Kabul, Afghanistan - A retaliatory NATO airstrike that killed scores of civilians. The kidnapping of New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell. The deadly shooting of his Afghan translator and the death of a British soldier in a violent and controversial rescue operation days later.
The events of this week have drawn attention to the unraveling security in northern Afghanistan in a way months of the creeping insurgency had not.
Long considered one of the most stable and peaceful parts of the country, the northern provinces have seen rising violence as heavy insurgent activity has spread to 80 percent of the country – up from 54 percent two years ago. (See map.) Under increasing pressure in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, militants who have long sought to extend their reach have turned their attention to the north, where NATO has established a second supply route in the wake of debilitating attacks on its southern pipeline.
"[Militants] have been trying to widen the ground for the insurgency in Afghanistan and now they have got momentum," says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. "The militants are eager to target this route to prevent a smooth supply chain from northern Afghanistan."
Last week's airstrike targeted two fuel tankers headed to supply NATO troops in Kabul that had been hijacked by the Taliban. Up to 70 civilians who had gathered to siphon fuel from the trucks, which had become mired in mud in Kunduz Province, were killed in the strike.
Kunduz has seen a particular uptick in insurgent activity, says Thomas Ruttig, founder of the Afghan Analysts Network, which he attributes to pressure on insurgents in neighboring Pakistan. On Friday, Pakistan announced it had captured a senior Taliban leader, Muslim Khan.
"The IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] have been pushed out of Waziristan and the north has Uzbek minorities," making the area hospitable for Uzbek militants, says Mr. Ruttig. While Kunduz itself does not border Uzbekistan, the neighboring province of Balkh borders Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and could become the main supply route for NATO supplies if security continues to worsen in Kunduz province.
The map mentioned above also shows supply routes and the incremental increase in Taliban control of the country.
Frustrated Pashtuns sympathetic to Taliban
While the upsurge in violence is relatively recent, the conditions have been festering for some time, say Mr. Rahmani and Ruttig. The violence has been directly linked to districts with large Pashtun populations, whose grievances the government has long failed to address – making them sympathetic to the Taliban, who share their ethnicity and language.
"The districts which are turning violent are those which have had a very recent history of abuses against the Pashtuns. The government has allowed these conditions to go unaddressed and this is now being addressed by the population by giving shelter to the Taliban and other insurgents," says Prakhar Sharma, the head of research at the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, an Afghan research organization.
Humanitarian groups concerned, but still operating
The growing insecurity is of particular concern to humanitarian and aid agencies which have been working in the more stable northern areas. Aid agencies like Oxfam, Care, and Save the Children have long argued that they are better able to deliver sustainable aid in these areas than in southern Afghanistan.
In fact many organizations have stopped working in the more insecure areas, not just because of the problems of access but also because of the conditions attached by donors who would like the development aid and humanitarian agencies to be used in pursuit of military goals. Aid groups felt that doing so would compromise their independence
While aid agencies approached by the Monitor said the growing insecurity had not stopped them from working in the north, they all expressed concern over the recent developments.
Ashley Jackson of Oxfam International says staff have had to change the way they work and pull back temporarily after the Kunduz bombing.
"So far we have not seen anything impacting on our work but we are definitely concerned," says Jennifer Rowell of Care. "We would like to make sure that the civil military guidelines are respected as are humanitarian laws and that we have access."
The militarization of aid has made it difficult for organizations like Care to engage in southern Afghanistan, says Ms. Rowell, and "we will have to be extra vigilant in the North."