As the life of a high-profile Taliban minister-turned-mutineer comes to an abrupt and violent end, Ibrahim Moiz takes a deeper look at one of the more infamous figures in recent Afghan history.
Among the uptick in Afghan violence that has accompanied the Taliban spring campaign and government crackdown of 2021 was a particularly noteworthy casualty in the west. Abdul-Mannan Niazi, once a notorious Taliban commander and latterly the leader of a particularly vexatious splinter faction, was mortally injured in his native Herat province. It put to an abrupt end years of frustration for the Taliban insurgency, to whom Niazi had become a constant irritant. His unsuccessful care in the capital of a government that regularly bemoans Taliban cruelty was ironic, given that he was responsible for the most major atrocity committed under Taliban colours.
Mulla Abdul-Mannan Niazi was born in western Herat province, where his Noorzai clan – part of the “Panjpai” or Five Fingers grouping within the larger Durrani confederation – was a major Pashtun constituency. The Noorzai clan has provided key support to the Taliban insurgency – perhaps most famously in Kandahar, where the original insurgency in 2003 was largely kickstarted by Noorzai discontent against harassment. But it was particularly key in the more ethnically diverse western Afghanistan, where the Taliban emirate of the 1990s drew partly on Noorzai communities dissatisfied, whether for political or representative purposes, with the balance of power in the period.
The Taliban conquest of Herat in 1995 – hitherto a practical city-state for its governor-cum-“emir” Ismail Khan – was partly bolstered by Noorzai support, with Niazi briefly serving as governor. Similarly, nearly a decade later, Hamid Karzai’s American-backed government – with Ashraf Ghani, later his successor, as finance minister – drew on Noorzai support in its attempts to rein Ismail in. Coaxed by Karzai’s Noorzai frontiers minister Muhammad Arif, a Noorzai leader called Amanullah Khan was encouraged to oppose Ismail. The ploy worked – Ismail resigned from Herat in September 2004 – but Amanullah did not reap its benefits: he was assassinated, and his son Javaid Nangialai soon joined the budding Taliban insurgency in which Niazi was already an important commander.
But Niazi’s most infamous role was not in western but northern Afghanistan; as a governor, he had overseen the worst atrocity of the Taliban emirate. In the late 1990s, following a betrayal and slaughter of several thousand Taliban fighters in 1997 by militias in Mazar-e-Sharif, ethnic tensions spiralled in the north. There were several massacres of northern Pashtuns – suspected, in the polarised atmosphere, as Taliban collaborators en masse – by Uzbek and Hazara militias between summers 1997 and 1998. Meanwhile the thin-stretched Taliban themselves were bolstered by a major influx of foreign fighters, many of them sectarian militants banned from Pakistan.
This was a toxic mix, and when the Taliban conquered Mazar-e-Sharif in summer 1998 they marked it with their slaughter. The argument among commanders ran that fighters needed to be given a limited window for revenge after the past year’s outrages, but this was belied by the fact that Hazaras, not Uzbek fighters, were targeted, as well as blurred by Niazi’s words. Newly appointed as governor, this powerful orator hurled invective at Shias and Hazaras as, far from a limited reprisal, the conquerors fell upon any Hazara man they could find – and also instigated a diplomatic crisis by attacking the embassy of Iran, a key supporter of their opposition. Estimates vary, but probably anywhere between a thousand Hazaras to thrice that number were slain; Niazi’s instigations were central to the slaughter.
Contrary to some understandable, but inflated, claims thereafter, the Taliban had not intended to either wipe out Hazaras or Shias from the land; in fact they canvassed the support of several Hazara commanders, seniormost a former enemy called Muhammad Akbari, and even obtained the approval of some Shia clerics. Nonetheless, the atrocity starkly exacerbated ethnic polarisation – the first English-language Hazara website was founded only a month later and bemoaned the Taliban’s bloody takeover. Thus it played a central role in ethnosectarian tensions and remains a scar to this day. When Taliban crimes are discussed, as they often have been since the emirate’s downfall, the 1998 Mazari Sharif massacre invariably tops the list.
In spite of some role in the insurgency, Niazi was thereafter most notable for his opposition to his former Taliban colleagues as the liveliest of a number of Taliban commanders – overwhelmingly Noorzai from the south and west – who had broken away in autumn 2015. There had long been western Noorzai irritation within the Taliban; a Farah commander called Baz-Muhammad Harith, for instance, had flared over fund distributions in 2011. But a bigger irritant was the domination of rival Panjpai clans, especially the Ishaqzai clan, in the Taliban leadership. When the seniormost Ishaqzai commander, Akhtar Mansur, became emir during summer 2015, it was the final straw. Many Taliban leaders rankled at Akhtar’s abrupt takeover following the announcement of his predecessor Umar Mujahid’s demise, but it was a number of Noorzai commanders, including Niazi, who went the furthest.
In autumn 2015 Rasoul Mujahid, another Noorzai commander from western Afghanistan, announced a breakaway group and laid claim to the Taliban leadership. The few senior colleagues who backed him were almost exclusively Noorzai westerners such as Harith, Niazi, and Amanullah Khan’s son Javaid Nangialai. Most sensationally, Rasoul claimed that Umar had not merely passed away quietly but been poisoned by Akhtar; this almost certainly slanderous accusation was spectacular enough to justify a complete break.
The main non-Noorzai segment of the mutiny, in Zabul, was quickly crushed by Akhtar’s loyalists, but even after Rasoul’s imprisonment in Pakistan the Noorzai mutineers held out in the west, largely around Nangialai’s stronghold Shindand near the Iranian border, where they survived several Taliban campaigns. It prompted Akhtar Mansur to seek support from Iran, which had the potential to back either side but opted for the loyalists. Noorzai predominance in the mutiny was not lost on the Taliban loyalists, and when Akhtar fell prey to an American airstrike shortly thereafter he was replaced with an unobtrusive Noorzai teacher, Hibatullah Akhundzada, as a compromise candidate. Certainly this helped soften many Noorzai dissidents’ stance – Harith, for instance, quickly reconciled with the Taliban and was tactfully shifted to an important but distant command near Kabul.
But a bigger issue was the lack of any coherent programme beyond that of “spoilers” among the remaining mutineers, an insufficient amount of support even among the Noorzai clan, and in particular a widespread rumour – which he always denied – that the government was supporting Niazi. The mutineers’ inability to expand outside their base was underlined in 2018-19. The United States and government killed several of their loyalist rivals – many of whom had been blacklisted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and they themselves came close to assassinating Hibatullah. Yet they were unable to capitalise; amid this apparent promise, their seniormost leader Abdul-Rauf Arifi, an experienced southerner, indeed rejoined the Taliban.
A year later the United States, aiming to negotiate with the Taliban, hit Nangialai by airstrike. Niazi, the last remaining mutineer of any seniority, fell prey to an ambush – likely by Taliban attackers, though responsibility remains unclear – in May 2021. Though Niazi’s son Khalid was quickly selected to replace him, the elimination of this especially pesky irritant should be a relief for the Taliban insurgency. Whether the wider danger inherent in a fragmenting political landscape, to which Niazi contributed in no small part, can be avoided is another question.