With the war in Afghanistan steadily spreading to the north and east of the country, a new front for the Taliban insurgency has opened in the previously secure western regions. The seizure of districts in Farah province by the Taliban and the expansion of insecurity, criminal activity, kidnappings and corruption to the western provinces of Afghanistan are growing concerns.
In November, three districts of Farah province, including Khake Safed, Gulistan and Bakwa, all fell briefly into the hands of the Taliban (Hashte Sobh, November 6). Parts of the Herat-Kandahar highway that runs through Farah and Nimruz provinces are seized by the Taliban on a daily basis. The insurgents stop buses and search the passengers in order to find government employees or officials.
Lack of Coordination Impedes the Anti-Taliban Effort
The Taliban’s tactic of capturing districts for only a few days or even hours is enabled by a lack of coordination between NATO forces, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan national police. A security official in Farah province declared that after ANA and NATO forces retake control of a district, they fail to make provisions for its future security. The Afghan national police are not able to protect these districts alone because they are poorly equipped, suffer from poor morale and are limited in numbers (Hashte Sobh, November 18).
In each district of the western provinces the maximum number of police is typically only 20 or 30. For a district with a population of more than 30,000 people, it is impossible to control even a district headquarters, much less the rest of the province. A TV cameraman who declined to be named recently visited some of the Farah districts and described the situation: “I saw how miserable the police were. They didn’t have enough food. The police officers were saying that after three or four hours’ battle their weapons don’t work well” (author’s interview, November 27).
Abdul Rahman Sarjang, the police chief of Farah province, said that the police there have limited facilities. Police often go unpaid and are largely incapable of tackling better-armed Taliban forces. “The coalition forces do not fight either. The management bodies in the province are weak. When the Taliban seized six police vehicles, the coalition forces actually did not react. Forty-five Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed over the past few days” (Hashte Sobh, November 21).
Since the rise in security problems in southwest and western Afghanistan, many circles within the country and without have pointed to the Islamic Republic of Iran as a leading force in supporting the insurgents in Afghanistan. Following the recovery of Iranian-made weapons in Afghanistan, there are suggestions that the Islamic Republic is trying to bring down the international forces in Afghanistan, especially those belonging to the United States (Pagah, November 12). Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil—former foreign minister of the Taliban—has said that the Islamic Republic might support the Taliban in the border provinces because the Taliban and Iran share a common goal of forcing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan (Kabul Direct Monthly, October 21). The police commander for the western provinces of Farah, Badghis and Herat, Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, claims that Taliban insurgents are trained and armed inside Iran before crossing back into Afghanistan (PakTribune, June 20).
The defense minister of Afghanistan, Abdul Rahim Wardak, has said that the current insurgency in some parts of Afghanistan (including the western provinces) is supported by (unnamed) foreign interests. Meanwhile, a recent analysis says that the expulsion of Afghan refugees from Iran in large numbers is connected to the insecurity in Farah, Herat, Nimruz and Badghis provinces. Iran may be interfering in Afghanistan to put pressure on the Kabul government and foreign forces in order to gain the political leverage needed to lessen international pressure on its nuclear program (Wessa, October 3).
Farah and the other western provinces of Afghanistan are central to the production and export of narcotics and opium to Iran and Europe. Autumn and winter are the most important seasons for opium cultivation, which is likely a leading factor in the timing of the Taliban’s expansion of the war into the western provinces. The Taliban are highly dependent on the narco-economy for their financing. Some analysts following the situation in the west and southwestern provinces relate that “currently the major traffickers help the Taliban to destabilize the region in order to cultivate more opium. The only forces who enjoy the insurgency economically are the traffickers whose interests are in insecure areas under the control of the Taliban. These traffickers contribute to the Taliban financially because of their interests. The Taliban can destabilize the region by using the financial resources of the drug traffickers or the narcotics mafia” (author’s interview with two analysts based in the Western provinces). Opium produced in Helmand province is smuggled through the western districts of Bakwa, Delaram, Kashrud, Bala Bulok, Gulistan and Sinadand into Iran and on into Europe. Smugglers contribute to the insurgency to remove any threat to their operations from law enforcement agencies (author’s interview with Dad Norani, Afghan researcher from western Herat province, December 8).
The insurgents active in Farah, Herat, Nimruz and Badghis provinces are local Taliban with close ties to the insurgents in Helmand province. Mawlawi Abdul Hamid is a leading local insurgent in the Zirkoh area of Shindand district of Herat province. Some commanders from the Bomadi tribe are also active in the western provinces of Farah and Nimruz. One leading insurgent who is not affiliated with the Taliban is Sakhi Momin.
Inside Farah and Nimruz provinces the Taliban are mainly led by Mullah Bismillah and Mullah Baz Muhammad, who are in close touch with the Taliban in Musa Qala province. Although they are not high profile commanders of the Taliban, they have played an important role in coordinating Taliban operations in the western provinces.
The most dangerous stronghold of the Taliban in western Farah province is the village of Shaiban in the Bala Bulok district. Many attacks in the western provinces are planned and organized in Shaiban, which is dominated by members of the Alizai tribe. The Alizai of Shaiban were transferred to the area over a century ago from the Musa Qala district of Helmand and still maintain close ties with the Musa Qala insurgents (author’s interview with Dad Norani, December 8).
Using a Western Front to Spread Taliban Influence Northwards
The war is expanding into the western provinces of Afghanistan, with Farah and Nimruz provinces as the focus of the insurgents. Most of the fighters in these areas are local in origin and are centered in the Bakwa district of Farah province (Pajhwok Afghan News, November 19). There are signs that the Taliban are intent on connecting areas they control in Bakwa with the Parchaman and Taghor districts. If the Taliban succeed in doing this they will be able to provide support to other insurgents across the western provinces (author’s interview with Dad Norani, December 8). In the neighboring Herat province, the pro-Taliban Norzai tribe is creating a stronghold for the movement in the Adraskan district. Another center for Taliban activity is developing in the Qara Jangal area of Badghis province, just north of Herat. Heavy fighting has taken place in Badghis province for several months now. Afghan MP Hashim Ortaq recently described Qara Jangal as the most important place for Taliban efforts to expand the war into northern Afghanistan (Kabul Direct Monthly, October).
NATO and ANA forces are beginning to concentrate in Badghis in order to prevent such expansion, but much of the region is mountainous and difficult to control. The struggle to control Badghis, Herat and Farah provinces will play an important part in determining the future of the Afghan conflict. Opening new fronts will increase the pressure on international forces and possibly cause political dissatisfaction with the war in the NATO countries deploying troops in Afghanistan. Iran’s role in fuelling further fighting in the region has important international implications.