Taliban Threat Is Said to Grow in Afghan South


Published: May 3, 2006

TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan, April 27 — Building on a winter campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations and the knowledge that American troops are leaving, the Taliban appear to be moving their insurgency into a new phase, flooding the rural areas of southern Afghanistan with weapons and men.

Each spring with the arrival of warmer weather, the fighting season here starts up, but the scale of the militants' presence and their sheer brazenness have alarmed Afghans and foreign officials far more than in previous years.

"The Taliban and Al Qaeda are everywhere," a shopkeeper, Haji Saifullah, told the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, as the general strolled through the bazaar of this town to talk to people. "It is all right in the city, but if you go outside the city, they are everywhere, and the people have to support them. They have no choice."

The fact that American troops are pulling out of southern Afghanistan in the coming months, and handing matters over to NATO peacekeepers, who have repeatedly stated that they are not going to fight terrorists, has given a lift to the insurgents, and increased the fears of Afghans.

General Eikenberry appealed for patience and support. "There has not been enough attention paid to Uruzgan," he said in a speech to the elders of Uruzgan Province gathered at the governor's house in Tirin Kot, the provincial capital. "I think the leaders, the Afghan government and the international community recognize this. There is reform coming and this year you will see it."

The arrival of large numbers of Taliban in the villages, flush with money and weapons, has dealt a blow to public confidence in the Afghan government, already undermined by lack of tangible progress and frustration with corrupt and ineffective leaders.

This small one-street town is in the Taliban heartland, and the message from the townspeople was bleak.

Uruzgan, the province where President Hamid Karzai first rallied support against the Taliban in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, is now, four years later, in the thrall of the Islamic militants once more, and the provincial capital is increasingly surrounded by areas in Taliban control, local and American officials acknowledge. A recent report by a member of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan shown to The New York Times detailed similar fears.

The new governor, Maulavi Abdul Hakim Munib, 35, who took up his position just a month ago, controls only a "bubble" around Tirin Kot, an American military officer said. The rest of the province is so thick with insurgents that all the districts are colored amber or red to indicate that on military maps in the nearby American base. Uruzgan has always been troublesome, yet the map marks a deterioration since last year, when at least one central district had been colored green, the officer said.

"The security situation is not good," Governor Munib told General Eikenberry and a group of cabinet ministers at a meeting with tribal elders. "The number of Taliban and enemy is several times more than that of the police and Afghan National Army in this province," he said.

Uruzgan is not the only province teetering out of control. Helmand and Kandahar to the south have been increasingly overrun by militants this year, as large groups of Taliban are reportedly moving through the countryside, intimidating villagers, ambushing vehicles, and spoiling for a fight with coalition or Afghan forces.

Insurgents also have the run of parts of Zabul, Ghazni and Paktika Provinces to the southeast, and have increased ambushes on the main Kabul-Kandahar highway.

The Bush administration is alarmed, according to a Western intelligence official close to the administration. He said that while senior members of the administration consider the situation in Iraq to be not as bad as portrayed in the press, in Afghanistan the situation is worse than it has been generally portrayed.

Asked about the surge in Taliban activity in southern Afghanistan, a Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said: "We have seen Taliban activity fluctuate from time to time." The British-led NATO force taking over from the American troops in the south "has well-equipped, well-led and fully prepared forces to operate in this challenging environment and deal with any threats," he added.

He noted that the United States would continue to be the largest contributor of troops to Afghanistan, and would continue to have primary responsibility for counterterrorism operations and for training Afghan Army units, even with NATO taking over in the south.

In one of the most serious developments, some 200 Taliban have moved into the district of Panjwai, only a 20-minute drive from the capital of the south, Kandahar, Mr. Karzai's home city. The police and coalition forces clashed with them two weeks ago, yet the Taliban returned, walking in the villages openly with their weapons, and sitting under the trees eating mulberries, according to a resident of the district.

The resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said the Taliban had been demanding food, lodging and the Muslim tithing, zakat, from villagers. Their brazenness and the failure of the United States-led coalition to deter them is turning public opinion about the effectiveness of the government.

For the first time the Afghan government has sent 500 men of the newly trained Afghan National Army to the neglected province. The official police force of Uruzgan is 347 strong, with 45 men deployed in each of the five districts, but far fewer actually turn up for work. American officials estimated armed Taliban in the province numbered from 300 to 1,000 men. The governor estimated there were 300 armed insurgents in each district.

The Taliban are warning the people to expect more attacks, the shopkeeper, Mr. Saifullah, told General Eikenberry. "During the day the people, the police, and the army are with the government, but during the night, the people, the police, and the army are all with the Taliban and Al Qaeda," he said.

Another man, Rahmatullah, told the general that his brother had been arrested by American forces and the raids and house searches had made the young men take to the hills to join the militants. "Release my brother and the tribal elders will persuade the young men to come back home and stop fighting," he said.

"The unemployment rate is very high and the people of Uruzgan are very poor," said Mullah Hamdullah, the elected head of the provincial council.

Unsure of the strength and commitment to fight of the incoming NATO forces — with British, Canadian, Dutch and Australian contingents — Afghan provincial officials, who stand first in the Taliban's firing line, have demanded that Mr. Karzai provide them with hundreds more police officers and weapons.

The governors of Uruzgan and Kandahar both said in interviews that they have lobbied the president for a force of 200 police officers for every district — four times current numbers — and to provide more resources to equip and supply them properly.

In a recent strategy review, Mr. Karzai agreed to increase the government presence in the frontline provinces, his chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, said. "We are increasingly hearing this, that there only 40 officers per district, and half of them are protecting the district chief as bodyguards, and the other half are on leave," he said.

A deputy minister of the interior, Abdul Malik Siddiqi, told the gathering that the government had a plan to send 200 to 250 police officers to each district of Uruzgan, and to find resources to equip them and pay their salaries.

General Eikenberry expressed caution about the idea, warning that there were not enough trained officers to send to the area, and more important, a lack of good leaders to control those police forces.

Uruzgan has suffered from a lingering Taliban presence and its forbidding terrain, which has made security and governing extremely difficult, resulting in neglect from the central government, he said. There has been no police reform or training here, no presence of the Afghan National Army and virtually no development, he said.

General Eikenberry is hoping to turn things around this year with new and better local leaders. "Now we see a lot of those conditions changing," he said, in an interview in the cockpit of the C130 military plane on the way to Uruzgan. Replacing the governor, and police and intelligence chiefs, should allow for reform and better governance, he said. Some 500 men of the national army have been deployed in the province and the police should receive better resources.

Hopes are pinned on Maulavi Munib, an educated, religious man from eastern Afghanistan, who was deputy minister of tribal affairs of the Taliban government. He is starting from scratch since the former governor sold all his vehicles, including police vehicles, and all the arms and ammunition owned by the province.

Governor Munib's past brings an added complication, since he remains listed by the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee as a wanted member of the Taliban leadership, which technically bars any government from providing financial, technical or military assistance to his province.

The Afghan government has formally requested that he, and three other former Taliban officials, including two members of Afghanistan's new Parliament, be removed from the list, a process that demands the agreement of all Security Council members, but Afghan officials said Russia remained opposed to the proposal.