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One man's defiance inspires a region to stand up to the Taliban

The 60-year-old's courage spreads through villages and on to Afghanistan forces, producing a successful model of Afghan-driven security backed by U.S. combat power.

June 01, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — The uprising began in early February with a Taliban commander's knock on the door of Hajji Abdul Wudood.

The militant leader demanded that Wudood, a stout, weathered man of 60, surrender one of his eight sons, who was accused of spying on the Taliban for the Afghan government.

What Wudood did next triggered a revolt against the Taliban that has spread to a dozen villages in a region that has been among the nation's most formidable Taliban strongholds.

Fed up with beheadings and homemade bombs that killed 60 people in two villages the previous year, Wudood refused to hand over 25-year-old Abdul Hanan.

"I knew if I let them take my son, they would kill him," Wudood recalled.

Inspired by the actions of the former mujahedin fighter, Wudood's fellow villagers began ripping down Taliban flags and raising the black-red-and-green Afghan national colors. They have offered up their own sons and brothers to serve in a U.S.-trained local militia. And they have pointed out Taliban hide-outs and homemade bombs.

Many Afghans seethed under the Taliban's brutal eight-year domination of Kandahar province's Panjwayi district in southern Afghanistan. Their sudden defiance has helped embolden Afghan security forces who themselves have long been intimidated by the insurgents.

"It's a great thing," Haji Faizal Mohammad, the white-bearded Panjwayi district governor, said of the uprising's galvanizing effects. "Before, the enemy was chasing us. Now we're chasing the enemy."

The number of villagers joining the U.S.-backed militias has grown from 15 to 340, providing an indigenous bulwark against the Taliban. The army and police are working closely together for the first time here, urged on by U.S. commanders quietly seeking to nurture the uprising.

"We're on the sidelines, and that's a good thing," said Col. Michael Getchell, who commands a U.S. brigade in the area. "It's their uprising. If we go in and try to claim it, it's just going to die."

In the last three years, 10% of all U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have come in Panjwayi and adjoining Zhari district. A senior coalition commander in Kandahar called Panjwayi "the most fought-over piece of dirt in all Afghanistan."

"Nobody, including the Afghans, ever expected us to get to this point," the commander said, noting that the Russian army never tamed Panjwayi during its 1980s occupation.

The insurgents here are hardly vanquished. But the Panjwayi revolt is perhaps the most significant of such local rebellions in Afghanistan. It has expanded and — so far — succeeded as a model of Afghan-driven security backed by U.S. combat power.

"I swear to you, the Taliban will never return. It's my village, and I'm not afraid," Wudood said, squatting on the floor of the district governor's office. He pulled back his vest to reveal a pistol on his hip and an ammunition clip in his pocket.

On Feb. 5, Wudood didn't just send Taliban commander Noor Mahmad away empty-handed. He also called the new district police chief, a wily Panjwayi native and former mujahedin comrade named Sultan Mohammad.

That same day, the chief had heard from Abdul Kareem Agha, a mirab, or local water official, who complained that Taliban fighters had beaten him for cutting back brush, which they used for cover, from irrigation canals.

Chief Mohammad, 48, is a brusque and confident man — and fiercely opposed to the Taliban, though some of his relatives support the Islamist insurgents. Appointed chief Jan. 19, he shared rising resentment toward insurgents who ran kangaroo courts and dictated when farmers could work their fields. In the previous 12 months, 375 Panjwayi residents had been killed or maimed by insurgents' roadside bombs, he said.

"They're cowards," Mohammad said of the Taliban. "The people hate them."

The chief sent 15 armed policemen to Wudood's village, Peshingan. Villagers described Taliban hide-outs in grape orchards and pointed out dozens of homemade bombs.

Three days later, police joined by Wudood and his sons and 20 neighbors routed 25 Taliban fighters in a shootout, killing three and sending the rest fleeing, Wudood said. On Feb. 25, more than 100 Panjwayi residents formally declared their loyalty to the Afghan government. The district governor draped an Afghan flag across Wudood's sturdy shoulders.

At his base nearby, Lt. Col. James Dooghan watched the ceremony on a video feed emanating from a U.S. surveillance balloon. After his arrival in November as the commander of a U.S. battalion, Dooghan was frustrated by the timid local Afghan army brigade.

The brigade had received poor readiness ratings for six straight years. The police chief who was replaced by Sultan Mohammad had been afraid to leave his compound.

"They had no confidence going into contested areas," Dooghan said of Afghan security forces. "We thought we'd been given mission impossible."

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