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.
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."