NORTHERN LIGHTS, Part 1 A shadowy new battlefield
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
Events of the past two years suggest that the plans of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) to scale down its troop numbers in Afghanistan this
year is not the beginning of the end of combat operations. Rather, it's a
switch to a new plan that aims to facilitate the broader participation of
regoinal allies such as Russia, India and the Central Asian Republics for the
defeat of the Islamic militancy.
Already, there has been collaboration in Afghanistan between NATO and Russia's
anti-drug operatives, while Uzbek President Islam Karimov's 2008 proposal that
Western capitals set up a "6+3" initiative group to tackle problems in
Afghanistan has been well received. This would include Central Asian countries,
United States and NATO. Uzbekistan is becoming increasingly involved in
reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. All of this affirms a roadmap of
anti-terror operations involving more allies in Afghanistan following the
draw-down of NATO forces starting this year.
The Taliban command council in Helmand province in Afghanistan became aware of
this shift to involve regional players and responded by sending some of its
top-ranking commanders to northern Afghanistan, where in late 2001 the Taliban
had been routed by Northern Alliance militias backed by US forces during the
invasion that led to the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. Their destinations
included Kunduz, Baghlan and Mazar-i-Sharif.
Al-Qaeda's international wing, Jundallah, has also prepared a strategy for
northern Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics to nip in the bud the
deeper involvement of regional players.
The militant response thus involves the international strategy of al-Qaeda and
indigenous Taliban plans, which stand alone at the moment but at some stage
they are expected to fuse. Such a fusion would be similar to what occurred in
the tribal areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, where three different
anti-American forces - pro-Islamic tribalism, the Taliban and al-Qaeda -
initially pulled in different directions before eventually fusing into the
This was a new generation of local tribesman and other Pakistani and Afghans
who absorbed al-Qaeda's ideology and decided to fight simultaneously on the
regional as well as on the international front.
The Taliban decided to concentrate their northern forces in Baghlan province
because of its sizeable Pashtun population, apart from Tajiks, Uzbeks and
Hazaras. The Pashtun were send to Baghlan by former King Zahir Shah (on the
throne from 1933 to 1973) to build a constituency - which has now been taken
over by the Taliban.
Al-Qaeda chose Baghlan because of its strategic location near the Central Asian
Republics in which al-Qaeda supports local Islamic opposition groups,
especially Uzbekistan and Chechnya.
The road heading north out of Kabul passes through many dark and narrow
mountain tunnels before the landscape broadens into dusty plains. The sky was a
brilliant blue, and after about 200 kilometers a large spy balloon loomed
overhead. It marked our destination - the village of Qarah Daqa, near the
military base of Baghlan manned by Hungarian troops.
The Pentagon uses dozens of balloons to meet the growing military demand for
video surveillance of insurgents. Army Times has cited Ashton Carter, the
Pentagon's top weapons-buyer, as saying balloons fitted with high-powered
cameras were needed because unmanned planes such as the Predator could not be
built fast enough. Spy balloons were the latest example of how unmanned weapons
were revolutionizing warfare, said Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century
Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
As we approached the base our driver had to slow down as at least 80 NATO oil
supply tankers were backed up at a security checkpoint. The tankers had set out
from the Uzbekistan border early in the morning and arrived near Qarah Daqa,
near Baghlan province's capital of Pol-e-Khumri, at 2 pm.
The convoys can only travel in daylight as the nights are too dangerous. They
are protected by private security guards, but when they arrive at Qarah Daqa,
where they spend the night, local Afghan police also provide protection against
militant attacks, besides spy balloons.
Qarah Daqa is an Uzbek-language name, but the local population - not more than
1,000 people - is now all Pashtun. It lies seven kilometers from Pol-e-Khumri
and is made up of identical mud and stone houses. Its watermelons and
muskmelons are renowned throughout Afghanistan for their unique and sweet
taste. Cattle farming and fruit farm cultivation are the only source of revenue
of these villagers.
The villagers were aware of my arrival and had gathered in a hujra - a
sort of community club where people sit for an evening chat and other
As with most other villages in Baghlan, the residents of Qarah Daqa fled to
Pakistan during the 10-year Soviet occupation that began in 1979, although they
nevertheless played an active role in the national resistance against communist
forces. Most villagers were members of the Jamiat-e-Islami Afghanistan and
fought under the command of legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah
Haji Habibur Rahman greeting me. He's a malik (tribal chief) and sported
a white turban; his aristocratic demeanor made him stand out from all the other
people in the room.
"For the last year the Taliban have regrouped very strongly in villages across
Baghlan province," Rahman said.
"What made them come back after eight years?" I asked.
"A bad system of justice halted routine life. Court cases went pending for
years. That was the main reason why the Taliban were welcomed," Rahman said.
He continued, "The Taliban were never unpopular in our area. They left under
duress because they were defeated by the American forces. They were popular in
2001, and they are still popular.
"Moulvi Younus is the in-charge of Pol-e-Khumri district. He is a local
tribesman. The Taliban appointed him as the [shadow] governor of Baghlan. He
runs the province through a shura-e-rahbary [leadership council]. It has
representatives in all provinces. We have their cell phone numbers, and if we
want to resolve a dispute, we take the cases to them and they solve it then and
there," Rahman said.
Mohammad Islam, a youth, chipped in: "The Taliban [after 2001] left for
southern Afghan districts, northern Afghanistan was not their focus. In the
meantime, two different developments occurred.
"First and foremost was the unpopularity of the foreign occupation in
Afghanistan. Islamic scholars in the province unanimously declared it a battle
between Islam and infidels. At the same time, youths felt that the government
didn't carry out any development work in the province.
"The Taliban saw this and their command council in Helmand sent commanders who
within a few months organized the youths. First Qari Jabbar was appointed as
governor, but he was killed and now Moulvi Younus is governor."
Pashtuns have been the ruling class in northern Afghanistan since the time of
King Shah, despite being the ethnic minority. During Taliban rule (1996-2001)
this position was consolidated, but after the defeat of the Taliban they not
only came under the domination of the majority Tajik and Uzbek population, but
were suspected of being Taliban sympathizers and punished.
This has all changed. The Pashtun villagers of Baghlan cite examples over the
past year of Uzbek fighters coming from Pakistan's tribal areas and being
killed in Kunduz and Baghlan, but they do not see this as a major trend as all
armed opposition in the area under the Taliban is local, and even insurgents of
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan have been driven out.
A sign of the Taliban's control is that from 6 pm to 6 am, all cellular
companies switch off their transmission towers as the Taliban have warned them
that during the night the government uses cell phone signals to trace the
Taliban and their sanctuaries. If the towers are not silenced, they will be
The Afghan government, as well as Central Asian countries, especially
Uzbekistan, are extremely worried about the situation in northern Afghanistan -
and seemingly with considerable justification.
NEXT: The government fights back
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and
author of upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban beyond 9/11 and
Beyond published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at[email protected]