When Afghan police recently arrived in Qaray-e-Araba, near the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, they found a town that had been entirely lost to insurgents. A sign placed above a house declared it "Al Qaeda Headquarters."
Residents hurriedly handed over dozens of detonators because before the Afghan, Arab, Chechan and Uzbek, militants had fled, they rigged every house with homemade mines, hoping the residents would blow themselves up in order to kill U.S. troops and police, who were taking control of the area for the first time in months.
"Militants warned the locals that the Americans would be taking their wives and children away from them, and told them they needed to kill themselves in order to kill the Americans," Kunduz Deputy Police Chief Abdul Rahman Aqtash told ABC News recently. "Luckily, they didn't listen."
The anecdote helps explain how the U.S. troops who arrived here earlier this year as part of the surge have improved the area in and around Kunduz city, according to police chiefs, residents, and Western military officials.
But it also helps describe how much the area deteriorated -- needlessly, say residents -- and that outside the major urban centers in northern Afghanistan, insurgency, criminality, and governance vacuums continue to spread.
That instability threatens a part of the country largely ignored by the international community, which has focused on provinces where the Taliban were historically strongest and where insurgents cross the border from Pakistan. But across large areas of the north, inadequate and corrupt governance has combined with determined efforts by militants and criminals to decrease people's security, challenging the U.S. military's claim that the surge has improved the lives of the majority of Afghans.
In a crescent from the northwest province of Faryab to the northeast province of Badakhshan, Afghans' perceptions of their lives have turned negative in the last year, a dramatic difference from the positive changes among Afghans living in Helmand, where the U.S. surge started a year and a half ago.
Afghans' perception of their overall living conditions is the same in Helmand and the North, thanks to a 27 percentage point increase in Helmand and an 8 percentage point decrease in the north, according to a new poll conducted by ABC News, the German television channel ARD, the BBC, and the Washington Post.
In the north, the perception of freedom of movement is down 6 percentage points; the perception of security from the Taliban is down 10 percentage points; and perception of economic opportunity is down 17 percentage points. (It is up 45 percentage points in Helmand). The numbers are even worse in the northwest corner of the country.
In perhaps the most damaging statistic in Kunduz, 53 percent of residents say their children's lives will be better than theirs. That number is down 18 percentage points from last year.
Jan Mohammad, a farmer outside of Kunduz City, described a life even worse than the poll numbers suggest. Fewer than two years ago, he says, he raised his four children quietly and without concern. But today, he said the best he can do is hide from violent anti-Taliban militias and from the insurgents, who coerce and threaten residents.