A northern Afghan province is being ravaged by armed gangs some of whom were once involved with providing security to reconstruction projects in the region.
Residents of Faryab complain that illegal armed groups are a threat to their life, liberty, and honor as they perpetrate grave human rights abuses such as assassinations, rape, and arbitrary detentions.
These groups have also carved out a small criminal empire by patronizing kidnappings-for-ransom, extortion, and drug smuggling in the remote province bordering Turkmenistan.
Officials in Faryab confirm that the armed gangs now control large swaths of the the mountainous region whose nearly one million residents eke out a living in agriculture, carpet weaving, and herding.
Ghulam Sakhi Naveed, a member of Faryab’s provincial council, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA) that the illegal armed bands are more dangerous than the Taliban. "The Taliban presence only risks people's lives," he said. "But illegal armed groups constantly threaten people’s lives, honor and economic well-being.
Naveed added that the the armed gangs are active among the ethnic Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen communities that constitute the vast majority of Faryab residents. "They have unregistered weapons and no uniforms but operate with complete impunity," he said.
Habibullah Waseeq, a public prosecutor in Faryab, said that authorities are unable to deal with the armed gangs despite hundreds of complaints from the region's residents. "These illegal armed groups have even attacked the police and freed suspects arrested for committing serious crimes," he said.
Residents claim that armed bands are rapidly extending their control in eight of the province’s 15 districts. Almar, Pashtun Kot, Qaisar, Kohistan, Gorzaiwan, Khwaja Sabz Posh, Bilchiragh and Shirin Tagab are the districts where the illegal gunmen are strongest.
A resident of Kohistan district, who asked not to be named, told RFA that residents of his region have suffered badly at the hands of the armed groups. "They often mistreat and even punish civilians." he said. "They shot dead an innocent old man in front of his wife a few days ago, which scared people, and now we are very worried about our future."
Turf wars and violence among the armed gangs are frequent in the absence of a unified leadership. In recent weeks, intense infighting forced hundreds of families to leave their homes in the Pashtun Kot district.
Amir Khan, a resident of Pashtun Kot, was recently forced to seek shelter in Faryab's capital city, Maimana. "One evening when we were at home, we suddenly heard gun shots," he said. "Soon the attackers started firing rockets and set homes on fire. We barely escaped."
Another Pashtun Kot resident, who requested anonymity, said people are terrified. "People are being treated like servants by these gangs," he said.
He added that while three men are widely believed in Faryab to be among the province's most influential gang leaders, residents and local officials are too scared to share more details about their background and operations.
Ahmad Jawed Bedar, the spokesman for Faryab’s governor, told RFA that 80 percent of Pashtun Kot residents have fled because of intimidation by illegal armed groups.
Provincial intelligence chief Mohammad Naeem Andarabi told RFA that many members and leaders of Faryab's armed gangs were previously employed by foreign companies to guard their convoys and secure projects.
Andrabi said that many powerful groups known for violence and brutality are not ready to hand over their weapons, which include rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, and mortars.
He said that authorities have already launched a crackdown against the gangs. "We have acted on some of the 50 official complaints we have received about illegal armed groups this year," he said.
But Faryab residents worry that the proliferation of armed gangs endangers the modest progress made in the province during the past decade. "Even the police is afraid of them," one resident said.