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The Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2010

Taliban Influence Grows in North

The number of insurgent attacks in Baghlan alone jumped to 163 in the third quarter, from 73 in the second quarter, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office

By YaroslavTrofimov

PUL-E-KHUMRI — The Taliban's influence in northern Afghanistan has expanded in recent months from a few hotspots to much of the region, as insurgents respond to the U.S.-led coalition's surge in the south by seizing new ground in areas once considered secure.

Increase of taliban influence in north afghanistan
The Taliban have ramped up attacks in once-peaceful northern Afghan provinces, even as they are battling the U.S.-led military surge in the south and east. See how the number of attacks by armed opposition groups has changed in each province of Afghanistan.
See interactive graphic here

Taliban militants stop traffic nightly at checkpoints on the road from Kabul to Uzbekistan, just outside Baghlan province's capital city of Pul-e-Khumri, frequently blowing up fuel convoys and seizing travelers who work with the government or the international community.

In many areas here and the rest of the north, the Taliban have effectively supplanted the official authorities, running local administrations and courts, and conscripting recruits.

"Day by day, the Taliban are advancing into new districts," said provincial council chief Mohammad Rasoul Mohseni of Baghlan.

Such advances challenge the coalition strategy that assumes Taliban losses in its southern heartland would undermine the entire insurgency, driving the militants to pursue peace on terms acceptable to the West.

The northern provinces where the Taliban presence has grown in recent months—such as Baghlan, on the crossroads of highways linking Kabul to Central Asia—are among Afghanistan's most strategically important.

The number of insurgent attacks in Baghlan alone jumped to 163 in the third quarter, from 73 in the second quarter, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.

Senior coalition officials say their focus on a counterinsurgency campaign in the south and the east remains justified, despite recent setbacks in the north. "I believe that we now have the right strategy in place," the coalition's commander, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, said in a speech in London last week.

Gen. Petraeus expects to show progress in pacifying the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Portugal in November and at the White House's Afghan policy review in December.

Yet, though the coalition has gained some ground in the south since President Barack Obama ordered a surge in December, insurgent activity there is more intense than ever. And while NATO says it has begun to facilitate peace contacts, the Taliban leadership continues to publicly reject talks with Kabul, describing allied statements about the insurgents' desire for negotiations as propaganda.

Militants in the north, meanwhile, this month showed their strength by assassinating the governor of Kunduz province—by blowing up a mosque he attended in the adjoining province of Takhar, where hardly any Taliban operated until recently. Insurgents have started launching regular attacks in the province of Badakhshan, which had been one of the country's most peaceful, and in the provinces of Balkh and Samangan.

The Taliban have consolidated their war gains by tapping into broad disillusionment with the incompetence and venality of Afghan government officials.

"People don't love the Taliban—but if they compare them to the government, they see the Taliban as the lesser evil," said Baghlan Gov. Munshi Abdul Majid, an appointee of President Hamid Karzai.

As a result, the Taliban are winning support beyond the Pashtun community, their traditional base. In Baghlan, where Pashtuns account for less than one-quarter of the province's 804,000 residents, the insurgency is now drawing ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and other minorities previously seen as unsympathetic to the rebel cause.

"It's clear that the insurgents concentrate their efforts on those areas where they can hope to reach a significant impact," explained Maj. Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, the German commander of 11,000 coalition troops across Afghanistan's nine northern provinces. "The northern part could become the game-changer for all of Afghanistan."

Baghlan is of strategic importance, Gen. Fritz added, because most supplies from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan pass through, including most of the coalition's fuel. The power line from Uzbekistan, the main source of Kabul's electricity, also runs through here.

Initial signs of insurgency in the north appeared around 2007. Ethnic Pashtun villages in some districts of Kunduz were the first to succumb to the Taliban, virtually unopposed by the German military, whose rules of engagement limited offensive operations.

The expansion of the Taliban's reach has caught the coalition and Kabul off guard. Only some 300 Hungarian soldiers, recently reinforced with small German and American units, are policing Baghlan province. By comparison, there are almost 30,000 allied troops in Helmand, with roughly the same population.

Gen. Fritz said he now has sufficient forces in the north, with total manpower doubled since last year.

U.S. and allied military commanders in Kabul classify the campaign in the north as an "economy of force" operation, however, saying troops and materiel are more needed for the main effort in the south, to secure and solidify the coalition's gains from the past year of fighting in Kandahar and Helmand. The north, in short, is having to make do with a shoestring version of the surge.

"In order to deny that terrain to the enemy, you'd have to have people all over Afghanistan in combat outposts," said Army Col. Bill Burleson, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, the main infantry contribution to the surge in the north. "You've got to pick and choose where to hold."

Coalition commanders say they have had some successes in the north, pointing to the killing or capture of some 20 senior Taliban commanders over the past month. But security gains have been difficult to sustain without adequate forces.

In August, for instance, a column of U.S. soldiers and Afghan police routed the Taliban from Qurgan Tepe, a village in Kunduz province near the Tajik border. Within a couple of days of the forces' departure, however, the insurgents were back in charge.

As they have solidified their grip, the Taliban have imposed governance that reflects the north's more liberal social environment. In the south, Taliban forbid girls' education and routinely blow up schools; insurgents here let schools stay open, officials and teachers say, and limit girls' education to the sixth grade.

The Taliban, who collect the Islamic ushr and zakat taxes across the north's countryside, also brought their mobile courts, much to the relief of the locals who usually have to bribe Afghan officials to lodge a complaint and often wait for years for a verdict from the formal justice system.

Mobile-phone numbers posted in mosques and available from the elders allow anyone to quickly contact Taliban court officials.

An American official familiar with Baghlan noted that the Taliban courts make a special effort not to show any preferential treatment to Pashtuns—a contrast to government officials, who often favor their own clan or ethnic group.

Even a year ago, small bands of Taliban roaming in the mountains and deserts of Baghlan were too scared to enter Baghlan's villages, said Gul Mohammad, a teacher from the area.

"Now the Taliban are in our village every night," he said. "The people have to either give their youngsters to the Taliban as fighters, or send them far away as laborers."

—Michael M. Phillips in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and Frotan Ghousuddin in Pul-e-Khumri contributed to this article.

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