Afghan Army soldiers attend a security transition ceremony in July in Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province, Afghanistan. (Majid Saeedi/GETTY IMAGES)

On the outskirts of one of Afghanistan’s safest cities, the Taliban commander stepped from a copse of plane trees, skirted a cotton field and slipped into the back seat of a car parked on a dirt road. He glanced as a man swathed in white robes drove by slowly on a motorcycle.

“Did you see that man? He is one of my people. He is maintaining security in this area,” said the commander, Mawlavi Hejran. “These gardens are our havens.”

NATO this summer transferred to the Afghan government responsibility for securing Mazar-e Sharif, the northern city known as a bastion of relative calm. But just outside the city, in surrounding Balkh province, the Taliban persists doggedly, exerting what some believe is a tightening grip on life in the area’s farmlands and villages. The situation is similar across much of northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is not so much surging into new territory but stubbornly refusing to go away.

“The foreign troops think they can suppress the Taliban,” said Hejran, who claims to command 200 men, having inherited the reins last month when his brother was killed by a U.S. airstrike. “But as long as the foreigners are here, the guerrilla war will continue.”

The war in Balkh, far from the Taliban strongholds of Afghanistan’s south and east, offers an explanation for the intractability of this conflict. Insurgents here do not mass to fight the Afghan, U.S. or German troops in the region. Among the ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras who predominate here, the largely Pashtun Taliban has found little support.

But the insurgents evade and calculate, picking targets for assassinations and suicide bombings. Life in bustling Mazar-e Sharif appears normal until suddenly it is not, punctuated by a blast or, in the case of the assault on the local United Nations compound in April that left seven employees dead, a mob whipped up by the Taliban.

Outside the city, insurgents have posted directives in mosques, using Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan stationery, ordering residents to give them 10 percent of their crops. The insurgents make late-night house calls to enforce the demand. “They give you two or three days, then they beat you,” said one resident, who gave his share. Other fliers, bearing images of a sword, pistol and noose, warn Afghans not to send their daughters to school.

“When the sun goes down, they don’t care about the government,” said the resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “They are ruling the districts and villages.”

In recent months, Afghan forces working with U.S. Special Operations troops have conducted night raids, capturing or killing at least 10 Taliban leaders in the province, according to a senior Afghan intelligence official. But Taliban members and Afghan officials agree that a core group of about 300 to 400 insurgents, who retreat to Pakistan for training and winter refuge, still circulates in Balkh.

“If we didn’t do these operations, the enemy would definitely be trying more commando-style attacks,” said the intelligence official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “But no matter how much pressure they’re under, how big their losses, they still fight.”

Insurgents’ grievances

Three Taliban members interviewed separately here offered consistent explanations for why they fight. They said they consider the Afghan government corrupt and rapacious. The U.S. and NATO troops, they said, are occupiers waging a war against Islam. The three Taliban members are all Pashtuns, a minority group in Balkh, and they described feeling discriminated against by the locally powerful Tajiks.

“How can it be that the other ethnic groups are human but Pashtuns are not human?” asked Saleh Mohammad, who was secretary to the provincial governor during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 reign. He said that he stayed with the Taliban because he was imprisoned after the group was ousted and that Pashtuns have been excluded from the economic spoils by the current governor, Attah Mohammed Noor, a Tajik.

Mohammad described a vibrant underground support network for the insurgency in Balkh, with residents, including powerful businessmen, funneling them money, motorcycles, weapons and food. But he acknowledged the Taliban’s relative weakness in the north compared with other areas.

“The process of Talibanization is new in Balkh. We are at the stage of propaganda: inspiring people, inviting them to jihad, preaching in mosques,” he said. “Nowadays everyone is praying against the Americans.”

‘Target of terror’

The Taliban’s expanded use of assassinations as a tactic nationwide has exacted its most obvious toll in Kandahar province — where President Hamid Karzai’s half brother and the mayor of Kandahar city were fatally shot — but it has also destabilized the north. Noor, the Balkh governor, is under constant threat of attack and lives amid elaborate security. The top police official in the north, Gen. Daud Daud, was killed this year in a bombing. The police chief of Kunduz was killed in March, five months after the province’s governor died in a mosque bombing.

Those still working have taken note. As of late summer, Kunduz Gov. Mohammad Anwar Jegdalek had not visited the province in more than a month and spends most of his time in Kabul, according to officials who work with him.

“A phenomenon that was confined to Kandahar and the south is becoming countrywide. The political elite now is a target of terror,” said Ashraf Ghani, a top adviser to Karzai. “Now there’s a very heavy northern, as well as southern, focus.”

Hejran, the 35-year-old Taliban commander, was harvesting watermelons last month when he learned that his brother had been killed in a U.S. airstrike. One of his fighters, Sayed Khan, had tipped off Naseem’s location, Hejran said.

“We captured him and slit his throat,” he said in an interview with a reporter that was arranged through intermediaries. “It became a lesson to the others.”

After his brother’s death, Hejran traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, to meet the Taliban leadership council there. “The leaders said, ‘You are responsible in place of your brother. You are the commander,’ ” he recalled. “They fully equipped me.”

He said he returned and took up a roving existence, traveling with his fighters between deserts and villages, sleeping under trees and in the homes of Taliban sympathizers. A network of informants, including Afghan police officers, tells Hejran’s men about the location of NATO troops, he said. “Without people’s support, we could not do this fight,” he said. “People cooperate with us because they know that [foreign troops] are the enemies of Islam.”

He acknowledged that the pressure from NATO operations has grown but insisted it remains insignificant.

“We are trying to compel the foreigners to leave,” he said. “When they do, we will reconcile with each other.”