Thursday, October 1, 2009

POL-I-KUMRI, Afghanistan

Growing Taliban influence in northern Afghanistan is threatening a new military supply line painstakingly negotiated by the U.S. as rising violence takes hold on the one-time Silk Road route.

The north has deteriorated over just a few months, showing how quickly Taliban influence is spreading in a once peaceful area. Local officials say the Taliban are establishing a shadow government along the dilapidated road that ultimately could prevent vital supplies carried in hundreds of trucks every week from reaching the military. It also raises the danger that the supplies could end up in militant hands as fodder for suicide attacks.

People in Baghlan and Kunduz provinces complain that international forces, the government in Kabul and aid have passed them by in favor of more troublesome regions. Militants are taking advantage of that resentment, and control by either Afghan or international forces is slipping.

“For the past two to three years, it’s deteriorated day by day,” said Ahmad Jawid, 43, a car dealer who sat in the shade with a half-dozen friends watching the highway in Baghlan’s provincial capital, Pol-i-Kumri. “The people are demoralized.”

A young man in the group had an easy smile but spoke bitterly on Wednesday when asked about the Taliban.

“I’m engaged, and I can’t go to the village of my fiancee,” said 23-year-old Farshad, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. The village fell to the Taliban before the wedding could be planned. “I’m going to wait for the situation to get worse or get better. Otherwise, I’ll have to become a Talib.”

Just to the north, Kunduz province is home to the first leg of the highway. The full northern route, which starts in Europe and snakes through Central Asia to Afghanistan, was cobbled together by the U.S. earlier this year after Taliban violence repeatedly disrupted the two main Pakistani routes.

Local officials and analysts say the militants want to show they can control the north and take over the supplies. Taliban militants hijacked two fuel trucks on the highway on Sept. 4, and German forces in Kunduz called in an air strike by U.S. fighter pilots, saying they feared the trucks could be used in suicide bombings. Thirty civilians and 69 armed Taliban died in the strike, according to a probe by an Afghan presidential commission.

“The mere fact that the trucks were hijacked, the mere fact that we had this level of challenge to the government’s control and sovereignty, to me shows we need an effort here,” U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said in a recent news conference.

Kunduz was among the last Taliban strongholds during the 2001 U.S. invasion that drove the Islamic government from power, and - until this year - had been relatively peaceful despite a largely Pashtun population sympathetic to the militants. That began to change after the Taliban solidified control in the south as U.S. supply lines from Pakistan came under increasing attack.

The U.S. looked to Afghanistan’s north for alternatives. So did militants.

The more-than-200-mile highway from Kunduz down to the Kabul area is one of four overland lifelines for the supplies that enter Afghanistan every day. By Afghan standards, the road is good, but the highway is punctuated every few miles by stretches that are nothing more than rough rock. It also passes under towering mountains through a crumbling tunnel that is barely paved and often flooded.

Navy Capt. Carl Weiss of the U.S. Transportation Command, which handles the logistics of supplying American troops, said the northern route - which also includes a train line from Uzbekistan - supplies about 300 containers a week to coalition forces.

“We move the cargo in plain sight. Our containers look like every other container on the road,” Capt. Weiss said. Because they are unmarked and the U.S. contracts with local transportation companies, he said, they don’t draw particular attention.

Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asian project director for International Crisis Group, suggested the U.S. reliance on the northern route may be a miscalculation.

“I think they are overly sanguine about the amount they can push through Central Asia, and you really hope that they’re doing some planning. This is one of those situations where things could conceivably go bad very fast,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Quinn-Judge said, the newly paved highway and bridge leading into Central Asia essentially mean “the jihadists’ own route has been reopened.”

Abdul Razaq Yaqoubi, the Kunduz police chief, said the convoys have made a tenuous situation worse. The Americans, he complained, tell no one when the trucks are coming through or how many to expect, and the police forces are understaffed.

In Baghlan, Zalmay Mangal, the province’s deputy police chief, said violence worsened right around the same time that the supplies started moving through in large numbers. He does not blame the convoys, but he and the Kunduz police chief said the truck traffic is a tempting target.

“One of the main reasons [for the new insecurity] is the NATO and coalition supply convoys,” Mr. Yaqoubi said. The other reasons, he added, are poverty and anger at the government.

Mr. Mangal said more coalition troops could help; Gen. McChrystal and the Germans prefer to emphasize building up local Afghan forces.

“The enemy is not afraid of us,” Mr. Mangal said of his police force. “They are afraid of our international allies.”

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