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Rescue the North

Naubad, Afghanistan—In a wheat field in northern Afghanistan this spring, beneath the Cretaceous convulsions of the Hindu Kush mountains, a village elder named Ajab Khan shared with me the unsentimental math of his region’s farmers. An acre of wheat, Khan said, yields $400. An acre of opium poppies yields $20,000. The people of his village, Naubad, had grown exclusively poppies until 2004, when the government of Hamid Karzai asked them to stop. In return, the government promised to hook up the village’s 200 or so homes to an electric grid; build a clinic, a school, and a communal well; and, in order to help the farmers take their crop to market, pave over the tentative parallel ruts that connected Naubad to the rest of the world.

That winter, and the winters that followed, the farmers of Naubad sowed wheat in the clay soil they still furrow by hand with primitive wooden tools. But the infrastructure the villagers had been promised as a reward never materialized. They are still waiting for the electricity, the clinic, the school, the access to clean water, and the paved roads. Their patience is running thin. “We have no help from anyone,” said Khan. “It was much better under the Taliban.”

This was a perspective I encountered frequently during my month-long journey this spring across northern Afghanistan. For years, the international focus has been on the southern part of the country—the Pashtun belt that constitutes the Taliban’s stronghold. The north was assumed to be reliably anti-Taliban, and so received neither the attention nor the resources granted to the south. The United States, which, until this summer, had few troops on the ground in the north, spends approximately six times more per capita in southern Helmand Province than in northern Takhar Province.

As a result, the people of northern Afghanistan—who, in 2001, abhorred the Taliban and embraced the U.S.-led war, expecting a new era of prosperity and peace—have seen little improvement in their lives. Now, they are welcoming the Taliban back to the region—if not with enthusiasm, then with resignation that their puritanical and cruel governance may be better than the kleptocracy and abandonment that followed their ouster. The Taliban control virtually all of Kunduz and Baghlan Provinces (combined population: as high as two million-plus—which would make the area more than twice as populous as Kandahar Province). They run several districts in Takhar Province—including one where, in 2001, I interviewed refugees who had found safety after fleeing Taliban-controlled territories. The Taliban are also present in Badakhshan, the remote redoubt of legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Taliban fighters flag down traffic at impromptu checkpoints on the roads of Balkh Province. They terrorize travelers on the main route that connects Kabul and Shir Khan Bandar, a major port on the border with Tajikistan that NATO uses to bring in supplies. In all these areas, the Taliban are virtually unchallenged.

The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which was laid out last December, calls for an expanded NATO presence in the country. As part of this surge, some 3,000 American troops will be deployed to northern Afghanistan this summer, joining the approximately 4,400 German troops already on the ground. But the opinion I kept hearing over and over this springfrom villagers, local and government officials, and international relief workerswas that bringing in more security forces will not help defeat the resurgent Taliban in the north. Aid will.

“Instead of spending money on the military, they should spend money on aid—for civilians, for jobs,” Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, the influential governor of Balkh, told me. More than one million people live in Balkh; 90 percent are completely impoverished farmers, with no access to clean water, health care, or education. Jobs and infrastructure, the governor said, would translate into popular support for the counterinsurgency effort and for the Karzai government, which most Afghans I met in the north deride. “It’s not only the job of the Afghan government,” he argued. “It is also the job of the international community, especially of the United States.”

A clear connection exists in northern Afghanistan between the lack of aid and the rise of the insurgency. In Kunduz, the Taliban are strongest in two districts: Chardara and Gor Tepa. In Chardara, the Taliban infamously hijacked two NATO fuel tankers last September, provoking a U.S. airstrike that killed up to 142 people, mostly civilians. In Gor Tepa, according to the provincial police chief, about two dozen “foreign fighters from Al Qaeda” have found refuge. Both districts also are home to thousands of former  refugees who have returned from Pakistan after years of exile, only to find themselves without jobs, food, clean water, health care, or adequate shelter. The Taliban harvest the desperation of the poor, the governor of Kunduz told me. They provide the neediest with basic commodities, such as food, and then recruit from their ranks. Some foot soldiers are paid as much as $500 a month—twice the paycheck of an Afghan police officer.

The provincial head of the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation said his office has received no budget at all this year to help the returning refugees. The refugees “call us liars,” he said. “They say, ‘You have betrayed us.’ ... For all we know, they have joined the Taliban.”

Of course, delivering aid to northern Afghanistan is difficult and dangerous. Already, sections of the north are so firmly under Taliban control, and kidnappings are so frequent, that relief agencies—Afghan and Western alike—do not venture there. When I asked a security adviser for a Western relief agency about the highway from Kunduz to Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, he replied, “Don’t even dare travel on that road.”

I took the road. And, on it, just north of Pul-e-Khumrithe capital of Baghlan, where a group of U.N. workers had been kidnapped the previous weekI saw a sign that it was possible to deliver assistance even to the most perilous areas of the north. Ankle-deep in muck churned up by recent rain, two dozen or so road crew workers in orange vests stabbed at the mud with shovels. About as many Afghan soldiers stood guard. This did not look like mucha bunch of men cleaning a roadbut it was an act of defiance: The Taliban have threatened to kill anyone who works for the government, and these men were risking their lives. They were determined to make this tiny, blighted slice of Afghanistan marginally better. The United States might do well to follow their example. It seems like a better deal than just handing over half the country to the Taliban.

Anna Badkhen’s book about war and food, Peace Meals, will be published in October. Her recent reporting trip to Afghanistan was made possible by a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting. 

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