The Taleban’s recent takeover of both Qala-ye Zal and Dasht-e Archi’s district centres is the latest episode in the long-running battle for possession of Kunduz province. It follows the spectacular takeover of Kunduz’s provincial centre by insurgents in late September 2015, the hard-won recapture by pro-government forces two weeks later and the government’s unsuccessful counter-offensive in the province’s districts. Lola Cecchinel, a regular AAN guest author, examines the Taleban’s latest gains and the dismantling of government structures outside of the provincial capital (with contributions by Thomas Ruttig and Obaid Ali).
Two of Kunduz’s district centres, those of Qala-ye Zal and Dasht-e Archi, fell to the Taleban once again on 20 July 2016. In Qala-ye Zal, the government temporarily retreated to a local teacher training college in the village of Aqtepa while the administration centre itself was held by the Taleban until 8 August 2016. The Taleban then also overran the district’s security headquarters. With the local government officials still trapped in the training centre, the Taleban is effectively in charge of the district.
In Dasht-e Archi, government officials retreated to an area in Qarloq village, which had, until then, been a government stronghold. As almost all the district’s officials hail from Qarloq, most local pro-government and Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces are concentrated here to protect them. The other part of Qarloq is under Taleban control. There are occasional exchanges of fire, including with heavy artillery, which mostly affect civilians and damage buildings. Most residents have now fled the district centre.
Furthermore, on 4 August 2016, the Taleban launched an attack on Emam Saheb district, which lies on Tajikistan’s border. This district had remained quiet since the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) recaptured it in their late September offensive. District governor Emamuddin Quraishi warned that if no reinforcements were sent, the district would fall once again. The Afghan press reported that the following day, an Afghan Air Force strike killed dozens of Taleban.
Of the remaining districts, Chahrdara, to the south of Qala-ye Zal, is still “ninety per cent” controlled by insurgents, District Governor Zalmay Faruqi told the author. Khanabad, to the east of Kunduz city, is caught between the Taleban, local militias and the ANSF. On 17 July 2016, four members of a peace jirga were killed in a fight not far from the Khanabad road. For now, of all the districts in Kunduz, only Aliabad in the southeast of the province had not come under an outright attack, although there has been a strong Taleban presence in all areas to the west of the river. Regular Taleban incursions have also taken place on the main road connecting Baghlan and Kunduz via Aliabad (as illustrated by the mass kidnapping on 31 May 2016).
District centre attacks and takeovers are, it seems, no longer newsworthy. They have happened before, and more than once. Dasht-e Archi and Chahrdara districts fell once to the Taleban in June 2015, and again during the Taleban capture of Kunduz city. Qala-ye Zal fell for the first time then (see here and here).
The war in Kunduz did not start with the fall of the city in September 2015, however, nor did it end when its provincial capital was recaptured by government forces. Since 2008, the insurgency has been spreading its roots as divisions within society have deepened. Kunduz is currently the most vulnerable province in the Afghan North (see also AAN’s Kunduz dossier and all other dispatches since then). Since the provincial capital fell last year, Kunduz has seen more Taleban attacks on district centres than any other province in the country.
A stranded population
Life in Kunduz province is a challenge for everyone, with thousands having already been displaced due to the conflict. Before the provincial capital fell to the Taleban, many families moved from the districts to the provincial centre or to neighbouring provinces in the face of growing insecurity. As of July 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre counted “36,600 people newly displaced in Kunduz province since April 2015.” As the events of late September showed, however, the city was no longer a safe place to live. OCHA reported that the escalating conflict in Kunduz led to increased and widespread displacement, with 22,400 more people displaced as of 30 April 2016. The press reported on 8 August 2016 that in Qala-ye Zal alone, over 600 families had been newly displaced.
Those who remain in the districts no longer venture into Kunduz city, the risk of traveling along the district roads is too high. In Chahrdara, where the government only controls part of the district centre, people know that, while the ANSF control the main road between 8 am and 2 pm, the Taleban have freedom of movement at all other times. While the ANSF still control the main roads between most district centres to the provincial capital, the Taleban make regular incursions to set up temporary check-posts, arrest and interrogate passengers and, as recent events show, assassinate travellers and abduct others. The same goes for many areas in and around the city, notably the Kabul-Kunduz and Kunduz-Takhar highways near Kunduz airport (situated a few kilometres outside the city) and Sar Dawra, where there is a large settlement of IDPs.
On 28 May 2016, for example, the Taleban kidnapped the provincial police’s deputy administrative officer, Wahidullah, as he was travelling along the Kunduz-Takhar highway (read short report here). He is still being held captive. The Taleban have said they will exchange him for Qari Salim, one of their main commanders captured in April this year in Dasht-e Archi. On 31 May 2016 at dawn, the Taleban abducted passengers from several buses driving through the Omarkhel area in Aliabad district (from where the provincial governor comes), at the entrance of Kunduz city, kidnapping over 50 passengers and subsequently killing over 20 of them for allegedly being identified as members of the government (read Afghan media reports here and here). On 30 July 2016, two gunmen killed Nasim Khan, the executive manager of Aliabad district, local sources told the author. The Taleban claimed responsibility for the murder.
The atmosphere in Kunduz city is tense. Local shopkeepers and passers-by continue to ply their trade, yet the threat of violence hangs over the city and its 300,000 inhabitants: residents reported feeling observed, being suspicious about neighbours or passengers in a collective taxi disclosing information, fear of being questioned by the National Directorate for Security (NDS) or the Taleban on the way back to their villages.
Several residents told the author that they restrict their and their family members’ movements in the city – praying at home instead of going to the mosque, for instance. The provincial governor’s office building in Kunduz is surprisingly empty most days; it used to have long lines of visitors waiting. Aside from security guards and office staff, the number of daily visitors is around ten people a day. The civil administration’s work has essentially ground to a halt.
A resident of Chahrdara described life as “a kind of death,” and feeling “imprisoned,” for he saw no way out of the current state of insecurity in his area. These feelings were exacerbated as rumours had spread during the month of Ramadan that the Taleban were going to launch another attack on the city after the Eid holidays. As Kunduz residents retreat behind walls of mutual distrust and are cut off from their local government, their relationship with the state is further weakened.
The government’s lost grip on Dasht-e Archi and Chahrdara
On the other hand, Kunduz’s authorities’ reach outside the city has been severely reduced. The Provincial Governor’s Office has limited access to information outside the centre, little capacity to monitor and thus to exert oversight over district administrations. The Director of the Civil Service Commission (CSC) in Kunduz, for example, reported that he could not send his staff to the districts anymore to solve issues or to monitor civil servants’ attendance. Similarly, the Directorate of Education and other departments, while still working, struggled to monitor the work of their departments in the districts.
Provincial Governor Assadullah Omarkhel, a Pashtun from the province and a former head of the Provincial High Peace Council, appointed in February 2016, confirmed this during an informal encounter: “I am supposed to be governing a whole province, but currently I am mostly stranded in the city.”
In Dasht-e Archi and Chahrdara districts, the government’s presence is merely symbolic. Even before the district fell on 20 July 2016, Archi’s district governor was rarely in his district. When the author visited the provincial governor’s office in late July, the district governor had been out of reach for several days. Civil servants stopped showing up for work and withdrew into the last government-held area in Qarloq, where most of the police forces are concentrated. A resident reported that in order to get a tazkera (national ID card), one had to visit the relevant officials in their own homes. The government has all but ceased to function in Archi.
In its place, the Taleban have established quasi-total dominance over the population, exploiting long-standing grievances of the Pashtun majority against a mafia-like Uzbek elite, who hold the important positions in the district. Dasht-e Archi comprises a majority of Pashtuns and minorities of Uzbeks and Turkmen. A group of Uzbeks and Turkmen from the Qarloq area, mainly affiliated to the Jamiat-e Islami and Jombesh parties, monopolised power and resources at the expense of Pashtuns but also members of their own ethnic groups. For years, they controlled decision-making, access to irrigation water, recruitment of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Local Police programme as well as holding key positions, such as that of district governor or police chief. This created tensions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’
These tensions were exacerbated by widespread discriminatory practices, corruption and client-patron relationships that characterised the local administration. (2) As a result, as the ALP chief put it, “the people reject the government as a whole.” Meanwhile, most regular and ALP policemen have abandoned their posts. According to ALP Chief Mullah Akhtar, they sell their weapons and ammunition to the Taleban shadow district governor, who, he says, has set up a weapons-trading business between Archi and Helmand, (3) the most important battleground for the Taleban in the south of the country. This makes Archi the most fertile breeding and training ground for the Taleban in the Afghan north.
Today, the district is the military operational base for insurgents in Kunduz. Most shadow governors and commanders operating in the north hail from Archi, while foreign fighters under Taleban command use it as a rear-base for their operations elsewhere in the province. A series of government and allied US forces operations have done little to change things, although they have managed to deal a few blows to the local insurgents’ leadership. For example, according to the district governor, a shadow district governor was killed (but quickly replaced) in November 2015, several commanders were arrested during night raids in April 2016, and US Special Forces have carried out a series of drone attacks in Archi since the beginning of the spring.
In Chahrdara district, another insurgent hotbed since 2008, the Taleban have established a fully-functioning parallel administration. They have set up offices in the Nawabad area to the west of the district centre, in concrete buildings and assigned full-time clerks to respond to people’s demands. They use laptops, printers and fingerprint scans, all captured during their temporary takeover of Kunduz. Ironically, Nawabad is where the US Special Forces used to have a base – which the Taleban now use – and where they used to train local ALP units. They reportedly handle cases and issue decisions swiftly, in contrast with the government’s slow, bureaucratic and corrupt administration.
Breakdown of government services
Worsening security has affected the overall provision of government services to the local population, particularly in education and health. Schools have been used as bases by the Taleban as well as by government forces during the fighting, such as Abdul Fatah Shahid High School in Chahrdara, which remained closed for several days; other have been fully destroyed, have closed down or are now completely under Taleban supervision. (4) In Chahrdara and Archi, schools are still open except where there is fighting nearby. There, the Taleban monitor the attendance of teachers, modify the curriculum and preach anti-government messages to students, according to a report by the local German-supported NGO, Mediothek Afghanistan, published in December 2015 also confirmed by the author’s sources. One teacher in Emam Saheb told AAN that the Taleban had asked education department officials to take part in a discussion about girls’ schools. Media sources and Human Rights Watch have also reported that the Taleban have increasingly recruited fighters from among public school pupils and madrasa students (see media report here; and HRW report here).
Health facilities have been similarly targeted, the most notable event being the bombing of the MSF trauma centre in Kunduz city by US airstrikes on 3 October 2015 (see the latest of a series of AAN analysis here). Currently, Kunduz’s regional hospital is overcrowded with patients from all districts flocking to the centre to get emergency healthcare; however it does not have the capacity to treat them all.
Although various NGOs – including the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan and the Norwegian Refugee Council – have managed to keep their operations running in the province, they are struggling to access people in the most insecure districts, where ongoing fighting disrupts the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Most donor programmes, however, such as those run by USAID or the German government’s development agency (GIZ), shut down long ago when security began to deteriorate within the city.
If some level of education and health services is still provided, people face greater risks in accessing them. As a female resident of Archi told the author in May 2016: “People face many barriers in receiving humanitarian assistance because of insecurity. They cannot move from one area to another because the Taleban create problems for them.” (5)
Kunduz’s power (im)balance
Omarkhel’s room for manoeuvre on other urgent matters, such as reconstruction, is fairly limited. Donor and NGO projects have stalled. In an interview with the author on 16 July 2016 he lamented the lack of resources: “We will take anything you can do to help us, even if it’s a single bullet or a single brick.”
The district governors are just as helpless or incapable. Most have been in their positions for many years (the only new face being the governor of Aliabad, Hayatullah Faqiryar). They form an integral part of a system of poor governance and, as such, are perpetuating the very dynamics, which have distanced people from the state and pushed them closer to the insurgents: corruption, patronage and discrimination.
When the author sat with all but one of Kunduz’s district governors in July 2016 to ask about priorities in their districts, they listed government offices that needed building, equipment and stationary that needed to be bought and development projects that needed launching. Accustomed to ever-available and unconditional funding for security, development and governance by the international community in the province (which itself has added to problems), their incentives for addressing the root causes of instability are limited. They are certainly not commanded to do so by the government in Kabul, which is perceived as either turning a blind eye to the problems of people in Kunduz, or willingly fostering instability in the province.
Provincial and district governors are operating in survival mode, as are local policemen, community council members and even civil society and the media in Kunduz. As confirmed by Afghan NGO sources, journalists in Kunduz received money from public authorities in exchange for publishing positive – and sometimes incorrect – reports about the government. Not only this, they have been threatened by security and other officials as well as local strongmen not to report abuses or human rights violations that have occurred during military operations, for instance.
If someone tries to break the cycle of patronage and corruption, they are pushed out of the system. One good example is former provincial governor Omar Safi. He was the first provincial governor to be appointed by President Ashraf Ghani in December 2014 in a gesture signifying Kunduz was to be a priority, and an example of the change in the way provinces were to be run. Safi was continually undermined, however, by local office holders and their patrons in Kabul, including in his efforts to disband militias in the province. His deputy, Hamdullah Daneshi, a Jamiati who has retained his position for 13 years (indicating strong support from Kabul), has been a staunch supporter of militias in Kunduz. As he said in an interview published in June 2015, they prevented the province from falling back into the hands of the Taleban, an opinion shared by his former mujahedin compatriots (see also this AAN analysis). Ghani was eventually forced to drop Omar, also due to political pressure and rumours that Safi had fled (more in this AAN analysis).
Khanabad’s current district governor, Hayatullah Amiri (the son of famous commander Amir Muhammad Chugha) (6), initiated a process of disarmament of militias in 2015. The Afghan National Army began to dismantle illegally armed group checkpoints in the city, and militiamen were called to the centre to lay down their weapons. However, some of these groups’ commanders then pulled connections in the Ministry of Defence in Kabul and the process was stopped. Amiri’s predecessor, Nezamudin Nasher, who served between 2010 and 2012 and who hails from the famous and influential family of the founders of the originally Kunduz-based and now countrywide textile company Spinzar –publicly accused then-provincial governor Engineer Muhammad Omar of corruption. (7) He also ensured that local militia commanders such as Muhammad Omar Pakhsaparan and Mir Alam – the latter controls a large militia network in the province – were no longer able to access the district centre, in order to enhance citizens’ safety. Nasher was targeted in a car bomb attack in Kunduz city in July 2012 and injured. The background of this attack was never publicly clarified, but Nasher fled to Europe. (More background on Kunduz’s militia networks in this AAN dispatch and this AAN report)
A number of these governance problems were highlighted in a government-commissioned fact-finding report published in November 2015, following the Taleban’s temporary takeover of the city. (8) Alongside security issues, it highlighted a number of key governance issues for the government to tackle, including a) neutralising the influence of the ‘grey government’ in Kunduz (ie of ‘powerbrokers’(mostly former Jihadi commanders), who play a crucial role in politics, the security sector and the informal economy); b) ensuring provincial governors have the authority and capacity to respond to people’s expectations; c) resolving historical frictions which have deeply divided society in Kunduz, and d) ensuring the representation of all groups in the appointment of provincial-level officials as well as merit-based recruitment among the pool of qualified Kunduz candidates. (See AAN’s look at the report here). Candidates had even been identified by the government – or more precisely, by President Ashraf Ghani – hence Safi’s appointment. However, he was thwarted by the very structures he was supposed to reform. His successor Omarkhel has been even less able to sidestep the province’s patronage networks, as he is deeply engrained in them himself. (9) As a result, the initiative has been left to the Taleban to shape the course of events in the province.
Military operations without governance reforms
Kunduz’s recent history has shown that successive military offensives (ANSF-led, with or without the support of US Special Forces or militias recruited to swell the ranks of the ANSF) have not resulted in a viable solution to the structural crisis in the province that has been unfolding for the past ten years. This has been exacerbated by the failure to couple them with decisive changes in the distribution of power in the province (as highlighted in this 2013 AAN report, “Local Afghan Power Structures and the International Military Intervention“). The unchallenged patronage networks are one of the deep-rooted drivers of conflict that have bolstered the insurrection since 2008. Safi’s removal from office is a further setback to such efforts.
This time again, despite considerable efforts by the ANSF, the Taleban have only been pushed back temporarily. Although they have not succeeded in repeating their 2015 success, their July 2016 operations in Dasht-e Archi, Chahrdara and Emam Saheb have shown their resilience and ability in not only inflicting losses on the government but also on recapturing lost territory, including district centres. Their hold on extended rural areas is a key feature of that resilience. In the context of this deep and complex crisis, it is unrealistic to expect that the local government alone could tackle what amounts to a state of paralysis in Kunduz.
(1) There are contradicting reports about where the set up of these districts stands. IDLG sources told the author in early July that district governors had been appointed, the location of the district centres decided and borders defined. Sources in the Kunduz provincial government, however, said this was on paper only because the areas of the districts-to-be were inaccessible to the government. Neither did they know anything about the appointment of district governors.
(2) The current district governor of Dasht-e Archi, Nasruddin Saidi, for example, has taken over from his father, late Sheikh Sadruddin, a former jihadi commander linked to Jamiat who was killed in 2013. The new district governor of Aliabad, Hayatullah Faqiryar – mentioned further down in the text – is the son of a former Jamiat commander. Both are young, inexperienced and unable to command the respect of local elders.
(3) This weapons trade is likely part of a much larger system, involving US, Russian-made and other weapons. US weapons that fell to the Taleban during the takeover of Kunduz in 2015 and elsewhere, when disarming or trading with the ALP and possibly other pro-government units, are redistributed among the Taleban with their changing structure (made up of special units and forces, see this AAN analysis). For Russian-made weapons, the main supply route is through Emam Saheb and Badakhshan province. Through these areas, large amounts of weapons and ammunition are supplied to other parts of the country, including by pro-government commanders (see for example this media report). At the same time, it is doubtful whether the Kunduz insurgency would contribute large amounts of weapons to the fronts in Helmand, since the battlegrounds in the northeast, particularly in Kunduz and Baghlan, are big and in need of lots of ammunition and military hardware themselves.
(4) For 2015, UNAMA and UNICEF documented the highest number of such incidents for Kunduz province: military use of 15 schools by pro-government forces affected 6,680 students (3,980 boys and 2,700 girls).
(5) This quote comes from an in-depth interview conducted by ATR consulting under an NGO-commissioned assessment of humanitarian needs in Kunduz province, 2016, in which the author participated.
(6) Amir Muhammad Chugha (sometimes also: Chughay) from Khanabad district was one of the most powerful commanders in the province during the war against the Soviets. He was linked to Sayyaf’s Ittehad-e Islami party (now renamed Dawat-e Islami) and was killed in 1994.
(7) Eng. Omar was assassinated in an unrelated attack in October 2010.
(8) The fact-finding delegation investigated the reasons behind the fall of the city between 11 and 30 October 2015. The report was handed to the National Security Council on 21 November 2015. Only a summary was released to the public.
(9) Omarkhel is the leader of Sayyaf’s Dawat-e Islami party in the northeastern region.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020