The 2015 Insurgency in the North: Case studies from Kunduz and Sar-e Pul provinces

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Author: Obaid Ali
Date: 4 June 2015

Kunduz and Sar-e Pul have both been staging grounds for the Taleban’s first major onslaughts of the ‘spring offensive’ that they launched in late April – the first under massive public scrutiny, the second a lesser-known example of the same dynamics. In both provinces, the insurgents managed to get close to the provincial centres, at times threatening to take them over. For this dispatch, AAN’s Obaid Ali has looked more closely at two specific areas within the provinces – Gortepa in Kunduz and Sheramha in Sar-e Pul, both in close proximity to the respective provincial centres. He describes how the Taleban approached their military operations against the Afghan National Security forces (ANSF), detailing not-yet discussed factors that contributed to their success – such as the insurgents’ skilful use of psychological warfare, the Afghan military’s misjudgements or local powerbrokers’ unwilling opening of avenues for the Taleban’s usurpation of districts.

The Taleban started fighting in the north some time before the announcement of their annual ‘spring offensive’ on 24 April. In Kunduz, our first case study, clashes between government forces and insurgents have been reported from the districts of Imam Saheb, Chahrdara, Dasht-e Archi and Qala-ye Zal, since 22 April. The start of the ‘spring offensive’ only intensified the fighting. AAN has already described the recent clashes in the province in its last Kunduz dispatch (see here and for all Kunduz dispatches our thematic dossier here). The Gortepa offensive, however, is worth a second look as it shows how the Taleban approached and planned a rather brazen offensive, successfully played out in proximity to the province’s centre.

Gortepa is part of Kunduz’ capital city, an area only 15 kilometres northwest of the city’s centre. Locals call it the “gateway to Kunduz.” It borders the districts of Imam Saheb to the west, Qala-ye Zal to the north and Chahrdara to the south. Ethnically, Gortepa is mixed, with Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks and a smaller minority of Arabs (1), the latter living in 40 to 50 villages. Having a strong base here helps facilitate insurgents’ movements within the wider province. At the same time, the proximity to the provincial centre enhances their ability to quickly and effectively target crucial central administration and security facilities.

This is just what they did during their first major operation of 2015, starting only two days after the spring offensive declaration. Before stabbing at Kunduz city, the Taleban first took on the security forces in Gortepa. In the initial stages, they chose the village of Mahsud Zubair as their target. According to Nurullah, an ALP commander stationed in that village, the Taleban, led by commander Mawlawi Shamsuddin from Chahrdara, supported by local sub-commanders, attacked at eight in the morning. Shortly after, according to Nurullah, “most of the state security bases were surrounded.” By seven in the evening, all security forces – Afghan National Police (ANP), Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan Local Police (ALP) and Nazm-e ‘Ama (the Afghan National Civil Order Police) – had fled, and the Taleban issued a statement that they were in control. They had also taken over the Gortepa villages of Khan Shirin, Waziri, Gultepa-ye Awal and Goltepa-ye Dowom, Tapa-ye Burida and Chahrdarachi.

His own ALP men, said commander Nurullah, held their position until nightfall; then they, too, gave up. It was a windy night, he said, and this helped the men to crawl to a nearby forest and flee to Asqalan village, and then cross the river towards Pul-e Archin close to the provincial centre.

Speaking to AAN, three other ALP commanders in Gortepa presented a similar picture. Asked for the reasons for their defeat, they cited “shortage of weapons and ammunition and a lack of support by the local government.” Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, spokesman of the provincial police, confirmed that the ALP had not been equipped well enough to defeat the Taleban. “The light weapons of the ALP are not eligible for fierce fighting,” he said. He also said, though, that before the operation in Gortepa, on 10 April, a larger number of the ANSF from Kunduz had been deployed to Badakhshan to beat back the Taleban in Jurm district. This, however, can only be called a massive misjudgement on the part of the security forces, as an imminent surge of the Taleban in this crucial area of Kunduz province was not only to be suspected, but information about it was already readily available, as elders told AAN.

Insurgents, rather skilfully using psychological warfare, had started spreading messages about their strength some time before the attack on Gortepa. They also spread news about a major attack to be launched soon. As a result, as elders from Gortepa confirmed to AAN, some ALP commanders had already left their bases in the night before the Taleban offensive.

Locals against ALP

ALP commanders described the reality on the ground differently. Some told AAN they believed the local population sheltered and supported the Taleban. These concerns have been mostly raised by those ALP commanders who came into Gortepa from other districts and hail from different ethnic groups (the deployment of ‘outsiders’ has created ethnic tensions not only in Gortepa (more here). Gul Ahmad, for example, an ALP commander in Shinwari village in the Gortepa area, a former Jamiat commander and an ethnic Tajik who hails from Chahrdara district, accused the – predominantly Pashtun – locals of not supporting the ALP. According to him, 50 per cent of the locals offered shelter to the Taleban. Those who had attacked the ALP bases in Shinwari, he said, “were local Taleban from the same village.” They even imprisoned 23 ALP soldiers for two weeks in their own town. Local elders had to intervene and get the assurance of the prisoners that they would leave the ALP; only then they were released.

Gul Ahmad himself does not want to return to Shinwari village. “It is impossible for an outsider to ensure security there,” he told AAN.

Until today, most of Gortepa is under Taleban control. The local government, on 2 May, asked the residents to evacuate ahead of a clearance operation it was reportedly planning. Hundreds of families were displaced to the capital, Kunduz. However, Muhammad Shafiq, a local farmer in Gortepa, told AAN in mid-May that it has “now already been almost two weeks” since he, along with other villagers, had left their homes; yet there was no sign of any government action in Gortepa. (More about the displaced here). Addressing local authorities did not help to clarify things. The spokesman of the provincial police told AAN end of May that the government “will launch a clearance operation once it has drawn up a comprehensive plan and deployed soldiers to permanent military bases in Gortepa.” The evacuation thus came too early and has put additional hardship on the local population.

Sar-e Pul – a lesser known example of the same dynamics

As in Kunduz, but much less noticed by the media and other observers, the Taleban have also been inching closer to the centre of Sar-e Pul province. (2) The security in this remote province has been deteriorating over the past two years. From here, the Taleban can monitor and support the insurgents in Balkh and Jawzjan provinces.

Sar-e Pul is located in the northwest of Afghanistan and consists of seven districts (Balkhab, Gosfandi, Sayad, Kohistanat, Sancharak, Suzma Qalah and Sar-e Pul centre). In the last few years, the Taleban had already established footholds in far-flung areas of Sayad and Kohistanat districts. According to an AAN report, in 2010:

…most of the insurgents operating in the area are locals, they are supported by infiltrators from Badghis and Faryab. Taxation on behalf of the Taleban occurs also in the area close to the provincial capital. The Taleban attacks against the ANP and ANA posts increased in 2010.

Today, according to locals, the Taleban have established a base only ten kilometres from the provincial governor’s office, just beyond the city borders, in the Sheramha area. From there the insurgents orchestrate operations against the ANSF’s bases in Sar-e Pul city. Offensives by local Taleban against ANSF and harassment of the local population have increased in frequency. According to figures from an independent international organisation monitoring the security in Sar-e Pul, Taleban attacks against ANSF almost doubled from 2013 to 2014,  from 96 to 157. Meanwhile, ANSF operations against insurgents have decreased from 10 in 2013 to only 6 in 2014, with 3 operations in 2015, by mid-May. The Ministry of Defence would not comment.

The case of Sheramha

The situation looks particularly bleak in Sheramha, close to the provincial centre. It is a mountainous area with up to 200 villages dominated by ethnic Arabs and bordering Balkh province to the northwest and Jawzjan to the east. The Taleban have built a strong presence in this area in the past three years. Currently, according to Salahuddin Cherik, a representative of Sheramha in the provincial council, “Most villages are ruled by them. But the government has not taken any considerable steps in this regard, for unknown reasons.”

The Taleban in Sheramha have a strong team that has been able to establish the beginnings of local ‘governance’. The newly appointed shadow provincial governor, Mawlawi Attaullah, along with Mullah Nader, the head of the shadow military committee, has tasked two other influential insurgent figures from the area, Sebghatullah Rohani and Hakim Qaryadar, to set up a military-administrative unit (to recruit fighters and appoint sub-commanders) and judicial units. The latter’s verdicts on local peoples’ cases are usually obeyed by the villagers. (More about the Taleban’s administrative structure in Sar-e Pul here.) Nasema Arzo, the head of the provincial women’s affairs department, told AAN the insurgents are now exerting their influence right up to the provincial centre’s border, patrolling these areas during the night. She also said she was worried about the women in the province. Women were not interested anymore in working in government offices due to threats by insurgents. She herself, she said, could not raise her voice in public, either.

“Taleban too strong to be interested in reconciliation”

The security forces seem helpless. According to Haji Payenda, the deputy head of the ALP in Sheramha, last year all 81 ALP members fled to Sar-e Pul city, taking their families with them. Two ALP commanders joined the insurgents with 18 of their men.

Reconciliation attempts with the local insurgents remain futile. Speaking to AAN, Mawlawi Naqib, the provincial director of the High Peace Council, stated that in the past few years, 750 Taleban, including their field commanders, had indeed joined the peace process, but many then re-joined the insurgents. Six months ago, for example, a Taleban commander, named as Khan Muhammad, along with his 51 followers, laid down his weapons. However, local strongmen pushed the provincial judicial department to issue an order for his arrest and accuse him of criminal activities. The Taleban commander swiftly re-joined the insurgents. “Also, this year’s spring offensive has made the insurgents believe that they are getting stronger in the north,” said the director. “They are currently not interested in laying down their weapons anymore.”

Provincial security officials struggle with admitting the scope of the Taleban’s influence in the area. This leads to slightly disperate and contradictory statements by provincial police chief Nur Habib Golbahari such as, “Sheramha is a safe place for the Taleban, but they are not strong enough to disrupt the security.” He also said the Taleban “conducted several operations in various areas after the announcement of the spring offensive, but the ANSF have defeated them.” With the continuing strong presence of the Taleban in Sheramha their ‘defeat’ means rather that they have been driven back momentarily.

From MP to Taleb

The insecurity may be caused by other factors that also open avenues for the Taleban to pursue their usurpation of districts. Sar-e Pul is mostly dominated by three political parties: Jombesh-e Melli Islami Afghanistan, Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Mardom-e Afghanistan and Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan. (3)  According to Masuma Ramazan, a provincial council member, the competition for government posts between Jamiat and Jombesh is a major factor affecting the security situation negatively (this has a long history; for more, look at footnote 4). “The government posts are exploited for personal interests by local strongmen, and this always intensifies the feud among local players,” she stated. Commanders switch sides frequently – and sometimes over to the Taleban. In September 2013, for example, a representative of Sar-e Pul province in the upper house of parliament and former district governor of Kohistanat, Qazi Abdulhai, went over to the Taleban after he was removed before the end of his term. In a video posted on the Taleban website, Abdulhai justified the move saying that in his four years in Kabul, he had seen “the corrupt face of the government.”

For Sebghatullah Ishaqzai, the provincial head of the Right and Justice Party (Hezb-e Haq wa Adalat), (5) the major reason behind the insecurity is the absence of a local government that meet locals’ demands. “The appointments of the security officials are not on a meritocratic basis, instead they are based on political affiliation and nepotism,” he said. Therefore, “the local officials are simply not capable of drawing up a comprehensive plan to ensure security” for the province.

To give just a few examples of incidents: in April 2014, the Taleban kidnapped nine civilians, including a provincial council candidate in the capital Sar-e Pul; their bodies were discovered two days later. In October 2014, the Taleban ambushed Afghan security forces and, according to provincial governor Abduljabar Haqbin, killed 14 and wounded 17. Six others were captured. In February 2015, the Taleban attacked a police check post in the provincial centre and set it on fire. In May 2015, hundreds of people in Sar-e Pul said they were tired of waiting for the government to ensure security and took up weapons to protect their villages themselves. However, often such movements are organised by local strongmen to secure their spheres of influence, arming only one specific group. In Sar-e Pul, it remains unclear whether the May self-protection action was a wider public initiative to beat the insurgents or a powerbroker’s project.

Apparently, as AAN learned from local elders, many Taleban sub-commanders in Sheramha are simply locals angered by the ineffectiveness of local government and local power brokers’ unscrupulous abuse of authority. Insecurity is hampering development projects as well as service delivery, for example in healthcare. There is no asphalted road to the provincial centre and the education sector is mainly run by local mullahs who have taken over as teachers. This example of local political dynamics applies also to Gortepa in Kunduz. The harassment of villagers by local commanders’ militias and the failure to establish rule of law has created chaos on all fronts, rendering it easy for the insurgency to make inroads in the province. Clearly, improving Afghanistan’s security is not only about making security forces stronger and beating back the Taleban. It must be a comprehensive approach that starts with people’s satisfaction with their government.


(1) The first wave of Arabs arrived in what is today western and northern Afghanistan as part of their conquest of what was then known as Khorasan and Baktria in the seventh century. (Herat was conquered in 652 AD, 31 AH in the Persian calendar), Kabul only in 871.) Some of them settled in the area. A second wave of Arabs, of some 10,000s, came from Russian (later Soviet) Central Asia), mainly from the region of Bukhara, after the Russian conquest of the area and again after the 1917 October Revolution. According to the US Library of Congress Country Study for Afghanistan, “By the 1880s they were, with the Uzbeks with whom they established close ties, the second most populous ethnic group in present day Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces. Smaller groups settled in scattered communities as far west as Maimana, Faryab Province.” Today, the Afghan Arabs are mainly pastoralists who raise sheep and grow cotton and wheat. They are fully integrated Afghans, speaking Pashto, Dari or Uzbek – but not Arabic in many cases. (For Arabic-speaking communities in northern Afghanistan, see Charles Kieffer, here.)

(2) Similar developments have been reported from Baghlan (here) and Faryab provinces (here).

(3) Jombeshis are led by Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first vice president; Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Mardom by Muhammad Muhaqeq, the second deputy for Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah; and Jamiat by Salahuddin Rabbani, the minister for Foreign Affairs. In the 1980s, the Jamiat and Wahdat mujahedin parties (or tanzims) fought the Soviet occupation and communist regime while Jombesh was part of the regime’s armed forces. In the mid-1990s, all three factions were involved in factional fighting before coming together, after 1996 and the fall of Kabul, to fight the Taleban. (For more background, see an AAN paper about Jombesh here, dispatches about Jamiat for example here, and an external paper about political parties in general that also contains information about the different wings of Hezb-e Wahdat here.)

(4) According to AAN’s report in 2012,

immediately after the Taleban defeat in 2001, the province was divided into zones of dominance between Jombesh (in Sar-e Pul’s north) and Jamiat and Wahdat (in the south), with Jombesh and Jamiat controlling the provincial centre and a Jombesh governor (up to 2004). After severe fighting in 2002, Jombesh managed to wrestle control over the provincial centre from Jamiat. In the districts, sporadic fighting continued until 2004. After Seyyed Anwar Rahmati was appointed governor in 2010, the balance of power shifted again. This strengthened the position of Wahdat faction. After the serial protest mainly organised by Jombesh, Rahmati was replaced.

(5) Background about this party is in this AAN dispatch.