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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Meanwhile, back in the stan


Taliban fighters in Ghazni province in
southern Afghanistan

Photo: Veronique De Viguerie


Better paid, better armed, better connected - Taliban rise again

Kandahar under threat, war raging in two provinces and an isolated president. So what went wrong?

Declan Walsh in Ghazni
Saturday September 16, 2006
The Guardian

Reedi Gul is probably dead now. Two weeks ago masked gunmen abducted the 24-year-old on a lonely mountain road in central Afghanistan. The next day his father, Saleh Gul, received a phone call, and realised he was the real target.

"I am an Afghan Muslim Talib," the voice announced. "If you want to see your son alive, listen carefully."

Three weeks earlier Saleh Gul had been appointed governor of an insurgent-infested district in Ghazni province. The Taliban demanded he quit his job, pay a ransom, attack US forces and assassinate local officials.

Mr Gul paid $2,000 and resigned his position, but refused to kill. "I am not a terrorist," he barked down the phone. So the Taliban added an impossible demand: the freedom of an imprisoned commander.

Last Sunday their deadline passed. "Still no news," the anguished father said four days later. "I think they have killed him by now." Mr Gul's face was lined with worry but his voice rang with anger. "I had warned the government this might happen. I told them Taliban was taking over. Why can't they stop them?"

Brazenness

That question is resounding across Afghanistan following a summer of chaos. In the south war has gripped Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where British and Canadian troops are stationed. In the past fortnight Nato has launched a blistering offensive, killing more than 500 Taliban, to stave off an attack on Kandahar city - a previously unthinkable notion.

Elsewhere, suicide bombers are striking with Baghdad-like brazenness. In the boldest attack yet, last week two American soldiers and 14 Afghans were shredded by a huge blast outside the US embassy in Kabul, one of the country's most tightly guarded areas.

Opium cultivation has soared. This year Afghanistan will produce more heroin than western addicts can consume. The main hub of cultivation is British-controlled Helmand. Since August 1 Britain and Canada have each lost 11 soldiers in combat, a high toll for what was originally presented as a peacekeeping mission.

It was not meant to be like this. When American troops started to flounder in Iraq after 2003 President George Bush lauded Afghanistan as a major victory. When presidential and parliamentary elections passed peacefully, his generals wrote the insurgency off. "The Taliban is a force in decline," declared Major General Eric Olson 18 months ago.

Today, to many observers those words look foolish. While northern and western Afghanistan remain stable, President Hamid Karzai is isolated and unpopular. Comparisons of the southern war with Vietnam are no longer considered outlandish. And dismayed western diplomats - the architects of reconstruction - are watching their plans go up in smoke. "Nobody saw this coming. It's pretty dire," admitted one official in Kabul.

No single factor explains the slide. But some answers can be found in Ghazni, a central province considered secure until earlier this year. Now it is on the frontline of the Taliban advance, just a two-hour drive from Kabul.

In the past two months the Taliban has swept across the southern half of the province with kidnappings, assassinations and gun battles. American officials believe Andar district, a few miles from their base in Ghazni town, is the Taliban hub for four surrounding provinces. This week they launched a drive in Andar, searching houses and raking buildings with helicopter gunship fire into a Taliban compound. At least 35 people died including a mother and two children.

"We've warned people they may see soldiers shooting in their villages. I tell them this is the price of peace and freedom," said US commander Lieutenant Colonel Steven Gilbert.

Travel along the Kabul-Kandahar highway that slices through Ghazni - once a symbol of western reconstruction - has become a high-stakes game of power. The Taliban sporadically mount checkpoints, frisking Afghans for ID cards, phone numbers or any other sign of a link to the government or foreign organisations. Those caught are beaten, kidnapped or killed. Foreigners travel south by plane, passing high over the road they once boasted about.

In the surrounding villages people are frightened and angry. In Qala Bagh district bands of 20 to 30 fighters descend at night. They demand food, shelter or a son to join the fighting, said Maulvi Aladat, the new district chief. A judge, a school principal and the local director of education have been assassinated in the past two months. The two girls' schools are closed.

The government offers scant protection. Ghazni's untrained police are outnumbered and outgunned. Huddled inside poorly protected compounds with few radios or vehicles, they are little match for large Taliban squads armed with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. The US-trained Afghan army is curiously absent. Ghazni has just 280 soldiers, according to the governor, Sher Alam Ibrahimi. Although on paper the army has 35,000 soldiers, desertion rates are believed to be high.

posted by Steve @ 2:22:00 AM

2:22:00 AM

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