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The Killid Group
The Battle for Baghlan Taliban vs. Hekmatyar
Thursday, 11 March 2010 12:47
Violent clashes between men loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Taliban groups rattled Baghlan province last Saturday.
The fighting left more than 50 of Hekmatyar's Hezbi Islami (Islamic Party) fighters and an unknown number of civilians dead. The sound of bullets and exploding rocket propelled grenades filled the air of Kook-Chenar district near to Central Baghlan, for most of two days and nights. The government has almost no control in the areas where the fighting took place.
The battle seems to have cost Hekmatyar dearly, as he's lost control of what where once his major strongholds. One of his main commanders, a man known as Mirwais has been missing since the battle ended and is assumed to be on the run from government forces, who have already arrested or detained over 100 of Hekmatyar's men.
Though official reports vary, somewhere between 50 and 100 Hezbi Islami members were so rattled by the fighting that they volunteered on the spot to fight for government security forces who had gathered at the edge of the fighting.
The fight was started by a Taliban group who had been steadily gaining ground in Baghlan, even installing a so called "shadow governor," who levied taxes, imposed and enforced Sharia law, and recruited Taliban fighters.
That governor, Mullah Mir Mohammad, was arrested last month in Pakistan by ISI and many believe that it was Hekmatyar who tipped off the ISI to Mohammad's presence in their country.
While ISI supports the Taliban in some parts of Afghanistan, they have also supported Hekmatyar as he fought Taliban groups in Baghlan.
The Taliban group wanted to avenge the capture of Mohammad and they chose to do so by hitting Hekmatyar and his men hard on their home turf.
The Taliban lost another shadow governor around this same time. Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Taliban governor of Kunduz was also arrested in Pakistan by ISI. It is unclear if his arrest was also prompted by a tipoff from Hekmatyar's men.
While this latest battle has been a hard loss for Hekmatyar, it is only the most recent fight in what has been a long battle between the Hezbi Islami and Taliban groups.
During Taliban rule, Hekmatyar fought the Taliban in Kandahar, Ghazni and Wardak. In those days, he was largely unsuccessful in his campaigns to dislodge Taliban rule, as they were better armed and funded. At one point the Hezbi Islami was defeated in Hekmatyar's hometown of Spin-e-Shigah, when their strategic base-camp was surrounded by Taliban forces.
Now, as then, Baghlan is considered a Hekmatyar and Hezbi Islami stronghold.
Hekmatyar and the Hezbi Islami will want to strike back at the Taliban. If he does, the fight could spread to Nooristan, Laghman, Kunar, Kunduz and Wardak provinces. If that happens, the fight will be long, bloody and cruel.
But an expansion of the Hezbi Islami-Taliban hostilities is not guaranteed. The US-led coalition forces and Afghan National Army have made some important strides in restricting Taliban operations in the above-mentioned provinces, and of course there are the recent arrests of so many important insurgent leaders. The ISI also likely does not want an escalation of these hostilities.
Ironically, the only party that seems to benefit from an increase in this internecine warfare is the Afghan government. Hekmatyar is fighting the Taliban in Baghlan, so the government doesn't have to. What's more, with the Hezbi Islami kept busy with Taliban attacks, they may have little appetite to cause trouble for the government.
The recent clashes between the two groups have signaled the end of a kind of thaw in the relationship between them.
During the past four years, the Hezbi Islami and Taliban groups have, if not recognized an official truce, at least refrained from killing one another.
This may be because the Taliban are better equipped than Hekmetyar's men and the old war-horse knows that he has little chance of winning a toe-to-toe fight with the Taliban, as the fighting earlier this month showed.
But it could also be the hand of ISI that has, until now, kept these foes apart.
ISI is thought to support the Taliban, Haqqani network and Hekmatyar's Hezbi Islami. ISI has tried to keep these groups from fighting amongst them. These groups also share ties with Pakistani extremists, who do not want to have to choose sides if these three groups go for each other's throats.
Despite this, Hekmatyar's commanders will not soon forget the heavy and embarrassing losses they endured this month. They will want revenge and will not shy away from an opportune chance to take it.
It is unclear when that chance will emerge, as they now have their backs to the wall in their home province and one of their top leaders is on the run. The Taliban must know that they have the advantage right now and if given the opportunity, will use it to try and finish off Hekmatyar's fighters.