The Talibanization of Central Afghanistan

Recent months have witnessed a surge of Taliban activity in historically more stable regions of Afghanistan, with an increasing number of insurgent attacks taking place in the provinces surrounding Kabul. On August 14, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-packed vehicle in front of the offices of Abdul Baseer Salangi, governor of Parwan province, which is located just north of the capital. Five other militants wearing suicide bomb vests stormed the building. The resulting fighting and two exploded vests left at least 22 people dead.

Parwan, due to its predominantly non-Pashtun population, has never had a particularly strong Taliban presence. Now, however, levels of Taliban activity have risen sharply. The attack on the governor's compound was the second such incident in recent months. At the beginning of June, Jawad Zuhaak, the head of the provincial council in peaceful Bamyan province, was kidnapped and executed while traveling along Parwan's increasingly dangerous central highway.

Because insurgent activity was negligible until recently, the NATO troop presence in Parwan and nearby provinces was kept to a minimum. Since NATO ousted the Taliban from parts of Helmand Province last year, however, the insurgents have worked to expand their influence from the predominantly Pashtun south to the more ethnically diverse northern and central provinces. With most Afghan and NATO troops stationed in the southern and eastern parts of the country, security in once-peaceful regions has deteriorated, as the Taliban attempt to demoralize NATO and undermine support for the mission in coalition countries by demonstrating the breath of their reach.

Using diverse tactics -- pitting communities against each other in some cases, preying on people's frustration with the government in others, and employing classic intimidation in large measures -- insurgents have seized territory in northern provinces such as Kunduz, Baghlan, and Badakhshan, where they previously had slight influence.

The Taliban's spread to the north of the country has been noted for some time, but the spike in insurgent activity in the central provinces is a more recent phenomenon. It is not unique to Parwan. In Kapisa, which also borders Kabul, a suicide bomber killed five French soldiers last month. To the west, in Wardark, security has been deteriorating since 2009, but attacks have recently been creeping closer to Kabul. Last week, five police officers and three intelligence agents were abducted by the Taliban in the Maydan Shah area and beheaded. The proximity of these incidents to the capital further entrenches the impression that the government's writ does not extend outside of Kabul.

Still, it is feared that if troops were redeployed from more active battlefields in Kandahar and Helmand, the Taliban would be able to capitalize on a reduced troop presence in the south and NATO would lose some of the gains made there.

Yet, the recent instability in the central provinces complicates the coalition's timelines considerably. Parwan is among the possible candidates for the second stage of the transition from NATO to Afghan control, scheduled for next month. The Afghan National Army's 6th Battalion is headquartered in the Posht-e Sorkh area of Parwan and it is hoped that it will be able to enhance the province's security. Yet, although Governor Salangi insists that the transition will go ahead as planned, Sunday's attack has certainly deepened concerns about whether Afghan soldiers and police will be able to preserve stability in the region alone.

The instability in central Afghanistan also complicates the broader withdrawal timetable. U.S. military officials are currently deciding whether to withdraw the first of 10,000 troops that had been part of last year's deployment. For provinces like Parwan, perhaps the most serious danger is that political deadlines will force a premature transition or withdrawal. If security responsibilities are left to Afghan forces that are under-prepared and unable to maintain order -- and their current capabilities are by no means certain -- it will allow the Taliban greater operational freedom and encourage further incursions into these previously peaceful territories. Giving them greater scope to operate will also bolster their assuredness of outlasting the coalition force. If NATO wants to hold central Afghanistan against the insurgents, its military and political leadership must weigh the risk profile of the transition very carefully before proceeding. Following timelines will not produce the desired results if the Taliban are subsequently able to establish safe havens and support networks in the provinces around the capital.