KUNDUZ -- A significant number of foreign combatants fighting alongside the Taliban in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan have links to al-Qaeda, Afghan military officials said.
Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters still have a prominent presence within the Taliban, according to Maj. Abdul Hadi Nazari, spokesman for the 217th Pamir Army Corps in Kunduz province.
Al-Qaeda elements have been spotted in recent battles between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Badakhshan, Baghlan, Takhar and Kunduz provinces, he said, noting that a number of them were killed or wounded.
Foreign fighters taking part in the burgeoning conflict include Chechen, Uzbek, Arab, Tajik and Pakistani fighters, he said.
A Tajik fighter was killed during a June 29 battle in the centre of Imam Sahib district, Kunduz province, and his body was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nazari said.
"During a cleanup operation on June 19 in Khenjan and Doshi districts of Baghlan province, security forces arrested two Pakistani nationals and killed another foreign militant," he added.
Over the past five years, Nazari said, foreign combatants have been heading up Taliban factions in various districts.
These include Yawan, Raghistan, Kohistan, Jurm and Naasie districts in Badakhshan; Imam Sahib, Chahar Dara and Qala-e-Zal districts in Kunduz; and Dand-e-Ghori and Shahabuddin districts in Baghlan, he said.
"Furqan Qazaq, a Chinese Uighur, is one of the most prominent terrorist commanders in the Khostak Valley of Jurm district," Nazari said, noting that he leads a faction of 300 non-Afghan fighters.
Taliban's ties with al-Qaeda
The Taliban have had close ties with al-Qaeda for several years, and recently strengthened their mutual co-operation, Afghan Ministry of Defence spokesman Rohullah Ahmadzai told Salaam Times.
Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) have retrieved evidence from battlegrounds in northern and southwestern provinces indicating that al-Qaeda elements guide and train Afghan Taliban militants, he said.
Dozens of foreign combatants were killed in a June 6 ANDSF air strike in Paktia province, he said, which makes it clear these fighters had taken up arms alongside the Taliban.
The Taliban's ties with al-Qaeda have contributed to the escalation of other extremist activities in Afghanistan, said military analyst Abdul Ahad Merajzada of Kunduz city.
Unfortunately, no group has taken responsibility for recent attacks and explosions in Kabul and other provinces, he said. But the complexity of the attacks "indicates that the Taliban and al-Qaeda still have very close ties".
By making deceitful promises, the Taliban have lost the public's trust more than ever, said Badakhshan province resident Nasrin Khaliqayar.
"We have repeatedly heard the Taliban say they have cut ties with al-Qaeda," she said, adding that this has not been the case and that the two extremist groups have instead expanded and strengthened their ties.
Taliban have 'no plans for peace'
Foreign combatants fight alongside the Taliban and equip them with military training, bombs and suicide vests, say Afghan officials.
While the exact number of foreign combatants is not known, based on intelligence reports, as many as 120 are active in Kunduz province, said Noor-ul-Huda Mulki, spokesman for the Kunduz office of the National Directorate of Security.
Most of these fighters hail from Chechnya, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, he said.
These fighters generally operate in Imam Sahib and Dasht-i-Archi districts, which border Tajikistan, he said, and also provide hands-on support to the Taliban.
By seizing some districts, the Taliban seek to make local headlines while gaining an upper hand at the negotiation table, said Kunduz activist Mirwais Amiri.
The Taliban have neither a plan for a comprehensive peace agreement nor a definition of the Islamic system they intend to establish, Amiri told Salaam Times.
"Their only goal is to intimidate and torture innocent civilians," he said.