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Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 01:00 UK

Taliban infiltrate once-peaceful Afghan north

Farmer in Kunduz
This farmer says his stolen oxen were returned when the Taliban arrested the thieves

By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Char Dara district, Kunduz province

The northern Afghan province of Kunduz is renowned for its mouth-watering melons, rice and almonds.

Kunduzis are likely to remember their province as "the bread basket of Afghanistan" - it was the country's main source of cotton and fruit exports in more peaceful times.

But those memories might be fading fast. A recent spate of attacks by the Taliban and al-Qaeda has altered the face of Kunduz beyond all recognition.

I work in the fields with my father because our school was closed. I want to be an educated woman
Zarmina, 13 years old

"The Taliban have closed girls' schools in the districts. They collect taxes from people and they have their own courts. The governor was attacked and the Taliban are in the villages. All because Kunduz is ignored by our president and ministers in Kabul," said a group of elders over endless cups of green tea in the provincial capital.

As you drive from Kabul into Kunduz city, it is not long before motorists come across a colourful billboard with a powerful message:

"Last year explosives killed 1,700 and injured more than 2,393 people. That is enough."

In this way, one fact becomes immediately clear to all those entering Kunduz: security is the most pressing concern in this far-flung northern province.

A senior interior ministry official in Kabul agrees the situation is volatile but rejects any accusations that the central government has turned a blind eye towards Kunduz.

fruit
The fertile province has been called Afghanistan's "breadbasket".

"We know that the enemy is there in big numbers and there are also al-Qaeda fighters. We conducted a big operation in Goar Tepa and we will continue to kill and capture them. But we are waiting for people to collect their harvests," said the official, who wished to remain anonymous.

In recent months, Kunduz has felt the consequences of the Taliban presence - a senior Afghan government official was shot dead while driving to the Tajikistan border and four US soldiers were recently killed by a roadside bomb.

Under surveillance

The Taliban have also built a shadowy network of control and influence in the province's villages and districts.

Take for example the strategic district of Char Dara, 30km (18 miles) west of the provincial capital, where the writ of the central government does not extend beyond the district headquarters.

The BBC was recently approached by a local tribal elder from Char Dara district, who made it clear that he wanted the plight of Kunduzis to be known to the world, and offered to take me on a tour of his district.

"We are stuck between the government and the Taliban. Kunduz shouldn't have been left to fend for itself," says the elder, angrily.

We left Kunduz city before dawn, winding our way through a series of dirt trails and bumpy roads. As the sun rose, it revealed our surroundings: unkempt farms stretched into the distance, and we passed several farmers working doggedly in fields of wheat, rice and cotton, their foreheads drenched in sweat.

farming in kunduz
Farmers say this season has been a good one in Kunduz

During our three-hour drive through many of Char Dara district's villages, signs of Afghan government influence were few and far between.

Instead we consistently encountered motorcycle-borne Taliban fighters openly surveying the operations of the district's villages throughout the day.

It was during our first such encounter that my host broke the drive's long silence: "Taliban fighters," he said, indicating with his eyes.

"They are patrolling, but will not stop anyone unless they have intelligence on them."

We drove onwards, passing a gaggle of young boys walking along the roadside towards their school. There was no sign, though, of the district's young girls.

"The Taliban have closed down all the girls schools in the district. They have warned people not to educate their daughters," my host informed me.

A short while later, we stopped in the village of Basoas and I was shown the local girl's school, which was shuttered and padlocked.

Taliban tax

We met 13-year-old Zarmina with her father.

map

"I work in the fields with my father because our school was closed. I want to be an educated woman but I don't know how I can read and write because my parents are illiterate," said Zarmina with a determined look on her face.

After several hours of driving we arrived at another remote village and local farmers informed the tribal chief that the province was expecting one of its best harvests.

But, they complained, they were being forced to pay the Taliban a 10% usher (religious tax).

"The Taliban come and take our 10% in exchange for resolving our disputes. People don't go to the government because the Taliban control the area," wheat farmer Mohammed Nabi said.

Several farmers went as far as providing me with the documentation and taxation papers to prove this claim.

girls school in kunduz
The local girls' school has been closed down by the Taliban

The governor of Kunduz is open about the Afghan government's failure in his province.

"We don't have enough police to guard the people of our districts. The Taliban are well-resourced.

"They have funding from abroad and though drug-deals. They are able to intimidate people into accepting high rates of taxation and close down schools in places where we don't have any physical presence," he said.

But the governor of the province, Engineer Omar, is confident about the government's preparation.

"We have asked for more police from Kabul and the only reason why we are not going against Taliban is because it's the harvest time and we don't want our people to lose their harvests and this is exactly what the Taliban wants us to do."



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