Taliban still active in Afghanistan
WHEN Haji Lalai Mama, a 60-year-old tribal elder, gamely tried to organise a village defence force against the Taliban recently, he had to do it with a handful of men and just three rifles. "We were patrolling and ready," he recalled.
But they were not ready enough. The Taliban surprised them under cover of darkness by using a side road. One villager was killed, and 10 others were wounded by a grenade. Two Taliban fighters were captured in the clash. The rest disappeared into the night.
The men at Loy Karez were exceptional in making a stand at all. Few in southern Afghanistan are ready to stand up to the Taliban, at least not without greater support or benefits from the Afghan government.
In fact, four years after the Taliban were ousted from power by the American military, their presence is bigger and more menacing than ever, say police and government officials, village elders, farmers and aid workers across southern Afghanistan.
American and Afghan officials have said for months that the Taliban are no longer capable of fighting large battles, and in their weakness have changed tactics to roadside bombings or attacking soft targets - harassing villagers, killing teachers and burning schools.
Yet the American-led alliance has not been able to root out the insurgency. And the Taliban's tactics have succeeded in sowing fear.
The militants have closed down about 200 schools through threats and burnings across the south of Afghanistan, and killed dozens of government officials, tribal elders and civilians in the past year. Commerce has sharply declined in Kandahar, largely because of the rash of suicide bombings in the past few months.
In the villages, Afghans are asking foreigners and non-governmental organisations not to come around anymore, not because they do not need the aid, but for fear of reprisals from the Taliban.
The local border police commander, Col Abdul Razziq, 30, says the situation is reaching a crisis point.
"People are fed up now with the Taliban," he said. "They don't let organisations come and build roads, dig bore wells and build schools. I think now people have to fight them. How long can they tolerate this?"
The American military reacts quickly with overwhelming airpower when it encounters a Taliban group of any size, as it did recently in Helmand Province when local officials claimed 200 Taliban fighters were at large.
But until now the Taliban, criminals and drug smugglers, who often work together, have had an easy time in Helmand because there has been virtually no security presence in the province, neither from the Afghan Army nor an international force of any strength, said Col Henry Worsley, the commander of British troops.
The British are starting to arrive in Helmand as part of the new Nato force taking over command of southern Afghanistan this year.
"They are clearly a threat," Worsley said of the Taliban and their allies. "But they do have a fairly easy time of it now, and that's going to change."
British troops are planning extensive patrolling with Afghan forces, including patrols on foot and at night to improve security in the villages, he said.
American forces have not spent much time and effort on Helmand, the commander of the United States-led alliance, Lt Gen Karl Eikenberry, has conceded. Yet the alliance has spent a lot of time and investment on the neighbouring province of Kandahar, where the Taliban have also expanded their influence.
General Eikenberry does not accept the suggestion of failure. "The challenge is not that the enemy is strong, but after 25 years of warfare, that the institutions of the state are weak," he told a gathering of elders in Kandahar.
When greeted with speech after speech calling on America to use its influence on Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban operating across the border, he urged the Afghans to look in the mirror, telling them they have a role to play too.
"The best strategy when we have a problem is to hold a mirror to yourself," he said. "It means building a government, getting a clean government that is not corrupt, stopping poppy cultivation, building the Afghan National Army and national police. That is the first step."
President Hamid Karzai also appealed to tribal elders at a recent gathering to help, acknowledging that the government cannot achieve anything without the cooperation of the people.
But in southern Afghanistan, the people seem to be waiting for cooperation from the government.
A police commander in Kandahar, Mullah Gul, who has been fighting the Taliban for four years, described them as the black sheep of the family. "They are a problem," he said, "but it is not something that we cannot handle among ourselves."
While villagers may not support the government, most are sitting on the fence, and only a few are actively helping the Taliban, police officials say. Villagers claim they are caught in the middle and receive little government support.
"We take them very seriously," said Jamal Khan, 24, a farmer from Nawa district in Helmand Province said of the Taliban. "They come in the night to our village. We are not armed, and they ask for food and a place to stay. We cannot say anything. Then the government comes in the morning and says you gave a place to the Taliban. But what should we do?"
But there is evidence that at least some elders and others in the area, distrustful of a government that they say is corrupt and exploitative, are sympathetic to the Taliban. The elders from the Sangin district of Helmand, which American planes bombed recently, said they had joined the small number of Taliban fighters because the government officials preyed on them and robbed them.
"The Taliban are in the villages, among the people," said Ali Seraj, a descendent of Afghanistan's royal family and native of Kandahar, who contends that the government is losing the hearts and minds of the ordinary members of the public.
With its corrupt and often brutal local officials, the government has pushed Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, said Abdul Qadar Noorzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar.
"These are uneducated people. They do not trust the government, they see no help coming to them, so the local people start doing things like the Taliban do," he said.
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-03-05