in march 2010, clashes erupted between two of Afghanistan’s most important insurgent groups in northern Baghlan Province. A days-long battle between Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban left nearly 60 militants and 20 civilians dead. Hostilities between the two sides flared again in Wardak Province in July, where ongoing clashes killed 28 Taliban fighters, including an important local Taliban commander.
The skirmishes, sparked by the growing reach of the Taliban and turf battles between the two groups, mark a significant fissure in the country’s militant movement. This article provides a closer look at these frictions and at Afghan government and coalition efforts to exploit them.
The intra-insurgent tensions are rooted in the dynamics of northern Afghanistan, once peaceful areas that have experienced spiraling violence in recent years. Since 2007, high-level Taliban commanders have repeatedly threatened to expand the war into the largely passive and ethnically divided north, a sparsely populated area where the main forces were non-combat ready International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) units and local security groups. The Taliban’s initial strategy for the north was to slowly build up intelligence and support networks in the northwest and northeast. They were able to exploit local grievances, particularly those caused by corrupt, ineffective government and ethnic tensions between non-Pashtuns and Pashtuns. By 2008, insurgent leaders were issuing special decrees calling for more attacks in these regions, spawning a surge of anti-government activity that has since seriously destabilized parts of the north and west.
In particular, the northern corridor linking Kabul to the Tajikistan border has increasingly come under tremendous pressure from anti-government forces, including the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami. Both groups largely operated in separate areas, but occasional tactical level cooperation was reported, although suspicion and competition between both fronts remained the norm. Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, located about 155 miles from Kabul, have suffered the brunt of deadly insurgent attacks and increasing insecurity. The Taliban have built an extensive network in the region—there are now an estimated 300 to 600 “hard core” fighters, most of them local, and scores of foreign fighters—both sharp increases from 2007. In June, Baghlan’s provincial council chief Muhammad Rasoul Muhsini said that the Taliban have established clandestine “military centers” in 11 of Baghlan’s districts and that only five of the remaining districts were under de facto government control (Barka, Tala Barfak, Farang, Khost and Dahan-i-Ghori).
Alongside the Taliban, Hizb has traditionally maintained a significant presence in both provinces. Under the command of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun originally from Kunduz (Imam Sahib district), Hizb easily reactivated parts of its northern networks from the anti-Soviet insurgency and consolidated party representation, albeit modestly, in Baghlan and Kunduz. The group also has fighters in the region around Kabul and in the provinces near the eastern Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The U.S. military has previously estimated Hizb’s overall forces to number around 400 to 600, although experts suggest that the number is more likely to total close to 1,500 full-time fighters. Despite such numbers, the Taliban have in recent years surpassed Hizb as the dominant insurgent force in the area. Today, the Taliban are far more aggressive and militarily resilient, as measured by the number of attacks they initiate and the extent of territory under their control. The Taliban succeeded in marginalizing Hizb’s influence in the area by implementing heavy-handed terrorist attacks, especially targeting influential tribal leaders and former commanders. This resulted in a power vacuum that they were able to exploit.
The region has strategic importance for both groups because of a key transit route that runs south from Tajikistan through Kunduz and Baghlan. The route provides fuel and other vital logistical supplies to NATO forces, making it a magnet for insurgent attacks. Indeed, violence in the area surged as international forces began to rely heavily on the route. The route, however, also began to fuel tensions between insurgent groups. At stake was access to a trade corridor—a valuable source of income and power. By late 2009, turf battles over key pieces of terrain, including fertile farming areas and key logistical hubs, exploded between Hizb and the Taliban.
Fissures in the Insurgency
The largest clash between the two groups was the March 7, 2010 incident in northern Baghlan, when Taliban fighters nearly overran Hizb positions, prompting Hizb commanders to contact Afghan government officials in search of military support. Ultimately, the feud ended with the Hizb fighters being expelled from their strongholds and the Taliban seizing sizeable portions of Dahan-i-Ghori and Baghlan-i-Jadid districts. Since that time, a number of other clashes have taken place, even outside of the northern area. For instance, in late June the two sides skirmished in Wardak Province, near Kabul. In July, these skirmishes led to full battles in Nirkh district, when Hizb fighters—who were locals and had a better understanding of the terrain—handed a defeat to Taliban forces who had come from surrounding districts. In response, the Taliban brought in reinforcements from other provinces, which Hizb matched by mobilizing Kuchis from Nangarhar Province. In late July, the combined Hizb-Kuchi force routed the Taliban and killed a number of their commanders, prompting the Taliban’s Quetta shura to send a commission to the district to assess the reasons behind their losses.
In another instance, Hizb-aligned elders took control of parts of Nuristan Province in the country’s northeast after U.S. forces withdrew from the area in 2009, sparking further clashes with the Taliban. Taliban fighters have also assassinated key Hizb-aligned officials in recent months, the most prominent of whom was Maulavi Gul Rahman, a famous commander under Hekmatyar during the anti-Soviet insurgency.
In some cases, Taliban fighters see Hizb-i-Islami as ineffective or disapprove of their contacts with the Afghan government. Qari Ziaur Rahman, a prominent Taliban commander active on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border near Kunar, recently dismissed the group. “Hizb has not been effective in the last eight years,” he said. “They haven’t had any major successes in these years.”
Afghan and Western officials have made moves in an attempt to take advantage of these strains. A key element of their strategy is to convince rank-and-file Hizb fighters to leave the insurgency and form pro-government militias as a bulwark against Taliban activity. In other cases, they are attempting to adroitly exploit local dynamics. For instance, in a political move that largely escaped media attention, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed Hajji Abdul Munshi Majeed, the long-standing governor of Badakhshan Province, as Baghlan’s new governor in May 2010. Majeed is a Pashtun from Baghlan and reportedly has longstanding ties to Hizb-i-Islami. In fact, one group of analysts even contends that he is involved in “consolidating the party and reviving its communications network across the country.” This move also highlights the seriousness in which the government views the increase in Taliban activities and consolidation in the northern districts of Kunduz and Baghlan. Increasingly desperate, the government appears to be outsourcing security and intelligence networks to Hizb-i-Islami to prevent the Taliban from gaining more territory, while at the same time Hizb-i-Islami is siding with the government to prevent further erosion of its influence from Taliban intrusions.
With Majeed now acting as the governor of Baghlan, relations between the two groups are likely to strain further. Moreover, his appointment coincides with a push to eliminate the Taliban leadership in the province. According to NATO statements, joint Afghan and ISAF operations have “removed three successively appointed Taliban provincial shadow governors for the province.” On May 14, Mullah Rohullah was killed along with his entourage, including his deputy, and his replacement, Maluvi Jabbar, was killed along with two Taliban military commanders (Mullah Haji Muhamood and Mullah Kajoor) on May 28. Only three days later, the newly installed Taliban governor for Baghlan was also arrested. The events marked one of the biggest losses of provincial-level leadership for the Taliban anywhere in the country. Officials say that this is partly due to Hizb providing information to Afghan forces. “Intelligence comes from the armed forces of Hizb-i-Islami,” said a senior Afghan provincial official in July. “We buy information from the fighters.” More than 50 Hizb fighters are being kept in a government safe house in Baghlan, also a likely source of intelligence for coalition forces.
In addition to the friction among insurgents at the local level, Afghan and U.S. officials have modified their stance toward engaging some of the insurgent leadership. For instance, the United States has publicly released several high-value Hizb associates beginning in 2008, including Dr. Ghairat Baheer, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and top public relations figure, who was apprehended and held in custody since 2002. Abdullah Shahab, Hekmatyar’s nephew, was captured and held by U.S. forces since 2005 before his unexpected release in July 2009. More generally, the United Nations has approved measures to ease some of the financial restrictions of those linked to the insurgency (but not to al-Qa`ida) and to review all detainees in Afghan, U.S. and NATO custody.
From Hizb’s side, representatives of its military committee reached out to the Afghan government as early as 2008. That year a group of lawmakers who once had ties to Hekmatyar met with Hizb representatives in Peshawar, while Hekmatyar himself sent conciliatory messages to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that spring. In February 2010, this group hosted a second meeting in the Maldives, featuring a number of Hizb-linked clerics and unofficial representatives. The two sides agreed to explore ways to bring all parties to the negotiating table. At the same time, a group of Hizb figures, such as Hekmatyar deputy Qutbuddin Hilal and U.S. representative Daoud Abedi, began to open dialogue with U.S. and Afghan officials. These various moves culminated in an official Hizb delegation to Kabul, where Hilal, Baheer and other representatives met with President Karzai and former Northern Alliance and Taliban figures on March 18. The group delivered a 15-point peace proposal, which included a call for elections in return for a timetable for the withdrawal of troops. Hekmatyar said that the overture was prompted by the Obama administration’s admission that the war could not be won solely through military means.
Nevertheless, Hekmatyar and his senior military leadership appear to be seeking to negotiate from a position of weakness, as their base in the north erodes with the Taliban’s advance. The defense of their stronghold in Nirkh in Wardak, however, shows that their capitulation is far from certain, and the dynamic of tensions with the Taliban while reaching out to the government is likely to continue for some time.
Given Hekmatyar’s insistence on a troop withdrawal, the U.S. and Afghan governments are unlikely to strike a deal with him soon. Moreover, the peace overtures raise the question of what Hekmatyar’s role will be in any post-agreement government, a deeply controversial issue. Nonetheless, if handled correctly the developments could be a step toward de-escalation of hostilities, where some rank-and-file insurgents abandon the fight and the violence mitigates in some parts of the country. Moreover, the approaches between the two sides could change the dynamic on the battlefield, giving much needed space for international forces to isolate the Taliban in the northern provinces. On the political front, Hizb-i-Islami has even attempted to portray itself as a force that can act as a bridge between Washington and the Taliban—a senior Hizb representative met with U.S. State Department officials in 2009 and then traveled to Quetta to meet the Taliban leadership in an attempt to foster dialogue. On the other hand, Hizb-i-Islami has little influence over the Taliban movement, and this specific meeting did not lead to an opening of dialogue among the three sides.
Peeling away rank-and-file Hizb fighters, or even striking a deal with the leadership, will not end the war—the problem of the Taliban and other insurgent groups such as the Haqqani network would remain major issues. Moreover, it is possible that some Hizb fighters could simply switch allegiances and fight under the Taliban’s banner, and past atrocities attributed to Hekmatyar and Hizb commanders will not quickly be forgotten. Yet if such moves open the door to more nuanced and varied approaches to the insurgency, it could augur well for an eventual approach to a political solution to the conflict.
Matthew DuPee currently serves as a research associate with the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies, located at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Mr. DuPee has studied Afghanistan since 1999 and continues to focus his research on Afghanistan’s insurgency, illicit networks, narcotics, and human terrain issues.
Anand Gopal is a journalist and researcher based in Afghanistan. He is currently working on a book on the Afghan conflict.
 Hizb-i-Islami is one of the three largest insurgent groups in Afghanistan. A young Islamist named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar formed the political faction in Pakistan in 1976 in response to the growing influence of leftist movements in the Afghan government and university campuses. During the 1980s, Hekmatyar, along with guidance from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and financial assistance from U.S. and Saudi intelligence services, propelled Hizb-i-Islami into the biggest mujahidin organization fighting against the Soviet occupation. Hekmatyar is infamous for his brutal battlefield tactics and backstabbing political deals, including the assassination of many of his political rivals.
 Hakim Basharat, “Taliban, HIA Fighting Over Territory in Maidan Wardak,” Pajhwok Afghan News, July 29, 2010; Hakim Basharat, “HIA Backers Kill Taliban Member in Wardak,” Pajhwok Afghan News, July 13, 2010.
 Officials believed the Taliban were distributing weapons and ammunition to groups in Kunduz and Baghlan in November 2006. A similar trend emerged in the northwestern province of Badghis around the same time. For more, see Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp. 130-131; Matthew C. DuPee, “Badghis Province: Examining the Taliban’s Northwestern Campaign,” Culture & Conflict Review 2:4 (2008).
 In the spring of 2009, Mullah Baradar announced the launch of Operation Nusrat (Victory), the 2009 Taliban campaign aimed at attacking NATO and Afghan government forces including a special decree for insurgents in Kunduz to ramp up their activities.
 In the case of Baghlan Province, a non-traditional Taliban stronghold, Hizb-i-Islami is more entrenched and politically established with many former commanders and their militias enjoying local autonomy and freedom of movement. The Taliban are considered more capable militarily and typically employ more coercive force, threats and violence to win the “hearts and minds.”
 For more details, see Matthew DuPee, “Operation Nusrat (Victory): Understanding the Taliban Threat to Kunduz Province,” Culture & Conflict Review 3:3 (2009); Matthias Gebauer and Shoib Najafizada, “Situation Worsens in Northern Afghanistan,” Der Spiegel, August 3, 2009.
 Habib Rahman Sherzai, “‘All Districts in Baghlan May Fall into Taliban Hands,’” Pajhwok Afghan News, June 14, 2010.
 Giustozzi, p. 132. According to a Hizb commander, however, the group has 4,000 members in the northern regions alone, although this figure is likely exaggerated. See Najibullah Quraishi, “Behind Taliban Lines,” PBS Frontline, February 23, 2010.
 Following the successful parliamentary elections in 2005, many Hizb commanders and cadres folded back into the community, creating a vacuum for the Taliban to eventually penetrate and establish a more aggressive and violent military campaign in the north.
 Personal interview, Afghan security official, May 2010.
 Several prominent anti-Taliban militia commanders have been killed recently by the Taliban in Kunduz, including Commander Selab, Commander Hassan and a Taliban defector named Commander Abdullah.
 Successful insurgent attacks on convoys can bring monetary rewards from the leadership or build the prestige of the field commander involved in the incident. Moreover, companies organizing supply convoys sometimes pay “protection money” to insurgents to ensure safe passage. See, for example, Aryn Baker, “How Crime Pays for the Taliban,” Time Magazine, September 7, 2009.
 For details, see Fabrizio Foschini, “Baghlan – Divided We Stand,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 7, 2010.
 Hakim Basharat, “Three Injured as Taliban, Hizb Clash in Wardak,” Pajhwok Afghan News, June 27, 2010.
 Kuchis are a nomadic, pastoralist culture in Afghanistan.
 Personal interview, UN official, Kabul, August 2010.
 Personal interview, Taliban commander for Wardak Province, Kabul, August 2010.
 Personal interview, Afghan official from Nuristan, May 2010.
 “Afghan Peace Cleric Rahman Gul Shot Dead in Kunar,” BBC, May 17, 2010.
[20 Anand Gopal, “Afghanistan Warlord Hekmatyar Shuns Peace Jirga but Offers His Own Deal,” Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 2010.
 Cole Hansen, Christian Dennys and Idrees Zaman, “Conflict Analysis: Baharak District, Badakhshan Province,” Cooperation for Peace and Unity, February 2009. Also see David Isby, “Trojan Horse or Genuine Schism? The Hizb-i Islami Split,” Terrorism Monitor 2:11 (2004).
 Strictly speaking, Majeed belongs to the legal wing of Hizb-i-Islami, which has officially repudiated Hekmatyar and abides by the Afghan constitution. Many observers, however, agree that there remain deep links between some officials in the legal Hizb-i-Islami and Hekmatyar’s wing.
 “IJC Operational Update, June 22,” ISAF joint command statement, June 22, 2010.
 Bill Roggio, “Newly Minted Shadow Governor Captured,” The Long War Journal, June 3, 2010.
 Hamid Shalizi and Jonathon Burch, “Afghan Insurgents Supplying Taliban Intel to NATO—Officials,” Reuters, July 8, 2010.
 Baheer was also given a visa to travel to London by British authorities in January 2009. For details, see “Secret Talks with Taliban Under Way,” al-Jazira, February 27, 2009; Syed Saleem Shahzad, “A Struggle Between War and Peace,” Asia Times Online, June 3, 2008.
 Wrazpanra Weesa, July 29, 2009.
 This interaction refers to the insurgent component of Hekmatyar’s military committee. A political bloc of former Hizb-i-Islami commanders and political leaders broke away from the central Hizb party led by Hekmatyar and became a legally registered party and participated successfully in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
 Personal interview, Afghan officials, April 2008.
 Anand Gopal, “Interview with Afghan Warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: Can Peace Talks Succeed?” Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 2010.
 Personal interview, senior Hizb-i-Islami representative, February 2010.
 Commanders and fighters are organized by the andiwal network, which is based on personal ties between fighters and commanders. This means a wholesale transfer from Hizb to the Taliban is not likely, as it would mean breaking longstanding ties. Yet, it remains a possibility for some commanders.