Afghanistan’s once stable northern provinces bordering Central Asia have long been plagued by insecurity, but the Taliban and other insurgent groups are now seeking to control more territories.
The fall of several rural districts in northern Afghanistan this month heralds a new push by the insurgents to tighten their grip on contested regions and threaten elections scheduled for this fall.
“While the spike in violence is common every spring, I see the government’s resolve to go ahead with parliamentary elections as the main target this year,” Zabhullah Ihsas, a journalist based in the northern province of Balkh, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
“The insurgents are specifically targeting restive regions where they see potential for creating further mayhem,” he added.
On May 8, local officials in northern Baghlan Province said the Taliban had captured the Tala Wa Bafrak district after days of heavy fighting.
"The Taliban have been attacking the district for a few days, and at 11 a.m. we had to retreat," said provincial police spokesman Zabihullah Shuja.
The same day, Afghan media reports suggested the insurgents overran the Bilchiragh district in northern Faryab Province, where they already control two districts.
Last week, government forces recapture the Kohistanat district in northeastern Badakhshan Province after it was overrun by the Taliban.
Shaista Baz Nasiri, a lawmaker representing the northern province of Kunduz in the Afghan Parliament, repeated allegations by Afghan and NATO officials that the insurgents are being helped by Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers.
“One part of the Taliban is being helped by Russia, the other by Iran, while a third one is supported by Pakistan,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We Afghans are being sacrificed at the altar of their interests.”
Moscow, Tehran, and Islamabad deny supporting the Taliban violence in Afghanistan.
Late last month, the Taliban announced the launch of their annual spring offensive and vowed to "focus on crushing, killing, and capturing American invaders.” The insurgents labeled the Afghan government and troops as the Americans' "internal supporters" and said they were a secondary priority.
Bashir Ahmed Samim, head of the provincial council in Badakhshan, says robust military operations are the only means to mitigate militant threats.
“The most important thing is to win the support of the people, and they can be won by targeted operations by the Afghan security forces including the army police and special forces,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “With the onset of spring, the militants are going to be more violent, and vigorous military operations are the only way to counter them.”
But an uptick in fighting typically brings increased casualties and displacement for civilians.
On May 7, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) criticized Afghan security forces for an April airstrike. A report by the organization said 36 people including 30 children were killed in airstrike conducted from helicopters on April 2.
UNAMA said the operation raised questions about Kabul's respect for "rules of precaution and proportionality under international humanitarian law."
Hafiz Ahmad Miakhel, an adviser to the Afghan Refugees and Repatriation Ministry, said northern Afghanistan has the largest number of people displaced by fighting so far this year.
“The rise in insecurity is directly proportional to the increase in the number of the displaced,” he said. “We have more than 1 million Afghans across the country, but this year we have seen a massive increase in families displaced by fighting in northern Afghanistan.”
In Kabul the Defense Ministry says they are already conducting military offensives in 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces but have plans to conduct major sweeps in the northern provinces.
“Whenever we see a threat rising in a district, we respond with military operations to snatch it back from enemy clutches,” said Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the ministry. “But we then hand them over to the police and civilian officials.”
Afghan security experts are divided over whether military operations are the most effective means of asserting government control.
Ihsas says effective governance and winning the population over are more effective than security sweeps to push insurgents out.
“The government needs a new strategy to win over people,” he said.