November 23, 2007
While the attention of the Afghan government and the media is focused on major battles in the south of the country, the Taliban are making major headway in a northern region.
Badghis, a north-western province wedged between Herat and Faryab, has been the scene of heavy fighting for the past two months, and the insurgents have occupied three of the province's seven districts. They have also established intelligence and operational networks in most district centers.
This was the first of the north-western provinces to fall to the Taliban in 1997. Now the insurgents are looking to repeat their earlier success, using Badghis as a launch pad for operations in the provinces further east, which include Jowzjan, Balkh, Takhar and Badakhshan.
In Faryab, directly to the north of Badghis, the Taliban have established a foothold in mountainous areas, and are trying to expand their networks there as well. The Taliban have launched several sorties in both provinces in the past two months and claim that the Bala Murghab, Ghormach and Qades districts of Badghis are largely in their hands.
"We are trying to open up this route just as we did in the past," said Mullah Dastagir, a self-proclaimed Taliban commander in Badghis. "Our policy is different up here. We have openly engaged the government and foreign forces in the south, but in the north we are quietly expanding our area. The government is weaker here than in the south and the mountains have provided good terrain for our operations."
Dastagir claimed that the Taliban were in control of many mountainous parts of Badghis.
"We would like to occupy the province right away, since the capital [Qala-ye Nau] and some of the districts are still under government control. We could do it in one single attack, but we are waiting for a larger operation. Our strategy is to go for many provinces at once," he said.
The Taliban are increasing their military presence in the area and will soon be ready for action, said Dastagir, adding, "We are trying to work under cover now, and we see that people are welcoming us warmly. Soon we will occupy the whole entrance to the north."
The Taliban attacked Badghis' Bala Murghab district on 20 September, in a three-hour battle that left four policemen and 20 insurgents dead. Two days later, the Taliban attacked Qaisar, a district in Faryab, resulting in the capture of an insurgent commander known as Rassulak.
On 25 September, a police vehicle hit a roadside mine in the Ghormach district of Badghis, killing three and injuring four. Officials blamed the insurgents. When a helicopter belonging to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) crashed in Ghormach the same day, the Taliban claimed responsibility. Also that day, a Chinese road construction company worker was kidnapped by the insurgents in the Qaisar district.
Afghan government forces launched a counter-offensive in the Ghormach and Bala Murghab districts, and official reports put the death toll among the Taliban at more than 20. The rebels denied this.
The governor of Badghis, Ashraf Naseri, denies that the Taliban are gaining ground in his province.
"The Taliban's claims that they have captured mountainous areas show that they are weak," he told IWPR. "They cannot fight on flat terrain; they hide out in the mountains where normal people don't live."
But officials in Faryab confirm that the Taliban are making headway.
"Yes, they are coming to us through Badghis," said General Khalilullah Ziayee, Faryab's security commander. "They are trying to attract people to their side."
The general insisted that the north would not go the way of the south, where the insurgents control large swathes of territory.
"The Taliban do not have military operations in this province they way they do in the south," he continued. "They are acting covertly, gathering intelligence. Sometimes they carry out attacks on motorbikes, just to show that they are active here.
"Our mountainous areas like Qaisar, Almar and Kohistan are becoming vulnerable. We have expanded our operational and intelligence activities. We have increased our forces in some particularly exposed areas and have even sent forces to Ghormach district to help the Badghis police. The Taliban cannot operate freely."
But residents of Badghis and other northern provinces say that the Taliban now exert an influence that is felt in their daily lives.
"The Taliban have reached the area," said Fazel Rahman, a resident of Bala Murghab district. "It is not important how many buildings are under the government's control. The Taliban are present in the villages and many people have joined them. Unemployment and the government's failure to help people have resulted in this situation - the Taliban are getting stronger by the day."
According to Fazel, clashes between the Taliban and government forces most often result in victory for the insurgents.
"The police just return to their bases after the fighting, but the Taliban remain to spread their message among the people," he said. "The government knows exactly where the Taliban are concentrated, but they cannot do anything; they just watch as the Taliban gain ground."
The Afghan government, backed by NATO, has recently deployed more forces in Badghis to combat the Taliban's growing influence. Brigadier General Dieter Warnecke, the NATO commander for the northern region, confirmed that the Taliban have established small centers in the north-western part of Afghanistan from which to launch their operations.
Speaking at a press conference in September, he said the Taliban have set up camps in Faryab where they plan attacks on other parts of the north.
"According to our information, Pakistan and Iran play a significant role in establishing and developing these centers in north-western parts of Afghanistan," he said. "For this reason, Faryab has become a trouble-spot for us."
Satar Barez, the deputy governor of Faryab province, agreed with the NATO commander's assessment.
"Currently the army, police and NATO forces have been deployed in Faryab, particularly in Qaisar district," he said. "This is the only thing that can prevent the further expansion of the Taliban."
He insisted the Taliban forces here consisted largely of mercenaries and foreign fighters, and not local recruits.
"People in this region will not cooperate with these Taliban," he said.
But many people are not optimistic about the government's attempts to stop the insurgents' forward advance here.
Maulawi Sheikh Ahmad, a member of parliament from Faryab province, blames the international troops for the Taliban expansion.
"It is the presence of foreign forces that has caused an increase in the number of Taliban," he said, speaking at the funeral of a former militia commander in late October. "In the past, there were no foreigners and no Taliban. Now that foreigners have come into the region, the Taliban have followed. The foreigners have provoked them, and this will result in people joining hands with the Taliban. Our people do not have good memories of foreign operations in the south and the east."
Political observers believe the high concentration of NATO and Afghan forces in Badghis and Faryab is evidence that the government is taking the threat seriously.
"The government's statements that they have increased their deployment of NATO and Afghan troops in Badghis and Faryab show that the Taliban have a lot of influence in these provinces," said Qayum Babak, an editor and analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif. "Up until now, the government has been underestimating the threat."
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif. This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).