War & Peace

The 2015 insurgency in the North (4): Surrounding the cities in Baghlan


Pul-e Khumri bridge, Baghlan. Photo: Gran Hewad.

During the recent two week Taleban occupation of Kunduz city, the strong insurgent presence in the province immediately to the south, Baghlan, was of huge importance to the insurgents. By blocking the key north-south road which goes through the heart of the province, they prevented ANA reinforcements from the capital from reaching Kunduz for several days. The movement had consolidated its positions at the ‘gates’ of Baghlan’s provincial capital, Pul-e Khumri, earlier in the summer. AAN guest author Gran Hewad (*) assesses the dynamics of insecurity in Baghlan. He looks, in particular, at how the insecurity has been fed by the Kunduz debacle and how this, in turn, has strengthened the hand of both Taleban and pro-government militias in the area.

Baghlan province is located on the only trans-Hindukush highway in Afghanistan and the major transit route between the Afghan capital Kabul and the north; (1) the road forks at the northern edge of Pul-e Khumri, taking goods and travellers either northwest to Mazar-e Sharif in Balkh province, or northeast towards Kunduz. This road has been contested through many stages of Afghanistan’s war. For governments in Kabul, it can be a lifeline – or, alternatively, a choke point.

This became apparent during the recent Kunduz operations. When Kunduz city was captured and occupied (from 28 September till 12 October), the Afghan government in Kabul tried to move troops and ammunition north to reinforce its forces for a planned counter-attack. The Taleban, however, were able to hold up the convoys for days in Baghlan with a combination of road blocks and ambushes.

Threats to the Kunduz road: Baghlan-e Jadid District

Baghlan-e Jadid (2) is the Taleban’s second most important stronghold in the whole of the northeast, after Chahrdara district in Kunduz province. One particular area is fully controlled by the Taleban – Gadi, (3) named after a large local tribe. It is located around 20 kilometres to the northeast of the district centre along the highway to Kunduz. The Gadi tribe is an important local source of fighters for the Taleban. (4) Together with Chahrdara, the area can present a strategic security threat for the whole northeast region. Only Aliabad district of Kunduz lies between Gadi and Chahrdara and it has changed hands between the Afghan government and Taleban several times during the last two years (currently the district centre is with the government, the rest with the Taleban). Insurgents from the two areas can easily come together for joint operations. From the Gadi area, the Taleban can also easily threaten the security of the highway leading to Kunduz.

Local residents said the Taleban from Gadi had indeed travelled to Kunduz for the offensive against Kunduz city on 28 September 2015. And on 29 September 2015 Gadi Taleban were able to hold up convoys of ANA reinforcements on their way from Kabul to Kunduz for several days in the Chahrshanbe Tepa area (about 25 kilometres north of Baghlan-e Jadid district centre). Only after the Gadi Taleban retreated, on 8 October 2015, were the ANSF convoys able to move past Chahrshanbe Tepa. Given these dynamics, it becomes clear that, not only Kunduz’s insecurity can influence the security situation in Baghlan, but Baghlan’s insecurity can also seriously impact the insecurity in Kunduz province.

Commanders in Baghlan-e Jadid

Baghlan-e Jadid has been historically important for the Taleban. It was here that the bulk of Taleban forces regrouped after their disastrous Mazar-e Sharif campaign in May 1997, when they were pushed out of the city and thousands of their prisoners of war were murdered by General Malik (First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s former deputy). The retreating Taleban were then hosted by Bashir Baghlani, who was originally the main Hezb-e Islami commander in the province and, by 1997, had switched to the Taleban. Baghlani helped the Taleban capture Kunduz a few weeks later. He, and his successor Amir Gul (after Baghlani’s death in 2009), continued to be the pre-eminent powerbrokers in the district and to have a major impact on its security.

Amir Gul held several positions in the local government of Baghlan-e Jadid district during the Karzai government. He became particularly notorious after being accused of involvement in the killing of three Afghan Special Forces (ASF) soldiers in Baghlan-e Jadid city in 2012, when he was the district governor. The three ASF soldiers had been killed by Commander Kamin, after ASF soldiers tried to disarm an armed and uniformed bodyguard of another former jihadi commander and Amir Gul loyalist, Ridi Gul, in the Baghlan-e Jadid bazaar. Kamin had reportedly received the order to shoot at them from Amir Gul. When the Pul-e Khumri police went to arrest both Amir Gul and Kamin, they initially resisted the police and then escaped (details here).The incident was a clear indication of how strong local forces were in the area, compared to the state.

Despite the initial attempts to arrest Amir Gul, he has managed to stay free to this day. He is known for his ability to opportunistically shift from one side to another and for his unparalleled skills of relationship building, even with former enemies. The change of government in 2014 also saw a change in his fortunes. Currently, he is associated with the network of the late First Vice President, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, which was ‘inherited’ by Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah Abdullah. When the national unity government was formed, Amir Gul, who should have been arrested, maintained good relationships with Kabul and, in late June 2015, he was appointed as the provincial commander of the Afghan Local Police for Baghlan.

With his background of fighting in the province, in particular, in Baghlan-e Jadid, Amir Gul is perceived as the most powerful pro-government commander in the district. He is, however, a controversial and complex figure. If he remains in this position, the security situation in the district is likely to remain fragile. His overall approach does not actually differ that much from the Taleban. He has fought for them, comes from the same area as the Taleban in the district and shares the same recruiting base. Thus, he could easily shift sides again, whenever he feels under pressure. In the case of such a shift, it would be much more difficult for the government to retake the district than when they retook Kunduz city, because of his endemic fighters and the local strength of the Taleban in the district.

Threats to the Mazar Road: Dand-e Ghuri (5)

In the last two months of the summer, the war in Baghlan was concentrated in an area called Dand-e Ghuri in Dahana-ye Ghuri district which – crucially – lies along the highway connecting Pul-e Khumri with Mazar. The Taleban took over almost all Afghan Local Police (ALP) check posts in the area in early September 2015. Later in the month the government launched counter-attacks, but failed to re-take the posts. As of now (mid-October 2015), just one check post is left under ALP control: QurghanTepa (or Qurghan Hill).

The area was initially captured by the Taleban as part of their spring offensive operation, which extended into early summer. In late summer, the ANSF started their counterattacks to attempt to retake the area. When these did not bear fruit, they started shelling Taleban positions from an area called Cement Hill, which is located between Pul-e Khumri city and Dand-e Ghuri. This is named after the Ghuri Cement Factory, one of the largest industrial enterprises in the country. The Taleban did not respond directly to these attacks, but instead started firing rockets from the villages under their control in Dand-e Ghuri toward the city of Pul-e Khumri. The shelling of the city by the Taleban caused a large number of civilian casualties, included a reported 25 women and children killed and dozens of other civilians injured on the outskirts of the city. Around 250 families were displaced and local schools closed.

The controversial Dand-e Ghuri deal

On 3 September 2015, a five-member delegation, consisting of senior government officials headed by Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Gulab Mangal, travelled to Baghlan to look into the security problems in the area. After two weeks of discussions with local tribal elders, mainly Pashtuns from the Dand-e Ghuri area, the delegation in the third week of September signed what Afghan media called a ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MoU) with the local tribal elders.

In this MoU, the elders promised to prevent any disorder that would disrupt security, including any targeting of Afghan government forces, from the area and to hand over to the government anyone committing crimes in their villages.The government argued that it signed the MoU to restore and maintain security in the area.

The agreement between the government and local elders had been preceded by a similar arrangement in Kohna Masjid-e Payin (also known as Nawabad), a small village in to the north of Pul-e Khumri that is located close to a UNESCO-protected archaeological site at Surkh Kotal hill and is inhabited by Hazaras. Community elders from this area had entered into a ceasefire deal with the Taleban, but long before the signing of the Dand-e Ghuri MoU. The residents of this village have been paying various taxes to the Taleban, providing them with free passage to other villages and giving them food when requested. This kind of collaboration with the Taliban did not take place in other villages in the area. (6)

After the signing of MoU, the displaced residents of the Dand-e Ghuri area returned to their homes and were able to harvest their crops. Schools re-opened and communities were able to spend the Eid days peacefully. That the harvest could be safely gathered was also of importance to the Taleban, who usually collect one tenth of it as a ‘religious tax’ (ushr).

Although local residents in the area endorsed the MoU, it was criticised by local civil society activists and commentators in Kabul. The opponents argued that, with the signing of the MoU, the area had officially been surrendered to the Taleban – even though, in fact, the area had already been under Taleban control. The MoU also remained controversial in the media. A live discussion on the topic between tribal elders, the Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs, Gulab Mangal, and the anchor of ToloNews, escalated into a heated argument. This televised debate was subsequently widely covered and shared by social media activists.

Indeed, after the signing of the MoU, the Taleban remained an active presence in the area. They continued to control the roads passing through Dand-e Ghuri and taxed vehicles passing through the area. After the capture of Kunduz, the Taleban attacked and burnt down the police check posts located along the main highway in the area under their control, local residents recounted. Although these attacks constituted a breach of the MoU, there was no immediate reaction from the government side. When the Taleban left the area where the attacks took place within a few days, the police moved in to retake control of their check posts. Despite the fact that they had abandoned the check posts, the Taleban in Dand-e Ghuri are now perceived stronger than before and are seen as being able to recapture these check posts whenever they want. (7)

Other districts in the province have also experienced developments indicative of a growing influence of the Taleban, in particular Burka and Tala wa Barfak. (8)

Impact of the Kunduz fight on Baghlan

For several days after the Taleban captured Kunduz cityon 28 September 2015, the people of Baghlan and the ANSF operating in Baghlan, especially in and around Pul-e Khumri, lost their morale. Many locals believed the Taleban would attack Pul-e Khumri next, but didn’t yet because they were waiting to see the developments in Kunduz. (There were similar fears about an imminent attack in Faizabad, Badakhshan, as well.) Local residents recounted how the police check posts on the section of the highway passing through Dand-e Ghuri area had been abandoned. In this atmosphere of fear, hundreds of mainly middle class and well-off families fled from Pul-e Khumri to Kabul.

The Taleban did not attack though. They only kept their fighters at the ‘gates’ of the Pul-e Khumri city, but from there they could threaten the two main highways north, leading to Mazar and Kunduz.

The most important effect of the fall of Kunduz on Baghlan province has been the flow of weapons, equipment and money which the Taleban in Kunduz had looted and transferred to the Taleban in Baghlan, who are now better armed and better funded. They are positioned at the gates, both of Pul-e Khumri and of Baghlan-e Jadid. This does not mean that an immediate, Kunduz-style attack against these two town is imminent, but it may be in Taleban sights for the next fighting season. And if the Taleban had not lost Kunduz, a Kunduz-style attack on Baghlan may well have been likely this year.

Non-Taleban dynamics– Kunduz and the pro-government militias

It is not only the Taleban insurgency that has posed a problem in Baghlan. Pro-government militias also constitute a serious security threat to the province. In reaction to the Taleban’s capture of Kunduz, a large group of former jihadi commanders gathered in Pul-e Khumri and proclaimed their readiness to support the government forces in the fight against the Taleban. Although there were no prominent and well-known commanders among the group, they did mobilise a large number of supporters; according to Pajhwok news agency “…around ten former jihadi commanders with around a thousand fighters.” Arguably, this may be the first time that former jihad commanders have been able to gather militias of this magnitude.

The provincial police commander told Pajhwok that “more than 700 young men are registered with police” as belonging to various militia units. Such militias however do not appear in the ministry of interior’s tashkil. Indeed, there is no official way they can be incorporated into the police system. That the police commander confirmed their registration seem unorthodox and possibly illegal.

The majority of these militia commanders are from Andarab district, ethnically Tajik, affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami and linked to the local governance and security establishment. The decade-long dominance of the local administration and security forces by Andarabis has over the years resulted in severe abuses and grievances among local people, that in turn have lead to latent tensions between the Andarabis and local Pashtun politicians.These tensions have helped pave the way for the Taleban insurgency to reach out to Pashtun tribesmen, recruiting them by encouraging them to ‘take revenge’ and fight against the Andarabis.

Dr Nasim Modaber, one of the militia leaders, has called the recent mobilisation a “second episode of the Resistance” ­– a reference to the United Front (better known as the Northern Alliance’s) fight against the Taleban between 1996 and 2001. This is worrying at a time when the security situation in the province is so fragile. With both Pashtuns and Tajiks having weapons in their hands, constituting two de facto fronts, the Andarabis on one hand and the Pashtuns from Dand-e Ghuri on the other, there is an increased risk of a local ethnic confrontation overtaking the current Taleban-government conflict.

Local civil society activists have expressed concern about the future of these militias. They doubt that registration with the police is sufficient to allow them to carry arms and to go to war or on patrol in the city, as these new militias have no training or formal command structure and are largely ethnically and factionally based. The fear is that they could exacerbate rather than help help solve the instabilityin the province.

Prospects

Given the fragility of the situation in Baghlan and its strategic significance, decisive steps need to be taken with regards to both security and governance, in order to minimise the chance of a Kunduz-like disaster. As winter is approaching, maintaining security for the highway running through Baghlan, connecting Kabul to the northwest and northeast of the country, will be vital. This is not only to protect the important transport routes, but also to secure the electricity transmission lines coming from Tajikistan to Kabul, that run along the highway from Sher Khan Bandar on the border in Kunduz, through Baghlan, to the Salang pass. Even if the Taleban do not yet have the capacity to capture and hold key cities and provinces, they might instead concentrate on gaining control or destabilising security along these highways, until the upcoming fighting season.

(*) Gran Hewad is a former researcher of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

(Edited by Kate Clark.)

(1) Baghlan is also one of the most important provinces for the trade and transit agenda of the national unity government, which wants to connect Central and South Asia through Afghanistan.

(2) The city was built up during the 1980s to become the new provincial centre, therefore the name. This plan, however, had to be abandoned because of the declining security situation in the area in the late eighties and Pul-e Khumri was made the new provincial capital instead.

(3) The word gadi literally means ‘car’. When a member of the tribe first saw a car, he was so astonished that this became a legend, and so the name of the tribe became Gadi. The Gadi tribe settled in their area in Baghlan province about a century ago. Originally, the Gadi are from the Sulaimankhel area of Paktika in southeastern Afghanistan.

(4) Mawlawi Saleh Muhammad was the best-known Taleban commander in the area during the Taleban regime. Nowadays, Shayesta Mir, also known as Baba, from the Zamankhel subtribe of the Gadi is the lead Taleban commander in the area. Two other Taleban commanders, Qari Nayem and Ajmal are operating under the command of Shayesta Mir. Nayem is from the Mullakhel subtribe of the Gadi and Ajmal is Kandahari by tribe. (In this context, the name is often applied to tribesmen who have been resettled to this area from the Kandahar region. Kandaharis often still speak with a distinct southern accent and are therefore easily distinguishable for the other locals.) While Nayem is operating in the area where the Gadi tribe is located, Ajmal is operating further west of the highway, in Awqul on the western side of the Baghlan river, which is a tributary of the Amu Darya.

(5) The area used to be wetland (dand is the Pashto word for pond or lake), but now drained and dried, it is used as agricultural land.

(6) There have however been precedents for this kind of agreements, for example the surrender deal of Hazaras to the Taleban in Jaghori district of Ghazni in 1997 (more details here).

(7) The well-known commanders in Dand-e Ghuri are Mawlawi Yunos, Mawlawi Lal and Mawlawi Majid. Local respondents told AAN that Yunos is the shadow governor of Balkh province based in Dand-e Ghuri, Lal is in charge of military affairs of Dand-e Ghuri and Majid is the current shadow district governor for Dahana-ye Ghuri.

(8) Tala wa Barfak, a mountainous district in the southwest of the province, linking Baghlan and Bamyan, has also been under Taleban threat and was reportedly temporarily captured by the Taleban on 30 September 2015. On 3 October 2015, Afghan forces were reported to have brought the district under government control again.

Burka, a mountainous district in Baghlan’s east, bordering Takhar province and Kunduz, has also been experiencing increasing insecurity. In mid-August 2015, parallel to the fighting in Dand-e-Ghuri, Afghan media reported that the Taleban had been able to seize ten villages in Burka without fighting. Local tribal elders claimed only a few villages in the district were still under complete government control. According to a member of the Baghlan provincial council the insurgents had demanded that residents would avoid all cooperation with the government. As the residents of this district are mainly ethnically Uzbek, there have been reports that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been able to establish a network in the district. It is a remote district where government cannot reach out regularly.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Thematic Category: War & Peace