Taliban continues to increase power

Attacks on town near Kabul sign of resurgence

September 04, 2006|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MUQOR, Afghanistan -- This town was once a success story, where girls attended school and the Taliban had no sway. But on a recent night, enemy soldiers surrounded the district headquarters, fired rockets and bullets at the few men guarding the place and kidnapped seven people. "Son of Bush," they shouted.

Three days later, U.S. Army Capt. Erik Schiemann looked at the damage, the smoke-blackened rooms, the bullet-pocked walls, the caved-in roof. He told the new police chief, away during the attack, that the government and the military had failed Muqor. The Taliban had won this battle.

"This is terrible," Schiemann told the police chief. "They totally ruined the governor's quarters. They destroyed the old district center. If nothing else, they have a huge opportunity to brag."

Such victories are common in southern Afghanistan, a stronghold for the Taliban, anti-government insurgents and drug runners, where suicide bombs have become a daily event. But Muqor is in south-central Ghazni province; the provincial capital of Ghazni is a two-hour drive from Kabul, the capital.

Over the past six months, security in Ghazni has deteriorated, to the point that U.S. soldiers complain openly about the weak Ghazni governor, and Afghan police admit that they are scared. Ghazni province has turned into a symbol of the resurgent Taliban, waging their most successful offensive against international troops and the U.S.-backed government since being driven out almost five years ago.

"As soon as they get you, they will kill you," said Barialai, who like many Afghans uses only one name and works just outside the U.S. military base near the provincial capital, also named Ghazni. "There are so many of them here."

On Aug. 25, the Taliban attacked in Muqor, killing one police officer and kidnapping seven people - four contractors building the security wall around the district headquarters, two police officers and one man who worked at a cell phone tower. The four contractors were released after the Afghan company negotiated with the Taliban. But the other three have not been heard from.

The Taliban rarely let government workers go free. On Tuesday, Zemarak, a police officer, described how a dozen Taliban soldiers showed up the night before in Pashtoonabad village, near the U.S. military base and Ghazni City. They rode motorcycles and carried Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, a brazen show of force. By the time police responded, the Taliban were gone.

The U.S. military believes that Andar district, just south of the provincial capital Ghazni, is the source of Taliban activity in five provinces. Here, Taliban recruiters go from house to house, demanding either a young man to fight or $100. The government is not in control here, the Taliban are.

This year the government banned all unlicensed motorcycles in Andar in an effort to stop the Taliban from using motorcycles. The Taliban responded by banning vehicles in Andar. Everyone stopped driving.

The fact that Ghazni is so close to Kabul shows how powerful the Taliban have become in certain pockets of Afghanistan and how weak the government is.

The problems are many and illustrate the kind of compromises that the Afghan government has made throughout the country, where nothing is what it seems on the surface.

The Ghazni governor is an accused war criminal, but he's also a former military commander linked to a powerful warlord, now a member of parliament. There are not enough professional police in Ghazni, so tribal militias are also used to fight the Taliban, despite the fact that Afghanistan is trying to stop relying on these militias. And these militia fighters are often more successful against the Taliban than the regular police because of their hatred of the Taliban. But the militia members are also sometimes corrupt.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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