Baghlan on the Brink: ANSF weaknesses and Taleban resilience
Is Baghlan province in the north of Afghanistan on the way to becoming a new stronghold of the insurgents? Two incidents symbolise this trend. On 20 May, one of the most powerful anti-Taleban commanders in the north, Mohammad Rasul Mohseni, died in a suicide attack. On 4 May, three Afghan police and one German soldier were killed in an ambush by insurgents. With the withdrawal of German troops scheduled for June, Deedee Derksen, Claudio Franco, Gran Hewad and Christine Roehrs look at the security situation and the shifting power structures on the ground.
The death of Mohammad Rasul Mohseni inÂ a suicide attackÂ was a major success for the Taleban in their pursuit to get rid of anti-Taleban provincial powerbrokers.(1) Mohseni, a Tajik connected with the late Burhanuddin Rabbaniâ€™s Jamiat party, had a long history of fighting the Taleban. His home district, Andarab in the south-eastern mountains bordering Panjshir, is locally known for its fierce fighters. Because they traditionally carry long knives, their nickname isÂ barchadarhaÂ â€“ knife-holders. Mohseni was known for being able to call out hundreds ofÂ barchadarhaÂ who were in his service. He carefully maintained his militiasâ€™ strength throughout the years â€“ he was in his fifties when he was killed â€“ but also adopted a political profile.
Officially, Mohseni had been chairman of Baghlanâ€™s provincial council for the last eight years. Unofficially, he played a much bigger role. He appointed allies in the provincial police leadership, in the local attorney generalâ€™s office, the NDS and even the governorâ€™s office. He was also involved in setting up the new Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces in Baghlan â€“ militias meant to act as a first line of defence against the Taleban. His death is a significant event in Baghlani politics and the ripples it will cause could further destabilise the security situation, particularly after the remaining German forces â€“ 450 soldiers based in Pul-e Khumri â€“ withdraw in June.
Indications are that Baghlan, so far a province without a consistent security profile â€“ for months quiet, then suffering from outbursts of violence â€“ could evolve into a stronghold of the insurgency in Afghanistanâ€™s north. Interviews with insurgency representatives conducted and cross-checked over months indicate that, today, between 2,500 and 3,000 fighters are deployed in Baghlan. TalebanÂ NizamiÂ (Military) Commission sources said that, in 2008, there were around 1,800 fighters only. This would mean an increase of at least 700 fighters over the past five years. According to ISAF, 4,500 Afghan national security forces (including ALP) are based in Baghlan.
The Taleban also appear to have established a new, more effective command structure, similar to most provinces in the countryâ€™s north and east. Previously, Taleban insurgents in Baghlan were mostly organised in semi-autonomous Afghan fronts (mahaz) with independent funding streams. Today, all fiveÂ mahazÂ active in Baghlan answer to one central organisational and financing body in Peshawar, the so-called nizami (military) commission. This accounts for improved coordination on the ground and curbed internal competition for influence and funding. (For more information on the â€˜Changes in the Insurgencyâ€™s DNAâ€™ see Claudio Francoâ€™s earlier blogÂ here.)
How could the insurgency gain so much strength in Baghlan and what does it mean for the future?Â
Baghlan was a comparatively quiet province in the years following the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001. However, some parts of Baghlani society became frustrated with the new political order when the local government, especially the security apparatus, came to be dominated by mainly Tajik officials affiliated with the Jamiat party. This was despite the provinceâ€™s ethnic diversity â€“ there are not only Tajiks living there, but also Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Ismailis. Political support from Kabul tended to follow ethnic lines, especiallyÂ during election times: whereas the Jamiati powerbrokers supported the mainly Tajik Jamiat affiliates, President Hamed Karzai and the people around him were often perceived to support Pashtun groups.
Neither the Afghan government nor ISAF countered the growth of the Taleban in those early years, as anÂ AAN reportÂ found in 2011. According to its authors, Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, the Taleban â€˜recruited largely among the descendants of the third wave of Pashtun migrants from the south, who ended up getting humble jobs and little or no landâ€™. Indeed, a current source from the Taleban military commission confirmed that the insurgency still focused on Baghlan because of its comparably large Pashtun population which facilitated the insurgentsâ€™ penetration of both territory and influence over the areaâ€™s society. Later, they also incorporated Uzbeks, Turkmens, Aimaqs and, to a lesser extent, Tajiks. Giustozzi and Reuter wrote that, â€˜ISAF and the Afghan government neglected early warnings in Kunduz and Baghlan with negative consequencesâ€¦ Their reluctance to acknowledge the Talebanâ€™s growth grew from disbelief [at] the Talebanâ€™s ability to recruit non-Pashtuns.â€™
The Taleban also grew because they were able to take sympathy and territory from the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-ledÂ Hezb-e IslamiÂ (HIG), which is traditionally strong in the province.(3) Between 2007 and 2009, HIG insurgents and the Taleban competed for influence among the provinceâ€™s Pashtun population until the tussle became a short but fully fledged conflict. The Taleban managed to wrestle local support from Hezb-e-Islami, leveraging the widespread complaints about the conduct of HIG insurgents, who were repeatedly accused of robbing and kidnapping people. In 2009, the HIG-led insurgents were badly defeated by the Taleban. Such developments encouraged the Hezb-e Islami insurgents to join the government and international coalition forces, mainly under the guise of pro-government militias, which later merged into the ALP.
The Hungarian troops, who took over the ISAF PRT in Baghlan from the Dutch in 2006, â€˜had neither the resources nor the political will to control large parts of the provinceâ€™, Giustozzi and Reuter stated in their 2011 paper. This changed only after German and American troops started operating in Baghlan in 2009. Then in 2010, US Special Forces started conducting capture-or-kill missions. These operations hit the Taleban badly, eliminating parts of their local command structure and taking away some of their territorial gains.
By the end of 2010, four Baghlani shadow governors had been killed or captured and, ironically, it was the extremely successful campaign of targeted killings by US Special Forces that sped up the Talebanâ€™s reorganisation process. Command positions that became vacant were quickly filled by better-trained mid-ranks aligned with the new, Peshawar-led command-and-control structure established in the province between 2008 and 2010.
Following this reorganization drive, the Taliban also adopted a new military strategy. Baghlani mahaz commanders interviewed in January 2013 said, â€˜we do not want to repeat our mistakes in Helmand and Kandahar,â€™ referring to instances when international operations intermittently forced the Taleban to withdraw from areas they had occupied. Today, the Taleban try not to concentrate large numbers of fighters in the same district to avoid airstrikes and raids. The new strategy, tested in Baghlan and other provinces, was for small groups to target local authorities and gain influence in local social structures instead of trying to capture territory when it could not be held. This also means that a high number of fighters does not necessarily translate into a high number of attacks, but the Taleban can still be influential.
Without the support of the local population, the Taleban would have never come so far in Baghlan, even with a sophisticated organisation and strategy. Baghlanâ€™s weak local government provides fertile ground for insurgent activities. InÂ interviewsÂ with Taleban commanders from Baghlan in 2011,(2) a recurring theme in the answers about why they had started fighting was the â€˜corruption of the local governmentâ€™ (meaning that government officials ask for bribes, grab land, harass villagers and enjoy impunity). A western official well informed on Baghlani politics summed up the problems leading villagers to actively support the insurgency or having little resistance to being forcibly recruited: political marginalisation, encroachment by the dominating Jamiat faction, the bad behaviour of militias and rivalry between government officials.
A 2005 US diplomatic cableÂ published by WikileaksÂ provides more detail: at that time, it said, Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Highway Police competed for a share in the provinceâ€™s drug trafficking business. The involvement of local government officials in drug trafficking was confirmed in an interview by a well-informed Afghan government official in Kabul. A 2006Â US diplomatic cableÂ also reported major land grabbing disputes, â€˜particularly in Killagay [Kelagai] district, where Tajiks reportedly have been taking land previously held by absentee (and some returnee) Pashtuns. These disputes have been further complicated by an influx of Ismailis (Hazaras) also intent on obtaining land in the fertile area.â€™ Similar issues, including some with ethnic overtones, continue to fester in Baghlan.
A German ISAF spokesman based in the north told AAN that ISAF is now already seeing local powerbrokers, including those connected with organised crime, compete for post-German troop withdrawal positions. â€˜The struggles for power and resources have startedâ€™, he said.
Currently many Baghlani villagers are particularly outraged that the former Baghlan-e Jadid police commander, Mohammad Kamin, and former district governor, Amir Gul, have thus far escaped justice although they have been accused of playing the main role in violent incidents in their district last year. This started when four Afghan Special Forces, who were patrolling in the main bazaar of Baghlan-e Jadid, tried to disarm an armed and uniformed bodyguard of Ridi Gul, a former jihadi commander loyal to Amir Gul. Ridi Gul then placed a phone call which led to Kaminâ€™s police stopping the Afghan Special Forces, who had continued their patrol. After a discussion, the police opened fire and three of the four special forces soldiers were killed (see media coverageÂ here,Â hereÂ andÂ here).
Many Baghlanis hold Kamin responsible and are enraged that, even though Kamin and Gul were officially sacked following the incident, they were able to reclaim their positions. About a month after the incident, Kamin and Amir Gul were finally replaced by a police force dispatched from Pul-e Khumri. The mission turned into a battle. In the fight between the police and Kamin and Amir Gulâ€™s men, two of their fighters were killed. Today, according to Rostaqi, the current district police chief, the two men are still in Baghlan-e Jadid, despite several warrants having been issued for the former district police chief, Kamin. He says Kamin never showed up in court and that â€˜when someone approaches his house, he is threatened at gun point.â€™ Amir Gul is also charged with helping Kamin in the fight against the ANP in the second incident.
It is not the first time that Amir Gul, who like Mohseni belongs to the Jamiat faction, was suspected of criminal activities but (so far) escaped punishment. In the summer of 2006 the former jihadi commander, who was denied parliamentary candidature in 2005 because of links with illegal armed groups, was arrested after a â€˜large arsenal of incriminating bomb-making material, weapons and ammunition was found in his compoundâ€™, according to the US embassy in Kabul, whoÂ suspectedÂ him of involvement in attacks against ISAF. Amir Gul, however, wasÂ releasedÂ six months later by the Afghan intelligence service.
According to several Baghlani villagers who spoke to AAN, both Kamin and Amir Gul still have their own militias. An elder from one village in his area recounts how Amir Gulâ€™s men harassed his son for money, â€˜Thatâ€™s why the people supported the Taleban.â€™ He said. â€˜When we saw the Taleban we didnâ€™t call the police. We knew they were not as criminal as Amir Gul and Kamin are.â€™ Now, with a new Baghlan-e Jadid police chief, an official from Takhar, the elder said he had more trust in the government again, â€˜But the government will not do anything about Kamin and Amir Gul. How can we then be expected to stand up against them Taleban? So the people still do as Kamin and Amir Gul say.â€™
Baghlanis also complain that the Afghan security forces do not properly protect them. They especially dislike parts of the Afghan Local Police and how they are recruited and deployed in an ethnically sensitive area (a pattern occurs here, for cases illustrating the relation between ALP and insurgency in other provinces, see AANâ€™s recent blog on the situation in FaryabÂ hereÂ and a media report from JawzjanÂ here). An elder from Baghlan-e Jadid district, the Taleban stronghold in the province, told AAN in a phone interview that the provincial police commander â€“ a Helmandi â€“ had only recruited Pashtuns who had relocated from Kandahar to Baghlan a few decades ago. The villagers, also Pashtuns but who had lived in Baghlan for many generations, protested, saying they did not trust these men. Another elder suspected that the ALP in his area was sympathetic to the Taleban. The brother of the commander in question is currently detained in Bagram, accused of anti-government activities.
To make things even more difficult in terms of provincial security, the Afghan National Security Forces seem to be spread thin in Baghlanâ€™s districts. A Baghlan resident told AAN that already in 2010 the government usually only came in for a short while to fight and then went away again â€“ and â€˜afterwards the Taleban come back to our area.â€™ This still seems to be the case although, meanwhile, ALP have been deployed in the most notorious areas. On 4 May, Afghan National Army and the ANPâ€™s â€˜Provincial Response Companyâ€™ (PRC) trained andÂ accompaniedÂ by German Special Forces carried out a â€˜clearing operationâ€™ in Baghlan-e Jadid after a police convoy was ambushed by insurgents. According to local authorities, 300 ALP men are currently based in Baghlan-e Jadid. Nevertheless, when the German soldiers and the Afghan police went into the area, a forest near the village of Zamankhel, to assess the results of the operation, they ran into anÂ ambush. Three Afghans and one German were killed.
The area remained quiet for only a short while. Less than three weeks later, according to the district governor of Baghlan-e Jadid, on the same day provincial council chairman Mohseni was killed, two policemen were ambushed and killed near Zamankhel.
In whatever way the security situation develops in Baghlan, the German troops, who are leading the operations of ISAFâ€™s Regional Command North, will be out of the province by end of June. The handover by ISAF to Afghan security forces began last May, when, according to ISAF, the ANA took over security responsibilities in the first six crucial districts, nearly with particularly high insurgency activity: Baghlan-e Jadid, Dahan-e Ghori, Pul-e Khumri, Dushi and Burka, where one of the two main infiltration routes can be found, the one leading south from Kunduz. Last year in April, around 1,300 ISAF soldiers were still based in Baghlan. Today, according to spokesperson Marco Schmidl, around 450 German soldiers are left. Another 150 American soldiers remain at a base in Kelagai â€“ where the German Special Forces for the PRC trainers areÂ currently based. The Hungarian camp Pannonia in Pul-e Khumri closed by the end of March. In the near future, ISAF will mostly operate from bases in Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz. This means that ISAF bases, camps and outposts in other northern provinces are being dismantled or handed over to the ANSF.
Meanwhile, the main goals for the Taleban insurgency in Baghlan are to recapture Dand-e Ghori,(4) an area in the west of the province and south of the stronghold Baghlan-e Jadid, and continue significant influence in Baghlan-e Jadid itself, according to the member of the Talebanâ€™s military commission interviewed by AAN. Controlling these districts would provide the insurgency with easy access to the provincial centre in Pul-e Khumri and to the Baghlan-Mazar-e Sharif highway â€“ the backbone of traffic and trade between Hairatan Port in Balkh and the rest of the country.
How will the current shifts in the provincial power structures will affect the security situation?Â
The coming months will deliver answers to some important questions: how will the new and solidified Taleban establishment use its influence after most international troops are out of the way in July? Will the influential Jamiati supporters of the late Mohammad Rasul Mohseni react to his killing â€“ and who will take his place? A new head of the provincial council has not yet been elected and Jamiat-e-Islami will probably try to impose its own candidate. Alam Jan, an important Pashtun powerbroker affiliated with Hezb-e Islami, might represent an alternative option. Also, will the ALP deployed to the two key districts of Baghlan-e Jadid and Dahan-e Ghori manage to keep the insurgents at bay with increasingly limited international support?
Baghlan is not a traditional Taleban stronghold. However, the insurgents have proved to be resilient and their re-organisation after the capture-or-kill operations of the past years seems to have progressed far. A source from their military commission also said that weapons were easily available in the province, saying, â€˜Local [non-Taleban] commanders have been stashing away arms for a long time. There are many weapons caches in Baghlan.â€™
If the government in Kabul is serious about keeping Baghlan out of the hands of the Taleban, it needs to address the various factors facilitating the insurgencyâ€™s recent gains: local spoilers such as Mohammad Kamin and Amir Gul, the populationâ€™s discontent with the ALP and the weaknesses of the ANSF and local government.
(1) During the attack on Mohseni, six civilians, four bodyguards and three policemen were also killed, and nine more civilians were wounded. In a telephone interview with the insurgentsâ€™ military commission, an official told AAN: â€˜We celebrated his death. We targeted Mohseni because he was creating obstacles to our activities â€“ and we will target others who are creating problems as well.â€™
(2) This report was authored by Deedee Derksen, now working with AAN.
(3) Historically, Hezb-e Islami played an important role in Baghlan from the early days of the anti-Soviet Jihad. For the best part of the last decade however, the party has been split between a faction aligned with the government and a faction that was part of the insurgency. In 2009, the Taleban attacked HIG because of widespread accusations of corruption. What was and is at stake here is achieving control over Baghlanâ€™s Pashtun constituency, both in political terms and in the support it provides to the insurgents. The Taleban acted to distance themselves from corrupt practices, although the truth â€“ as often in Afghanistan â€“ may lie elsewhere.
It is interesting to note that in Baghlan, Hezb-e-Islami was not able to maintain a constituency both among the insurgents and among government forces. The conflict with the Taleban and their subsequent defeat appears to have locked HIG into a pro-government position, both as a political party and under the guise of ALP local militias.
(4) Not identical with the district of Dahan-e Ghori.