it continued operations in the region. There was an upsurge in attacks on US and Afghan government troops in eastern Afghanistan over the summer of 2004, including the ambush of US troops in Khost at the end of July and the August 7 attack on an army base in the Bagram district of Kabul. Al Qaeda and Taliban forces are suspected to have perpetrated these attacks, although human sources in the Afghan Defense Ministry have stated that they believe the guerillas who attacked US troops with missiles and machine guns Aug. 4 in Paktia in the Zawar region were Afghan Pushtuns, not foreign mujahideens, indicating that the attack was undertaken by disaffected Pashtuns upset with the United States and Karzai.

A week of demonstrations against Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government in Khost ended Aug. 6 2004, as Pashtun protestors demanded that Kabul recall the governors that had replaced Pacha Khan Zadran. Observers described the incident as an illustration of the limits of the Afghan central government, pointing out that stability in Afghanistan is an anomaly. Ethnic and clan rivalries abound, and a loose confederation of local and regional rulers is the traditional mode of order.

Zadran's refusal to cease attempts to claim Gardez and surrender to the government represented the first instance of Washington's Afghani allies coming into direct, sustained confrontation. He resisted disarmament initiatives by Karzai's government in 2002, saying that he was not prepared to hand his weapons over to the central government. "Disarmament was a pretext, [but] in actual fact everything was directed against Pashtuns," Zadran said. "I do not recognize the present government [so why would] I turn my weapons over to them?" The central government had announced 12 December that it was expanding its arms-collection program with the aid of international coalition forces to provinces in southeastern Afghanistan, where Zadran was one of the most powerful warlords.

By 2007 perceptions of and allegiance to the provincial and district administrators depended largely on the personalities and capabilities of individual administrators. The government's continued inability to provide basic services is reflected in a cynical attitude toward government among most Paktians, who, in turn, continued to rely on traditional authorities. Local residents viewed the central government as weak, corrupt, and incompetent, though the most visceral condemnations were reserved for neighboring Pakistan for promoting the insurgency and seeking to destabilize the region. Parliamentarians representing the province in Kabul were not significant players in Paktia, though MP and former Mujahideen commander Pacha Khan Zadran had a notable personal following.

The rugged terrain of the Khost-Gardez (K-G) Pass, and its legacy as a mujahedin stronghold along the southeast approach to Kabul, had been challenges to the completion of an efficient and safe road in the area. Complex geography, tribal networks, and insurgent interference also hindered the extension of governmental authority to the area. However, a robust counterinsurgency (COIN) focus on the K-G Pass area succeeded in reducing Anti-Afghan Forces (AAF) attacks and creating space for regional development. By 2008 progress is being made in paving the route, which was expected to be complete by late 2009.

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Page last modified: 21-08-2012 12:37:45 ZULU