War & Peace

Security Forces Spread Thin: An update from contested Faryab province


ALP unit in Qaisar district. Here, the MoI reduced the units in numbers to be able to increase them in other insecure districts. Photo: permission by a local journalist

On the day after the Afghan vote, nearly unnoticed in the election frenzy, Faryab province experienced yet another complex Taleban attack. Taleban fighters stormed large parts of Qaisar district, and ruled the area for almost three weeks. The Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) retreated immediately, outnumbered and faced with more and larger weapons than their own. The area attacked is considered, within Faryab, of strategic value for the Taleban, as it connects the insurgents’ fronts on the west to the south and north of the province, along the Turkmenistan border. AAN’s Obaid Ali, in an update of his previous reports from Faryab (see here and here), explains how and why the security situation changed within the past year. He found that one reason for the Taleban’s success in Faryab is that, in some districts, many Afghan Local Police members have been sent to other, ‘more insecure’, districts – apparently because security forces are spread too thin to cover the whole province appropriately.

On 6 April, hundreds of Taliban stormed large parts of Qaisar district in Faryab, occupied 13 villages and swept Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) out of their check posts in the Shakh village area. It was the second large-scale action since the spring when Faryab provided the stage for one of the first massive spring offensive initiatives. The Taleban operation was led by Mawlawi Salahuddin, shadow governor of Faryab. With him were Sar-e Pul’s shadow governor Malawi Yar Muhammad, the shadow district governors from the neighbouring districts of Almar, Qaisar and Dawlatabad, as well as their field commanders. While earlier, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had fought back for a few hours, this time, the local security forces retreated immediately, without attempting to fight. According to a provincial council member from Qaisar district, they were clearly outnumbered by the Taleban who were also better equipped with heavy and light weapons (see short report here).

Geographically, the Shakh area, with more than 20 villages and an important bazaar, stretches over two vulnerable districts: Qaisar in the southwest and Ghormarch in the west. Armed clashes are reported regularly from here (see for example here). Shakh is 20 to 30 kilometres from Qaisar’s district centre. It is a mountainous and hilly area that is considered strategically highly important for the Taleban, connecting the insurgents’ fronts to the western and southern parts of the province. Their apparent intent is to establish a safe route connecting Ghormarch and Qaisar to the districts of Almar, Khawja Sabzposh, Sherin Tagab and Dawlatabad. This would make mobilising their network for larger attacks faster and easier, provide better access to the Andkhoi-Maimana highway for attacks and movement and bring them closer to the Badar-e Aqina (Aqina Port) in the northwest of the province. Aqina is an important port in the Andkhoi district on the border with Turkmenistan. (1)

A repeat of the spring offensive

Speaking to AAN, Sekandar Khan, Qaisar’s district police chief, said that the Taleban stormed Shakh and the ANP retreated due to a shortage of ammunition and personnel. “Only two ANP check posts with 20 police men”, he said, “cannot possibly defeat hundreds of armed Taleban”. The Taleban subsequently ruled the area for almost three weeks, until, on 23 April, after five days of firefights, the security forces finally drove them out of the area. According to Muhammad Reza Reza’i, spokesman of the 209 Shahin Military Corps, the Taleban used villagers as shields – “that made it hard for us to push back.”

All of this very much resembles the Taleban’s spring offensive in April 2013 in Qaisar district. Then, Taleban gathered around 800 of their men as well as the shadow governors from neighbouring provinces and districts of Faryab to conduct a massive operation in the Khawja Kenti area, only five kilometres south of Shakh. After a few hours of fighting, the Taleban raised their flag over the captured ANP and ALP posts for two weeks (more AAN reporting here). After the Taleban left the area this time, the new provincial police Chief, Toryalai Abedyani, said exactly what his predecessor had said after the spring offensive, displaying similar wishful thinking: that the “Taleban faced serious losses, fled the area and failed to achieve their goals.” However, what had happened rather proved the Taleban’s capacity to rule over large and strategic parts of Qaisar district, without even having to fight for them.

More killings of NGO workers and targeting of election workers

Faryabis have been seeing the violence increase for five to six years now. In 2014, the Taleban expanded their influence and activities to almost every district; Taleban attacks are now a daily occurrence (see here). Attacks increasingly include the killing of NGO workers (until the year before last, NGO workers had been occasionally kidnapped, but had then been set free). For example, in November 2013, six Afghan staff members of the French NGO Acted were pulled out of their vehicle and executed when traveling in the Pashtun Kot district (see here and here). In another incident at the end of April 2014, two aid workers from the NGO Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance were killed in Faryab’s Kohistan district.

Also contributing to the violence are the Taleban’s efforts to free prisoners and to target election workers. The recent attack on Faryab’s central jail on 18 April, for example, resulted in the escape of two Taleban and the killing of three security guards. After the jailbreak, the central government shifted 38 “dangerous” inmates from Faryab central jail to Kabul. During the provincial election campaign before the first round of voting, the Taleban abducted three campaigners of a provincial council candidate in Almar district, demanding the release of three Taleban hailing from Faryab. According to Angar Tokhi, a provincial council member, elders’ attempts to convince the Taleban to let the campaigners go were not successful.

Conflicts among local warlords trying to enlarge territories under their control provide additional opportunities for Taliban to expand their influence in the province. Local fighters who could take on Taleban are being taken out by rival commanders instead. This enables the insurgency to push into unprotected areas with weakened local militias – which generates more clashes between Taleban and ANSF, with the ANSF trying to intervene and push the Taleban out again. The civilian casualties caused by local commanders also strain the locals’ patience. Some resort to supporting the insurgency as the ‘lesser evil’. In a recent case, the fighting between two warlords and their men in Pashtun Kot district left ten to 20 civilians dead and wounded; one of the warlords, Atta Muhammad, died. The next day, his brother, a notorious commander called Qader, along with his followers attacked the two villages ruled by the killer of his brother, attempting to take revenge. More than ten villagers were killed and many wounded (see here and here and for more on the internal struggles between local warlords see previous AAN reporting here).

All of this disrupts locals’ lives as well as the local economy. In the past year, thousands of families from Ghormarch, Qaisar and Almar fled their homes due to regular armed clashes between ANSF and insurgents (see for example here and here). By mid-February 2014, 2,000 families from Qaisar district alone were displaced and in need of assistance, according to this media report. The Taleban’s heightened efforts in Qaisar and Ghormarch districts also hinder the ring road project, which connects northern parts of the country – Kunduz, Balkh and Jawzjan – to the west – Badghis and Herat – through Faryab province. The ring road passing Faryab also connects the three important ports (Aqina port, Hairatan port and Shir Khan port) in the north and west of the country. (2) In the eyes of some locals, the insecurity in both districts is aimed at preventing the finalisation of the road. This meshes with the economic goals of the insurgency. Once finished, most of the goods imported from Pakistan and Iran to the north of the country and vice versa would travel on the northern ring road. That will mean less traffic for the Kandahar-Kabul highway – and less income from illegal taxes raised by Taleban waylaying travellers in the south (see also here). The construction of the remaining part of the road, 237 kilometres in Qaisar and Ghormarch districts, is stuck. According to Mahruf Samar, the head of the provincial Civil Society Network (CSN), Taleban pose serious threats to construction workers. Recently, he told AAN, Taleban killed a local engineer who had kept pushing provincial authorities to do more for the continuation of the project.

ALP shrinking due to budget cuts?

The Taleban’s increased efforts to prove their superiority in Faryab have put pressure on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In addition, numbers of some units seem to have decreased. According to Shah Farukh Shah, ALP commander in Qaisar district, one important reason behind the fall of Shakh was that the central government has decreased the number of ALP service members. His ALP unit, he said, shrank from 300 men to only 100 over the last two months – allegedly because the central government reduced the budget. Muhammad Na’im, the deputy police chief of Faryab, confirmed this, telling AAN that the number of police has “recently been reduced in every district – in each district of Faryab by two to three policemen.” He added that this made it easier for Taleban to carry out large-scale attacks on security posts (see also here).

From the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoI), there were contradicting statements about the ALP in Faryab. First, Najibullah Danesh, deputy spokesperson of the MoI, told AAN that it would increase the number of security forces by 10 to 15 per cent in the whole country during the Afghan year 1392. This, however, does not fit with what the ALP’s commander in the MoI (kommandan-e umumi pulis-e mahali), General Ali Shah Ahmadzai, says. Speaking to AAN, he said that there was no budget shortage; however, the MoI had indeed reduced the number of ALP service members in Faryab – but “only in secure districts”. These service members had then been deployed to “more insecure areas”. In Qaisar district, for instance, he said, the number of ALP had been reduced from 300 to 200, while in other insecure districts like Dawladabad, Gorziwan, Pashton Kot and Ghormarch the number of ALP was increased. This decision does not bode well for the ability of the security forces to hold their own in an increasingly insecure environment. Qualifying Qaisar district, a notoriously insecure one, as ‘secure’ in order to cut security forces here and send them into other similarly insecure districts, means that the ALP is spread too thin to cover the whole of Faryab appropriately.

Taleban bazaar and desert courts

Regarding the recent increase in Taleban violence, Almar and Dawlatabad districts, too, deserve a closer look. In the past two years, the insurgents managed to expand their rule in these districts. In Dawlatabad, Taleban rule from their stronghold in the Shor Darya area only eight kilometres west of the district centre. From here, they organize attacks and ambushes; here, they hold their hostages. Allegedly, the Taleban also shut many schools and warned locals to not send their children to school. According to Muhammad Daud, head of the Development Council of Dawlatabad district, this was in part a revenge act because the local government had prohibited the riding of motorbikes in the province and district centres due to the number of assassinations Taleban carried out on motorbikes (see also here). The local government, on the other hand, phrased it this way: “Some schools are not functioning in Dawlatabad due to Taleban threats and a lack [of] cooperation of elders.” Sayed Sallam Nazhat, Dawlatabad’s district governor, told AAN that some elders cooperated with the Taleban and “obeyed their orders”. According to him, only a few schools in far-flung areas remain closed due to “Taleban threats and interference”. However, the provincial education department in Faryab stated that last year, there had been problems in the whole of Dawlatabad.

In Almar district, Taleban rule over a major bazaar only 15 kilometres from Almar’s district centre. Here, Taleban court verdicts are announced regularly. The so-called desert courts were a significant tool for expanding influence in the district. The courts often seem to deal with land disputes among locals. “Particularly during summer when people have quarrels over the use of pastures, they reach out to Taleban judges to help and fairly divide the summer pastures among them,” one local journalist told AAN. Apparently, locals prefer to take cases to Taleban courts because of their prompt response, without bureaucracy and corruption. Qudbuddin Kohi, editor-in-chief of a local weekly, Sada-ye Mellat, told AAN that most of Almar district, too, was ruled by Taleban and that government officials were afraid to come to their offices, even in the district centre.

A governmental official from Almar district who wished to remain unnamed confirmed that the head of his office rarely came to work anymore due to Taleban threats. “Government officials don’t want to use the highway from central Maimana to Almar anymore, because they are afraid of the Taleban”, he said.

(1) Faryab province is perceived as the gateway to the north, connecting western parts of the country to the northern part. The Taleban’s push from west to north of the province also aims at reaching Aqina port, an important port on the border with Turkmenistan – more in this previous AAN report.

The Aqina port will play an even larger role as soon as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway is finished. The agreement for construction of the railroad was signed in March 2014. The railway will cross Afghanistan passing Aqina port and Faryab, ending in Sher Khan port in Kunduz province (see also here, here and here).

(2) Shir Khan Bandar (Shir Khan Port), located in Kunduz province, connects Kunduz with Tajikistan (more here). The second northern port is Bandar-e Hairatan (Hairatan port) in Mazar-e Sharif province, connecting Afghanistan with Uzbekistan (more here). The third port is Bandar-e Aqina (Aqina Port), connecting Faryab with Turkmenistan (more here).

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