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Afghanistan’s wild-wild North

As policymakers and analysts continue to examine the ever-evolving insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban infiltration into northern Afghanistan is finally receiving some much needed attention. Often billed as “the stable and secure” northern areas, Afghanistan’s northern provinces have been the target of a burgeoning Taliban insurgency since 2004. When analyzing the northern conundrum it is imperative to view the situation as the Taliban do: a two-pronged approach that includes establishing a stronghold in the northwest province of Badghis and severing the resupply routes available through the Herat-Badghis Sabzak Pass, the sole entry into northwestern Afghanistan, while establishing a northeastern jump-off point in northern Baghlan and Kunduz Provinces.

Given the recent security events, it is Kunduz Province that certainly warrants a closer inspection. Violence levels in Kunduz have peaked over the past 18 months, and German intelligence reports, as well as Afghan government and tribal elder testimony, suggest that as many as 80 al Qaeda-linked militants, including Uzbeks and Chechens, are operating in areas southwest of Kunduz City. Operations in Kunduz since May confirm the presence of foreign fighters, as nearly a dozen Uzbek fighters have been detained or killed alongside Taliban foot soldiers in various Coalition operations conducted near Kunduz City. Four Uzbeks were nabbed last week, and a suspected Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan compound was raided around the same time.

There are currently 667 German troops stationed at the Kunduz airfield; of which only 340 are combat-ready. Three districts, Chahara Dara, Dashti Archi, and Iman Sahib are currently in contested control of the insurgents. Two districts in neighboring Baghlan, Baghlan-i-Jadid and Burka, remain outside of government control.

Since violence exploded there this spring and summer, three German troops and four American soldiers have been killed in IED attacks in the province. But it is the German presence in Kunduz, and their lack of operational ability, that has frustrated many in the Afghan government and within ISAF.

Last month’s Operation Adler (Eagle), a one-week offensive launched by German troops into the Chahara Dara district, had little to no effect against the entrenched Taliban fighters led by Mullah Salaam and Mullah Shamsullah.

“The last operation against the Taliban in Chahar Dara was unsuccessful, because the soldiers were hardly prepared to stage air strikes," the long-time governor of Kunduz, Engineer Muhammad Omar, told the media shortly after Operation Adler’s conclusion. "They are overly cautious, and they don't even get out of their vehicles. They should leave, and the Americans should replace them. The Americans would finally provide security."

By the end of the week following the operation, the Chahar Dara district governor confirmed that as many as 100 Taliban had returned to the district. This development, as well as the litany of assassinations against key Afghan government officials in Kunduz, including the failed attempts against President Hamid Karzai’s running mate General Fahim and presidential candidate Mullah Salaam “Rocketi” in Kunduz and Baghlan respectively, highlights the growing dangers of operating in the “stable and peaceful” northern areas.