Where the Taliban Rules (Again)

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Canadian troops guard 10 suspected Taliban prisoners captured in Northern Kandahar on May 10, 2006.

NATO troops taking charge of security in southern Afghanistan are entering what is quickly becoming a war zone, as the Taliban makes its boldest strides since it was driven from power by the U.S. and its allies in November 2001. Although Afghan government officials in Kandahar insist that "we are taking control on everything, the area has been calm since two months," residents of the city and its surroundings view things differently. Businesses have closed, and recent intense clashes between Taliban fighters and security forces have created a sense that the political order installed in Kabul after the Taliban's ouster may itself be about to collapse — under pressure from the resurgent Taliban insurgency and under the weight of its own dependence on local warlords.

The insurgent onslaught is helped by the fact that the government in the south appears to be incapable of delivering on the promise of democracy. Says Abdul Qadar, director of Human Rights Watch in Kandahar, "Warlords are part of the problem and, unofficially, they are controlling the Government administration."

That may have been a familiar problem, except that under the new political order the population expected to have recourse to the national legislature, the president and the constitution. But the priority of the Karzai government has been security, which remains elusive and makes the government ever-reliant on the support of the warlords. "The people's expectations were not met," says Qadar. "They have lost trust in constitutional law and parliament, because they did not receive any help."

Moreover, says Qadar, the Taliban is not the only threat to security: "The Taliban must not be blamed for all of the violence which we are hearing and seeing. The warlords are also involved in that."

Civil administrators find themselves especially vulnerable in the security vacuum. Last week, the car of a woman administrator in Lashkargha Province came under attack in an apparent assassination attempt, in which her assistant was killed. The survivors were crying for help from the police, she said, but no one came. And that experience of the absence of local law enforcement, so common in southern Afghanistan, has undermined the confidence of residents that the government is in control.

The Taliban certainly acts as if it is the only authority that matters on the ground. Its fighters move around increasingly brazenly, and engage local security forces in fierce battles. "We have seen Taliban in Arghandaba and many other places," said one local. "They were carrying guns and covered with bullets, and they were looking for government people."

Also, in some parts of the region, the Taliban has set up its own local justice system. Many people in Uruzgan province had long since given up taking their complaints to the official courts, but the Taliban has proved it has the ability to enforce its rulings. After a murder victim's family took their complaint to the Taliban, one of its courts in Uruzgan last week ordered the execution of Pacha Khan, accused of killing a man from the area; the Taliban had apprehended the suspect and extracted a confession before ordering the death penalty. Similar cases of intervention in remote areas have made locals put greater trust in the insurgent movement than in the government's justice system, which is widely viewed among locals as corrupt.

So pervasive is the sense that the Taliban is effectively in charge that the public, fearing retribution, has rejected help from the government and U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). One source in the Suri District in Zabol province explained why locals had turned down a water-purification project proposed by the local PRT: "I don't want to be put to death by Taliban," he said.