BAGHLAN, Pol-e-Khurmi - The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for a
long time stuck to the belief that armed opposition groups in the long-running
Afghan insurgency comprised only Pashtuns. Its non-combatant forces were thus
stationed in northern Afghanistan, on the premise that the ethnic Tajik, Hazara
and Uzbek majorities dominated the region and it could not possibly be a
This ignored sporadic incidents of violence, then the mobilization in 2010 of a
strong Taliban movement, with the establishment of command and control centers,
dispelled all myths that the Taliban were only a southern-based outfit.
This coincided with the United States and Britain being largely left
alone in the Afghan war. All major allies gave deadlines for their withdrawal
from the country, with the likes of the French and Germans categorically
telling NATO that they would not participate in combat operations.
The administration of US President Barack Obama devised a war strategy for
southern Afghanistan and the provinces around Kabul, similarly based on the
understanding that the Taliban-led insurgency was a phenomenon only in
Pashtun-majority areas. The entire battle surge and the deployment of
additional forces was concentrated on southern Afghanistan.
The emergence of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan has left the occupiers
with no option but to rely on indigenous strength.
On the political front, Munshi Abdul Majeed, a highly respected figure with a
religious background and a former loyalist of veteran mujahid Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, was in 2010 appointed governor of Baghlan province, about 200
kilometers north of the capital Kabul. His brief was to establish a line of
communication with the Taliban and local tribes with the aim of brokering a
ceasefire until NATO could come up with a new strategy to isolate ultra-radical
On the security front, General Abdul Rahman Rahimi, a top security official
with intense training by the Americans, was the district police chief of Kabul;
he was the logical choice, when problems began in Baghlan, to take over as
provincial commander of the police force to chop off the militancy.
A battle plan
The main police compound in Pol-e-Khumri, the provincial capital of Baghlan, is
extremely well-guarded. Visitors have to pass through various checkpoints and
security barriers and entry is not possible until clearance is received by
wireless from the control room.
After spending at least 20 minutes crossing three security barriers, I expected
to be met by a police commandant, but Rahimi himself was waiting for me in a
courtyard, sitting on a chair.
"We met in Kabul earlier right?," Rahimi said after giving me a warm
traditional hug and kiss.
Rahimi is also responsible for issuing passports, so he was surrounded by
applicants. He read a passport, alled out a name, asked a few questions and
listened to the answers, then signed the passport if he was satisfied. This he
did with some interesting comments that brought smiles to everybody standing in
"Fouzanullah," he called.
"Fouzanullah? What kind of name is this?" (Fouzan means success and ullah
represents the word Allah meaning God). Rahimi spoke in Dari with a Pashtun
accent as he originally came from Logar province.
He stared at the speechless applicant, then signed the passport. "This is not
the correct name my son," he remarked with softness.
That was the last passport of the day, and Rahimi then took me to a large
boardroom decorated with huge portraits of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah
Massoud, killed by al-Qaeda in 2001, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"The Taliban coming to Baghlan is no coincidence. They chose Baghlan as the
center of their activities in northern Afghanistan because of its particular
characteristics," Rahimi said.
"Baghlan is a strategic province. Its valleys and mountains provide a huge
advantage to the Taliban to establish sanctuaries. However, Baghlan is not a
destination but a transit point for the Taliban. Baghlan's mountain passes and
valleys provide routes to Shir Khan Bandar [a town near the Tajikistan border]
and Hairatan [another border town with Uzbekistan]."
Rahimi did not deny the presence of Taliban groups in Baghlan, adding that
militant activities had a broader perspective than a local insurgency.
"If you closely read the situation, you will find that the militancy does not
have a local dynamic, although a big chunk of the militants are local. In the
last year for the first time we have found a large number of Uzbek and Chechen
fighters. None of them was arrested alive. DNA tests confirmed that they were
Uzbek and Chechens," Rahimi said.
"Our intelligence wing confirmed that this is al-Qaeda's operation and al-Qaeda
has established its Jundallah wing in the district of Borka in Baghlan. [See
The legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 20, 2004.] The
target is mobilizing the armed opposition in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Chechnya," Rahimi said. He added that the worrisome part was that al-Qaeda had
tapped into the local Afghan Uzbek population. This has alarmed Uzbek, Tajik
and Russian authorities, who have increased border patrols.
Rahimi insists that the insurgency is under control and that all Taliban claims
of attacking NATO convoys are a lie.
"They target ordinary oil tankers and say that they have targeted NATO supply
convoys. The Taliban are liars," Rahimi scornfully said.
Yet, as I sat in a guesthouse in Pol-e-Khumri, sharp at 6 pm, under the
Taliban's instructions, all cell-phone transmission towers were switched off
until 6 am the next day. The Taliban have warned that the government uses
cell-phone signals at night to trace the Taliban and their sanctuaries. If the
towers are not silenced, they will be blown up.
On the political front
The governor's house was full of visitors, but a reporter of a state-run Afghan
TV channel, assigned to cover the governor's activities, arranged my meeting
with Majeed as a priority.
Like Rahimi, Majeed was appointed in the spring of 2010, when the Taliban
emerged with full force in Baghlan. He is from Baghlan and is a former loyalist
of Hekmatyar; he severed these ties in 1990 when Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence brokered a deal between the communist General Shahnawaz Tanai and
Hekmatyar to stage a coup, which failed, against Mohammad Najibullah's regime.
Majeed, an Islamist to the core, could not tolerate Hekmatyar's alliance with
the communists and left the party.
He, like most former Gulbuddin loyalists, is a close aide of President Karzai.
The idea of making Majeed governor of Baghlan was to use his Islamist
credentials and establish a line of communication with the Taliban and the
local Pashtun tribes so that al-Qaeda and foreign fighters would be alienated.
"Let's not use the term Taliban for insurgents. We may call them opposition
forces," Majeed said at the beginning of the interview.
"I donít call them terrorists either. They are local people who are not aware
of good and bad. They are less educated. I am completely in favor of talking to
them so they will give up their opposition to the government, but unfortunately
several external factors are using them," Majeed said, pointing to Iran as the
"I don't know personally, but this is the opinion of some very well informed
people here in Afghanistan that although Iran may not have any sympathy with
the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it is interested in engaging the Americans in the
conflict, and that's why it is supporting the opposition forces here," Majeed
"Another factor is al-Qaeda, which like the whole Muslim world also wants
trouble in our region, especially for Russia and for Uzbekistan. There have
recently been complaints to the Afghan Foreign Office by the Russians as well
as by Uzbekistan that the growing activities of militants in northern
Afghanistan were becoming a serious threat for their security," Majeed said.
I finished my interview and walked along a river - although the winter is dry,
the snow-covered mountains would make movement for the militants difficult.
They are better off in the southern regions - the tribal areas between Pakistan
and Afghanistan - where they can preserve their strength until this summer. The
governor of Baghlan and the security chief saw this lull as a success. It is
NEXT: The al-Qaeda factor
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 firstname.lastname@example.org