War & Peace

The 2016 Insurgency in the North: Beyond Kunduz city – lessons (not taken) from the Taleban takeover


In rural Kunduz (Source: Thomas Ruttig)

In rural Kunduz (Source: Thomas Ruttig)

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.

The two-week offensive by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) ending on 13 October 2015, finally pushed the Taleban back far enough to be able to recapture Kunduz city (read our previous analysis here). However, fear and anxiety following the fall of the city to the Taleban in late September 2015 remain both inside and outside of the provincial capital. Local residents are also concerned that the city might fall again to the insurgency. The reason: The Taleban retain control of certain outlying areas of the municipality from where they continue to pose a serious challenge to government employees attempting to travel even just a few kilometres beyond the city’s fringes. According to locals, the Taleban control several villages on the capital’s immediate periphery –including Alikhel to the south, Hazrat Sultan in the northeast and Gor Tepa in the northwest. The latter was a crucial launch pad for the September 2015 attack.

Residents of Kunduz to whom AAN spoke expected that the ANSF would conduct thorough clearance operations in and around the city to eliminate remaining insurgent threats. This has not happened, and the city remains vulnerable (read short reports here and here).

A ‘district gap’ in the Kunduz fact-finding report

The loss of control over some of the province’s critical districts was an important point that the Kunduz Fact-Finding Delegation failed to highlight. The delegation, which was appointed by President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani in October 2015, submitted its final report on 21 November 2015 during a press conference in Kabul. (1) In its report, the delegation laid out what it perceived to be the “major factors” in the fall of Kunduz: weaknesses in the security forces’ leadership in Kunduz, a de facto power vacuum in the city,  the convoluted decision-making system within the National Security Council (NSC) (2) and the “misuse of state resources and facilities.” (On the last point, no details were mentioned in the public version of the report, which appears to be only an excerpt or a summary of parts of the complete report handed over to the National Security Council). It was further highlighted that the many layers of civil and military government authorities in Kunduz created a “mistrustful and ambiguous environment” at the local level because various security force entities were not cooperating well with each other. The report also stated that due to a lack of any single command among the security forces, prior threats received about a possible attack on the city were not taken seriously.

It came as a surprise that the report neither attempted to assess the capacity of the Taleban at the local level nor that it addressed the continuing challenges to the city’s security situation emanating from key neighbouring districts (see here for AAN reporting on the security dynamics in Kunduz province, highlighting potential threats the insurgency has posed to Kunduz for a number of years). For example, the report does not indicate the number of insurgents involved in the attack, nor does it explain how the Taleban leadership, at the local level, was able to organise this first large-scale attack on a major urban area since 2001. Neither does the report mention the district centres that fell immediately following the collapse of the city, or hint at the struggle the ANSF have faced in the province since the recapturing of its capital. The public version of the report received by AAN seems to focus on government sources only – while not even providing basic information about the insurgency that was reportedly available to the local NDS at the time of the attack. However, this very information is essential to the ANSF, who are still struggling to wrest control from the insurgents in key districts.

Speaking to AAN, Ayub Rafeqi, a member of the fact-finding delegation, said it is difficult to obtain precise information regarding the number of Taleban who attacked the city. He added that the provincial NDS told the delegation that 800 fighters assaulted the city on 28 September 2015, while the police chief stated that “up to 2000“ insurgents could have been involved.

After reviewing the report, President Ghani visited Kunduz on 26 November 2015, where he described the fall of Kunduz city as “a failure, not a conspiracy.”(3) He sacked the provincial NDS director and threatened to prosecute security officials who neglected their duties. He also called on ‘unofficial armed groups’ (ie, militias) to join the regular security forces or face the threat of force used against them. Ghani also remarked that “none of the politicians will be allowed to have his own ALP[Afghan Local Police]” (see here and here). (4) However, all stakeholders agree that there is still an obvious lack of comprehensive strategy to tackle the security situation.

Instead of addressing security concerns in two key districts, Chahrdara and Dasht-e Archi, where the ANSF are struggling to repel the Taleban even from the district centres, the president announced the formation of three new districts (read the palace statement here). The areas that the president mentioned – Gulbad (currently part of Imam Saheb district), Aqtash (in Khanabad district) and Gortepa (on the rural periphery of Kunduz city) – are far from district centre government offices, and local elders have repeatedly suggested that the government upgrade these large areas to district-level status. But, these areas are entirely under Taleban control at the moment.

The case of Chahrdara district

One of the districts crucial to the security of Kunduz city is the largely Pashtun-populated district of Chahrdara. Its centre is located only six kilometres west of the city and it was the first district in the province to come under Taleban control again temporarily on 19 June 2015. The Taleban ruled the district for several days following which local elders requested that their fighters be removed from the district centre in order to prevent fighting with government forces during the harvest season. Haji Shokur, a tribal elder from Chahrdara, told AAN that after these negotiations, the Taleban left peacefully and government officials were able to return to their offices. This arrangement lasted until the attack on Kunduz city, at which point government officials in Chahrdara fled to Kholm district in neighbouring Balkh province and the district once again fell to the Taleban. Chahrdara has a long history of insurgency presence, as previously reported by AAN. As early as 2008, hundreds of Taleban fighters and commanders arrived in Chahrdara from Pakistan, making it the main insurgent hub in the province.

After recapturing Kunduz city, Chahrdara became one of the main areas for ANSF’s clearing operations. However, the Taleban maintain a significant presence in the district and continue to pose a serious threat to the government. According to Muhammad Zaher, then acting district governor of Chahrdara (who resigned from his post recently), the October 2015 clearance operations only served to regain control over some parts of the district centre as well as the six-kilometre long road that connects the district with Kunduz city. Other areas of the district remained under Taleban control. He added that the Taleban maintain a significant presence even just 1,5 kilometres away from the district governor’s office. Zaher further stated that “340 ANA, 210 ANP and 32 ALP [fighters] are enough to defeat the insurgents, but there is no morale to fight.” Speaking to AAN, Gul Ahmad, a local ALP commander, said that most parts of the district remain under Taleban rule and that the frontline between ANSF and the Taleban is within a kilometre of the district governor’s compound.

Involvement of foreign fighters

Another issue that was highlighted by some government officials prior to the release of the fact-finding report was the alleged presence of large numbers of foreign fighters alongside the local Taleban. However, Ayub Rafeqi, a member of the Kunduz fact-finding delegation, said it was difficult to confirm this: “We found no evidence to prove the presence of foreign fighters in the Kunduz assault. The NDS had recorded some phone conversations among the Taleban asking their followers to protect the ‘guests.’ [But] there is no specific date for this conversation to prove that this recording was done during the assault.” Hekmat Khalil Karzai, one of the deputy ministers for foreign affairs, during the opening ceremony of the 6th Regional Economic Cooperation Conference of Afghanistan, also noted that foreign fighters from various terrorist groups had participated in the recent battle of Kunduz. He estimated their number to be greater than 1300. The fact-finding report summary did not mention a specific number of foreign fighters involved – only the names of foreign terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, Jundullah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e Tayeba and Jombesh-e Nasr-e Tajikistan are listed as having participated in the Kunduz attack in the first page of the introduction. (5)

Jundullah and the Taleban in Chahrdara

The presence of foreign fighters in Chahrdara district after the fall of Kunduz is an issue that has been repeatedly raised by government officials. The implication seems to be that Kunduz only fell because the local Taleban had the assistance of foreign fighters.

Apart from the Taleban, there are two other insurgent groups rumoured to be operating in Chahrdara, according to independent sources. One group is said to consist of a few local commanders from Zadran village. They belong to the Pashtun tribe of the Zadran, mostly found in southeastern Afghanistan, some of whom migrated to Kunduz decades ago. Considering their tribal affiliations, they are thought to be supported directly by the Haqqani network, one of the biggest local networks within the Taleban movement, but mainly active in the southeast and parts of Kabul region (see here and here). Locals and government officials refer to this small group as the ‘Haqqani network’ and as al-Qaeda supporters.

While this group is reportedly relatively insignificant, so-called Jundullah, (6) an armed splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), is more visible and therefore of greater concern to the government. It is perceived as the most radical group in Kunduz at the moment. This group mainly follows their own radical ideology, thereby largely ignoring the local culture, while the local Taleban, for example, often allow and respect the elders’ system of traditional mediation on a number of issues. In many cases, Jundullah first criticised and subsequently opposed the local Taleban, in particular for releasing captured local militia fighters as well as government employees when the Taleban released pro-government militia fighters in Gor Tepa in April 2015.

Jundullah (Army of God in Arabic) is not a countrywide structure but rather a group of local Uzbek commanders in Uzbek-dominated areas in the north of Afghanistan who parted ways with their former organization, IMU. As Jundullah has been increasingly visible, the group has suffered serious losses as a result of US airstrikes (read here).

Jundullah’s rank-and-file consists of fundamentalist youngsters. Supporters of this group regularly express sympathy for IS fighters in Iraq and Syria by sharing Daesh’s brutal video clips on social media.

In Chahrdara, Haji Omar – an Uzbek from Kunduz province and former commander from the insurgent wing of Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – initially established Jundullah in Kunduz and became the group’s provincial head. According to local sources, he was killed in an airstrike in 2009. Soon after, Qari Basher Madani – a young madrasa-educated Uzbek from Kunduz – was appointed as his successor. Later, Qari Basher, along with a few other local commanders such as Ghulam Hazrat (alias Huzaifa) and Abu Shahid, fled to Pakistan to escape airstrikes and night raids conducted in the area.

In 2013, Qari Basher, Huzaifa and Abu Shahid returned to Chahrdara. A year later, they became more active and influential in the district. They managed to swiftly gather more local IMU commanders to join them and, as a result, were able to expand their network over the entire province as well as in neighbouring Baghlan and Takhar. Local sources confirmed that the assault on Chahrdara district centre in June 2015, which resulted in its fall to the Taleban, was organised by Jundullah fighters.

Jundullah initially intended to remain independent from the Taleban, an issue that has often generated tensions between the two groups. Pre-existing tensions between the two further increased after Jundullah followers were targeted by airstrikes in Kunduz in 2011 (see here). (7) The Jundullah commanders suspected that the Taleban might have given away the positions of their hideouts.

It was also initially unclear as to whether the group continued to maintain ties with the IMU, with whom they were sympathetic due to ethnic ties. It also shared the same objective as the IMU – to carry out frequent independent operations against the ANSF in northern Afghanistan.

Following the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death in July 2015, the Taleban’s shadow governor for Kunduz, Mullah Salam Baryalai, attempted to coerce Jundullah and to convince them to pledge allegiance to the newly appointed Taleban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur (read AAN dispatch here). After several meetings with Jundullah commanders in Chahrdara, the head of the group, Haji Basher Madani, and Huzaifa were finally talked into taking part in a Taleban gathering in the district on 25 August 2015, in order to pledge their support to Akhtar. Haji Basher presented his terms and conditions for supporting Mansur in a short speech. He emphasized the group’s commitment to strengthening the rule of Islamic law, for the Ummah (Muslims) not to be harmed and for its unity to be protected (the video can be seen here).

That same evening, Huzaifa, along with other Jundullah commanders, were killed in a US airstrike in Kunduz (read here). This renewed the distrust between the two groups, as Jundullah supporters accused the Taleban of spying for Afghan government intelligence and hence being responsible for the death of prominent Jundullah commanders. After this attack, many Jundullah commanders left for Borqa district of Baghlan province and Eshkamish district of Takhar province, where the group has larger areas under their control. Reportedly, only Abu Shahid, an Uzbek from Kunduz, along with a few dozen supporters, have remained in Chahrdara district.

However, the Taleban’s strong presence in Dasht-e Archi and Chahrdara – and their leaders’ oath of allegiance – have prevented Jundullah from independently carrying out operations. The group has tried to avoid risking an open confrontation with the Taleban.

The case of Dasht-e Archi

Chahrdara was not the only district in trouble long before the attack on Kunduz city. The Taleban also overran Dasht-e Archi district (locally also known as just Archi) in June 2015. Since then, the district has become another stronghold for the insurgents in Kunduz province. There, according to locals, the Taleban have established military training camps, which are visited frequently by insurgent military commanders from other parts of Afghanistan and also occasionally from Central Asia. The fact that Archi has become such a hub for the Taleban is no coincidence, as the district is the homeland of the provincial shadow governor of Kunduz, Mullah Salam Baryalai – the man suspected of orchestrating the attack on Kunduz city in September last year.

Mullah Salam, a Pashtun from Qezel Tepa, an area only nine kilometres west of Archi’s district centre, reportedly served as sub-commander to Mullah Dadullah-e Lang (“Lame Dadullah”), an infamous and prominent Taleban commander who served at the forefront of the northern front during the Taleban government. In February 2010, Mullah Salam was arrested in Pakistan, where he was kept in detention for over two years (read a short report here). He was released in 2012, after a delegation from the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) urged Pakistan to free captured Taleban from its prisons. Upon his return to Kunduz in 2013, however, Mullah Salam resumed his role as the head of the Taleban for the province. (8)

Given the strong Taleban control of Archi district, it was also slated for an operation to eliminate their stronghold there after the recapture of Kunduz city. On 27 October 2015, Afghan Special Forces (ASF) entered Tank-e Sokhta, an area about 600 metres southeast of the district centre. According to Nasrudin Sahdi, the district governor of Archi, the Special Forces came by helicopter from Khawja Ghar district of Takhar province. From Tank-e Sokhta, they then staged their attack to re-take the district centre. Within 24 hours, they managed to push the Taleban back and bring parts of the district centre under their control. The Special Forces, however, were not able to maintain control of the district centre for long. On 29 October 2015, Taleban counterattacks were launched from the nearby villages of Shinwari and Haji Na’im, just west of the district centre. The insurgents managed to push the ANSF back out of some parts of the district centre. In the end, most of the government’s forces had to retreat to Tank-e Sokhta. After months of fierce fighting, the district centre of Archi remains the frontline today.

Commander Nasrullah, the head of the district ALP unit in Archi, confirmed to AAN that the ANSF is only in control of parts of the district centre. They have only managed to retake control of the central town square known as Chawk, where many government offices are located, as well as the areas immediately surrounding it. “The main bazaar and its shops have been closed for the past few months due to fear and ongoing fighting.” For the district governor, signs of unrest were already present some years ago. But, as he explained in an interview with AAN, “the [provincial] governor didn’t pay any attention.”

The district governor of Archi, Sahdi, also confirmed that the transit route to Kunduz city, covering approximately 50 kilometres, has been blocked for the past six months. According to him, the Taleban continue to maintain a strong presence in Archi district. There are several military training camps operated by the insurgents’ military experts, he said. “One of these training camps is located only six kilometres away from the district centre.”

General Muhiuddin Ghori, the commander of the 20thANA corps, codenamed “Pamir” confirmed in the media that Operation Storm-11 is still ongoing in Archi. (9) At the same time, he emphasised that “order had been restored and the ANSF has been successful in its operation.” He added that across Kunduz province around 1345 Taleban militants, including senior commanders, had been killed since September 2015, thus “the security situation in Archi is better now.”

Contrary to these comments and in line with reports from the district governor, a local elder from Archi told AAN that schools and health centres are still closed and the Archi district centre is deserted. District governor Sahdi agreed that security forces had not made much progress in Archi. “There is no achievement. The security forces are stationed in a few bases inside the district centre, and the Taleban’s strong and wide presence still poses a serious challenge to the ANSF.”

This has a significant impact on the population. Ghulam Haidar Haidari, a civil society activist from Archi, told AAN that most of the residents of Archi district centre have fled to Kunduz city because of the armed clashes between the ANSF and the Taleban, which occur on an almost daily basis. “The main bazaar is closed and the local government of Archi is paralysed due to serious fire fights in the town.”

Dasht-e Archi as a seat of Taleban provincial structures

There are indications that the Taleban established a strong military commission in Archi district before the assault on Kunduz city, which organises all military affairs throughout the province. It is headed by Obaida, and includes the provincial shadow governor, the shadow district governor of Archi, military commanders and military experts from other parts of the province. According to sources close to the Taleban, its main task is to draw up military operational plans, not only for Archi, but also for the other districts in the province. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of fighters this commission controls. Local sources report between 800 and 1200 fighters in the district. Nasruddin Sahdi told AAN (on 24 January 2016) that the number of insurgents had increased from 600 to 4000 fighters over the past seven months, after the fall of Archi in June 2015. However, this statement (as well as information on nationalities) needs to be taken with a grain of salt – local officials often exaggerate insurgent numbers. Nevertheless, Archi has become a, if not the, key military operational base for insurgents in Kunduz – and should have been identified as such in the Kunduz Fact-Finding Delegation’s report.

Jundullah in Archi

Apart from the Taleban, there is another active group of insurgents in Archi. Sources close to the Taleban said it is called Jabha-ye Qariha (Front of the Qaris, a religious rank) and considers itself to be the military wing of Jundullah in the district. Qari Aminullah Tayeb, who is originally from Rustaq district in neighbouring Takhar province, initially established Jundullah’s Archi faction. He came to the district in 2013 to serve as a preacher in a mosque. According to locals, Qari Tayeb mostly targets young Uzbek boys, encouraging them to attend his madrasa in Qarloq village, where he spreads a radical interpretation of Islamic ideology and is mobilising them against the government.

Since 2013, Qari Tayeb has been regularly sending groups of boys to Gor Tepa, a large area on the border between Archi and Khwaja Ghar district of Takhar (10), to receive military training. The front consists of 50 to 60 fighters and a few local commanders such as Qari Asad, Sadam and Nur Muhammad – all Uzbeks from Kunduz province. Several local sources mentioned that this faction is well trained, ready for operations and ideologically hardened; most of the men were ready to kill themselves targeting the government. Jabha-ye Qariha is primarily based in Shahrwan, an area about 15 kilometres northwest of Archi district centre. This area is also known as a safe haven for the Jundullah group, where they maintain a high degree of influence and also some training camps.

Kunduz still volatile

So far there are few signs indicating that the ANSF have been able to retake control of the key district outside of Kunduz city. Despite their serious counteroffensive in the wake of the fall of Kunduz city, the significant presence of various insurgent groups around the city and in neighbouring key districts has not been reduced. This represents a potential new threat for the provincial capital. Beyond bringing the districts of Chahrdara and Dasht-e Archi under the control of the security forces, there is also an urgent need to develop a strategy to tackle the vast number of other issues that were highlighted by the Kunduz Fact-Finding Delegation. If the government fails to deal with the current insecurity in Kunduz province properly and in a timely manner, and does not address the issues identified by the Fact-Finding Delegation, then the ANSF will face a serious challenge in the Spring when the main fighting season resumes.

 

(1) The fact finding delegation consisted of the following members: Amrullah Saleh, former chief of the National Directorate of Security; Ghulam Faruq Wardak, former Minister of Education; Fazel Karim Aimaq, a former mayor of Kabul and member of the High Peace Council; Ayub Rafeqi, a political analyst close to President Ghani’s camp; and Abdalullah Muhammadi, a representative of Samangan province in the Lower House of Parliament. This delegation was tasked to investigate the reasons behind the fall of the city within 18 days – between 11 and 30 October 2015 (read the Palace statement here). On 21 November 2015, in a press conference, the Kunduz Fact Finding Delegation announced that it had completed its task and submitted its 200-page report to the National Security Council (NSC). At this event, a 23-page summary of the report to the NSC was distributed to the limited audience present. Based on AAN’s research, the complete version of the report is not available to the public. While not articulated to the press, the delay in the publication of the report was due to Saleh wanting to present the report in a certain way. According to a senator that AAN spoke to, he tried to include opinions in the report that would make him a more desirable candidate to return to a government position.

(2) According to the report, the NSC, which consists of “16 to 18 members,” has reporting lines and procedures that are too complicated for obtaining up-to-date security information in a timely manner.

(3) Several theories had circulated that the fall of Kunduz was due to a conspiracy. For example, on one hand “Afghan parliamentary deputies alleged that Safi [the Kunduz provincial governor] took bribe payments in exchange for handing Kunduz over to the Taliban;” on the other hand “Interior Minister General Noorul Haq Uloomi claimed that many personnel of the security and law-enforcement agencies had a role in the debacle.

(4) Some powerbrokers and influential Jihadi commanders retain their own armed groups. These groups are not officially registered with the government and are mostly known as armed militia. In the last few years, the local government in Kunduz has often used these groups to combat the Taleban. These groups are known as pro-government militias. Some of the pro-government militias transformed into ALP (Afghan Local Police) units, which usually received training, weapons and other equipment from the Afghan government, often through US or other international forces on the ground.

(5) In the summary of the public version of the 23-page report it said that “based on governmental institutions’ statement, elements from Lashkar-e Tayeba, Al-Qaeda, Jundullah, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jombesh-e Nasr-e Tajikistan and Uighurs participated”.

(6) Some of the Jundullah commanders killed in the NATO airstrike in Kunduz were referred to as IMU, because at the time the group was not yet officially known as Jundullah.

(7) Most of the Jundullah commanders and followers are ethnic Uzbeks, therefore they are more visible in the Uzbek dominated areas of the north.

(8) According to the DPA, Mullah Salam had already announced that he had plans to overrun Kunduz earlier in 2015. The same article also clarified that Mullah Salam had been close to Mullah Baradar and hence considered to be a prominent member of the Taleban before 2010 ( Mullah Abdul Salam Profile text as the original link is no longer accessible).

(9) General Ghori has been tasked by President Ghani to lead counter operations against the insurgents in Kunduz – all security units must work under his command.

(10) There are two Gor Tepa areas in Kunduz province: one is located in the northwest of Kunduz city,  the other in the northeast of Archi district.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace