Taliban's growth in Afghanistan's north threatens to expand war

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 28, 2009 

WORLD NEWS AFGHAN-TALIBAN 1 MCT

Amir Gul Baghlani, the chief of the Baghlan-i-Jadid district in Baghlan Province, talks on his telephone as he stands on the highway that forms part of NATO's new northern supply route from Central Asia, August 28, 2009.

JONATHAN S. LANDAY — Jonathan S. Landay / MCT

BAGHLAN-I-JADID, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents have taken over parts of two northern provinces from which they were driven in 2001, threatening to disrupt NATO's new supply route from Central Asia and expand a war that's largely been confined to Afghanistan's southern half, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

Insurgents operating out of Baghlan district along the highway from Tajikistan launched coordinated attacks during the Aug. 20 presidential elections, killing the district police chief and a civilian, while losing a dozen of their own men, local officials said. It was the worst bloodshed reported in the country that day.

The violence has been on the rise in recent months, however, as the Taliban and al Qaida-linked foreign fighters have staged hit-and-run attacks, bombings and rocket strikes on German, Belgian and Hungarian forces in Baghlan and neighboring Kunduz provinces.

The insurgents now control three Pashtun-dominated districts in Kunduz and Baghlan-i-Jadid, a foothold in a region that was long considered safe. With a force estimated at 300 to 600 hard-core fighters, they operate checkpoints at night on the highway to the north, now a major supply route, local officials said, and are extorting money, food and lodging from villagers.

"The Taliban want to show the world that not only can they make chaos in southern Afghanistan, but in every part of Afghanistan," Baghlan Governor Mohammad Akbar Barekzai said. "This is a big problem. We don't have sufficient forces here."

For U.S. commanders, whose stretched forces have been unable to pacify the south and are taking record casualties, it's another looming problem.

"What can we do to mitigate the risk? It's a question of means," said a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Clearly, the main effort is in the south. But we can't allow other areas of the country to be destabilized."

The official said he's begun discouraging Western aid workers from visiting projects in those areas.

The growing Taliban presence also threatens to aggravate long-standing tensions into violence between the region's Pashtuns — the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban — and Tajiks.

Many Pashtuns, descendents of settlers from southern Afghanistan awarded lands in the north in the early 20th century, supported the Taliban's rule of the 1990s, while many Tajiks fought against the religious militia.

Another potential danger is that al Qaida-linked foreign extremists could use Taliban sanctuaries in the north to stir up trouble in the adjacent former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whose authoritarian rulers have brutalized their Muslim populations.

"Al Qaida wants to have a base there," said retired Afghan Gen. Hillaluddin Hillal, a parliamentarian from Baghlan. "Al Qaida's support is behind them (the Taliban). Al Qaida has an interest in Central Asia."

A senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed that Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis affiliated with al Qaida have been making their way into Baghlan and Kunduz from Pakistan's tribal areas.

The new NATO supply link, established after Pakistani insurgents began attacking the main logistics route from the Pakistani port of Karachi, consists of two roads, one from Uzbekistan and one from Tajikistan. After merging in Baghan Province outside the city of Pul-i-Khumri, the highway runs south through the towering Hindu Kush mountains to the main U.S. base at Bagram and to Kabul.

"The concern is if we don't stunt the (Taliban) growth, it could cause problems with our northern distribution network," said the senior intelligence official, who asked not to be further identified because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "A couple of years ago, (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar said 'We need to open up new fronts in the north and cause a dissipation of (U.S.) resources.' To a degree, it's working."

Northern Afghanistan's nine provinces, dominated by ethnic minorities who opposed the Taliban, have mostly been peaceful since local forces aided by U.S. support ousted the militia in late 2001. About 5,700 German-led international troops have been overseeing major aid and reconstruction efforts from their headquarters in Kunduz.

The Taliban infiltration into Kunduz and Baghlan began 18 months ago with the return from Pakistan of insurgent leaders who ran the provinces during the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan officials said. The establishment of the new NATO supply route may be a factor that drew Taliban from the south.

The Taliban are blamed for the killings of local officials and for one recent unsuccessful attack on former President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kunduz, and another on a minor presidential candidate, Abdul Salam, a former Taliban commander known as "Mullah Rocketi," in Baghlan-i-Jadid.

The Taliban "have become stronger in the last five to six months," said Gul Agha, who heads Baghlan-i-Jadid's criminal investigation department. "Before, they moved in very small groups. Now they are moving in groups of 30 to 40 and they have a leader of each group. They have a (shadow) governor, district leaders and recruiters."

The senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed that the Taliban have set up "shadow governments," a tactic they've used to exercise control elsewhere in Afghanistan by punishing crimes and settling feuds that usually linger in corrupt, incompetent government institutions and courts.

Agha said that the insurgents "have influence" in all of Baghlan-i-Jadid's 268 villages, nestled amidst lush groves and rice paddies fed by the Southern Salang River, and that the local administration's authority doesn't extend beyond the district center of the same name.

The district shares its northern border with Chahar Dara, which Afghan officials identified as one of the three Kunduz Province districts controlled by the insurgents.

"There is only one mountain between us," said Amir Gul Baghlani, the Baghlan-i-Jadid district chief. "When they are under pressure over there, they come to this side. When they are under pressure here, they cross to the other side. We don't have enough security."

The district has only 90 police officers and has been recruiting and arming tribal militias in an effort to fill the gap, local officials said.

However, several residents charged that the militias, known as arbakai, have become part of the problem.

"These arbakai take food from villagers by force and taxes by force. My relatives went several times to complain to the authorities. When the arbakai found out, they beat my relatives. So they joined the Taliban to keep their prestige and honor," said Mohammad Ghulam, deputy director of the district's agricultural high school. "Now they are fighting the government."

Several U.S. military officials said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the recently installed U.S. commander in Afghanistan, hopes to stem the problem by deploying additional Afghan troops accompanied by U.S. military trainers, an idea that appealed to local officials who fear an influx of American soldiers would fuel violence and bloodshed.

Barekzai, the Baghlan governor, said that he only has about 1,400 police officers and 500 Afghan troops to call on. About 200 Hungarian forces deployed to secure aid projects in are barred from conducting offensive operations.

It isn't too late, however, to neutralize the Taliban presence, but time is running out, he continued.

"Give me resources and more police. The Taliban are like microbes. We need to use a strong antibiotic," he said. "If we don't do it now, then later on, say in six months, it will require more forces, more resources and more weapons and we will probably have more casualties."

(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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