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    South Asia
     Oct 16, 2009
Taliban have a free ride in Kunduz
By Gul Rahim Niazmand

KUNDUZ - The vehicle is marked Kunduz provincial police headquarters, but the occupants are not necessarily servants of the state.

The Taliban in Kunduz recently captured eight police Ford Ranger pickups in Chahr Dara district, and they use them to move around.

It is not hard to tell the difference, however. When the Taliban are behind the wheel, they blare Islamic and national songs from the loudspeakers mounted on the car's roof; throw their arms around each other's shoulders and laugh.

Sometimes, the Taliban take motorcycles, when the roads are too


narrow or too difficult for the Rangers. They cover their heads and faces with checkered scarves.

A line of Taliban on motorcycles has just roared past on their way to Chahr Dara, soon disappearing in a cloud of dust.

The Taliban have complete control over the district. They have established their own brand of Islamic rule, and they can move around the villages and bazaars openly, with no fear. There is no government authority here.

"We have control only over the governor's office," said the district governor of Chahr Dara, Abdul Wahid. "Outside those walls we have no jurisdiction at all. People do not come to the governor's office to solve their problems - they go to the Taliban."

Four other districts are in approximately the same situation. Kunduz city, the capital of the province, is surrounded by areas from which government control has all but disappeared.

Archi, 50 kilometers north of Kunduz, is, like Chahr Dara, totally under Taliban governance. Ali Abad district, 25 kilometers to the south, is largely dominated by the fundamentalists. Government control is almost totally absent in Imam Saheb, 70 kilometers north, and in Khan Abad, just 25 kilometers to the east, the government just holds the district center and a few nearby villages.

Kunduz province only a year ago was considered stable with business booming and residents hopeful.

Afghan and foreign officials are scrambling to explain the change. The reasons and explanations offered are as varied as they are fanciful. Everyone has a theory, but no one seems to be able to offer proof.

The governor of Kunduz, Engineer Mohammad Omar, blames Pakistan for the emergence of the insurgents.

Until quite recently, most supplies for international forces came into Afghanistan through the country's southern neighbor, which netted Islamabad vast amounts of money in taxes and tariffs.

But with increasing insecurity along Pakistan's supply routes, some North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries are seeking to bring their fuel and other supplies in from Tajikistan, via the port of Sher Khan, on the river between the two countries and Kunduz.

"The logistical supply of NATO through Sher Khan port to Afghanistan will bring economic benefits for the region and the country," said the governor. "This is not acceptable for Pakistan, because it does not want to lose the privileges it receives from NATO. Therefore it is trying to destabilize the situation in this region so that NATO will be forced to ask Pakistan for help in terms of supply routes."

Pakistani officials in Kabul did not respond to requests for comment.

Lieutenant-Colonel Carsten Spiering, spokesman for the German Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz, did not dismiss the notion that the change of supply routes might account for some of the unrest in the province.

"There are several reasons behind the deteriorating security situation in Kunduz, one of which is the switch of NATO and [United States-led] coalition forces' supply convoys through Sher Khan port," he said, without elaborating.

The Taliban, Omar says, have also been encouraged by the scarcity of police in Kunduz. "When the police go into an area, the [insurgents] run and hide," he said. "They are not strong enough to fight face-to-face. But the [insurgents] do not have a fixed location - the police cannot establish a front in the fighting. Instead, the insurgents carry out guerrilla attacks."

Kunduz police chief Mohammad Razaq Yaqubi, however, links the security problems to smugglers of narcotics in Kunduz. "The Taliban try to increase cultivation and production of opium in this region," he said. "This war in Kunduz belongs to the narcotics mafia, which is operating in the name of Islam."

Yaqubi called on the international forces to do battle with the smugglers. "They need to fight against them," he insisted. "Al-Qaeda gets a lot of its income from drugs and buys military equipment with it."

Kunduz has been declared poppy free for the past three years, but narcotics experts estimate that it is a major venue for smuggling opium and heroin into Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, and from there to Russia and Europe.

Political analyst Ghulam Haidar Haidar believes that foreigners are behind the insecurity in Kunduz. According to Haidar, the coalition forces are training and equipping the insurgents in order to spread insecurity to Central Asia.

"The United States wants a base from which to threaten Russia," he said. "The US political interests in Central Asia are no secret. The United States can achieve its goals only if the Taliban shift to the other side of the Oxus [the Amu Darya River, which forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan]. Then American forces can go into Central Asia in the name of the war on terror."

Haidar's version seems to accord with the residents of Chahr Dara district. One resident, who did not want to give his name, insisted that the Taliban were being supported by the US.

"I saw it with my own eyes," he said. "I was bringing my cattle home in the evening, and I saw Taliban getting off American helicopters. They were also unloading motorcycles from these aircraft. Later, a local mullah whom I know very well went to talk to the Americans, and then the helicopter left."

Captain Elizabeth Mathias, speaking for US forces in Afghanistan, denied the charge. "The US is not supporting Taliban militants, nor are we expanding the conflict into Central Asia ... the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and specifically instability within those two countries, is keeping American and NATO forces busy enough," she said.

"As for rumors, I honestly feel it is a natural reaction by people as they try to understand the difficult situations they face ... [Government and coalition forces] continue to combat destabilizing forces in the area and communicate those efforts to the residents of Kunduz."

Another issue that may have boosted the influence of the Taliban is the perception among Pashtuns that NATO and the coalition forces are waging war on only one ethnic group - theirs.

The Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun, and the war has been concentrated in Pashtun areas. This has led to a sense of grievance among the Pashtuns, according to Haidar, and a willingness to embrace the insurgents for revenge or for protection.

"Wherever Pashtuns live, there are clashes, and civilians are killed," he said. "This war has been imposed on the Pashtuns, but they do not want war any more."

Incidents such as the bombing in Chahr Dara on September 4, when the German military called in an airstrike on two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban, only deepen local anger.

Several dozen civilians were killed when the bombs targeted a group of people gathered around the vehicles. While the Germans say they thought they were all insurgents, many were villagers trying to get some free fuel from the trucks.

Chahr Dara's district governor, Abdul Wahid, blames the government for not doing more. "In the beginning there were very few Taliban, and the government could have defeated them," he said. "But they ignored the problem. Now the [insurgency] is growing on a daily basis."

Gul Rahim Niazmand is an IWPR trainee based in Kunduz.

(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)

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