Switching Sides: Defection in Afghanistan’s Conflict

By Franz J. Marty, Special to The Epoch Times
September 15, 2018 Updated: September 17, 2018

BAHORAK, Afghanistan—From the outside, the conflict in Afghanistan between a democratic, internationally backed government and the Islamist Taliban insurgency might seem clear-cut. On the ground, however, things are much murkier, with fighters sometimes switching sides.

“I used to be among the Taliban,” Abdul Manon stated nonchalantly when The Epoch Times met him near the front in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan in late August.

Abdul Manon Afghanistan Taliban Government Warduj
Abdul Manon, an Afghan army soldier turned Talib turned Afghan Local Policeman, near the front between government-held Bahorak and Taliban-controlled Warduj, in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan, on Aug. 25, 2018 . (Franz J. Marty/Special to The Epoch Times)

That this may seem peculiar, given that he now fights with the Afghan Local Police against the Taliban, hardly occurs to him. But that’s not the only time he switched sides: Before joining the Taliban, he served in the Afghan National Army.

“I served four years in the army before I quit over a fight with my superiors,” he explained.

“Then I went home.” Home is in Badakhshan’s district of Warduj, where the Taliban have been in control since October 2015.

“At first, I worked on my farm. But as my brother was with the Afghan Local Police, the Taliban threatened to kill me and my family—unless I would join them,” he recounted.

Afghanistan Bahorak Wardju Taliban Badakhshan
A view from Bahorak towards Warduj in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan, on Aug. 25, 2018. Behind the small ridge and hill in the center is where the Taliban-held territory begins. (Franz J. Marty/Special to The Epoch Times)

“So, under duress, I did, and spent two years among the Taliban. They never trusted me and constantly threatened me,” Manon said.

They did trust him enough though to give him a gun and send him into battle. “But I never fought seriously and was overshooting into the air,” he said.

Manon’s claims could not be independently verified. However, given that in late August, he manned the machine gun mounted on the Ford Ranger driven by the commander of his Afghan Local Police unit, it seems he was well-trusted by the commander, which makes it likely that he had joined the Taliban due to coercion.

Such switching of sides is anything but new to the conflict in Afghanistan, although it was more prolific during the earlier, more fluid chapters of the decades-old Afghan war.

Afghanistan Bahorak Wardju Taliban Badakhshan
Members of the Afghan Local Police from Badakhshan’s district of Warduj manning a checkpoint near the front to Warduj which is fully controlled by the Taliban, on Aug. 25, 2018. (Franz J. Marty/Special to The Epoch Times)

The most prominent case-in-point is arguably Afghanistan’s current First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who started out as a commander of the communist Afghan regime in the 1980s. His 1992 defection to the resistance—which counted among its ranks Afghanistan’s late national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud—was one reason that led to the fall of the regime. In the ensuing civil war, he turned guns on Massoud again, only to join forces with him against the Taliban again later in the 1990s.

The extent of defections these days is difficult to gauge. The government sometimes touts the very few Taliban fighters that lay down their weapons to join the peace process, but it hardly, if ever, publicizes cases of defectors that choose to fight for the Taliban or come over from the insurgents to continue the battle on the government’s side.

Survival

When asked why he defected back from the Taliban to the government side after only two years, Manon claimed there was no earlier opportunity to bring his family out of Taliban-controlled territory.

“Once there was a possibility, I called the commander of the Afghan Local Police to arrange my defection,” he said.

Afghanistan Bahorak Wardju Taliban Badakhshan
Members of the Afghan Local Police from Badakhshan’s district of Warduj on Aug. 25, 2018. Since their district fell to the Taliban in October 2015, they are living in and fighting from exile in neighbouring Bahorak. (Franz J. Marty/Special to The Epoch Times)

Under a pretext, he sent his family to the neighboring district of Bahorak, then waited until it was dark.

“During the night, I escaped via the mountains and met up with the commander at the agreed point—a bridge near the front,” he said, overlooking the valley where he defected and where the front still lies now, about one year after he came over from the Taliban side.

Determining the reasons for defections in Afghanistan’s conflict is not easy. Available research seems to not differentiate between defectors and deserters, who abandon their force without joining the other side. And defectors themselves likely understate certain aspects when talking about their defection after having switched fronts.

Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that defections are caused by very pragmatic considerations—in particular survival—rather than ideology. This is supported by a Columbia University study, though it focuses on the peculiar situation of Taliban members joining the government side right after the fall of their regime in 2001.

Another Afghan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to The Epoch Times, echoed this. The man claimed he had defected to the Taliban because of a probate dispute and that he later came back to the government side after a local powerbroker guaranteed him safety.

“My brother disagreed with the splitting of our late father’s land. Once, he beat me up with a spade and then he stood on my porch and threatened to kill me,” the man alleged.

“And as my brother was connected to local officials, my only choice was to flee to the Taliban.”

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