War & Peace

Taleban in the North: Gaining ground along the Ring Road in Baghlan


Surkh Kotal, here seen from afar, came under Taleban control in mid-May 2016 and was only recaptured after ANSF operations a month later. (Photo Source: Heritage Institute)

Surkh Kotal, here seen from afar, came under Taleban control in mid-May 2016 and was only recaptured after ANSF operations a month later. (Photo Source: Heritage Institute)

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.

In May 2016, the Taleban established a check post in Chashma-ye Shir, an area located directly to the east of the Baghlan-Balkh highway and only a few kilometres northwest of the provincial capital, Pul-e Khumri. Since then, the group have searched vehicles in order to capture ANSF service members. In the past few years, the area has been an important foothold for the Taleban. Its strategic location connects the contested areas of Dand-e Ghori (AAN analysis of 2015 developments here) and Dand-e Shahabuddin, through which this important highway passes.

The Baghlan-Balkh highway, which forms part of the important Ring Road connecting the north to the west of the country, is a vital transit route between Pul-e Khumri and the northwestern provinces of Samangan, Balkh, Jawzjan, Sar-e Pul and Faryab. The Taleban have strived for some time to increase their presence along this arterial route, particularly following the fall of Kunduz in late September 2015.

The roads connecting Baghlan to Samangan and Kunduz are especially important to the ANSF. They use these for transporting military equipment, ammunition and reinforcements in their attempts to secure the increasingly insecure provinces of the north, and, in particular, the northeast. Having understood the importance of these routes, the Taleban have started to close in on the Baghlan-Balkh highway by establishing mobile checkpoints in their search for members of the ANSF, as well as to establish a permanent presence in the area. The increased Taleban presence in Chashma-ye Shir has enabled them to monitor the highway more closely, which locals see as a first step towards taking complete control of this section of the highway.

Dand-e Ghori: between the ANSF and the Taleban

Dand-e Ghori is a Pashtun-dominated area of around 60 to 70 villages to the northwest of Pul-e Khumri, where the ANSF have always struggled to retain control. After the Taleban announced their so-called spring offensive in 2015, they began attacking the ANSF in Baghlan with Dand-e Ghori as their initial target. Local support for the insurgency in some of the villages and limited ANSF manpower put the government forces at a disadvantage. The insurgents, on the other hand, were able to move around the area freely.

In September 2015, Dand-e Ghori fell to the Taleban and remained under their control for five months (see report here). In January 2016, the ANSF conducted a large-scale operation to clear the area. On 6 March 2016, they managed to repel the Taleban and retake control. However, a day after the ANSF left Dand-e Ghori, handing over responsibility to local forces – an Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit led by Mullah Alam, a former commander of Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan, from the Ahmadzai tribe of Dand-e Ghori – the Taleban conducted a counter-offensive. They re-took Dand-e Ghori within a day.

The impact of ANSF operations on civilians

The ANSF operation in Dand-e Ghori, termed Khurshid 20, while having no lasting impact on the security situation in Baghlan, had significant, negative repercussions on the lives of the local civilian population caught up in the fighting. According to Afghan media reports, more than 1,500 families had to leave Dand-e Ghori and neighbouring Dahna-ye Ghori district as a result of the operations (see here and here). The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kabul reported that the number of officially registered IDPs for these two locations still exceeded 5,000 families as of mid-June 2016 – indicating that the displacement was not restricted to the period of the operations. UNAMA also highlighted this displacement in its civilian casualty report, citing “new patterns of displacement in Baghlan province,” with “more than 32,500 individuals displaced by the fighting in Dand-e-Ghori and Dand-e-Shahabuddin by the beginning of 2016.”

Civil society representatives and local elders had earlier accused the government of failing to protect Dand-e Ghori, which had been considered ‘cleared’ in March 2016. Atef Arefyan, a civil society representative, told AAN “the ANSF has not pursued the insurgents in their hiding places.” He said the Taleban fled to Bibi Ghahwara in March 2016, an area about 15 kilometres northwest of Dand-e Ghori in the direction of Samangan, but the ANSF had not even tried to challenge them there. He was referring to the fact that, after the operations, the ANSF handed over responsibility for securing the area to Mullah Alam’s ALP unit, without taking any other action to protect the area. Furthermore, Arefyan pointed out, it was impossible for a 200-person ALP unit to secure this vulnerable area of mostly Pashtun villages (some of the Taleban are also from the area – notably, the shadow governor of Baghlan, Mullah Helal.) Local elders also doubted the ALP’s ability to protect the area. One of them told AAN “the ALP and the anti-Taleban uprising group are not sufficient to defeat the Taleban [in our area],” adding that “the shortage of ammunition, the lack of modern weapons as well as the influence of powerbrokers for personal gains are the reasons that have prevented the ALP from protecting the area successfully against the Taleban.”

According to video evidence made available to AAN, many ALP fighters surrendered to the Taleban when they counter-attacked the day after the ANSF left Dand-e Ghori. Some laid down their weapons and returned home, while others joined the Taleban outright. According to a Taleban source at the ALP base in Qala-ye Khoja, around 40 local police under the command of Rais Faiz surrendered to the insurgency.

 In light of these developments and the accusations made against the government, emotions have been running high among the local population. Many cannot understand why the government is unable to protect them or at least to make an attempt to do so. Ahmadzai, a local tribal elder, told AAN that he thinks discrimination is behind this approach, echoing what many local Pashtuns say about the Tajik-dominated provincial government: “The local government intentionally does not want to ensure stability in Pashtun-dominated areas; instead they want to shut down schools and health clinics and make a battleground out of Dand-e Ghori. (…) If the government really wanted to maintain stability in Dand-e Ghori, it would have established [permanent] military bases to protect the cleared areas.”

Government officials, however, portrayed the collapse of Dand-e Ghori as a result of not having enough ANSF personnel to maintain permanent bases there. Mahmud Haqmal, the spokesman for the Baghlan governor, tried to defend the government’s position by pointing out that, “the ANSF has the responsibility to conduct operations in other parts of the country, [too]. That is why, after the clearance operations in Dand-e Ghori, the ANSF deployed to other contested areas.” However, the police chief also admitted that the security forces, even when in the area, could not effectively fight the Taleban due to shortages of equipment and weak morale after sustaining heavy losses in the area. Nur Habib Golbahari, Baghlan’s Chief of Police, claimed that security forces, after having to fight in Burka, Nehrin, Baghlan-e Jadid and Dand-e Ghori districts, were “tired of fighting.”

Regardless of the reasons, the ANSF have been unable to secure the area permanently. Accusations by local elders against the ANSF and the government, as well as a lack of solutions on how to address current challenges, are exacerbating local communities’ existing frustrations. Their reactions to these accusations, in turn, signal that few, if any, improvements will be made in the near future. Indeed, the Taleban appear to have set their sights on extending their control along the crucial Baghlan-Balkh highway.

The Taleban closing in on the highway

The Taleban have been trying to intimidate people travelling along the Baghlan-Balkh highway since late 2015. Holding onto earlier territorial gains, they continued attacking ANSF check-posts along the highway and slowly expanded their grip over more territory, such as Bagh-e Shamal, some five kilometres to the north of Pul-e Khumri, and around Surkh Kotal.

Ahead of the Taleban completely capturing Chashma-ye Shir in May 2016, they had already established a mobile checkpoint there during daylight hours and searching of vehicles for ANSF service members has first been reported in October 2015. In December 2015, the Taleban attacked the vehicle of General Hessamuddin Haqbin, former head of the Hairatan port in Balkh province and a prominent local figure. Haqbin himself was seriously injured, as were three other passengers. His bodyguard was killed. According to an Afghan media report, in that month alone, there were three major attacks on this part of the Baghlan-Balkh highway.

As a result of this increase in attacks, local residents and provincial council members called on the National Unity Government to do more to improve security along this section of the Baghlan-Balkh highway. It took a few months, however, before the government finally took action. It was only following the locals’ protests (and several smaller operations in Dand-e Ghori and Dand-e Shahabuddin in the first months of 2016), that the ANSF conducted several counter-offensives to repel the Taleban from the highway. To date, they have yet to produce any substantial or lasting outcome. After the counter-offensives, the ANSF only managed to secure the highway during the day, between 8 am and 6 pm, by establishing mobile check-posts along the highway. The Taleban, however, have meanwhile further bolstered their presence. They overran strategic bases close to the highway, such as Surkh Kotal, as well as areas around Pul-e Khumri.

According to provincial council members, by the beginning of May 2016, Chashma-ye Shir was entirely under Taleban control. They were now regularly searching vehicles for ANSF personnel and government officials.

The siege of Surkh Kotal

Another nerve centre is Surkh Kotal, located eight kilometres to the northwest of Pul-e Khumri, a pass known for its nearby archaeological site, the ruins of a terraced Zoroastrian fire temple. This area is predominately inhabited by Hazaras, who suffered abuses at the hands of the Taleban prior to 2001. In 2015, possibly in an attempt to pre-empt fighting in their area, community elders from villages around Surkh Kotal entered into a ceasefire deal with the local insurgency under the following conditions: local communities would pay taxes to the Taleban, grant them unhindered passage through the area and provide them food when requested – in exchange for the insurgents promising not to fight in the Surkh Kotal area (see AAN’s previous report here). The deal fell apart, however, in January 2016, when the local Hazara communities supported the ANSF military operations against the Taleban in Dand-e Ghori.

As a consequence, the Taleban attacked Surkh Kotal village on 14 May 2016 in an attempt to capture it and eliminate the newly-established, local anti-Taleban militia unit known as khezesh-e mardomi (Dari for ‘people’s uprising’). This group, like so many similar ones established over the past few years, is supported by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) with weapons, money and logistics (see short report here and also AAN’s dispatches on NDS supporting anti-Taleban uprising groups in Ghazni here and here). Apart from the local anti-Taleban militia, there was also a small Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit of about 20 men established in 2012 and supported by the Ministry of Interior.

Despite the different origins and sources of support, both groups are led by local commander Juma Din Mubarez, a prominent former jihadi commander of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Afghanistan, a Hazara party led by former vice president Muhammad Karim Khalili. This commander and his relatively small number of men had to stand against a large group of Taleban fighters (mainly local men from Dand-e Ghori and Dand-e Shahabuddin) in mid-May 2016, when the insurgents attacked Surkh Kotal village from different directions. The anti-Taleban uprising group and the ALP initially tried to hold their ground and fought hard before Mubarez and his men were finally forced to flee. They retreated to a strategic elevated post located a few hundred metres away, known – for some reason – as Tapa-ye Germanha (‘Hill of Germans’) (1), which is now the base of a Ministry of Interior sub-unit tasked with the protection of the historical site. As such, the unit only consists of a few policemen not formally trained to engage the insurgency.

Unlike past confrontations, when the Taleban allowed pro-government forces to leave the area without pursuit, the Taleban unexpectedly followed Mubarez and his men to Tapa-ye Germanha where they besieged them, as well as the special MoI police unit based there. Hostilities between the two camps lasted for a week. Intensive fighting took place until 23 May 2016, when some of the men from Mubarez’s group and the special police unit managed to escape, driven by the fear that they might eventually be killed if they were captured.

While these pro-government forces were fighting for their lives, the local government in Baghlan issued a controversial statement. On 18 May 2016, provincial governor Abdul Satar Barez claimed that security forces had rescued the fighters who had been besieged (read report here and here). However, on 24 May 2016, Juma Din Mubarez, the commander of the forces who fled to Tapa-ye Germanha, said that the Taleban had still been in control of the hill when he and his men escaped on 23 May 2016. Furthermore, Mubarez noted that the besieged forces had received neither reinforcements nor logistical support from the provincial government at any time (see more here).

Speaking to AAN, Baghlan’s governor’s spokesman Haqmal admitted, “The local government could not deploy reinforcements.” He claimed that the Taleban had planted roadside mines and thus “prevented us from rescuing those besieged security forces.” Local community members largely saw this as an excuse, as there had been no reports of mined roads. It was obvious, however, that provincial government did not have the manpower to deploy reinforcements; the ANSF were engaged in battle against the Taleban in Dand-e Shahabuddin and Baghlan-e Jadid district at the time.

Consequences of Surkh Kotal falling to the Taleban

After all the pro-government forces finally managed to escape, the insurgents established control over Tapa-ye Germanha, a strategic position given it overlooks Surkh Kotal. They have continued to use it as a key location from which they could expand their influence in the area. For example, from there, they could target the highway more effectively as they now had virtually unrestricted access to the now unprotected security check posts along the Baghlan-Balkh highway.

Map of the Northwest of Baghlan Province with the location of Surkh Kotal marked in yellow - the province of Samangan is located to the west and the district of Chahrdara of Kunduz to the north.

Map of the Northwest of Baghlan Province with the location of Surkh Kotal marked in yellow – the province of Samangan is located to the west and the district of Chahrdara of Kunduz to the north.

The Taleban’s presence in Surkh Kotal also connects the insurgency fronts of western Baghlan province to the ones in the north of Pul-e Khumri, the adjoining Baghlan-e Jadid district and all the way to the restive Chahrdara district in Kunduz province, which is located to the north of Baghlan. The Taleban have had ample opportunity to consolidate their military fronts and supply routes. The insurgents were also to strengthen their strategic position in the wider northeastern region with a better interconnected and secured supply route system. The expansion of the Taleban’s network has also resulted in the potential for the ANSF’s supply routes coming under threat or being cut off – in particular preventing reinforcements from being deployed to areas under insurgency attack, as seen in the case of Kunduz in early October 2015.

Although the ANSF managed to repel the Taleban from Surkh Kotal and retake control of the position on 17 June 2016, this success for the ANSF has probably done little to reverse the Taleban’s gains. Their presence along the highway and around the provincial centre remains a challenge for the ANSF in Baghlan as seen on 14 August 2016 when the Taleban managed to overrun the district centre of Dahna-e Ghori. According to local officials, after serious clashes with the insurgents, the ANSF had to retreat and the Taleban gained control of the district centre.  

Outlook for situation in Baghlan

Since early 2016, Taleban activities in Baghlan have created the impression among local residents that they are preparing for a large-scale assault, not only on the Baghlan-Balkh highway, but also on the province’s centre. Even if such an attack does not take place, their presence in the areas along the Baghlan-Balkh highway as well as close to Pul-e Khumri constitutes a serious threat to the government. According to civil society representatives, the Taleban are currently engaged in collecting ushr (equal to a tenth of a harvest’s yield) from local farmers. This likely explains the current lull in their operations. Unlike before, the Taleban are not only taxing farmers, but also traders and local businessmen. One local businessman told AAN that, for a truck of watermelons coming from areas under Taleban control, he has to pay around 13,000 Afghanis (about 200 US dollars) to the local Taleban commander. The increased income from ushr and other such taxes, help finance the insurgents’ expenses locally as well as bolstering their war chest. This makes them less dependent on the central Taleban leadership to provide them with resources to launch attacks.

The recent flare up of Taleban activity in Kunduz province (see AAN report herehas further raised concerns among the local population. These developments leave local communities fearful of what is to come.

The latest quarterly report of the Special Inspector of the [US] Government for Afghan Reconstruction (better known for his acronym SIGAR) cites Baghlan as one of the Taleban’s current focal areas.

Beyond the security trends specific to the area, there have been other disquieting developments in Baghlan province as a whole, which seem to indicate a strategic shift in dynamics between the insurgency and the ANSF, with the Taleban ensuring they maintain control, rather than just making territorial gains along the Baghlan-Balkh highway. They achieve this by persistently disrupting security along this vital transport route. Then they connect the areas they occupy (from Dahna-ye Ghori through Dand-e Ghori and Dand-e Shahabuddin to Baghlan-e Jadid towards Chahrdara district of Kunduz province), thereby creating a larger, cross-provincial area of control. This enables them to deploy reinforcements between the east and west of Baghlan, and likewise to and from Kunduz.

The negative effects of the ANSF’s inconsequential clearance operations and their failure to establish a presence in the area has undermined locals’ trust in both the government and the ANSF. This could pose a serious challenge if at some point they need the local population’s support to oust the Taleban. Their trust will be particularly necessary if the government continues to rely on the ALP and other groups to form the backbone of its local security strategy. Prospects for improved security in Baghlan in the second half of 2016 remain as bleak as they were during the first half, especially after the fall of Dahna-ye Ghori on 14 August 2016, the first district to fall into Taleban hands in Baghlan province since 2001.  Worsening security would mostly affect the local civilian population, but also threatens the many seeking to travel or transport goods to and from the northwest. One of the country’s main communication routes remains at risk.

Edited by Lenny Linke, Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark

 

(1) This cannot be because of recent German presence, as the area had no German PRT outpost. Locals say that under the reign of Emperor Kanishka the Great (circa 124-140 AD) during the Kushan dynasty, ‘Germans’ were based there. This is a subject for further research…

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Thematic Category: War & Peace