Violence Encroaches On Northern Afghanistan

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Throughout the war in Afghanistan, most of the insurgent attacks have occurred in the eastern and southern parts of the country. But the northern part of the country has become unstable as well. Afghans' growing frustration with their government, and tense relations between the locals and Western forces, are helping the militants gain traction in the once-stable north.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The story of a single province suggests the growing trouble in Afghanistan. It is the northern province of Kunduz, a land of bare desert hills and river valleys.

INSKEEP: Eight years ago this fall, Afghan soldiers allied with the United States stormed into the provincial capital. American bombers flew overhead, dropping explosives on a fleeing enemy. Soon the province seemed quiet, the main fighting was elsewhere and security was turned over to German troops as well as their Afghan allies.

MONTAGNE: And all these years later, civilians are frustrated with both Western troops and their own government. Violence is increasing.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Kunduz.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It's hard to find anyone on the streets of the northern city of Kunduz these days who feels safe - like Abdul Rahman(ph). The 21-year-old takes out his frustration on ice milk he's churning in a metal bin.

Mr. ABDUL RAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He complains of attacks around the province that make it difficult to get around. Nearby, apple vendor Houd Adud(ph) says he can't even go home to his village only a half-hour drive away.

Mr. HOUD ADUD (Apple Vendor): (Through translator) At night, the militants demand we bring them bread. If we don't they hit us. And if we have beards and come back here to the city for safety, the police grab us and accuse us of being Taliban.

NELSON: The main highway that runs through town and connects the northern provinces of Afghanistan to the rest of the country is equally dangerous. Just outside Kunduz city, two destroyed tankers that were part of a convoy ferrying fuel to NATO forces sit on the side of the road. They were hit by militant rockets and gunfire on a recent morning a few minutes drive from the German base that is tasked with helping Afghans provide security here.

Such scenes paint a bleak picture of a place that a year ago was among the safest in Afghanistan. The relative calm here in this farming region and its proximity to the central Asian nation of Tajikistan are part of why NATO several months ago decided to send its supplies through here. But the Western coalition forces and the Afghan government were unprepared for the militant's response.

Mr. MULLAH AHMAD(ph) (Taliban Shadow Deputy Governor, Kunduz): (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Reached by phone, the Taliban shadow deputy governor in Kunduz calls himself Mullah Ahmad. He says the province is now a top priority for the group. The mullah explains that with the militants firmly entrenched in the south, the Taliban is looking to strengthen its hold on the north, especially now that the new NATO supply route runs through here. The goal, he says, is to keep NATO forces fighting everywhere across Afghanistan.

Kunduz is familiar terrain for Ahmad and other militants. It was the northern capital for the Taliban when the group ruled Afghanistan. Now, the Taliban is back. Afghan officials say many of the fighters were recruited in refugee camps across the border in Pakistan. The Taliban works loosely with other cells, including al-Qaida. There are dozens of foreign fighters among the militants, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs.

The militants travel around on motorcycles and in stolen Afghan police trucks. Tribal elders say insurgents demand shelter, money and food wherever they go. They also blow up Afghan and Western projects aimed at improving life for residents, like in Char Dara district of Kunduz where the Taliban has set up a full shadow government and court system. Lieutenant Colonel Carsten Spiering is a spokesman for the German base in Kunduz.

Lieutenant Colonel CARSTEN SPIERING (Spokesman, German Provincial Construction): Well, we still do some projects over there in Char Dara. But every time it's almost - to the end of that project, the insurgents they bomb it down or whatever.

NELSON: Like a bombed-out bridge over the Kunduz River that Spiering said the Germans almost finished repairing a month ago. Local officials say that even with limited manpower and means, the militants have clearly established a foothold in this province and its southern neighbor, Baghlan. Dr. Habiba Irfan is a deputy chairwoman of the Kunduz Provincial Council.

Dr. HABIBA IRFAN (Kunduz Provincial Council): (Through translator) People are afraid to go by road because the Taliban's set up check points and stop the cars. They are looking for government workers to kidnap and kill. This happens even during the day.

NELSON: She adds the police seemed powerless to stop it.

Governor MOHAMMAD OMAR (Kunduz, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Kunduz Governor Mohammed Omar says that's because there aren't enough Afghan security forces in his province to deal with the menace. He complains he only has one police officer for every 1,400 residents. Omar, who recently survived a Taliban assassination attempt, and whose brother was killed by the militants, also blames the Germans. He says they are under much pressure from their countrymen back home not to fight.

Governor OMER: (Through translator) They have training and superior weapons, but they don't even shoot when they're being fired at from the villages.

SARHADDI NELSON: Lieutenant Colonel Spiering, the spokesman for the German soldiers here, says they're mandate is to make sure civilian and troop casualties are kept to a minimum. He points to the criticism that German commanders received when they called for a U.S. air strike on hijacked fuel tankers in September. The air strike ended up killing Afghan civilians along with insurgents.

Lt. Col. SPIERING: Every time we go to these villages, they are laughing and waving their hands and whatever, and are our friends. And on the other hand, on the other time, they go with their rifles against us. So it's hard to find out who is in Taliban and who is a good guy.

SARHADDI NELSON: He adds with only a thousand German troops in the area it's impossible to be everywhere at once. But in recent months, several U.S. Special Forces operations have tamped down militant activities, says Kunduz Governor Mohammad Omer. He says he'd like to see more American troops in Kunduz.

Governor OMER: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Omer says the Americans fight more effectively and fiercely, although they have cooler relations with the locals than the Germans. A U.S. surge in the north is not in the cards, however, given more pressing needs elsewhere, says Navy Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a senior spokesman for the commander of allied troops in Afghanistan.

Admiral GREGORY SMITH (U.S. Navy): Long term, I think you ought to recognize that not every part of the country will receive as much focus as another part of the country, and the areas in the south right now are clearly under much more pressure.

SARHADDI NELSON: Smith adds the attacks on NATO supply convoys on the new northern route are not any cause for alarm so far.

General ABDUL MAJID AZIMI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: General Abdul Majid Azimi cautions against dismissing the threat the insurgents pose in Kunduz and Baghlan however. Azimi, who is the intelligence chief in Baghlan, and until recently held the same post in Kunduz, says if the two provinces fall, so do a half dozen others surrounding them. He and the Kunduz governor say the militants would also gain easy access to the towering Hindu Kush Range on the outskirts of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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