The foreign fighter communities are growing, their recruitment is speeding up and the national security forces deployed to fight them are regularly beaten back – or they give up their bases before, as some claim, “a single bullet has been shot.” Badakhshan, once a province almost free of insurgency, has become contested. AAN’s Obaid Ali has travelled north to look particularly closely at what is going on in Jurm district that, along with Warduj, has become the main goal of Taleban ambitions.Badakhshan – from anti-Taleban bulwark to contested province. Photo: Mirco Kreibich (2005).
When the Taleban held power in Afghanistan, Badakhshan was the only province to escape their rule. After the collapse of the mujahedin government in Kabul to the Taleban in 1996, the then president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, fled to Badakhshan. It was a natural choice as he hailed from the province and could rely on local support. He also kept the country’s seat at the United Nations as head of the still internationally recognized government; meanwhile, the various mujahedin factions, now re-organised and re-named as the United Front (better known as “Northern Alliance”), fought on against the Taleban for another five years, steadily losing territory, but never forced out of any part of their Badakhshi bastion (more here and here).
Over the past four years, however, insurgents have taken root in 12 of Badakhshan’s 28 districts: Jurm, Warduj, Yamgan, Tagab, Kuran wa Munjan, Argo, Shuhada, Shahr-e Bezorg, Arghanjkhwah, Yaftal, Ragh and Keshem. It has also become a safe place for insurgents from Central Asia who, as locals told AAN, have been stepping up their activities. “Fighters from Central Asia have frequently participated in local battles supporting the Taleban,” Badakhshis told AAN. It is hard to estimate their exact number though and there is a tradition of blaming ‘foreigners’ for security failures and of exaggerating numbers. “50 to 70 foreign families have settled in Jurm, 15 to 20 families in Tagab and around 20 families in Warduj district,” AAN was told. “The men have long beards, sharp knifes hung around their waists and speak in a strange accent.” Qari Fasehuddin, the Taleban shadow governor of Badakhshan, in an interview with the media wing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), confirmed the presence of Central Asian insurgents among local Taleban in the province and that they fight alongside local Taleban against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). “IMU helps and supports the Taleban in Badakhshan.”
It is not known how many fighters these families provide to the insurgency. Neither has it become easier to find out since the once easy-to-reach province is now rather isolated via its few roads that are often under the control of insurgents.
First Warduj, then Yamgan, then Jurm
Badakhshan plays a key role for insurgents as a corridor for operations in the northeast of the country – Badakhshan’s Shahr-e Bozorg district borders Takhar’s Chah Ab district and the insurgents can reach Kunduz’s Dasht-e Archi district via this route. The province also provides safe routes for the logistical supply of goods from Pakistan (1). In addition, insurgents demand a ‘transit fee’ from local powerbrokers and smugglers who use Badakhshan’s border roads to traffic drugs towards Tajikistan. This business has created wealth and unholy alliances. According to an AAN report (pages 51, 52) published in 2011 – “The Insurgents of the Afghan North” – smugglers, local powerbrokers, police commanders and politicians were then facilitating Taleban activities in other provinces by providing them with weapons or safe passage towards Takhar and Kunduz against the assurance that the Taleban would not operate in their province. However, the report says, in 2010 a Taleban military commission tasked to overlook the northeast region reportedly concluded that the insurgency in Badakhshan was developing too slowly and that new leaders should be appointed to accelerate the pace. One group under Mawlawi Saif-ur-Rahman was becoming particularly active. One of his cadres reached Badakhshan from Pakistan, AAN was told at the time, to organise a couple of small groups in Argo and Keshem districts and was trying to mobilise more.
All of this worked to render the once peaceful province fragile, politically and security-wise. The number of incidents has kept on increasing over the past four years. Noticeably in May 2012 in Warduj district Taleban stormed a police checkpost and killed eight policemen and wounded two others. In March 2013, Taleban took over an Afghan National Army (ANA) security checkpost. This set off a series of incessant attacks on security forces, some smaller, many larger. In June 2013, the Taleban attacked another ANSF checkpost in Warduj. Many villages subsequently fell under Taleban control (more here). In April 2014, the Taleban again attacked security forces in Warduj and captured many security checkposts. In May 2014, the insurgents expanded towards Yamgan district and attacked Afghan National Police (ANP) checkposts and captured ten policemen. According to locals, they were released after elders’ mediation.
In June 2014, Taleban also ventured into Jurm district, today a hotbed of insurgency activities, attacking an ANA base that resulted in four ANA service members killed and two others injured. On 13 April 2015, the situation escalated further: the Taleban attacked another ANA base, beheading eight of the men stationed there and wounding ten, while ten others went missing. In July 2015, a series of large attacks continued with the Taleban overrunning an Afghan border police base and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in Tergaran village of Warduj, capturing 107 security service members (later releasing them all). The Taleban continue to control the base until today.
On 11 September 2015, media reported that Raghistan district centre had fallen into Taleban hands. However, the district police chief told AAN the district centre had not collapsed: “After three days of consecutive firefighting and reinforcements from Yawan district the security forces pushed the Taleban back.”
Why this acceleration of insecurity?
Local government officials blame the increase in insecurity on a variety of factors. Some are rather contradictory and illustrate a deep rift between the authorities in charge and the extreme difference in perceptions that exist on what needs to be done and by whom. Deputy Governor Gul Muhammad Bedar told AAN, for example, that he thought that many of the security officials in charge were not competent enough for the job. “There are police commanders who have been serving for many years and who are no good. But no one is able to replace them because they have ties with local politicians.” Appointments of local officials are, indeed, often a cause for conflict among power brokers in Badakhshan (and elsewhere). According to an AAN dispatch published in November 2012,
… most Badakhshi MPs in Kabul strive to have their own people on the ground appointed as district governor, police commander, director of education, or in any other state-sanctioned capacity likely to provide income through salaries, endow military equipment or the authority to use weapons, and put them and their activities reasonably beyond the reach of the law.
Deputy Governor Bedar also has a different narrative on the July 2015 incident when the Tergeran base fell into the hands of the Taleban. While media and provincial council members reported the base had been overrun, he claimed the local base commanders, Nazir Shah and Jalal, made a private deal with the local Taleban, handing over the base because “they did not want to fight. They did not shoot a single bullet.” Instead of fighting, he said, border police and ALP rather engaged in “drug smuggling and illegal extraditions of resources.” The fact that these commanders might have “sold the base” was also reported by local elders to another AAN researcher who travelled north (dispatch forthcoming).
However, provincial council members thought it was especially the lack of support from the local government that has helped undermine the morale of the security forces, up to the point where they would refuse to fight. Abdullah Naji Nazari, speaker of the provincial council, told AAN that the governor had not intervened sufficiently on behalf of the troops with the central government in Kabul. In Tergaran, he said, “The security forces fought against the Taleban for two consecutive days. Then, the commander of the base asked the governor and police chief for reinforcements, but the local government ignored them.” The Taleban took over the base. A local official from Warduj told AAN that the soldiers, “disillusioned and disappointed about the lack of support,” had given up the fight and gone home after the Taleban had assured them they would not be killed.
The deputy governor rejected this allegation and claimed that the base had had enough weapons to fight the Taleban for three months.
The provincial High Peace Council considers the problem lies with local powerbrokers not supporting the peace process – an argument it raised regarding other provinces as well. Speaking to AAN, Gholam Haidar Ateshpur, a member of the council, said that there was little willingness among local powerbrokers to accept the Taleban commanders who surrendered to the government. According to Ateshpur, 350 to 400 Taleban had joined the peace process in Badakhshan over the past five years – but “dozens of them” had re-joined the insurgents after the government had not been able to provide their basta-ye komaki (assistance package) on time and the promised ‘capacity building’ projects (2). He said former jihadi commanders, some members of the Lower House of the parliament, as well as provincial council members, had urged the central government to arrest and jail insurgency commanders, instead of ‘rewarding them’ with benefits. “No Taleb is interested in joining the peace process anymore,” Ateshpur said.
The case of Jurm district
The main focus of the insurgency in Badakhshan, together with Warduj, seems to be on Jurm; the district borders to Warduj in the east; Yamgan (recently another area of Taleban activities) in the south; Baharak in the north, Zebak in the south-east; Khash district in the north-west; Darayem and Tashkan in the west. It is 65 kilometres from the provincial centre. Controlling this centrally-located district makes it easy for the insurgency to target most other districts, as well as to control the road that connects Jurm to Yamgan and Keran wa Munjan, further in the south (Keran wa Munjan and Yamgan have mines rich with lapis lazuli stones, the smuggling of which provides one of the main income sources in the province). As Shaqar Khan, the district police chief of Jurm, told AAN, the Taleban today keep 400 ANA soldiers, 100 Afghan National Police men and 100 Afghan Local Policemen busy in Jurm – so busy that Khan constantly requests reinforcements from the government.
Locals told AAN that the core of the Taleban in Jurm consists of madrasa educated locals. The current shadow district governor is Qari Wasel who is said to have obtained his education from both Badakhshi and Pakistani madrasas and who has around 150 to 200 fighters under his command. Over the past three years, Qari Wasel has increasingly and actively encouraged boys and young men to join the insurgents. By mid 2011, he had started to gather followers, a few dozen only at first who started to plant roadside mines and, frequently, harassed governmental employees. One year later, Qari Wasel, along with his followers, started to conduct guerrilla attacks on security checkpoints in far-flung areas around Khostak, a valley located 20 kilometres south of the district centre.
In 2012, Qari Wasel, for the first time, launched a face-to-face operation against security bases in Jurm. In this first battle, the ANSF clearly defeated the Taleban fighters. According to local sources, all the field commanders were either killed or wounded. Taleban from Warduj district had to come in and help the remaining insurgents to flee to Khostak valley.
In the beginning of 2013, the Taleban expanded their influence in many villages close to the district centre, including Ferich, Kep, Ketep, Olarib and Furghamonch. By mid 2013, the Taleban had got even closer to occupying Shafchan, Sefa, Feghamero, Soch and Yabab – villages located only three to five kilometres away from the district centre.
In March 2014, the Taleban conducted another military operation against security forces, this time aiming at taking over the city. According to commander Samad, head of the ALP in Jurm, the Taleban gathered 300 to 400 men and attacked the district governor’s compound from different directions. It was the first time that the Taleban were able to enter the district centre with their weapons; they chanted, “God is great.” The clash continued for seven hours. The security forces eventually managed to push the Taleban out of the district governor’s compound and to kill commander Jan Muhammad Sankarshekan; the fighters retreated.
After this serious clash, the local government deployed more security forces to protect the district centre. In June 2014, ANSF conducted clearance operations. Most of the villages were retaken, and the Taleban once again escaped to Khostak valley.
Khostak valley and the foreign fighters
Khostak consists of about 30 villages in five side valleys connecting the main valley to the Zebak and Keran wa Munjan districts in the south, to Warduj district in the east and to Yamgan district in the west. Here, the Taleban have established a strong foothold.
The ANSF have established a base close by Khostak valley, in Ab-e Raghak, 15 kilometres from the district centre and five kilometres from Khostak valley, to try to hold the insurgents away from the highway and district centre. This base has indeed managed to undermine the Taleban’s ability to threaten the district centre and the highway – which is why it became a top priority for the Jurm insurgency to get rid of the base. One major offensive was launched in July 2014 when the provincial Taleban shadow governor, Qari Fasehuddin, gathered hundreds of militants for an attack. The clash continued for several hours, but the Taleban were beaten back (see here). After this, the ANSF established another military base in Ab-e Khostak, even closer to the Khostak valley. It was here, in April 2015, that the already mentioned cruel beheading of eight security members took place (reports here and here).
Locals say that the number of foreigners in Khostak has increased since the start of the military operations of Pakistani forces in Northern Waziristan in 2014. The already mentioned 50 to 70 families of Central Asian militants in Khostak, they say, consist mostly of “Tajiks, Uzbeks and Uighurs.” This contradicts the narrative that local government officials are spreading who speak of a much higher number. According to deputy governor Bedar, 300 foreign insurgents, along with their families, are stationed in the Khostak valley alone. He places 100 in Raghistan district and 15 in the Spin Gul village that is only 15 kilometres from the provincial centre.
According to Nurullah, a Khostak resident who fled to the district centre after Taleban threats, the local insurgents have offered accommodation to the foreign fighters. They survive from the money they make raising the ‘tenth’ taxation (ushr) from locals and because drug dealers and lapis lazuli traders, in return for safe passage, send a portion of their profits to insurgent groups every month.
In Nurullah’s narrative, the foreigners appear like mythical creatures. Their houses, he says, “are locked and windows are covered with cloth and their families have no contact with the outside world. They never go outside. There is no connection between the families of the foreigners and residents.” Only the men meet to plan the fighting.
Prior to any operation, the local Taleban and foreign insurgents are said to hold a joint meeting where they discuss which units will be deployed for certain tasks. These meetings also choose suicide attackers from among the local Taleban and also the foreign insurgents. Someone who has a family member among Taleban told AAN.“ It is the foreign fighters who prepare them for these suicide missions, militarily and spiritually.”
After each attack, the recruitment campaign starts anew with fresh material. Videos of the suicide bombers are circulated in Jurm district mobile phones, quickly and stealthily exchanged on street corners and in teahouses via Bluetooth. Insurgents also produce, so called, tarana – prayer-like chants praising the achievements of the ‘martyrs’ and describing the rewards awaiting them in paradise (for an example, listen to this). Some of the foreign fighters from Tajikistan, allegedly members of the IMU, are “delivering speeches about the values of jihad after each prayer at the mosque,” locals say. Mullahs are asked to talk about jihad before every Friday prayer. They are also told to defame the government.
This way, Badakhshan has developed from one of the most peaceful provinces to one on the brink. 12 of 28 districts with Taleban activities (two seeing constant battles) may not sound much compared to provinces such as Kunduz where the majority of the province is insurgency controlled. However, Badakhshan’s location on the border of neighbouring countries renders it strategically significant.
At the same time, it is not at all equipped to meet the challenge. Most Afghan national security forces deployed to fight in the province are shuffled back and forth between Badakhshan and other provinces, such as Kunduz, to put out fires and then to leave again. This strategy undermines any consistent efforts to make Badakhshan safer and appears to drive existing government forces, out of frustration and fear, to give up ground, without even putting up a fight. The provincial governor has still not been appointed. Also missing is a comprehensive plan of how to root out the growing foreign fighter communities in Badakhshan’s mountainous valleys. All of this needs to be addressed fast, if Badakhshan is to avoid becoming the next Kunduz.
- The insurgents use two routes to get into Badakhshan province from Pakistan. The first route is via the mountainous passes of Shah-e Salim and Topkhana, the latter around 40 kilometres away from Zebak district. The second route is through Nuristan province via the Kafer pass in Kamdesh district and into the Keran wa Munjan district of Badakhshan. Both routes are only accessible during May, June, July, August and September.
- The Transitional Assistance Package provides re-integrees with work, vocational training and financial assistance (for three months). According to HPC officials, the integrated individuals are divided into three categories: leaders, commanders and, foot soldiers, with compensation ranging from 5000 Afghani (100 dollars) to 1500 Afghani (300 dollars).
On the political configuration of Badakhshan, also see AAN dispatch by Fabrizio Foschini from 2010.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020