By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi (ARR No. 252, 17-May-07)
Insurgent attacks are on the rise in northern Afghanistan, in parts of the country not normally associated with Taleban activity.
Some say it is a diversionary tactic designed to draw the international military forces away from the south, where the Taleban have come under pressure in recent weeks. But others caution that there also is a home-grown element to the violence, partly sponsored by local drug barons and partly the product of desperation and poverty.
Security has generally been better in the northern provinces than in the south since the collapse of Taleban regime in 2001, but increased level of attacks are ringing alarm-bells. Since the beginning of spring, which officially starts on March 21, there has been a spate of killings, roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
Assassinations - successful and attempted - have targeted local officials and Afghans and foreigners working for aid groups.
Towards the end of March, a district governor was killed in Qaram Qul in the western Faryab province, and the head of Khan Charbagh district was injured in a separate attack in the same province.
Two bomb attacks targeting the governor of Saripul province, east of Faryab, injured five civilians at the beginning of April.
Also in Saripul, armed men killed an engineer with the German Agro Action aid group in March, and at the end of April, an Afghan truck driver working for the same organisation was shot dead in the Kunduz region in the northeast.
Another attack on an aid group called Rukay left a foreigner and two local staff injured in Mazar-e-Sharif in mid-April.
At the end of the month, a man who officials later said was a Taleban member ran into a group of policemen while attempting to kidnap the son of a local businessman. One police officer was killed and a second was wounded in the firefight that followed.
The regional headquarters of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, in the northeastern province of Badakhshan came under rocket attack four times in March and April. A former Taleban commander in the area, Mullah Abdul Azim, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attacks.
Suicide bombings, a relatively new component of Taleban tactics, have also spread to the north. On April 16, one such attack at police headquarters in the north-western city of Kunduz killed nine policemen and injured 30.
It was the most serious attack in Kunduz since the Taleban were encircled and defeated in the city at the end of 2001.
Nazar Muhammad, an eyewitness, told IWPR, "The suicide attacker was a young man, and while the police forces were drilling, he approached them and set off the explosion."
In Takhar, a province west of Badakhshan, there were was a suicide attack and a simultaneous bomb attack outside the regional governor's residence and the police headquarters on April 25. Only the suicide bomber was killed.
In addition, since spring began, at least eight roadside explosive devices have been planted in Mazar-e-Sharif. One damaged an Afghan army vehicle, but another seven were identified in time and defused by ISAF troops.
It is not clear whether some of the shootings were the work of bandits, but other attacks appear to bear the hallmark of Taleban operations. To confuse matters further, Hizb-e-Islami, the insurgent faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, claimed responsibility for various attacks in northern Afghanistan, and a spokesman for the group told the media that more were planned. In March, Hekmatyar said his militia were no longer cooperating with the Taleban and would fight alone.
The governor of Saripul province, Sayed Iqbal Monib, is certain it is the Taleban are behind the wave of attacks.
"Taleban terrorist groups have infiltrated these provinces to destabilise the security situation and attack government institutions," he told IWPR. "According to the information we have, the Taleban want to carry out suicide and other bomb attacks in the north to create a lack of security, especially in Saripul. We have put our detective and intelligence units to alert to ward off possible attacks."
Police in northern Afghanistan say the rise in attacks is a consequence of a switch in Taleban tactics this year.
When the Taleban pre-announced a major spring offensive in southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, the United States-led Coalition and NATO forces responded by beefing up their presence. The Taleban have suffered reverses in recent weeks, and the expected onslaught has not been as fierce as expected.
General Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, the overall commander-in-chief of police in Afghanistan's nine northern provinces, argues that the Taleban are trying to reduce the pressure on their southern positions by forcing the foreign troops and their Afghan army allies to respond over a more diffuse area.
"By the beginning of spring, the government was concentrating its military operations in the south, so the Taleban sought to turn the government's attention away from the south by organising terrorist and suicide attacks in the north," he said in an interview with IWPR. "The Taleban have therefore used a number of groups to carry out attacks, sending them into the north to hit the security situation".
General Patang said these incomers were being helped by former Taleban living in the north, and by drug barons who had an interest in creating instability to keep the opium crop safe from eradication efforts and the trafficking routes free from control.
"These groups are supported by larger groups based outside Afghanistan, but some former Taleban remnants and drug mafiosi in the north are helping them carry out the attacks," he said. "In assisting the terrorist groups, the mafia wants to play a double game. Helping terrorists means helping themselves, because they want to weaken security so that they can grow poppy and smuggle it out more easily, which becomes impossible when security is good."
Colonel Jon Palsson, commander of the ISAF-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams in northern Afghanistan, also made a connection between the Taleban attacks and the drug trade, but offered a different interpretation from Patang's, suggesting it was the instability created by drugs that allowed the insurgents to move in.
"The security situation in north is incomparable with the delicate security situation in the south, [but] let us not forget that north is not stable, as well," he said. "The expansion of drugs and arms smuggling in the north has paved the way for some terrorist groups to become more active."
Afghan analysts blame what some describe as an incompetent and corrupt police force and other government institutions from allowing the situation to get out of hand. Some warn that the emerging security vacuum could allow the Taleban to recruit among destitute Afghans.
"The police forces have failed to gain the public's trust, because they are poorly trained. The main reason for this is that high-ranking Afghan generals have hired their relatives to fill all the key posts, and [these individuals] are busily engaged in drug smuggling rather than maintaining security," said one analyst, Qayum Babak. "People are losing confidence in the government day by day - and that paves the way for a lack of security."
Muhammad Nabi Assir, a political analyst also based in Mazar-e-Sharif, sees the resurgence of the Taleban in the north and elsewhere as a failure of good government.
"Despite all the donations given to Afghanistan, the government has been unable to root out the Taleban in five years, and they have grown stronger and stronger," he said. "Unemployment and the lack of a proper judicial system have forced many people to join the Taleban. If you are poor, or if you have been abused by a warlord, you have no form of redress, and you will join the Taleban as a form of retaliation."
Assir believes that a surge in Taleban recruitment is giving the insurgents the capacity to move northwards. He warns that the north of Afghanistan could become as unstable as the south unless the government alters its strategy - for instance by changing the way appointments are made in the security forces, and making the courts work.
General Patang argues that it is unfair to blame the security forces for the revival in Taleban activity in the north.
"The increase in enemy attacks does not mean the police are weak," he said. "We are doing our best - it is the enemy who is seeking to harm the security situation, and we are trying to stop him. We will seek out terrorist camps in the north and root them out quickly as possible."
The general added that the interior ministry was about to launch "extensive reforms" which would improve the police beyond recognition.
On the streets of northern towns, people are less optimistic.
"What does it mean if the government cannot establish security - why then are they ruling over us?" asked Hamidullah, a street trader in Kunduz.
"After that suicide attack [on the police HQ], I am fearful even of my customers. Everyone, wherever they are - in their car or in a hotel - lives in expectation of being attacked. It's unbelievable."
Like many people, Hamidullah was angry that the heavy military presence was proving ineffective.
"I am surprised at all these heavily armed uniformed soldiers - what are they doing? Are they asleep? Look around: there are these local and foreign soldiers everywhere," he said. "The whole world has arrived here to bring security, but they can't even stop a few talebs [students] from the madrassahs, so what exactly are they doing here?"
Poverty alone may not be driving the Taleban resurgence, but it may provide them with willing footsoldiers.
At a demonstration by unemployed schoolteachers in Mazar-e-Sharif in mid-April, the mood of desperation was obvious. One protester who did not want to be named told IWPR he was quite prepared to join the Taleban.
"If the government can't employ us, I will have to join any group that will pay me so that I can bring in food for my children. If your children are hungry, you will blow yourself up in a suicide attack rather than hear them crying for food," he said.
The wave of attacks in the north has affected reconstructive work in the region as well. Staff working for non-government organisations, NGOs, told IWPR they were now worried by the security situation.
One NGO head, who did not want to be named, said that in the wake of murders of aid workers, "NGO staff do not dare go out to the villages because they think the same will happen to them as to those engineers who were killed."
He added, "If the situation continues like this, it is possible that many projects will come to a halt or that at most, projects will be active only in the cities."
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.