How We Lost Afghanistan's Once-Peaceful North


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.

Naheed Mustafa, a Canadian freelance journalist, traveled from Kabul to the north as recently as early 2009 without issue. "It was basically safe," she recalls. "Baghlan was safe. We never got the sense that we were going somewhere we shouldn't be."

Over the next year, however, something changed. A distant government in Kabul, beset by corruption, plagued with ethnic resentment--Tajiks make up most of the provincial leadership, which has largely excluded Pashtuns and Uzbeks--and struggling with economic stagnation has become deeply unpopular. According to a McClatchy reporter, some local officials blame the U.S.-created local militias, part of General David Petraeus' plan to secure the country with community defense groups, with fostering a sense of insecurity.

In February of this year, the documentary program Frontline traveled to Baghlan, and examined the "Taliban shadow government" there. The militants, linked to non-Taliban groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), planted roadside bombs in plain view of an Afghan police station, to almost no reaction from the security forces. Government inattention and a weak security sector meant there was no one to respond to the militants' operations.

Baghlan is not alone. Just to the north is Kunduz, another province whose fortunes have trended downward for the last several years. In 2003, Western troops bragged that Kunduz was the most peaceful province in the entire country. But, as in Baghlan, it didn't last. In August of 2009, the German Bundeswehr, which has responsibility for the province's security, mistakenly bombed a pair of stranded fuel tankers hijacked by militants. The militants quickly abandoned the trucks after they became mired in the banks of a nearby river, and local residents had swarmed the trucks to siphon fuel. Over one hundred people died in what was then the deadliest single civilian incident since the start of the war in 2001. Kunduz Governor Mohammed Omar complained that the Germans are so ineffective at responding to security threats, "It would be better if they left our province." It seems that many in Kunduz would come to share his view.

In a revealing incident just last month in Takhar province, also in the north, ISAF claimed to have killed off an IMU leader while he was traveling in a convoy. It sounded like great news, until Abdul Wahid Khurasani, a candidate in September's parliamentary elections, complained he was in the convoy as well: Khurasani reported 12 dead people, and many injuries, including himself. It's not clear why an Uzbek insurgent leader was traveling with a Parliamentary candidate near one of only two border crossings into Tajikistan. But it's not a great sign for the stability of a region full of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, especially given the recent IMU attacks in Tajikistan.

Unfortunately, in most places in the north where security has deteriorated, one finds the common theme of Western inattention. The ISAF has focused all of its attention on the south, and to a lesser extent the east, of the country. After all, the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban, our stated target and the perceived leader of the insurgency, operates out of the Pashtun-dominated south and the eastern border region with Pakistan. It has been an article of faith for the U.S. and its partners for years that the insurgency in Afghanistan is a Pashtun phenomenon, driven by ethnic resentment and Islamist ideology. That assumption has led us to ignore the north and allowed Afghanistan's insurgencies, which it turns out are not exclusively Pashtun at all, to move into the relative vacuum there. Groups like the IMU and HiG have gained control of vast swaths of territory.

The reasons for the increase in violence are different from place to place: in some, it may be government corruption driving popular support for the insurgency, in others it might be a lack of resources that is allowing the insurgents to establish a foothold, or both--or maybe neither. Whatever the case, we must pay more attention to the North. It does us no good to concentrate all our time, money, people, and attention on the south if the insurgency simply moves north. The good news is that Northern Afghanistan does not require the same level of attention as the south: it is still much easier to operate in, is not troubled by the same cross-border issues as Helmand or Kandahar, and the population is by and large much more amenable to an American presence. Kunduz Governor Mohammed Omar has singled out the U.S. Special Forces for "massively improving security."

Staunching the north's slide into chaos doesn't require the same investment as it would in the south and east. But the consequences of inaction are just as severe. If we can't at least preserve the local government's sovereignty, then the north's downward slide can only continue, adding a new front in our efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan -- and a new complication for our hopes one day to leave it.

Image: An Afghan policeman walks in Kunduz province. By Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty.