May 12. 2009 7:19PM GMT
Kabul // The Taliban are gaining strength in Kandahar province, their southern heartland, as frustration with the US-led occupation and state corruption mounts, local politicians have warned.
As 21,000 extra American troops begin to arrive in the country and the fighting season gets firmly underway, there is real concern among Afghans on the front line that violence will escalate.
Speaking during a visit to Kabul, a delegation of provincial council members and other community leaders from Kandahar said the insurgency was winning over many Afghans disaffected with life under foreign occupation.
“The main reason the situation is getting worse is because of two kinds of people. The first used to be Talibs but when the new government came they stopped and went home. Then their houses were searched, they got upset and they rejoined the Taliban. The second are very religious and they just don’t like the government,” said Haji Niamatullah Khan Shirdali, a member of the provincial council.
After years in which violence has steadily spread, all signs predict that 2009 could be the bloodiest period yet since the US-led invasion. This spring, a number of deadly incidents have taken place across the country and Kandahar has been the scene of much of the carnage.
In April, a group of suicide bombers targeted the offices of the provincial council, killing 11 people. Later that month, the governor’s compound was hit in a similar attack and a female provincial councillor was assassinated outside her home.
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Fearing for their own lives as well as those of their constituents, the delegation came to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and other senior officials.
Mohammed Usman, one of those who made the trip, has five bodyguards. Three travel with him and two stay at his house.
“The Taliban used to be in remote districts but right now they have moved closer to the city. In some districts there are lots of Taliban, in some there are a few. But maybe in the whole of Kandahar only three districts have no Taliban,” Mr Usman said.
“For two years people have been worried that the Taliban will capture the city. I don’t think that will happen. They could do it, but they don’t want to because they know they could not hold it for a long time.”
In a sign of how dangerous much of the country has become, the delegation chose to fly to Kabul rather than use the main motorway built at great expense with US funding.
Those who made the journey said the unrest had three main sources.
They blamed international troops for alienating the local population by killing civilians in air strikes and raiding houses, the government for being corrupt and Pakistan for giving the insurgents a sanctuary.
“I have lost five of my nephews. Two of them were on their way to the provincial council when their car was blown up, one was on his way to work when he was killed in the bazaar, another was killed in the bazaar and one was killed when his home was attacked,” said Haji Ahmad Shah Khan Achekzai, a councillor.
“Five women are now widows in my house and they have lots of children, but what can I do? I lost them because I didn’t accept friendship with Pakistan or the Taliban.”
While claiming the insurgents are trained and financed across the border, he went on to criticise foreign troops for failing to consult with elders and religious leaders – the most respected people in society here – before their operations.
With Mr Achekzai was Mohammed Naim Lali, a former head of counter-narcotics in Kandahar. He singled out elements of the government when asked who was responsible for the deteriorating security.
“The foreigners are blind, so the police and the [intelligence service] are their eyes. They tell them who are Talibs and who should be bombed and attacked. They are giving them wrong information and that’s why the foreigners make mistakes and Afghans get upset with them, even though it’s not their fault,” he said.
“Our police are also committing crimes. Their job is to keep security but they are not doing that. They are involved in the drugs trade and corruption.”
It was in Kandahar that the Taliban first came to prominence, seizing the provincial capital in 1994 as they began their march towards Kabul.
The movement quickly gained popular support, partly because it was seen as an unstoppable force that was destined to be victorious.
If the delegation is to be believed, a similar situation could be gradually developing now.
Although the insurgents may not be able to hold urban centres, most Afghans live in the countryside and their disillusionment, along with the turbulence in neighbouring Pakistan, is what worries these Kandaharis.