Nearly three months ago, Haji Abdul Zaher Qadir took a leave of absence from his position as deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament to address deteriorating security in his native Nangarhar province.
Faced with an increased presence of militants vowing loyalty to Islamic State, not to mention Taliban fighters, Qadir said he saw an immediate need to challenge the armed opposition directly.
Qadir said the central government in Kabul is doing little to thwart the growing ranks of foreign fighters in Nangarhar, east of the capital, and he has armed hundreds of men across the province to take on the two foes.
Last week, he dispatched a cadre to the eastern district of Shinwar, which he says has become the “ISIS factory of Afghanistan,” using an acronym for Islamic State.
Qadir, who headed President Ashraf Ghani’s campaign in the eastern zone during last year’s hotly contested election, has become increasingly negative about the government in Kabul.
Qadir said thousands of extremist fighters have arrived in Nangarhar among repatriated Afghan refugees coming across the border from Pakistan.
“They arrived in the morning with only a blanket posing as poor people, but by the next day they were brandishing machine guns and Kalashnikovs,” he said.
Speaking at his family’s compound, Qadir said the government is guilty of a lack of due diligence in vetting people from Pakistan, Chechnya, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan who pose as Afghan refugees.
Because the government “won’t even pick up the phone calls” of concerned citizens, Qadir said, the only way to address the growing insecurity in the country is for the people to take on the armed opposition directly.
Qadir said Ghani’s national security advisor, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, is responsible for the increased Islamic State profile in Afghanistan.
“This is all Atmar’s game,” he said of the foreign presence in Afghanistan.
Though Qadir’s accusations against Atmar are likely to ruffle feathers in Kabul, he is not the first high-profile Afghan official to accuse the National Security Council, headed by Atmar, of aiding and abetting the enemy.
Last year, Abdul Karim Matin, then governor of the eastern province of Paktika, accused the council of providing $200,000 in monetary assistance to families in Barmal district who he said were allied with Islamic State.
The council called the claim “baseless,” saying aid was delivered to refugees displaced from Pakistan.
Matin later retracted his claim.
In a statement to The Times, the council said, “Mr. Qadir’s claims are absolutely baseless and nothing more than an excuse to obtain illegal sources to create personal militia groups.”
The council said Qadir’s claims are contributing to a pattern of “confusing the public … [by] insulting the nation’s security forces and government leadership, both of whom are fighting with honor against terrorism and extremism.”
The government has tried to make up for decreases in foreign assistance by arming local strongmen to help secure embattled areas of the country. That plan has, however, largely backfired, with local populations accusing the strongmen of abuses and intimidation.
When the Taliban captured the northern city of Kunduz for several weeks in September — the first time in 14 years that the extremist group was able to overtake an urban Afghan center — some residents looked to local militias for assistance.
Yet for many in Kunduz, the Taliban presented a better alternative than the government-backed militias, whom they accused of extortion, illegal land grabs, rape and assault.
Locals were further angered by the fact that notable militia commanders were nowhere to be seen during the Taliban takeover.
Qadir insists his forces will do a better job because they are made up of locals seeking only to defend themselves against foreign incursions.
“When they threaten our honor and our dignity, when they take our lands and behead our people, of course we will take up arms. It is our God-given right,” he said. “If the government does not see fit to employ these men in the security forces, they will simply lay down their arms and return to their lives once the fighting ends.”
Despite his personal assurances, some residents who live near Qadir’s family compound in Sorkh Rod say he risks losing his influence.
“He left a national post and his responsibilities to the nation to come here and act as a local commander,” said Musa, a Sorkh Rod native who resides in Jalalabad, the provincial capital.
Abdul Qadir, 55, who sells vegetables along the road leading to Sorkh Rod, fears the effect that Zaher Qadir’s presence will have on the lives of an already embattled local population.
“He can come here with his bodyguards, but what will the ordinary people do when their homes are caught in the crossfire?”
Others are more supportive of Qadir’s efforts.
Habibullah, 80, a resident of Daronta district who fought decades ago against Soviet occupation, said Nangarharis will never allow Islamic State to reach Jalalabad.
“If they get anywhere near Jalalabad, we will defend our land as we have before. Believe me, even our women will join in the fight,” Habibullah said.
Though militants who say they represent Islamic State have staged several high-profile attacks in areas including Nangarhar, little is known about the nature of the Afghan forces who claim allegiance to the Iraq- and Syria-based group.
Like many Afghan leaders and analysts, Qadir agrees that the fighters have little, if any, connection to the group in the Middle East.
In conversations with The Times over the last year, residents of the provinces of Nangarhar, Logar, Kabul and Kapisa all paint different pictures of the fighters.
In Mussahi district, on the border between Kabul and Logar, locals said the fighters are nothing more than former Taliban members looking to arouse fear in the population.
“They’re the same old people. The only thing new about them is their name and their clothes: all black, with only their eyes visible,” said Delawar, a farmer in Mussahi.
The one notable exception is an upgrade in their weaponry.
“I’ve never seen such advanced arms,” Delawar said.
“Short of helicopters and tanks, they have everything at their disposal,” Qadir said.
Most also agree that the bulk of these fighters have come across the border.
“They speak Pashto in Pakistani accents,” Delawar said.
Qadir said that over the last few months more than 600 fighters have been killed in Nangarhar. Of those, he said an estimated 50 were Afghans.
Pointing to the slogan on the armbands of his men, Qadir said what he wants for his people is simple: “Martyrdom or nation.”
Latifi and Arsalai are special correspondents.