By Matthias Gebauer and Shoib Najafizada in Kabul
Taliban fighters are returning to an area in northern Afghanistan just days after being driven off in a combined Afghan-German military operation. There's growing concern that the Taliban -- and al-Qaida fighters -- are forming strongholds in what had been the relatively peaceful north.
You could hear the consternation in Wahid Omar Khel's voice. "The Taliban are back," the head of the troubled district of Chahar Dara whispered into the telephone. "They're in control of the whole of southern Chahar Dara again."
Between Thursday night and Friday morning, up to 100 Taliban fighters made their way back into the area on motorcycles and Toyota pick-up trucks, said Khel. Chahar Dara is the area near Kunduz that has been the center of a recent Taliban insurgency in the once relatively quiet northern Afghanistan. "They stood with weapons slung on the market squares of the villages and seemed as happy as if they had just won a victory," he said.
Bad news has been coming out of the region in recent days following the joint Operation Adler, or Eagle, by Afghan and German armed forces to flush out Taliban militants. German officers have heard numerous Afghan reports that the Taliban have been holding virtual victory celebrations in Chahar Dara, the Taliban stronghold in the north.
The main aim of the operation of the last two weeks was to seize the area from the Taliban in order to make it safe for upcoming elections. Operation Adler appeared successful in briefly clearing out the armed insurgents. But it didn't beat them into a lasting retreat. By late last week, parts of the area were again under the "complete control of the Taliban," district chief Khel says.
In addition to the Taliban fighters, an increasing number of foreign combatants are also moving into northern Afghanistan, some of whom have either close contacts to the leadership of al-Qaida or have been deployed by them directly. Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, believes that as many as 60 such fighters are currently present in the Kunduz area. Local residents claim Arab fighters are being sheltered in Pashtun villages, and the BND has also obtained evidence of Uzbeki fighters.
Pre-Election Attacks against Germans?
In recent months, several propaganda videos have been published condemning the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan, and the BND is also anticipating insurgent attacks against German soldiers. The videos have repeatedly mentioned the Sept. 27 date of the federal election in Germany. Officials are warning that there's a growing threat of attacks against German forces in an effort to influence the election back home, where a majority of people oppose the Afghanistan deployment.
The commander of the ISAF international security force in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal, is also expressing deep concern about the deteriorating situation in Kunduz. Last Wednesday, McChrystal flew to northern Afghanistan to discuss the precarious situation with German and Afghan officials in charge of military operations in the area. After his visit, McChrystal told SPIEGEL ONLINE he was "concerned" about the changing situation. He said Kunduz now warranted "serious scrutiny."
McChrystal said that the groups were supported in their efforts to build "enclaves in the north" by fighters in the south of the country where the Taliban-led insurgency has plagued ISAF efforts to establish security and rebuild the country. ISAF officials believe the insurgents are taking aim at the security force's new supply routes in the north that go through Kunduz.
The general called on the German and Afghan forces to conduct further operations like last month's in Charah Dara, west of the German base. While there had been some "operational successes" in the counter-insurgency missions, McChrystal said after a meeting with officers to discuss the operations of the past two weeks, a "single operation will never have a decisive effect" and the fight against the Taliban requires a "prolonged effort with multiple successes." He said the battle against the Taliban should not be neglected. "If we don't get in front of the situations, the situation will get in front of us," the ISAF chief said.
"We Are Back"
It appears he is correct. After Afghan troops pulled out of the parts of Chahar Dara they had largely won back last week, the Taliban returned and resumed control.
On Friday, Afghan General Murad Ali Murad said that 600 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers had been stationed in Chahar Dara to keep the Taliban from returning. But on Saturday, district chief Khel said only about 300 remained further to the north to keep the Taliban from returning.
The Taliban appears to be going on the offensive. "We are back," Commander Mullah Shamslullah, a man considered to be one of the Taliban's leaders in Chahar Dara, said by telephone, "everything is going to be the same as it was earlier." His fighters could be heard in the background shouting "God is great." Shamslullah said the Taliban had their base back and that more than 150 Talib fighters had returned after briefly going into hiding.
Of course, Shamslullah's statements are part of the insurgency's propaganda efforts, but they also seem to be supported by the findings of the Bundeswehr. The Germans have also been noting a return of the insurgents to their stronghold -- undeterred by the Afghan army. The area is far too large to be controlled by a contingent of 300 ANA soldiers. But the German army isn't in a position to stop them, either. They're being forced to watch as the Taliban return to a stronghold located just a 15-minute drive away from the German camp.
History Repeating Itself?
The reports coming from the Kunduz area raise doubts about the success of Operation Adler. The Afghan Army said it wouldn't repeat the mistake made in past offensives that troops were removed too quickly, enabling the enemy to quickly return to the area. But it appeared to have done exactly that last week.
At the German base in Kunduz, sources even said that ANA General Murad Ali Murad wanted to withdraw his troops completely at the start of the week.
The withdrawal of Afghan troops is reminiscent of a failure often made by the US army that it now admits was a mistake: After beating away the Taliban from their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, the Americans often withdrew too quickly. They left the local populations to their own devices in dealing with returning Taliban, and local people lost faith in the international security force as a result.
The same could now happen in areas where German soldiers have been deployed. At the same time, the Taliban's return also creates a greater threat for the German army. Now back and presumably rearmed with weapons and explosives, the Taliban could seek revenge on the Afghan army, but also the Bundeswehr. Three hundred German soldiers as well as ISAF fight jets helped their Afghan army colleagues in Operation Adler, and the Bundeswehr could quickly become a target.
On Thursday, two rockets were fired near the German base. And for the coming days and weeks, the German forces are bracing for new attacks -- ones that could be better targeted and organized than before.
Nevertheless, neither the Germans nor the Afghans want to cede the area around Kunduz. They want to make it safe enough so locals can participate in national elections scheduled for August 20.