Kunduz has had the worst security environment of any province in the north for the past few years. And within this province there are several districts that are particularly notable for the intractable conflicts raging within them. One notable area in this regard is Khanabad district, where government forces, nominally pro-government militias, illegal armed groups and the Taleban all vie for power and control, much to the detriment of the local civilians. AAN’s Christian Bleuer and Obaid Ali draw on local sources to analyse the most recent troubles across Khanabad (with contributions from Lola Cecchinel).Streets of Khanabad. Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Netherlands, under creative commons license
Kunduz province is an exceptionally complex region of Afghanistan where the presence of numerous factions and a diverse population have made it nearly impossible for any one force to control the entire province. This pattern has been seen since 1992, re-enforced immediately after 2001 and continuing in recent years as violence has escalated. (1) By spring of this year it was clear that Khanabad district in Kunduz province was, in terms of security, one of the most vulnerable areas in the north. The worsening security is complicated by the divided nature of political and military power in Khanabad. An AAN dispatch in April outlined this problem:
Khanabad district is a good example for the intricate patchwork of political fault lines and spheres of influence of warlords and militia commanders. Here, mini-fiefdoms have been developing over years, mainly along ethnic and factional affiliations…
Across Kunduz several districts are faced with dire security conditions, including Dasht-e Archi, Imam Saheb, Aliabad and Chahrdara. In the second week of August, Kunduz MP Fatima Aziz claimed that Khanabad was one of several districts in Kunduz that was close to collapse due to worsening security. (A similar warning with regard to Dasht-e Archi and Imam Saheb from local government officials came at the beginning of this week.)
This was followed by severe fighting between Taleban and government forces. Local government officials in Kunduz claimed that following a large Taleban offensive, local residents and “mujahedin leaders” in Khanabad district started an “anti-Taleban public uprising,” forcing the insurgents out of Khanabad district. However, this claim could not be verified independently.
Many people in Khanabad district do not consider the Taleban to be the main threat to their security and livelihoods. They complain about the many “irresponsible armed groups” – a synonym widely used locally for ‘free-lance’ armed groups that are not formally under government control but loyal to local ‘strongmen’, including prominent former mujahedin commanders. These armed groups extort money from farmers and shopkeepers while threatening kidnap or death. Hayatullah Amiri, the district governor of Khanabad, claims that some of these groups, despite the abuses they commit, are helpful to the Afghan government. Nevertheless, on 19 August he appealed to President Ashraf Ghani to assist him in preventing these groups from harassing and looting the people of Khanabad.
Speaking to AAN, district governor Ameri outlined the various illegal armed groups in Khanabad district that he named as major concerns for the Afghan government. Ameri divides these groups into three categories, without noting the obvious overlaps they may have: 1) groups led by former jihadi commanders, 2) armed militias that are currently fighting against the Taleban, and 3) criminal groups. He stated that some of these groups were established six years ago to push back against the Taleban. But with no plan to disarm or control these groups, their numbers increased rapidly. Currently there are more than 1500 ‘illegal armed men’ in the district. Most of them are rivals and are engaged in various disputes with each other. The district only has 170 police service members, with 20 of them serving as security guards for some local government officials and provincial council members. The rest, 150 policemen, are tasked with ensuring security for two major roads, Khanabad-Aliabad and Kunduz-Takhar, where they have 28 check posts.
Recently, the provincial authority received an official letter from the Interior Ministry to disarm the ‘irresponsible groups’ within ten days (not the first attempt to do so, see here), which Ameri said is impossible. He further noted the government’s dilemma: because some of these armed groups are protecting their areas from Taleban expansion, if the government is to disarm them, the government security forces would not be able to resist the Taleban.
Current situation in Khanabad
A local journalist in Kunduz province told AAN that the security situation in Khanabad has become quite “frightening” with no public protection at all. However, this is not a new phenomenon, with the security situation in this area being dire for the last two years. The high presence of illegal armed groups and armed anti-government elements has created a chaotic environment in the district. As a result of this dire security situation, there is almost no house without a weapon in Khanabad district. In fact, the journalist noted, it is hard to survive without a gun, since the security forces (ie, the ANP) are too limited in numbers and weak in capacity to take strong security measures. Criminal groups in Khanabad benefit from this permissive atmosphere and continue to harass local residents. Every small area in Khanabad is ruled or affected by criminal groups, usually consisting of five to twenty armed men. These groups are often involved in robbery, extorting money from locals and taking illegal taxes from markets and businessmen.
A recent visitor to Khanabad who travelled for business spoke with AAN and noted the heavy presence of arbakis, a term locally used for these ‘illegal armed groups.’ The arbakis have thousands of armed fighters, and in every village the sight of young men with guns ruling the area is common. Aside from extorting money from civilians and stealing the harvests, these various armed groups are busy fighting each other. It has become hard to keep track of the high number of assassinations, revenges murders and targeted killings, which happen every single day. A local mullah told the AAN source that he alone has performed funeral prayers for 173 men in just the past three months.
Infighting between commanders most often breaks out over collection of taxes and control of resources (mainly water). Rival commanders from opposing factions, or within the same faction, resort to IEDs, ambushes and targeted killing to eliminate each other. In May last year, commander Omar (in control of the south of Aqtash) and commander Sharif (in control of the east) fought over possession of lands in Aqtash. In June, commander Khwaja Qand (active in Kohistanha) and commander Malang Agha from Jangal Bashi entered into a gun and rocket battle while some men of Khwaja Qand’s group were collecting taxes from the locals. In October last year, commander Abdul Jabar – supported by Pakhsaparan – and commander Baryalai fought each other on the collection of ushr (taxes) in Bohen area. Both parties brought more than 200 militiamen in Chahrgana to fight. However, elders of the area intervened and did not let the commanders fight.
The most recent case that the AAN source mentioned is the murder of a provincial education department employee who was attacked inside his own house by 20 armed men due to his refusal to bow to a student’s demand for higher marks at school. The armed men decapitated the education department employee in front of his family members and then dismembered his body.
Many locals have expressed concerns about the current situation in the district, particularly businessmen and shopkeepers. A cloth seller told AAN that just before Eid holidays many commanders had approached his business and demanded dresses and fabrics. According to him, most of his investments were lost to commanders and their soldiers. Many shopkeepers who AAN talked with expressed similar concerns. Some have already left Khanabad district and invested instead in Kunduz city and in Takhar province.
Farmers are also targets for predatory taxation. Local farmers in Khanabad informed an AAN source of the ushr taxes levied on their rice harvests. Four arbaki commanders had already taken a 10 per cent ‘Islamic tax’ each before the Taleban arrived and demanded their tithe. Many of the current clashes at the moment are related to battles over control of these taxes.
Illegal armed groups not only fight each other, but also enter into confrontation with the ANSF. During Eid last year, a clash that arose between ANP and some illegally armed groups in Kanam Kalan resulting in the killing of six, including civilians. Explaining the scene, a resident of the area reported:
The incident arose when commander Qadir asked the people of Kanam Kalan to pay him ushr. When people reacted and asked the police to take Qadirak out of their village along with his militias, the fight began. As a result of a bloody clash among the police and Qadirak’s gunmen six people were killed.
A local police officer talked about a recent attack on Abdul Manan:
Commander Mir Alam’s militias recently launched an attack on the Bandar-e Shorab checkpoint, aiming to enter into the district center. They wanted to create chaos among the people and discredit Abdul Manan (former chief of police) to replace him with someone from their own group.
This happened even though the ANSF regularly seeks support from the commanders when launching clearing operations against insurgents.
In early September 2013, fighting broke out between the Taleban and men of commander Qadirak. The Taleban had abducted four ANA soldiers travelling on a local bus to their home in Badakhshan. One of the soldiers was killed on the spot. Local authorities had requested Qadirak to use his influence with the Taleban and ask them for the release of the hostages. When the Taleban refused, fighting broke out.
The commanders of Khanabad district
Khanabad district is divided into fiefdoms by commanders and sub-commanders. Many have links with high-ranking officials in the district and the province. These are the most influential of the commanders:
Muhammad Omar Pakhsaparan (‘wall breaker’): former jihadi commander linked with Dawat-e Islami party, led by Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf. He controls most the Aqtash area. Commander Omar has many enemies and rivals in the district. His major rival is the ethnic Tajik Mir Alam, one of the most influential commanders in the province; he belongs to Jamiat-e Islami (see AAN dispatch here for more information). A few months ago, fourteen members of his family were killed in the explosion of an IED in Khanabad. Omar accused Mir Alam’s men of having placed the IED, and according to the rumors, has since then vowed to destroy his enemy in revenge.
One of Mohammad Omar’s fiercest enemies in Aqtash is Sher Mohammad, who is supported by Mir Alam.
Commander Qadir (known as Qadirak, ‘Little Qadir’): Qadirak was around 26 years old when the Taleban killed him in August. His base of support benefitted from the patronage of Mir Alam. He ruled over the village of Chahrtut, only few kilometers from the district center. Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, identifying Qadirak as an ALP commander, said that he was killed in clashes with Taleban forces in early August. Khanabad district governor Amiri stated that villagers had invited in the Taleban to kill Qadirak, who had been regularly harassing, killing and extorting money from local residents. However, Qadirak had many enemies in the district. His main rival was commander Postakai (a Pashtun commander link to Sayyaf). Qadirak had more than one hundred armed men under his command, and he recently expanded his territory quite wider. This resulted in many clashes against other local commanders, and eventually his death at the hands of the Taleban.
Qadirak, an ethnic Aymaq, had been assisted by Tajik and Hazara commanders in his predatory expeditions against Pashtuns across Kunduz province, including in Khanabad district. As noted by Lola Cecchinel in her AAN dispatch, “It is hard to say who the local people fear more, though: their ‘defenders’ – ALP and other militias – or the Taleban themselves.”
Commander Matin (known as Matinak, ‘Little Matin’): Matinak, an ethnic Hazara, rules over Charigariha village, only one kilometer away from the city centre. He leads a group of 10 to 30 armed men who often prey on Pashtun residents. Matinak has had several clashes with other commanders. The most recent case is his dispute with commander Qadirak over bacha bazi (sexual abuse of young boys). According to a local source, Matinak’s bacha-ye be-risha (the boy that is sexually abused; literally ‘beardless boy’) ran away and sheltered with commander Qadirak. The clash between both commanders resulted in serious casualties for both sides. Finally, local elders stepped in to settle the dispute and returned the boy back to Matinak.
Commander Nawid (known as Nawidak, ‘Little Nawid’): an ethnic Tajik, Nawidak is in control of Charikariha area of the district. He has established a degree of notoriety in Khanabad. He has previously been charged with killing civilians; however in the past he had enjoyed a degree of impunity due to the backing of regional power brokers Mir Alam and late Marshal Fahim. The former chief of police, Sufi Habibullah, once declared publicly that he could not arrest him because of the interference of Marshal Fahim. Nawidak had threatened Sufi Habibullah at various occasions after this. A teacher of Charikariha said:
Commander Nawidak is a killer, we have complained so many times about him. He is taking our money and warning the wealthy people by telephone to give him money.
The cases of commander Qadirak, Faizak and Nawidak illustrate the extent to which Mir Alam holds leverage over his commanders. All three have been charged with killing civilians in the past, but district and provincial authorities have never been able to arrest them. Until Fahim’s death, the axis of support of Marshal Fahim-Mir Alam granted them complete impunity. Anwar Jagdalak, the former provincial governor of Kunduz, publicly denounced the interference of high figures in the politics of the province on TV.
In an interview, General Mohammad Khalil Andarabi, former Kunduz police chief, confessed:
At the beginning of my mandate, I promised the residents of Kunduz that I would deal with that, but high profile figures in Kunduz and Kabul have prevented me from doing so.
The recruitment process
What is notable about these groups is that while some are led by former mujahedin or ‘jihadi’ commanders, others are led by men far too young to have a jihadi background. A local journalist argued that in the chaotic environment of Khanabad all the local commanders feel a strong need to protect themselves and their interests with as large a group of armed supporters as possible. The business traveler cited above stated that most of the residences in Khanabad have to ‘voluntarily’ offer a young member of their families to a local armed group in order to secure their own protection. Otherwise, they have to arm themselves and protect their house, night and day.
The result is the heavy recruitment of local youth and an increasingly complex situation as commanders seek to secure the absolute loyalty of recruits. The main tactic used by commanders is to have the recruit create an immediate and personal enemy from among the enemies and rivals of the commander by carrying out an attack or killing. Here the commander takes into account both ethnicity and family relations, as the recruit’s family could be considered a ‘rival’ if they attempt to pull their son or brother away from the commanders’ influence. For example, if the new recruit is not related to the family of the commander, then the commander will create a situation where the recruit has to attack a member of his family, such as a cousin, making it harder for the recruit to return to leave the commanders group and return to his own family (note that this exact same tactic is used in Africa on child soldier recruits, but usually towards more immediate family members, see here). If the recruit is a relative of the commander’s family, then the commander pushes him to shoot someone from amongst the commander’s rivals. The alternate use of these recruitment tactics ensures the commander’s control over his young recruits. First of all, the recruit will not be able to join other parties because of the killing, and secondly he cannot return to his family because of the newly created intra-family enmity.
A teacher of the district center interviewed in June 2013 expressed his deep concern over the situation of the youth in the district:
Insecurity in the district is due to the lack of job opportunities […] youth are being used by political groups […] the government should pay more attention to this issue, as unemployment rates will increase, more youth will join illegal armed groups or insurgents.
The Taleban in Khanabad
Illegal armed groups are not the only forces that have benefited from the deteriorating security in Khanabad district. Hayatullah Ameri, the district governor, admits that the Taleban have increased their footprint in Khanabad and divides them into seven different groups that function in various parts of the district. The Taleban have used the chaotic situation to increase their presence and pushed out the weaker of the militia groups. According to a local journalist, the Taleban have the strongest presence in Pashtun or Pashtun-dominated villages, including Bahador Khan village, only two kilometers away from the district centre. The other villages ruled by the Taleban include some in the Chahrtut are: Mafali, Hussain Khel, Aishan Top, Zard Qamar, Malghelai, Tawus, Dukan-e Adam Khan and Lalmi. In these villages the Taleban run their own administration system and judicial bodies.
A traveler to the area reported to AAN that the Taleban court in Bahador Khan village issues rulings that are enforced far beyond just that village. Government institutions generally respect the edicts and decisions, mostly due to the edicts including a death threaten against anyone who does not abide by the ruling. Locals in this area believe that the court settles disputes quickly and without the corruption seen in government courts. (The rulings, however, still produce losers, who would presumably be unhappy with the rulings.) The number of petitioners seeking out the services of the Taleban court is much higher than for the local government courts.
In May 2014, a delegation of elders visited the provincial governor in Kunduz to complain about the situation in Khanabad:
With the weather getting warmer the number of insurgents and IAGs (illegally armed groups) is growing, security is worsening especially in the villages, thus we have come together and approached the Governor. We gave our ideas to him and proposed a solution. Most of the Taliban in Khanabad are from Dasht-e Archi and from Takhar province; they use this area as their base. We suggested to the Governor to create an ANA checkpoint in the area that connects Dasht-e Archi with Khanabad. The Governor promised us that would set up a meeting with security forces and elders from Khanabad and Dasht-e Archi about this issue.
Prospects for the near future
As foreign forces draw down, the Afghan government now finds itself with less support in its efforts to control the Taleban expansion across Khanabad and other districts in Kunduz. Aside from the Taleban’s momentum and the increased responsibility of Afghan security forces in the face of the further withdrawal of western forces, there is also the problem of local militias. The ‘illegal armed groups’ appear to be strongly embedded within local communities; they are not strangers that can be chased away easily by the Taleban or by the Afghan government if and when the government decides that the militias are more of a problem than a benefit (ie, in their fight against the Taleban).
The problems of Khanabad and of other districts in Kunduz are a serious early challenge for President Ghani, to whom local government officials in Kunduz and Khanabad have already directly appealed. The Afghan government may soon be in a position where it is faced with a situation where parts of Kunduz are completely outside of government influence, whether in the form of Taleban domination or control by a patchwork of local commanders and factions.
(1) See the following earlier AAN reports: Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, ‘The Northern Front: The Afghan Insurgency Spreading beyond the Pashtuns’, AAN report, 24 June 2010; Nils Woermer, ‘The Networks of Kunduz: A History of Conflict and Their Actors‘, from 1992 to 2001’, AAN report, 2 August 2012; Philipp Münch, ‘Local Afghan Power Structures and the International Military Intervention: A review of developments in Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces’, AAN report, 9 November 2013.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020