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Qishloq Ovozi

An Afghan security official stands guard at a checkpoint as security is intensified ahead of the Persian New Year, known as Norouz, in Nangarhar Province, last month.

With the dreaded annual Taliban spring offensive expected to start in earnest any day now, there are many nervous people on both sides of the Central Asia-Afghan border.

The situation in northern Afghanistan is already more alarming and far more confusing than it was in the spring of 2016.

Adding to the anxiety, the Taliban recently published a map showing what they claim is territory in Afghanistan where they have influence, and while the Taliban is known to exaggerate its situation, some believe this map is fairly accurate and this site explains the color key.

To attempt to shed some light on the murky state of affairs along the Central Asia-Afghan border, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss which groups are present in northern Afghanistan and the extent of their influence, or control in the region.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From New Jersey, Bill Roggio, the editor of Long War Journal, who was earlier embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan, joined the Majlis. From Prague, we were happy to welcome back Amin Mudaqiq, the director of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, who has great knowledge of events in Afghanistan. And I've been following the situation in Afghanistan for a while so I jumped in with comments of my own.

First, the Taliban map that showed areas the group says it controls and areas that are contested to varying degrees.

Tahir broke that down, reminding us that there are more than 400 districts in Afghanistan and the Taliban claims to have 34 districts under its control, says 167 others are contested, and has a significant presence in 52 more districts.

Roggio said much of the map corresponds with what he has been seeing. "I think it was pretty accurate as far as the security situation in areas we could see… the reason I find it credible is not because it matches with the information that I currently have, but there are large areas of Afghanistan where they're saying, 'Look, we don't control any [of this] territory.'"

Mudaqiq agreed the Taliban has spread its influence across northern Afghanistan since spring 2016 but cautioned that "if control means to hold it [territory] as well, then the Taliban's claims are really exaggerated; but if control means the presence, yes, the Taliban have a presence in almost 50 percent of the country and even 60 percent in the east and south [of Afghanistan]."

And Mudaqiq said even with that estimate, "they [the Taliban] are there as long as there is no Afghan or coalition, ISAF, or NATO forces there."

IS Presence, At Least In Name

The Taliban is not the only militant group present in northern Afghanistan. Mudaqiq said one of the big reasons for the deterioration in the security situation in northern Afghanistan is "the increasing presence of Daesh [the Islamic State militant group]."

Mudaqiq recalled that earlier this year militants set fire to Sufi shrines in the Darzab district of Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan. "People in Darzab who were arrested by Daesh, and they [later] escaped, they claim that Daesh has a big presence there," he said.

And Roggio pointed out there are fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in northern Afghanistan, but on which side they are fighting is still unclear. "A large segment of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, so the group split and it's debatable how much joined the Islamic State and how much stayed loyal to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban," he said.

Mudaqiq noted that even among those claiming to be from IS there are divisions within Afghanistan, and that neither is like the IS groups in Syria and Iraq. "We have two kinds of Daesh, which are very different from each other. We have Daesh in [the eastern province of] Nangarhar, which is mostly made up of the Pakistani Taliban who lost control in their own area [of Pakistan]," he said. "On the other hand, you have Daesh or IS in northern Afghanistan who are only using the name of Daesh to survive."

Outside Actors

There is also the question of who outside of Afghanistan is helping whom. U.S. military commanders and Afghan officials have recently expressed concerns about Russia's connections to the Taliban, which may even include arming the militants, an accusation Russia denies.

Roggio said, "What I think is happening here is the Russians are reading the tea leaves in Afghanistan and they've determined that the U.S. and NATO is losing this war and that the Taliban are going to have a presence."

Roggio explained that if this is true, Russia is playing a dangerous game. "The Taliban are allied with numerous jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda, which has a far more significant presence when you put together Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the satellite jihadist groups that are operating with the Taliban [and] these groups have been a threat to the Russians in the form of the Caucasus Emirate," he said.

An influential former Afghan mujahedin commander from the days of the Soviet occupation, Mohammad Ismail Khan, in early March accused Turkmenistan of aiding militants in northwestern Afghanistan, a charge Turkmen authorities quickly denied.

But Mudaqiq said, "Turkmenistan has a kind of history in dealing with extremist groups, in dealing with the Taliban, just to save and protect their own boundary," and he recalled that when the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s the Turkmen Consulate in Herat Province, which borders Turkmenistan, continued to function.

Mudaqiq said that last year "some of the members of the National Assembly were complaining in Faryab [Province] and Jowzjan [Province] that some of the Taliban injured were also taken to Turkmenistan and they were treated there."

The situation is likely to become even more violent and confused in the coming months.

The Majlis discussed this and other issues, including comments from Mudaqiq about reports of militants "freely moving between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan through Tajikistan."

You can listen to the full discussion here:

Majlis Podcast: Northern Afghanistan And Central Asia
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

Like many other countries, Kazakhstan has shown a tendency to equate violent acts where deadly force is used to terrorism.

Kazakhstan has an article in its Criminal Code -- Article 174 to be exact -- that outlaws actions that foment social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred and actions that insult national honor or dignity or the religious feelings of citizens.

The article is sufficiently vague that it has allowed broad interpretation by Kazakhstan's courts, which have on several recent occasions found journalists, bloggers, civic activists, and others guilty of violating the article. Rights groups have decried such use of Article 174 to silence government critics.

A proposed major addition to the Criminal Code is being debated, and some believe this article would also be open to broad interpretation and potential abuse.

Article 184-1 seeks to punish those who have caused "great harm to the vitally important interests" of Kazakhstan. Conviction on this charge could carry the death penalty.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, quoted Deputy Justice Minister Zauresh Baymoldina as saying the "vitally important interests" would include actions that "compromise the territorial integrity of the state, the stability of the constitutional structure, social, or political stability, [or] defensive capabilities and security."

It seems to be a response to terrorism, though there are clearly other actions that would fall under this article.

Proposed penalties for violators of Article 184-1 include prison terms of 15 to 25 years. Loss of citizenship is another penalty that was already recently added to the books.

Kazakhstan still officially allows for the death penalty, although there has been a moratorium on its use for nearly 20 years.

So far, there is only one specific offense under the draft article that is punishable by death: any attempt to kill the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev "with the goal of hindering his legal activities or in revenge for [his] activities."

Veteran Kazakh civic activist Yevgeny Zhovtis has told Azattyq that Article 184-1 is a modern adaptation of the Soviet Criminal Code concerning "anti-Soviet" activities.

He is among those who fear the article will be used to punish government opponents. "It only remains to wait a little while until 'enemies of the people' and 'undesirable elements' appear...[including] opposition figures, independent journalists, or activists," Zhovtis told Azattyq.

For that reason, attorney Ayman Umarov told Azattyq that the authorities must concretely define what is "vitally important" for the country. Umarov agreed the article seemed to target terrorists. But he said, for example, large-scale embezzlement of state funds is vitally important for the state and the people.

Blogger Miras Nurmukhanbetov wrote that the Criminal Code "is turning into a stick to be used against those who think differently [than the authorities]."

Defining 'Terrorism'

There have been very few incidents in Kazakhstan since 1991 independence that would qualify as acts of terrorism.

But like many other countries, Kazakhstan has shown a tendency to equate violent acts where deadly force is used to terrorist acts.

The violence in the western city of Aqtobe in early June was branded a terrorist attack. In that incident, a group of some two dozen mostly young men robbed a gun shop and then went on a bizarre spree where they hijacked a bus and, after first allowing all the passengers to leave, drove to a military facility and launched an ineffective attack that was quickly repelled and in which most of the attackers were killed.

No extremist or terrorist group ever claimed the attackers were part of their group, although Kazakh officials explained the young men were inspired to violence after listening to Islamic extremist radio broadcasts.

Another incident in Almaty in July 2016 was labeled terrorism, though it involved one ex-convict who confessed he had killed several policemen (he purportedly wanted to kill some judges but couldn't find any) out of vengeance for being put it jail.

Some Kazakh citizens have gone to conflict areas such as Syria or Iraq -- not many, probably only several hundred -- enough that the Kazakh government does have a legitimate concern but possibly not so many that the Criminal Code has to be greatly overhauled to deal with the as-yet-quite-small problem of terrorism in the country.

Which brings us back to Yevgeny Zhovtis's concern that a law meant to punish a specific group of individuals who represent a genuine threat will end up being used to punish people who challenge the authorities.

Azattyq's Yerzhan Karabek contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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.