On Friday, a bomb blast at a crowded mosque in Afghanistan's Takhar province killed 20 people, among them Governor Mohammed Omar of neighboring Kunduz province. Far more alarming than the senior official's death is where it happened: both Takhar and Kunduz are in Afghanistan's north, which until very recently had been a haven from the violence marring the rest of the country. Once a place where Westerners could wander the countryside relatively unmolested by terrorism, the Taliban, or homemade bombs, the north of Afghanistan has become very dangerous in just the last two years. With the U.S.- and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) focusing nearly all of its efforts on the south and east of Afghanistan, that inattention has allowed the insurgency to creep into the north and fill the vacuum left by poor security and weak governance. As if this were not enough, the deterioration of the ethnically diverse north reveals that one of the assumptions most central to the effort in Afghanistan is fundamentally and disastrously wrong.
The heartland of this growing instability, or at least one of the heartlands, is Baghlan province. In a country where ethnic politics can dominate political discussions, it is a fairly diverse place: a little more than half Tajik, with a mixture of Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tatars making up the rest. It wasn't always perfectly safe--in 2007, for example, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a sugar factory, killing 60 people--but people could generally wander the capital, Pul-i Khumri, without much incident.