KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN — The hulks of burned-out fuel tankers on the doorstep of this provincial capital stand as scorched testament to the growing reach of the Taliban and other insurgents across Afghanistan's once-stable north.
As the Obama administration moves into a crucial phase of deliberations over the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, residents of a widening arc of territory a half-day's drive from the capital, Kabul, describe daily lives fraught with danger as the militants' foothold becomes stronger.
Just beyond the Kunduz city limits, insurgents brazenly tool around in Ford Rangers stolen from the Afghan police. A Taliban-run shadow administration, complete with a governor, a court system and tax levies, wields greater authority than its official counterpart in much of Kunduz province.
Traffic is thin and nervously quick on the main highway, where insurgent roadblocks and ambushes have been common, spurred in part by a new NATO supply line running south from Tajikistan.
"There's no safety now -- it's war," said Abdul Rahman, an ice cream vendor who is afraid to travel to his home in an outlying district. "The Taliban aren't in the city yet, but they're out there everywhere in the countryside around here. I'm scared."
Many Afghans fear that the hinterlands will become even more dangerous if the commander of allied troops in the country, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, pushes ahead with plans to relinquish remote outposts and instead concentrate on defending population centers.
Although the number of insurgents in the north is relatively small compared with that in the south -- the Taliban's birthplace and traditional stronghold -- military officials and local leaders describe a worrying and unusually disparate buildup of insurgents in the region.
The influx is fed by a variety of militant factions: Al Qaeda-linked Uzbeks and Chechens with a particular reputation for ruthlessness, Taliban fighters who have been pushed northward by NATO offensives in the south, foot soldiers loyal to several different Pakistan-based insurgent commanders.
"It's definitely a mixing pot," said Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a spokesman for McChrystal.
Kunduz province, sandwiched between Tajikistan to the north and Baghlan province to the south, is in many ways a microcosm of the country, with an ethnically mixed population, longtime standing as a fighters' haven and smuggling route, and a shrinking sphere of government influence outside major population centers.
It is also a strategic pivot. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, Kunduz was the fundamentalist movement's administrative center for all the north. Together with Baghlan, it is the gateway to the Hindu Kush, the towering mountains that represent the only real physical barrier between the north and Kabul.
"If Kunduz fell, the Hindu Kush would be in the hands of the Taliban, and this would be a disaster," said Mohammad Omar, the provincial governor, who recently survived a Taliban assassination attempt.
The plethora of insurgent groups operating in Kunduz and Baghlan offers a rare glimpse of the shifting rivalries and alliances between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. A key link between the two is the feared Soviet-era insurgent commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Kunduz native.
Hekmatyar's fighters frequently stage attacks against Western troops and Afghan security forces in the north. But in what analysts describe as a classic Afghan hedging technique, the commander is making political inroads in the region, even as he keeps up the battlefield pressure.
Many think Hekmatyar is positioning himself for possible power-sharing in a new administration likely to be led by President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader, facing a runoff challenge from his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, is cementing ties with powerful warlords such as Hekmatyar, ignoring Western discomfort over such alliances.
"Hekmatyar is looking for more political influence here," said Habiba Urfan, a provincial council member in Kunduz. In Baghlan, an entire tier of provincial officials, from the governor on down, is allied with Hekmatyar, intelligence officials say.
Insurgents operating in the north have also displayed an acute awareness of the rifts between NATO allies -- seeking, in particular, to exploit tensions between McChrystal's leadership team and the Germans, who make up the main Western contingent in this part of the country.
This month, insurgents ambushed a 40-truck fuel convoy only a few miles outside the gates of Kunduz city. The attack was within sight of a hilltop German military base, but no troops responded; a spokesman said none were available.