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THE WORLD

Afghan Villages Locked in Grip of Taliban Forces

Across the southern area, the guerrillas are regrouping, using intimidation and cash to control the residents and spread violence.

March 05, 2004|Hamida Ghafour | Special to The Times

SHAH JUY, Afghanistan — The intimidation tactics of the Taliban are simple. A convoy of about 20 Honda motorcycles surrounds a house, looking for people who support the United States or Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If they find one, they kill him. If not, the inhabitants of the house are beaten to serve as a warning to others.

Villagers in Shah Juy, 175 miles southwest of Kabul, the capital, well understand the Taliban pressure.

"They come day and night. They are lying near the mountains and sometimes even in the mosques," said Haji Mohammed, 28, a soldier 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."

Across the southern third of Afghanistan, the Taliban is regrouping and waiting for the spring to launch attacks against the central government and its U.S.-led allies. About 70% of Zabol province is completely lawless or is controlled by the Taliban or its supporters.

On the main road linking the province to Kabul, the Taliban sets up roadblocks and scrutinizes vehicles for potential targets to kill or kidnap. Four engineers working on the main road have been kidnapped, and 15 Afghans working for the central government have been killed in the last three months. Foreigners no longer venture to the province; aid workers fled long ago.

Officials said about 700 armed Taliban fighters are members of Afghanistan's ethnic Pushtuns, have crossed from the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta, where they are trained and funded. The Taliban is offering a motorbike, AK-47 and satellite telephone to anyone willing to steal, rob or bomb a government target. A successful hit is worth $200, and killing an enemy has an added incentive of a $900 bonus.

The strategy appears to be making it difficult to work in Zabol, creating anger among the local population and turning support away from central government to the Taliban.

"They are taking advantage of our poverty," said Gen. Ayoub Khan, the security commander for Zabol.

"The administration is weak and incapable of controlling an area, therefore the local people are not relying on them. In the Dai Chopan district, there are reports of Punjabi commanders. We arrested two Talibs a month ago, and they told us Pakistani colonels told them to destabilize Afghanistan."

Mohammed Azghar, a former Taliban member who now is a soldier working for the local government, said that the money was tempting in villages where there were virtually no jobs and the grape and almond farms had been turned to dust by a seven-year drought.

"I killed two Taliban commanders, and they had 200,000 afghanis -- about $4,000 -- 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.' "

Karzai has replaced the governor three times in 15 months. The last one survived an assassination attempt at his house. The current one, Mullah Khail Mohammed Hosani, is a former Taliban member who is attempting to persuade district commissioners allied with the militants to switch sides and support the central government.

"We are optimistic," Hosani said. "When I met with some tribal leaders, they said they are not against the nongovernmental 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 U.S.-led coalition, on the other hand, is attempting to win the hearts of the Afghans with the promise of reconstruction. Next month, the military plans to deploy a provincial reconstruction team in the local capital, Qalat. The teams are quasi-military units of as many as 100 people who will provide security and help rebuild roads, schools and clinics. The U.S. hopes the presence of the reconstruction team will encourage aid workers to return.

U.S. Lt. Col. Jim Ellifrit, commander of the reconstruction team, said: "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?"

But the deputy governor, Maulvi Mohammed Omar, said coalition soldiers had a difficult task because they were not talking to the local communities to find out who was an enemy and who was not.

"They would not recognize Mullah Omar if he stood in front of them," the deputy governor said of the fugitive Taliban leader. "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 much afraid of the Taliban," the deputy governor said. "But they are not optimistic about the government's future, so they support them. If they fight against the Taliban, they will have nothing."

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