September 6, 2009
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan | Eight years ago, this northern flood plain was the scene of the Taliban's last stand.
Now, it's the locus of a resurgent militancy in a region that is fast becoming a new front in the Afghan war - with troubling consequences for coalition supply lines and U.S. allies whose will to stay and fight is being tested by rising casualties.
Over the past 18 months, the strength and frequency of Taliban attacks on Afghan and international forces in the north has spiked sharply, to the alarm of those who have long taken security in the northern provinces for granted.
On Saturday, a bomb hit a German military convoy in Kunduz, wounding four troops, the Associated Press reported. On Friday, a coalition air strike targeted a group of militants who had stolen two fuel tankers, killing at least 70 people, including an undetermined number of civilians.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, inspected the site of the strike on Saturday and also visited a hospital, where he stopped to talk to a severely burned boy.
"From what I have seen today and going to the hospital, it's clear to me that there were some civilians that were harmed at the site," Gen. McChrystal told reporters in Kunduz, according to the AP.
According to local residents, many of those killed and injured were villagers who rushed to siphon fuel from the tankers. A NATO team began an investigation into the incident Saturday.
A senior U.S. military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of his post, said the Kunduz region is "cutting edge" and "more of a concern than it has ever been."
The officer, who has served in Afghanistan and now tracks the war from the Pentagon, added: "All options are on the table, and people above me are definitely looking at development resources" as new U.S. personnel come into the country.
U.S. and Afghan officials say that insurgent ranks are being boosted by southern militants responding to increased pressure there, as well as by a limited number of foreigners - Uzbeks, Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis - who have filtered across borders to widen the conflict.
"We are facing a chain of very serious problems here. The Taliban is challenging us," the governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, told The Washington Times.
One of the militants' main objectives, he said, is to squeeze the critical highway resupply route from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that has assumed greater importance as the Pakistani border crossing grows more dangerous.
This past spring, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the elusive one-eyed leader of the Taliban, was reported to have mobilized extra fighters to ramp up disruptions against northern transport convoys.
Analysts say the Taliban strategy may also stir up tensions in the ethnically diverse region between the Tajik majority and the Pashtuns, who account for most of the militants.
The militants' main foothold is the Chahar Dara district, a Pashtun enclave just 18 miles west of Kunduz city. German troops based in the region are increasingly being targeted with roadside ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In Friday's incident, German officials called in the air strikes out of concern that the hijacked fuel tankers would be used for a suicide attack on their base. A U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle jet responded by dropping two 500-pound bombs on the tankers.
Seven members of the coalition forces have been killed in the region in the last two months. Improved technologies and coordination among the militants have led officials to think that al Qaeda has had a direct hand in the violence.
"The insurgents appear to be well-resourced - better trained and led than in the past, when efforts appeared ad hoc," said one Western aid official who spoke on the condition that he not be named to avoid jeopardizing his security.
Locals, meanwhile, are forced to provide militants with food, shelter and money that may total as much as a quarter of their farming profits. Rolling checkpoints harass motorists on the outskirts of Kunduz city.
The absence of governance and a dire shortage of police are partly to blame for the violence. The district chief has said that he has fewer than 30 men to safeguard 80,000 residents. As a result, they are under the de facto control of about 3,000 militants who often travel in convoys of pickup trucks.
A 23-year-old district resident who gave his name as Farhad said the militants typically move in groups of 10 to 12 but have been appearing in his village almost daily and in larger numbers.
Because some 15,000 Taliban surrendered when the U.S. and the Northern Alliance, a U.S.-allied Afghan militia, defeated them in 2001, Farhad added, many suspect that the Taliban are now supported by the U.S. and its allies to justify their continued presence - a view not uncommon in the Afghan backcountry.
Attacks surged in the run-up to the Aug. 20 presidential election, according to local police chief Gen. Mohammed Razaq Yaqubi. Supply vehicles were repeatedly hit en route to the headquarters of a German provincial reconstruction team. Incumbent President Hamid Karzai's running mate, warlord Gen. Mohammed Qasim Fahim, narrowly escaped an ambush in the area, and errant rockets were fired into the city on the day of the vote.
In Chahar Dara, people were "so frightened of Taliban threats that almost no one voted," said Abdul Wahed Omar Khil, 25, another district resident. "People did not want to even leave their homes that day." Two other militant-contested districts were similarly affected.
In Baghlan province, a Pashtun stronghold south of Kunduz that is currently the second thrust of the northern insurgency, running gunbattles shut down 14 polling sites and killed a district police chief and at least 21 Taliban fighters, local officials say, in the worst election-day violence nationwide.
Such trends have alarmed Pentagon officials faced with record casualties as fighting grinds on in the southern provinces amid decreasing support for the war in the U.S.
Gen. McChrystal last week presented a strategic review to NATO and U.S. military leaders focusing on increasing protection for civilian populations and partnering with Afghan security forces. No formal request for troop increases was included, but one is expected soon.
While thousands of American reinforcements have poured into the south, other countries with troops serving in Afghanistan have refused to deploy there.
Until recently, Germans were barred from combat operations, to the annoyance of American military planners. But the spike in attacks has precipitated a change in their rules of engagement.
In July, the Germans embarked on their biggest military offensive since World War II to clear Chahar Dara. Residents and local Taliban leaders said the sweep temporarily displaced militants but that they returned as soon as the German troops headed back to their base.
Back in Germany, the war's unpopularity has become a contentious political issue, with opposition leaders calling for a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan ahead of German parliamentary elections at the end of this month. Some suspect the Taliban of actively trying to exploit this divide.
Deteriorating security also has halted development work, with many aid workers leaving the region. The need to subcontract work to Afghans - and Taliban extortion - have resulted in a loss of "quality control," according to the Western aid official.
One Western diplomat, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that earlier this year foreign staff would not think twice about traveling around inside Kunduz. That has changed.
During a visit this weekend, city market stalls bustled with activity as the sun dipped and the end of the Ramadan fast approached. Yet nearly all those interviewed would not give their names for fear of reprisal.
"The Taliban come and go from my village as they please and would kill me for talking with a foreigner," said one man fashioning tin pails by hand on a back street. "They are getting stronger here."
And bolder. Later that same day, this reporter passed what appeared to be a group of Taliban militants huddled alongside the main road east out of Kunduz city.
When the reporter arrived at a police outpost a mile farther up, officers were hastily commandeering a pickup truck packed with about a dozen locals. They locked and loaded their machine guns in the flatbed and sped off.
A radio call had been received moments earlier that militants were spotted down the road.
Minutes after they responded, a pair of rocket-propelled grenades were fired at a German patrol convoy in the south of the town, followed by small-arms fire. Across town, an IED was detonated, killing four children and wounding a policeman.
This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.