The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In northern Afghanistan, a mix of Taliban, foreign fighters, and soldiers spread thin

A soldier from the Republic of Georgia scans the horizon while on a ridge line east of Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, on Oct. 27. (Photo by Dan Lamothe/ The Washington Post)

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan — The coalition soldiers arrived on a dusty ridge line east of this city near dusk, as a cool breeze swept in from the hazy desert plain that stretched for miles below. Fighting positions likely dug decades ago by the Russian military sat at the edge of the ridge, and were marked with numerous stones painted bright blue on one side.

“Be careful,” said a sergeant from the Republic of Georgia, gesturing to the blue stones, which are often used to mark areas with land mines. “This could be a dangerous place.”

The fighting positions and their winding trenches appear on several ridges nearby, the soldiers said during the Oct. 27 patrol. But the holes hint at something else: The complex history and evolving security threats in northern Afghanistan, where the challenges are in some ways similar to other parts of the country but in other ways significantly different.

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Northern Afghanistan includes nine provinces stretching from Faryab along the Iranian border to the west to the soaring cliffs and gemstone mines in Badakhshan to the east. Long known as one of the country’s safest places, the region has more recently seen the temporary fall of Kunduz, a major strategic city, to the Taliban and other violent groups.

“Our enemy is more able than in earlier times and more able to work across district and across boundaries together,” said Brig. Gen. Andreas Hanneman, a German officer who leads coalition operations in the north. “Which means across district, and even across provincial [borders].”

There are several reasons for that, Hanneman said. Most significantly, the U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan in recent years included the Germans pulling forces out of Kunduz and Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan in the northeast. That has allowed the Taliban to make gains in both areas.

But the insurgents also have been bolstered by foreign fighters who trained them how to fight better — an advising mission not unlike the coalition’s, Hannaman said. In Kunduz, for example, a small number of Chechens — long well-regarded by U.S. troops for their battlefield skills — taught local fighters how to prepare for incoming indirect fire by building more hardened structures, Hanneman said.

“These guys know how to do business,” the general said. “They do it in a different way [than Western troops], but it is by far better than… some people which are collected together in some rural areas with some Kalashnikovs and discussing how to attack instead of training it. It’s a huge difference, and you see it all around, unfortunately.”

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Other groups in northern Afghanistan include the Haqqanis, a brutal group of Pakistani-based insurgents affiliated with the Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is affiliated with the Islamic State group. Much of the IMU’s leadership were driven to Pakistan in recent years, but started to return to sanctuaries in northern Afghanistan after Pakistan launched a series of military operations last year to drive insurgents out.

“You have insurgent groups that are getting facilitation from outside this country and operating in here, and then some of them – like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – operate out of here into Uzbekistan from the safe haven,” said U.S. Army Col. Paul Sarat, who recently concluded a 16-month tour as the top U.S. officer in the north. “The insurgents don’t respect borders, and that’s one thing these sovereign countries must deal with.”

Still, much of the north remains relative safe, especially around  Mazar-E Sharif, Afghanistan’s second largest city. The area also has more Western ideals, and a very different population than the southern portion of the country, where conservative Pashtun people are in the majority. In the north, Tajiks and Uzbeks combine to form 60 percent of the population, while Pashtuns comprise just 15 percent.

The Germans continue to maintain a nearby base, Camp Marmal, from which coalition operations in the north are organized. It is home to Train Advise and Assist Command-North, commanded by Hanneman with a U.S. officer serving as his deputy.

Until recently that deputy was Sarat, who first deployed to Afghanistan in late 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks. He spent about three weeks in Kunduz province with a small team of U.S. advisers after the city fell to insurgents in late September, advising Afghan forces as they responded from an Afghan base near the airport called Camp Pamir.

Sarat, speaking in a recent interview at Camp Marmal, said Afghan forces did well in taking back Kunduz city. The Afghan army realized it can’t be everywhere in the region afterward and must set up fewer static security checkpoints in favor of having a force available to maneuver operations when needed, he added.

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“When they had the chance to step back and rally, they rallied and systematically cleared the city,” Sarat said. “And not only cleared the city, but occupied some areas in stronger numbers than they had before. And more importantly, expanded out into areas that were under insurgent control before.”

The biggest role for Sarat in the operation was helping Afghan commanders make sense of intelligence and use their commandos and other Special Operations forces in the most effective way possible, he said. He declined to comment on the Oct. 3 bombing of a hospital in the city by U.S. forces that results in dozens of deaths. It has been characterized as a mistake by senior U.S. officials, and an investigation is ongoing.

The Afghan army is in the process of establishing a fourth brigade of soldiers for its 209th Corps, which is based in the north. It’s an acknowledgement, Sarat said, that Afghan commanders know they are stretched thin across the region. The new brigade will be based in Badakhshan to the east, but will likely take months, if not longer, to build.

“As a result of the force ratios in such a large area, there were going to be opportunities for insurgents to attack places with high visibility and get some attention,” Sarat said. “But you never see them actually hold any of the terrain. There’s always going to be a soft point, and the Taliban know based on their experience and their time here where they can hit and where they can get a lot of international attention.”

Army Gen. John Campbell, the top coalition general in Afghanistan, said the Taliban probably didn’t have plans to take over Kunduz permanently. The Afghan government is developing an investigative report to determine what happened there and how they can be more ready the next time an attack like it occurs.

“I think they got in and they found that it was a little bit easier than what they thought as they attacked around the prison there,” Campbell said. “And they took it as a target of opportunity. So, there are some big questions that the Afghans that, even based on this report, are going to get into over the next week or two. Now they have to absorb all of it.”