While You Were Distracted by Marja, Northern Afghanistan Fell Apart
By Joshua Foust
Something is amiss in northern Afghanistan. The past year has seen the region, which until recently was exalted as a model of stability and development, continue a steady descent into chaos.
Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the north, is still prospering, as are some other towns nearby. But just outside the city, the region has witnessed a shocking deterioration of security. Ten unarmed aid workers were killed by the Taliban in the northeastern province of Badakhshan in August. Reports emerged that U.S. companies were also lining their own pockets with development funds while providing little in the way of services to the Afghan people.
In September, NATO warplanes bombed a convoy of militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan seemingly traveling in the open. Among the dead were several campaign workers -- suggesting a frightening collaboration between some politicians and the insurgency. In October, a bomb in the northern city of Taloqan killed the governor of Kunduz province. In a piece of grim irony, the governor had given a speech just one week before saying that if the Taliban's advance wasn't stopped, the whole region would fall into chaos.
But even as Afghanistan's north goes to pieces, the U.S. media remains almost exclusively focused on the country's south. Journalists have flocked to the south to cover the high-profile NATO military campaigns to "retake" Kandahar city and the surrounding areas, as well as a massive campaign to seize the Marja farming area in west-central Helmand. From journalists' perspective, the high tempo of combat in the south and the region's centrality to the U.S. grand strategy of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan make it a sexier story than events in the north. For example, a LexisNexis search of the New York Times reveals 90 stories in 2010 that mention Kunduz, Baghlan, Badakhshan, or Balkh -- the four most populous provinces in the north. Meanwhile, searching the same time period reveals 182 stories about Helmand, and more than 300 stories for Kandahar.
A further deterrent for journalists working for U.S.-based media is that there simply aren't very many Americans in the north. Without a "hook" that explains to Western readers why they should care, stories about northern Afghanistan can be a tough sell for editors.
Whatever the cause for the lack of coverage, the downfall of the north must rank as one of the great ignored stories of 2010. That an entire region of the country could spiral out of control while the Western press did little more than raise an eyebrow shows America's fundamental ignorance of Afghanistan's complex political dynamics. The rising violence in the north could also illustrate the Taliban's success at metastasizing out of the southern and eastern areas of the country, which are normally considered "Taliban-friendly," into regions analysts normally consider safe. Such a drastic reversal of fortune could even be seen as the turning point in the war -- when it went from bad to potentially unwinnable.
Joshua Foust is a military analyst specializing in Central Asia and author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. For dispatches from journalist Anna Badkhen's trip across northern Afghanistan, visit "The Crossing" on ForeignPolicy.com.
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