Kandahar, Afghanistan — Almost every day, Mahmood Sadat sees the stark human proof of the Taliban’s rural victory. He sees it in the corpses of the children who perish in his hospital for want of a village doctor.
It happened again a few days ago, and it broke his heart. Unable to find a doctor for their feverish four-year-old child, an illiterate village couple had forced water down the throat of the unconscious boy. By the time he reached the hospital in Kandahar, it was too late for Dr. Sadat to do anything. The boy died from the water in his lungs.
The boy could have survived if his parents had found a doctor — but all the doctors have fled the villages for fear of the Taliban’s terror tactics.
In much of southern Afghanistan’s vast countryside, the militant Taliban insurgents have already achieved their victory, leaving only the cities and a few isolated outposts in the control of the Canadians and other coalition forces. And day by day, they are creeping closer to the cities, operating openly on the outskirts of Kandahar and other major cities.
“In the rural areas, the Taliban do whatever they want — even in the daytime, not just at night,” said Dr. Sadat, a pediatrician who himself was forced to give up his work in a rural clinic after four doctors there were killed.
“The doctors and teachers have all left the rural areas because they are afraid of the Taliban. The rural areas are out of the government’s control. Day by day, it is getting worse.”
For three months now, Canadian troops have been struggling to extend their presence into Kandahar’s rural districts. It might be too late. Some officers admit privately that the coalition has wasted the past four years by failing to push beyond the main cities. Instead of bolstering the new government’s reach in 2002 when it was popular, the coalition is now trying to prop up what’s become a much-hated authority that has squandered most of its public trust.
Since their defeat in 2001, Taliban militants have been allowed to regroup, re-arm and re-exert their influence. Most of the southern countryside is now paralyzed, beyond the influence of Afghanistan’s central government, lacking any government services and unable to break the Taliban’s stranglehold. Just as it was in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation, the foreign troops control the major cities while the guerrillas control the mountains and villages.
The Taliban know they cannot beat the coalition in a head-to-head battle. But they don’t need a military victory. They only need to terrorize the “soft targets” — doctors, teachers, government officials and villagers — and destabilize the country. By destroying the economy and killing any sense of hope, they are creating a potential army of disillusioned young men.
It’s a classic guerrilla strategy, and it’s working. “The conventional army loses if it does not win,” former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said. “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.”
Analysts say that the Taliban have more fighters in Afghanistan today than at any time since 2001. A record opium harvest in the south has bolstered the Taliban’s financing, with many farmers supporting the Taliban as a bulwark against the threat of poppy eradication by the coalition.
Even after a major sweep by Canadian forces near Kandahar this month, and after a battle that killed dozens of rebels, Canadian commanders acknowledged that the insurgents simply returned to the villages after the soldiers had pulled out.
And their strength is not just in the south. In a two-day period this week, the insurgents mounted more than 20 attacks against the coalition in 12 provinces of the country. They are reported to have control of rural districts in Ghazni province, just 135 kilometres south of Kabul, the base of the central government.
“There’s no doubt that the Taliban have grown in strength and influence in certain areas in Kandahar, Helmand and in southern Uruzgan,” U.S. military spokesman Colonel Tom Collins told a briefing this week.
“They prey upon people who don’t have a lot of hope. They recruit people to join their cause. These people may not believe much in the cause, but they need a job.”
The Canadians are trying their best to build goodwill in the villages, providing small-scale aid projects and the occasional day of medical services. But it’s agonizingly slow work, requiring heavily armed security. Months of goodwill can be shattered by a single night of mistaken bombing — as happened last week when dozens of villagers were killed or injured by a coalition attack near Kandahar. (The coalition later admitted that the bombing may have “dampened the mood” among the villagers.)
While there are about 8,000 coalition troops in Kandahar province, most are stuck in support roles at the Kandahar airfield. Only about 1,500 are combat troops. At any given time, only a few hundred troops are patrolling the 54,000 square kilometres of the province, along with a few hundred at the “forward operating bases” — isolated posts in the heart of Taliban territory. This makes a ratio of one soldier for every 36 square kilometres of territory, not nearly enough “boots on the ground” to make much of a difference. Most of these soldiers, moreover, have no training in the tribal and ethnic complexities that bedevil their work.
The Taliban have multiplied their strength by using roadside bombs and suicide bombers to keep the coalition off-balance. To avoid the bombs, Canadian convoys race at top speed through Kandahar, too fearful to linger. “They’re like mice, running from hole to hole,” the Afghans sometimes quip.
While the coalition has struggled to build a political commitment for its presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban are recruiting a steady stream of volunteers, churned out by religious schools in Pakistan that propagate a militant anti-Western brand of Islam. The Taliban have enjoyed a haven in Pakistan, where the government has turned a blind eye to their sanctuaries.
And the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is too porous for the Afghan security forces to control.
“We don’t have enough police,” said General Rahmatullah Raufi, commander of the Afghan army forces in southern Afghanistan. “The police don’t have control in most rural areas. The Taliban have a lot of power in our region, and they will get stronger. They have modern weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and modern vehicles. They have training centres in Pakistan and everything else they need.”
While the coalition struggles to build trust among the Afghans, the reality is that the coalition doesn’t trust any of the locals. Even those who are hired to work in menial jobs at the Kandahar airfield are sometimes watched by armed guards because of a fear that they will suddenly attack the troops.
“Don’t forget — the enemy is listening,” a common poster at one of the Canadian military bases reminds the soldiers.
The Taliban numbers, meanwhile, seem almost inexhaustible. During the past two years, casualties on both sides have steadily risen. In the first three weeks of this month, the coalition said that 420 Taliban fighters were killed, injured or captured in southern Afghanistan. Yet the Taliban have continued to escalate their attacks. Their numbers are clearly much greater than the coalition expected.
They also take a very patient view of history. They know that more Western troop reinforcements are arriving this year, but they also know that 3,000 American soldiers are due to be withdrawn from Afghanistan this summer. They are willing to wait for the coalition’s willpower to falter. As one Canadian officer noted, “We have all the watches, but they have all the time.”
Just like the U.S. troops in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, the coalition is trying to prop up a corrupt and unpopular government. Local governments are dominated by so many warlords and gangsters that many Afghans express nostalgia for the Taliban regime of 1996 to 2001, which at least was not perceived as corrupt and immoral.
“The Afghan population is throwing up its hands,” a veteran aid worker in Kandahar said. “The disorder today is coming from the government itself. Its mandate was to clean out the warlords, but instead it’s engaged in an endless dance with them. Everyone says that the Taliban regime, if nothing else, at least stopped the corruption and created law and order.”
Another aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government is rapidly losing support as the Taliban move closer to the cities. “The Taliban are travelling openly in convoys, coming into the towns and sitting with the people at night, trying to influence them,” he said. “The people are taking a passive role now, but in six months, if this situation continues, they could support the opposition.”
Most aid agencies have withdrawn from southern Afghanistan, and foreign aid workers are unofficially barred from most villages — not just for their personal safety, but also because they would draw Taliban reprisals to the villages.
“The international community now faces the disturbing prospect of the new insurgency embedding itself in communities and spreading to other weak districts, and a progressive de facto dismantling of Afghanistan,” said a report last month by the Senlis Council, a security and development policy group based in Europe.
The Canadian mission is not yet doomed, but it cannot hope to succeed without more reinforcements, a long-term commitment to the country, and a new strategy to “drain the swamp” in the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The world has seen failed peacemaking efforts before — in Somalia and Haiti in the 1990s, for example, when premature withdrawals led to a social collapse. A senior RCMP officer, Superintendent Wayne Martin, worked in Haiti for a year in the late 1990s. Now he is serving in Kandahar as part of Canada’s reconstruction effort, and he hopes that the lessons of Haiti have been learned.
“My greatest fear is that the same thing will happen here as in Haiti,” he said. “Things were starting to move forward, at a glacial rate, and then it fell back.”
He believes that the international community needs to commit itself to 10 or 15 years in Afghanistan to support the peace process. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. . . . I’ll be in a wheelchair in a nursing home before we know whether this effort has worked or not.”
Winning Afghan hearts daunting
Hidden behind the high mud walls of his garden, one of Kandahar’s wealthiest opium farmers is a shrewd observer of the perils of Canada’s military mission in this unforgiving land.
His workers are harvesting the opium poppies now, piling them up in wheelbarrows under the pomegranate trees of his orchard. This small garden on the outskirts of Kandahar is just one of his opium operations. Last year he earned a small fortune — the equivalent of almost $300,000 — by selling 5,000 kilograms of opium from his farm in a neighbouring province.
The farmer, 28-year-old Haji Mohammed Fathai Khan, insists that he doesn’t support the Taliban. In fact, he would gladly support the Canadian troops and the Afghan government if they could bring the peace and stability that serves his business interests. But, so far, he just doesn’t see it. What he sees, instead, is the rising influence of the Taliban everywhere in southern Afghanistan.
Mr. Khan says the Canadian troops are more humane than the Americans who preceded them. But he sees how the guerrilla fighting has forced the Canadians into a heavily armed posture that alienates the people. Mr. Khan is what the coalition strategists have described as a “swing voter” — one of the undecided masses who are waiting to see which way the wind blows.
“The population is the centre of everything we’re doing,” says Colonel Chris Vernon, chief of staff to the Canadian commander of coalition operations in southern Afghanistan. “He who wins the people will win this war eventually.”
But the coalition’s chances of winning hearts and minds are fast eroding. Four years ago, most Afghans had high hopes for the Karzai government. Now they are disillusioned. Most do not support the Taliban, but they do not support the government either — and this could make it almost impossible to mobilize the Afghans to oppose the rebels. The Canadians are stuck with the task of trying to build support for a political system that has delivered nothing for most people.
“The people just want security,” an Afghan journalist said. “If the government is weak and the Taliban is strong, the people don’t have any option. They have to support the Taliban or they’ll be killed.”
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