Radio Free “Qishloq Ovazi“: RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been reporting for many months about the deteriorating situation in northern Afghanistan, just across the border from Turkmenistan.
RFE/RL’s Gandhara website has also been reporting about the increasingly lawless areas just south of the Central Asian frontier.
In some of the areas adjacent to Turkmenistan it appears militant groups hold as much, and possibly more, territory than the Afghan government can claim to have under its control. And what is worse, there seems to be at least three extremist groups now present in districts just south of the Turkmen border.
Commander Bobi is the chief of an Arbaki, or local paramilitary force in the Qaysar district of Afghanistan’s Faryab Province. Bobi and his forces are located near Jowzjan Province, east of Faryab, and the Arbaki commander has been keeping track of events in the neighboring region.
Bobi said the village of Shakh in Jowzjan has fallen to “Taliban and Daesh (Islamic State)” militants. Bobi claimed these militants have such control over the village that they are able to collect taxes from shopkeepers there.
Asked how he knew there were Islamic State (IS) militants in Shakh, Bobi said some of them “carry the Daesh flag, they speak Arabic…”
That does not necessarily mean these people are IS militants. Arabs have been coming to Afghanistan to fight alongside fellow Muslims since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
However, Afghan government officials have confirmed an IS presence in the country and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov on March 5 was the latest Russian official to warn about IS militants in Afghanistan. Such warnings during the last year have got the Central Asian leaders worried about the group.
But Bobi said the Taliban and IS are not the only militant groups in Jowzjan. He said there were people “from Uzbekistan…nearly 70 families.”
“We heard they came from Waziristan. They live in Shakh now,” he added.
Bobi said these Uzbeks were from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
There have been reports coming out of northern Afghanistan for the past few months that IMU fighters, who once were able to shelter in North Waziristanm were chased out by the Pakistani military’s offensive on the tribal area that started last June. Pakistan’s military has regularly reported Uzbeks being among the militants killed during that campaign.
These Uzbek fighters and their families have been making their way westward across the northern Afghan provinces. Qishloq Ovozi has mentioned the growing number of Uzbek militants in areas near Turkmenistan in previous reports.
Bobi said the militants, who he claimed now number some 2,000, have captured other villages and at one place “the distance between them and Qaysar is no more than two kilometers” and that there was a “combination of people there – Daesh, Taliban, and IMU.”
Bobi’s claims are, to some extent, supported by the Qaysar district head, Abdujalil Siddiqi, who admitted there were militants in Shakh, and militants located “40 kilometers from the Qaysar district center.” Siddiqi also heard about the Uzbeks but again his numbers were different than those given by Bobi. “Some 25 families are settled in Shakh and in nearby villages. They belong to the group of Tohir Yuldash and Juma Namangani,” Siddiqi said.
Yuldash and Namangani were the founders of the IMU. Namangani was killed in northeastern Afghanistan in November 2001 and Yuldash was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal area in August 2009.
Siddiqi said their followers now in Jowzjan “help opponents of the government,” sometimes participating in “frontline fighting but they also teach opponents of the government how to plant mines and explosives.”
Qaysar is the southern part of Faryab Province, close but not adjacent to Turkmenistan. Asked about militants near the Turkmen border, Bobi responded, “Villages under their [militant] control are all along the Turkmen border.” And Bobi knew that Taliban militants last year crossed into Turkmenistan, killed three border guards and took their weapons.
There is no way of independently verifying these claims. What Bobi and Siddiqi said are in keeping with news that has been coming from these northern Afghan provinces for more than a year now. Very few journalists or aid workers go to Faryab and Jowzjan anymore, it is too unstable.
The situation in northern Afghanistan and the response to it in Central Asia will be the subject of the next round table panel discussion that Azatlyk is hosting. Qishloq Ovozi will bring you a report on the proceedings next week.
— Bruce Pannier, with contributions from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service director, Muhammad Tahir.