Every day they hear the thunderous sound of motorcycles approaching their houses.
Minutes later, residents of Balkh province see a group of about 25 armed men – their faces covered with black scarves, the Afghanistan national flag wrapped around their bodies – performing security checks.
This is not an unusual sight for people living in a country that has seen decades of war and conflict, except this particular gang is not looking for trouble – quite the opposite in fact.
This is the Marg – a new homegrown paramilitary organisation in Afghanistan that has vowed to fight off various armed groups – including the latest threat by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – that have little concern for the civilian population.
|Civilian deaths soar in Afghanistan|
Marg, meaning “death” in the Afghan Dari language, plans to fill the gap left by the United States when it pulled the bulk of its troops out of Afghanistan last year.
Enough is enough
“We have witnessed enough of war, beheadings, killings, suicide attacks, and suppression of women for many years,” said Haji Mohammed Mahdiyar, the leader of Marg in Balkh province on Afghanistan’s northern border with Uzbekistan.
“Until when are we going to remain silent? It is now the time to stand up for our country.”
The Afghan National Army retains control of Kabul and other large cities in the country but has had little success quelling attacks or quashing the Taliban in the countryside.
Now, further destabilising the situation ISIL is also sending fighters into the country, Afghan and American officials say. In southern Afghanistan, dozens of Shia Hazara Muslims were abducted on Tuesday with police pointing the finger at ISIL members.
Marg fighters portray themselves as part of a grassroots movement among ordinary people who oppose religious hardliners and thugs.
“If we find out about a sympathiser of the Taliban and ISIL, or someone who wants to join them, we will kill that person without any doubt,” Mahdiyar said.
Formed a year ago, the group claims to have more than 5,000 members from five northern provinces in Afghanistan. Their uniforms are black, red and green – the colours of the Afghan national flag.
“We don’t have funds to buy weapons, but once we do we will not spare anyone who tries to wrongfully kill people in the name of Islam,” said Yad Ullah Khan, a Marg member. “To reach our people they will have to first fight us.”
Currently, about 300 commanders who were a part of the Northern Alliance militia in Afghanistan are using personal arms and ammunition to train Marg members.
Most were part of the mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but don’t subscribe to the Taliban’s harsh religious orthodoxy.
Homegrown groups like this can lead to instability of the country. They don't have any operational funds for weapons, or a plan to execute the fight against the Taliban or ISIL.
“I fought in the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the past. I have been a mujahid and a part of the guerrilla war,” Mahdiyar said.
“If I have to repeat history to fight against ISIL and the Taliban, I will not hesitate to use the same tactics we used in the Soviet War. We’ve all come together to fight against those people who are destroying our country.”
Challenging established players
But some Afghan leaders are concerned Marg could undermine the central government’s efforts at asserting its authority over the country.
“Homegrown groups like this can lead to instability in the country,” said a member of the Balkh provincial council who spoke on condition of anonymity over concern for his safety.
“They don’t have any operational funds for weapons, or a plan to execute the fight against the Taliban or ISIL. Every Afghan should have faith in the Afghan National Army.”
Sami Yousufzai, a journalist and Taliban analyst, expressed similar concern.
“Every single day a member of the Afghan National Army is killed fighting the Taliban,” said Yousufzai.
“Is this group trying to question the efforts of the Afghan National Army? Do they not trust them? This group will come with a lot of side effects for the country. Everyone will start to question the law and order and no one can guarantee the security of people living in Afghanistan if such groups emerge.”
But the Marg’s emergence comes as many Afghans are also concerned about the government’s reaction to the arrival of ISIL in the country.
ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released a statement in May 2014 declaring the group’s expansion into Khorasan, a region spanning Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan.
“We call upon all the mujahideen in Khorasan to join the caravan of the caliph and abandon disunity and factionalism. So come to your state, oh mujahideen,” said Adnani.
Many Afghan officials have rejected assertions that ISIL is in the country, but Interior Ministry spokesman Seddiq Sediqqi admitted ISIL recruitment efforts were under way in Afghanistan.
“Many people are being recruited to join ISIL,” Sediqqi told Al Jazeera. “ISIL and their sympathisers are active in the northern areas of Afghanistan. Our intelligence reports confirm it.”
Mahdiyar said Marg was formed in direct response to ISIL. “Our sources have informed us of their presence, which is why we are active now and will fight until we die,” he said. “They have started their operation in southern and northern Afghanistan.”
A Taliban commander who calls himself Qari Sahib who is based in Faryab, a province in northern Afghanistan, would not acknowledge the Marg by name.
“We have heard a lot of groups emerging like this to fight against us, but we are fighting to bring back Islamic law in the country and nothing can stop us,” he said. He denied his cohorts were working with ISIL.
“I admit the fact that there are some activities under way linked to ISIL, mostly in Helmand province, but I do not want to associate with them,” he said.
Marg fighters don’t believe Qari Sahib, however.
“The Taliban have joined ISIL,” said Bakhtiyare Khan, a 23-year-old Marg fighter. “But we will not surrender.”
Meanwhile, Marg members said they have no intention of establishing prisons, because for them, any person who sympathises with the Taliban and ISIL will be put to death.