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Beijing Eyes Afghanistan’s Intimate Wars

Afghan militia members driven from their homes square off against Uighur exiles.

Members of Warduj’s Afghan Local Police unit in front of their main base in their exile in Bahorak on Aug. 24, 2018.
Members of Warduj’s Afghan Local Police unit in front of their main base in their exile in Bahorak on Aug. 24, 2018. Franz J. Marty for Foreign Policy

BAHORAK, Afghanistan—The valley is like many others in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan: verdant trees and fields dwarfed by dusty mountains. But for the exiled unit of the Afghan Local Police from the district of Warduj, it hosts the battlefield that separates them from their nearby homes, where the Taliban hold sway.

The Afghan Local Police was established in 2010 to formalize local groups that defended their villages. “I did not use to be a military commander,” the Warduj unit’s leader, Cmdr. Habib (who, like many Afghans, uses only one name), said during interviews in August 2018. “But when the Taliban attacked, we were forced to take up arms to defend ourselves.” Yet the valley doesn’t matter to just the locals. With a contingent of other exiles—Uighurs from the Chinese region of Xinjiang—fighting on the side of the Taliban, the eyes of Beijing are also on this small valley.

According to the latest available data, from January 2019, the Afghan Local Police—an official government force overseen by the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs—numbers roughly 28,000 armed men, spread in small units across the country. Composed of locals, its mission is to defend their home communities—as the Warduj unit did until it was forced into exile.

At first, Habib and his men fought the local Taliban from their homes in Warduj, whose central village of Chokaron lies less than 13 miles from the center of the neighboring district of Bahorak. “But after foreign fighters arrived, we could not hold them back anymore. They took Warduj from us, and we had to flee,” the commander explained.

The fall of Warduj in October 2015 was a huge success for the Taliban in Badakhshan, a province they’d never previously ruled. It forced Habib and his men into exile in Bahorak, where they’ve made their main base and quarters in a house just off the busy bazaar of the district center. In between their homes in Warduj and their refuge in Bahorak is the front line.

The 225 men in the unit are of all ages. One man’s beard is white, while others don’t have much more than fuzz on their faces. It’s been over three and a half years since they were forced out of their homes, and they say the Taliban would kill them straightaway if they return. “Not even during the cease-fire [in mid-June 2018] could we go home,” one unit member said.

This is especially hard, as the families of most of the men remain in Warduj—under Taliban rule. “Our families are constantly harassed and threatened,” one man said, with others agreeing, adding that the Taliban coerce their families into providing food or transporting equipment and ammunition. Members of their families are sometimes also beaten up or temporarily detained, they asserted. A few of them were allegedly also expelled from their houses, which were then given to foreign fighters.

Abdul Manon, who lived under Taliban rule in Warduj, said he was forced to fight alongside the insurgent group, as they threatened to otherwise kill his whole family. But after two years in the ranks of the Taliban he managed to secretly facilitate his defection with Habib and to arrange to escape with his family to Bahorak to join Habib’s unit. As evidence that these threats have to be taken seriously, locals say that in the spring of 2017, 17 men and seven women in Warduj were executed by the Taliban after being accused of collaborating with the authorities.

Independently verifying such claims is tough, if not impossible, but some seem credible. That the men from the Afghan Local Police cite Bahorak rents being unaffordable for them as the reason that they can’t move their families out of Warduj suggests, though, that the threats are not as extreme as sometimes claimed. The unit’s members, as well as other locals, also acknowledge that the Taliban persecute only the families of men connected to the government and leave others alone.

The view of an abandoned gas station that was turned into a checkpoint by the Afghan Local Police, looking toward Warduj, on Aug. 24, 2018. A little bit farther down the road, the Taliban’s territory starts. Franz J. Marty for Foreign Policy

The front between Bahorak and Warduj shows little signs of war. Along the main road on one side of the river, the Afghan National Army mans only about six simple outposts, while the Warduj unit runs a single checkpoint at an abandoned gas station. On the other side of the river, where a dirt track goes to Warduj, there are no government checkpoints at all. If the Taliban attack, additional forces are deployed from the nearby Afghan National Army battalion base or from Habib’s unit—whether from Habib’s current house and command post or the main base in Bahorak. But the front has been quiet save for short exchanges of fire, with the last major Taliban attack, according to Habib, dating back to fall 2017.

In any event, the unit’s members assert that they are ready to fight. The fact that many of the up to 800 estimated Taliban in Warduj may be their former neighbors does not seem to bother them. Almost all deny knowing any of their Taliban enemies closely, although this seems—given that rural Afghan communities are tight-knit—unlikely. One man who admitted that former neighbors are now with the Taliban said it would make no difference: “They attacked us. They once were neighbors, but now they are ruthless killers and enemies—nothing else.”

To the despair of the exiles, the Afghan government and its international backers do not seem to be interested in recapturing Warduj. The last serious attempt to retake Warduj was in April 2016. Back then, the plan was that Habib and his men would attack Chokaron from the mountains, while the Afghan National Army simultaneously would push up the Warduj valley from Bahorak. But the operation failed.

Habib openly accuses the Afghan National Army of having abandoned his force in said operation. An independent assessment from the time of the operation, shared with the author privately, corroborates that the Afghan National Army did not advance as planned, citing strong defensive insurgent fortifications, a destroyed road, and insufficient and inaccurate close air support as reasons for not doing so.

Asked about why no other attempt has been launched to retake Warduj, Habib, his men, other locals, and observers mentioned political reasons. As often is the case in Afghanistan, they gave few, if any, specific details and resorted to general accusations that the government is secretly in bed with the Taliban.

Nek Mohammad Nazari, the spokesman of the governor of Badakhshan, rejected any notion of collaboration. He said that a successful operation to retake Warduj as well as other Taliban strongholds in Badakhshan would require commando forces and close air support—but that such forces are not available, as they are needed in other hot spots across the war-torn country.

That may have been true when Nazari said so in late August 2018, but it is hard to imagine that during the prolonged period that Warduj has been under Taliban control there has never been an opportunity to dispatch such assets to the area. It seems more likely that Warduj, a district of just an estimated 23,866 residents that does not pose an immediate strategic threat, simply isn’t that important—except to the people who once lived there.

Habib (center, in blue), the commander of Warduj’s Afghan Local Police, and other members of the unit on Aug. 24, 2018.Franz J. Marty for Foreign Policy

Yet what makes the lack of interest of U.S. and NATO-led forces toward Warduj peculiar is that the district hosts one of the highest concentrations of foreign fighters in Afghanistan. It is difficult to determine exact numbers, but Habib indicates there are 260 such foreign fighters, with other estimates ranging between 160 and 400. Those fighters are said to have come to Badakhshan after a Pakistan Army operation dislodged them from prior hideouts in North Waziristan in the Pakistani tribal areas in 2014. Quite how they arrived is uncertain.

Nor is it clear where those fighters hail from. When asked, local officials and other sources mention various places of origin, such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and China. However, Afghans are notoriously unreliable when it comes to identifying foreign fighters, and the mention of Chechens should raise red flags, as—despite the frequency of such claims—there are no confirmed cases of Chechen fighters in Afghanistan.

Manon, who had spent time among local and foreign insurgents in Warduj, said that the foreign fighters in Warduj never indicate their true origins. However, there is evidence for the presence of fighters from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—as well as Uighurs from China. This includes confirmation by United Nations sources and a propaganda video shot in Badakhshan that shows fighters speaking in Uighur, with the dialect of Hotan, a county in Xinjiang.

Because of this, China has taken an interest in Badakhshan. In fact, a well-placed source, who requested anonymity due to the delicacy of the issue, confirmed that China is actively seeking detailed information on said Uighurs in Badakhshan, including up-to-date locations of their leader, who reportedly lives in Warduj.

The Uighurs, a traditionally Sunni Muslim ethnic group, face severe oppression in their homeland of Xinjiang in the far west of China, a small part of which borders Afghanistan. Over a million Uighurs are currently in internment camps in Xinjiang, and this is only the latest in an array of attempts from Beijing to destroy their culture, language, and faith. That’s produced an insurgency in Xinjiang—the extent of which is unknown—and pressed some Uighurs, particularly those with jihadi aspirations, into fleeing to join militant groups elsewhere. How many Uighur fighters are in other countries is a tricky question, especially because China often claims Uighurs are members of terrorist groups that may not even exist, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

China has been keen to crack down on any Uighur dissent globally, harassing and threatening communities as far away as Washington and Paris. That makes the armed community in Badakhshan, which borders Xinjiang, a particular threat—at least in as China sees it. A sober assessment reveals that the Uighurs in Badakhshan do not pose a direct threat to China but are hiding out there. Furthermore, a direct spillover of insecurity from Afghanistan into China can—due to the utter remoteness and daunting topography of the extremely short Afghan–Chinese border, which runs through some of the highest mountains in the world—virtually be ruled out.

China is nevertheless so concerned that it offered to finance and equip an Afghan National Army mountain brigade in Badakhshan. Whether this will ever materialize is more than questionable, though. The plan has been around at least since February 2017 but has never gone beyond initial discussions. And resurfacing reports about the allegedly imminent construction of a Chinese-financed base in Badakhshan have been repeatedly denied by officials and sources on the ground. Besides, a Chinese-equipped brigade in a U.S.-equipped Afghan army would create an array of not only political but also logistical problems.

Very limited Afghan-Chinese military cooperation as well as Chinese materiel assistance to Afghan forces, in particular in Badakhshan, are probably continuing, though. But despite the almost paranoid interest of China in Badakhshan, Beijing seems uninterested in getting more significantly involved in Afghanistan.

Habib’s men’s immediate concern is not China but the foreign fighters in Warduj and their alleged battlefield prowess. They say the foreigners are fedoi (attackers, willing to sacrifice themselves in battle), and that it would take airstrikes to defeat them. It is hard to tell, though, to what extent this is true, as in Afghanistan foreign fighters have become semi-mythical creatures whose fighting skills tend to be exaggerated—arguably also because it is a good excuse to gloss over the shortcomings of Afghan government forces. What can be said is that the rare U.S. and Afghan airstrikes in Badakhshan that have reportedly targeted foreign fighters, mostly in Warduj, have been anything but effective.

In any event, for Habib and his men, Kabul is far away. Beijing is not on their minds. But the men of the Warduj unit continue to hold the line in Bahorak, hoping one day they will head home.

Franz Marty is a freelance journalist in Kabul, Afghanistan. He covers a wide range of topics, but is mainly interested in geopolitical and security issues.

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