The situation in northern Afghanistan, in areas along the border with Central Asia, has been deteriorating for more than two years now. Local officials, military officials, and residents of the northern provinces admit there are districts near or at the border of Central Asia that are currently under the control of the Taliban and their foreign militant friends.
Winter, as it does, had led to a lull in fighting in northern Afghanistan. But in recent weeks a renewal of hostilities has seen power lines coming from Central Asia cut and some amazing allegations from Afghan officials about militants in the north and their ability to sustain their efforts.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a "majlis," or panel, to discuss the recent developments in northern Afghanistan and how these developments are impacting neighbors to the north.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating from Kabul was Obaid Ali of the Afghan Analysts Network who recently visited Kunduz, one of the more restive provinces of northern Afghanistan. Joining the talk from Canada was Helene Thibault, professor at the University of Montreal's School of Public and International Affairs who has spent a great deal of time in Tajikistan doing research there and has authored many articles about the country. And I threw in a few comments also.
The panel first listened to an audio recording of Imomuddin Kureyshi, the head of the Imam Sahib district in Kunduz Province, who spoke with RFE/RL at the start of February.
"The people who make explosives and carry out suicide bombings are organized by Tajik and Uzbek militants. According to reports we have received from the intelligence [service], their numbers are about 200 in Imam-Sahib and Dashti Archi districts," Kureyshi said.
The Imam Sahib and Archi (sometimes called Dashti Archi) districts border Tajikistan.
Ali confirmed some of what Kureyshi said. Ali was in the Archi district and he said, "There they [foreign militants] have their training bases where they train Afghans, Taliban, and also other Central Asian fighters who came to Afghanistan." But Ali cautioned about the numbers of these foreign fighters. "I would like to mention that the number of Central Asian fighters or foreign fighters supporting the Taliban in Kunduz Province is not clear," he said.
Kureyshi had even more sensational news. "Some of them have even created a base...in Tajikistan on the other side of the river. When militants come under pressure on the Afghan side they escape to their base in Tajikistan," he claimed.
Tajik border guards reject this claim. Thibault has been to the border area and she also found it difficult to believe militants would be able to cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan because, she said, there is not much support for militant groups on the Tajik side of the border. "The connections between the two peoples are actually quite limited," Thibault explained. "Within [Tajikistan's] population there isn't much support for Taliban and even not so much interest in Afghanistan."
Reporting on the situation along the Tajik-Afghan frontier on February 3, Russia's TASS news agency quoted a "representative" of Tajikistan's State Security Committee as saying there were some 5,000 militants along the Tajik border in northern Afghanistan. Russia media has been prone to quoting officials and experts who provide dire and sometimes incredible assessments and information about the Central Asian-Afghan border region. But interestingly, the "representative" TASS quoted also mentioned "several hundred militants in the Imam Sahib district," which jibes with what Kureyshi told RFE/RL.
Ali said, "What I noticed particularly in Kunduz Province, the places or the areas where the militants are more interested to establish their bases, actually it's very close to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border."
But on the other side of the border Thibault said that at the moment, "Tajik authorities are more concerned with internal politics than they are with external politics, especially the Afghan conflict."
Moving further west, there has been fighting in Baghlan Province since late January. During that fighting the power line from Uzbekistan to Kabul, which provides more than 30 percent of Afghanistan's electricity, was cut, leaving the Afghan capital and other areas with limited or no electricity. And moving a bit more to the west, the power line from Turkmenistan to Faryab Province was also knocked out.*
These acts of sabotage in themselves would be bad enough but there is more to the story here. Members of the Baghlan provincial council said Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Golab Mangal made a deal with the Taliban that handed over the Dand-e Ghowri area, where the fighting has been going on, to Taliban control in exchange for promises to leave the provincial capital Puli Khumri alone.
There are accusations that similar deals between officials and the Taliban have also been made in Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Faryab provinces, again, all provinces that border Central Asia.
Tahir mentioned that Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum has not followed up on his pledge to drive the Taliban and their foreign allies from northern Afghanistan. Dostum led successful counteroffensives against militants last summer in northwestern Afghanistan, Dostum's native region. But there has been little evidence of a new push in recent weeks.
Ali concluded the discussion by saying, "this is the time the government needs to gain the ground." He followed that comment by saying, "If they [the government] lose it at this time it means that during the spring and summer the Taliban will obviously start their so-called spring offensive, so that will be very difficult for the government to fight against the Taliban in several fronts across the country."
The group discussed these issues and greater detail and looked at other issues of security along the Central Asia-Afghan border. You can listen to the full roundtable below:
* On February 11, the day after the panel discussion, the power line from Tajikistan to Kunduz was also cut.