OCT. 22, 2014
Taliban Are Rising Again in Afghanistan's North
By AZAM AHMED
CHAHAR DARA, Afghanistan -- The last time Afghans in the northern province of Kunduz felt so threatened by the Taliban was in 2009, just before President Obama deployed thousands of troops to push the insurgents back from the outskirts of the province's capital.
Now the Taliban are back, but the cavalry will not be coming.
With just two months left before the formal end of the 13-year international combat mission, Western officials insist that the Afghan security forces have managed to contain the Taliban's offensives on their own. But the insurgents' alarming gains in Kunduz in recent weeks present a different picture.
In an area that has not been a primary front against the Taliban for years, there are now two districts almost entirely under Taliban rule, local officials say. The Taliban are administering legal cases and schools, and even allowing international aid operations to work there, the officials say.
The new Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani has acknowledged the depth of the crisis, telling local officials in a videoconference that Kunduz's situation was a priority on a par with major battle fronts in the Taliban-heavy south and east this year. Already, troop reinforcements have been sent from Mazar-i-Sharif, the main city in the north.
Taken together with new Defense Ministry statistics showing a huge rise in combat deaths for the Afghan Army and police forces, the losses in Kunduz point out a deeper-than-expected concern about the ability of the security forces to hold territory without Western troops directly entering the fight.
Local residents and officials in three of the province's most challenged areas, the Chahar Dara, Dasht-e-Archi and Imam Sahib districts, described a military and police force unable to mount effective operations. Rather than pushing back on the ground, Afghan forces have opted to shell areas near the capital under Taliban control. That has led to the deaths of more than a dozen civilians this summer, villagers claim.
"The Taliban could take the city any time they want to," said Hajji Aman, a businessman in Kunduz City, who has been highly critical of the government's response to the crisis. "They just don't want to bother with holding and managing it right now."
The Kunduz crisis is unfolding late in a year that has already included numerous Taliban advances. A number of provinces, including Nangarhar, Helmand and Kapisa, have become testing grounds for a changing war, where the Taliban have been more willing to gather in large groups to confront Afghan forces now that coalition air support has been scaled back.
The result has been a huge rise in Afghan casualties. In new figures released this week, the Defense Ministry said that 950 soldiers had been killed from March to August, the worst rate of the 13-year war. The police, the first line of defense against most attacks, have registered even more devastating numbers: 2,200 dead during the same period, also a record.
Kunduz Province is a vital but chaotic crossroads in northern Afghanistan, and even when the Taliban have posed a lesser threat, criminal networks have kept it tumultuous.
But security there deteriorated significantly in 2008 and 2009, amid a heavy Taliban push as coalition forces concentrated their efforts in the south and east. In a regional troop surge that began in 2010, the United States deployed about 3,500 troops in northeastern Afghanistan and kept up operations there through 2011.
But the gains made during that period seem to have all but evaporated in the past few months.
"The fighting in Kunduz did not start this year," said the acting provincial governor of Kunduz, Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani. "But in past years, we had international forces helping the Afghan security forces."
Leading the charge for the Taliban is Mullah Abdul Salam, a native of Kunduz Province who was the insurgents' shadow governor before his arrest by the Pakistani authorities in 2010, officials said. He was set free in a negotiated prisoner release between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Pakistani government in 2013.
Under his leadership this summer, it appears the insurgents have been trying new tactics, showing a flexibility in governing rather than relying on fear, according to interviews with more than two dozen locals and officials across the province.
Residents and an aid official said that local commanders had been allowing schools to stay open and even distributing pens and notebooks -- including at girls' schools, which were often targets for violence under the Taliban's rule in the 1990s. They said the insurgents had even given their blessing to international development projects in some areas, which would once have been unthinkable.
"They have a parallel system to the government, one that approves the development projects," said a stabilization adviser for a U.S.A.I.D. contractor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works in Taliban areas. "We can't do anything without the Taliban approval."
Some residents said that Taliban justice had already proved more attractive than that offered by the government.
"Their justice is quick, and they do what they say," said Mohammad Nazar, a local elder who works for the government community development council in Chahar Dara.
On the military side, locals said the Taliban had overrun about 20 police checkpoints in the district since this summer. The advance was made relatively easily and with the support of villagers who had grown tired of the abusive local forces.
"At least 20 elders would complain to the district governor every day," said Mohamuddin, 55, a farmer from Ain al-Majar village in Chahar Dara. "When the Taliban secretly came to us and asked for support to kick them out, the people agreed."
Even provincial officials acknowledge that the local police have been problematic. Originally trained and supported by American Special Forces, the local police have been formally handed off to the control of the Interior Ministry. But in practice, local commanders' agendas rule their actions.
"When the support for the local police fell to the Afghans, we did not know how to support them," said Mr. Baghlani, the provincial governor. "The Afghan security forces don't have the capacity to resupply and support these checkpoints."
For the most part, villagers do not distinguish between the local police, who are formally part of the government, and the private militias whose members number well into the thousands in Kunduz. The militias have for years served as a proxy for the weak government forces.
"Since they don't have salaries, they collect taxes and take what they need, by will or by force," said Commander Ramazan, a former mujahedeen fighter who maintains ties with the militia commanders. Like many Afghans, he goes by a single name.
Mr. Ghani has promised to disarm the militias. But the groups are unlikely to comply peacefully, as they have made enemies with the Taliban, and disarming would leave them vulnerable. That would leave the government in a two-sided fight: the Taliban on one side, and the government's erstwhile allies, the militias, on the other.
Commander Hafiz, a member of the Afghan Local Police, is in charge of the area of Talawka, which is just outside Kunduz City. He said that the fighting had been constant in his area, and that surrounding checkpoints had been overrun.
"When the American Special Forces were here, they took it seriously -- they used surveillance to track the Taliban and hit them," he said. "The Taliban would fight and then run away."
He paused, took a drag of a cigarette and adjusted his flak jacket. "You see me wearing this vest? I am like this 24 hours a day."
In Kunduz City last week, more than 300 elders from the Gor Tepa region gathered outside the governor's compound to protest their dire situation.
The Taliban control the areas where they live, they said, and as a result they suffer constantly at the hands of the Afghan forces. Noorullah, an elder from Larkhabi village in Gor Tepa, said that a day earlier, a rocket had struck a home and killed two children.
"Either they should kill us or stop shelling us," he said.
He and others made clear they were not in favor of the Taliban, or even the government, for that matter. They simply want an end to the fighting. As convoy after convoy rolled past, a policeman wearing a brown overcoat wandered by and listened. As the villagers outlined their concerns, he simply nodded.
"What they say is true," he said, and then walked away.
Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.