Afghans blame both U.S., Taliban for insecurity
Associated Press Writer
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – With a U.S.-led offensive only weeks away to clear the Taliban from this key southern city, many residents blame foreign troops and the Afghan government as much as the Taliban for pushing Kandahar toward the brink of chaos – the very thing the military hopes to reverse.
The goal of the operation by U.S., NATO and Afghan forces is to shore up a local administration that nominally controls the city and break the grip of warlords and influence peddlers, whose role is widely believed to have opened the door to the Taliban.
Kandahar is the largest city in the south and the spiritual headquarters of the Islamist movement when it ruled most of Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Weak and ineffectual government has allowed the fighters to slip back.
“I blame the Afghan government and NATO forces entirely for the insecurity because our government is weak and corrupt,” said Hajji Abdullah, who sells air conditioners in downtown Kandahar. “Everyone knows that the Taliban are against the government. They are bringing their explosives from Pakistan. Why isn’t NATO working to stop these people?”
The task of securing Kandahar will be formidable. Apart from military challenges, the mission requires redressing public grievances built up over nearly nine years of misrule and winning the trust of the half million inhabitants, who are deeply skeptical of Western promises.
“Ten percent of the people are with the Taliban, 10 percent are with the government and 80 percent of the people are angry at the Taliban, the government and the foreigners,” said Mohammed Ishaq Khan, a leader of the powerful Achakzai tribe, which dominates an area that has been the scene of bitter battles between NATO and the insurgents.
In advance of the NATO offensive, expected to kick into high gear this summer in residential districts on the edge of the city, the Taliban have stepped up their own campaign, planting more and more bombs and booby-traps around Kandahar and elsewhere in the south.
“The Afghan National Army and the police cannot provide security and this government cannot provide good governance,” said Karim Khan, a tribal leader from nearby Panjwai district, where successive NATO and Afghan operations have failed to dislodge the Taliban. “Warning of the (upcoming) operation only gives the Taliban a lot of time to plant bombs that cause problems for everyone.”
A Taliban commander, interviewed by The Associated Press in the heart of the city, said fighters move about freely, slipping in and out of Kandahar and hiding in private homes.
“Eight years ago we were in the mountains,” said the commander, who calls himself Mubeen. “But now we are in the cities, towns and villages because we have the support of the people. Without their support we couldn’t do it.”
Taliban attackers struck twice Thursday – once with a car bomb that wounded eight in front of a hotel in the center of the city and again with a suicide assault against a compound housing Western companies. At least three people were killed and 34 wounded in the two attacks.
With both sides preparing for a summer showdown, anxiety is running high among Kandahar’s people.
“We just don’t know what to think,” said day laborer Abdul Ghani as he dug drainage ditches in the city. “We know there is no security today. We only want peace. When the Taliban were here, I could get a job. Now I can get a job, but the difference is today there is no security. We are not politicians, we are not soldiers. We just want peace.”
Azizullah, a frail 60-year-old who like many Afghans uses only one name, is convinced “the foreigners cannot bring us peace.”
“Most people are not for one side, not for the Taliban and not for the government. But one thing we have to say is that during the Taliban’s time, security was stable. There were no kidnappings, no robberies, no killings. But now we are always afraid.”
The people of Kandahar have already been paying a heavy price for the battle for power in the south – the main theater of the Afghan war.
The international Red Cross reported this week that civilian deaths from roadside bombs in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province soared nearly 40 percent in the first two months of this year over the same period in 2009.
Kandahar’s Mirwais Hospital treated 51 patients wounded in roadside bombings last month, a figure the Red Cross said was “far above the average number for the month” without giving specifics.
At least 30 people were killed March 13 in a series of Taliban suicide bombings in what appeared to be a failed attempt to free inmates from a Kandahar prison. On Monday, U.S. troops fired on a civilian bus outside the city, killing four people and stoking anger over the international presence. The shooting is under investigation.
“The Americans are responsible for the insecurity and the Taliban are responsible too,” said Janan, a mobile phone salesman. “The Americans are bombing innocent civilians and the Taliban are killing Afghan civilians with their suicide attacks.”
Those attacks have reinforced a belief among many Kandahar residents that the coming offensive will accomplish little more than fuel more violence.
Amanullah, interviewed in his small shop in the Kandahar market, said he was convinced that the offensive’s only result “will be death.”
“The operation will not be good for us,” said Amanullah.
American officials think the root of Kandahar’s security problem is an ineffectual local government, weakened by the influence of local power brokers who favor certain tribes, including President Hamid Karzai’s Popalzai, at the expense of others that have allied with the Taliban.
“I can’t find one employee in the municipality who has got the job on merit, because they have education or are qualified, not one,” said Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who lived for two decades in the United States. “Instead it is because he is from this tribe or that tribe. This is our biggest problem.”
Hamidi, interviewed at his home nestled behind high cement walls, said he once ordered the arrest of someone who owed the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees for a government contract. A powerful member of parliament arranged the defendant’s release, Hamidi said without identifying the lawmaker.
The U.S. military believes the tribal power structures in Kandahar are out of balance, with marginalized tribes turning to the Taliban for protection and help against the dominant tribes. As a result, police are afraid to enforce the law for fear of running afoul either of the Taliban or the rich and powerful. That allows both the Taliban and criminal gangs to operate with near impunity.
Hamidi blames the situation on a decision by the Bush administration to forge alliances with anti-Taliban warlords in various parts of Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion. Empowering the warlords weakened President Hamid Karzai’s government, which in turn was unable to address problems outside the capital – including the tribal imbalance in Kandahar.
“It was the international community that went to the warlords after the Taliban and brought them back,” the mayor said. “And this is the result.”
Associated Press Writer Noor Khan contributed to this report.
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