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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.

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Weeks said that earlier this year he got a phone call from the Taliban after they captured a US surveillance drone. They wanted to sell it back to the Army, an offer he quickly rejected because the drone had no intelligence value and he wasn't about to help fund the insurgency.

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Weeks said the Taliban tend to stay in the western Faryab district, where they have the most support, and their numbers appear to be growing.

"They get pushed out of other areas, and come here," said Weeks of Thomaston, Ga.

In Balkh, the Taliban work with smugglers who in the absence of government control have developed weapons smuggling routes, according to Western officials.

Many of the Taliban appear to be local residents who were refugees in Pakistan and have returned to rural districts with substantial Pashtun populations, according to Granander. These rural districts haven't shared in much of the economic growth that's revived the Balkh's urban center of Mazar-i-Sharif, a hub of trade and agriculture.

Will NATO lose an ally?

In an effort to spruce up the city, Gov. Mohammad Atta Noor even had European-style traffic circles built that feature statues and neon lights.

Atta is a former mujahideen fighter against the Russians – and later the Taliban – whom Karzai appointed in 2004. Since then, Atta has emerged as an outspoken critic of Karzai's government. He says the Taliban gains have occurred as the central government failed to follow through with development efforts in the past several years.

"The central government has neglected northern Afghanistan, and that is why there is insecurity," Atta told McClatchy in an interview. "The people here felt neglected, and that's why the enemy of Afghanistan, they came here and started problems."

NATO officials said that Atta has been a strong partner in the fight against the Taliban but he has limited control over the police and army. He faces an uncertain political future, and the tension between him and Karzai has added another layer of volatility to Balkh province, with fears that the dispute eventually could trigger violence.

In the summer presidential campaign, Atta openly backed Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, an ally against the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. All over Mazar-i-Sharif, posters left over from the election feature photos of Atta and Abdullah.

An oil portrait of Karzai still hangs on the wall in Atta's cavernous, ornate office, but Atta said that the election that recently made Karzai president for another five years included hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes for the incumbent.

"This is not a legitimate decision to announce Karzai as the legitimate president of Afghanistan," Atta said.

Asked if he personally recognizes Karzai as president, Atta sighed and paused. He said his future support for Karzai depends what changes Karzai makes in his government, such as removing the minister of interior, whom Atta thinks has been a failure.

"Right now, Afghanistan is in a crisis of legitimacy," Atta said. "We will see what changes are made in the government, and based on that we will make our decision."

There have been reports that some Northern Alliance veterans are rearming themselves in case they have to fight Karzai, but the Swedish military couldn't confirm them, said Granander. Atta said that he wouldn't support violence, but that he doesn't control everything that happens in the north.

Granander said that in some Balkh communities, villagers are banding together to resist the Taliban efforts to impose taxes, but the Taliban have been threatening to kill those who refuse to comply with their edicts or who cooperate with Afghan and NATO security forces. Those threats have prompted many villagers to cooperate reluctantly with the Taliban.

"It's support by terror," Granander said.

(Hal Bernton reports for The Seattle Times.)