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Infighting Undermined Security In Key Northern Afghan Province

Afghan militias and policemen gather during a battle in Kunduz on May 3.
Afghan militias and policemen gather during a battle in Kunduz on May 3.

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan -- Last month, the Taliban staged a major assault in Kunduz, a key province in northern Afghanistan, which sits on Tajikistan's border.

Dubbed Operation "Azm," or resolution, the Taliban concentrated their forces from other provinces in Kunduz.

In fighting and clashes over several weeks, the insurgents took on the local security forces in six different districts and attempted to overrun the provincial capital, also called Kunduz.

By late April, the militants had surrounded the city’s four main gates when a reinforcement of government forces arrived and thwarted the Taliban's advance.

In a recent visit to the province, Interior Minister Noorulhaq Ulumi attributed the fighting in Kunduz and nearby northern provinces Sar­e­Pol and Faryab to local stakeholders who are exploiting the conflict between the government and the Taliban for their own economic gain.

Unlike the restive south, which Ulumi said was destabilized by Afghanistan’s external enemies, the northern insurgency has found support among individuals who hold government positions but stand to gain control of the region’s wealth of natural resources by fomenting unrest.

"The war in the South was initiated and carried out by the enemy of the Afghan people, while the war in the North is carried out by friends," Ulumi said. He declined to identify these individuals by name.

According to President Ashraf Ghani, a similar scenario is unfolding in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which shares a border with China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Last month, Ghani traveled to the region after 18 Afghan Army servicemen were killed by armed militants. Ten of the servicemen were beheaded.

During his trip to Badakhshan, the Afghan president said the war in the Jurm district of Badakhshan Province is a war for natural minerals and economic gains.

Kunduz Governor Omer Safi, who was appointed to his post last year, has pushed hard to increase security in the province.

But most of his efforts have been thwarted because his own provincial government has failed to support him, he says. Magnetic bomb explosions and kidnappings drastically increased after his arrival.

During his first days in office, Safi filed criminal proceedings against 12 police officers accused of having links to the Taliban.

He also tried to disarm paramilitary groups and prosecute individuals charged with criminal offenses but was repeatedly summoned to Kabul to explain his actions. He was eventually forced to suspend the disarmament process.

According to Safi, it was he who alerted Ulumi that local government officials are involved in the kidnappings and explosions taking place in Kunduz. During a meeting with local residents, he said the Taliban is using "the government’s own ammunition against it."

Apart from the security forces operating within the official government structure, two other groups enforce security in Kunduz: the local police, who are funded by the government, and paramilitaries who operate outside the structure of government institutions and collect protection pay from residents.

Some paramilitary groups receive weapons from the government to protect their villages against the Taliban. Occasionally, they join the Afghan security forces for military operations.

But this informal alliance is crumbling in Kunduz, where two major paramilitary groups have turned their guns against each other. The first is headed by Mohammad Omer Pakhsa Paran. A former Jihadi commander, Mir Alam, heads the other faction.

The rivalry between the two groups has led both parties to intermittently side with the government and the insurgency. The result is a lawless situation that draws ordinary farmers into the fray.

Abdul Bari, a resident of Kanum village, says that last year the paramilitaries blocked his irrigation channel. He repeatedly complained to the provincial authorities, but nobody listened.

"I become desperate, found a gun and started fighting the paramilitaries. As a result, I was labeled a Taliban operative," he said.

Bari emphasizes he is not a Taliban member, but obtained a gun out of desperation, because the government turned a deaf ear to his grievances. "Two years ago, the Taliban came to Kanum and killed 13 people in their houses, but no one asked about them," he recalls.

According to Kunduz security officials, at least 20 members of Afghan security forces and 210 Taliban operatives including several commanders were killed in last month's conflict.

The Taliban have been pushed back for now. They are not defeated or routed.

"If support had not arrived, the Taliban would have taken over the Imam Saheb district overnight," district chief Imam Din Quraishi said. "The war would have continued to rage on the outskirts of the city."