By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistani Bureau chief of the Asia Times Online
Events of the past two years suggest that the plans of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to scale down its troop numbers in Afghanistan this year is not the beginning of the end of combat operations. Rather, it's a switch to a new plan that aims to facilitate the broader participation of regional allies such as Russia, India and the Central Asian Republics for the defeat of the Islamic militancy.
Already, there has been collaboration in Afghanistan between NATO and Russia's anti-drug operatives, while Uzbek President Islam Karimov's 2008 proposal that Western capitals set up a "6+3" initiative group to tackle problems in Afghanistan has been well received. This would include Central Asian countries, the United States and NATO. Uzbekistan is becoming increasingly involved in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. All of this affirms a roadmap of anti-terror operations involving more allies in Afghanistan following the draw-down of NATO forces starting this year.
The Taliban command council in Helmand province in Afghanistan became aware of this shift to involve regional players and responded by sending some of its top-ranking commanders to northern Afghanistan, where in late 2001 the Taliban had been routed by Northern Alliance militias backed by US forces during the invasion that led to the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. Their destinations included Kunduz, Baghlan and Mazar-i-Sharif.
Al-Qaeda's international wing, Jundallah, has also prepared a strategy for northern Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics to nip in the bud the deeper involvement of regional players.
The militant response thus involves the international strategy of al-Qaeda and indigenous Taliban plans, which stand alone at the moment but at some stage they are expected to fuse. Such a fusion would be similar to what occurred in the tribal areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, where three different anti-American forces - pro-Islamic tribalism, the Taliban and al-Qaeda - initially pulled in different directions before eventually fusing into the neo-Taliban.
This was a new generation of local tribesman and other Pakistani and Afghans who absorbed al-Qaeda's ideology and decided to fight simultaneously on the regional as well as on the international front.
The Taliban decided to concentrate their northern forces in Baghlan province because of its sizeable Pashtun population, apart from Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The Pashtun were send to Baghlan by former King Zahir Shah (on the throne from 1933 to 1973) to build a constituency - which has now been taken over by the Taliban.
Al-Qaeda chose Baghlan because of its strategic location near the Central Asian Republics in which al-Qaeda supports local Islamic opposition groups, especially Uzbekistan and Chechnya.
The road heading north out of Kabul passes through many dark and narrow mountain tunnels before the landscape broadens into dusty plains. The sky was a brilliant blue, and after about 200 kilometers a large spy balloon loomed overhead. It marked our destination - the village of Qarah Daqa, near the military base of Baghlan manned by Hungarian troops.
The Pentagon uses dozens of balloons to meet the growing military demand for video surveillance of insurgents. Army Times has cited Ashton Carter, the Pentagon's top weapons-buyer, as saying balloons fitted with high-powered cameras were needed because unmanned planes such as the Predator could not be built fast enough. Spy balloons were the latest example of how unmanned weapons were revolutionizing warfare, said Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
As we approached the base our driver had to slow down as at least 80 NATO oil supply tankers were backed up at a security checkpoint. The tankers had set out from the Uzbekistan border early in the morning and arrived near Qarah Daqa, near Baghlan province's capital of Pol-e-Khumri, at 2 pm.
The convoys can only travel in daylight as the nights are too dangerous. They are protected by private security guards, but when they arrive at Qarah Daqa, where they spend the night, local Afghan police also provide protection against militant attacks, besides spy balloons.
Qarah Daqa is an Uzbek-language name, but the local population - not more than 1,000 people - is now all Pashtun. It lies seven kilometers from Pol-e-Khumri and is made up of identical mud and stone houses. Its watermelons and muskmelons are renowned throughout Afghanistan for their unique and sweet taste. Cattle farming and fruit farm cultivation are the only source of revenue of these villagers.
The villagers were aware of my arrival and had gathered in a hujra - a sort of community club where people sit for an evening chat and other gatherings.
As with most other villages in Baghlan, the residents of Qarah Daqa fled to Pakistan during the 10-year Soviet occupation that began in 1979, although they nevertheless played an active role in the national resistance against communist forces. Most villagers were members of the Jamiat-e-Islami Afghanistan and fought under the command of legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Haji Habibur Rahman greeting me. He's a malik (tribal chief) and sported a white turban; his aristocratic demeanor made him stand out from all the other people in the room.
"For the last year the Taliban have regrouped very strongly in villages across Baghlan province," Rahman said.
"What made them come back after eight years?" I asked.
"A bad system of justice halted routine life. Court cases went pending for years. That was the main reason why the Taliban were welcomed," Rahman said.
He continued, "The Taliban were never unpopular in our area. They left under duress because they were defeated by the American forces. They were popular in 2001, and they are still popular.
"Moulvi Younus is the in-charge of Pol-e-Khumri district. He is a local tribesman. The Taliban appointed him as the [shadow] governor of Baghlan. He runs the province through a shura-e-rahbary [leadership council]. It has representatives in all provinces. We have their cell phone numbers, and if we want to resolve a dispute, we take the cases to them and they solve it then and there," Rahman said.
Mohammad Islam, a youth, chipped in: "The Taliban [after 2001] left for southern Afghan districts, northern Afghanistan was not their focus. In the meantime, two different developments occurred.
"First and foremost was the unpopularity of the foreign occupation in Afghanistan. Islamic scholars in the province unanimously declared it a battle between Islam and infidels. At the same time, youths felt that the government didn't carry out any development work in the province.
"The Taliban saw this and their command council in Helmand sent commanders who within a few months organized the youths. First Qari Jabbar was appointed as governor, but he was killed and now Moulvi Younus is governor."
Pashtuns have been the ruling class in northern Afghanistan since the time of King Shah, despite being the ethnic minority. During Taliban rule (1996-2001) this position was consolidated, but after the defeat of the Taliban they not only came under the domination of the majority Tajik and Uzbek population, but were suspected of being Taliban sympathizers and punished.
This has all changed. The Pashtun villagers of Baghlan cite examples over the past year of Uzbek fighters coming from Pakistan's tribal areas and being killed in Kunduz and Baghlan, but they do not see this as a major trend as all armed opposition in the area under the Taliban is local, and even insurgents of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan have been driven out.
A sign of the Taliban's control is that from 6 pm to 6 am, all cellular companies switch off their transmission towers as the Taliban have warned them that during the night the government uses cell phone signals to trace the Taliban and their sanctuaries. If the towers are not silenced, they will be blown up.
The Afghan government, as well as Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan, are extremely worried about the situation in northern Afghanistan - and seemingly with considerable justification.
NEXT: The government fights back
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban beyond 9/11 and Beyond published by Pluto Press, UK.