KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — This city, once a crossroads in the country’s northeast, is increasingly besieged. The airport closed months ago to commercial flights. The roads heading south to Kabul and east to Tajikistan as well as north and west are no longer safe for Afghans, let alone Westerners.
Although the numbers of American and German troops in the north have more than doubled since last year, insecurity has spread, the Taliban are expanding their reach, and armed groups that purportedly support the government are terrorizing local people and hampering aid organizations, according to international aid workers, Afghan government officials, local residents and diplomats.
The growing fragility of the north highlights the limitations of the American effort here, hampered by waning political support at home and a fixed number of troops. The Pentagon’s year-end review will emphasize hard-won progress in the south, the heartland of the insurgency, where the military has concentrated most troops. But those advances have come at the expense of security in the north and east, with some questioning the wisdom of the focus on the south and whether the coalition can control the entire country.
“The situation in the north has become much more difficult, a much stronger insurgency than we had before,” said a senior Western diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “We have to get these better under control.”
The NATO command has largely defined Afghanistan’s instability in terms of the Taliban insurgency, which is the most recent fight here, but hardly the only one that looms in people’s memories. For many, the period 20 years ago when mujahedeen warlords divided the country into fiefs shapes their current fears. It was the behavior of the warlords, among other factors, that drove people into the arms of the Taliban in the 1990s.
“The north has its own logic,” said Pablo Percelsi, the director of operations in northern Afghanistan for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has had a staff and presence here for 30 years. “The Taliban are only a small part of the equation.”
“You have the whole fabric of the militias,” he added. “There are groups that collect money, and they collect it from civilians and by doing kidnapping and bold actions against internationals.”
NATO’s current strategy aims to transform many of these militias into local police forces that would augment the often thin national police. However, many local Afghan officials worry that the plan legitimizes the groups, some of which are made up of little more than thugs, and amounts to putting government uniforms on gunmen whose real loyalty is to their local strongman.
Sometimes known as “arbekais,” these armed groups include semiofficial militias organized and paid by the Afghan intelligence service; others are simply armed gangs that prowl through villages demanding food, shelter or money.
Some are headed by former mujahedeen, strongmen who fought the Soviets; some are cobbled together by village elders. Still others, particularly in Takhar Province, are little more than protection for warlords who traffic narcotics along a drug transport corridor that runs to the Tajik border, according to military intelligence officials.
“There’s a major narco-drug corridor, and the militias are protecting that,” said a NATO intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to reporters.
The abuses of the armed groups, along with the growing disenfranchisement of Pashtuns who won few seats in Parliament in most northern provinces, have begun to make the Taliban more attractive for those who are already disillusioned with the government.
“It is the carelessness of the government that the Taliban have come back,” said Mahboobullah Mahboob, the chairman of the Kunduz Provincial Council, who is a Tajik. “They returned here and they started to grow, and the government didn’t pay attention. We implored the central government repeatedly because the local government couldn’t counter them.”
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