The recent fall of the northern Afghan city of the Kunduz to the Taliban–which has since been mostly recaptured by Afghan government forces–highlighted some disturbing trends in the security situation in that country. The two trends that stand out the most are related to each other: the rise of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan and the expansion of the movement beyond its ethnic Pashtun base in southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.
On Thursday, despite losing Kunduz, the Taliban allegedly captured the Warduj district of Badakhshan, according to Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan lawmaker. This is significant because Badakhshan is the one province of Afghanistan that was completely free of Taliban rule before 2001, being the stronghold of the Northern Alliance. The district in particular was the stronghold of the Jamiat-e Islami, led by the ethnic-Tajik, pre-Taliban President of Afghanistan from 1992-1996, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Yet, the rise of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan has been a long time in coming. After the departure of NATO forces from the area in 2013, the power of the Taliban began to grow in the north.
The reasons for this are threefold. First, pure practicality. It was easier for Taliban forces to regroup and take territory in the north since most NATO and Afghan operations were focused on the south and east.
Second, capturing the north became strategically important for the Taliban because their military position would always be tenuous without control over the north, a recruiting ground for Afghan soldiers and a bastion of forces loyal to the Afghan government. Finally, the Taliban has begun recruiting among predominantly the non-Pashtun groups of the north.
This third reason–non-Pashtuns joining the Taliban in large numbers–is the most significant, because it represents a major change in Taliban’s overall strategy. Previous Taliban campaigns in the north during their takeover of Afghanistan between 1996-2001 often featured mostly Pashtun units taking over resentful Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek populations. A lack of popular support among ethnic groups in the north was a factor in their quick collapse there and the relative peace of the north for a decade after. However, by recruiting northerners, the Taliban may now be establishing deeper roots there, which will make uprooting them thoroughly much more difficult in the future.
Many prominent government figures are from the north, such as Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, and Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, a (half) Tajik. Despite this shared ethnicity, many northerners have complained about government neglect, corruption, and a lack of services. The alleged shadow Taliban governor of Badakhshan since 2013, ethnic-Tajik Qari Fasihuddin, took up arms because of harassment by Afghan security forces, especially of religious scholars. Much of the local rank and file of the police forces in the region also turned against their commanders for similar reasons. According to The New York Times, the Taliban specifically sought out the support of Tajiks and Uzbeks, often by supporting dissatisfied ethnic leaders. They have made common cause with Uzbek militants (which are severely suppressed in neighboring Uzbekistan), allowing them to operate in northern Afghanistan. Even more surprisingly, they have managed to recruit some Hazaras to their cause. The Hazaras are a Shia group from central Afghanistan with a long history of enmity with the Taliban and Pashtuns. Both the Taliban and previous the Pashtun monarchy carried out massacres of Hazaras.
According to some Taliban, they have deliberately moderated their social stances in order to improve their chances of maintaining rule over captures of territory. This, combined with a broader ethnic coalition may permanently change the nature of the movement and make it more entrenched over all of Afghanistan with a significant amount of popular support, instead of merely being a hardline Pashtun-dominated group somewhat beholden to Pakistan’s intelligence services. Even though the Taliban lost Kunduz swiftly, their staying power in the north is strong. Along with their power in traditional strongholds in the south, there is a danger that eventually Kabul could find itself surrounded and attacked from multiple sides.
As we have learned in Iraq, having more and better equipped troops alone cannot win battles for national governments with low morale and priorities that take precedence to loyalty to the state. The new Taliban may not be so bad, as it is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of 1996-2001 (even then, the Taliban was looking for normalization with the rest of the world). It would receive support from all ethnic groups and would likely provide stability to a country that has not had any stable form of government since the fall of the monarchy in 1973 with the exception of Taliban-controlled regions in 1996-2001. Yet, this is not the optimal situation. The current government is well-meaning and has broad international support. It should continue to improve whatever it can improve and hold territory long enough for its institutions to grow. But for this to happen, it must not alienate its previous rock solid base of support among northern ethnic groups. And it must continue to receive American and allied support if those countries do not wish to see the Afghan government fall or become seriously weakened.