Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

The Failed Pilot Test: Kunduz’ local governance crisis

Bethany Matta 13 min

The fighting in Kunduz is only one side of the problem. Also issues not related to security are in disarray. Health care, education, agriculture, reconstruction – all are on hold and do not receive much attention from the newly established top level of local authorities. This, AAN guest author Bethany Matta argues, has much to do with security issues overwhelming everything else –and with the set-up of the unity government on the local level, which seems to be working against each other. The governor, a Pashtun appointed by President Ghani, does not get along with the police chief, a Tajik appointed from the Abdullah camp for ‘balance,’ nor with his deputy, a long-serving mujahed. The largest bone of contention, Matta reports, is the control of the militias – old ones and planned ones.

On 24 December, only three weeks after Kunduz governor Mohammad Omar Safi had been appointed, he sat, together with members of the provincial council (PC) and directors from different departments, before a video screen erected in the council chamber at the governor’s compound. On the other end of the call, in Kabul, was President Ashraf Ghani, along with several of his staffers. The new president has made it a habit to converse with provincial officials this way to discuss provincial issues at hand. “30 to 50 hours” was the amount of time he asked each to allocate for video conferencing with him in the first months of the unity government, a palace official told AAN.

So in Kunduz, that day, Governor Safi, PC head Yusuf Ayubi and the head of the provincial court, Fazal Rahman Fazli, proceeded to brief the president on 17 issues. Security topics took up most of the 30 minute call. They included a brief on the overall security situation that included an increase in the number of army bases and the establishment of a security force for Kunduz city. But the men also spoke about jobs for the educated youth; creation of more districts; plans for new flats for Kunduz city residents;  expansion of the airport; reconstruction of roads to Chahrdara, Dasht-e Archi and Qala-ye Zal; establishment of law, engineering and theology faculties at Kunduz university; and allocation of land for teachers as well as an industrial zone with a separate area for carpet weavers. More representatives of Kunduz in parliament and senate, an extension of the electricity line and a dam on the Amu River were on the agenda, too. It was a run-down through the usual topics.

What set this meeting apart, though, was that then the president set a deadline. In three weeks, he ordered, the security situation of Kunduz had to have improved. “The new government of Afghanistan is determined to turn Kunduz into one of the safest provinces,” he said at the end of the video conference.

Provincial council head Ayubi, in hindsight, calls setting this deadline “a failed assessment.” Three weeks have turned into five months, he told this author, not only without any development regarding the 17 issues discussed, “but the province is now worse off than before.” Before, the Taleban controlled 40 per cent of the province; now, they control 65 per cent.

What went wrong?

That Kunduz would take centre stage on the countrywide battlefield came as a surprise to many. Kunduz is known as one of the most complex provinces in Afghanistan, housing the country’s array of ethnicities, insurgent groups, militias, criminal networks and thus political factions. After a steep and, including for local ISAF troops, surprising upsurge in Taliban activity (see this AAN report), security has been fluctuating since 2009; but for a long time, Kunduz had not been a major front line. The elections certainly amplified security concerns. Militant groups benefitted from the drawn-out process. And the polarisation between the various groups that supported the two presidential candidates (see AAN reporting here and AAN’s thematic dossier on the evolution of insecurity in Kunduz here) increased the insecurity further. Kunduz today is front line, with the Taleban having chosen the province for their first major operations in this year’s spring offensive. However, based on interviews with people in Kunduz and Kabul, it is fair to say that poor governance – ill-timing, poor choice of leaders, lack of coordination and communication, and infighting – has contributed, at least to some extent, to the current state of insecurity and (lack of) welfare of the people.

All of this would have contributed to the president’s decision to prioritise five provinces, including Kunduz, for improvement of security conditions. The others were Helmand, Badghis, Ghazni and Nangrahar.

A first step in this regard happened on 15 October, two weeks after Ghani took office. The president drew in large numbers of tribal elders and officials from across Kunduz for a first video conference where he then abruptly started firing the most senior among them. He also sacked Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani, Safi’s predecessor as Kunduz’ governor. Hamdullah Daneshi, the deputy governor, stepped in until Safi took over the position on 2 December. He was the first governor appointed by the new government. The chief of police, director of intelligence, ANA commander and chief prosecutor were also replaced.

In the palace, the people in these five positions were known as “the team.” Kunduz had become the pilot test in local governance for the rest of the nation.

A start on the wrong foot

The new governor has seen a lot of criticism over the past months. Safi is a Pashtun from Balkh province. He has a Master degree in security and risk management from the University of Leicester in the UK, and he owns a security company in Kabul (website here; it claims to have had contracts with the UN and other large international customers, usually a good chance for ‘big business’). According to Safi’s own bio, he spent 12 years at the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) as a security officer (many of them in the northern region, based in Mazar-e Sharif). His background in security management looks fairly useful; one could not discredit him for being wholly unfit for a governance position in Afghanistan – the governor’s post in volatile Kunduz province seems a stretch, though.

However, Safi fulfilled some of the president’s promises to the people. He was a ‘fresh face,’ relatively unheard of, with no previous government position, and he did not have a reputation of corruption. Safi’s name could have been among a list of suggested candidates sent to the president by the National Security Council (NSC), some officials told AAN. But Safi was also a Ghani backer in last year’s presidential elections, which has raised brows.

Others who know Safi personally added that they felt the president chose him because he was loyal and could be trusted to push the president’s agenda – pointing to one incident in particular: in early February, days before Ghani left for the Munich security conference, Safi abruptly announced the presence of 70 Daesh fighters in Kunduz. Friends of his found it strange the governor had never mentioned them in their most recent encounters with him and said they later found out he was ordered by the president to say this, to gain additional support and monetary aid while in Germany.

After his appointment, Safi seemingly alienated people by bringing with him an entourage of guards from his security company. Four bodyguards would stand behind him during his meetings with local officials and others. He also had dogs (seen by most Afghans as “unclean”) search visitors’ cars. Officials say this conveyed disrespect and offended people. And these actions started the governor off on the wrong foot with many of his new subordinates.

Making matters worse, people with considerable influence in the province on the central level felt they had not been consulted properly, people close to the appointment process told this author. They included Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, speaker of the lower house, who is from Kunduz; General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first VP and a powerful leader of the Uzbeks; as well as Abdullah, the CEO who represents Jamiat. This lack of consultation greatly influenced the kind of reception Safi received when he arrived in Kunduz.

These factors and Kunduz’s well-known factionalism led to infighting from day one, with provincial officials trying to remove each other from their positions. A variety of people and organisations in Kunduz city commented to this author on the disunity and lack of coordination between those trying to govern Kunduz.

Discord within the local unity government

The main point of contention between Governor Safi, long-serving deputy governor Hamdullah Daneshi and newly appointed police chief General Abdul Sabur Nasrati has been over militias. One of the president’s promises to the people of Kunduz was to tackle Kunduz’ militia problem, also through disarmament. Illegal taxing, raping, robbing, killing and infighting are just some of the well-documented abuses the illegal armed men and the ALP are said to be complicit in (see latest ICG report here and earlier AAN analysis here). Some are also involved in the criminal networks, including the arms and drug trades. It’s not uncommon for residents to say they would rather have the Taleban in power (AAN analysis here).

Governor Safi has emphasised the point several times. He has lobbied for the arrests of top militia commanders in Kabul and was backed by the NSC, an official in Kabul told this author. It is not clear how many power brokers he went after, but top militia commanders like Nabi Gechi (surprising, as he also commands government-paid ALP militias) and Mir Alam were among them. Mir Alam is perhaps the most influential powerbroker in Kunduz. He runs various networks of ‘illegal’ militias throughout the province and is also said to have his hands in the drugs and arms trades (find more in this AAN report). Gechi is a Turkmen local police commander with hundreds of militia in Qala-ye Zal district – around 200 are said to be ALP, the others ‘illegal’ militia men (see a portrait of him here and AAN analysis of his role here).

However, Safi’s own deputy seems to be his strongest adversary here. Daneshi, originally from Badakhshan province, has served as deputy governor of Kunduz for around 13 years. He is a mujahed (he is known to switch allegiances from Jamiat to Hezb and back again) and was in the governor’s compound in 2009 when the province was about to fall to the Taleban for the first time. He told AAN he remembers being alone after the governor and police chief fled. The government asked the mujahedin to save Kunduz from falling, Daneshi said, “and they did, and that was the start of the local militias.” Daneshi feels they are the ones to prevent the province from falling back into the hands of the Taleban. “If the president starts to take the weapons away from militias, Mir Alam or other commanders, maybe even Abdullah will defend them. Even I will defend Mir Alam! If Mir Alam is disarmed, the Taleban will arrive in Kunduz square,” Daneshi told AAN.

Daneshi also says he’s on the phone, until late “every night” trying to convince commander Nabi Gechi, who often complains of lack of payment and respect from the Afghan government, not to leave his post in Qala-ye Zal district.

Also Kunduz’ newly appointed police chief, General Abdul Sabur Nasrati, opposes the governor on his militia policy. A Tajik from Panjshir, he is a known supporter of the Jamiat party (and as such close to many of the militias in the province). Here, the inherent antagonism of the national unity government becomes apparent. Nasrati, too, was personally selected by Ghani from a handful of candidates – because, as an Abdullah man, he would not upset the balance of the government power-sharing deal.

Nasrati was provincial police chief in Badakhshan province from 2011 to 2012. In 2013, he was shifted to Logar province where he served less than a year before being fired (see here); officials close to the case told this author evidence showed that the police chief had played a role in the killing of provincial governor Arsala Jamal on 15 October 2013. Nasrati was said to be under investigation for some time by a Kabul-appointed commission (it is not clear what happened to the case. Seemingly, it ended like many other investigations under the Karzai administration – with no formal conclusion and no convictions.)

In Kunduz, he would have been the one to make the arrests of militia leaders, as ordered by Governor Safi. However, so far, that has not happened, and the police chief has won a reputation of going against the governor’s wishes. An MoI source told this author that even if Nasrati could go against powerful people like Mir Alam “he would not do it.” He and Daneshi form a front against the governor in this regard. “Any militia fighting the Taliban are good,” Daneshi told the news agency AFP in a recent interview.

This kind of factionalism existed for a long time before Safi took over in Kunduz; yet, it reflects on the national unity government’s capacity to cut through the deeply engrained patronage networks in the provincial administrations. Instead of projecting a unified approach to governance, as the name “national unity government” suggests, Kabul is unable to overcome internal power struggles and ethnic divides. In brief: the political factions continue to work against each other.

More militias instead of fewer

On 30 March, Safi even threatened to resign over the militias issue. He strongly criticised illegal armed groups that “posed a serious challenge to the law and order situation in the province.” However, following the first major Taleban offensive in April and with the fighting continuing, the government now appears to be adopting the idea that a good amount of state power, at least for now, relies on these militias – further disempowering Safi who, on the president’s order, had been promoting their restraint, even their abolishment. Analysts and government officials told AAN the government was now providing arms to “civilians” to fight against the Taleban (see also here), dubbing this a “people’s uprising” – in fact creating more informal, illegitimate militias throughout villages across the province. (1) The Ministry of Interior denies the claims.

The government is now said to be expanding the ALP program (see here), allotting a certain number (seemingly around 1,000) of militia men to join Nabi’s and other commanders’ ranks. So far, it has made no mention of exactly how they plan to go about the recruitment process. Some government officials claim the move is an effort to gain control of militias and draw them under one umbrella, making them all work for the government. Other officials told this author, though, that the MoI has denied taking any responsibility for the new militias (they control the largest group of ‘government militias,’ the ALP). This means that no vetting, training or command system has been developed yet, indicating some worrying impromptu decision-making.

In addition, looking at past experience, there is little reason to believe that the arming of additional militias and locals will result in anything other than short-term stability and grave consequences for people’s well-being and security in the longer run.

The 17 points and the impact of the ongoing conflict on the people

Of the 17 points discussed during the December 24 video conference, not one has been tackled. Some issues are moving backwards. Instead of establishing a legitimate security force for Kunduz, more hard-to-control militia groups are being armed and private ‘uprisings’ encouraged. The only ‘construction’ done on the airport road has been the closure of the main road to and from the airport, because parts became too hard to secure. An alternative route must be taken.

The immediate focus is still on security. Kunduz city seems relatively back to normal – which still means ‘small’ attacks occur, such as the sticky mines that target government officials and security forces every few days. As of 1 June, fighting has largely subsided in Kunduz’ districts of Chahrdara, Imam Saheb and Aliabad; however, war-wounded were still arriving at the MSF trauma centre in Kunduz city. In early June, AAN was told that among the latest war-wounded were three children; two were injured by landmines and one by an IED. The impact the fighting has had on civilians is alarming and far from overcome.

Health authorities are vexed as to why Governor Safi called for an immediate evacuation of Aliabad, Kanam, Gortepa, Bagh-e Sherkat, and Chahrdara on 29 April. Agencies told AAN they felt Safi should have set up an area with basic facilities for families to move to first and then call for an evacuation. Instead, he gave families 24 hours to leave their homes, leaving many with no place to go; then, Kunduz residents complained, operations still took days to start. Some locations, such as Gortepa (see AAN analysis here) haven’t seen any military action at all.

Kunduz now has pockets of displaced families scattered throughout the city. It is unclear how many people fled their villages. Families have moved in with relatives and host families. Others have rented houses. Those with no place to go are living in tents in a square in the middle of the city. In some cases, the tents are made of just one sheet of plastic. Women and children are exposed to the hot sun. Food provisions are scarce; there are no health facilities, toilets, electricity or water supply.

Humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR and WFP are distributing aid packages, consisting mainly of blankets, oil, flour and biscuits. According to the UN’s humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, approximately 18,355 families – which could add up to more than 146,000 people (taking eight people as average family size) – have filed a petition with the provincial Department of Refugees and Repatriation to be considered for IDP status. About 10,000 families have so far been assessed, with around 4,000 recognised as internally displaced to be prioritised for assistance. The assessments are still ongoing. An estimated 3,000 families in Chahrdara, Imam Sahib, and part of Aliabad are inaccessible to humanitarians, though, the UNHCR told this author. In Aliabad, an assessment of around 400 families started, but was “interrupted due to interference by ALP and other pro-government militia.”

The governor indirectly indicated that he didn’t think it was his duty to take care of the displaced – or that it was beyond his power do anything about them. Humanitarians talking to this author were quite upset about a meeting during which Safi came down hard on them, saying they needed to “fulfil their responsibilities” to support displaced families. Overall, aid workers told AAN, the government offered little to no support in helping the displaced on the ground. The effort is largely being carried out by NGOs and UN agencies. Here, too, it becomes apparent how governance has largely been consumed by defending the province, with little time for anything else. This is also visible at the governor’s compound, which is swarmed by militia commanders.

Health care is one of the services most affected by insecurity. Hospital staff have a hard time getting work because the way is too insecure; this affects medical services for war-wounded and others, while the victim figures spike. MSF reported recently that medical staff at their trauma centre in Kunduz city had treated 204 war-wounded patients over a three-week period. The vast majority were gunshot or bomb blast wounds, and one fourth of the patients were women and children. The proportion of war-wounded patients in the centre also more than doubled compared to the same period last year, from 6 per cent to 14 per cent. MSF told AAN, though, that they still received far fewer patients than expected – a sign that the war is increasingly isolating people living in districts.

In addition, reconstruction stopped. In Chahrdara, for example, where the Taleban gained territory, government projects – both road reconstruction and the extension of the electrical line – came to a complete halt. The militants told residents they would start their own construction work once “their new government was installed.” The German Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) pulled all their international staff working in Kunduz indefinitely, this author was told (which GIZ, contacted, did not want to confirm, only referring to programs ongoing). This was seemingly due to the increased number of kidnapping attempts (and one successful one, in April; the victim is free again). Several other local and international organisations sent staff temporarily to Kabul or Mazar-e Sharif. The civil society organisation Women for Afghan Women that runs women shelters and childcare centres in Kunduz had to travel with about 70 children on the insecure main highway to Mazar.

The insecurity – or rather the insurgency – is also dictating the terms regarding education in the province. Local governance seems to have surrendered to it. Elders told AAN that older girls were prevented from attending school in areas where the militants had gained more control. According to Muhammad Nazim, the director for the department of education, ten government schools in Chahrdara, Aliabad and Gortepa were closed, preventing around 5,000 students from going to school. Sybille Schnehage, the director of the NGO Katachel in Kunduz city that runs both girls’ and boys’ schools in the districts, told AAN that students’ confidence had been impacted by the fighting and, while their schools did not close, the ways to and from schools were often too insecure for children to go back and forth.

Another longer-term effect of the security and governance crisis is the foreseeable bad harvest. The planting season three months ago was heavily disrupted by fighting. As harvesting begins, some people are too scared to go back to their villages to gather crops. If the fighting persists, some will not be able to. Others, who went back, reported that their fields had dried up. Some families are demanding government assistance. So far, the local government has not responded to these demands – and, looking at the nation’s austerity budget for 2015 and beyond, it is unlikely to be able to offer support. However, officials have indicated, AAN was told, that further large military operations would only be launched after Ramadan (which starts in mid-June), so that farmers could tend to their fields in the meantime.

The effects of the fighting, past and future, will be more visible in the coming weeks. As will be the capability, or incapability, of the local government to deal with anything besides the insecurity.


(1) This method has been used in many provinces before; see two examples that AAN reported, in Kandahar (here) and Ghazni (here).


ALP ANSF Development Education Governance governor health care Kunduz militias Security NUG Taleban Unity Government Taliban