The Taliban Are Resurgent in Afghanistan's North

During Afghanistan's last presidential election, five years ago, the Taliban was a distant memory for most residents of Kunduz province, in the country's north. Routed decisively in 2001, almost all Taliban fighters in north had been captured or killed. So the election went off peacefully in ethnically and linguistically diverse Kunduz, as it did in most of the country, with President Hamid Karzai winning the majority of the votes. That's not going to be the case this year.

Since that election, the story of the Taliban's resurgence in the south is well known. In majority Pashtun areas like Helmand province, they have harassed civilians, disrupted governance, organized protection rackets, and battled U.S. Marines. The military component of President Obama's "Afghanistan surge" is centered almost entirely on the country's south; most other nations with troops serving in Afghanistan have even refused to let their soldiers see combat in that area.

But while they have drawn international attention southward, the Taliban have been creeping back into the north over the last two years—to the surprise of the United States, Afghanistan's central government, and the German military, which has 4,000 troops stationed there. Five years after the last presidential election, Kunduz voters may think twice before they head to the polls Thursday to elect a new president and a provincial council.

In the past two months alone, the Taliban have dramatically ramped up their roadside ambushes and IED attacks, killing seven German and American soldiers. This month, Karzai's vice presidential running mate, campaigning near Kunduz City, the provincial capital, was nearly assassinated, and one town has been attacked and briefly overrun twice. As in most of the country, the local Taliban have vowed to disrupt the election. "The Taliban's strength is incredible compared to that of previous years," bragged Maulvi Qari Bashir, the commander of insurgent forces in Kunduz, in a telephone interview with NEWSWEEK. "The Germans better send more coffins to collect their dead sons."

Bashir is doubtlessly exaggerating the Taliban's might, but Western officials admit to the gradual resurrection of the northern revolt. "The north has become the insurgency's new focus of attention during the past six months," says a Western official in Kabul who declines to be quoted by name. According to these officials, the guerrillas have armed more men than at any time since their 2001 defeat, using them to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks, mostly on military convoys. They are using a combination of small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, coupled with roadside IEDs that are hooked up to improved detonation technology. These tactics, according to a NATO military source who asked not to be named, are reminiscent of Al Qaeda, who are assumed to be assisting the local Taliban.

The German military, which was initially deployed in Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif to the West seven years ago, thought at first that it would largely be engaged in economic reconstruction work. In fact, the government in Berlin had expressly barred German troops from offensive combat assignments. But since 2006 the insurgency has mounted and the German troops are under attack; they've lost 35 soldiers since arriving in 2002. In April they suffered three strikes in one day. (German officials speculate that the Taliban is ramping up there in part to influence the Sept. 27 German parliamentary elections.)

To cope with the new reality, the Germans have adopted new, more aggressive, rules of engagement. They no longer have to wait to be fired upon before firing back; they're allowed to anticipate trouble. As a result, German forces have begun launching preemptive military sweeps, alongside Afghan troops, into Taliban strongholds. Two thousand joint forces swept through the Chahar Dara district just west of Kunduz City last summer, though insurgents managed to slip away. (It was Germany's largest military maneuver against an armed enemy since World War II.) "We are still roaming where we were before the operation," says Bashir, the northern insurgent commander.

Western officials say the Taliban's push into Kunduz and neighboring northern provinces is a calculated strategy to show that, once again, its base is all of Afghanistan—not just the southern, eastern, or western corners of the country where ethnic Pashtuns are the majority. (The north, except for pockets of Pashtuns, is populated chiefly by Hazara and Tajiks.) Once upon a time, Kunduz was a Taliban stronghold: in 2001 Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, made his last stand here, pounded by American bombs and surrounded by the Tajik and Uzbek forces of the Northern Alliance. Afterward, up to 20,000 Taliban and foreign fighters surrendered.

Now the Taliban are back. Bashir insists that most of his fighters are local men and have not arrived from sanctuaries in Pakistan—and that he commands his fighters from inside the province. "I'm sitting hundreds of kilometers from Peshawar and Quetta," he says, referring to the Pakistani cities where some senior Taliban leaders are based. But Western officials argue that local fighters have also been reinforced by Taliban fighters from provinces around Kabul—where U.S. forces have established a presence this year—and by some foreigners. Still, the Taliban have a base of support in the north: after their collapse in 2001, Tajik and Uzbek warlords seized power and confiscated Pashtun property, giving the Taliban a popular political cause with the people.

On election day, Bashir claims, he won't have to intimidate voters to get them to stay home because local people despise Karzai and his government for corruption and other alleged sins. "People won't go vote for these corrupt U.S. puppets, smugglers, and warlords," Bashir says. "They will stay home."

Reinvigorated Taliban forces threaten to hurt the coutrywide counterinsurgency. Spreading from Kunduz, they are already trying to ignite neighboring provinces, particularly Baghlan just to the south, the site of a crucial highway linking Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Kabul. Coalition forces increasingly use this as a resupply route because the Taliban's main supply artery from Pakistan is a dangerous corridor. But over the past few weeks, fighting between government and insurgent forces in northern Baghlan has increased. "They are reverting to the old tactics that the mujahedin used so effectively against the Soviets, attacking main highways and supply routes," says the Western official in Kabul. A jarring Election Day may be just the beginning.