Afghan villages struggle in Taliban’s orbit

March 11th, 2008 - 10:22 am ICT by admin  

By Nick Allen
Khakrez (Afghanistan), March 11 (DPA) “Why are you giving them bread and raisins? If the Taliban find out they’ll kill us,” an old man snaps as his son serves refreshments to British Gurkha troops patrolling their village in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province. Cautious residents of Hajikal say this is the first time foreign soldiers have visited the dusty spread of mud compounds, parched fields and orchards that yield meagre harvests of wheat, grapes and pomegranates.

Usually it’s Taliban fighters who stop here and across the region for sustenance, demanding food and dishing out beatings to reluctant hosts, according to the locals.

“They live in the mountains at night and they come to the villages during the day,” says another man.

Elsewhere, people claim they have to provide shelter and let the Taliban offer prayers in the mosque before they head west to fight the British in Helmand province, north to harass the Dutch in Uruzgan or east through the US and Romanian zone in Zabul to reputed safe havens in Pakistan.

The war in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating, and more than seven years after the Taliban regime was toppled by US-led forces it’s unclear how much of the hospitality the insurgents receive today is given willingly or under duress.

“The Taliban have been here for a long time, we are here today and will be gone in a week,” says Gurkha intelligence officer Lalit Gurung. “The locals know that and know they have to support the Taliban.”

The brows of the Pashtun tribesmen furrow anxiously as they are urged to throw their lot in with the Afghan security forces and the government located 400 km away in Kabul. It’s a place that most people here will never see and an authority that is largely abstract to those who live in the orbit of the insurgents.

According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, only 30 percent of Afghanistan is under the government’s control, while 60 percent is run by local power holders and tribal elders and 10 percent by the Taliban.

The power of the radical Islamic militia is strong in northern Kandahar. But 150 village elders still attended a recent “shura” meeting in the district centre of Khakrez, located 70 km northwest of Kandahar city, to hear what representatives of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community had to say.

Under tight security, they assemble at the headquarters of the Kabul-appointed District Commissioner, a heavily fortified compound that withstood two major Taliban assaults in the previous eight months. Its walls are dashed with bullet marks and holes punched by rocket-propelled grenades, a reflection of the tenuous hold that the central government has over this and many other remote settlements.

Just coming to the shura places the elders in great danger: “We cannot tell people that we were at the district centre today - many of those gathered here will get a visit from the Taliban this very night,” a turbaned, cloaked man says as he takes to the rostrum.

Brief appearances by the foreign forces often only aggravate matters, he believes: “As soon as they leave the situation gets worse,” the elder tells guests including Colonel Christian Juneau, deputy commander of the Canadian forces in the province.

At the same time, he is wistful about the benefits permanent security could bring, like construction of schools, clinics, wells, power lines and roads.

A quarter of the province’s population of one million still lives outside the zone of protection, according to Juneau, but creation of a new military base 40 km north of Kandahar is expected to help loosen the Taliban’s hold on the area.

“We are expanding the security and development circle and we are now right on the edge of Khakrez,” the officer stresses, urging the tribesmen to overcome their fear and get behind the authorities.

After the largely inconclusive event, an elder sums up the dilemma with survivalist logic born of decades of war and oppression: “If we don’t support the government, then the Taliban won’t hurt us,” he tells a reporter.

If Kabul’s writ is seen to grow in strength and emanate from Khakrez, a key town of around 2,000 inhabitants, some of the village leaders may stop sitting on the fence. For now, though, they can see that its 80-man police force is reluctant to go further than five kilometres in any direction.

An attempt to broaden the zone of influence three months earlier ended badly when a roadside bomb wrecked a police jeep near the village of Naser, located 15 km away, injuring five officers.

Last summer, 40 police officers were ambushed and slaughtered as they brought supplies of arms to the town from Kandahar city.

“I don’t have enough men to defend this whole area, I feel we are surrounded,” admits Khakrez District Commissioner Haji Abdul Wahab.

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