War & Peace

A Taleban Foothold in the North: Faryab fighting up after transition


Faryab-shrine-MvB

While the attention of the Afghan government and the media is focused on major battles in the south of the country, the Taleban are making further headway in a northern region after the closure of the Norwegian PRT in September. In Faryab province, the Taleban have already established footholds in far-flung mountainous areas and are now increasing attacks from there. The number of armed clashes with Afghan security forces has gone up as well as the harassment of non-government organizations (NGOs), while continuing assassinations and the recent massacre caused by a suicide attack in a mosque on a religious holiday dramatically spread fear even in Maimana, the provincial centre. AAN’s Obaid Ali follows up on his recent reporting from Faryab.

Faryab should be a major source of revenue for the Afghan government. At Bandar-e Aqina (Aqina port), in Andkhoi district on the border with Turkmenistan, profits had reached USD 245 million in the first six months of this year, double the previous year’s figures, with imports of petroleum, vehicles and spare parts, ironware and foodstuff from Central Asia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, China and Europe while dry fruit, including pistachios and almonds, handicraft products and animal furs are shipped out of the country (more information here and here). And Faryab’s rich mineral resources – salt, marble and some oil – should provide both work opportunities and constant income for the government and the local population (see AAN’s previous blog here). But the central government has failed to pay adequate attention to security measures in the province. Therefore, security is rapidly deteriorating.
The Taleban have been establishing footholds in Faryab for the past four to five years (see also our 2011 report on the insurgency in the north here).(1) But during the past two years, they have increased their influence and launched a number of military operations as well as harassed the local population. They are particularly entrenched in Almar, Qaisar, Ghormach, Qaramqol and some parts of Pashtun Kot districts, from where they make repeated forays into other parts of the province. Since the Norwegian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Maimana was closed on 12 September this year, clashes with Afghan security forces and assassinations of notables are reported almost daily in the local news bulletins, while the harassment of NGOs has also become more frequent.

Particularly, Faryab was recently badly shocked by a second large suicide attack in the province this year. On 26 October, the first day of Eid-ul-adha, when more than a thousand local residents, including high-ranking officials, were performing Namaz-e Eid (eid prayer) in the main Eid Gah Mosque in the provincial centre of Maimana, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 people and badly wounded 50 others. Among them were many members of the security forces. Interestingly, this carnage was inflicted exactly one day after the Mufti-e Azam (Grand Mufti) of Mecca, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, one of the highest spiritual authorities in Islam worldwide, had declared suicide bombings as haram, forbidden in Islam, in a speech on the holy Mount Arafat on the last day on Hajj. He also said that ‘those who commit it will not be forgiven’. The first attack on that scale took place on 4 April, when 40 people, including national and international troops and civilians, were killed or wounded in a park in Maimana (reports here and here).

The Taleban currently control most parts of Almar, Qaisar, Ghormach,(2) Qaramqol and Dawlatabad districts of Faryab at night and invest all their energy to expand their influence in other districts, too. On 24 October, two days before the Maimana mosque bombing, armed Taleban carried out a massive military operation in the Mian Dara area, a big valley in Pashtun Kot district.(3) Mian Dara is a strategic area for Taleban. It is a big valley, 45 kilometres long. If the Taleban had taken it fully under control, it would have made it much easier for them to establish themselves in the so-called Saha-ye Sabz (‘green area’, an area of wild pistachio forest) only three kilometres from central Maimana and to threaten the provincial centre from there. It would also have eased their supply route to Almar and Qaisar. Villages at the end of Mian Dara valley, such as Ordak, Qailan and Darzi, are the birth places of both the (now deceased) Taleban shadow governor and the northern zone commander and are still under Taleban rule.

The face-to-face firefight on 24 October started at 8:00 am local time and continued for two consecutive days. The Taleban had pulled together all their fighters and field commanders from across the province to attack units of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a particular target of choice for the Taleban elsewhere in the country as well. These units are led by commander Hayat, a Jombeshi, and Haji Sarwar, a Jamiati, who jointly put up a strong defence against the Taleban attack. Haji Sarwar, who is from Mian Dara village, told AAN from the front line that up to 600 Taleban fighters were involved, including foreign allies from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Chechens and Pakistani Taleban. Haji Sarwar claimed that the Taleban suffered serious losses during the fighting, with their northern zone commander, Mowlawi Wali Muhammad, shadow provincial governor Mulla Yar Muhammad and the shadow district governors of Almar, Kohistan, Dawlatabad and Qaisar counted among the 63 Taleban killed; 45 others were seriously wounded . According to Haji Sarwar, the security forces had around 15 casualties. The district police chief of Pashtun Kot, Habibullah Khan, confirmed the death of the prominent Taleban leaders when talking to AAN. The suicide bombing on 26 October in Maimana seems to have been the Taleban’s revenge for their heavy losses in the Mian Dara fighting.

In Almar district, too, the Taleban are trying to extend their control. In October 2012, their local fighters launched an attack from their stronghold in Khwaja Gowhar village on an ALP unit in Torbad village, only 3.5 kilometres away from the district centre (Gowhar is 15 kilometres away from the district centre). The attack caused serious losses to the ALP. According to Angar Tokhi, a provincial council member, five ALP members were killed and five others taken as hostage.

Meanwhile, assassinations of tribal elders, other influential figures, ALP commanders and even religious scholars, including some in the provincial centre, have become more regular and are dominating the local media. In the most prominent case, Mowlawi Besmullah Haqyar, a religious scholar and director of Deh Saidan madrassa, was assassinated on 9 November 2012, in Maimana. The Mowlawi had been a member of a delegation invited for a condolence visit to Nangarhar province by its governor Gul Agha Sherzoi.(4) Another member of the delegation, provincial council member Sayed Abdul Baqi Hashemi, told AAN that Mowlawi Haqyar had there condemned the suicide attack as forbidden in Islam and accused the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, of being behind the Eid massacre in Faryab.

According to local organisations, NGOs are also facing a higher level of threat by armed local Taleban in Faryab province.(5) After several NGOs’ staff had been directly threatened, some staff members were abducted and taken hostage while others were warned explicitly against working for NGOs, mostly local organisations, and to avoid journeys to the districts unless essential in the past few weeks.

For example, as Qotbuddin Kohi, editor-in-chief of a local weekly, Sada-ye Mellat, told AAN, on 11 October 2012, armed men entered an NGO office in Kohistan district, only 150 metres away from the district governor’s office, at night and fired at staff members. Three NGO activists were wounded. He further reported the abduction of ten Local National Solidarity Council (LNSC) members, including the director of Ghormach district’s LNSC and the head of its financial department, who were on their way from Qaisar to Ghormach district. Seven were soon released, while the three others were set free after almost a month following the mediation of local elders.

The director of Faryab’s provincial Civil Society Network (CSN), Mahruf Samar told AAN that three members of a prominent NGO were stopped by armed men when travelling on the main ring road in the Gorzab area of Shirin Tagab district in mid-October and were ordered to follow their vehicle to Dawlatabad district, where the Taleban have wider influence. The three were kept in custody for four days and then released as a result of local elders’ mediation, but they were explicitly warned against continuing to work with NGOs. On 19 October, Samar informed AAN about the kidnapping of two other engineers working for a local construction company, one Afghan and one Bangladeshi, while on their way to survey the Aqina port highway.

Consequently, the atmosphere of insecurity and fear in Faryab does not only disrupt the residents’ ordinary lives, it also yields a negative impact on construction and humanitarian aid work. If the responsible authorities fail to meet the basic security needs of the local residents and to take strong measures, the Taleban may expand their network to the economically crucial Aqina port as well.

(1) In the beginning of their reappearance in Faryab, the Taleban seem to have been able to tap into both local criminal networks and inter-factional conflict for support. A first high-profile attack, on a convoy of district commanders, during which one of them was killed and one wounded in March 2007 was carried out by an armed criminal gang. By that time, only a small number of rocket and IED attacks had been reported.

(2) Ghormach district was part of Badghis province but shifted to Faryab (and by that, to the northern zone) to bring it under the same ISAF and Afghan command that is fighting the northern insurgency. The district had already been one of the main insurgent districts during the Soviet occupation (1979-89).

(3) Mian Dara is not a dead-end valley but is crossed by a north-south road leading over a pass at the valley’s end to Chaghcheran (in Ghor) with side routes branching off in Kohestan district, south of the pass, leading west to Jawand (in Badghis, and further to Herat) and east to southern Balkh (and further on to Bamian).

(4) That a Faryabi delegation was invited to another province for a condolence visit is rather unusual; it should have been the other way around. It looks as if the Nangrahar governor, who had already considered running in the 2009 presidential election, wanted to again build up a country-wide reputation with the 2014 election casting shadows ahead.

(5) The three quarterly reports to date by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) give relatively low figures on insurgent and criminal attacks on NGOs for Faryab, with three incidents in each quarter. However, the general number of insurgency-related incidents registered is above the average Afghan level, with 116, 128 and 246 incidents respectively. Furthermore, the Faryab-Badghis border area is marked as an ‘area of special concern’ (see herehere and here).

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Thematic Category: War & Peace