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In Afghanistan neither side is willing to give ground where it finally matters – Kandahar.

Syed Nazakat in Kandahar and Kabul

The road that cuts through the heart of the Arghandab district here some 15 km north of Kandahar city tells all that is going wrong with the US led war in Afghanistan. To fight their way into the area and clear it of Taliban insurgents, NATO troops bull-dozed through orchids, smashed down mud houses, and churned grape and pomegranate fields in an offensive to drive the Taliban out of their strongholds surrounding the city of Kandahar. Backed by gunship helicopters, the Stryker brigade from the US army is credited with driving many of the insurgents out of the area after three months long fierce fighting. But they did so at a terrible cost – 45 US soldiers died in Kandahar alone this year. A few kilometres across the Arghandab river, at Combat Outpost, a platoon of US marines is stationed. They arrived in Arghandab in early July with 17 men. Only 9 remain. An Afghan Army officer confirmed that the insurgents had been defeated, but added that they could regroup and try to regain the control of Arghandab as they did in 2008 and 2009. The experience of the NATO troops fighting in the Arghandab illustrates that ten years after US led NATO troops arrived in Afghanistan, the war has become more deadly than ever with the foreign troops struggling to hold the area. In various corners of Afghanistan – in Herat and Jalalabad, in Ghazni, in Helmand and in Kandahar the US led coalition forces are engaged in a daily battleground dance: they raid Taliban hideouts, they defeat them, withdraw from areas and then they watch Taliban return.

“This [Kandahar] is the home of the Taliban,” said Abdul Hai, 42, a resident of Arghandab. “The Taliban will not stop fighting. They know that the government is in bad situation and foreign troops are ready for exit.”

As I with my Afghan interpreter walked pass the dusty villages, we saw the armoured convoys of the NATO peacekeeping forces and the ANA troops speed to and from their bases. The Taliban enjoy a virtual free sway on the other side of the river and have made a mockery of foreign forces by setting up bases in the midst of villages. In the south-eastern city of Khost, the Taliban runs shadow government. It has appointed its own governors and local judges. The Afghan Army is reluctant to patrol in the nearby Sangisar province, the town where reclusive one-eyed chief of the Taliban Mullah Mohammed Omar used to live and where he took the oath from a few dozen men at the white mosque that started the modern Taliban movement in 1994. While the US led coalition of 37 countries are searching him in Afghanistan, a news came from Pakistan that he was treated for a heart attack in port city of Pakistan, Karachi on January 7 allegedly with the help of its Pakistan intelligence service, ISI. Although Pakistan is officially an ally of the international coalition battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, NATO officials in Afghanistan accuse the Pakistan of playing a double game.

Kandahar is only an hour’s flight from Kabul, but the place feels like another world. Road travel from Kabul to Kandahar or to any other big city is risky for Afghans and out of question for outsiders due to threat of kidnapping at Taliban checkpoints. Haji Nazir’s Intercontinental hotel which has a multiple security layers is considered the safest place for outsiders in the city. It has been attacked with suicide bomb only once though the main road which connects it with the airport has witnessed number of Taliban attacks. Locals call it Baghdad road because there have been many suicide attacks on it. In our hotel, Haji Nazir explained, the guest pay for security, he said while pointing towards a gun totting security guards at the main gate. Before I arrived in Kandahar, a deputy mayor of Kandahar was murdered while he prayed in a mosque, a NGO worker and her Afghan driver had been kidnapped and murdered. A huge explosion woke me up in the first night. In the morning I was told that there was fighting in a nearby village. Residents in Kandahar consistently said in interviews there was little stopping insurgents from moving around. Since March 2010, ten Taliban suicide bombers were captured in Kandahar alone before they could blew-up themselves. However, on Dec 27 a suicide bomber managed to break a number of security checkpoints and attacked the Afghan Army troops when they were drawing their salaries at a bank. We had passed the same road twice a day before. Kandahar is so feared region today that it is dubbed as most dangerous place in Afghanistan. Perhaps on the earth.

Winning over Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, is considered crucial to President Obama’s efforts to shift the balance of power in Afghanistan. Nearly all of the 30,000 additional troops ordered by President Obama have been sent to Kandahar and its neighbouring Helmand province. Announcing the results of the year-end Afghanistan policy review on December 16th, President Obama said the Taliban momentum has been “arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible. His commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus who was credited for turning the Iraq war around, criss-crossed Afghanistan last week as he met soldiers in forward position ahead of the new year. He is now commanding 98,000 U.S. troops and 48,000 from other coalition countries – about triple the number when President Obama took office two years ago. His game plan, according to the new strategic review, is to start “responsible reduction” of forces in July 2011 by transferring responsibility for the country’s security to Afghans. And by 2014, Afghanistan will have to take full responsibility for its own security. “That is a difficult endeavour,” says Afghanistan’s defence ministry spokesman Major General Zahir Azimi. “We are training and equipping our army but we still require a great support from the coalition forces.”

Plans for withdrawal of the foreign troops depend on handing responsibility for security to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the police. By the end of 2011, Afghanistan defence ministry is planning to build a 305,000 strong (171,000 troops, 134,000 police) force to fight Taliban. To arm the Afghan forces, the US alone has promised to give $10 billion. At present, the ANA has severely limited fighting capacity with best of Afghan army units lacking training, discipline and loyalty. The recent report of Special Inspector-General for Afghan Reconstruction revealed widespread corruption and drug abuse among the Afghan soldiers. Desertion is another vital problem. A senior officer of the Afghan Army told THE WEEK that one in every 6 combat soldiers quit the army. “Majority of them have joined Taliban,” the officer said.

At the headquarters of 205th Corps in Kandahar, Brigadier General Abdul Hamid Wardak, who is responsible for the security of Kandahar is briefing his officers and soldiers in dusty ground. The area was once used by Taliban as a main check-point, and was a strong-hold of Arab fighters. “We have been given the most significant military operation in Afghanistan. Our job is to take away from [the Taliban] access to the population where they are traditionally strongest,” Brigadier General Hamid told his soldiers. “You have to fight as true soldiers. You take care of your heath and don’t live like drug addicts.”

As he finished his address, soldiers got ready for the weekly parade. To the embarrassment of their commander, some went left, some right and some found themselves in the middle of the ground wondering which way to take. As the dust hovers above the ground, it was not difficult to realise that how much more training the young Afghan soldiers require to fight an unconventional enemy like the Taliban. The training and education in the Army is the responsibility of the Afghan National Army Training Command (ANATC) which is supported by the coalition forces. The US military assists in the basic and advanced training of Afghan army men. It also runs special drill courses which not popular with the young Afghan soldiers. “I don’t know why are they [American trainers] putting us through all these weird things. Give us gun and we will fight Taliban,” said Inayat Shafi, 21, a new recruit of the Afghan army. A journey from civilian to soldier is not an easy one. And when it comes to a generation of youth who have born and brought up in the war, it is hard to keep them away from the gun. The Western style military training model apparently doesn’t suit them. Major General Gulam Rahmani, an Afghan Armyís chief trainer admits that the Afghan boys don’t have patience for training. “They think it is useless exercise,” said Rahmani. “Warfare in our country is also different. I think the training requires a local touch.”

The Karzai government has managed to attract large number of youth towards the Army. Some 146,000 men, mostly Tajiks and Hazara have joined the Afghan army and the government expects that more will follow. Pasthus, a majority ethnic community in Afghanistan, are still reluctant to join the Army. “Joining the army is a bold decision, said Major Tanazul.îAnyone who joins the army is called an infidel. There he and his family becomes legitimate target of the Taliban”. Tanazul, like many other Afghan army officers was trained in India at Indian Army’s Commando school in Belgaum, Karnataka. The Afghan defence ministry doesn’t reveal how many soldiers were trained in India but said that the training is a part of multi-nation effort to build a profesional Afghan army. At the training camp, we met 25-year-old Afghan soldier, Mustafa who left his Afghan parents in Germany last year and joined the Afghan army. As we asked him what brought him from Germany to Afghanistan, he said that he wants to fight for his country. “Life in Germany was also boring,” Mustafa quipped.

By going out to fight almost every day, the NATO troops are trying to demonstrate that they have the momentum and the staying power on the battlefield. For Afghans, no matter how many assurances they get from the government, they believe that the Americans are determined to leave their country. “And the day foreign troops move out of Afghanistan the Taliban will be back in power,” said Mohammad Anwar, who runs a barber shop in Kandahar city. Then what would happen to his flourishing but “non-Islamic business [barber shops were banned during Taliban regime]”. Once living as a refuge in Pakistan. Anwar today earns Rs. 5,000 a month and provides job to five other men. “I don’t want Taliban back. But I hate foreigners [troops].They arrested and tortured my brother for nothing”.

At the grand shrine, in Kandahar, one of the holiest Islamic sites in Afghanistan which houses the sacred cloak of the prophet Mohammad [Mullah Omar’s only picture was taken here in 1996 when he removed the cloak from the shrine and donned it] villagers wearing traditional Kandahari turbans told THE WEEK the government do offer projects and jobs. “But our problem is that we cannot work with any government. The Taliban has warned that anyone who works on any government project will have to pay the penalty, said Jan Mohammad, a resident of Kandahar. The penalty, he said, could be having a finger or your nose chopped off or at worse a death sentence.

Over the last three decades, the Afghan people have been almost constantly in war. They first fought Russians and then they fought against each other. To end a bitter civil war, the Taliban, a group of Madrassa students dominated by Pushtuns, was launched in the early 1990s. With Pakistan’s training and funding, it managed to control most of Afghanistan between in 1996. In the immediate aftermath of the 9.11, the US invaded the country and Taliban insurgents like 36-year old Zulmi Jabbar reconvened either side of Afghanistan’s rugged border with Pakistan, and started a new holy war. He, like many other insurgents interviewed in Kandahar said they most wanted to chase out the foreign troops and install an honest government under Islamic law. “If the foreigners leave our country we will stop fighting,” said Jabbar. This bearded low rank commander was educated in madrassas in Kandahar and Quetta, in Pakistan, and has fought for the Taliban for six years. “We are well-supplied with money and arms by our leaders in Pakistan.”

At a nearby mud-walled compound in Panjwai district, the NATO troops met some local people who opposed the Taliban – but also said they feared the insurgents. The troops were trying to persuade villagers to support in search operation. In spite of NATO’s 130,000 peacekeepers in Afghanistan, the Taliban now control large parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The NATO officials in Afghanistan believe that the Taliban has as many as 25,000 armed insurgents, almost as many as before 9/11. Their attacks are not just intensifying – they are spreading and increasing using IEDs against troops. In 2010 alone, IEDs have claimed lives of 361 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan. And for the first time, the Taliban are developing new fronts in the otherwise peaceful Northern areas of the country. The work on Mazar-Darah road has been stopped after Taliban kidnapped four foreign engineers on Dec 17. During the day soldiers patrol streets and clear the areas from Taliban insurgents. As the night approaches Taliban emerges in villages and towns and rain bullets down from their favored fighting positions. Next morning when soldiers search the area they find no resistance. Mohammed Dilawar of Hilmand province said the Taliban have adopted the tactics of anti-Soviet Jihad. “During Russia time, Mujahidden would work in field during day and in night they would dig out their weapons and carry attacks on Russian troops,” said Dilawar. “The Taliban is using the same tactics against the foreign troops”.

The year 2010 has been the bloodiest year of war for foreign troops, with 711 foreign troops killed, compared with a total of 520 for 2009. The governor of Kandahar, Dr. Tooryalai Wesa, 60, without mentioning Pakistan told THE WEEK that the big stumbling block against Taliban is the sanctuary across the border [in tribal regions of Pakistan]. “They [Taliban] flee into Pakistan if the pressure becomes too intense here,” said Dr. Wesa, an academic who spent over a decade in Canada. Though he insists that security in the city is improving, he acknowledged that he himself does not feel safe. “I’ve been attacked three times with suicide bombers.” Now to bolster his security, the US helicopters ferry him to meetings, where U.S. officials take notes on his work. Though the real enemy is the Taliban, Wesa says the corrupt officials, warlords and drug dealers are failing the government.

In Kandahar, everyone wants to leave the country not only to escape the gruelling poverty and daily threats, but even to get basic medical treatment. At the Consulate General of India in Kandahar officials told THE WEEK that they give almost 5000 visas every year to Afghans mostly patients. Local people say there is saying that whosoever has a pain in Kandahar goes to India. India has closed its medical mission after it was attacked in Feb 2010. Mirwaiz hospital, is now the only hospital in Kandahar to treat patients. “We have been facing security threats from quite some time now,” Gautam Mukhopadhaya, Indian ambassador in Afghanistan told THE WEEK. The latest one came in Dec 2010 when Indian embassy was informed by the Afghan intelligence agency that a suicide bomber may target guest houses especially in Wazir Akbar Khan area in Kabul occupied by Indians. The embassy immediately issued a security alert to Indian in Afghanistan warning them to maintain special vigilance and asked to them to constantly change their route and timings within the city so as not to form a fixed pattern of movement. After a two day visit to Afghanistan in early January, foreign minister S M Krishna conclusion was grim. “What is happening in Afghanistan is something which is very disturbing…The Taliban is an umbrella organisation which shelters LeT and other terrorist organisations.”

In Kabul it is easy to see how profoundly the landscape of Kabul has changed in the last couple of years. Several high-rise buildings, shopping malls and blazing wedding halls have brought life to the city. Multi million projects including the construction of the new Afghan parliament by India is in full gear. In the dusty streets of the city center, newly imported Iranian cars compete with cyclists and cart pullers. Street venders sell postcards of sultry Indian actresses, and cockfights have resumed. Men like women drivers, are blasting their favroute Afghani and Bollywood songs off cassettes. But the relative ease with which Taliban manages to move around even in the city and carry attacks has led to a terrifying campaign of fear and insecurity. The Taliban is always around the corner. They are entrenched on the borders of Kabul. The last time I was in Afghanistan, in the Dec 2008, the NATO and Afghan troops were fighting to secure neighbouring Wardak area, some 20-kms away from Kabul city. Today, two years down the line, about 3,000 US soldiers are still fighting Taliban in Wardak. The same is the situation in nearby Kapisa province. In 2008 the NATO had gained control over the province after a massive operation. Today Taliban insurgents are back. On Dec 19, 13 soldiers and 23 Taliban died in the fresh fighting. The government didn’t release figures about the civilian casualties.

The human toll of the war has complicated matters for the President Karzai. Reflecting the anger the civilian causalities cause to Afghans, particularly in his Pasthun ethnic community, he told the tribal leaders early December that he has told Americans that he will not tolerate the civilian causalities and night-time raids. A week later, on December 24, the foreign troops conducted a night raid right in the heart of Kabul, in Kheir Khana area. Two Afghans security guards of a private company died in the attacks. The attack, like earlier similar ones, undermined President Karzai’s authority. There are no figures available about the civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. However, the latest statistics from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reveal that in the first six months of 2010 alone, 1,271 civilians have died and over 1,997 injured.

Few Kms away the presidential palace, where Karzai lives and works, we passed a graveyard. It’s the kind of place found all across Afghanistan, a country devastated by three decades of war. It is hard to count graves. There are so many of them, mostly unnamed. On the mountainside, near the shrine of Hazrat Ali women whisper wishes. In the corner of the graveyard, children play cricket. In the late afternoon, we met one of the founders of Taliban, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. The meeting happened only after negotiating a cordon of officers from the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. When you are at war, he told THE WEEK in an interview [see interview on page:..], it is not a good situation. “The people get trapped. [but] you have to remember Taliban didn’t start the war. It was imposed on Taliban. They are fighting occupation.” He said many American diplomats met him and asked how to win peace in Afghanistan. “I tell them only way to stop the war is to negotiate with Taliban.”

Since 2008, President Karzai has held secret talks with all three main factions of the Taliban – Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani to win peace. All the three groups are based in Pakistan. Two months ago, NATO officials in Afghanistan reported a promising breakthrough – a top commander of Mullah Omar had taken part in top-level peace talks with the Afghan government in the mid 2010. Later, it turned out that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was not Mullah Mansour at all. He was an imposter. The Karzai’s peace efforts have been extremely controversial, especially among Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. (Most of the Taliban are Pashtuns, as is Karzai). Some call him American puppet who has no authority. Among ordinary Afghans, like a Kabul resident Abdul Lateef, conspiracy theories are common. He asked: “If the Americans capture Sadam Hussiun and destroy his regular army, why can’t they defeat Taliban and find Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. His assumption was that, if the Americans didn’t win in Afghanistan, it was because they didn’t want to win badly enough.

Others like Haji AgaLali Dastagiri, a prominent Pashtun leader in Kandahar, says the president Karzai struggle to understand the real enemy. “If Pakistan wants Taliban can stop fighting by sunset. The problem is Pakistan is reluctant to go after the Taliban because of its interests in Afghanistan”, said AgaLali. “How to deal with a brother who has become your enemy? Honestly speaking, we all don’t known”, said AgaLali as he threw up his hands in a gesture of resignation. Pakistan shows no interest in driving the Afghan militants from its territory. And their strength may be growing. A report by the Afghanistan NGO Security Office pointed to a 59% increase in Taliban attacks in the third quarter compared with the same period in 2009, and said the surge had failed to degrade [the Talibanís] ability to fight. President Karzai recently met Pakistan’s PM Yousuf Raza Geelani on a trip to Turkey. He praised Pakistan’s support in the war against Taliban. When he arrived home, several days later, his spokesman Waheed Omer held a press conference, at which he blamed unspecified “enemies of peace” for the increasing violence in the country.

On the ground, in Afghanistan, it seems the US is being sucked into bloody war. President Obama has been careful to draw line between the military gains in Afghanistan, though in Arghandab, the distinction is blurry. At river bed in Argandab, near Baba Wali’s shrine, the biggest test for the American, together with the Afghan soldiers, is to prevent the Taliban from returning in summer. As winter approaches and snow gets ready to blanket much of Afghanistan, the troops are consolidating their positions. Neither side, though, is willing to give ground where it finally matters – Kandahar. “The time may come and war may eventually end someday, said Abdul Hai as two NATO gunship helicopters flew in circles overhead. “[But] until then our graveyards will be full.” ====THE END.

BOX: 1

Americaís longest war

Three months after 9/11, every major Taliban city in Afghanistan had fallen ó first Mazar-i-Sharif, then Kabul, finally Kandahar. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were on the run. It looked as if the war was over, and the Americans and their Afghan allies had won. bin Laden and Omar eluded capture. The Taliban regrouped. Today, Afghanistan again is up for grabs. It has already passed Vietnam as America’s longest war.

ANA: about 94,000, scheduled to grow to more than 300,000 troops by 2012

Foreign troops: 98,000 US troops & 48,000 from 42 other countries

Taliban: Between 25,000 and 36,000 armed fighters

Box-2

Coalition Military Fatalities By Year

2001 -12

2002 -70

2003 -58

2004 -60

2005 -131

2006 -191

2007 -232

2008 -295

2009 -521

2010 -711

According to the independent icasualties.org website

BOX-3

Fatalities since the war begun in 2001

Canada-154

UK 348

US 1445

Total 2281

According to the independent icasualties.org website

(Jan 27, 2011, THE WEEK)

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