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Qishloq Ovozi

A spokesman for Faryab Governor Said Anwar Sadat (above) says around 6,000 armed militants are present in Faryab. “More than half of them are helping Afghan security forces [against the Taliban]," he says, "but the other half of them are those who prey on ordinary people.”

Qishloq Ovozi has paid a good deal of attention to what is happening south of Central Asia, in Afghanistan. But most of these reports deal with unrest in the border area and the security problems militants in northern Afghanistan could pose to Central Asian countries.

Mustafa Sarwar, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, known locally as Azadi, came to me with a story about life and problems in Faryab, one of the Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan. RFE/RL’s Gandhara website visited this topic a couple of years back. What the Gandhara report described is still true but the scope is larger.

And remember, Central Asia is a big loser if the situation in northern Afghanistan falls into chaos, and this story of Faryab is likely similar to stories in most of the eight Afghan provinces bordering Central Asia.

"Around 6,000 armed militants are present in Faryab,” said Mohamad Jawid Bidar, a spokesman for Said Anwar Sadat, the Faryab governor. “More than half of them are helping Afghan security forces during operations [against the Taliban], but the other half of them are those who prey on ordinary people.”

These are Arbaky forces and Popular Uprising Forces or Kheizish-e Mardomi (as they are termed by the Interior Ministry) -- paramilitary groups that have some support from individuals in the Afghan government.

As Bidar noted, “In a province that has more than 1,300 villages with some 8,000 members of the security forces, it's very hard to establish posts in every village.” Which is why authorities have allowed these paramilitary forces to operate. Though Bidar admitted, “We do not have enough control on these [armed gangs].”

Mohammad Reza Rezayee, the head of public relations for 209 Shaheen Corps in Faryab, echoed Bidar’s comments, saying, “Some of them have played a positive role…but a number of them have caused concern for the locals, as well as for Afghan [government] forces.”

Rezayee claimed that “the provincial police command center provides them with ammunition to fight against the Taliban…but they sell some of the ammunition to the Taliban, which then is used against themselves and Afghan forces in the province.”

“Sometimes," he added, "they use the weapons against each other.”

Clearly, it is a confusing and terrifying situation for villagers, who have no way of knowing who these armed groups are -- pro-government paramilitaries or bandits connected to the government through vague promises.

Ahmad Jawid Kaiwan is the head of the Faryab Civil Society Network. He told Azadi, “Nowadays, people are more concerned about the popular uprising forces (the paramilitaries) than the Taliban because some of these [paramilitary] forces have ignited factional and ethnic fighting.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a report about abuses committed by some of these paramilitary groups, saying at one point that the use of these groups “has undermined security in northern Afghanistan.”

Kaiwan also conceded some of these paramilitary groups have “proven effective, but [they have] also created problems in many instances.”

Extortion is the biggest problem -- a fact mentioned by Bidar, Rezayee, and Kaiwan.

Said Hafizullah Fitrat is the head of the Faryab Human Rights Commission. He explained some of these Arbaky groups “are engaged in stealing. Sometime they commit sexual violence on people’s families. They want every household to pay them from 1,000 to 3,000 afghanis ($15 to $45) each month. They want people to give them food,” Fitrat said. “They even forcibly take people to their posts for hard work, such as bringing water from wells or digging…”

Some of these groups are protected by local law-enforcement officials; other groups have grown so strong that police are afraid and unable to act against them.

Abdul Karim is a villager in the Pashtun Kot district. He said the government should move against these groups.

“They are strongmen and they kill and extort people,” Karim said, “From our family, they have killed four of my brothers and I was shot.”

These paramilitary groups are a propaganda bonanza for the Taliban or other groups such as the so-called Islamic State militant group that are trying to get their own footholds in Afghanistan.

Rezayee of the 209 Shaheen Corps said the some of the groups “have created distance between the people and the government.”

We’ve heard during the Majlis podcast from analysts in Afghanistan who say that some Arbaky groups are so lawless that they are pushing villagers into the arms of the Taliban, who generally treat the population better than the paramilitaries do.

But with fighting now going on across northern Afghanistan, and government forces there stretched thin, these paramilitary groups are necessary to counter the growing number of Taliban fighters and foreign militants in the region.

In between these groups, as they have been for decades, are the villagers, who must endure the arrival of one armed group after another and wait and hope that one day, one of these groups might come to help them rather than steal from and abuse them.

Based on reporting by Mustafa Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
Amid an uptick in fighting near the Amu-Darya River, Afghan-Tajik cross-border trade has been badly hit. Some days the frontier is even closed because the security situation is so bad. (file photo)

About 1,000 years ago, on the territory of modern-day Afghanistan, Mahmud, the ruler of the Ghaznavids, ordered his engineers to build a boat-bridge across the Amu-Darya River. Mahmud used the bridge to invade Transoxania, in what is now modern-day Central Asia.

For the last two years there has been fighting in northern Afghanistan, just across the Amu-Darya River. The situation has gradually grown worse. Central Asia is in no danger of being invaded, but the governments of bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are concerned about the potential implications of Afghanistan's problems for their own security situations, even more so since some of their nationals are members of the militant groups in Afghanistan.

The breakdown in security in northern Afghanistan has coincided with a severe downturn in the economies of Central Asia, so the frustration is rapidly mounting in Ashgabat, Tashkent, and Dushanbe.

In the last week there has been plenty to worry about along the Afghan border.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, and RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, have been closely following recent events along the Central Asian-Afghan border.

Since July 26, there has been fierce fighting in the Qoshtepa district of Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan and is very close to the southwestern tip of Uzbekistan.

Jowzjan Governor Rahmatullah Azizi told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service there were some 500 militants involved in the attacks in Qoshtepa. Azizi said most of the militants were (Afghan) Taliban, but there were also Pakistanis and Uzbeks.

According to Azizi and Haji Ubaidullah, an Arbaky paramilitary commander in the Qoshtepa district, these Uzbeks are remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). But that is no longer what they call themselves. These Uzbeks are from a new organization called the Termezi group. There appear to be only about 50 of them but they are playing leading roles among the militant groups in Jowzjan, acting as instructors and teaching how to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

From Bad To Alarming

The day after fighting started in Qoshtepa, Uzbek President Islam Karimov chaired a meeting of the country's Security Council. The topic was security along the southern border. There were subsequently unconfirmed reports that the order was given to strengthen forces along the Afghan border.

RFE/RL's Gandhara website reported recently about Uzbek security forces crossing into Afghanistan and taking Afghans back into Uzbekistan. The areas just south of Tajikistan are where the security problems began several years ago. The situation in northeastern Afghanistan since then has alternated between bad and alarming.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service spoke with some locals in Afghanistan's Kunduz Province who live in villages along the Amu-Darya, across from Tajikistan but also very near Uzbekistan. They told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service there are militants sheltering on some of the islands in the Amu-Darya. They were sure, they said, because some of the militants regularly cross the river to Afghanistan to get food.

The city of Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz Province, briefly fell to Taliban and militant forces at the end of September 2015. There has been fighting around the city all this year and some local officials have voiced concerns that the militants could capture Kunduz city again.

Heavy fighting has also taken place in the Qala-i Zal district of Kunduz Province, which borders Tajikistan's Khatlon region.

Local Arbaky commander Muhammad Nabi Kechi said the "Taliban and foreign mercenaries" partially or fully controlled 45 of about 50 villages in Qala-i Zal district. He said they had not yet reached the Amu-Darya but they were close.

Further east, in the neighboring Dasht-i Archi district, there has also been fighting for weeks and militants now seem to control most of the district. That fighting has spilled over into the Hojagor district of the neighboring Takhar Province, which also borders Tajikistan's Khatlon region. The militants have already captured some villages in Hojagor.

Takhar Province Governor Muhammadyosin Ziyo told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Afghan government forces are preparing an operation against the militants to drive them out, but there have been no reports saying that operation has started. Information from RFE/RL correspondents in the area suggest there are not even any preparations being made for this security operation.

Wary Truck Drivers

As to claims that the Taliban has actually captured and occupied villages in these northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, it is worth mentioning that the Taliban has not claimed this in any statements.

Tajikistan has been strengthening its border with Afghanistan for several years with help from Russia, China, the United States, NATO, and the European Union. The border is far from being 100-percent sealed but Tajik forces are well positioned and provisioned to repel any attempted incursions.

The more immediate problem is that the fighting has shut down what had been growing cross-border trade between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, easily the most vibrant trade Afghanistan has with any Central Asian country. Some days the border is closed. In Tajikistan, there are a dwindling number of truck drivers willing to take the risk of making the trip into Afghanistan because of the breakdown in the security situation.

Similarly, Turkmenistan's plans to build a railway and a gas pipeline through Afghanistan have been stymied by the outbreak of fighting just across the border. Turkmenistan has also taken to increasing the guard and establishing new fortifications on its border with Afghanistan.

Trade with Central Asia was supposed to have helped Afghanistan recover economically and bring stability back to the country. Instead, the continued fighting in northern Afghanistan is forcing its Central Asian neighbors to further close themselves off.

Sirojiddin Tolibov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Mirzo Salimov from RFE/RL's Tajik Service, and Toymyrat Bugaev and Shahmardanqul Muradi from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service helped in preparing this report.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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