Over the past few weeks, the northern Afghan province of Kunduz — until recent years a region relatively unaffected by the Taliban insurgency — has been the site of heavy clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces.
The Taliban recently seized control of Qala-e-Zal, a western district of Kunduz, and are also making advances on the province’s eastern border. These Taliban triumphs raise troubling questions about the future of Kunduz, which has seen its provincial capital (also called Kunduz) briefly fall to the Taliban twice over the last few years.
Once considered relatively stable, northern Afghanistan more broadly has become increasingly volatile since the drawdown of foreign troops at the end of 2014. Just last week, the Taliban overtook Ishkashim district, in Badakhsan province near the Tajik border. And last month, Taliban forces brazenly raided an Afghan Army base in Balkh Province and slaughtered dozens of troops.
As insurgents make strides across northern Afghanistan, the problem of displacement has intensified. Around 91,000 people nationwide have been displaced this year due to fighting and insecurity, adding to what is already a crisis situation. In 2016, the figure was 661,000 – according to OCHA (The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), 33 out of 34 provinces reported some amount of forced displacement. And yet the majority of those uprooted have been in the north.
To understand why the Taliban insurgency has made such dramatic inroads in a region so far from its traditional bastions in the country’s east and south, one must understand the brutalities committed by members of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and by pro-government militias in the north more broadly. As far back as 2011, these actors’ activities were highlighted in a detailed report by Human Rights Watch. It outlined their alleged abuses, including rape — as well as their links to the central government.
Six years on, this problem persists, and top officials in northern Afghanistan willingly admit that the brutish behavior of the pro-government militias has invariably strengthened the insurgency. Yasin Zia, the governor of the northeast province of Takhar, told one of us in an interview earlier this year that the ALP program in the north “has completely failed, and is creating further problems. When they are abusing the locals, the locals begin to think that the Taliban is a better alternative to the government.”
When Kunduz fell for the first time, in 2015, it didn’t just fall because the Afghan security forces couldn’t handle the Taliban. The reasons behind the Taliban takeover were more nuanced, and rooted in the clout of local power brokers and their personal militias. Because these local power brokers had links to the government, their militias enjoyed a measure of immunity. This dynamic, together with the government’s lack of oversight over the ALP, made the ALP vulnerable to the power and control of local strongmen.
Because the government has outsourced security responsibilities to local ALP in the north, the job of resisting the Taliban has invariably fallen to the local powerbrokers. Consequently, these regional figures have been able to form and augment their personal militias, which has created an advantageous tactical situation for the Taliban. This is because these groups are prone to pursuing divergent agendas motivated by self-interest, which are often at odds with one another, resulting in competition and infighting. Such disruption undercuts efforts to develop a common front against the Taliban.
Governor Zia describes the situation as follows: “The first time Kunduz fell, it was because there was fighting between two or three heads of militia[s] who were receiving support from Kabul. Then the Taliban came and took them from both sides. Both sides were happy to let the other side fall to the Taliban, so this allowed the Taliban to easily take over.”
He also has observed this dynamic in Takhar:
“We are fighting the Taliban, but we are also fighting with the mafia (the ‘power mafia’). They are well-funded and basically untouchable, as they receive support from some element in the central government… Everyone has their own personal militia, and this is what makes for an internal war. This is one of the major problems facing Afghanistan, and it is why I keep saying they need to be incorporated into the police system and serve under the police chief. This will avoid their becoming the personal militia of local actors.”
Amid all this bad news from northern Afghanistan, one good news story is that Islamic State — the terror group that has developed a presence in Afghanistan, mainly in the east, and was notoriously targeted in recent weeks by the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal — has struggled to gain a strong foothold in northern Afghanistan. Zia, who previously served as head of Afghanistan’s counterterrorism unit and deputy chief of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, contends: “My background is intelligence so I know exactly what is going on in this area. I do not have any information or knowledge of Daesh [another name for Islamic State] being in this area, which includes Takhar, Baghlan, Badakhshan and Kunduz.”
The Islamic State’s weak presence in northern Afghanistan, a region near Central Asia, also undercuts Russia’s justification for engaging with — and, according to U.S. military officials, supplying arms to — the Taliban. Moscow’s rationale is that the Taliban can serve as a deterrent against the presence and spread of Islamic State in Central Asia. And yet, the Taliban arguably serves as a greater threat to Central Asia than does Islamic State.
Consider the widely reported alliance between the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). As Zia explains, “Russia’s backing of the Taliban only creates more problems for the areas they [Russia] claim to have concerns about – the Central Asian countries. They are supporting a terrorist organization that for the long term will be strategically more dangerous for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan because their militants are with the Taliban.”
U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster recently said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “acting against the Russian people’s interest” in his support of the Taliban, who “overlap with groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other terrorist groups that pose a great threat to Russia.”
Russia clearly knows all this. Consequently, its peddling of the engage-the-Taliban-to-deter-Islamic State narrative is likely meant to mask its real intention: Undermine the United States by strengthening Washington’s core foe in Afghanistan.
And yet, the United States is already being undermined in Afghanistan, regardless of what the Russians may be up to. The Taliban’s major gains across northern Afghanistan, a region that once enjoyed relative stability, accentuate America’s failure to help beleaguered Afghan forces rein in an insurgency that in many ways has never looked stronger.
Barin Sultani Haymon is an independent London-based researcher. Her research has focused on refugees and social and security issues in Afghanistan and among the Afghan diaspora in the West. She is also currently the head of research for the Afghan Professional Network (APn).
Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.