Faith in Kabul at a new low in Kandahar

Late on Monday night, Azizullah Yarmal, Kandahar's Deputy Mayor, walked into a large mosque in his city and faced toward Mecca. He knelt down in unison with the others, leaning forward so his head touched the floor in ritual prayer.

That was when gunmen, unseen by the bent-over worshippers, shot him to death. Killings of local notables have become a routine occurrence in Kandahar but the slaying of Mr. Yarmal, perhaps the most admired public official in the violent city, shook people to the core.

As American and NATO troops prepare for a summer offensive in Kandahar — what could be their most critical push in more than eight years of war — any sense of safety in the area is being worn away by assassinations, bombings and other attacks on American and western contractors, political officials and religious leaders.

The violence has further eroded support for the government and foreign forces among a population in Kandahar that remains broadly sympathetic to the Taliban and that more than anything seems to fear continuing conflict.

In a recent survey, Kandaharis favoured negotiations with the Taliban by a margin of 19 to 1 over continued fighting. Five of six Kandaharis viewed the Taliban militants as “our Afghan brothers”, while four of five also said most members of the Taliban would stop fighting if given jobs.

Those views seem certain to complicate the planned large-scale offensive in Kandahar, which aims to use a surge of new foreign troops — and the prospect of more fighting — to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The survey was commissioned by the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System, a programme intended to help the military better understand the social and cultural underpinnings of regions where troops are deployed.

The study polled almost 2,000 residents in the city of Kandahar and the surrounding Kandahar province, examining security in nine districts of Kandahar, excluding the most dangerous areas. Conducted by Glevum Associates, a Massachusetts research firm, the poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

In five districts of Kandahar, the Taliban has more influence than the government, the study found. And by December — when the survey was conducted — residents were already saying that security was deteriorating.

“The situation in Kandahar is getting worse day by day,” said Hajji Muhammad Ehsan, a tribal elder and a member of the Kandahar provincial council, in an interview on Tuesday. “People are tense, and there is no safety.”

Echoing the opinion of many Kandahar elders, he added, “The only way out of this conflict is to talk with the opposition, to bring them into the system and give them an equal portion.”

Kandahar was the birthplace and power centre of the Taliban before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and in the years of occupation it has gained strength by feeding off a feckless and corrupt government that has favoured a handful of politically connected and powerful tribes.

Recognising how central that problem is to Kandahar's chaos, the military plans to hold forums to bring local elders and government officials together in hopes of reconnecting with disenfranchised residents and giving them an alternative to the Taliban.

But the Kandahar study, first reported on the Danger Room blog of Wired magazine, illustrates just how tall an order that will be for a generation of Afghans conditioned — with good reason, many NATO officials concede — to believe that a Taliban government is a better deal than the official Afghan administration.

While Kandaharis blame the Taliban and other militants for insecurity, slightly more than half say the Taliban are “incorruptible”. That is a stark contrast to the local government, whose corruption, the study found, had forced two of three residents surveyed to seek help elsewhere, including from the Taliban.

There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps the most notable was Mr. Yarmal. For many Kandaharis it was clear why he was killed: He was one of the few honest, effective and esteemed public officials in the city.

The Taliban offered a terse explanation. “We have killed him because he was working for this puppet government,” said a spokesmen, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, in a telephone interview. “We will target all those who are working for the government.” Taliban spokesmen deny any interest in talks with the government as long as foreign troops remain.

In the poll, the Afghan National Army and National Police were the forces most cited for bringing security. But the support was tempered by another finding: Afghan Army and police checkpoints and vehicles were also cited most frequently as perceived dangers while travelling on roads in Kandahar province — ahead of roadside bombs, Taliban checkpoints and criminals.

Military officials say the Kandahar findings suggest that security needs to be improved before serious negotiations with the Taliban can take place.

“The strong support for reconciliation reinforces our contention that stabilising Kandahar is essentially a political process,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley A. McChrystal.

“However,” he added, “worsening opinion about insecurity caused by the Taliban and criminal elements suggests that the political process has to be supported by some means of improving security — which may be necessary before any meaningful reconciliation is possible.”

Indeed, the assassination of Mr. Yarmal was not even the only attack of note in Kandahar on Monday. Hours before, militants tied a bomb to a donkey cart and led the donkey to a checkpoint in front of the home of one of President Hamid Karzai's most important political allies in Kandahar, the former governor of the Spinbaldak district.

The former governor, Hajji Fazluddin Agha, who had also served as Mr. Karzai's top campaign official in the province, was not hurt when the bomb was detonated using a remote-controlled device. But the blast killed three of his nephews, who were 15, 13 and 12. Two bystanders and two policemen were wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

In an interview after the attack, Hajji Fazluddin, shaken and panicked, said his nephews were killed because they were playing near the donkey.

“When it reached the checkpoint, they pressed a button and it detonated,” he said, describing how the militants set off the bomb. “The children were blown to pieces. They had been playing with the donkey.” — New York Times News Service

(Richard A. Oppel Jr. reported from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar. Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul.)

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 4:43:04 PM |

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