Taliban Lurches Back
To Power In Afghanistan

By Hamida Ghafour
The Globe and Mail

SHAH JOY, Afghanistan -- The intimidation tactics are simple, if horribly brutal.
A convoy of about 20 Honda motorcycles surrounds a house, looking for people who support the United States or President Hamid Karzai. If they find one, they kill him. If not, the householders are beaten to serve as a warning to others.
In the village of Shah Joy, about 300 kilometres southwest of Kabul, the return of the Taliban has been swift and harsh, as it is in about one-third of Afghanistan's southern regions where the ousted regime has regrouped and is widely thought to be preparing for a spring offensive against the Karzai government and its U.S. allies.
Even as U.S. and Pakistani forces carry out a major operation against al-Qaeda supporters to the east, the people of Zabul province have come under attack by a much more entrenched enemy. According to officials here, Shah Joy is like 70 per cent of the province - it is either controlled by supporters of the Taliban or completely lawless.
"They come day and night. They are lying near the mountains and sometimes even in the mosques," said Haji Mohammed, a 28-year-old soldier who said his two brothers were severely beaten because he works for the local government.
"My brothers were beaten in the mosque in open daylight. Their hands and feet were tied and the men wanted to take them away. But with the help of the village elders they were released. Since one year I cannot go home. They would not let me live."
Local military officials believe that 700 Taliban fighters - all ethnic Pashtuns - have crossed the border from the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta, where they are trained and funded. The insurgents have offered a motorbike, AK-47 assault rifle and satellite telephone to anyone willing to steal from, rob or bomb a government target. A successful hit is worth $265,CDN according to military officials. Killing an enemy comes with a $1,200 bonus.
General Ayoub Khan, the security commander for Zabul, says some of the Taliban commanders are Pakistani, although it is difficult to confirm because many extended Pashtun families straddle the border.
"In the Dai Chopan district there are reports of Punjabi commanders," Gen. Khan said.
"We arrested two [Taliban members] a month ago and they told us Pakistani colonels told them to destabilize Afghanistan."
If the Taliban's strategy is to make Zabul too difficult for the central government and international aid agencies to work in, it has worked. The situation is so volatile that the United Nations and large non-government organizations have stopped working in Zabul. According to local officials, Taliban commanders have also issued death warrants against any journalist entering the province.
The villagers of Shah Joy, about two-thirds along the only road from Kabul to the former Taliban base of Kandahar, say they are torn: They can either support a moderate government struggling to rebuild the country, or support the Taliban in a bid to survive.
"They are taking advantage of our poverty," Gen. Khan said of the Taliban. "The administration is weak and incapable of controlling an area, therefore the local people are not relying on them."
Along the main road through the province, the Taliban have set up daytime road blocks. They scrutinize vehicles for potential targets to kill or kidnap. Four engineers working on that road have been kidnapped, and 15 Afghans working for the central government have been killed in the past three months.
Mohammed Azghar, a former member of the Taliban who is now a soldier working for the local government, said that in villages where there are virtually no jobs, and the grape and almond farms have been turned to dust by a seven-year drought, the money is tempting.
"I killed two Taliban commanders and they had 200,000 Afghanis [$6,200] in their pockets and a pistol," he said. "A soldier here does not make that much money. The commanders distribute the money to fighters and say, 'Go burn a school, we will give you money. Go rob a house, we will give you money.'."
Mr. Karzai has replaced Zabul's governor three times in the past 15 months. The previous one survived an assassination attempt at his home. The current one, Mullah Khail Mohammed Hosani, is a former Taliban member who is trying to persuade district commissioners allied to the militants to support the central government instead.
"We are optimistic," he said. "When I met with some tribal leaders they said they are not against the non-governmental organizations but against cruel men in the current administration. In the two decades of war, the government was imposed on the people. I am negotiating with local communities so we can understand each other."
The Americans, on the other hand, are attempting to win the hearts of Afghans with the promise of reconstruction. Next month, the military plans to set up a provincial reconstruction team in Qalat, the local capital. The unit will consist of up to 100 people and provide security and aid to rebuild roads, schools and clinics. It is hoped the team's presence will establish a secure environment, especially in the remote villages, for other charities to return.
"The key thing is reconstruction," said Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Ellifrit, the team's commander. "The stories are getting around the province that Qalat has roads and electricity. When some of those guys realize the country is progressing and they are being left behind, they will ask themselves, 'What are we fighting for?'."
The province has been a hotbed of anti-American sentiment since the Taliban regime collapsed in October of 2001 under heavy U.S. bombing and advancing forces from the Northern Alliance. Senior Taliban members are thought to have sought refuge in the mountains that run from here to the Pakistani tribal areas, where, according to widespread but unconfirmed reports, Osama bin Laden is hiding along with his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Zabul's deputy governor, Malawi Mohammed Omar, said the Americans face a difficult task because they are not talking to the local communities to find out who is an enemy and who is not. Many Taliban fighters are from local villages and it is easy for them to hide in homes of relatives.
"They would not recognize Mullah Omar if he stood in front of them," the deputy governor said. "All the Taliban have to do is put down their gun and say hello - no one would know him. Until the Americans are on the ground, and negotiating with the local community leaders and disarming them, they will not win.
"People are too afraid of the Taliban. But they are not optimistic about the government's future so they support them. If they fight against the Taliban, they will have nothing."
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.



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