From Bad to Worse

Things are going south in Afghanistan's north.


The man who sheltered me in Afghanistan last spring is very ill. Cancer cells are pulsing in his bloodstream. Every few days, his sons email me updates about his health: He is a little better. He is having nosebleeds. He is very weak. He is in pain. He is singing to his wife. All summer, his children and grandchildren, his wife, and innumerable doctors and charlatans have been sitting vigil in his house in Mazar-e-Sharif, watching his wasted body thrash about, watching his leukocyte count oscillate, watching his narrow chest rise and fall. Watching for signs of something — anything — to give them succor.

Lately, it seems as though the whole of Northern Afghanistan is laid up on my host’s narrow mattress. Violence convulses the ripsaw shadow of the Hindu Kush, then quiets again, leaving us to hang on the war’s every tremor, to watch minute fluctuations for a miracle while the conflict eats away at Khorasan’s saline plains.

I returned to Northern Afghanistan in April to document for Foreign Policy the implacable spread of the Taliban in the region (the dispatches I wrote were recently published as an ebook, Waiting for the Taliban); I left the region in May. At the time, the Taliban were terrorizing travelers in Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, along the main route that NATO uses to bring in supplies from Tajikistan; launching swift attacks on government forces in Takhar Province; and flagging down traffic at impromptu checkpoints on the ancient roads of Balkh.

How to measure the progress of the war since my visit? Violence has been metastasizing across the north. A string of bombings in Kunduz killed at least 19 Afghan police officers in the last five weeks. Last month, 10 Western aid workers, members of a medical team, were slaughtered in Badakhshan — the remote redoubt of the legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, where the Taliban did not dare venture even when they were ruling most of the country from Kabul. It was the largest massacre of relief workers in Afghanistan in years. The United Nations, which last winter considered parts of the north volatile, now regards a large swath of the region as extremely dangerous for its personnel.

Of course, deadly bombings, ambushes, and suicide attacks are a trademark of most wars of occupation. Anyone associated with the occupier — in Afghanistan, this includes virtually all Westerners — becomes a target of elusive insurgents. (My host in Mazar-e-Sharif took tremendous personal risks when he let me stay at his house.) The rebels operate swiftly, easily finding shelter among the civilian population, many of whom seem to be on their side.

But another recent event in the north demonstrated that the extremist militia is not simply gathering momentum in the region, but that it has already settled in, and that it is quite comfortable: the public stoning, at the order of a Taliban court, of an eloped couple in Dasht-e-Archi, a sun-scalded expanse of rice and wheat farms in Kunduz Province.

Hit-and-run attacks require little planning and can be carried out spontaneously by highly mobile, small, and bold guerrilla groups. On the other hand, the process of convening a court, passing a verdict, summoning the convicts, and executing them, on schedule, during a planned public ceremony (news reports suggested that about 200 villagers participated in the executions, while a larger crowd of men looked on) reflects more than brazenness. It bespeaks a confident command of the region. It bespeaks a fully functional government.

I visited Kunduz in April. The Taliban were already in control of much of the province; the journey was harrowing. Qaqa Satar, the usually lighthearted man who drove me around Northern Afghanistan, hated going there. Every now and then he would look at me in the rearview mirror, purse his lips, and shake his head in disapproval. He went because he did not trust any other driver to keep me safe. Like my ailing host, Qaqa Satar risked his life for mine.

A few weeks ago I watched a video that featured a Taliban fighter who was the spitting image of Qaqa Satar. It wasn’t him, of course. But it is possible that soon Qaqa Satar, and Ramesh, the young journalist who worked as my translator, and the Mazar-e-Sharif man who housed me — all the people who took care of me in northern Afghanistan last spring — will be living in Talibanistan again.

In the early years of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the country’s north was universally dismissed as impervious to the Taliban — and so received neither the attention nor the resources granted to the south. The world’s nonchalance let the Islamic militia return to the region virtually unnoticed, and largely unchallenged. But American and NATO commanders still see taking control of the Pashtun heartland in southern Afghanistan as key to curbing the Taliban, bolstering the government in Kabul, and paving the way for an eventual pullout of Western troops; and now, the long-delayed push to take control of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the Taliban’s birthplace, is underway.

Meanwhile, across the north, the Taliban, like a diffuse malignancy, is staking out territory, settling down, setting up governments. Still, the world is paying little attention, as though it expects the north to heal itself somehow.

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