As the battle for the provincial capital of Kunduz continues between Taliban militants, backed by Central Asian fighters, and government forces, local residents trapped between the two warring factions are increasingly taking their security into their own hands.
Afghan forces have been fighting the Taliban’s spring offensive in most districts in Kunduz for the past eight weeks: Char Dara district, only a few kilometers from Kunduz city, was lost and retaken by both sides several times in May and June, with Afghan forces finally evicting the Taliban fighters who had been bunkered in the homes of local residents.
In the nearby village of Jangal, where skirmishes between U.S.-backed Afghan Local Police (ALP) and Taliban militants have been increasing, local residents are taking up arms to guarantee their security, adding to the proliferation of weapons in the region and the complicated web of alliances. Residents in the village have said the climate of insecurity has stoked old sectarian and tribal conflicts, fueling demand for weapons.
"I have had to borrow money to buy a gun because neither the the Taliban nor the Afghan forces can protect me,” says Abdul Raqeeb, the son of a mullah at the mosque in Jangal.
The price of an AK-47 in Kunduz has nearly tripled in the past eight weeks from 25,000 to nearly 70,000 afghani (approximately $1,150). A gun dealer in Kunduz, who preferred not to be named, says he now sells an average of 20 guns per day, twice as many as earlier this year.
The arms supplier told Afghanistan Today that rather than import guns like before, he now simply buys from fighters on all sides, creating a vicious circle in which weapons are recycled from one side to another.
Security officials in Kunduz confirm the increased demand for weapons. Sayeed Sarwar Husseini, the police spokesman in Kunduz Province, said they are working to stop any type of smuggling but that “given the deterioration of the security situation in the province, there should be a higher demand for weapons."
According to official statistics provided by the Kunduz police, there are 3,000 illegally armed individuals in Khan Abad district alone -- not including the guns people keep at home or guns held by the Taliban and other anti-government armed groups.
Authorities have not provided statistics on the number of guns in other districts, but if the figure in Khan Abad district is taken as a sample, there could be around 20,000 illegal guns in the outskirts of Kunduz city alone. Abdul Waris, a former military officer in Kunduz, estimates there are two guns for every family of five people.
The demand for weapons is not confined to Kunduz. Reports from the neighboring province of Baghlan also indicate a high number of people buying arms in anticipation of Taliban and other insurgents' attacks. Residents in northern provinces, including Balkh, have expressed concerns about the increase of Taliban activities post ISAF's departure in their area for several years now. Many elders have elected to arm their youth in response to the government's failure to send additional forces to protect their areas.
In Jalrez district of Wardak Province, just southwest of Kabul, a recent Taliban attack killed 16 to 30 members of a local police force. Subsequent fighting left at least more than a dozen civilians dead, some of whom were reportedly supporting the local police force. Local observers blame the central government for failing to send reinforcements to Jalrez as armed local residents ran out of ammunitions in the face of a heavy Taliban onslaught.
Child Suicide Bombers
In Kunduz, Governor Mohammad Omar Safi told reporters 20 children are being trained to become mine-planters and suicide bombers in Qala-e-Zal in Kunduz. With residents fearing that the Taliban’s spring offensive will gather pace after Ramadan, the race to arm-up is a self-perpetuating cycle.
While some families are buying weapons to protect their own homes, in poorer districts many families have pooled their savings to form local militias and arm them to protect their families.
Jameel, Ibrahim, and Gul Deen are three young men in Jelga village who have been selected to provide security for their homestead. Neither the Taliban nor government forces paid much attention to the district, creating an opportunity for thieves, who soon began to terrorise the small rural settlement, Jameel says.
After the escalation of armed robberies, Jameel says, the people of the village selected him and his two colleagues to protect the village in return for money.
Two elders interviewed in Jangal village say their region has also descended into a haven for outlaws because of the opportunities afforded to criminals by the dire security situation. Theft and looting by random parties has increased.
“People now pick up a gun to deal with any issue, even minor, knowing they can always blame the Taliban for it,” said one of the elders, who asked not to be named.
Abdul Waris says residents are forced to rely on their own weapons since the government cannot guarantee their security. A source close to the Taliban says the militant factions have taken a break to collect religious taxes but that the villages can expect to see a more concerted offensive again soon. Local farmers, meanwhile, have also been warned by the Taliban to plant their seeds and to expect further Taliban campaigns.