As Taliban makes comeback in Kunduz province, war spreads to northern Afghanistan

By Keith B. Richburg
Friday, March 19, 2010

KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN -- For most of the past eight years, this northern province has been relatively peaceful, far removed from the insurgency in the Taliban heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand in the south.

But the past year has brought such a dramatic Taliban comeback in Kunduz that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is planning to shift some of the ongoing troop reinforcements to the north of the country, the first significant American deployment to the region since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, U.S. officials say.

The plan for the additional 30,000 U.S. troops that President Obama is sending to Afghanistan had been to focus on the south and east of the country, where the Taliban is strongest. But U.S. officials say that about 3,000 of those troops will be shifted to operations in the north to augment a contingent of German soldiers, which numbers about 1,100 and has been more focused on reconstruction efforts than on battling insurgents.

U.S. officials are concerned about a vital NATO supply line that runs from Tajikistan through Kunduz, amid fears that the Taliban is preparing a campaign of disruption. They also said insurgents, under increased pressure from international forces in the south, are seeking to compensate by stepping up operations in the north in a bid to force U.S. forces to spread out and thus dilute their effectiveness.

Local officials and residents say two of the province's districts are almost completely under Taliban control. There, girls' schools have been closed down, women are largely prohibited from venturing outdoors unless they are covered from head to toe, and residents are forced to pay a religious "tax," usually amounting to 10 percent of their meager wages.

"The Afghan government is the lawful government," said Abdul Wahed Omarkhiel, the government head of one district, Chardara, which lies four miles from the provincial capital, Kunduz city. "But the Taliban's law is the gun."

Warning that their district is too dangerous for a foreigner to venture into, Omarkhiel, other Chardara officials and tribal elders traveled to Kunduz city to meet with a Washington Post reporter. They said disillusionment with the Afghan government, widely seen as incompetent and corrupt, and the slow pace of reconstruction had helped create favorable conditions for a Taliban resurgence.

"When people have problems, they don't go to the government. They don't go to the police," said Moeen Marastial, a member of parliament. "They go to the Taliban, and the Taliban decides. There are no files and no paperwork."

Fertile ground for Taliban

In some ways, Kunduz was always ripe for a Taliban return.

Kunduz's population is about half Pashtun, which is unusual for a northern province. These Pashtuns -- descendants of those who relocated here in the 19th century -- have maintained links with their fellow tribespeople in southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Kunduz is also home to a complex mix of armed groups, including the Hezb-i-Islami militia, loyal to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; and the Haqqani network, led by former mujaheddin commander Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son. All these groups are loosely affiliated with the Taliban. Against that backdrop, officials in Kunduz say they have just 1,500 police personnel for the entire province. "The number of police is not enough, and they are not well-equipped," said Mohammad Razaq Yaqoubi, the police chief in Kunduz. "We need 1,500 more police. And well-equipped. Then we will be able to retake those districts."

Some local officials said the Taliban was performing well as a surrogate government in the absence of any Afghan official presence, was dispensing a brand of justice that seemed swift and fair, and had tempered some of the more extreme behavior it had shown during its 5 1/2 -year rule in Afghanistan.

"They are very just solving cases," said Abdul Ghayour, head of the Chardara council. "They satisfy both sides. If it is a serious, serious case, they will solve it within one hour, without wasting your time."

"When they were in power, they were brutal," said Yarboy Imaq, the deputy head of the council. Now, he said, "there are a lot of changes to their policy" in an apparent bid to be "more acceptable to the people." When pressed in an interview, Imaq added uneasily, "If I sit here and say a lot of bad things about the Taliban, I couldn't live there even one night."

Women still bear brunt

One thing that has not changed is the Taliban's view of women.

Immediately after assuming control in Chardara, the Taliban ordered that girls be allowed to attend school only for the first three years. The elders said the Taliban mandated that girls could return to school only if they were sequestered and had female teachers, but there are none in the district.

Boys can continue to go to school but only in traditional Afghan dress, the loose-fitting salwar-kameez, according to locals.

Mahboba Haidar, who runs a women's self-help organization that includes a garment factory and a kindergarten, said the few families that could afford to have moved away from Taliban-controlled areas so their girls can continue in school.

Women in Taliban-held areas are mostly prohibited from venturing out alone or without their burqas. "When women are sick or have to go to the doctor, they have to get permission from them," said Karima Sadiqi, a member of the provincial council. "They are the same Taliban," Sadiqi said. "If they were different, they wouldn't have closed the girls' schools."

The most dramatic sign that the war had spread to the north came Sept. 4, when German troops called in a U.S. airstrike against two NATO fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in Kunduz.

The strike killed up to 142 people, a large number of them civilians who had gathered around the trucks to offload gasoline.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung in Washington and Greg Jaffe in Naray, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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