Battle for Faryab: Fighting intensifies on one of Afghanistan’s major frontlines
Author: Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig
An intense battle is under way near the city of Maimana, the capital of Faryab. In this northern province, the Taleban gained control over a majority of districts over 2017, including all of those close to the provincial capital, which is practically under siege. They also threaten the national ring road and important provincial roads. Government and international troops are currently trying to push the insurgents away from the city, in order to deny them the propaganda victory of taking it over. Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig, looking at the situation on the ground, conclude that a lot of prestige is at stake for both sides on one of the major Afghan fronts.
Government forces and their international allies have started a counter-offensive against the Taleban in Faryab, one of the most contested provinces in the country. For the first time since 2014, those deployed, Janat Gul Karokhel, a spokesman of the local Afghan army corps, told the BBC Persian service included “dozens” of foreign soldiers. Karokhel said the first group already on the ground consisted of 60 soldiers but that their total number could soon reach 300. Those soldiers, he said, would both “take part in combat and advising.” This indicated that both forces under Resolute Support and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel are present. Karokhel also said that ten out of 15 district centres of Faryab were under “serious threat” from insurgents.
The counter-offensive came after alarm calls were sounded, including from the provincial council, which even warned that the provincial capital Maimana, whose population (according to several sources) is between 75,000 and 150,000, could fall to the insurgents. However serious the Taleban threat actually is, the fact that the Afghan government and NATO are rushing extra troops to Faryab is a sign that the general security situation in this Uzbek-majority province is critical and that they worry the capture Maimana – according to the Afghan government’s 2015 “State of the Afghan Cities” report one of the 12 most important urban areas in the country – could hand the Taleban a propaganda victory.
Fighting has been raging in various districts in February and early March, such as Shirin Tagab and Khwaja Sabzposh, both adjacent to Maimana, and along the road linking Maimana with Andkhoi, the second largest city in Faryab. Government forces claimed on 6 March that they had killed the Taleban shadow district governor of Shirin Tagab, to the immediate north of Maimana. At the same time, insurgent activity was reported as stepping up in Khwaja Sabzposh, Daulatabad and Qurgan districts. On 15 February, government forces recaptured several police posts outside of Qaisar district centre that Taleban had overrun earlier that day.
On 7 March, local government security officials and a spokesman for the provincial police claimed that Zabih Ghazi, the Taleban shadow governor for Faryab, had been killed during an operation in Shirin Tagab district. The Taleban quickly denied this statement on the same day.
At least since January 2018, the Afghan Air Force has intensified airstrikes in the province (see media report here). The province had already seen a large number of Afghan forces air strikes with significant numbers of civilian casualties in 2017 (more about this below).
How the Taleban spread in 2017
The Taleban have gained significant ground against the government in almost each of the 15 districts of the province over the past one and a half years. Currently, they control large parts of nine districts, according to local journalists: Shirin Tagab, Khwaja Sabzposh, Dawlatabad, Pashtun Kot, Almar, Qaisar, Belcheragh, Kohistan and Gurziwan. There, according to local journalists, government forces only control the district centres and a few nearby villages in each of these districts. A tenth district, Ghormach, which originally belonged to Badghis province, has been under their full control since August 2017. It has changed hands several times in recent years (see AAN reporting here). The remaining four districts in the province – Andkhoi, Khan Chahr Bagh, Qurghan and Qaramqul – are relatively calm and Taleban activities limited to far-flung areas. The fifteenth district is the contested provincial capital, Maimana. (1)
Shirin Tagab, Khwaja Sabzposh, Pashtun Kot and Belcheragh almost fully encircle the provincial capital Maimana, while to the east, Darzab and Qush Tepa districts in neighbouring Jawzjan province are fully controlled by a former Taleban and now self-declared pro-ISKP commander, Qari Hekmat (see the latest AAN update on him here). Hekmat’s armed group, however, has not shown any sign of planning to expand beyond Jawzjan’s borders.
Around the provincial capital, the Taleban have ousted the Afghan security forces from several strategic locations after intensive attacks from August 2017 onwards, according to local civil society activists. They say the Taleban presence is apparent just three kilometres outside the provincial centre. As a result, a large number of pro-government militia forces and Afghan Local Police (ALP) are under a quasi-siege in Maimana. This situation puts the city under immediate threat.
The largest Taleban presence is in Pashtun Kot, a district to the immediate south of the provincial capital. It is strategically important as it holds a hydro-electric power dam that also provides drinking water to Maimana. The presence of pro-government security forces – including commando forces – is limited to the area of Sar-e Hawz, which they have been besieged for the past two months. Afghan media reported that there were 40 commandos there who were without food and water (here).
The Taleban have also established a strong presence along the crucial northern highway that is part of the national ring road (see AAN report here), which connects Mazar-e Sharif in the north with Herat in the west. There, the insurgents regularly establish mobile check points searching vehicles and seeking out government employees and members of the security forces. In late November 2017, they blocked the highway in Khwaja Sabzposh district for several days, before local elders successfully persuaded them to reopen it. The road between Maimana and Andkhoi has also repeatedly been disturbed (see media report here). Local civil society activists said that the last time a Taleban checkpost was reported there was on 5 March 2018.
Some conflict history
Over the past two years, Faryab has become one of the most active fronts in the countrywide war between the Taleban and the government and its allies. However, the Faryab conflict has been brewing for more than a decade. Ingredients adding to the unstable mix include, initially, factional conflicts between Jamiat and Jombesh, later, conflict between Jombesh and the central government, and a rearming of local commanders; corruption and a lack of coordination among the local security forces; the growing influence of conservative local madrassas fostered by certain factions, particularly among the Uzbek population and; insurgent infiltration from Badghis, with Taleban commanders exploiting local land and water conflicts as leverage to try to persuade elements of the population to join them. As early as 2007, Taleban training camps and assassinations of pro-government figures were reported in Qaisar district.
More recently, according to an article by Deedee Derksen, who is watching irregular armed forces in Afghanistan, the Taleban have also found “willing recruits among Uzbek madrassa students and men that had fought with [the Taleban] in the 1990s.” According to her, the Taleban have been reinforced by commanders who were mobilised by First Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum in 2015 and 2016 for anti-Taleban popular uprising groups and whose funding dried up after he fell into dispute with President Ashraf Ghani (background in this AAN analysis). Derksen writes that “in five of Faryab’s districts, former Jombesh commanders reportedly fight in the Taliban’s ranks” and gives examples from Qaysar, Kohistan and Almar.
Civilians have, of course, paid a heavy price for this conflict. In its annual civilian casualties reportfor 2017, UNAMA ranked Faryab as the province with the fifth-highest civilian casualty rate. The total numbers killed and injured increased in 2017 compared to 2016, bucking a nationwide downward trend. UNAMA also reported that Faryab was among the three provinces that recorded “significant increases in civilian deaths and injuries from ground fighting“ (by 27 per cent, following an increase in 2016, again contrary to the trend nationally). UNAMA also said it was among the five provinces (no other ranking) with the highest total in this category (having been third-highest in 2016). It also suffered “the highest number of aerial operations by the Afghan Air Force causing civilian casualties” in 2017. UNAMA also recorded that “most of the civilian casualties attributed to pro-Government armed groups” occurred in Faryab in both 2016 and 2017.
In 2016, UNAMA had reported that Faryab was also among the three provinces most affected by conflict-related displacement and suffered the highest number of abductions of civilians by irregular pro-government armed groups.
In 2018, the suffering of Faryabi civilians continued. The Kabul-based Pajhwok news agency which compiles monthly statistics on the conflict said that in February it was among the six most badly war-effected provinces of the country and suffered the fourth-highest casualty rate (not specified, but apparently including civilians and fighters from all sides).
Conflict among local pro-government forces
Recently again, the presence of nominally pro-government armed groups in the provincial centre, and outbreaks of violent conflict between them, local journalists told AAN, has further weakened the defence of the province. Rival commanders make mutual accusations of assassination plots and targeted killings. This has increased the fear among locals that the provincial centre might fall into Taleban hands.
The latest of such incidents was reported on 18 February 2018, when around a hundred fighters belonging to Nezamuddin Qaisari, the head of the provincial popular uprising (khezesh-e mardomi) forces and a member of Dostum’s Jombesh party besieged those loyal to a rival commander, MP Fathullah Qaisari, who belongs to Jamiat-e Islami, at Maimana airport and tried to detain him over an alleged assassination plot. Eventually, after local elders and the Faryab governor mediated and the Afghan military stepped in, both sides calmed down (read media report here). The Jombesh-related group also belongs to those forces mobilised to take action against Taleban in 2015 and 2016 by Dostum.
Dispute among the Taleban
At the same time, there have also been tensions within Taleban ranks. Their recruitment policy – since 2009 – has been to allow Uzbek fighters to lead the militancy in this Uzbek-majority province (see AAN’s previous analysis here). This, however, has created tension between Pashtun and non-Pashtun commanders in some parts of Faryab, according to sources close to Taleban, even though the provincial Taleban leadership is mixed. Shadow governor, Mufti Muzafar, is an Uzbek from neighbouring Sar-e Pul province while his deputy Mullah Jawed, is a Pashtun from Qaisar district.
According to an Uzbek Taleban commander in Faryab, “some Pashtun Taleb commanders ignore the Uzbek shadow provincial governor’s instructions.” To prevent further tensions, Mufti Muzafar, the shadow provincial governor, has instructed the fighters under his command to operate only in their own areas and not carry out joint, large-scale offensives against government security forces. This may prevent the Taleban from pulling together large numbers of fighters in any single operation, but also has strategic benefits as it aims at spreading the fight over as much of the province at the same time as possible.
As well as local Taleban, and operating in alliance with them, a small group from the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) also fights in Faryab. IJU regularly releases high quality videos through its official Facebook pages, known as al-Sadeqin.
The province of Faryab continues to feature as one of the most active battlefronts in Afghanistan. It is also the most active one in the northwest of the country. It has an astonishingly widespread Taleban presence, including near the provincial capital Maimana, which is under a quasi-siege. If, as some locals fear, the Taleban managed to capture this important commercial hub, even if only temporarily, it would hand them a new propaganda victory. This would be not much less important than their temporary capture of Kunduz in 2015 (see AAN analysis here).
This threat would explain the latest government forces’ counteroffensive in the province. This offensive has also brought western troops back to this battlefield and is apparently designed to relieve Maimana of the immediate threat. The fighting, that had already been intensifying over 2017, has had a severe impact on the civilian population, including forcing substantial numbers of people to leave their homes. The presence of unruly paramilitary pro-government forces with unreliable loyalty only contributes to the population’s feelings of insecurity, while, at the same time, those groups’ unreliable loyalties contribute to strengthening the insurgency.
Edited by Kate Clark
(1) The latest US military assessment for Faryab, published by the US Special Inspector of the Government for Afghanistan’s Reconstrution (see here) and reflecting the situation in October 2017, categorises Almar, Kohistan and Qaisar districts as under “INS influence” (ie Taleban-dominated); Belcheragh, Gurziwan, Khwaja Sabz Posh, Pashtun Kot and Shirin Tagab are called “contested”; and Andkhoi, Dawlatabad, Khn Chahr Bagh, Maimana, Qaramqul, Qurghan, are counted as under “GIRoA influence” (controlled by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan).
Also Ghormach is labeled as under “INS influence” but still listed under Badghis province.