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.
Taliban Rattle Northern City of Kunduz
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.
"The Taliban were asking for taxes, sometimes for young men to fight with them," he said recently, standing in his field with his brother and two sons. "They were beating people and asking for weapons, and those who didn't have anything were killed or tortured."
Mohammad says he fled the area for months at a time, abandoning his young children in order to find relative safety in Kunduz City. He said he hasn't received any help from German troops, who have been stationed here for years, or from the newly arrived U.S. troops.
But what angers him the most -- and what he blames most for his insecurity -- is the weak local government and police force. He says calling the police is never an option: "By the time the police would get here the Taliban would have killed us." And he says the government's inability to guarantee justice allows instability to spread. He hates today's Taliban, but remembers their pre-9/11 administration fondly, because of today's government inefficiency.
"Taliban were quick to resolve any issue in 10 to 20 minutes by making a decision one way or the other," he says. "To tell you the truth, their government was very strong."
The NATO-led military effort in Afghanistan argues that in the last six months, the pressure on militant leaders in Kunduz and its neighboring provinces has increased. Since the beginning of September, special operations forces have killed or captured 14 insurgent commanders in Kunduz and Takhar province, according to NATO military statistics, most of them members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In addition, dozens more fighters have been captured or killed, increasing the risk they take to run an insurgency.
But at the same time, NATO admits the violence is up, and that there are not enough U.S. resources to guarantee Afghans' security, especially in the rural districts outside of Kunduz City and Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest cities in the north.
Corrupt and Incompetent Regime Gives Taliban Opening in Kunduz
"There's less awareness than we need to have," a senior NATO military official said, "because we're not there."
The U.S. simply cannot dedicate to the north the resources it deploys to Helmand and Kandahar. And so, in the words of a U.S. official, "this is an Afghan government problem" -- in part because the vacuums of governance have allowed the problem to deteriorate, and in part because the United States has no other choice but to hope the Afghans can solve the problems themselves.
Residents say outside the cities, the security situation is deteriorating. In Baghlan province, just south of Kunduz, residents say they cannot drive on the main highway which connects to Kabul without being stopped by the Taliban, who check their phones and pockets for any evidence of work with the government or Westerners.
In the northern tip of Kunduz province, residents say the Taliban killed a man they accused of spying for the United States and dumped his body in the main market. Nobody dared to remove it for 10 days, one man from the area said, even though Islam requires quick burials.
Even the most protected have been successfully targeted. In the last three months, the Kunduz City mayor's brother was killed when a bomb exploded in a graveyard as he arrived to pay his respects; at least two leaders of anti-Taliban militias were dragged out of their hotel rooms in Kunduz City and shot to death; and the governor of Kunduz was assassinated as he prayed in a mosque in Takhar province. Just a week before his death, the governor, Muhammad Omar, had said militants controlled 40 percent of his province.
There is "stalled growth" within the Afghan government in the north, the U.S. official said, leading to an "extreme escalation" of militant activity.
To try and make up for a lack of international forces, the national government has selected Chahar Dara district -- which includes Qaray e Araba -- as a site for the Afghan Local Police project, the latest name for persistent attempts to create anti-Taliban militias, according to local police.
The current militia ? a ragtag group of fighters with weapons leftover from the war with the Soviets ? will be given uniforms, an official salary, and will be partially led by a police commander.
They have been effective, especially when aided by the local police and Western troops. But local residents say their members can be ruthless. Some say militia members use similar tactics to the very people they fight, collecting taxes and intimidating the local population into helping them, just as the Taliban do.
Taliban Threaten U.S. Supply Line That Runs Through Kunduz
Kunduz police, however, seem to think their behavior should be excused. "If someone doesn't have a salary and has to support 20 armed people, I understand he needs to do these things," said Aqtash, the deputy police chief.
The north's deterioration, residents and Western analysts say, can be traced back to 2008, when pro-Taliban religious leaders arrived, followed by Taliban commanders who tapped into old networks of fighters and to communities of Pashtuns alienated by the government and shared ethnicity with the Taliban. They combined with Uzbeks, ideologically driven militants who have had a relationship with the Taliban for more than 10 years and use northern Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks in Central Asia.
Militants then mixed with criminals, who benefit from instability and were already running drugs in the area, and they began to assassinate prominent, pro-government leaders. Residents were quickly terrified they would be next.
"There are different people who have picked up guns against the government," says Sayed Akbar Pahlawan, a tribal elder from the Chahar Dara district. "Some people aren't happy with the way the aid money has been distributed -- a lot of money has come from the foreign countries, but that's only gone to a few people. So other people have turned against the government, not just Taliban."
At the same time, militants had an additional motivation and target: a massive U.S. supply line that runs through Kunduz and other northern provinces to Kabul. U.S. officials have been increasing the supply line in the last few years, trying to reduce the dependency on the Pakistan supply line, which at one point was carrying nearly 80 percent of the non-lethal equipment needed to fight the war (the number is now closer to 50 percent). Increasing violence in the north has mirrored the expanding supply line.
But residents complain that if the police and government had been stronger in 2008, the infusion of U.S. soldiers and U.S. special operations forces would not have been necessary.
And that memory of a time not too long ago when security was fine helps convince residents today's security is fleeting. Residents of Kunduz call the main road that runs in and out of Kunduz City "the road of judgment," according to one. "Because you're not sure when you get on it, whether you're going to live or die."