7 July 2023

Relocations and Religious Schools: Reading Unfolding Developments in Northern Afghanistan

In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021, significant developments have been unfolding in the country’s northern regions. This article highlights three specific developments – the relocation of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members, the Qushtapa water canal project, and the rapid establishment of religious schools by the Taliban. Reflecting a policy of demographic change and social influence, these developments carry implications for wider regional stability.

In 1998, a book titled, Second Saqawi was published by an author pseudonymized as Samsur Afghan, though it is widely believed it was a collective work by Pashtun nationalist intellectuals like Ismail Yun, Anwar-ul Haq, Suliaman Layeq, and others. The book outlines a scheme to create a buffer between the Central Asian nations, Iran, and the ethnic groups living on Afghanistan’s side of the border. It proposed the settlement of Pashtuns from the south and east, in the northern and western border regions to achieve this goal (p. 159). Many non-Pashtuns fear that the Taliban may be following this scheme laid out in the book. Historical instances of resettling Pashtuns from the south to the north further contribute to these concerns. Pashtun-dominated governments have historically resettled Pashtuns from the south to Hazaristan, the northern region historically known as Turkistan and Qataghan, with instances dating as far back as the 1890s.  The anxiety among the non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan since the Taliban retook power is exacerbated by the fact that the Kuchis (Pashtun nomads) are grazing Hazara lands and displacing people in the north.

In June, news emerged that an agreement between the Taliban and Pakistan had been reached to relocate TTP members to the northern parts of Afghanistan. Pakistan has been pressurizing the Taliban to curb the sanctuaries of TTP on Afghanistan’s side of the border. Pakistan’s airstrikes in Afghanistan last year and reports of Pakistani forces entering Afghanistan created tensions with the Taliban (the group that Pakistan had backed for almost three decades). However, both sides reached an agreement to resettle TTP members in the northern region of Afghanistan to keep them away from Pakistan’s border. The planned relocation involves around 72,000 individuals, that includes TTP fighters and their family members. Approximately 300 individuals have already been resettled in the northeastern province of Takhar close to the Tajikistan border, leading to clashes with the area’s predominantly Uzbek residents. The influx of TTP members has raised fears about potential security implications and renewed tensions among ethnic groups in the region.

Another ongoing development in northern Afghanistan is the Qushtapa water canal project. Initiated by the previous government, the Taliban has taken charge of it since assuming power. However, this project has caused apprehension among non-Pashtun communities, due to speculation that it might be part of a strategy to settle Pashtuns from the south – even Pakistani Pashtuns – into the northern regions. Sayeed Anwar Sadat, a member of the Uzbek community and a deputy to the previous government equated it to the Settlers to Qataghan Act – a 12-article decree approved by the government of Shah Amanullah in 1922, aimed at legalizing the settlement of Pashtuns from the southern and eastern regions in the fertile areas of Qataghan (the old name for northern Afghanistan). Those who responded positively to this invitation were granted fertile lands in key areas with tax exemptions.

Simultaneously, the Taliban has intensified its efforts to establish religious schools in the northern provinces. This expansion has particularly focused on areas such as Punjsheer (now housing 56 newly-built religious schools), Takhar (with 299 religious schools), and Badkshan (with 320 religious schools). These regions, known for their resistance against the Taliban during the late 1990s, have witnessed a surge in religious educational institutions under Taliban control. Since the fall of the US-supported government, the National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Masood has been active in these Tajik-majority provinces. By expanding religious schools in these areas, the Taliban possibly seeks to influence the majority Tajik population and suppress resistance against its Emirate. The rapid expansion of religious schools carries implications for education, ideology, and social dynamics in the affected regions. 

The various approaches to demographic change through a combination of resettlement policies, the Qushtapa project, and the proliferation of religious schools in northern Afghanistan raise concerns about the Taliban’s intentions and their impact on the region. 

Groups such as the Tahreek Taliban Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Eastern Turkistan Movement, which have allied with the Taliban in the last two decades, have concentrated their presence in the north of Afghanistan. This creates the possibility of these groups expanding their activities into Central Asia and western China. The concentration of these groups in the north is often referred to by Taliban opponents, including the NRF, as the ‘Waziristanization’ of northern Afghanistan – a reference to Waziristan on the Pakistani side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which served as a launching pad for the Taliban and a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda members during the American war on terror in the past two decades.

As the situation continues to evolve, it will also have long-term consequences. Regional stability, community relations, and the preservation of cultural diversity are at stake, necessitating careful attention from both local stakeholders and the international community.


About the Author: Rustam Ali Seerat is a research scholar at the South Asian University, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]