Afghan security forces have faced a difficult challenge to secure northern Afghanistan amidst a growing insurgency (photo: Gul Rahim Niazman)
The Taliban staged major assaults last month against local security forces in six different districts as well as Kunduz city. Dubbed Operation Azem, or resolution, the Taliban concentrated their forces from other provinces in Kunduz in an effort to overrun the provincial capital. The militants had surrounded the citys' four main gates when a reinforcement of government forces arrived and thwarted the Taliban’s advance.
In a recent visit to the province, Interior Minister Nurul Haq Ulumi attributed the fighting in Kunduz, Sar-e-Pol and Faryab provinces to local stakeholders who are exploiting the conflict between the government and the Taliban for their own economic gains. Unlike the restive south, which Ulumi said was destabilised by Afghanistan’s external enemies, the northern insurgency has found support among individuals who hold government positions, but stand to gain control of the region’s natural resource wealth by fomenting unrest.
“The war in the South was initiated and carried out by the enemy of the Afghan people, while the war in the North is carried out by friends,” Ulumi said. He declined to identify these individuals by name.
According to President Ashraf Ghani, a similar scenario is unfolding in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which shares a border with China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Last month, Ghani traveled to Badakhshan after 18 Afghan Army servicemen were killed by armed militants. Ten of the servicemen were beheaded. During his trip to Badakhshan, the Afghan president said the war in the Jorm district of Badakhshan province is a war for natural minerals and economic gains.
Mohammad Omer Safai, the provincial governor of Kunduz, did not rule out the possibility of ISIS involvement in the current conflict, adding that both the Taliban’s white and ISIS’ black flags appeared during clashes in Gulltapa and other areas. Fighters from Tajikistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, and Uzbekistan as well as from Kazakhstan have been involved in the current fighting, and a female combatant from Chechnya had been killed, he added.
Three months ago, the residents of Archi spotted militants raising a black ISIS flag in their district. “Instead of the white flag of the Taliban, they raised a black one,” an eyewitness told Afghansitan Today. “Instead of honouring [Taliban commander] Mullah Omar, they were cursing him.”
Safai was appointed in the first days of the unity government. Magnetic bomb explosions and kidnappings have drastically increased with his arrival to the province. Safai has pushed hard to increase security in the province, but most of his efforts have been thwarted because his own provincial government has failed to support him, he says.
During his first days in office, Safai filed criminal proceedings against 12 police officers accused of having links to the Taliban. One of the officers was serving on the security team of the provincial entry gate.
The new governor also tried to disarm paramilitary groups and prosecute individuals charged with criminal offenses, but was repeatedly summoned to Kabul to explain his actions. He was eventually forced to suspend the disarmament process.
According to Safai, it was he who alerted Ulumi that local government officials are involved in the kidnappings and explosions taking place in Kunduz. During a meeting with local residents, he said the Taliban is using “the government’s own ammunition against it.”
Apart from the security forces operating within the official government structure, two other groups enforce security in Kunduz: the local police, who are funded by the government, and paramilitaries who operate outside the structure of government institutions and collect protection pay from residents.
Some paramilitary groups receive weapons from the government to protect their villages against the Taliban. Ocassionally, they join the Afghan security forces for military operations. But this informal alliance is crumbling in Kunduz, where two major paramilitary groups have turned their guns against each other. The first is headed by Mohammad Omer Pakhsa Paran. A former Jihadi commander, Mir Alam, heads the other faction.
Into their own hands
The rivalry between the two groups has led both parties to intermittently side with the government and the insurgency. The result is a lawless situation that draws ordinary farmers into the fray.
Abdul Bari, a resident of Kanum village, says that last year the paramilitaries blocked his irrigation channel. He repeatedly complained to the provincial authorities, but nobody listened.
“I become desperate, found a gun and started fighting the paramilitaries. As a result, I was labeled a Taliban operative,” he said.
Bari emphasizes he is not a Taliban member, but obtained a gun out of desperation, because the government turned a deaf ear to his grievances. “Two years ago, the Taliban came to Kanum and killed 13 people in their houses, but no one asked about them,” he recalls.
Saving the capital
Public concerns about a lack of state capacity in the province are growing. The residents of Kunduz city hold two different viewpoints about last month's attacks. The first group thinks they are motivated by the Afghan government's recent peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar. By launching concerted attacks on strategic areas in the north, the militants wish to gain an upper hand in the negotiations, says Abdul Satar Shamall, a university instructor at the Afghan Shirzad University.
The second popular perspective is more ominous. It is based on the statements of the Taliban’s provincial governor Mullah Abdul Salam, who in a recent internal meeting unveiled plans to take control of Kunduz city and “install a white flag” in the main square.
“Mullah Salam’s plan to overrun Kunduz city has created a lot of worries for us,” said Afzal, a shop owner in Kunduz city. He notes that the Taliban’s annual spring offensive is taking a harsher toll on civilians this year than in previous seasons. “What is going to happen?” he asks.
According to officials at the provincial security headquarters, 20 members of Afghan security forces and 210 Taliban operatives including several commanders were killed in last month's conflict. After treating the young men’s wounds, Taliban commanders sent their wounded fighters back to battle, hoping they would conquer Kunduz city, said Agha Saheb, a resident of Nawabad of Chardarah District, where the Taliban gathered its wounded.
Apart from Kunduz city, government forces managed to end the siege of Imam Saheb district after a day of battle. “If support had not arrived, the Taliban would have taken over the Imam Saheb District overnight,” said district chief Imam Din Quraishi. “The war would have continued to rage on the outskirts of the city.”