In late January 2015, dozens of armed men draped in the red, green, and black colors of the Afghan national flag, announced the formation of a new anti-Taliban and anti-Islamic State militia in Afghanistan’s northern province of Balkh. The militia, called “Marg” – the word for death in the Dari language – boasted of having a troop strength of 5,000 armed men, although the number could not be independently corroborated and is most likely exaggerated.
However, on Jan. 26, dozens of Marg militia members visited the provincial council in Balkh and formally offered to fight against the Islamic State and the Taliban, according to a report by Afghan Zariza.
Marg, which reportedly is now active in five northern Afghan provinces, which includes Balkh and Faryab, consists mainly of former mujaheddin fighters, according to a report by Al Jazeera. The same report identified Haji Mohammed Mahdiyar as the leader of Marg in Balkh province and indicated that there were approximately 300 former mujahedeen commanders actively training militia members. Similar anti-Taliban militias were formed last year by ethnic Turkmens in Jawzjan and Farayb provinces, although it is unclear if these militias have formed a union with Marg.
While not directly stated, the formation of Marg is most likely attributed to powerful hard-line former mujahedeen commanders in northern Afghanistan who remain suspicious of the new Afghan National Unity Government and its recent peace overtures to the Afghan Taliban. It is unlikely that the formation of Marg could have occurred without the tacit approval from Atta Mohammad Nur, the Governor of Balkh and a top Jamiat-e Islami commander who maintains staunch anti-Taliban views.
Similarly, other influential segments of the former anti-Taliban bloc, the United Islamic Front (known as the “Northern Alliance”), are probably also playing a role in the formation of Marg. The ethnic Hazara faction Hezb-e Wahdat (Islamic Unity Party), which maintains a level of influence throughout pockets of northern Afghanistan including in Balkh, is one of the most powerful political groups representing Afghanistan’s minority Shiite population. Hezb-e Wahdat also has known ties to Iran, which also shares a vehemently anti-Islamic Stance position. The group of Marg commanders under the leadership of Haji Mohammad Mahdiyar, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2010 Wolesi Jirga election for Samangan province, are most likely Hezb-e Wahdat affiliates.
Not to be outdone by ethnic and political rivals, the Afghan First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leader of the ethnic Uzbek and Turkmen dominated National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan Party (Junbish-e Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan), announced his plan in late January 2015 to mobilize a 20,000 strong militia to combat the enduring insurgency plaguing Afghanistan.
Dostum’s plan was seemingly stifled by the Commander of the Afghan National Army Ground Forces General Murad Ali Murad who rejected the formation of any “parallel forces” that could usurp the authority of Afghanistan’s National Security Forces (ANSF), according to Khaama Press. Nevertheless, it remains likely that influential figures such as Atta Nur, Dostum, and elements within Hezb-e Wahdat, have tacitly approved the formation of Marg in northern Afghanistan.
Marg militiamen have issued direct threats to any Afghan found supporting either the Islamic State or the Afghan Taliban. The formation of Marg follows on the recent emergence of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, a cabal of disaffected Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP) leaders and ostracized Afghan Taliban members in Helmand and Farah Provinces, a small core of whom had publicly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In northern Jawzjan province, Afghan officials have reported that approximately 600 Taliban insurgents have begun fighting under the guise of the Islamic State and have even raised the symbolic “black flag” throughout the province, according to ToloNews.
Recently, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province have been accused of carrying out a series of small scale attacks, including the destruction of a local shrine and confiscating television sets deemed “unIslamic” in Logar province. Afghan officials have identified the Islamic State commander active in Logar as Amirati, according to Pajhwok News. The Long War Journal has previously assessed the Islamic State Amir for Logar Province to be Sa’ad al-Amirati, the leader of the Sa’ad bin Abi Waqas Front, who was seen pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in a propaganda video issued in mid-January. [See LWJ report, Pakistani Taliban splinter group again pledges allegiance to Islamic State.]
Last week, the kidnapping of over 30 ethnic Hazaras traveling through a restive areas in Zabul Province has also been attributed to the Islamic State, although no group has publicly claimed credit for the incident. Afghan Government officials have offered conflicting views of the incident, claiming the mysterious masked gunmen spoke a foreign language that could not be identified. Some officials have also blamed the kidnapping on the Pakistan-based sectarian terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Jangvi (LeJ), as well as unidentified Chechen insurgents, although no evidence or proof has been offered to corroborate these allegations.
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