Thematic Dossier XI: Insurgency and governance in Afghanistan’s northeast
Taleban at the Kunduz junction (2015). Their temporary takeover of the city last year was a defining moment for current developments in Afghanistan's northeast. Photo: Pajhwok
Since AAN published its last collection of reports and dispatches about the insurgency in the Afghan northeast, ‘The evolution of insecurity in Kunduz’, in May 2015, there have been tumultuous events, security-wise, in that region. In terms of governance, however, matters are still as dire as they were. Indeed, it can be seen how insecurity and poor government performance feed off each other in the northeast. The new dossier brings together AAN dispatches on Kunduz, Baghlan, Badakhshan and Takhar.
The most crucial single event was the Taleban’s two-week long capture of the city of Kunduz in late September and early October 2015. (1) It was devastating for both civilians and government. For the Taleban, it was their greatest military success since they fell from power in 2001. However, as our guest author, Lola Cecchinel, put it in her latest dispatch on the situation in that province:
In reality, the war in Kunduz did not start with the fall of the city in September 2015, nor did it stop after it was recaptured by government forces. Since 2008, the insurgency has stroked its roots as divisions deepened right across [the province’s] society. (…) Kunduz is currently the most vulnerable province of the Afghan North. (…) Since the provincial capital fell, Kunduz has seen more Taleban attacks on district centres than any other province in the country.
Even after the shock of Kunduz falling, no-one has managed to grasp the nettle and deal with the incompetency and infighting on the government’s side which made Kunduz so vulnerable to the Taleban – and leave it vulnerable, still. There are problems at all levels, as Cecchinel has reported, including with the district governors, who are “helpless or incapable,” forming “an integral part of a system of poor governance and, as such, are perpetuating the very dynamics, which have distanced people from the state and pushed them closer to the insurgents: corruption, patronage and discrimination.”
Accustomed to ever-available and unconditional funding for security, development and governance by the international community in the province (which itself has added to problems), their incentives for addressing the root causes of instability are limited. They are certainly not commanded to do so by the government in Kabul, which is perceived as either turning a blind eye to the problems of people in Kunduz, or willingly fostering instability in the province.
However, as AAN’s Obaid Ali writes in his latest assessment of the situation in the neighbouring province of Baghlan, matters are not much better there. Seeing off a number of operations by government forces, the Taleban have expanded their hold over a large sway of territory, that stretches through Baghlan into Kunduz province. From here, the Taleban can threaten the strategic north-south highway that connects Kabul, though Baghlan, to Balkh, (part of the Afghan ring-road) and to Kunduz.
Many of the dispatches in this dossier point to the fact that the dire security situation in this region is exacerbated, if not caused by a concoction of bad or ineffective governance, corruption and patronage networks. Dominance of one faction in local administrations is also being reproduced in paramilitary pro-government forces like the Afghan Local Police (ALP) or the newly created ‘national uprising groups’ (Pashto: patsunian), helping fuel divisions, and adding to the insecurity of marginalised groups
This new AAN dossier includes analysis of Taleban and non-Taleban insurgent forces active in the region, including small Daesh-affiliated groups. It also has three reports investigating the US air forces’ bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz city in early October 2015; they revealed command failures and what AAN’s Kate Clark called the “throwing away of the rule book.”
Find the link to AAN’s May 2015 predecessor dossier (‘The evolution of insecurity in Kunduz’) here:
Dispatches (most recent first):
Far From Back to Normal: The Kunduz crisis lingers on
By Lola Cecchinel
17 August 2016
The Taleban’s recent takeover of both Qala-ye Zal and Dasht-e Archi’s district centres is the latest episode in the long-running battle for possession of Kunduz province. It follows the spectacular takeover of Kunduz’s provincial centre by insurgents in late September 2015, the hard-won recapture by pro-government forces two weeks later and the government’s unsuccessful counter-offensive in the province’s districts. Lola Cecchinel, a regular AAN guest author, examines the Taleban’s latest gains and the dismantling of government structures outside of the provincial capital
Taleban in the North: Gaining ground along the Ring Road in Baghlan
By Obaid Ali
15 August 2016
The Taleban have made significant inroads in a number of strategic areas in the northern province of Baghlan over the past two years. They now pose a greater threat than ever to the Baghlan-Balkh highway, part of the Ring Road which here links Kabul to the north. The Taleban know that by blocking highways, they can effectively undermine the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), both psychologically and physically. In response, the ANSF have conducted several military operations, beginning in late 2015 and continuing throughout 2016. AAN’s Obaid Ali examines the current security situation along this crucial highway, while also looking at the insurgents’ shift in tactics and the impact of ANSF operations. One such operation resulted in the displacement of hundreds of families and the erosion of local communities’ trust in the government.
The 2016 Insurgency in the North: Raising the Daesh flag (although not for long)
By: Obaid Ali
15 July 2016
The flag of the Islamic State (IS, or Daesh) has been flown twice in the last year in Takhar and Baghlan provinces by a group of ethnic Uzbek Afghans who had set up their own insurgent group, Jundullah, in 2009. It had enjoyed an uneasy alliance with the Taleban, but tried to use the turmoil of the Taleban’s takeover of Kunduz in September 2015 to establish itself as an independent, Daesh-allied group. The Taleban moved swiftly to crush the dissidents. However, it is still engaged in lower-level, clandestine activity – recruiting and spreading propaganda. Given how magnified any Daesh flag raising becomes in media and local government reporting, AAN’s Obaid Ali thought it useful to look into the origins of the Jundullah group, its shifting relationship with the Taleban and why it went over to Daesh.
Violence in Badakhshan Persists: what last year’s Jurm attack still tells us about insecurity in the north
By: Bethany Matta
10 April 2016
On the one year anniversary of a major attack in Jurm in April 2015, and not long before the Taleban are expected to announce their new spring offensive, Badakhshis are nervously anticipating the year ahead. AAN guest author Bethany Matta revisits the attack, detailing how it happened and showing how the attack and its aftermath illustrate many of the security challenges Badakhshan still faces today. These include an expected persistent level of violence, a significant role played by foreign fighters and a continuing sense by the local population and security officials that the province is being overlooked.
The 2016 Insurgency in the North: Beyond Kunduz city – lessons (not taken) from the Taleban takeover
By: Obaid Ali
30 January 2016
In the last two months of 2015, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) conducted a significant counteroffensive to remove the Taleban from areas just outside Kunduz city as well as from a number of its outlying district centres. Since recapturing the city on 13 October 2015, efforts have barely had an impact, especially in the districts. Yet, it was Taleban control of such key districts that rendered Kunduz city so vulnerable in the first place – and the continuing control over parts of these districts keeps it that way. Obaid Ali examines the still precarious situation in two key districts, the Taleban strongholds of Chahrdara and Dasht-e Archi, as well as the lessons (so far failed to be learnt) from President Ghani’s Kunduz Fact-Finding Delegation report. He also looks at the increasing presence of Jundullah in Kunduz, a relatively new Uzbek insurgent group, and its relationship with the Taleban.
Ripping Up the Rule Book? US investigation into the MSF hospital attack
By: Kate Clark
27 November 2015
The commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, has said the deadly air strike on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz in the early hours of 3 October 2015 was “a direct result of avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures.” The US military investigation, moreover, found that several personnel closely involved in the attack had not followed US rules of engagement. Given that these rules incorporate key principles of the Geneva Conventions, not following them effectively means the attack breached the laws of war. Several battlefield-level personnel have been suspended. However, the failures in command which led to the attack on the hospital appear to have gone much higher. AAN’s Country Director Kate Clark takes a closer look.
MSF Investigation: US hospital strike looking more like a war crime
By: Kate Clark
10 November 2015
A preliminary investigation by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) into the United States airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz on 3 October, which killed at least 30 people, has raised some serious questions. Fresh evidence suggests statements made by US officials in the first few days after the attack were false. It also makes clear how difficult it would have been for the US military, as its commander in Afghanistan, General John F Campbell, claimed, to have hit the hospital “mistakenly.” These are questions which the US must answer, if it is to escape the accusation that it committed a war crime. The case also draws attention to a blurring of lines between NATO’s non-combat and the US military’s more shadowy counter-terrorism missions and how dangerous this may be for humanitarians and other civilians. As the US prepares its own report on the strike, Campbell’s room for manoeuvre to explain away the attack appears to be diminishing, as AAN Country Director Kate Clark reports.
The 2015 insurgency in the North (4): Surrounding the cities in Baghlan
By: Gran Hewad
21 October 2015
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.
The 2015 Insurgency in the North (3): The fall and recapture of Kunduz
By: Obaid Ali
16 October 2015
It took 15 days of fierce fighting for Afghan government forces and their US allies to push the Taleban back out of Kunduz city. Clashes continue in the surrounding districts. The Taleban onslaught on 28 September should not have come as a surprise, given how much territory in the province the group was already controlling. However, the city’s rapid fall and slow recapture by government forces was perplexing. AAN’s Obaid Ali found that internecine struggles, largely among pro-government militias, and government failure to take early action in the face of Taleban encroachment paved the way for insurgents to swiftly overrun this strategic city.
Airstrike on a Hospital in Kunduz: Claims of a war crime
By: Kate Clark
7 October 2015
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is now demanding an International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission look into the United States air strike which hit its hospital in Kunduz in the early hours of Saturday morning (3 October 2015). 12 MSF staff and 10 patients, including three children, were killed in the strike which came four days into fierce fighting between Afghan forces supported by their US allies, and the Taleban. MSF has alleged the attack was deliberate, saying, “We are working on the presumption of a war crime.” The commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John F Campbell, has admitted “a hospital was mistakenly struck.” AAN’s Kate Clark has been trying to make sense of the different narratives coming out about the strike and looking into the war crime allegation (with input from Fazal Muzhary).
The Fall of Kunduz: What does it tell us about the strength of the post-Omar Taleban?
By: Borhan Osman
30 September 2015
The capture of Kunduz by the Taleban has surely written off any idea of the movement having been seriously undermined or fractured by the death of Mullah Omar and the leadership dispute that followed. His successor, Akhtar Mansur may still face some resistance from dissidents within the movement, but on the battlefield, the Taleban under Mansur have shown strong signs of operational resilience. The new leader has also asserted his authority in terms of ideology and rhetoric. Apparently unafraid of antagonising hardliners, in his Eid message, he raised the possibility of peace talks and also spoke authoritatively about the need to reduce civilian casualties. AAN’s Borhan Osman reports (with input from Obaid Ali and Kate Clark).
The 2015 Insurgency in the North (2): Badakhshan’s Jurm district under siege
By: Obaid Ali
14 September 2015
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.
Classics of Conflict (1): Reviewing some of Afghanistan’s most notorious hotspots
By: Fabrizio Foschini
3 July 2015
Fabrizio Foschini examines ten isolated and remote areas in Afghanistan that have not made headlines in the international press because of the total absence of foreign troops. But they have been focal points of consistent fighting and the source of alarm calls about their imminent fall. The areas introduced here include the districts of Warduj and Jurm in Badakhshan province.
Police and Thieves in Ishkashim: Local residents react to flaws and abuses
By Fabrizio Foschini
15 July 2013
When a robber who had been detained by villagers in a remote district of Badakhshan escaped police custody overnight on Saturday, local residents blamed police connivance. Exasperated, they took to the streets, demanding the arrest of the runaway and the removal of the district chief of police and governor. Surprisingly, they won the day. Yet, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports, deeper troubles – drug smuggling and political exclusion of locals – still remain.
A thin line between insurgency and local politics in Badakhshan
By Fabrizio Foschini
1 November 2012
The competition between strongmen in Badakhshan until recently took place mainly at the local level – commanders would vie with each other for the control of poppy cultivation and trafficking or mine extraction. Patronage from the centre, from the Badakhshi politicians in Kabul, had also been a vital component of these struggles, but until recently a ceiling for competition had been represented by the presence of a paramount figure in Badakhshi politics, that of late Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani. After his death, political actors in the capital and in the province faced the temptation to strengthen their positions in a more assertive way. And then, insurgent activities, still very circumscribed and mainly ascribable to local armed groups with a faint connection to the Taleban elsewhere in the country, could take advantage of this increased dynamism on the part of rival political actors. Fabrizio Foschini reports.
Operation Omari: Taleban Announced 2016 Spring Offensive
By: Borhan Osman and AAN Team
14 April 2016
The Taleban made their yearly spring offensive announcement on 12 April 2016. The statement attributed to Taleban leadership council (Rahbari Shura) named the offensive “Operation Omari,” in honour of the movement’s late leader and provides clues with regard to both the Taleban’s plans and the way they wish to present themselves. Of particular note are the instructions to fighters on how to behave in “villages and cities where the Islamic Emirate has established its rule.” Two days into the ‘offensive’ several dozen Taleban attacks have taken place across the country, indicating a wish to back up the announcement with a portrayal of presence and strength at the local level. So far there have been no large-scale or complex attacks. AAN’s Borhan Osman and the rest of the AAN team examine the spring offensive announcement, looking at how this year’s statement differs from past ones and what it might indicate for the 2016 fighting season.
Chechens in Afghanistan (in three parts, here part 1): A Battlefield Myth That Will Not Die
By: Christian Bleuer
27 June 2016
In 2001, as the United States and other allied military forces attacked Taleban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, numerous soldiers, journalists and Afghans allied to the Americans relayed stories of a fearless and deadly opponent, incomparably worse than any other enemy: the Chechen. Such reports – often coming from the Afghan Northeast – have never gone away, despite no Chechen having ever been captured or definitively identified in Afghanistan during this time. In the first dispatch in a special two-parter, Christian Bleuer discusses the history of Chechens in Afghanistan – both real and imagined – while also analysing the reasons for the many mistaken reports.
(1) In the introduction to our 2015 Kunduz dossier, published almost five months before the city fell, we had reported:
In the last week, the Taleban launched their second large-scale assault on Kunduz in six months and came close to taking the provincial capital, Kunduz City, before being pushed back by Afghan National Security Forces. For the Taleban, Kunduz is probably the key province in the north, the last to be left in 2001 and one where they still have significant pockets of support.