When Taliban fighters hijacked two NATO fuel tankers along the new northern supply route into Afghanistan earlier this month, they generated international headlines.
NATO planes detected the militants after the vehicles stalled in a riverbed, and the commander of the German troops in Konduz Province ordered an air strike that killed scores of civilians and fighters who had gathered there, possibly to siphon off fuel.
The September 4 incident was surprising not only for the number of victims, but also because of where it took place. Not in the south or east, where Afghanistan's "hot" war is being fought, but where the situation is supposed to be quiet.
Northern Afghanistan may now be on the Western radar, but the Taliban have been building up their forces there for more than a year and a half.
The northern supply route from Tajikistan is intended to supplement the main southern passage through Pakistan, which has come under increasing attack by militants. The deputy governor of Konduz, Hamdullah Danesh, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan his region is an already well-established front line in the Afghan war.
"Konduz Province was previously one of the Taliban's important strongholds, and its impact is still felt in various parts of society," Danesh said. "NATO also wants to use Sher Khan supply route, which crosses Konduz territory, so Afghanistan's enemies -- Al-Qaeda and Taliban -- have decided to undermine security in the area."
More 'Enemy Contact'
Forty percent of the population in Konduz is ethnic Pashtun. The rest comprises Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and others. Under Taliban rule, the fundamentalist militia based in Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern Afghanistan established a bridgehead to the north that survived ongoing attack by the Tajik-led Northern Alliance (aka United Front).
When U.S. airpower enabled the Northern Alliance to sweep toward Kabul in the wake of September 11, 2001, one of the fiercest battles took place around the city of Konduz. Thousands of Taliban and foreign fighters resisted a 12-day siege before surrendering.
Now they're back. Taliban fighters are setting up fake checkpoints along the northern road and launching suicide attacks. And they're increasingly engaging German and Afghan security forces in firefights.
"I was in the office of the press officer at Konduz base, and I saw a huge calendar of 2009 where the enemy contact incidents were written down with a pink marker," says Clemens Wergin, chief foreign policy editor for Germany's "Die Welt" magazine, recently visited the German base near Konduz. "It was very impressive to see that from April on you had the whole calendar covered by pink, by firing incidents, by suicide bomb attacks, by ambushes. It is a huge increase in enemy contact."
German forces, now numbering some 4,500, first arrived in northern Afghanistan in 2002, when the region was relatively quiet and appeared only to need reconstruction.
The Germans welcomed the chance to show the world they could bolster peace by improving the economy. And they made measurable progress, building roads and bridges and providing almost 2,000 households in Konduz with access to clean water.
But today, Taliban attacks have all but stopped the German reconstruction effort.
"Because of the worsening security situation, the German Ministry of Development has moved out of Konduz, the NGOs have moved out of Konduz, and what [the German forces] tell me is that connecting to people is getting more difficult in the villages," says Wergin. "I talked to a unit that was in the Konduz area a year ago and came back again in July and they told me that the security situation worsened 100 percent. They said that before they would go with normal cars, normal jeeps into the villages, talk to the villagers, get information, connect with people, and they say that today they can only go into the villages with heavy armored cars."
Wergin says villagers still welcome German soldiers when they arrive. But locals say night-time reprisals for cooperating with NATO forces has spread a climate of fear over the province.
Three Germans were killed during a clash with the Taliban in June. Since then, the Germans have launched several joint operations with the Afghan Army to try to sweep the Taliban out of a stronghold in the Chahar Dara district. Its border is just 15 minutes from the German base.
But after the operations pushed out the Taliban, militants trickled back again within days. German and Afghan government officials blame each other for the lack of results.
Konduz Governor Mohammd Omar says the Germans aren't willing to seriously challenge the Taliban.
Speaking to Germany's weekly "Der Spiegel," he said that "the last operation in Chahar Dara was unsuccessful because the soldiers were hardly prepared to stage air strikes. They are overly cautious, and they don't even get out of their vehicles."
U.S. commanders have urged German forces to step up combat operations. But the German mission in Afghanistan was never conceived for that purpose and the German military lacks essential combat equipment, says Wergin.
He says that one of the fundamental problems for the Germans is that they "don't have attack helicopters and they are not going to have them for a couple of years."
"The mobility of the forces is not as good as it could be with attack helicopters," says Wergin. "The German army doesn't have those capabilities, and...a whole political process needs to be done in order to have them, first in Germany and then maybe in Afghanistan -- [which] is a very tiresome and very long one."
Caught In The Middle
Defending their actions, the Germans accuse Afghan troops of failing to keep areas secure after they've been cleared of militants. But Afghan forces say they don't have enough soldiers and police to secure areas cleared by foreign troops.
As tensions increase, people in Konduz say they're being forced to take sides. Some families are reported to have sent one son to join the Taliban in case the militants gain control of the region.
Locals also say former warlords are re-arming, and that money allocated for the reconstruction effort in Konduz is contributing to rampant corruption. "People are disappointed," Konduz resident Abdukhaleq -- who like many Afghans uses just one name -- told Radio Free Afghanistan. “And it's contributing to support for the Taliban.”
Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Konduz, Noor Mohammed Sahim, contributed to this report