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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: À Kandahar dans le fief des talibans

by Pierre Barbancey

Surrounded by the Talibans in Kandahar


Translated Tuesday 22 December 2009, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Isabelle Métral

The big Pashtun city in southern Afghanistan has been surrounded by the insurgents. Reportage from a province that has become a symbol of the failure of U.S. and NATO strategy.

Kandahar (Afghanistan), from our special correspondent.

From the crack of dawn, noises fill Kandahar. The noises of trucks and their continual honking, those of the wagons of itinerant vendors as they creak and jolt along. The bazaars are doing a booming business. Meat is hung up in the dust, fruits – bananas, oranges, pomegranates – absorb exhaust fumes. Overwhelmed policemen do as best they can to make themselves respected amid the streams of cars and rickshaws and the waves of pedestrians. A sea of turbans and patues (the thick blankets in which Afghans wrap themselves) defies the stinging cold, against the stream, upon which a few women venture, enveloped in their blue or green chadries, holding one of their children by the hand while the others skip about like sparrows. And then, suddenly, everything comes to a halt. It’s an American convoy. The same images as in Iraq. Armored vehicles surmounted by machine gun turrets that scan everything in a 360-degree circle, sometimes with Terminator-style soldiers alongside. Traffic freezes and backs off, mobile phones cease functioning because of the jamming by an army which, every time it moves, fears an encounter with the now-famous Improvised Explosive Devices that are hidden along the roadsides.

Mullah Omar has not been killed! The shadow of the Taliban leader is cast over the big Pashtun city, the true key to the country. “From here, Afghanistan can be built or destroyed,” emphasizes Mohammad Omar Sataï, who runs an association for democracy. “The history of Afghanistan has always begun with Lwiluy Kandahar, Great Kandahar, which includes all of the southern provinces and extends all the way to Quetta, in Pakistan. Here, everything reminds you that the city was the real capital of the religious students: from the impressive blue dome of the mosque where the one-eyed mullah used to preach, to his domain located on the western outskirts of Kandahar, and which is now occupied by the American army, and on to the burring of those Chinese motorcycles which helped to build his legend, since he is said to have fled on one of them. Moreover, imagination falls short of reality, even if, in appearance, life continues normally. For Kandahar is literally encircled. The Talibans, who fled the city in 2002, have returned to the province, and every day they become more of a threat. The locals will simply advise you not to walk in the streets. If you do so anyway, you indeed feel ill at ease. Every eye is on you. Curiousity? Indifference? Animosity? Certainly a mixture of a little bit of each. Taliban eyes and ears are everywhere. A few days ago, a man who acted as an interpreter for foreigners was gunned down right in the street. At the end of November, the governor of Kandahar miraculously escaped from an assassination attempt. On the highways, the Talibans check cars and passengers, kidnapping those that they suspect of collaborating with foreign armed forces or of working for the government. Mullah Mohammad Hanifi, the head of the Islamic council (shura) of the province, has also been threatened because he has asked people not to join the Talibans. “Since 2002, they have killed 23 mullahs who worked for the shura,” he said. Faiz Mohammad knows this well, and to speak with us, he takes us into the quiet of a house. The man has the look of a wise old man. He is part of the inner circle of deputy Shakiba Hashimi, who was elected despite and against everything, and who is known for her courageous position-taking. Not only against the Talibans, but also against the failures and corruption of the reigning administration, both national and local. She is the one who threw a spotlight on the mafia-style activities of a certain Ahmed Wali Karzaï, the brother of the Afghan president, the head of the Kandahar provincial council, who is implicated in drug trafficking and who was paid by ... the CIA. The notables tried to have her expelled from Parliament. They failed. “Since then, they have tried to frighten me,” she explains. “I was told that I would be killed if I came to Kandahar.”

“When the government was set up in 2004, there weren’t any Talibans,” points out Faiz Mohammad. “Now, there are a lot of them in the villages.” For him, the explanation is simple. The villagers are opposed to the presence of foreign troops, who “do not respect anything, forcibly enter homes and bomb indiscriminately,” and they do not trust the government, which is often absent. As a consequence, the Talibans have set up a parallel government. “They have their own governor, their own police chief,” Faiz Mohammad says authoritatively. A point that is confirmed by everyone you meet and which is not solely a characteristic of Kandahar province. “If something is stolen, they go to see the Taliban governor. Recently, a thief arrested by the police was released after he paid them off. Everybody knows that. But in Panjawia (24 miles to the west – editor’s note), which is controlled by the Talibans, order reigns. A thief got his hand cut off. In other districts, for more serious affairs, since they don’t have any prison, rapists and murderers are shot or hanged.”

Ahmed Shah Spar, a merchant, also has a clear-cut position: “First corruption has to be eradicated. Without that, there will not be any peace or security. What we need is a real police force and Afghan army, not foreign troops. And above all, jobs have got to be created. Unemployment is what is strengthening the Talibans.” Shaïda Hussain, a schoolteacher, condemns the same thing: “Those who have replaced the Talibans have not done anything. The textile factories used to employ 12,000 people in the province. There isn’t anything any more. In many districts, there isn’t even a school any more.” A case in point, on the outskirts of Kandahar is a factory that used to turn out blankets and sheets. It employed as many as 7,000 people. Today, it is closed. And yet, the manager is there. On orders from the government, he has started up one machine. “We can’t do any more because we don’t have electricity or raw materials,” he stated, before adding “Most people haven’t got a job, that’s why they join the Talibans. If we opened again and hired thousands of people, there would be greater security.”

Sayd Jan Ziarksh, the director of the employment and social affairs service for the province, is aware of this. “Out of 3,000 jobs that we were able to provide these past years, nearly 200 went to people who had left the ranks of the Talibans, while others have been able to give up begging.” He points his finger at the attitude of foreign companies, which are supposed to be investing, and especially at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (set up by the United States, and directed by the military while including civilian experts) who decide on the amount and the destination of investments, and hence of projects, independently of any real dialogue with the government. Thus he speaks of the Kajaki dam in Helmand, where the existing turbine needs to be repaired and two new ones installed. “If they did that, it would furnish electricity to four provinces: Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Oruzgan. But the PRT doesn’t want to hear about it,” he exclaimed indignantly.

Using a big media campaign, NATO and the American administration say they want to fight against poppy growing, which covers the soil in Kandahar province and neighboring Helmand province. “If people are growing it, it’s due first of all to the fact that it requires a lot less water than other crops,” Faiz Mohammad pointed out. “Above all, it is more profitable. Growing poppies takes five months and gives you enough to live on for a year, as against three months with another crop.” Haji Mohammad Daoud, whose head resembles that of an Oriental prince – ash-gray beard, coal-black eyebrows, and pearl gray turban – in his role as head of a Daman tribal council, says: “The Talibans and the police both get money from poppy growing. The police before it is sold, the Talibans afterwards.”

The growing presence of religious students and their reassertion of control over the province seals the failure of the NATO-U.S. strategy. After eight years of war, the Talibans are back. “Obama is sending another 30,000 men, but it is pointless!” Shaïda Hussain says angrily. “They would do better to use the money for economic projects.” This is what many students at Kandahar university think. Gathered around the president, Hazrat Mir Tut Akhil, while the room is plunged into darkness by a lack of electricity, they are demanding, like Ahmad Khan, a medical student, that they be able to benefit from the new technologies and from more books in their library. There are only 40 computers for 2500 students (including 89 women). Qudtratullah Nazari, a mathematics professor, no longer goes to his home in Helmand for fear of being killed. “The Talibans don’t like those who teach girls, nor do they like teachers in general,” he pointed out.

If you continue down the road that goes past mullah Omar’s house, you can see the Arghandab river down below. “On the other side is Taliban territory. Nobody can go there,” says Khalid, a young policeman who checks cars entering the city. At the checkpoint he asks us for some money. “Be careful, there are enemies everywhere,” he warns. But who are the enemies? The Talibans or the foreign soldiers? Or is it both at the same time?

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