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Fears of Taliban expansion in Afghan north, west grow

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Eight Afghan police gunned down at a checkpoint. Campaign workers kidnapped. Spanish trainers shot dead on their base.

A spurt of violence this week in provinces far from the Taliban's main southern strongholds suggests the insurgency is spreading, even as the top U.S. commander insists the coalition has reversed the militants' momentum in key areas of the ethnic Pashtun south, where the Islamist movement was born.

Attacks in the north and west of the country — though not militarily significant — demonstrate that the Taliban is becoming a threat across wide areas of Afghanistan, even as the United States and its partners mount a major effort to turn the tide of the nearly 9-year-old war in the south.

The latest example occurred Thursday when about a dozen gunmen stormed a police checkpoint at the entrance to the city of Kunduz, about 150 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Eight policemen were killed, provincial police chief Abdul Raziq Yaqoubi said.

Also Thursday, a candidate in next month's parliamentary elections said 10 of her campaign workers were kidnapped while traveling in the northwestern province of Herat, 450 miles west of the capital.

The candidate, Fawzya Galani, said villagers told her armed men had stopped the group Wednesday and drove them off in their two vehicles.

Those incidents followed Wednesday's fatal shooting of three Spaniards — two police trainers and an interpreter — at a training base in Badghis province about 230 miles northwest of Kabul.

The shooter, who was also killed, was a police driver who local officials said was a brother-in-law of a local Taliban commander.

Earlier this month, 10 members of the Christian medical team — six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton — were gunned down in Badakhshan, a northern province that had seen little insurgent activity. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

In an interview aired Monday by the British Broadcasting Corp., U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander, said NATO forces had reversed the momentum that the Taliban gained in recent years in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and in the Kabul area. He said coalition forces would regain momentum in other areas later, although tough fighting lies ahead.

Taliban influence in the north and west is not as pervasive as in the south, the insurgency slowly has been expanding its presence in areas such as Kunduz, Faryab and Baghlan since 2007, mostly among Pashtuns, who are a minority in the north.

A member of parliament from Herat said security in the province could be worse but it's not ideal, especially in remote villages far from the provincial capital.

"There are a lot of reasons — political reasons, factional reasons, tribal reasons — so together the situation is not so good," the lawmaker, Ali Ahmad Jebraili, said. "I hope the government puts professional and proper security measures in place to search vehicles and people for attackers and bombers. When we travel to remote areas, we have to be careful."

In establishing a northern foothold, Afghan authorities believe the Taliban use veterans from southern battlefields to help organize local groups, sometimes with help from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which provides recruits from among the Uzbek minority.

"The situation is very bad and dangerous in Kunduz, but unfortunately the security officials keep saying things are all right," said Mabubullah Mabub, chairman of the Kunduz provincial council. "Over the last two years, the situation has been getting worse."

A study published last spring by the Afghan Analyst Network, an independent policy research organization, said that expanding into the north and west strengthens the Taliban claim to be a legitimate national government fighting on behalf of the Afghan people and not simply the Pashtun community.

It also enables the Taliban to threaten NATO supply lines coming south from Central Asia. Those routes were established to reduce reliance on supply lines from Pakistan, which come under attack from fighters on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

"Furthermore, there is no doubt that the psychological impact of the north's destabilization upon Western Europe and the U.S. would be considerable, overstretching resources as well as reducing the recruitment pool of Afghan army and police by enabling the Taliban to intimidate the families of volunteers," the study said.

The psychological impact was evident in the reaction in Spain to the killing of the two trainers and the interpreter, a Spanish citizen of Iranian origin.

The leader of the small but important Catalan party Convergence and Union complained that Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has avoided appearing in parliament as promised to hold a full-blown debate on the Spanish mission and must do so now.

The smaller United Left party called on Mr. Zapatero to bring Spain's troops home, saying the NATO effort to defeat the Taliban and stabilize the country had achieved nothing.

The Spanish newspaper El Mundo published a cartoon Thursday showing President Obama and Mr. Zapatero standing chest-deep in a pool of quicksand labeled Afghanistan. Mr. Obama tells Mr. Zapatero: "It's best to sit still, because if you move you sink even more."

Also Thursday, NATO reported that three Afghan civilians were killed the day before by a homemade bomb in Kandahar's Arghandab district, a Taliban stronghold near Kandahar city.

Two Taliban commanders were among a dozen militants killed Wednesday in fighting with a joint Afghan-coalition force in Uruzgan province, the Afghan National Police reported. Four insurgents were captured in the operation, the police said.

Associated Press writers Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, and Amir Shah and Christopher Bodeen in Kabul contributed to this report.

 

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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