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Trouble brewing in the northeast

Khushqadam Usmani and Noor ul-Ayn
Work at local government offices comes to a halt as militants take over strategic parts of Kunduz and Badakhshan
13.01.2015  |  Kunduz/ Badakhshan
Badakhshan Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb says the reasons for the Taliban's presence there are complex. (Photo: Khushqadam Usmani)
Badakhshan Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb says the reasons for the Taliban's presence there are complex. (Photo: Khushqadam Usmani)

He emerges from his office agitated and looks at his watch. “My name is Sharifullah. I am an employee in a government institution in Shir Khan Bander,” he says, wiping the sweat off his forehead as he explains the reason for his anxiety: Stationed in Kunduz’s restive Shir Khan Bander region, Sharifullah is unable to visit his wife in the provincial capital because the Taliban controls the roads.  

The security situation in Kunduz and Badakhshan has deteriorated following the withdrawal of German and other international forces from the northeastern provinces, Sharifullah says. Each day after 3:00 pm, threats posed by militants prevent government employees working in Shir Khan Bander district from returning to their homes in Kunduz city.

Even before the withdrawal of international security forces, the Taliban had been quietly expanding its influence over remote Kunduz areas like the Wardoch and Khastak valleys and the Tagab Kashem district. The areas of Dasht-e-Archi, Chahardara, Imam Sahib and Khan Abad, and Gull Tapa in Kunduz have also experienced a resurgent Taliban presence.

Governor Dr. Shah Wali Adeeb of neighboring Badakhshan province links the insecurity in Kunduz province to the worsening security situation in Badakhshan.

With its proximity to neighboring central Asian countries and regions where the Taliban wields influence, Badakhshan province is a strategic location for insurgents, Wali Adeeb says. In the Khastak region of Jorm Distinct, the Taliban contingent includes 103 foreign fighters from Chechnya, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the Karakoram region in western China. Through its presence in Badakhshan and Kunduz, the Taliban seeks to destabilize other Central Asian countries, Wali Adeeb says.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Javed Mojadadi, a member of the Badakhshan provincial council, points out that in addition to foreign support, some representatives from Badakhshan in the Afghan National Assembly also politically support the Taliban. The Taliban initially appeared in Wardoch Valley in small numbers, he adds. This changed after the national government and some MPs politically supported the militants, calling them “discontented brothers,” says Mojadidi.

But Abdul Wadood, a representative from Badakhshan, rejects these claims, adding that the Taliban’s presence in Badakhshan is a complex issue. He adds that Badakhshan borders three countries, and its mountain roads are impassive. This has provided ample opportunities for the Taliban to thrive and grow in the province.

Recently, an Al Qaeda-affiliated branch of the Waziristan Council of Pakistan moved into Badakhshan province and established itself in the Khastak Valley of Jorm district. Afghan security forces subsequently arrested 24 women and children planning to join their husbands and fathers fighting in Jorm District.

In Badakshan as well as Kunduz, provincial governments have been accused of tacitly supporting the Taliban. In Kunduz, the Taliban also enjoy the support of the civilian population—a trend that has not yet spread to Badakhshan.

While Taliban operatives take advantage of poverty and unemployment to locally recruit members, the people of Badakhshan are “not in the spirit” of supporting the Taliban, says political analyst Farzad Hafizi.

In Kunduz, by contrast, the Taliban maintain a presence in some areas of Gull Tapa, says a tribal elder and Gull Tapa village representative. Whenever government and security forces take steps to suppress the militants, locals provide them with arms and sanctuary, he adds.

Taliban sympathizers among the provincial government and the police force also undermine national security efforts, sources say. The head of police department of Kunduz province recently revealed that Asadullah Omerkhial, head of the Kunduz provincial peace council, has been involved in freeing Taliban prisoners.

But Ghulam Mustafa Mohsseini, head of police in Kunduz province, says the council has compelled dozens of Taliban operatives to join the peace process. Originally members of the local police force, these operatives rejoined the Taliban with critical information, equipment, arms and weapons they received from the government. 

In recent years, the police have lost 12 security check posts to the enemies because the local peace council mediated peace talks under opaque terms, Mohsseini adds.

The constant threat of roadside attacks by the Taliban has affected drivers in both Badakhshan and Kunduz. In the northeast provinces, the Kunduz-Shir Khan Bander Highway has seen a rapid decline in security since the withdrawal of German combat forces.

“The Taliban abduct government employees and kill them, and robbers along the Kunduz-Baghlan Highway rob ordinary people,” says Mujebrahman, a driver travelling from Badakhshan to Kabul.

The Taliban’s main objective in the Northeast parts of the country is to destabilize government sources of revenue, observers say, adding the insurgents have struggled to pay their soldiers monthly wages.

When we did not have regular salaries, we received support and gifts from Pakistan, but I did not take their gifts, because they only gave me 8000 Pakistani Rupees when my payment should have been 15000 Rupees, says former Taliban operative “Asadullah”, who joined the peace process after serving as the deputy of Taliban commander Mowlavee Jan Mohammad, or Qaisar.

Several moneychangers have been arrested in Jorm district of Badakhshan because they were involved in transferring money to the Taliban, says Javed Mojadidi, a member of the provincial council.

He adds that besides receiving salaries from the Islamic State (IS), the Taliban also collect religious tax and extort money from farmers. They also control swathes of road leading from Badakhshan’s azure mines. The militants secure around 20 percent of their incomes by extorting a protection fee of 70,000-120,000 Afghani per each truckload of azure, according to Mojadidi.

The abduction of Afghan security officials in Shir Khan Bander also suggests the Taliban may be exchanging state workers for ransom to secure income. Constant threats and terror campaigns in the area have caused state authorities substantial revenue losses, sources in Shir Khan Bander say.

A decline in provincial income and economic development plays into the Taliban’s hands, says the district’s Customs Department head, Shafudin Bawaar.

In the past year, the Taliban have been able to reestablish the strategic positions they held in the province before the regime’s fall in 2001, residents say.

Sources close to the Taliban also told Afghanistan Today that the Islamic State (IS) has gained a foothold in parts of Kunduz province, and maintain close relations with the Taliban. Afghan security officials who also requested anonymity confirmed these claims, saying that “a group by the name of Islamic State…maintain a presence in Imam Sahib District and the Gull Tapa area of Kunduz province.”  

The absence of international forces has also allowed the Taliban to disrupt security in a strategic region dubbed “the new Silk Road” for its proximity to China. The Afghan government is in talks with Beijing to launch new infrastructural projects in the area, and the Taliban’s presence there severely undermines these goals, experts say.

With that account, it can be inferred that there is a common cause for the worsening security situation in Kunduz and Badakhshan province and in the Northeast as a whole following the withdrawal of German military forces from these two provinces, and that common cause is that Taliban are forcefully working to interrupt the income sources of the government, and to hinder government’s capacity in exploiting these sources.

Officials in Kunduz province also point out that the Taliban seeks to control the Kabul-Tajikistan Highway, as well as Kabul-Takhar-Badakhshan Highway, and to hamper the government’s ability to increase its financial independence. In Kunduz, many high-ranking government officials have resigned due to worsening conditions.  

Two months ago, Kunduz Governor Gholam Sakhi Baghlani resigned from his post amid criticism for failing to maintain military control of the province. He delivered a farewell speech describing the province’s ominous security situation. “A joint military operation was conducted against [the Taliban] which including air assaults against their sanctuaries in different areas of Kunduz province,” he said. “They were defeated and the areas were handed over to local forces, but despite severe resistance the local forces, they did not match the force of the Taliban and were compelled to leave the areas. The Taliban have resolved to destabilize supply routes in the Northeast at any cost possible.”