War & Peace

Moving East in the North: Transitioned Faryab and the Taleban


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It took little more than seven months to turn Faryab from a province with a worrisome security situation into a province under constant attack. Since the Norwegian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Faryab closed in September 2012, the security situation has quickly deteriorated. These days, Faryab is one of the main targets of the Taleban’s spring offensive. On the very first day of the offensive, the insurgents launched their biggest attack so far in the country, with several hundred fighters sweeping the Afghan Local Police (ALP) out of important positions in two districts. Clashes between national security forces and insurgents are continuing on a daily basis and the regular Afghan forces seem unable to make a lasting impact. AAN’s Obaid Ali updates an earlier report on a province perceived as a gateway to the north of the country and how the Taleban are targeting strategically valuable locations.

Faryab has not seen a spring like this since the civil war in the 1990s. Four of its 14 districts are currently under constant attack: Qaisar, Almar and Ghormach in the south-west and Pashton Kot in central Faryab, close to the provincial capital Maimana.

In the announcement of their spring offensive on 28 April 2013, the Taleban stated that their main targets would be military bases and ‘diplomatic centers’. But it seems that, at least in Faryab, their strategy extends beyond hitting the usual selective, individual targets. The Taleban are attacking the very structure of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) – established at many strategically important posts as the first line of defence against the insurgency – in well-organised, constantly ongoing operations and with reportedly higher numbers of fighters than in any previous year.

The first and largest attack

On 28 April, the very first day of the Taleban’s spring offensive, the insurgents gathered their forces from Badghis to the west and Sar-e Pol to the east in Faryab’s Qaisar district and conducted their first and so far largest spring offensive in the north, focused primarily on ALP check posts. According to local authorities and journalists, around 800 men fought on the Taleban side. The offensive started at four o’clock in the morning – by ten in the morning the insurgents had swept all ALP units out of the Khwaja Kenti area and raised their flag over the check posts. Local journalists told AAN that it took the security forces two weeks, that is until 9 May 2013, until they finally pushed the Taleban back into the mountains.

The Taleban operations were led by Mulla Salam, shadow governor of Faryab. With him was Sar-e Pol’s shadow governor Qari Qader, shadow governors for the neighbouring Almar and Qaisar districts and field commanders, among them Mulla Hafizullah, Mawlawi Abdul Qayum and Mawlawi Abdullah Shomulzai. Shah Farokh Shah, commander of 300 ALP men in Khwaja Kenti, told AAN that foreign fighters were also on the battle field. He said his soldiers were involved in face-to-face fights with insurgents identified as ‘Chechens and Pakistani Taleban’.

Eventually, the ALP commander had to retreat, he told AAN, also because reinforcements were late to arrive. Maimana, the site of the main bases of the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA), is 60 to 70 kilometres away from Khwaja Kenti. The ANP arrived two and a half hours after the battle began, according to a member of parliament from the province; the ANA came even later. Shah Farokh Shah said: ‘We just did not have enough weapons and ammunition, and our weapons were bad quality, too.’ He confirmed that the ALP experienced serious losses: five of its fighters died, nine were wounded while six others were captured and four ALP check posts taken over by the Taleban. But 60 enemy fighters were also either killed or wounded, he claimed, a number that is hard to verify. Other figures vary, too. Al-Haj Sayed Abdulbaqi Hashemi, a Qaisar representative in the Provincial Council, told AAN that not only four but seven ALP check posts had been taken over and that eight ALP members were killed, 14 wounded, and 12 captured.

All of this very much resembles the fighting of late last year, around 24 October 2012 (see AAN report here) when the ALP and ANA clashed with Taleban at nearly the same locations and fought for two days. However, this time, the number of Taleban fighters was even higher and the fight ended sooner, after only a few hours. In this context, it sounds very much like wishful thinking when the provincial police commander Nabi Jan Mullakhel says that those who had hatched the plan – they sit in Quetta, Pakistan, he claims – had ‘failed to achieve their goal’ and that the security forces had ‘defeated the Taleban’.

History relived

The Taleban began re-establishing footholds in Faryab four to five years ago, mostly in remote mountainous areas (see our 2011 report on the insurgency in the north here). But in the last two years, they increased their influence and launched military operations in numerous districts of Faryab, peaking last year with the bomb attack on the Eid Gah Mosque in the provincial capital Maimana on 26 October 2012, killing at least 40 people, and this spring with massive fighting in the districts. Their interest in the province has to do with the diminished international military presence – the Norwegian PRT closed in September and according to provincial authorities, the US special forces have left the province altogether – and the chance this offers to establish permanent strongholds. But it is also linked to Faryab’s strategic importance.

Although remote, Faryab is considered a gateway to other northern parts of the country. An important highway connecting the province with Jawzjan and Balkh further to the east runs through the province. Looking at a map, it becomes apparent that the insurgents, backed by strongholds in Badghis to the west, are on a ‘west to east mission’ in northern Afghanistan, trying to expand their influence, particularly by establishing their presence near that highway, controlling the areas around it and ‘connecting the dots’ to the insurgency cells in Sar-e Pol and Jawzjan.

It is history relived: Already during the civil war in the 1990s, the front line between Taleban and opposition forces often fell between Badghis and Faryab. The current situation in Faryab is worrying the Afghan government to such an extent that a high-ranking delegation was recently sent out to encourage the security forces on the ground and reinforce the command level. On 5 May 2013, Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Muhammadi accompanied by the deputy minister of interior affairs, Abdul Rahman, and members of parliament visited the province. According to a report by the Pajhwok News Agency, Muhammadi insisted that the Afghan security forces had defeated the Taleban in the contested districts and now control the areas previously held by the militants (a media report here). ‘As I assess the situation, the security forces may have inadequate equipment and facilities but they are fully prepared to deal with the threat from the Taliban,’ he remarked.

In the week since, a further event has superseded his statement. On 11 May 2013, the police commander of Andkhoy district, four bodyguards and five other civilians were wounded in a bomb attack in front of a school. Andkhoy lies on the junction of two secondary roads, one extending north from the provincial capital and one cutting across the north of the province and linking neighbouring Jawzjan with the Turkmen border. The attack, representing another push east at a critical location, was clearly designed to weaken local authorities.

An easy game

Looking at the locations the insurgents have hit in Faryab since their spring offensive began, it seems that they are also deliberately targeting areas where they have an easier game and making use of the fact that other factors have already fuelled insecurity.

One important factor is the rivalry between Jombesh-e Melli and Jamiat-e Islami, the two largest parties (see our report about Jombesh here) in the province who began competing for rule over larger parts of the province during the civil war of the 1990s and continued to do so in the initial post-Taleban years. Influential figures and former commanders assassinate each other quite regularly, the most recent case occurring only three weeks ago when two ‘ex-jehadi leaders’ were gunned down in Pashtun Kot district.

Another important factor in favour of the insurgency in Faryab is the chaotic atmosphere generated by the establishment of the ALP. When its first unit was installed in Faryab in 2010 – officials refuse to reveal the total number of ALP currently registered – local commanders were angry about the ‘unfair’ allocation of men and weapons between the different parties. This intensified quarrels among different factions, weakened their front against the Taleban and led parts of the local population to view the Taleban as the lesser evil.

Qaisar district, once a peaceful place – economically interesting, though, as the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics provides a major income source – is a good example of how intertwined local conflicts have allowed the insurgency to spread. One of the district’s most important villages is the embattled Khwaja Kenti. It is well known for its Ashab-e Khaf shrine that thousands of Afghans used to visit every week. Not anymore, however. There is too much fighting underway to allow an undisturbed visit to the holy site as Khwaja Kenti is also centrally positioned as a gateway between Ghormach district further west in Badghis (some claim it has been transferred to Faryab)(1) – a strong base of the Taleban – and Qaisar district just behind the border in Faryab. The road to Khwaja Kenti offers an access route to Qaisar’s district centre.

When ALP units were installed in Qaisar in 2010, former local Jombesh commanders accused the central government of offering a larger share of men and weapons to Jamiati commanders.

Shaky allegiances

The impression that the Taleban can hit wherever they want while the security forces do not really have the means to make a lasting impact is in line with comments made by Angar Tokhi, a representative of the Faryab Provincial Council. Tokhi is not only worried about the future of the currently contested districts, but says he is ‘worried about the security in the whole province’. He suggests that major parts of Faryab – ‘80 per cent’ – are under serious threats from Taleban. He mentions the killing of the district attorney general in Pashtun Kot on 23 April 2013 and the killing of an ALP commander on 13 April 2013 in Almar. ‘In Maimana, nobody goes beyond the city borders by night’, he added, ‘and provincial authorities take at least a dozen armed men with them when they visit districts, even those close to Maimana.’

He also drew attention to another facet of the story: to the relations between the Taleban and those who are supposed to fight them. One of his stories demonstrates the shakiness of allegiances in an environment like this and the truth of the phrase: ‘you can’t buy a commander, you can only rent him’. He told AAN about the former Taleb Mulla Maluk who joined the peace process four months ago and in return, was made ALP commander in the village of Khwaja Musa. Yet when the Taleban attacked this village during their surge in Pashtun Kot district, commander Maluk with his ten armed men surrendered his post and became Mulla Maluk once again.

Meanwhile, the pervasive atmosphere of insecurity and fear is seriously disrupting people’s lives. A large number of villagers from the insecure areas – district authorities speak of around 300 families – have left their homes and taken shelter in Maimana. The highway has been closed for several hours at least twice in the past ten days.

Local people are afraid of what might happen if the authorities fail to protect them and the province’s assets as well as to review their ALP strategy and improve the monitoring of that shaky force. For now, it seems likely that in 2013 the Taleban will not only conduct forays into certain strategically important districts but that they might be able to establish more permanent bases and launch attacks on new territories on their way east. Even further on the map lies the ‘big prize in the north’, Mazar-e Sharif, with its wealthy local industries and petroleum import routes from Turkmenistan.

(1) Decisions to move certain districts to another province have been made repeatedly by the government in Kabul but disputed by provincial authorities. Another example is the district of Gizab, disputed between Uruzgan and Daykundi, or Kahmard between Bamian and Baghlan. In any case, Ghormach, as a district of Badghis nominally under ISAF’s Italian-led Regional Command West, has been put under German-led RC North, because the insurgents there are more linked to the north than the west.

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