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 has 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.
Violence has surged 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.
Insurgents now control three Pashtun-dominated districts in Kunduz and Baghlan-i-Jadid, a foothold in a region long thought safe. With 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 extort 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 Gov. 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 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 has 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 who were awarded lands in the north in the early 20th century, supported the Taliban's rule of the 1990s, while many Tajiks fought the religious militia.
Another danger is that al-Qaida-linked foreign extremists could use Taliban sanctuaries in the north to stir 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 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 Baghlan 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. “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.”