Taliban takes hold in once-peaceful northern Afghanistan

In the once-peaceful north, Taliban forces have infiltrated Afghan villages and seized control, making the task of peacekeeping and reform even more difficult for NATO and U.S. troops.
By Joshua Partlow
Sunday, August 15, 2010

QAYSAR, AFGHANISTAN -- In squads of roaring dirt bikes and armed to the teeth, Taliban fighters are spreading like a brush fire into remote and defenseless villages across northern Afghanistan.

The fighters swarm into town, assemble the villagers and announce Taliban control, often at night and without any resistance.

With most Afghan and NATO troops stationed in the country's south and east, villagers in the path of the Taliban advance into the once-peaceful north say they are powerless and terrified, confused by the government's inability to prevail -- and ready to side with the insurgents to save their own lives.

"How did the Taliban get into every village?" Israel Arbah asked from his mud hut in the Shah Qassim village of Faryab province. "They are everywhere. And they are moving very fast. To tell you honestly, I am really, really afraid."

In the past year, security in northern Afghanistan has deteriorated rapidly as insurgents have seized new territory in provinces such as Kunduz and Baghlan, and even infiltrated the scenic mountain oasis of Badakhshan, where 10 members of a Christian charity's medical team were massacred this month. Each new northern base is becoming a hive of activity, with fighters rotating in and out, daily planning meetings and announcements at the mosque.

For the first time this year, the U.S. military sent 3,000 troops to the north, based in Kunduz. A senior NATO official said that the soldiers have made progress in Kunduz and commanders are more confident than six months ago that they can halt growth in the north but that insurgents still find sanctuary in sparsely populated provinces where NATO and Afghan forces are undermanned.

The U.S. military does not believe the Taliban has made a strategic decision to target the north to avoid the bulk of NATO forces in the south, according to a U.S. military official. But a former senior Afghan intelligence official based in the north said that is "absolutely" what has happened.

One of those places is Faryab, a swath of rolling desert hills along the Turkmenistan border where a lone U.S. battalion of abut 800 soldiers arrived this spring. Starting in the Gormach district and moving through a belt of Pashtun villages that have tribal links to Kandahar and the south, insurgents have spread to nearly all the districts in the province, according to Afghan officials.

They move constantly on unmarked dirt roads outside the cities to ambush Afghan police and soldiers and to kidnap residents. They execute those affiliated with the government and shut down reconstruction projects. They plant homemade bombs, close girls' schools, and take by force a portion of farmers' crops and residents' salaries.

"This is the new policy of the Taliban: to shift their people from the south to the north, to show they exist everywhere," said Faryab Gov. Abdul Haq Shafaq. "They're using the desert, where there are no security forces at all."

Letter precedes invasion

Before the Taliban invades a village, its arrival is sometimes preceded by a letter.

"Hello. I hope you're healthy and doing very well," Mullah Abdullah Khalid, a Taliban deputy district shadow governor, wrote recently to four tribal elders in a Faryab village. "Whatever support you could provide, either financially or physically, we would really appreciate that.

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