- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan | Eight years ago, this northern flood plain was the scene of the Taliban’s last stand.

Now, it’s the locus of a resurgent militancy in a region that is fast becoming a new front in the Afghan war - with troubling consequences for coalition supply lines and U.S. allies whose will to stay and fight is being tested by rising casualties.

Over the past 18 months, the strength and frequency of Taliban attacks on Afghan and international forces in the north has spiked sharply, to the alarm of those who have long taken security in the northern provinces for granted.

On Saturday, a bomb hit a German military convoy in Kunduz, wounding four troops, the Associated Press reported. On Friday, a coalition air strike targeted a group of militants who had stolen two fuel tankers, killing at least 70 people, including an undetermined number of civilians.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, inspected the site of the strike on Saturday and also visited a hospital, where he stopped to talk to a severely burned boy.

“From what I have seen today and going to the hospital, it’s clear to me that there were some civilians that were harmed at the site,” Gen. McChrystal told reporters in Kunduz, according to the AP.

According to local residents, many of those killed and injured were villagers who rushed to siphon fuel from the tankers. A NATO team began an investigation into the incident Saturday.

A senior U.S. military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of his post, said the Kunduz region is “cutting edge” and “more of a concern than it has ever been.”

The officer, who has served in Afghanistan and now tracks the war from the Pentagon, added: “All options are on the table, and people above me are definitely looking at development resources” as new U.S. personnel come into the country.

U.S. and Afghan officials say that insurgent ranks are being boosted by southern militants responding to increased pressure there, as well as by a limited number of foreigners - Uzbeks, Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis - who have filtered across borders to widen the conflict.

“We are facing a chain of very serious problems here. The Taliban is challenging us,” the governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, told The Washington Times.

One of the militants’ main objectives, he said, is to squeeze the critical highway resupply route from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that has assumed greater importance as the Pakistani border crossing grows more dangerous.

This past spring, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the elusive one-eyed leader of the Taliban, was reported to have mobilized extra fighters to ramp up disruptions against northern transport convoys.

Analysts say the Taliban strategy may also stir up tensions in the ethnically diverse region between the Tajik majority and the Pashtuns, who account for most of the militants.

The militants’ main foothold is the Chahar Dara district, a Pashtun enclave just 18 miles west of Kunduz city. German troops based in the region are increasingly being targeted with roadside ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In Friday’s incident, German officials called in the air strikes out of concern that the hijacked fuel tankers would be used for a suicide attack on their base. A U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle jet responded by dropping two 500-pound bombs on the tankers.

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