Taliban make gains in Afghanistan's forgotten north
Working with criminal gangs, Taliban are planting roadside bombs and extorting money in Afghanstan's northern provinces.
The insurgents' tactics are familiar. Night letters warn village elders to cooperate or face death. Religious "taxes" must be paid, and fiery sermons in mosques attack the Karzai government and international forces.Skip to next paragraph
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The locale is startling, however: Afghanistan's northern Balkh province, which in the years after the fall of the Taliban emerged as one of the most stable – and in its urban hub of Mazar-i-Sharif – most prosperous places in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, often working with criminal gangs, have regained a foothold in four of the province's 14 districts, and in recent months they've stepped up their campaign using roadside bomb attacks and other tactics. Earlier this month, three Afghan police officers in one of the restive districts were killed in a drive-by shooting.
The Taliban's growing presence in northern Afghanistan, near the US and NATO supply routes from the north, poses new challenges for the international forces, which until now have had a small contingent of 520 Swedish and Finnish troops to keep watch over Balkh and three other provinces.
In the first 10 months of this year, there have been 82 significant combat incidents in Balkh, more than triple the number in 2008, and the insurgency may be even more potent next year.
"In areas where they are hiding right now, we won't have any control during the winter," said Col. Olof Granander, a commander of Swedish forces in Balkh. "And there is a risk they will try to build up their capacity, and they will be tougher to fight during the upcoming spring and summer."
Northern Afghanistan is dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other ethnic groups that were a mainstay of the mujahideen forces that fought the communists, and then fended off the Taliban until 1998, when the Islamic extremists captured and held Mazar until the US intervention in 2001.
Decades ago, however, pockets of Pashtuns moved into the region, encouraged by the central government, and many of these Pashtun areas have become focal points for the Taliban's northern insurgency.
Insurgent activity is still far below the levels in the more violent provinces in eastern and southern Afghanistan that are expected to be the recipient of any new US troop deployments, but some analysts say the north shouldn't be overlooked.
If the international community reinforces the Afghan police and military there, "the insurgents could be stopped relatively easily. This will not be the case in one or two years if the insurgency is allowed to grow," wrote Gilles Dorronsoro in a report for The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Some of the biggest Taliban gains have been in northern Kunduz province, where insurgents set up shadow governments in at least one district. Earlier this month, some 750 Afghan and international forces launched an operation that reportedly killed more than 100 insurgents, including eight commanders, according to NATO officials
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Across the country, in northwestern Faryab province, the Taliban have moved heavily into one district that's predominately Pashtun, according to US Army Capt. Samuel Weeks, who commands a company of US soldiers based in the province's capital city. Just before the Aug. 20 election, mortar attacks in the Faryab district killed seven Afghan police.