The Taliban take control in the provinces

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan -- The insignia on the door says the vehicle belongs to the provincial police. But the man behind the wheel is clearly a member of the Taliban.

The insurgents recently captured eight Ford Ranger pickup trucks from the police in this northeastern province.

It's easy to tell when it's the Taliban who are speeding through the Chahr Dara district of the province. They blare loud Islamic and national songs from the speakers mounted on the roof of the truck and hug each other as they careen through the streets. On narrow roads, they rely on motorcycles.

The Taliban have complete control over Chahr Dara. They have established their own brand of Islamic rule, and they can move around the villages and bazaars openly.

"We have control only over the governor's office," said the district governor of Chahr Dara, Abdul Wahid. "Outside those walls we have no jurisdiction at all. People do not come to the governor's office to solve their problems -- they go to the Taliban." Four other districts in the province are in the same situation.

A year ago, Kunduz province was considered stable. Business was booming and residents were hopeful. Today, both Afghan and foreign officials are scrambling to explain what happened.

The governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar, blames Pakistan for the emergence of the insurgents.

Until recently, most supplies for the international forces in Afghanistan came through Pakistan, providing a lucrative income for that country.

But instability along that route has prompted some NATO countries to seek an alternative route through Tajikistan into Kunduz province.

This new supply route "will bring economic benefits for the region and the country," Omar said. "This is not acceptable for Pakistan, because it does not want to lose the privileges it receives from NATO. Therefore it is trying to destabilize the situation in this region so that NATO will be forced to ask Pakistan for help in terms of supply routes." Pakistani officials did not respond to the allegations.

Lt. Col. Carsten Spiering, the spokesman for the German Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz, acknowledged that the establishment of a major supply route through the province may have prompted increased insurgent activity.

Provincial police chief Mohammad Razaq Yaqubi blames drugs smugglers for the increased presence of insurgents.

"The Taliban try to increase cultivation and production of opium in this region," he said. "This war in Kunduz belongs to the narcotics mafia, which is operating in the name of Islam." Kunduz has been declared poppy free for the past three years, but narcotics experts concur that the region is a major hub for smuggling opium and heroin into Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, and from there to Russia and Europe.

Ghulam Haidar, a local political analyst, is convinced the United States is behind increased Taliban activity in the area. "The United States wants a base from which to threaten Russia," he said.

Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, dismissed such ideas. "The U.S is not supporting Taliban militants, nor are we expanding the conflict into central Asia," she said. "The Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and specifically instability within those two countries, is keeping American and NATO forces busy enough," she said.

"As for rumors, I honestly feel it is a natural reaction by people as they try to understand the difficult situations they face," Mathias said. "(Government and coalition forces) continue to combat destabilizing forces in the area and communicate those efforts to the residents of Kunduz."

Meanwhile, incidents like the Sept. 4 airstrike that left scores of civilians dead only serves to deepen local anger toward foreign forces and the government in Kabul.

"In the beginning there were very few Taliban, and the government could have defeated them," said Omar. "But they ignored the problem. Now the (insurgency) is growing on a daily basis."

Niazmand writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.