AAN Papers

The Insurgents of the Afghan North


In this report Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter describe the rise of the Taleban in northern Afghanistan. They discuss their recruitment and shadow administration, the conduct of the Afghan government, the effects of ISAF’s ‘capture-and-kill campaign’ and how all of this together contributes to a very unstable status quo.

Until recently, the belief was widespread that the Greater North was immune from Taleban infiltration. The picture changed drastically in 2008 with attacks and roadside bombs and even large-scale ambushes involving dozens of fighters in 2009, and the argument that the Taleban could only attract Pashtuns became controversial. What had looked like failing Taleban attempts to build up local structures had in fact been a patient effort of systematic infiltration, reflecting a strategy to extend their control beyond their traditional strongholds in the south.

By early 2010, the Taleban had brought the northern half of Baghlan, several districts in the south and north of Kunduz, most of northern Takhar and parts of Faryab and Jowzjan under their military control or influence. The Taleban opened their ranks for non-Pashtuns. They emphasised a religious and ideological approach rather than an ethnic one and relied heavily on the clergy, which as an institution transcends ethnic divisions. In the areas they controlled and influenced, they established their shadow administration, starting in the fields of justice and taxation, followed (in some cases) by education and health, with a significant impact on the lives of sections of the population.

According to the authors, the above indicates that the Taleban not only want to fight the Afghan government, but want to replace it. Moving north and establishing their shadow structures strengthened the Taleban’s claims to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan, a nation-wide movement, fighting for more than just a region or a particular ethnic group (the Pashtuns).

The arrival of US Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the Greater North had a major military impact in pushing back the insurgents, but the long-term results of the ‘kill and capture’ strategy remain unclear. In general, experienced, locally rooted commanders were either killed or fled to Pakistan. Their replacements – from southern Afghanistan or directly from Pakistan – have no roots in the area of their deployment and tend to be much less favourable to compromise.

The Afghan government in 2010 was neither providing even the basic services the Taleban was, nor filling the vacuum created by the ISAF military campaign that managed to push the Taleban out of areas they had recently controlled. The authors argue that this contributes to a very unstable status quo, as it turns ISAF’s presence (or absence) into the factor that decides the balance of strength between the insurgents and the government. The inherent dilemma of ISAF’s present successes against the Taleban is of course that its presence is not sustainable indefinitely.

The report was produced in the course of 2010 and reflects the situation in the Greater North as of the end of autumn 2010.

AAN Thematic Report 04/2011. The full report can be downloaded here

The executive summary can be downloaded here

Date of publication: 5 May 2011

Thematic Category: