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Taliban make gains in Afghanistan's forgotten north

Working with criminal gangs, Taliban are planting roadside bombs and extorting money in Afghanstan's northern provinces.

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The insurgents' tactics are familiar. Night letters warn village elders to cooperate or face death. Religious "taxes" must be paid, and fiery sermons in mosques attack the Karzai government and international forces.

The locale is startling, however: Afghanistan's northern Balkh province, which in the years after the fall of the Taliban emerged as one of the most stable – and in its urban hub of Mazar-i-Sharif – most prosperous places in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, often working with criminal gangs, have regained a foothold in four of the province's 14 districts, and in recent months they've stepped up their campaign using roadside bomb attacks and other tactics. Earlier this month, three Afghan police officers in one of the restive districts were killed in a drive-by shooting.

The Taliban's growing presence in northern Afghanistan, near the US and NATO supply routes from the north, poses new challenges for the international forces, which until now have had a small contingent of 520 Swedish and Finnish troops to keep watch over Balkh and three other provinces.

In the first 10 months of this year, there have been 82 significant combat incidents in Balkh, more than triple the number in 2008, and the insurgency may be even more potent next year.

"In areas where they are hiding right now, we won't have any control during the winter," said Col. Olof Granander, a commander of Swedish forces in Balkh. "And there is a risk they will try to build up their capacity, and they will be tougher to fight during the upcoming spring and summer."

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