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In the years after the collapse of the Taliban regime, following the resolution of a conflict between rival factions of Afghanistan's former Northern Alliance, "relatively calm" was commonly used to describe the situation in the country's north. The label no longer fits, however, as widespread fighting and an influx of foreign militants have drastically altered the scene.
A number of factors have contributed to the new reality in the north, but one of the biggest is the security vacuum caused by the withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014 and the handover of responsibility to Afghanistan's fledgling security forces and military. The region has become a desirable destination for undesirables as a result.
The arrival of the annual Taliban spring offensive in April 2015 revealed the north as a major battleground between government troops and Taliban forces, fighting that in years past had centered primarily on the Pashtun centers of southern and eastern Afghanistan.
And there were also reports of new arrivals: Central Asian militants, loyal to the Islamic State group, who were flushed out of their safe havens in Pakistan's tribal regions by a Pakistani military offensive.
Pakistan's restive border region (including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and North Waziristan and other Federally Administered Tribal Areas) has for years harbored militants from the Pakistani Taliban, Central Asia, Arab countries, and Chechnya. Reports from locals in northern Afghanistan that "foreign faces" were being seen in increasing numbers led officials to look to northwestern Pakistan as a source.
This raised the prospect that representatives of a number of militant groups known to have taken refuge in Pakistan could be among the arrivals.
They include various factions from the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (the umbrella group known as the Pakistani Taliban); Al-Qaeda-linked groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU, a primarily Uzbek group known by Afghans as Jundullah); and Jamaat Ansarullah (a Tajik splinter group of the IMU).
Announcements by leaders of the IMU that they had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) leadership raised fears of a dangerous new brand of extremism in Afghanistan.
There have been numerous cases of fighters swapping the Taliban's flag for IS's black flag, claims by Afghan officials that the IS was indeed operating on Afghan soil, evident recruiting efforts, and signs of a brewing rivalry between the Taliban and IS.
But to this point it is unclear what level of penetration, if any, the Arab leadership of IS has on the ground in Afghanistan.
A June 2015 Pentagon report concluded that Islamic State's "presence and influence in Afghanistan remains in the initial exploratory phase."
The report also said that while the IMU had publicly expressed support for Islamic State "as the leader of the global jihad," it was worth noting that the Afghan Taliban has "declared that it will not allow [IS] in Afghanistan."
Meanwhile, more sightings of foreign militants in northern Afghanistan have also led to suggestions that Central Asian fighters could be positioning themselves in northern Afghanistan to cross back into bordering Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
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