HERAT, Afghanistan — While the government battles the Taliban in violence-infested southern Afghanistan, former warlords in the relatively peaceful north and west are moving to reclaim their old fiefdoms and fostering resentment toward the presence of foreign troops.
Heading this challenge to foreign forces include one-time Taliban members, leaders of the Hizb-e-Islami party of fugitive former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and disenchanted mujahedeen commanders of the Northern Alliance that helped remove the Taliban from power in 2001.
Mr. Hekmatyar — who claims to have helped Osama bin Laden escape Tora Bora in 2001 — is thought to be hiding somewhere in the mountainous regions of northern Afghanistan. He reportedly sends regular messages to influential former mujahedeen commanders, inviting them to join the fight against Western forces.
Mr. Hekmatyar "is likely to see his influence grow in northern and even western Afghanistan as he takes advantage of the decreasing security situation and allies himself with powerful regional figures," warned a report last month in Jane's Defense Weekly.
"This growing challenge to the government in the north ... could lead to increasing instability in the previously quiet region in the medium term."
Mr. Hekmatyar's political party, the Hizb-e-Islami (HIA), opened several new offices in recent months, including one in Herat two months ago.
Hizb-e-Islami leaders say officially that they have no contact with Mr. Hekmatyar or the United National Front, an anti-government alliance established this year that groups various leaders of the anti-Soviet fight of the 1980s.
Behind closed doors, however, many HIA leaders say they still have clandestine links to Mr. Hekmatyar and the Taliban.
"Afghanistan is slowly losing confidence in foreigners here," said Bismillah Bismil, the 55-year-old head of the HIA in Herat who acknowledged that Mr. Hekmatyar might hold sway over some of his party leaders. "If they stay here longer, there'll be widespread unrest."
The central government of President Hamid Karzai, he said in an interview, acts as a "puppet of the West" and failed to put forward a clear vision to bring good governance and economic development to the northern provinces.
Mr. Hekmatyar is reported to have joined forces with Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord and a founding member of the United National Front (UNF). Thirteen of his followers were killed by police during an anti-government protest in May.
In March last year, authorities discovered a large cache of arms belonging to Mr. Dostum's forces, including a bunker filled with detonators, two bunkers containing 80 tons of Russian TNT and one bunker with 15,000 anti-personnel and 10,000 anti-tank mines.
With several NATO countries deliberately posting their forces in the north to keep them out of harm's way, analysts fear that the UNF may turn its weapons on these ill-prepared troops while the best NATO combat forces are engaged in the south.
Mr. Hekmatyar and Mr. Dostum are capitalizing on public frustration over the lack of development, even though the Taliban remains deeply unpopular in the region.
"Growing public frustration provides an opportunity for anti-government forces to thrive and recruit among the population," said Haroun Mir, who was an aide to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military leader assassinated by al Qaeda in September 2001. Mr. Mir is now a policy analyst for the International Affairs Forum in Kabul.
A report by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) warned donors in April of an unbalanced distribution of aid in Afghanistan.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), by far the largest donors, allocate more than half their aid to the four restive southern provinces.
Massive development needs in comparatively stable areas in the north and west are being ignored, creating "perverse incentives for provinces to create insecurity to attract resources," the report said.