Deadly Notes In The Night

How the Taliban is using a new kind of terrorist threat to intimidate Afghans

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The letters appear at night, pasted to the walls of mosques and government buildings and promising death to anyone who defies their threats. Mohammed Qasim, a janitor in Kandahar, ignored the first night letter that appeared at a mosque in his village last month, which warned residents to stop working for the Afghan government. Qasim had lied to his neighbors, telling them that he worked as a tailor--not at a police station 10 miles away. Then the second letter arrived. "Once this government falls, we will be in power. We will have your documents, your résumés, your names and your addresses. We will come and punish you," it read. Now Qasim doubts that he can keep his job, which pays about $40 a month, not a lot by Afghan standards but enough to dream about giving his two sons opportunities he never had. "If it gets any worse, I will have to leave," he says. "I don't trust that the government or the police can protect me."

Night letters--menacing notes posted under the cover of darkness--have become a potent weapon in the Taliban's widening campaign against the symbols of authority in the new Afghanistan. The tactic is aimed at sowing doubt and fear among Afghans, with the ultimate goal of reimposing the Taliban's primeval control over parts of the country--and it's working. The campaign took a lethal turn three weeks ago, when Taliban fighters blew up a busload of Afghan laborers heading to work at a U.S. military base near Kandahar, killing eight. Atrocities like that are commonplace in America's other battleground in the war against terrorism, Iraq, but the bombing represented the first large-scale attack on Afghan civilians working with coalition forces since the U.S. toppled the Taliban in 2001. And sometimes the threat of violence is as effective as the real thing. Night letters left across southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's stronghold, have slowed government services and brought reconstruction projects to a halt. In Kandahar province, many police officers have quit, and after letters appeared threatening employees, two medical clinics were shut down. In the past two months, insurgents have burned down 11 schools in the region. Some of the attacks were presaged by night letters warning parents to keep their children home.

The success of the Taliban's intimidation blitz has added to Western concern about President Hamid Karzai's government, which remains unable to assert its authority much beyond the capital city, Kabul. "In many respects, I think that this insurgency is less about insurgent strength than government weakness," says Ronald Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared in Kabul last week in a show of support for Karzai, while 10,000 coalition troops launched a fresh offensive against Taliban insurgents in the south. But few Afghans believe the threat posed by the resurgent Taliban is close to being extinguished--and some are doubtful that the NATO forces assuming control of southern Afghanistan will be able to hold the insurgents at bay. "In 2001 the coalition toppled the Taliban in two months. Why can't the coalition stop the Taliban now?" asks Agha Lalai Destagiri, a provincial-council member who lives in Panjwai village, 16 miles southwest of Kandahar. "It means the Taliban has become too strong for the coalition. That scares us."

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