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Why The Taliban Is Sweeping Northern Afghanistan


Civilians and former mujahedin volunteers mobilized against the Taliban onslaught in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz in May.

The lightning speed with which the Taliban has overrun large swathes of rural territories in Afghanistan’s north has shocked locals and surprised foreign observers with some worrying whether the internationally recognized government in Kabul can weather the storm.

But the speed of the Taliban’s advances has everyone asking how a group composed of ragtag militants could overrun dozens of districts in eight strategic provinces that share borders with Afghanistan’s neighbors: Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.

“People are asking how so many districts can fall [into the hands of the Taliban] without a fight and all the [government] resources and equipment left intact,” said Abdul Hafeez Faroozan, a government employee in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which was feared to become the first province to fall into Taliban hands last week. “People are terrified.”

The fighting escalated in northern Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of some 10,000 international troops began on May 1. In the past three weeks alone, the Taliban has overrun scores of districts and has virtually overtaken most trade routes, border crossings, and major roads in the region, prompting Afghanistan’s neighbors to assemble troops and turn to regional powers for help. The Taliban now claims to control some 100 districts in northern Afghanistan in addition to 85 districts elsewhere.

The militants’ success in the north is even more surprising considering the region offered some of the toughest resistance to the Taliban after its emergence as a student militia in the southern province of Kandahar in the mid-1990s that went on to sweep southern and southeastern Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance, a coalition of various factions primarily comprising ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazars, fought the Taliban in the 1990s. It prevented the group from overrunning Badakhshan, Takhar, and Panjshir provinces, where a rival government mainly backed by India, Russia, and Iran fought hard against the Taliban, which was supported by Pakistan.

The Taliban regime quickly collapsed following the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, but the group reemerged as an insurgency in 2003. In the following years, most of its attacks were limited to southern and eastern provinces along the country’s border with Pakistan.

By 2010, the militants had returned to northern Afghanistan and were carrying out attacks in the region, gaining some rural territories.

Tamim Asey, a former Afghan deputy defense minister, says the Taliban is now concentrating on northern Afghanistan to prevent the reemergence of the resistance it faced there in the 1990s.

Asey says the Taliban also wants to choke Kabul by depriving it of important revenues, trade routes, and resources in the north, which is connected to central and eastern Afghanistan by a Soviet-built road and tunnel network that is a key trade artery for trade with Central Asia. The northwestern province of Herat connects Afghanistan to Iran and Turkmenistan through vital border crossings.

“The Taliban concentrated on this strategic region because it generates vital revenues,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan, adding that divisions among the region’s strongmen paved the way for the Taliban’s advances.

Conspiracy And Civil War

Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former vice president and communist-era ethnic Uzbek military strongmen, has long competed for influence with Atta Mohammad Noor, a former Tajik commander of the Jamiat-e Islami political party. In recent weeks, the two have mobilized armed supporters to fight the Taliban.

“There is a real possibility of a civil war. This is a very dangerous possibility,” Noor said in an interview with the Associated Press last week.

Dostum, who is currently undergoing medical treatment in Turkey, says there’s a conspiracy behind the quick fall of northern territories.

“All districts [and] tanks were handed over to the Taliban without resistance. I don’t know what the plan is,” he was quoted as saying by Afghanistan’s Tolo TV late last month. He has vowed to return to the battlefield. “We will return to the north. It is our home. I was raised there…I would be proud to be killed and martyred there,” he said.

Like elsewhere in Afghanistan, however, the region is rife with rivalries, vendettas, and disputes, some of which the Taliban exploited to attract volunteers to its cause of fighting the international military presence and overthrowing the Western-backed government in Kabul.

Amrullah Aman, a former Afghan Army general, says the popular uprising that has seen saw civilians and former combatants take up arms against the Taliban prompted the group to hasten its offensive in the region. He also criticized Afghanistan’s neighbors for trying to cut separate deals with the Taliban to protect their countries from the possible fallout of Taliban victories along their borders.

“I want to warn the regional countries of disastrous consequences if they remain indifferent to [our plight] here,” he told Radio Azadi. “The region could face instability for a long time.”

Sher Mohammad Karimi, a former commander-in-chief for the Afghan Army, says the Taliban is pursuing a strategy to win.

“The militants are increasing the tempo of their attacks wherever they see success,” he told Radio Azadi. “Fighting is going on everywhere in Afghanistan, but it is more pronounced in the north because the Taliban is focused on this region.”

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, however, is refusing to concede that the Taliban has overrun dozens of rural districts in northern Afghanistan. He told journalists last week that a lack of timely reinforcements and supplies prompted some units to abandon their places, which encouraged the Taliban to capture posts and offices -- which does not equal capturing entire districts.

“Our forces are on the offensive in many districts, and we have recaptured some 14 districts during the past few weeks,” he said.

The Taliban has been quick to claim victory. Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman, said the group’s forces are advancing everywhere.

The Taliban appears confident in its ability to claim the victory that some Afghans say was handed to the militants by the departure of international forces. The movement’s military gains in Afghanistan are also bolstered by the apparent willingness of regional countries to engage them in an effort to protect themselves from the turmoil in Afghanistan.

  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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