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Central Asian Militants Return To Northern Afghanistan

Afghan Forces operation against the Taliban and their IMU allies.
Afghan Forces operation against the Taliban and their IMU allies.

There has been a lot of trouble across northern Afghanistan in recent months and one reason is the arrival of militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

When the Pakistani military started a large-scale operation in North Waziristan last spring it chased IMU militants from their safe havens and sent them, with their families, across the border into northern Afghanistan. Since then they have spread out from the Badakhshan Province in the east to Baghdis Province in the west.

Afghan officials, particularly those in the affected provinces, have noticed an upsurge in violence across the north during these last 12 months and have linked recent fighting to the arrival of "foreign militants."

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a panel discussion to talk about the presence of militants from Central Asia, including the IMU, in northern Afghanistan, their activities, their motives, and their potential threat to regions outside Afghanistan.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the talk. Taking part were Afghan parliament deputy Shinkey Zehin Korakhil; Abubakar Siddique, author of the acclaimed book The Pashtun Question and chief editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website; and I had some things to say also. The panel also heard taped comments from Afghan presidential security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmer; General Ghulam Heydar Haydari, the head of Afghanistan's national armed forces in the northern provinces; and Bashir Ahmad Tayanch, an Afghan lawmaker from Faryab Province.

There was steady fighting in five northern Afghan provinces during 2014: from west to east they are Baghdis, Faryab, Jowzjan, Kunduz, and Badakhshan. Most of that fighting was on the level of raids -- attacks on government positions, involving a handful of fighters, on occasions maybe a couple of dozen, and at the end of the battle the enemy withdrew.

Attacks this year have involved more militants and they are often attempting to capture and hold ground.

Some of the heaviest fighting this year has taken place in northeastern Afghanistan, near the city of Kunduz (where fighting is still in progress), in the province of the same name, and in the Jurm district of Badakhshan Province, and the Marchak district of Baghdis Province.

National security adviser Atmer said: "We are not dealing only with local enemies. Our fight in northern and eastern Afghanistan is against global and regional terrorist groups."

For his part, General Haydari said: "Lately foreign terrorists are gathering in Badakhshan. Those terrorists include Chechens, Tajiks, even Kazakhs and Uzbeks from the Jundallah group, not only the terrorists but they also bring their wives and children. During the last year they're engaged in actions in Khostak that are against the government. They specialize in making bombs and train suicide bombers."

Tayanch, the lawmaker from Faryab, said, "Our estimates suggest that there are between 1,500 to 2,000 Taliban militants in Faryab Province, nearly 50 to 100 of them are foreign fighters...."

In an earlier report from Qishloq Ovozi, we heard commander Bobi from a local paramilitary force, the Arbaky, in Faryab say in the neighboring Jowzjan Province, that people "from Uzbekistan...nearly 70 families" had arrived recently. "We heard they came from Waziristan," he added.

Parliament member Korakhil said Afghan officials had a good idea what would happen when Pakistan started its military offensive in North Waziristan last year and the Afghan government warned of the consequences. "The surprise is nobody took these warnings seriously and now everybody is saying 'what's going on' with our northern border areas with the Central Asian countries," Korakhil said. "When Pakistan forced them out from the periphery, where else could they go?"

North Waziristan has been the main IMU sanctuary since late 2001, when U.S. bombing chased the group from the northeastern Afghan regions where fighting has picked up this year.

As RFE/RL's Siddique said, "They are looking for a new sanctuary in Afghanistan now and that's why, there is, they're trying to carve out a sanctuary in Badakhshan, which is strategically located close to Tajikistan, bordering Tajikistan and also Pakistan, and also in Kunduz."

The same could be said of IMU fighters further west and commander Bobi's comment indicates some IMU members have managed to find at least temporary haven for themselves and their families in Jowzjan Province.

Siddique emphasized though that the IMU, or its offshoots such as "the Islamic Jihad Union, Jamaat Ansarullah, Jundullah, and Jund al-Khalifa," seem to be coincidental participants in the hostilities in northern Afghanistan rather than Taliban reinforcements called in for the spring offensive. "The IMU in essence is now this wandering group of militants" in northern Afghanistan, Siddique concluded.

Wandering, but still well armed and with years of combat and tactical experience, which they are now using to help to help the only group in Afghanistan that can shelter them -- the Taliban.

But another unintended consequence of the Pakistani security operation in North Waziristan is that the IMU militants, for the first time in a decade, are present in large numbers along the border with Central Asia. As the group passed the years in North Waziristan their ultimate goal of overthrowing the governments in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan at least) seemed to have waned and been replaced by more immediate battles alongside their Taliban allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The forced eviction from Pakistan could refocus the group's goal.

Lawmaker Korakhil said she believes the IMU is now looking at Central Asia, and another country, but she added that is small consolation for Afghanistan at the moment. "It's true that to reach Central Asia they have to provide [for themselves] a safe home for them in Afghanistan so they can target the Central Asian countries or even some part of China, but that doesn't mean they will not attack Afghans and you can see what's happening with Afghan security," Korakhil said.

However, the IMU does not appear to be acting as a cohesive organization at the moment.

IMU leader Usman Ghazi declared his allegiance to the Islamic State group in late September 2014. But as Korakhil noted, the IMU had been an ally of the Taliban for nearly two decades and her information from northern Afghanistan indicated there has been no change in ties between the two militant groups.

Ghazi is, in any case, the third IMU leader since 2009, when the group's charismatic spiritual leader, Tahir Yuldash, was killed in a missile strike in South Waziristan (his successor, Usman Odil, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan in April 2012). It is unclear how many IMU fighters still support Ghazi.

The panelists addressed many other issues during the discussion and you can listen to full roundtable here:

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Apologies for the quality of the audio in the comments from our Afghan guest, we are working on improving our connections to Afghanistan.

-- Bruce Pannier