The South Asia Channel

Ethnic Minorities Are Fueling the Taliban’s Expansion in Afghanistan

The Taliban is gaining dangerous leverage by recruiting Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks.

Afghan former Taliban fighters are photographed holding weapons before they hand them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on February 8, 2015. Over twenty former Taliban fighters from Achin district of Nangarhar province handed over weapons as part of a peace reconciliation program. AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada        (Photo credit should read Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan former Taliban fighters are photographed holding weapons before they hand them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on February 8, 2015. Over twenty former Taliban fighters from Achin district of Nangarhar province handed over weapons as part of a peace reconciliation program. AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada (Photo credit should read Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

The Taliban has traditionally drawn on ethnic Pashtuns in its insurgency against the Afghan government, but it has begun to successfully recuit disgruntled members of other ethnic groups as it expands its reach.

Disenfranchised communities of ethnic Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks are joining the Taliban in the country’s north, according to local elders and tribal leaders in the region. The new recruits have given the militant group the ability to seize territory in areas outside of its traditional power base in Pashtun-majority areas in the country’s south and east.

The Taliban’s new recruits have contributed to significant gains on the ground in the north, helping expand the group’s reach to levels not seen since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. There are no official statistics available on the number of non-Pashtuns who have joined the Taliban in recent years. But the Taliban has made a clear shift towards recruiting from other ethnic groups, which have assumed positions in the Taliban leadership and key posts in the provinces.

In the 1990s, the predominately Pashtun Taliban movement encountered a hostile population in Afghanistan’s north, where the majority of people are not Pashtun. The Taliban fought fierce battles and endured heavy casualties in wresting control of the region from ethnic Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek warlords and militia groups, often committing violent atrocities and alienating the local population.

Now, non-Pashtuns make up around one-quarter of the Taliban leadership council and its various commissions. In January, at least three non-Pashtuns were inducted to the leadership council.

Ethnic minorities have also gained a larger number of provincial and district shadow governorships and zonal commands. The insurgent shadow governments and military structures in the north have increasingly adapted to be more accommodating to non-Pashtuns who are willing to fight under the flag of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, but not directly under Pashtuns.

The Taliban has recruited ethnic Tajiks in northeastern Badakhshan Province, and ethnic Turkmen and Uzbeks in northwestern Faryab Province and in  the northern province of Jowzjan. Qari Salahuddin Ayubi, an ethnic Uzbek, was the Taliban’s shadow governor for Faryab until he was killed in a NATO air strike on October 6, 2015. And his predecessor, an ethnic Uzbek known as Yar Mohammad, was killed in 2012. Mohammad ranked so high in the Taliban hierarchy that the militant group, which rarely confirms casualties, issued a statement to commemorate his death.

In Faryab, the Taliban has also given operational command to foreign Uzbek militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which appears to have attracted local ethnic Uzbeks to their cause. In 2012, NATO said it had killed an IMU commander, who was also a Taliban district governor, in Faryab. In 2013, three IMU commanders were killed in Baghlan, another northern province.

In fact, the Taliban’s ranks have been bolstered by hundreds of foreign fighters — including Central Asians, Chechens, and Chinese Uighurs — who resettled in northern Afghanistan after they were flushed out of their safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal regions by a Pakistani military offensive earlier this year.

The Taliban has exploited the fractious ethnic landscape in northern Afghanistan to win over disaffected leaders and tribal chiefs. In some cases, these leaders and chiefs have joined the Taliban because they cannot rely on the government for protection, according to Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official and leading specialist on Afghanistan. Others have joined because they feel marginalized by the government in terms of money or political representation.

The Taliban sends cadres to villages to identify and negotiate with tribal chiefs and ethnic leaders susceptible to recruitment, offering power, status, or money, according to Ted Callahan, a western security expert based in Afghanistan. The militant group also sends preachers and established religious school officials to propagate its message. Callahan said that the Taliban has tried to expand to sympathetic ethnic groups. “The Taliban has done a really great job of getting the message right, tailoring it to that specific group and their grievances, and then at the same time giving them a large degree of operational autonomy within the Taliban movement,” said Callahan.

The Taliban has also exploited increased hostility on the part of locals towards pro-government militias, including the Afghan Local Police, accusing them of extortion, rape, and extrajudicial killings. The police are supposed to fall under the command of the government, but in reality, their allegiance lies with local warlords who have been accused of a range of rights abuses.

Although the Taliban’s approach is not new, the success of its recruitment strategy only became visible during last year’s fighting season. In 2015, the militant group focused its annual spring offensive on northern Afghanistan, seizing territory all over the region. The Taliban claimed its biggest prize in September when it briefly captured the key northern city of Kunduz, the first time it had seized a provincial capital since it was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion nearly 14 years ago.

The Taliban’s recruitment of ethnic minorities has gone largely unnoticed by the U.S.-led NATO force, and the group’s growing expansion in the north poses a challenge for Kabul. Overstretched Afghan forces suffering record casualties and high desertion rates risk being overwhelmed as new war fronts open in the north.

In order to reverse the Taliban’s influence among disgruntled ethnic and tribal groups, the Afghan government must address the local grievances that the Taliban is exploiting for recruitment purposes. If not, Afghanistan may witness the fall of a record number of districts to the Taliban this fighting season.

Photo credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

Frud Bezhan is a correspondent at Radio Free Europe.

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