As the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies pursue a timeline for withdrawal for their forces in Afghanistan, fighting in the northern provinces has increased exponentially throughout the first half of 2015. In particular, fighting has been especially fierce in Badghis, Faryab, Balkh, Kunduz, and Badakhshan. These provinces all share borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, three Central Asian States.
Reflecting a growing concern in the Afghan national government, the intensity of the conflict was sufficient to inspire Afghan Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum to pledge his personal commitment to traveling to the front lines on a recent visit to Faryab.
On July 7, I participated in an interview with Voice of America’s Uzbek Service with journalist Odil Rusaliyev that covered the topic of potential militancy spillover from Afghanistan to the states of Central Asia. I addressed the rise of ISIS, the impact of the war in Syria on recruitment on the region, and the likelihood that recruitment of Islamist militants in Central Asia could threaten regimes and stability in the region. The audio for the interview is available here:
While the Islamic State (ISIS) has garnered most of the headlines in recent weeks, the group has for the most part been confined to operating in Nangarhar Province to the east. The extent to which ISIS has penetrated Afghanistan remains unknown. Speculation aside, no data collection yet provides a clear understanding of the size of ISIS-aligned insurgents.
Given the gaps in understanding the reach of ISIS into the country’s insurgency networks, many analysts have nonetheless assessed that much of the Afghanistan ISIS command structure appears to be comprised of disaffected leaders from local Taliban groups. Further, the fighter ranks could include both former Taliban as well as foreign fighters. This is all conjecture, however. While ISIS has raised its flag in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the group has any significant command of insurgent forces.
Summarized, the real strength of ISIS in Afghanistan and the group’s impact upon the war raging throughout the northern portions of the country remains largely unknown. Even with an increase in foreign fighters and the heightened profile of ISIS, the Taliban remain the foundation for the insurgency in Northern Afghanistan.
The North Simmers
In April, anti-Afghan government forces surged into the provincial capital of Kunduz, resulting in an ongoing pitched battle between Afghan National Security Forces and a myriad of Taliban-affiliated insurgent groups. The governor of the province noted in May that information had led the government to believe that ISIS-affiliated fighters were battling alongside the Taliban. As the government fought to recapture territory overrun by insurgents, insurgent forces reinforced their ranks. Attrition counts in the ranks of both government and insurgent forces have been significant. Two of the Central Asian states that share a border with Afghanistan continue to be threatened by increased militancy in Northern Afghanistan.
The Northeast: Afghanistan-Tajikistan Border
In Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan, an area which shares a border with Tajikistan, an increase in both Taliban forces and the re-location of foreign fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus has intensified the fight. The national government has deployed additional security forces in an effort to stem the tide threatening to overrun the province:
Security officials in Badakhshan said Wednesday that one of the main goals of insurgents in the area is to bring about the collapse of Warduj district in the northeastern province. In addition, the insurgency is being led by mostly Tajik and Chechen rebels, officials said.
Afghan National Army (ANA) operational commander Hamid Saifi has confirmed the existence of foreign fighters in Warduj, and said their main aim is to take control of the district. (TOLO News, July 1, 2015)
This past week, Badakhshan provincial governor Shah Wali Adib spoke out publicly as well, claiming that an increase in foreign fighters, particularly Tajiks and Chechens, has presented a significant destabilizing effect upon the province’s security during Eid:
He told TOLOnews on Friday that Chechen and Tajik fighters have settled with their families in parts of the province and are trying to pose a threat to Badakhshan security.
“As per reports that have reached us, foreign militants have decided to conduct heavy attacks during Eid days or after that in parts of Badakhshan, but the security forces in the province are ready for any kind of threat by rebels,” Adib noted. (TOLO News, July 17, 2015)
The intensified violence and increase in anti-government forces in border provinces has had a tangible effect upon the security landscape of neighboring Tajikistan. In May, the government in Dushanbe officially closed Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region to foreign tourism, a significant reflection of a growing threat of spillover from the militancy increasing in number and scope in Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan.
In May, FE/RL reporter Bruce Pannier, together with RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Mohammad Tahri, recently held a roundtable discussion on the contributions of Central Asian militants fighting in Afghanistan, particularly in the northern provinces that comprise Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan. You can listen to an audio file of that discussion here. Abubakar Siddique, author of “The Pashtun Question” and chief editor of RFE/RL’s Gandhara site, noted that the strategic goals of the foreign militants from Central Asia include the establishment of haven in Badakhshan Province:
As RFE/RL’s Siddique said, “They are looking for a new sanctuary in Afghanistan now and that’s why, there is, they’re trying to carve out a sanctuary in Badakhshan, which is strategically located close to Tajikistan, bordering Tajikistan and also Pakistan, and also in Kunduz.” (Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL, May 15, 2015)
Badakhshan has presented an increasingly difficult set of security problems for the Kabul government in recent years. Throughout most of the war in Afghanistan since the invasion of October 2001, Badakhshan remained relatively free of militant attacks. In August 2010, that relative peace was shattered with a high profile massacre of 10 aid workers in Badakhshan. The aid volunteers had spent the previous three weeks traveling through Nuristan Province while providing “…treating cataracts and other eye problems, they planned to conduct maternal and infant health and dental clinics in the valley, home to about 50,000 people.”
Nate Schenkkan, host of The Central Asianist Podcast, explored issues related to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in a recent discussion with Christian Bleuer, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. You can find that podcast available for download here.
However, in recent months the insurgency has begun in earnest in Badakhshan. As a result, the growing instability in Badakhshan has begun to threaten the security of Tajikistan to the north. In December, four Tajik border guards were captured by Taliban militants and taken to Badakhshan Province where they were held captive until their release was secured by Qatari intermediaries in June. The abduction of the guards inspired the Tajik government to establish new military outposts in Kulyob along the border it shares with Afghanistan in a “preventative capacity”.
Fears of increased instability in Badakhshan posing a threat to Tajikistan have grown over several years. The more recent reports of growing militant ranks in Badakhshan Province and the increased presence of Tajik and Chechen foreign fighters has given rise to fears in Tajikistan of a renewed militancy and potential spillover that could threaten the stability of the regime’s control over Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Gorno-Badakhshan played a central role in the insurgency which battled the Dushanbe regime for control of the country during a bloody civil war that raged from 1992-1997. In 2013, Igor Rotar noted the risk for The Jamestown Foundation:
Darvaz District in Tajikistani Badakhshan is probably the most vulnerable part of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. The Pyandzh River, which forms the border between the two countries, is narrow here and so it is comfortable for crossing. Unlike other parts of Tajikistan’s Upper Badakhshan region, the majority of the population of Darvaz District is Sunni Muslim (most Pamir people who live in the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan belong to the Ismaili sect of the Shia branch of Islam). During Tajikistan’s 1992–1997 civil war, Darvaz District and the Karategin Valley (which borders it) were a stronghold for the Islamic opposition. In 1999, an Islamic state was declared here. (Igor Rotar, The Jamestown Foundation, May 6, 2013)
Reflecting growing concern for the security of the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan, CSTO member states sent the heads of their respective military organizations to a meeting in Dushanbe this past April. The meeting was ostensibly held in order to discuss ways in which Tajikistan could be supported in strengthening military presence along the border the country shares with Afghanistan:
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that during the April 9 meeting, the heads of military delegations from the CSTO countries had “analyzed the challenges of military security in the CSTO’s collective security regions.”
“Particular attention was given to the current situation in Afghanistan with regard to the activities of the IS international terrorist organization,” the Defense Ministry said, according to official news agency RIA Novosti.
Tajikistan’s first deputy minister of defense, Zarif Sharifzoda, told reporters at a press conference following the meeting that the “main theme of discussion was the situation in Afghanistan and the activation of the so-called Islamic State and its influence on collective security in the CSTO countries.”
Sharifzoda said that the CSTO delegates had discussed various responses to the threat posed by IS in Afghanistan, including “the use of the [CSTO’s] collective forces.” (Joanna Paraszczuk, RFE/RL, April 9, 2015)
Additionally, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) exercises led by Russia and including the militaries of Tajikistan, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, have been held in Tajikistan and information related to operations has been passed from Tajikistan to Russia:
“Tajik special services are undertaking an array of preventative measures, using the reserves of the main directorate of the border service of Tajikistan, to strengthen the most vulnerable parts” of the border, the official added. “We’ve established close cooperation with colleagues from the CSTO, including Russians, for the exchange of operational information, we’re carefully gathering information about the goals of the concentration of fighters on the border with Tajikistan, their plans.” (Kucera, EurasiaNet.Org, January 8, 2015)
Northwest: The Afghanistan-Turkmenistan Border
Afghanistan’s northwestern border is only marginally less concerning than its provincial neighbors to the east. Reports of firefights between Turkmenistan’s security forces and militants crossing the border from Afghanistan into Turkmenistan have punctuated the threat facing Central Asia. Taliban fighters have been reported massing in Faryab Province in Northwestern Afghanistan, a province which shares a 462-mile (744 kilometer) long border with Turkmenistan. Maimana, the capital of Faryab Province, has been virtually overrun by Taliban, wresting control of the area from the government. In response, local militias have taken up arms against the Taliban but have thus far been unable to stem the tide of the insurgent advance.
Faryab represents important terrain along a drug trafficking route out of Afghanistan and into Iran and Central Asia. Reflections of the trafficking problem in particular are evident in the drug addiction problem wracking the Turkmenistan Army. The state of the Turkmenistan Army, an entity that comprises the entirety of the force standing in between militants in Afghanistan and freedom of movement over the border, is almost complete disarray:
The state of morale inside the military is horrendous, the analyst says. Drug use and even drug trafficking, especially in units along the Afghan and Iranian borders, are now endemic; suicides are frequent, forcing the regime to cover them up; and desertion has “acquired a mass character.” Drug abuse is now so serious, Mamedov says, that Ashgabat has set up a special “military section” in the government’s national drug treatment center. (Paul Goble, The Jamestown Foundation, March 2, 2015)
All of this portends poorly for the future of security along the border separating Afghanistan from its neighbors to the north.
What Lies Ahead?
The growing threat of militancy spillover, an issue I have written about extensively here at Foreign Intrigue, is being met almost unilaterally by an Afghan Army that, while motivated and improved since its rebirth under the tutelage of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partnering and training the last decade, is still in need of significant assistance both in financial and military terms. The withdrawal of international military forces has continued along a timeline that calls for the end of operations in 2016. However, as U.S. President Barack Obama adjusted the troop deployment numbers earlier this year to leave 9,800 in Afghanistan instead of the 4,500 previously slotted, the planned withdrawal will be affected in large measure by the approaching presidential election in the U.S. If Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) prove incapable of handling the growing threat in Afghanistan’s northern provinces without significant outside military assistance, the insurgency could catalyze another increase in the number CSTO military personnel stationed along the border in Tajikistan as well as affect yet another adjustment to the timeline for planned withdrawal of NATO forces.
(Featured photo courtesy of the United States Department of Defense: Afghan National Army Command Sgt. Maj. Safi Kefayatullah, center, the senior enlisted adviser to the commander of the 205th Corps, looks through a sight on a D-30 122 mm towed howitzer while visiting with soldiers before a live field artillery demonstration at Forward Operating Base Wolverine in Zabul province, Afghanistan, April 6, 2013.)
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