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US soldiers keep watch at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Parwan province.
US soldiers keep watch at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Parwan province.

Insurgency spreads to the north

Calm until recently, the region is fast emerging as a hotbed of militancy and even people not linked to any faction are taking up arms.

PARWAN // Afghans in the north of the country are concerned that the insurgency is gaining strength after years of being confined to the south. Residents and officials from areas once regarded as peaceful say it is clear the violence is spreading. The militant group Hizb-e-Islami is believed to be responsible for much of this bloodshed, but there are also suggestions that people with no affiliation to any of the main rebel factions have begun taking up arms.

Abdul Rauf's son was killed by a suicide bomber targeting US troops in Charikar, the capital of Parwan province, in December. For him and just about the entire town, the blast was completely unexpected. "It was around 8am. Every day he would usually drink three glasses of tea, but that day he had one and then said he was going to work. At around 8.10am the Americans were in front of the governor's office and my son was also there. Then the attack happened and killed him," Mr Rauf said.

"We never used to think about these problems before. But now whenever we see foreigners we try to hide. We worry a lot." Since the insurgency heated up in 2005, the fighting has been concentrated in southern, eastern and some western regions. The north has been relatively stable and the United States has accused many Nato members of shirking their duties by only deploying forces in this part of the country.

Mr Rauf blamed US troops for the Charikar attack, saying it would never have happened if they were not there. The father of another victim killed in the same explosion was less critical, but he is concerned that security will deteriorate. Abdul Qahar, a close relative of Mr Rauf, also lost his son. Speaking in the nearby town of Bagram, where he works in the intelligence section of the local police, he said: "With suicide bombers it's impossible to catch them. In Kabul there are lots of international forces and they cannot catch them, so what hope is there in a small province or district?"

Perhaps the first obvious sign of the spreading violence came in Nov 2007, when dozens of people, including a number of children and a leading politician, were killed when an explosion ripped through a parliamentary delegation visiting a sugar factory in Baghlan province. At the time it was regarded as a horrific single incident not likely to be repeated, but unrest has continued to develop since then and the rebels have clearly gained a foothold in the area.

"Even before that, the security was not acceptable for the people because a lot of commanders still had their weapons and power," said Sayed Agha Qayomi, a member of parliament from Baghlan. A series of recent attacks have only heightened their concern. Baghlan is an old stronghold of Hizb-e-Islami, a militant group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former prime minister. Having been a key CIA ally in the fight against Soviet occupation, he is now one of the most wanted men in Afghanistan.

Mr Qayomi said areas of the province where Hizb-e-Islami retained an influence were particularly dangerous. However, he said, Afghans not allied to any single rebel faction were also taking up arms against the government. "The situation is getting worse in Baghlan. Not just there, but everywhere in the country and especially the north," he said. Another place where security has deteriorated is Kunduz, which lies on the border with Tajikistan. Both Hizb-e-Islami and the Taliban are known to be operating there and German soldiers stationed in the province faced a growing threat last year.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the rebels were starting to feel a possible victory. "In the north these people who are now active were keeping quiet because they were thinking the government and the international community were on the winning side. Now they see the government is increasingly weak and losing confidence day by day," he said. Mr Nadery said more attention must be paid towards reducing the influence of warlords and drug barons in the north or the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami could exploit the situation further.

"They share an objective, but I would not say that is to make the foreign troops leave the country. The objective is to make the current process in Afghanistan fail, the international community fail, and to take over power," he said. csands@thenational.ae

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