Vice Adm. William McRaven traveled to the village of Khataba to offer personal apologies for the five Afghanistan deaths in a botched special forces raid there in February. The US military acknowledged its involvement in the killings earlier this month.
A top US Special Forces commander visited the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan today to apologize for a night raid that went terribly wrong. It was here on Feb. 11 that a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan police chief, a prosecutor, and three unarmed women, infuriating locals and drawing a sharp rebuke from politicians in Kabul.
Flanked by dozens of Afghan soldiers, Vice Adm. William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command, spent an hour at the scene of the killings. “I am the commander of the men who accidentally killed your loved ones,” Admiral McRaven told Haji Sharabuddin, the family patriarch. “I came here today to send my condolences to you and to your family and to your friends. I also came today to ask your forgiveness for these terrible tragedies.”
It was a remarkable turnabout for the US military, which for two months after the killings declined to say what units had been involved or otherwise take responsibility for the deaths. Afghan investigators have claimed that Special Forces tried to cover up their involvement in the Afghanistan deaths, though that’s a charge the US has denied. Read the rest of this entry »
An Afghanistan Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated Kandahar attacks Saturday, saying they were a warning to NATO, which will soon focus on securing Kandahar City and its approaches.
The sudden explosive violence its inhabitants have learned to live with gripped Kandahar City in southern Afghanistan again Saturday as militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in an attempted jailbreak.
More than 35 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in five blasts as Afghanistan Taliban suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in the Kandahar attacks. Most of the casualties were civilians, including members of a wedding party celebrating near the police headquarters.
Following on the heels of Operation Moshtarak, which saw coalition and Afghan forces seize control of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand Province, NATO commanders say the focus of their counterinsurgency campaign will switch to Kandahar City and its approaches. Kandahar is the political, spiritual, and religious capital of the south.
Blast barriers prevent jailbreak
Had the Taliban’s attack gone to plan it would likely have boosted the insurgents’ ranks by freeing captive fighters. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother and chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, says that blast barriers prevented the attackers from breaching the prison.
These were introduced following a similar attack in 2008 that saw around 1,000 prisoners escape. More than 400 militants were among them.
Taliban to focus on Kandahar City now?
Mr. Karzai predicted that the arrival of thousands of US troops in Kandahar Province would herald a shift in tactics by the insurgents, who would seek to undermine the government by launching more wholesale attacks within the city limits. “They organize this kind of attack in the city to show they are still around,” he told the Monitor. “They will definitely be focusing more on Kandahar City, that’s for sure.”
It’s for this reason that the provincial governor is calling on Kabul to bolster the police and Army presence inside the city, and to liaise better with NATO forces stationed in the districts.
Security in Kandahar has steadily deteriorated over the past few years as a murky nexus of warlords, criminal syndicates, and insurgents has vied for control. The number of bombings and assassinations has spiked in the past two weeks.
Western and Afghan officials have outlined ambitious plans for a new Marjah that include erecting new schools, reforming the police force, and upending the drug trade. Rebuilding Marjah and other towns is now seen as critical to NATO’s Afghanistan war strategy.
LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN
Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.
Down white-tiled corridors and behind code-locked doors on their base in Helmand Province, a handful of American and British officials planned for months how to turn this swath of irrigation ditches and mud compounds, ruled for two years by Taliban militants and crime syndicates, into a beacon of peace and prosperity.
This is the “build” part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy set out last year by the top NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
It could become a blueprint for winning the war – if it works.
It is here that the insurgency has raged most fiercely, costing NATO 408 lives and the local population many times more.
Kabul takes interest
Governance experiments in Afghanistan have failed before, but this one is different, the planners say, because more resources and thought are being put into it.
The apparent emergence of political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government, after years of neglecting to support their provincial and district counterparts in Helmand, is also a factor.
Last Tuesday a delegation from the capital arrived to discuss agriculture with provincial officials.
Kabul’s interest in Helmand grew last September. That month, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi visited the town of Nawa, which US Marines had recently cleared of militants, and promised to follow up with development.
“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ”
Mapping out a new Marjah
In Marjah a similar void would allow the crime bosses and Taliban commanders just driven out to return. They “exercised far too much control over the population” in the past, says Marlin Hardinger, a US State Department official in Helmand. The “most important and difficult [thing now is to] build better governance.”
Although the insurgency is still flickering in Marjah, it is mainly in the form of roadside bombs strikes, about five a day. Officials, who have access to $500 million for stabilizing Helmand, don’t expect to know if they have won over the population for at least three months.
A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.
Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.
“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.
Rooting out opium
Another challenge will be how to deal with Helmand’s thriving opium economy. Powerful players in the drug trade in the province, such as former governor Mohammad Akhundzada and his police chief Abdurrahman Jan, have much to lose by acceding to a new political economy. Mr. Jandemonstrated his intent to reestablish his influence over Marjah last month when he took control of a local council.
Posed against these strongmen is current Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, a technocrat who burnished his reputation by busting kidnapping rings and crooked police since taking office two years ago. He has won praise from Western advisers for using the media to spread a message of inclusive government and for traveling around the province to hear complaints from his constituents.
He’s also earned plaudits for his handling of men like Mr. Akhundzada and Jan. “Mangal’s played the technocratic card brilliantly,” says Hawkins, who has worked closely with the governor. “He has managed the situation rather than (1) allowing the situation to manage him or (2) confronting the situation. If you confront the situation in Afghanistan, you’ve lost.”
Mangal will also have to wean farmers away their opium crop without alienating them. Counternarcotics experts have praised his “food zone” program, which combines the stick of poppy eradication with the carrot of improved wheat seed handouts. Although Helmand still produces more poppy than the rest of the world combined, they say there are tentative signs of success.
In the Afghanistan war, NATO forces chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly apologized Tuesday for 27 Afghan civilian deaths in a US airstrike. The coalition has begun saying ‘sorry’ more quickly to civilian deaths, as part of a new hearts and minds strategy.
Another botched airstrike, another apology.
In a video distributed Tuesday in Dari and Pashto, the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, the top NATOcommander here Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he was sorry to the nation for 27 civilian deaths, after US special forces killed a convoy of Afghan civilians they had mistaken for insurgents. It was the coalition’s deadliest mistake in six months.
While public apologies by NATO have become almost commonplace – this was just one of half a dozen in the past 10 days, and the second by McChrystal himself – the push to admit mistakes and say sorry is unprecedented in NATO’s nine-year intervention in Afghanistan. It fits into McChyrstal’s new strategy that prioritizes winning over the population.
“I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again,” he said. “I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
For years, stonewalling
For years, foreign forces here were grudging in their apologies, trying to spin big mistakes into smaller mistakes and refusing to comment on civilian casualties until torturously slow and opaque inquiries ended. If any blame was admitted, it was usually too long after the event to sound sincere. The Taliban exploited NATO’s lack of information, seizing on reports of civilian deaths with its own propaganda machine to turn Afghans against the foreign forces.
But NATO has shifted on the communications front. In the past 10 days alone, it has admitted that airstrikes in Kunduz and Kandahar Provinces last week killed five civilians and a handful of Afghan policemen, and that a rocket strike in the Marjah offensive in Helmand Province left at least nine bystanders dead. Troops there have also shot and killed civilians they have mistaken for suicide bombers. Each time an explanation has been forthcoming.
Afghans are circumspect about the change in tone. “Does this apology mean there won’t be any other civilian casualties in future?” says Abdul Jabar, a carpenter from the eastern province of Wardak. “If it does then I appreciate it.”
Mohammad Yassir, a shopkeeper in Kabul, is less receptive. “I want to ask McChrystal if he had lost his family in such an incident,” he says. “And if someone called to apologize, what would his reaction be? An apology doesn’t bring anyone back to life.”
Officials claim that NATO’s improved ability to communicate in Afghanistan can be attributed to McChrystal himself, who has shaken up the command structure and spun off a new public affairs office fielding queries 24 hours a day.
“It’s a good place to be right now. It’s very exciting and I think the excitement is contagious,” says Col. Wayne Shanks, a NATO public affairs officer based in Kabul. “I owe most of it to General McChrystal because he refocuses us and reenergizes us each day.”
More than words
But independent observers say the difference is attributable not just to the reorganization but also to a change in approach. The circumstances in which coalition forces are allowed to call in an airstrike have become more limited. For example, they must wait 72 hours to establish a “pattern of life” before bombing a house where insurgents have taken refuge.
Although the total number of civilian casualties rose in 2009 to 2,412, NATO troops were responsible for ‘only’ 25 percent of them, down from 39 percent the year before.
“The distinction that McChrystal has brought to the table is that there is a focus on communications but there is another level beyond that, where they are willing to make some changes in policy that reflect community concerns,” says Erica Gaston, a human rights advocate in Kabul for Open Society Institute. “I think that’s the main reason he’s been more effective in strategic communications.”
“With [Gen. David] McKiernan [McChrystal’s predecessor] there was also a certain public relations sensitivity to issues like civilian casualties, but you didn’t really see changes of policy,” she says.
“McChrystal is not only willing to go to the site afterward and make apologies but also to follow that up by making changes to tactical restrictions to prevent similar incidents from occurring.”
US soldiers in the Afghanistan war are battling to clear the ‘heart of darkness’ in Kandahar Province where Taliban chief Mullah Omar used to preach. It’s one of many operations gearing up in southern Afghanistan as more foreign troops arrive.
The soldiers came under Taliban surveillance as soon as they set out. Intercepted radio chatter among insurgents left no doubt that Charlie Company was walking into an ambush as it closed on a Taliban stronghold deep in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province.
The sudden clatter and whine of small-arms and machine-gun fire sent everyone scrambling for cover. Bullets spat up dust from the berms of a grape field. The shots hit far more accurately than those of local fighters – one of many signs that committed militants had returned early from their winter break in Pakistan.
Since being deployed here six months ago, the United States Army company (1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment) has been pushing due west of the provincial capital, Kandahar, into what foreign forces call the “heart of darkness.” Zhari district – a patchwork of irrigation ditches, grape fields, and tightly packed mud compounds – is not only ideal guerrilla territory but also an area of enormous symbolic importance. Four miles west of Charlie Company’s patrol route lies the village mosque where one-eyed cleric-turned-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar preached in the 1990s.
Like other infantry battalions fanned out from Kandahar, home to 800,000 people, these soldiers are carrying out Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of blocking Taliban fighters from civilianswhom they hide among and intimidate.
Similar operations are underway across southern Afghanistan as more US troops arrive, with the largest coalition operation of the nine-year war now gearing up in Marjah District in neighboring Helmand Province.
‘Heart of darkness’
In many places, as in Zhari, the battle is just beginning.
Until the deployment of 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment here, US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan lacked the troops to even challenge the insurgents in the “heart of darkness.”
A single Canadian rifle company had tried to cover the district, while a contingent of 2,500 troops had responsibility for the 20,000 square mile province Kandahar and its million-plus residents. Relative to their number, the Canadians took heavier casualties than any major troop contributor in Afghanistan, accounting to nine percent of the coalition’s 1,626 fatalities despite providing two percent of its current forces.
In Charlie Company’s operations area, villagers who can afford to have fled to more peaceful parts of the district, leaving behind the desperately poor and the militants. Commanders and foreign fighters who left at the start of winter have streamed back, including Kaka Abdul Khaliq, a former mujahideen fighter whom theUS military holds responsible for the deaths of several servicemen.
“Before he left for Pakistan last year they were conducting all kinds of attacks,” says Noel Engels, an American law enforcement official who works with coalition and Afghan units across the district. “It’s a big year for [the Taliban]. They need to hold Kandahar as much as possible.”
A sharp enemy
The Taliban are sophisticated fighters. Using children as spotters, they have developed an effective early warning system allowing them to plan ambushes and thwart coalition missions targeting their leaders. They exploit the US tendency to counterattack aggressively by drawing the foreign soldiers into traps by planting improvised explosive devices. They have an unsurpassed knowledge of the terrain. They use a command structure under which members of different units – whether IED-making cells or assassination squads – must seek permission before carrying out attacks, allowing greater coordination and instilling a sense of discipline.
Meanwhile the Taliban’s shadow government, led by “district governor” Jebar Agha, organizes gatherings, bans schools, and metes out the brutal but impartial justice that helped raise the original Taliban to power.
There is talk among US officers about the bringing in an entire brigade, but nothing is definite. For the soldiers already in Zhari their work is cut out.
As the initial confusion of the Jan. 27 attack subsided, Charlie Company began returning fire. Kiowa attack helicopters launched salvoes of missiles, A-10 gunships came in on strafing runs, and F-16 fighter jets growled overhead. In the three-hour attack, only one Afghan man was wounded, shot in the back with a Taliban bullet.
Knowing that the coalition can eavesdrop on their conversations, the Taliban radio operators vowed that reinforcements were on their way. But the insurgents, masters of hit and run, were already slipping away, blending back into the population until the next patrol to come their way.
Cautious interest as Afghan government seeks to draw all parties to the table
The Taliban fighter sitting in the front of the car was expressive, engaging, and dismissive of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s pleas for men like him to lay down their guns. Omar Khel, a tribal militant from Wardak province outside Kabul, is exactly the kind of reluctant rebel the Afghan government and the international community want to bring in from the cold.
“I am not in favour of fighting,” Mr Khel, a chubby man with strong features and grey-flecked hair, said. “I don’t have enmity with the Americans. I have enmity with Fahim, with Khalili, with Dostum. We are fighting them.” He had named the three most notorious warlords in the new Afghan government.
Mr Khel’s views are not representative of all insurgents, but they do illustrate one of the problems Mr Karzai’s “big tent” style of government creates: the inclusion of some individuals inevitably alienates others. And unfortunately for the architects of the reintegration and reconciliation programme outlined in London last week, other insurgents may be harder to woo.
Abdul Rahmad, a Taliban commander from the volatile southern province of Kandahar, told The Independent that he was ready to enter peace talks with Mr Karzai, but only if the existing Taliban demands are met. These include the withdrawal of the foreign troops supporting the fragile Afghan government, and changes to the constitution implementing sharia law as interpreted by the Islamists. Although he admitted that the insurgents included “bad and corrupt people”, he said he would fight on because “We have no sharia law, no sharia justice.”
It is possible he was being disingenuous: the insurgents have little to gain by publicly agreeing to talks and would actually weaken their position by appearing ready to consider peace. Their strongest hand is running down the clock on the international community.
Acknowledging as much in an interview with The New York Times, the Afghan official in charge of reconciliation said the government had been discussing ways of ending the war with the Taliban for some time. Mohammad Massoum Stanikzai said Taliban denials of talks were a PR strategy. “They are continuing to say this, it’s something they say in the media, but this is not a fact,” he said.
And although past efforts at reintegrating rebel fighters have lacked the political will, resources or organisation to succeed there is a sense of optimism among Western diplomats in Kabul that last week’s conference in London has changed this. One said: “What’s different is that for the first time you have the infrastructure to not only make promises and agreements but to follow through and make sure they’re enforced.”
Against this are a series of challenges that Afghan and international officials are just beginning to address with specific proposals. One difficulty is ensuring incentives offered to genuine fighters are not seen by others as reason to become temporary insurgents. Sorting bona fide insurgents from opportunists will be hard for an intelligence community recently lambasted by Major-General Michael Flynn, US and Nato deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, as ignorant of the Afghan people.
Another concern is that reconciliation with the senior Taliban leadership can proceed only after offensives, beginning with the imminent assault on the insurgent stronghold of Marja in Helmand, start rolling the enemy back.
And women’s rights groups and non-Pashtun ethnic groups opposed to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban have to be persuaded they are safe working with their traditional foes. A Western diplomat said these “different groups are looking at reconciliation-reintegration policy with great concern”.
Yesterday Mr Karzai arrived in Saudi Arabia to seek help in drawing Taliban representatives to a loya jirga peace council. Saudi was among three countries to recognise the Taliban when it was in power.
The names of Taliban interviewees have been changed
Rocket-propelled grenades streaked through the fading light and exploded behind the US convoy patrolling in eastern Afghanistan. Muzzle flashes flared in the gloom as Taleban insurgents opened up with heavy machineguns and AK47s. Delta company was caught in an ambush.
Foul-mouthed soldiers swung their weapons towards a complex of mud-walled buildings 800 yards away. “Get some!” roared the gunner of an M19 grenade launcher. The thud of return fire from the Americans’ vehicle-mounted weapons began.
Soldiers inside their Humvees opened bullet-proof windows and slid their rifles through. Those on the right side of the convoy scrambled out and brought their weapons to bear on the sparks flashing in the distance. Red tracer flew towards the buildings.
“Three o’clock,” someone shouted. Grey smoke trails lingered in the air where the rocket-propelled grenades had exploded. Under orders to “shoot conservative”, combat veterans tried to calm adrenalin-pumped novices. “Take your time,” one shouted. “One burst every ten seconds.”
The slew of hot shell casings from the gunners’ turrets that had cascaded into the vehicles began to ease. A foot patrol cut around the insurgents’ flank as darkness fell, running hard through wheatfields, ducking every 50 yards. No one spoke. Everyone sucked in air.
Afghan National Police went with them as they pushed through the mud compounds. Breaking down doors by torchlight they found terrified women and children inside who said that they knew nothing. Some shielded their dignity by facing walls. The only man there of fighting age was blind.
Attack helicopters and F15 jets growled somewhere in the skies above and confirmation came through of two kills. The rest of the attackers had vanished. “They’re so much lighter than us,” 3rd Platoon’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Adam Novak, said. “They break faster.”
Part of the first ripple in the US troop surge to Afghanistan, Delta company and its sister units are securing a 67-mile stretch of the Kabul to Kandahar highway, the country’s main north-south road. Sixty per cent of Afghanistan’s population live within 30 miles (50km) of one of the country’s main highways, collectively known as the “ring road”.
“The single biggest measure the Afghan people have in their mind of whether or not there is security is their ability to travel with freedom,” Lieutenant-General Jim Dutton, Nato’s deputy commander in Afghanistan, told The Times. Reclaiming the ring road is a key plank of US and Nato strategy.
Delta company’s 3rd platoon had set out that morning for Chak district, a Taleban stronghold 40 miles southwest of Kabul. The American military says that until recently Taleban and foreign fighters walked the streets of Chak with impunity.
From a deep system of mountain valleys, insurgents have been able to threaten the highway and impose their own form of governance on the local population, creating a public relations disaster for President Karzai’s Government.
Only a few hours into the mission, in a district called Sayed Abad, a soldier drove a 33-ton armoured vehicle off a narrow mountain road. It tilted precipitously towards a 50-foot drop. Attempts to drive it on to firmer ground collapsed more of the road.
Lieutenant Novak radioed for a recovery vehicle and gave a wry grin. “This just increased our chances of an ambush,” he said. Minutes later the insurgents opened fire.
One bullet skimmed so close to Private James Radovic, 20, from San Diego, that it popped the pressure inside his ear. Another passed between two soldiers’ heads. More rounds zinged off rocks and Humvees.
The echo in the valley made it hard to tell where the fire was coming from. Unaware that they were being attacked from two directions, several soldiers crouched in open view of the insurgents. The attackers melted away as quickly as they had arrived.
“Four months of bulls**t for five minutes of fun,” Private Nick Benitez said. “We might be here a while ‘cos of that truck being down,” Private Andrew Jones said. “They’re probably doing a little intel and come back later.”
The mission to Chak by 3rd Platoon came two weeks after a patrol by a sister unit in the area. On that occasion US troops say that they fought insurgents for six hours, killing at least 12. To their surprise, the militants fought on even after heavily armed Apache gunships arrived to tilt the battle in the Americans’ favour. “They want ownership” of the area, Lieutenant Novak told The Times. “Their big focus is trying to break American will.”
Nine hours after it began going over the edge, the armoured vehicle was recovered and drove out of the gully it had eventually been lowered into. The vehicle had escaped with nothing more than a broken headlamp and a flat tyre.
‘If you have a problem, the Taliban solves it. In the government offices there is only corruption and bribery’Posted: January 3, 2009
AFGHANISTAN: Losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds.
THEY fled in the dead of night, taking what belongings they could, and telling no-one they were leaving for fear of ambush.
Hakimi and his family did not quit the badlands of the south, though, nor the hostile reaches of eastern Afghanistan. They came from Wardak province, less than an hour’s drive from the capital.
But just 30 miles from Kabul, it is Taliban country. Over the past year, the militants have established a stronghold in Wardak, which borders the capital to the south and west. Nine months ago, one of the province’s two hospitals, a German-run clinic, shut down after staff there also received death threats.
The UN evacuated its humanitarian staff from all but one of Wardak’s eight districts in September, citing security concerns. Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament for the province, has said there are areas she is “100% sure no government worker can go to”.
Not without reason. The head of the attorney-general’s office in one Wardak district was kidnapped and killed by the Taliban three months ago. Days later, Afghan army, police and coalition forces said they had killed or wounded around 60 insurgents in a two-day battle that raged close to the Afghan capital. The number of attacks by Taliban-linked militants in Wardak has increased by 58% since 2007, according to security analyst Sami Kovanen in Kabul.
As it reasserts control over large swathes of countryside, the Taliban has been installing a shadow government to answer civilian needs. In the absence of effective local governance, the militants have been arresting criminals, providing courts, dispensing justice, running prisons and organising public executions – all within an hour’s drive of Kabul.
Hakimi’s fears were borne out just weeks after his family’s escape, when his cousin Naim was hanged by the Taliban for joining the Afghan National Army (ANA). His body swung from a tree for two days with a sign on his chest warning that whoever cut him down would suffer the same fate.
“My cousin was hanging three kilometres from the police district building,” said Hakimi. “But they were not able to retrieve his body.” Eventually, aid workers from the Afghan Red Crescent Society defied the ban and brought the body in.
A series of interviews with people from Wardak told a similar story.
“The police control their own buildings and maybe the 10 metres surrounding them,” said 40-year-old Habibullah Noori, who runs a minibus service between Wardak and Kabul. “There may be police checkpoints but there are also lots of Taliban checkpoints.”
News agency AP reported several days ago that checkpoint police in Wardak sometimes wear traditional robes so they can pass themselves off as civilians at the first sign of trouble. And whereas the government often turns a blind eye to crime – one interviewee said that “the other name for police is robbers” – the Taliban not only fails to tolerate it, but offers swift justice. Hakimi explained that the Taliban likes open and shut cases so its members can concentrate on fighting. “Every village has a Taliban representative and if anything happens, people go to him to say, We have this problem ‘. He doesn’t want to spend much time on it – so decisions are quick.” They can take a little as 24 hours.
But Noori, the minibus driver, said the Taliban’s system is better than the government’s. “If you have a problem the Taliban solves it,” he said. “In the government offices there is only corruption and bribery.
“Last year, the Taliban did not have 80, 90 or 100% control,” he added. “It was a mess. There were robbers, killers, everything. Now, you could walk around with 10kg of gold on your head and no-one would touch you. You can walk around at night without fear.”
As an example of the rough justice meted out, he cited a robbery in late summer when eight trucks of wheat disappeared. The Taliban investigated, found the trucks and returned them to their owners. Militants shot the leader of the robbers in the head, and let the others go with severe beatings and after extracting promises that there would be no repeat offence. Other Taliban punishments include parading criminals with their faces daubed black or amputating the hands of robbers. But cases aren’t limited to theft and murder. Far more frequently, aggrieved parties will seek arbitration of a property dispute – the most common cause of friction between Afghans, according to interviewees.
The procedure, should you have trouble of some sort, is to go to the nearest mosque and find the local Taliban representative. “He will say, Come back tomorrow at 10 o’clock and we will have the man who has done something’ – and he will be there,” Noori told me. “If the problem is small, a mullah will solve it. If it’s bigger, it will be a judge trained more extensively in Sharia law.”
Meanwhile, an uneasy detente is said to exist between the Taliban in Wardak and the local police, with both sides realising that full-scale confrontation is to neither’s advantage.
“If they create problems for us, we can create problems for them,” said 22-year-old Taliban foot soldier Spin Ghel. The failure of the police to drive 3km to retrieve Naim’s hanging corpse would appear to bear out his point. But Ghel, who wore a leather jacket over his salwar kameez and seemed to have joined the Taliban more out of boredom or frustration than for any ideological reason, claimed the relationship went deeper than that.
“They exchanged powerful commanders for that Italian journalist who was kidnapped,” he said, referring to the abduction in 2007 of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who was released in exchange for Taliban prisoners. Whatever the extent of the alleged collusion, with a salary of just $65 a month it is hard to see why any police trooper would risk his life to take on the Taliban’s protection racket.
A key part of the Taliban’s success in Wardak is its network of informants. Gulbuddin, another young Taliban fighter, said there were around 70 spies in Kabul on the Taliban’s payroll, providing information about convoy movements, individuals visiting the province, and their families. At roadblocks, which can vary from a handful of militants waving down traffic to as many as 40, the insurgents have the registration numbers of approaching vehicles and descriptions of the passengers they carry.
“When my cousin was arrested, making a visit home, there were 40 men who came to get him,” said Hakimi. “All private taxis to Wardak leave from one specific location. That’s why it’s simple for them to know who is coming. They monitor everyone coming and going. If you’re wearing beautiful, nice, expensive clothing they are suspicious. They think you must be working for the government or UN. If you’re wearing dirty clothes, have a beard, long hair, turban, they think that’s fine.”
How far the Taliban’s services reach is unclear, but they are far from comprehensive. “The Taliban are very poor,” said Noori. “They can’t afford to provide healthcare – most of the time they are asking people to feed them.” Although in some places the Taliban is reported to extort a 10% tax from Afghans at the barrel of a gun, shadow governance of this sort has yet to reach Wardak.
Gulbuddin seemed less than enthusiastic about many of his duties, but reeled them off: searching ANA, aid or government workers, and arresting robbers. “We have district chiefs,” he said, “and we await their orders to see who we should hang. With most of the foreigners we arrest, we have to wait for orders from the Taliban in Pakistan.”
On the subject of prisons, he said the nearest to Kabul was an hour’s drive away. “The prisons are different – they can be residential houses or they can be caves that double as Taliban bases,” he explained, smiling. “Once people complained that maybe the coalition would bomb the houses we were using and kill them so now we try to use abandoned mud houses no-one knows about. We are always moving.”
Gulbuddin smiled a lot, but most of all when he was discussing ambushes on convoys – his chief occupation. Afghanistan’s ring road, the country’s main artery around which the densest population centres are located, runs straight through Wardak and is virtually impassable to Western and government forces. But so vital is control of this road that the US and Nato have made winning it back one of their top priorities for 2009.
“Most of the time, we attack on convoys,” said Gulbuddin. “For example, every time Afghan or coalition forces leave their bases to go somewhere, we have spies who alert our commanders. We gather on the front line with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), PKM heavy machine guns, and AK-47s as a third resort.”
Four 10-men units set up diagonally opposite each other at the site of the planned ambush, and good cover and escape routes are critical considerations when choosing the site, “especially when battles can last several hours,” said Gulbuddin. The first two units will wait for the convoy to pass before opening fire on the vehicles bringing up the rear. As the convoy accelerates forward the remaining fighters will start shooting at the van.
So precarious is the balance of the fight on Kabul’s doorstep that the “vast majority” of the first wave of US reinforcements to Afghanistan – the 3rd Mountain Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division – will be sent to Wardak and neighbouring Logar province, according to a US army spokeswoman. Outfits such as the UK’s 3rd Commando Brigade, deployed in Helmand province in the volatile south and taking heavy casualties, will have to wait for back-up. Military commanders expect an initial spike in fighting before the extra troops start to quell the violence.
“You will increase the level of incidents and violence when you first put troops into an area, that’s to be expected and indeed in some ways welcomed because that’s the purpose of going there in the first place,” Nato’s deputy commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Jim Dutton, said recently. Wardak locals said that until now foreign troops and ANA patrols had sometimes entered their villages – but never stayed for long. They interpreted this as a precautionary measure against the possibility of a Taliban attack.
“Sometimes they come and talk to previous commanders of the mujahidin, distributing sweets to children for five or 10 minutes. But that’s it,” said Noori.
A spokesman for the coalition forces said: “Help is on its way. The arrival of the 3rd Brigade will certainly help boost the number of forces in the area. The locals will probably see a lot more soldiers.”
“We want the government to take control,” said Noori. “But otherwise they should leave it to the Taliban. We civilians always end up trapped in the middle.”