While British and U.S. forces concentrate their efforts in southern Afghanistan, the once-peaceful north is fast spiraling out of control with the Taliban making a number of important gains.
In the town of Chahrdara in Kunduz province, for example, a recent visitor reported that the Taliban have set up their own administration rivaling that of the local government, complete with tax collection and a court system.
The northern provinces - Balkh, Kunduz, Jowzjan, Faryab, Sar-e-Pul and Baghlan - have seen a surge in violence over the last few months, with suicide attacks, armed assaults and roadside bombs.
While American and British forces clearly have their hands full in the south, experts are warning that they ignore the north at their own peril.
Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently released a study of the Afghan insurgency warning of the dangers of ignoring the normally peaceful northern provinces.
"The strength of the insurgency makes the current coalition strategy of focusing its reinforcements in the south (Helmand and Kandahar) risky to say the least," Dorronsoro said. "The Taliban will move the insurgency to the north." In fact, economic and security conditions in the north are similar to those in the south that made it fertile ground for the Taliban.
Promised assistance has been slow to materialize; unemployment is high and the central government is weak and cannot rein in commanders or warlords who terrorize the populations under their control.
All of these factors, say local officials, are contributing to the rise of the Taliban and other anti-government rebellions in the north.
"We have many indicators that the insurgents have increased their operations in the north," said Engineer Mohammad Omar, the governor of Kunduz. "The Taliban are able to recruit those who have lost their jobs and need money." Gen. Mohammad Khalil Aminzada, provincial chief of police for Jowzjan, said that fear was driving people into the arms of the insurgency.
"People support the Taliban because they have to," he said. "There are not enough police, and we cannot ensure their security. They are afraid." Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has publicly acknowledged that the Afghan police are "the weak link in the security chain" and "an inadequate organization, riddled with corruption." Therefore, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Gen. Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, the chief of police in the north, dismisses reports that the Taliban are gaining ground.
"The people do not support the Taliban," he said. "The insurgents conduct small, scattered operations in cooperation with some armed individuals. They can never fight the government face to face." And Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province, blames the presence of foreign troops for the region's problems.
"(The foreign forces) do not respect the laws of Afghanistan, or the people's customs and traditions," he said. "They arrest people without any evidence, and it creates a distance between the government and the people, and this can motivate people to join the opposition." Atta demanded, not for the first time, that non-Afghan troops leave the northern provinces, saying that their presence was not making the area more secure.
Swedish officials, who now head the NATO installation in the north, take exception to Atta's remarks.
"Whether or not we work in the north is a decision for the central government," said Henrik Klingberg, a public relations officer for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). "If the central government requests that we leave, we will; otherwise we will continue our work ensuring security." Col. Olof Granander, newly appointed commander of the PRT, said that the only way to reduce popular support for the Taliban is to convince the local population that they are better off with the government and the international military contingent.
"We have to make people understand that conflict makes development and reconstruction impossible," he said.
Abdul Latif Sahak is a reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.
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