Reversing the Northeastern Insurgency

The unexpected rise of violence in northern Afghanistan that began in 2008 revealed that the insurgency had expanded its presence into a previously uncontested region. This expansion fueled concerns among the United States and its allies that the security situation in previously stable areas was deteriorating.  In March 2010, as part of President Obama’s troop surge, several thousand U.S. forces deployed to northeastern Afghanistan for the first time and began conducting operations alongside German and Afghan security forces. These operations have generally been successful and violence has considerably diminished. Insurgents have been routed from many key districts, their shadow government has been battered, and hundreds of fighters have been killed, captured, or switched-sides.  Still, challenges remain and the inability of the small number of International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) forces to hold cleared territories, as well as the long-term consequences of over-reliance on local militias to provide security, are of particular concern.

Click here to read the rest of Afghanistan Report #9: Reversing the Northeastern Insurgency

Executive Summary


-Security in the northeastern Afghanistan provinces of Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan deteriorated between early 2008 and fall of 2010.

  • Limited deployment of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) allowed insurgent groups to develop safe havens from which to attack ISAF and ANSF forces.

-Several insurgent groups are active within these northeastern provinces, specifically the Quetta Shura Taliban, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

-The arrival of additional ISAF forces in March 2010 provided the combat power necessary to confront the insurgent groups; major joint ISAF-ANSF clearing operations began across the provinces in October 2010.

-The ISAF and ANSF operations across the three provinces focused on limited objectives of securing transit routes and clearing insurgent strongholds, in contrast to population-centric counterinsurgency strategies found in southern Afghanistan.

-Kunduz province is the center of gravity for the northeastern insurgency, due to the major ISAF supply routes that run through the province as well as the Taliban’s ability to win over much of the Pashtun population. The province’s border with Tajikistan is also a key link for drug and weapon smuggling.

  • ISAF and ANSF forces moved clockwise through the province and conducted clearing operations from October 2010 to January 2011, targeting a number of insurgent safe havens.
  • These operations destroyed several key insurgent strongholds in the southern and central regions of the province and degraded insurgent abilities to launch attacks; however, safe havens in the north and east were not cleared definitively and local security officials have been attacked in recent high profile suicide bombings.

-In Takhar province, insurgent groups gained control of lucrative drug and weapon smuggling routes to Tajikistan, providing funding that helps fuel the northeastern insurgency.

  • ANSF offensives between October 2010 and February 2011 concentrated on securing the strategically important highway running through the province’s northwest corridor. These operations were conducted with minimal ISAF support.
  • Despite ANSF gains in reversing the insurgency in Takhar, the province continues to be a major conduit for drugs and weapons smuggling into Central Asia. This is largely due to the systemic corruption within the Afghan security forces along with the influence of regional powerbrokers and their control of smuggling networks.

-Baghlan province is a strategic crossroad for ISAF, ANSF, and insurgent forces. Highways that run through the province serve as major supply routes for ISAF convoys, and insurgent groups use local roads as transit lines to Kunduz and Takhar.

  • ISAF and ANSF forces launched joint operations from November 2010 to March 2011, clearing the areas surrounding major highways and destroying insurgent safe havens.
  • The joint operations secured key ISAF supply routes through the province, and eliminated insurgent strongholds in several districts.

-Operations across Kunduz, Takhar and Baglan appear to have been successful in reversing insurgent momentum in the northeast. Areas cleared by ISAF and ANSF forces are currently held by Afghan Local Police and arbakai, government-sponsored initiatives that arm local tribesmen and former militants to defend against insurgent groups.

-The gains from these operations, however, may be at risk of backsliding. The limited ISAF and ANSF presence across all three provinces precludes a widespread deployment of security forces to hold cleared terrain and the Afghan Local Police and arbakai—tasked with providing long term security— suffer from poor discipline and corruption.


Additional Off-site Authors: 
Anthony Bell, and Michael Whittaker