Top-ranking military officials from Russia and the United States recently visited Central Asia less than a week apart. The Russian defense minister was in Turkmenistan and the commander of the U.S. Central Command visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the three Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan.
One -- if not the main -- topic of these meetings would have been the deteriorating security situation just south of the border in Afghanistan. The situation in the eight northern Afghan provinces has grown steadily worse for the past two years and by some estimates half the districts across northern Afghanistan might now be under the control of the Taliban and its foreign allies.
It is difficult to judge the current state of affairs in northern Afghanistan. Reports paint a confusing picture but do show that fighting now takes place there regularly.
To get a better idea of what the situation is in northern Afghanistan and how this might be viewed from Central Asia, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, gathered a majlis, or panel, to discuss current events along the Afghan-Central Asian border.
Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the talk. Both of our guests joined in the majlis from Afghanistan. Omar Safi is the former governor of Kunduz Province, which borders Tajikistan; Obaid Ali is a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network. I said a few things about the situation north of the border, but the focus of the talk was northern Afghanistan.
For more than two years, the Majlis podcast and Qishloq Ovozi have looked at what has been going in northern Afghanistan. To recap briefly: When Pakistan launched its military operation into North Waziristan in mid-2014, it sent many of the militants sheltering there into northern Afghanistan, a region that had been relatively peaceful for more than a decade. Violence increased significantly due to the influx of Taliban and foreign fighters. Previously quiet border areas with Central Asia became contested ground and prompted Central Asian governments to reinforce their sides of the border and redouble the watch on their own populations to root out the potential enemy from within.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Ashgabat on June 9.
Safi said one of the reasons the government is having such a difficult time maintaining control in the north is the need to strengthen thinly stretched government troops with local paramilitaries, known as the Arbaky.
“The reason why [the Taliban and militant allies] chose northern Afghanistan was that there is some vulnerability. One was the warlords, the illegal armed groups...” Safi portrayed the Arbaky as unreliable and untrustworthy, going so far as to accuse some Arbaky units of selling government-supplied ammunition to the Taliban. Safi said some of these paramilitary groups impose crushing taxes on the locals.
Safi recalled that when he was governor of Kunduz Province, there was one Arbaky commander who “was controlling one district where he had 2,000 militia and our police were only 100 people, so police had no control over the district.” Safi continued, “[The commander] was taking all sort of taxes from the people and when people came to the police, the police openly said that [they] cannot have any control over him.”
Safi said the Arbaky “are like a machine that can produce the Taliban in the area because they always undermine the reputation of the Afghan government.”
Ali described the scene in northwestern Afghanistan’s Faryab Province where travel by road has become extremely risky.
“The Taliban often appeared on the highway. They established illegal checkpoints, searching the vehicles and searching for government employees,” he said.
Such reports came from Kunduz Province, hundreds of kilometers to the east, at the end of May when a dozen people were killed and dozens kidnapped by Taliban militants who waylaid four buses. RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, just reported on the diminishing number of truck drivers who are willing to take the route from Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan because of militants along the road.
Ali said some people who had to travel were taking detours of many kilometers to lower the chances of running into a militant roadblock.
Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum has led security operations in his native northwestern Afghanistan four times since the summer of 2015. Ali said these operations have not done much to bring security back to northwestern Afghanistan.
“[Dostum and his forces] get there, they stay there for a week… then they return back. Once they turned back, then the territory again fell into Taliban hands,” Ali explained.
Safi estimated that in Kunduz Province “70 percent of the territory is apparently under the Taliban and insurgents and only 30 percent of the territory is under government control.” He said across northern Afghanistan “45 percent would be under government control and 55 [percent] is under the Taliban, in what we call the nine provinces.”*
Speaking about Faryab Province, Ali said in “Qaysar [district], most parts of the district are under Taliban control. Almar district also seems to be controlled by the Taliban.” Ali added, “So out of these 14 or 15 districts, one can say there are some heavily contested districts and also some of the districts where the government has wider influence.”
The panelists addressed the topic of foreign militants in northern Afghanistan. Russian and Central Asian security officials, and people presented as “experts,” have estimated the number of these foreign militants to be in the thousands.
Safi and Ali put the figure much lower, in the dozens in any particular province, possibly in the hundreds if all the northern provinces are taken into account. Most of these appear to be from Central Asia, but many haven’t been in Central Asia in more than a decade. Ali said the group of militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who were sent to northwestern Afghanistan by their leader, Usmon Ghazi, after Ghazi swore the group’s allegiance to the so-called Islamic State extremist group have either been killed, scattered or, in most cases, joined with local Taliban groups.
It is information such as this that brought Sergei Shoigu to Ashgabat on June 8, the first visit by a Russian defense minister to Turkmenistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And likely a big part of the reason General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Uzbekistan on June 14 and Tajikistan on June 15.
The group discussed these issues in greater detail and addressed other issues concerning security along the Afghan-Central Asian border.
Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.
*The nine provinces are, running from east to west along the Central Asian border: Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Balkh, Jowzjan, Faryab, Badghis, Herat, and slightly removed from the border, Baghlan.