Unrest in Northern Afghanistan Heralds Regional Threats

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 1

By carrying out the biggest offensive in 14 years in previously peaceful northern Afghanistan, the Taliban is once again threatening Afghan stability and the survival of the country’s current political system. This offensive heralds the return of fugitive Central Asian and Russian jihadists to their homelands. This poses an expanding threat to Russia and its Central Asian allies, particularly as Moscow deepens its involvement in the Syrian war with the stated goal of crippling the jihadists’ abilities to threaten Russia and its interests.

What Went Wrong

While the brief capture of Kunduz by the Taliban in late September made headlines and put Afghanistan back on the Western radar, the Afghan insurgents and their Central Asian militant allies have been building up their presence in the region since 2009. The Taliban began plotting to return to northern Afghanistan soon after President Barack Obama announced that year a surge of US troops to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Faced with military pressure in their strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, the Taliban decided to open new fronts in the north. This effort was aided by militants affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). As early as October 2010, senior Afghan officials were raising concerns that these fighters were seeking to establish bases in the region. “The problem of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan truly exists,” said Shaida Mohammad Abdali, deputy national security adviser under Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “They are instrumental in bringing insecurity to the north” (RFE/RL, December 8, 2010).

The IMU’s return to Afghanistan’s northern provinces, which border Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, was the result of a symbiotic relationship between the IMU and the Taliban. The Sunni Muslim militants of the IMU had assisted a Taliban campaign to win broader influence among the Uzbek, Turkmen and Tajik communities in Afghanistan’s north. These communities had largely shunned joining the predominantly Pashtun Taliban during the 1990s, when the hardline movement gained control of most of northern Afghanistan in a series of long and brutal battles. In turn, the Taliban helped the IMU set up sanctuaries in the remote northern regions, providing the IMU with a platform to recruit militants and launch attacks in the five predominantly Muslim former Soviet republics of Central Asia. (RFE/RL , December 8, 2010). In recent months, however, the Taliban has turned against the IMU, as part of its broader effort to distance itself from more global jihadist groups. In particular, in an unusual step, it published a report outlining its efforts against the group, and there are even unconfirmed reports that IMU leader, Usmon Ghazi, was killed by the Afghan Taliban in November (RFE/RL, November 30, 2015).

Central Asian militants were familiar with northern Afghanistan, as many of them found shelter in the region as a result of being driven out of their home countries in the late 1990s. As the Taliban regime crumbled under US bombing in late 2001, these militants fled to Pakistan along with their Taliban allies. For the next 13 years, thousands of Central Asian militants sheltered in and operated out of Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). After years of taking part in fighting and launching attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, the Central Asian militants were finally pushed out of FATA and into Afghanistan by a large-scale Pakistani military operation launched in June 2014. The Pakistani offensive forced the Central Asian militants to abandon their last FATA sanctuary in the region’s North Waziristan district.

However, these events coincided with a major political and military transition that was underway in Afghanistan. For most of 2014, Afghan elites bickered over power-sharing following a disputed presidential election. Afghan forces, meanwhile, were struggling to fill security gaps left by NATO troops, who had announced they were ending all combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Expanding Insurgency

Afghanistan’s mountainous northeastern province of Badakhshan, which borders Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, was particularly vulnerable to assault by the Taliban, the IMU and Central Asian militants; these groups rapidly seized territory there and even set up training camps. In October 2014, Noor Aqa Naderi, the district governor of Badakhshan’s remote Jurm district, said that only 25,000 of the region’s 100,000 residents lived in government-controlled areas, with the rest living in militant-controlled zones. “If this lasts until spring, when the snow melts and movement between mountain communities becomes easier, some other Badakhshan districts might fall into insurgent hands,” he warned (RFE/RL, October 3, 2014).

Indeed, the spring of 2015 saw unprecedented violence across northeastern Afghanistan. The insurgents overran Jurm in early April, and Badakhshan’s Yumgan district was seized in May (RFE/RL, May 21, 2015). The heaviest fighting, however, took place in the province of Kunduz. By the end of April, a multi-pronged Taliban offensive saw rapid insurgent gains around the provincial capital city, Kunduz (Radio Free Afghanistan, April 28, 2015). In subsequent months, the Taliban and its Central Asian militant allies would go on to seize the Chardara and Dasht-e Archi districts surrounding Kunduz, practically putting the city of 300,000 residents under siege. In August, lawmaker Ghulam Rabbani predicted the Taliban would capture the provincial capital after the summer harvest (RFE/RL, August 11, 2015). In a major embarrassment to the government, the city temporarily fell to the Taliban on September 28. The government re-established its control over the city in a matter of weeks, but its hold remains tenuous as insurgents continue to sit on key territory around the province.

During the summer months, the Taliban offensive expanded to provinces along Afghanistan’s largely unprotected north-western border with Turkmenistan. The Taliban and its Central Asian militant allies carried out a series of attacks and captured large chunks of territory in Jowzjan, Faryab, and Badghis provinces. By August, an estimated 3,000 insurgent fighters had captured hundreds of villages in four Faryab districts: Almar, Qaisar, Ghormach, and Pashtun Kot. The losses prompted Afghanistan’s First Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, to rush to the region in July to personally supervise a counter-offensive. Dostum, a former warlord, was worried he was losing his power base in the Uzbek-majority provinces of Faryab and Jowzjan. The violence displaced more than 30,000 civilians in Faryab alone, while hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced elsewhere across northern Afghanistan (RFE/RL, August 20, 2015). By the fall of 2015, the Taliban had succeeded in launching attacks in all eight northern and western Afghan provinces bordering Central Asian states.

Thousands of battle-hardened Central Asian fighters have been a major factor in the northern Afghanistan insurgency. As these militants fled Afghanistan in late 2001, they were organized in a single organization, the IMU. Today, the IMU has suffered severe setbacks. However, Afghan officials estimate that the number of Central Asian fighters ranges between 5,000 and 7,000, with their loyalties split among the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union and Jammat Ansarullah (RFE/RL, May 12, 2015). In a video released in August, IMU leader Usmon Ghazi pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (RFE/RL, August 6, 2015). Earlier, the IMU had criticized the Taliban and questioned the prolonged disappearance of its founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. At least one Uzbek commander has joined a Taliban splinter group in the southern Afghan province of Zabul. The Taliban has been pushing back against emerging Islamic State-aligned groups in Afghanistan, including against Central Asian militants who have pledged their loyalty to it. That said, such disagreements have not affected the overall cooperative relationship between the Taliban and Central Asian fighters.

Afghan Worries and Weaknesses

Afghan officials are deeply worried about the invasion of foreign militants in northern Afghanistan. In a late October interview, President Ashraf Ghani’s national security advisor, Hanif Atmar, called the influx “unprecedented” and said the Central Asian fighters had changed the battlefield dynamic. “A majority of these foreign terrorists that were chased out of Waziristan arrived in northern and northeastern province of our country this year,” he said. “Most of them are from Central Asia, Russia and China and they are trying to get close to the borders of those countries. Their aim is to carve sanctuaries close to those countries. This is why it is important for them to be in the provinces of Kunduz, Badakhshan and Faryab in the first place. This is why we faced unprecedented pressure from the enemy in these three provinces” (1TV Kabul, October 28, 2015). Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai said some 1,300 foreign militants had participated in the temporary capture of Kunduz in September. “These foreign fighters came from Pakistan, Tajikistan, China and various other [Central Asia] countries,” he said on November 15. He added that the end objective for these groups is not to control Afghanistan, but to use the country as a base to extend their regional and global influence (VOA, November 15, 2015).

Due to a variety of systemic factors, the Afghan government has been too weak to organize an effective military response to the insurgent threat in the north. The absence of a comprehensive NATO air cover has also allowed the militants to maneuver virtually at will, conquering villages and holding territory. "The foreign forces had an advanced air force that reacted immediately [to insurgent attacks]. [But] we don’t even have an organized air force,” noted Atmar, the Afghan national security advisor (1TV Kabul, October 28, 2015). He added that more than 352,000 Army and police forces and 30,000 local police are spread across 365 districts in 34 provinces, and these forces must also guard thousands of kilometers of border. "During the past year we have attempted to extract most of our best police and military units from a defensive position and are organizing them to go on the offensive,” he said in October.

Long-running disputes among Afghan factions, particularly in northern provinces, over land, water and control of roads have been exacerbated by disputes over appointments to government and security leadership positions. Indeed, many senior leaders in the Afghan national unity government have a decades-long history of leading factional fighting in northern Afghanistan. Their patronage of hastily created pro-government militias has led to accusations of abuse, with many of these militias regarded by local populations as marauding predators, as opposed to forces committed to fighting insurgents and protecting civilians (RFE/RL, September 29, 2015).

Lukewarm Cooperation

The increasing insecurity in northern Afghanistan, and the roles played there by fighters from Central Asian states, has major implications for Kabul’s relations with Afghanistan’s northern neighbors. The situation has particularly alarmed Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which share more than 2,000 kilometers of border with provinces in northern and western Afghanistan. While Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have tried to strengthen their defenses and border controls, Turkmenistan’s response has seemed somewhat ambivalent.

Russia, meanwhile, appears to consider Central Asian countries to be part of its backyard a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soon after launching Moscow’s new intervention in the Syrian war, ostensibly aimed at preventing militants fighting in Syria from turning their guns on Russia, President Vladimir Putin cited what he called the “deteriorating” security situation in Afghanistan. “There is an increase in the real danger of terrorist and extremist groups entering nations that neighbor Afghanistan, and the threat is made worse by the fact that in addition to the well-known organizations, the influence of the so-called Islamic State has also spread to Afghanistan,” Putin said in September. He was speaking to a meeting of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Kremlin, September 15, 2015).

After the fall of Kunduz, Moscow announced plans to send more troops to its base in Tajikistan. The plan calls for the number of soldiers to be increased from 5,900 to 9,000 by 2020. Moscow also says it will dispatch a helicopter unit to its Ayni airbase in Tajikistan, near the Afghan border (Afghanistan Today, October 30, 2015). CSTO head Nikolai Bordyuzha said the close proximity of Kunduz to CSTO borders has alarmed the alliance. “We see these events as a real threat to stability and security in the region,” he said. The CSTO has pledged to create a rapid reaction force of up to 70,000 troops, capable of deploying to flash points within 72 hours. In 2015, Moscow conducted military drills that aimed at "containing" a conflict in Central Asia (RFE/RL, October 5, 2015). Complicating the picture, however, are contradictory and unconfirmed reports of some form of Russian contact with the Taliban to forge a covert alliance against the Islamic State. The Taliban have denied this, but Russian officials are adamant that they are actively in contract with the Taliban (RFE/RL, December 27, 2015).

Meanwhile, Russia and Central Asian nations have offered little direct support to Kabul. Moscow has hosted Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Soviet-trained warlord who became Afghan first vice president, but it is not clear whether Moscow is ready to deliver the Mi-35 attack helicopters that Kabul seeks to bolster its counterinsurgency operations. Atmar, the Afghan national security advisor, has suggested that the Afghan administration has received only a lukewarm response from Russia to Kabul’s proposals to create a regional alliance to combat terrorism and drug-trafficking, which the two sides regard as common threats. “[Russia] always [says] that they will cooperate,” Atmar said. “We are thankful for their good intentions, but we are concerned about the speed with which they are moving” (1TV Kabul, October 28, 2015).

Abubakar Siddique is the editor of RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan (London: Hurst and Company, 2014).