Can new governors turn the Taliban tide in northern Afghanistan?

The replacement of four provincial governors in northern Afghanistan could stem years of steady gains made by the Taliban in the region, where thousands of people have been displaced by violence.

While an insurgency has raged in the south since the Taliban government was toppled by an American-led invasion in 2001, northern Afghanistan was for years considered one of the most secure areas in the country. Since 2009, the insurgents have been steadily gaining ground in the north and clashes with pro-government forces have intensified, along with the disruption of humanitarian aid.

The World Food Programme temporarily suspended operations in Badakshan Province last month after five of its vehicles disappeared along with their drivers (they were later released). In their most brazen assault yet, outnumbered Taliban fighters last week captured Kunduz, the first provincial capital to fall to the insurgents in the almost 14 years of war since their ouster.

Taliban and pro-government forces continue to battle for control of Kunduz and fighting has forced humanitarian agencies and residents to leave the city. The wounded have little access to medical care since Médecins Sans Frontières evacuated after a US airstrike hit the charity’s hospital on 3 October, killing at least 22 people.

See: Aid agencies withdraw from Afghanistan's North

Kunduz resident Faisal Rasuli told IRIN by phone that his neighbour, who was wounded in crossfire last week, died after bleeding out for hours.

“The (government) hospital is far and we have no access because the city is still not fully under the control of the government,” he said.

Leadership changes

Analysts have criticised the government of President Ashraf Ghani for failing to shore up security forces in Kunduz Province and impose his authority. Instead, pro-government militias have been allowed to commit abuses against locals and feed anti-government sentiment.

See: Abuses rise along with pro-Afghan government militias 

In the wake of the humiliating, if temporary, loss of Kunduz city, Ghani has appointed new governors to four neighbouring provinces, according to a brief statement posted Wednesday night to a government Facebook page. The leadership changes in Takhar, Faryab, Baghlan and Sar-i-Pul are seen as an attempt to ensure that the Taliban is not able to repeat its military successes in those provinces.

“They didn’t tell any of us why we are going there, but it’s clearly because of the Kunduz situation,” Mohammad Yasin Zia, the new governor of Takhar, told IRIN.

The new appointments signal a shift in tactics by Ghani, a former World Bank economist who has become known for eschewing Afghanistan’s tradition of mixing ethnicity and politics and instead appointing people based on education and experience.

This time he has installed governors based on their ethnic, tribal and religious affiliations, said Zia.

That strategy is in keeping with Afghan traditions, said Ali Mohammad Ali, a security analyst with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank.

“Afghanistan is a tribal country and ethnicity is part of the political culture,” Ali said. “These new appointments are more aligned with the understanding of tribal leaders and with their consultation.”

Ali said Ghani’s previous decision to send Omar Safai, an ethnic Pashtun, to govern Kunduz, a province where Pashtuns are a minority, had contributed to dissatisfaction with the government and allowed the Taliban to gain support.

Safai was in Tajikistan when the Taliban took Kunduz city and has not returned, and Ghani has yet to name a successor as fighting continues. But Ali said the appointment of Zia in neighbouring Takhar Province was a clear attempt to help quell the insurgency in Kunduz.

Zia formerly served as head of Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism unit and then as deputy chief of the country’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security.

“This man’s appointment to govern the province neighbouring Kunduz could be extremely effective in regaining control in the area,” Ali said.

Yet, Ali said the political gains made by appointing well-connected governors need to be matched on the battlefield if the strategy is to work.

“The government needs to go back on the offensive and get out of the defensive mode,” he said. “Instead of reacting to the action of the enemy, they really need to go after them.”

Dire conditions

The human toll of the government’s attempt to take back Kunduz could be seen over the past week as those who could escape streamed out of the city.

The WFP said it began distributing provisions today to some of those displaced by the fighting. More than 1,000 families who fled to the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Taluqan received a month’s worth of food, while 1,800 people in a temporary camp outside Mazar-e-Sharif were given bread made of wheat flour fortified with vitamins and minerals.

But the UN's food assistance agency said it was “seriously concerned about the safety and food security of people remaining in Kunduz, as fighting intensifies.”

Accounts from those trapped in the city are grim.

“The dead bodies were piled in the streets and had been making the city smell really bad, but they have been cleared from my area in the last two days,” Rasuli told IRIN.

cj/jf/ag