World and Nation

Taliban gain strength in Afghanistan’s north

CHAHAR DARA, Afghanistan — The last time that Afghans in the northern province of Kunduz felt so threatened by the Taliban was in 2009, just before President Barack Obama deployed thousands of troops to push the insurgents back from the outskirts of the province’s capital.

Now the Taliban are back, but the cavalry will not be coming.

With just two months left before the formal end of the 13-year international combat mission, Western officials insist that the Afghan security forces have managed to contain the Taliban’s offensives on their own. But the insurgents’ alarming gains in Kunduz in recent weeks present a different picture.

In an area that has not been a primary front against the Taliban for years, there are now two districts almost entirely under Taliban rule, local officials say. The Taliban are administering legal cases and schools, and even allowing international aid operations to work there, the officials say.

The new Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has acknowledged the depth of the crisis, telling local officials in a videoconference that Kunduz’s situation was a priority on a par with major battle fronts in the Taliban-heavy south and east this year. Already, troop reinforcements have been sent from Mazar-i-Sharif, the main city in the north.

Taken together with new Defense Ministry statistics showing a huge rise in combat deaths for the Afghan army and police forces, the losses in Kunduz point out a deeper-than-expected concern about the ability of the security forces to hold territory without Western troops directly entering the fight.

Local residents and officials in three of the province’s most challenged areas, Chahar Dara, Dasht-e Archi and Imam Sahib districts, describe a military and police force unable to mount effective operations. Rather than pushing back on the ground, Afghan forces have opted to shell areas near the capital under Taliban control. That has led to the deaths of more than a dozen civilians this summer, villagers claim.

“The Taliban could take the city any time they want to,” said Hajji Aman, a businessman in Kunduz City, who has been highly critical of the government’s response to the crisis. “They just don’t want to bother with holding and managing it right now.”

Kunduz province is a vital but chaotic crossroads in northern Afghanistan, and even when the Taliban have posed a lesser threat, criminal networks have kept it tumultuous.

But security there deteriorated significantly in 2008 and 2009, amid a heavy Taliban push as coalition forces concentrated their efforts in the south and east. In a regional troop surge that began in 2010, the United States deployed about 3,500 troops in northeastern Afghanistan and kept up operations there through 2011.

But the gains made during that period seem to have all but evaporated in the past few months.

“The fighting in Kunduz did not start this year,” said the acting provincial governor of Kunduz, Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani. “But in past years, we had international forces helping the Afghan security forces.”