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Violence is spreading so rapidly in Afghanistan that there may soon be little difference between the Taliban-controlled south and the formerly peaceful north.
Atta had named three districts of Balkh Province — Charbolak, Chamtal, and Balkh district, all dominated by Pashtuns, as the areas where Juma Khan was stirring things up. A spokesman for Juma Khan has angrily denied that the Paktia governor has distributed weapons, and has countered with oft-repeated accusations that Atta has been systematically assassinating Pashtun tribal leaders in the north.
Two camps, both heavily armed and angry, split along political and ethnic divides, does not make for stability.
“I think the elections deepened the ethnic and regional problems in society,” said an official from a Western embassy, speaking privately.
But while Atta and Juma Khan circle each other like wary wolves, the Taliban are taking full advantage of the situation.
Driven from the south by the beefed-up U.S. military there, the insurgents are now concentrating their efforts on the increasingly fragile north. Kunduz, to the north-east of Balkh, has become a virtual no-go zone for foreigners; one year ago a reporter could travel freely throughout the province, even at night; now no driver will take a Western journalist along the road from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kunduz city. The Taliban openly run Chahr Dara district, with their own governor, tax-collection system, and courts.
A recent airstrike in Kunduz called in by the German military command left scores of Afghans dead and hundreds more embittered; a New York Times journalist and his Afghan colleague who were investigating the incident were abducted on Sept. 5; a British commando raid freed the journalist, Steve Farrell, but left his colleague, Sultan Munadi, dead, further inflaming local passions.
Baghlan, directly south of Balkh, has seen growing incidents of violence; the Taliban have expanded into several areas of the province, prompting a major military offensive by the Afghan police in late August.
The international community seems to be in quandary as to how to deal with the growing crisis in the north. Atta has enjoyed firm backing from many foreign governments, including the Swedes, who head up the local Provincial Reconstruction Team. While Atta often rails against the foreigners for not doing enough, he is seen as a strong leader who can keep order in the north.
If tension between his pro-Abdullah camp and Juma Khan’s Karzai supporters spills over into actual violence, that reputation could well change.
“The international community thinks that Atta and the other warlords have the support of the people,” said Qayum Babak, a political analyst based in Mazar-e-Sharif. “But really, the population distrusts the warlords and just wants to be left alone.”
It is too soon to tell how the drama in the north will be played out; what is clear is that Balkh is joining the growing list of Afghanistan’s provinces where the situation is no longer under control.
(Ahmad Kawush contributed to this report.)