While clashes in remote Helmand dominate the headlines, another battle is being waged by the insurgents on Kabul's doorstep. There, the Taliban are winning support by building a parallel administration, which is more effective, more popular and more brutal than the government's
Maidan Shah, August 24 2008
Ismatullah stood at the crossroads in the dusty Afghan town of Maidan Shah, squinted in the blinding noon sun and stroked his long, grey beard. 'What the governor said in our meeting was very good,' he said diplomatically. 'He quoted the Koran very correctly. But I am not sure how much power he has. Now I am going home - and the Taliban control my district, not him.'
The tribal elder lives only a few miles from Maidan Shah, in a part of Afghanistan which, until a few months ago, was considered under the authority of President Hamid Karzai's central government. Maidan Shah is a typical Afghan town - a scruffy huddle of mechanics' workshops, stalls selling out-of-date Iranian jam, the charred frames of two fuel trucks burnt out in a recent insurgent attack, and a clutch of battered barrows from which destitute farmers in rags sell bruised apples and tiny brown pomegranates. A dozen men lie on the flat floor of the single restaurant amid clouds of flies, sip smeared glasses of tea and stare hard at strangers.
Follow the main road back towards the Afghan capital and in 15 minutes you will be at the narrow pass in the ring of craggy, dusty hills around the city known for centuries as 'the Gates of Kabul'. If there is a front line between the insurgents and the government, it is here, just a dozen miles south of the capital. There is no clear front line, of course - which is part of the problem.
In the UK, it is the south of Afghanistan, where British troops are fighting, that has received most attention. Yet last week's battle in which 10 French soldiers died took place only an hour's drive from Kabul. It is in places like Maidan Shah, not remote provincial Helmand, that the struggle for Afghanistan will be won or lost. 'The war in the south is basically a tough, bitterly fought stalemate,' admitted one senior Nato officer last week. 'It is around Kabul that the Taliban must now be stopped.'
Reporting from these contested zones is difficult. Even on the outskirts of Kabul, Westerners and government officials risk attack or kidnap. However, scores of interviews and two journeys through the embattled areas south of the capital help to establish at least a partial picture of what is happening on the ground.
Although news bulletins inside and outside Afghanistan are dominated by bomb blasts or clashes, the real strength of the insurgents lies not in their ability to ambush convoys or plant roadside bombs but in the parallel administration they have managed to establish in huge areas across the south and east of Afghanistan. There they make the law, enforcing a harsh, but sometimes welcome, order while intimidating any dissenters. Their strategy is deliberate and long-term. From this new position of strength, they are building durable networks of support. What has happened in Wardak province shows how they have done it.
The only cases that come before Amanullah Ishaqzai, a government judge in Wardak, are those which require an official stamp or disputes among the province's mainly Shia Muslim Hazara ethnic minority, who have historically suffered at the hands of the Sunni Pashtun tribes who make up the bulk of the Taliban. Most of the province's 800,000 inhabitants, mainly peasants, go to the insurgents for rough but often effective justice.
'I can't blame them,' Ishaqzai said. 'A court case in the government system takes five years and many bribes. The Taliban will settle it in an afternoon.'
Every villager has stories of how the Taliban settle the myriad property disputes which mark Afghan society. In scores of cases, Ishaqzai said, he had convened a traditional tribal council with an Islamic scholar as a judge rather than send cases to higher courts. 'That way at least they get a decision,' he said. The clerics involved are often senior Taliban commanders.
It is not just civil cases. According to Mohammed Musa Hotak, an MP from Wardak, the Taliban arrived in a village in the southern district of Jalreez last week, arrested three well-known thieves, tarred their faces and paraded them as 'an example'. The men would probably be hanged, Hotak said. Last year human rights groups in Afghanistan estimated that the Taliban had executed between 70 and 90 people in the villages they control and punished thousands more for criminal acts.
Often such acts are popular. According to Hotak, the first act of the Taliban in the villages near his home had been to announce that they would take responsibility for law enforcement. 'They said they were responsible for every chicken,' Hotak said. 'People believe them. When they kill a robber, everyone is happy.'
A government minister talked of how in his own village earlier this month a shopowner had complained to the Taliban after being robbed and had got his goods back after the insurgents simply circulated a 'night letter', one of the pamphlets that have been the Afghan insurgents' favoured means of communication for decades, saying that they knew the thief and would hang him publicly. A second shopkeeper who went to the local authorities obtained nothing but a beating when he belatedly asked the insurgents' help. Death threats are common, officials said, sometimes delivered by text message.
Ismatullah the elder was clear. 'When the Taliban were in power, you could drive all the way to Kandahar [Afghanistan's second city, 250 miles away] with a bag of money and no one would touch you,' he said. 'Now the government are thieves. Since 2001 nothing has changed, except security is worse.'
The road to Kandahar has certainly seen better days. Ruined by the fighting that racked Afghanistan in the 1990s, rebuilt at a cost of £200m since, it is now pocked with the scars of bomb blasts and many of the new bridges have been destroyed in recent months. Each week government and coalition convoys are attacked - 50 trucks were burnt in one go last month, another dozen last week. Minutes after the governor of Wardak, interviewed in his heavily protected office-cum-residence in Maidan Shah, assured The Observer that the road was safe to travel, a convoy carrying a high-ranking government official was shot up 10 minutes' drive away.
The Taliban patrol openly a few hundred metres from the highway. In the more remote districts, villagers said, the local police often conclude deals with the underpaid, demoralised, poorly equipped Afghan National Police.
'The police know that, if they stay in their station and do nothing, the Taliban leave them alone and only launch attacks in the next district,' said one elder from the small town of Chak. The Wardak police chief, Abdul Yamil Muzzafaruddin, denied the claim.
In some areas they control, the Taliban enforce their strict interpretation of Islamic law, banning music and television. Men who do not wear long beards are roughed up or threatened. Wedding parties find unwelcome guests arriving to check for 'immoral behaviour' and to help themselves to the food. Schools, especially those for girls, are regularly burnt. In other areas, the local commanders are more lenient, restricting themselves to punishing 'criminals' and 'spies'. One commander contacted by The Observer through an intermediary complained of insufficient funds for 'investment' (and ammunition).
In one village in the Chak district, locals protested to the Taliban earlier this year that if their school was destroyed their children would never escape the crushing poverty of rural Afghanistan. 'The villagers said, "We want our children to be engineers and doctors",' said Roshanak Wardak, an MP and doctor who lives in Sayyatabad on the southern limits of the province. 'The Taliban told them that they had no need of such people, just religious scholars.'
However, refugees who have fled from the province to Kabul said that exploitation of local communities by the Taliban was rare. 'They ask the landowners for food, but not us,' said Roz Ali, 42. 'Anyway we have nothing to give.' However, taxes are sometimes levied on farm production - including opium.
This parallel government has not come about by chance. It is the result of a careful, four-phase strategy that the Taliban put into practice across much of Afghanistan, first in their southern heartland and later further north.
First came consolidation. 'Back in 2002 everyone was scared of the coalition forces and hopeful for change,' said Abdul Hadi, an elder from Chak district. 'The Taliban kept a low profile. Many fled to Pakistan.'
By 2005, senior figures began returning to Wardak, reactivating old networks and preaching that a new jihad was necessary to fight the 'Christian invaders'. Exploiting local power struggles, anger at corrupt local authorities and their own authority as educated clerics among an illiterate population, Taliban leaders were able to extend their influence. By the end of last year they moved to the next phase: recruitment.
Though fiercely loyal to the government, Roshanak, the MP, needs close contacts with the Taliban to survive. 'I know a lot of them,' she said. 'There are the old Taliban and the clerics, and then there are now the young guys. They are angry, poor, violent teenagers. They are easy to recruit.'
In some instances, young men are pressured to join the ranks of the insurgents, sometimes for a single operation. Others are attracted by cash offered by the Taliban high command in Pakistan. The younger men provide the foot soldiers and mid-level command that the leadership needs to develop a real presence on the ground.
Overlaid on the network of local Taliban are other groups, too - from neighbouring provinces, the south, even from overseas. These latter are often the most extreme. Some units include Pakistanis, others 'freelance jihadi militants' from the Middle East, some connected to al-Qaeda. Then there are also pure criminals, borrowing the label of Taliban.
Intelligence estimates obtained by The Observer conservatively place the strength of the Wardak Taliban at about 800 lightly armed men, split into dozens of different factions. Though significant, such a force should be easy for the 70,000 heavily armed soldiers of the coalition to destroy. But it isn't.
From the offices of Halim Fedayi, the new governor of Wardak province, the sound of heavy machine guns can often be heard. Nato troops from Turkey use the hills behind as a firing range. 'Wardak has an undeservedly bad reputation due to media exaggeration,' Fedayi, a former aid worker who took up his post a month ago, said in fluent English. 'I have hundreds of development projects, banking investment, parks and clinics being built. Wardak is a good news story. But resources are scarce and demands are enormous.'
Sitting on a metal bed on a small hill a few miles south of the governor's office, Salim Ali, a 20-year-old policeman, forced a slim smile. With three colleagues, for a pound a day, he guards the road passing through the 'gates of Kabul'. 'There's less traffic these days,' he says. 'People are frightened.'
Indeed, Salim Ali's vigil may already be redundant. There are signs that the insurgents are penetrating the capital itself. Ten days ago authorities reported a 'rocket strike' on the newly refurbished airport. Only it was not rockets, which have a range of many miles, that were fired at the terminal but rocket-propelled grenades, launched from 200 metres away. General Mohammed Shah Paktiwal, head of Kabul's CID, said 'terrorists' were responsible.
The incident may have been a one-off - the suicide bombs that hit Kabul last year are less frequent - but the insecurity in the Afghan capital is palpable. Though few genuinely think the Taliban could once again capture the city as long as foreign troops remain in the city, the cries of 'Allahu Akbar' or 'God is great' from pious locals during a nocturnal lunar eclipse last week prompted a major security alert. The authorities were scared that the Taliban had penetrated Kabul in force.
The alarm bells ringing are being heard. The United States has announced a £5m quick-impact reconstruction plan for Wardak. The province is also the target of a new Afghan local governance initiative. Last week Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed their nations' commitment to Afghanistan.
But a series of very senior figures in the international military, aid and diplomatic community in Kabul said they feared that the radical change in strategy now necessary to secure success in Afghanistan was unlikely to happen. 'There are simply too many structural and ideological blockages,' said one.
And the fear and the insurgents remain. 'We sent a deputation to the Taliban leadership in Pakistan asking them why they were so focused on Wardak', Hotak, the MP, said. 'We told them that capturing Maidan Shah would just cause them problems. They did not respond.'