As Afghanistan braces for the withdrawal of international forces this year, Taliban-backed radicals from Central Asia are mobilizing to fill the vacuum and make a comeback.
Officials and observers say that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has established sanctuaries in the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan after years of bonding with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the Pakistan side of the border.
The sanctuaries hint at the IMU’s ambitions
to return to its place of origin in Central Asia, and raise questions about the Afghan government's ability to protect its territory.
Officials in Badakhshan, which borders Tajikistan, report that the Central Asian militants along with Chechens, Pakistanis and Afghan insurgents have penetrated into the province’s mountainous districts of Warduj, Yumgan and Jurm.
Noor Aqa Naderi, the district governor of Jurm, told RFE/RL’s Afghan service that the IMU militants have extended their sway since international forces handed over Badakhshan to Afghan security forces last year, leaving a weakened provincial government.
According to Naderi, ethnic Uzbeks, Chechen and Pakistani fighters are running guerilla training camps in many villages of Jurm. They are keen on recruiting locals, and are teaching them how to make roadside bombs and conduct ambushes to kill community leaders and Afghan security forces.
"Out of almost 90,000 residents of Jurm district, only some 25,000 thousand live in regions administered by the government," he said. "The rest live under the control of the [armed] opposition to the government."
"If this lasts until spring, when the snow melts and movement between mountain communities becomes easier,” he added, "some other Badakhshan districts might fall into insurgent hands."
Nawroz Mohammad Haidari, administrator of Yumgan, another Badakhshan district, also fears the return of the IMU and the Taliban. "As the main government representative my life is in danger, and so are the lives of other prominent figures and residents of my district," he said.
Haidari said that the IMU fighters are battle-hardened in Pakistan's tribal areas and are experts in using guerilla tactics, such as roadside bombs.
Javed Kohistani, a security analyst and former general, told RFE/RL that the movement is closely tied to Al-Qaida and has regional ambitions.
Uzbekistan's intelligence service is actively engaged in northern Afghanistan to prevent the IMU from building a base to project power into Central Asia.
According to Kohistani, "Currently, the IMU fighters are not operating overtly," so as to elude Afghan and Uzbek intelligence. "They operate within the ranks of Afghan Taliban
along with Afghan Uzbeks and Hazaras and pose as Afghans," he said.
Kohistani believes the IMU is bent on trying to establish an Islamic Caliphate across Central Asia, and traces the idea and the coalescence of the IMU and the Taliban around it to the growth of madrasas in northern Afghanistan.
"The idea originates from [hard line] Pakistani madrasas. Everyone who studies there serves as a religious teacher after returning to Afghanistan and embraces the same ideology," he says.
"These clerics are allies of extremists who have come from Central Asia and have joined the Taliban because they too were exposed to the same ideology in [Pakistani] religious schools."
Mufti Siraaj, a radical cleric, runs Asraful Madaress, the biggest Islamic seminary in the northeast province of Kunduz.
Siraaj was educated in Pakistan and Iran in the 1980s, and now educates some 6,000 girls and nearly 300 boys. Recent media reports suggest that the school is promoting Islamic extremism by campaigning against television viewing, taking pictures and listening to music. It advocates veils for women and teaches against work and secular education for girls.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Siraaj denied links to militancy and insisted that his school only promotes religious observance. He also denied links to foreign religious networks and said that the madrasa was financed by local donations.
Kohistani disagrees, pointing out that the IMU established a number of madrasas in northern Afghanistan during the Taliban reign in the 1990s. "It is highly likely that the movement is involved in funding these radical schools," he said. "The movement benefits from its close links to some Sheiks in Saudi Arabia and the links between the Uzbeks of Central Asia and northern Afghanistan's Uzbek communities."
Given Saraaj’s background, Attaul Rahman Babur, an analyst in Kunduz, also believes the school may receive foreign funding.
Babur also attributed the strength of the extremists to failures in governance. "Inadequate schooling, joblessness, corruption in the government and the judiciary and inability to establish security -- all these factors have paved the way for the Taliban and their foreign allies to entrench themselves here."