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Where Taliban Rules Again

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Times Staff Writer

In the sun-blasted badlands of Helmand province, the Taliban insurgency has grown so strong that frightened Afghan police turn to sympathetic drug lords’ militias for protection.

When police escorted civilians into the desert village of Changer, half an hour’s drive from Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, the convoy of SUVs stopped at an abandoned Soviet-era military base that is now a drug lord’s outpost.

A few police officers armed with old Kalashnikovs fanned out to guard the perimeter, while an edgy officer roused the militia fighters resting in the shade of a tree. He explained his concerns, asked for backup, and six young men armed with old AK-47 assault rifles and a battered grenade launcher joined the entourage in a rusting Toyota Corolla.

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There were no foreign troops for miles around. Villagers said the Taliban controlled the area, and most of the province outside Lashkar Gah.

More than four years after U.S.-led forces helped push the fundamentalist Taliban regime out of power, the Islamic militia’s fighters have regrouped and staked out a base of operations in Helmand, where the main cash crop is opium poppies for the heroin trade, and where few foreigners dare venture beyond the provincial capital.

A tangled web composed of drug lords, insurgents and the many inhabitants living in poverty has made Helmand the Afghan war’s key battleground.

The U.S.-led coalition says it has launched a fresh offensive against insurgents across four southern provinces, including Helmand. But the struggle to win back parts of Afghanistan’s south is proving difficult.

In “night letters,” leaflets posted on doors or scattered along pathways in the darkness, the Taliban threatens to kill anyone who works for, or cooperates with, the government. The Islamist militia has executed numerous people who didn’t listen.

Despite coalition claims that several insurgents have been killed in recent weeks, most in airstrikes, the Taliban and its allies continue to recruit new fighters with a deft combination of intimidation and persuasion, said Gen. Zahir Azemi, spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

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Just two hours’ drive from the capital, Kabul, villagers in the desert surrounding the city of Ghazni say insurgents launch regular attacks on police checkpoints, plant roadside bombs, kill government workers and burn schools. A year ago, security was good, they say.

The Taliban recruits by striking fear into villagers with the ruthless attacks, then offering salvation to surviving family members and neighbors, Azemi said.

“First they create an atmosphere of fear by killing people, slaughtering people,” he said. “They cut people’s heads off with a sword or knife, then they persuade people, and tell them, ‘Let’s go to paradise together.’ ”

At least one tenet of the Taliban recruitment pitch -- that foreigners have not done much for villagers -- appears to be an easy sell.

Just a few months after foreign soldiers rebuilt the dirt road through the Changer district, it is falling apart. Afghan subcontractors hired by the U.S. military used shoddy materials so they could boost their profits, angry Afghan officials complained.

Few dare drive on it these days, but when they do it’s a gut-twisting race past mud-brick homes with high walls and turrets like ancient fortresses, along a crumbling track with washboard ruts and holes as big as craters. Potholes are not just an annoyance on roads outside Lashkar Gah. They force drivers to slow to a crawl in places where speed can save lives.

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Last week, a roadside bomb killed four Afghan police officers traveling in a pickup on the main road near Girishk, about 20 miles northeast of Lashkar Gah.

Bombs and ambushes make police reluctant to go to many villages, and if they do risk a visit, they don’t linger.

“You’ve got five minutes,” a nervous official told a reporter during a stop in the village of Nad-e-Ali, where the Taliban had executed a teacher and torched the classrooms.

With few police officers or soldiers to worry about, the insurgents attack civilians, which scares off aid workers. Then Taliban recruiters tell villagers that they have been betrayed by the foreigners.

“The Taliban come to us and they tell us, ‘Look! These are not the friends of the country. They are all just the enemies of the government and the people of Afghanistan because they haven’t done anything for you,’ ” said Tawab Khan, a security officer at a dilapidated school.

Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, a former governor of the province, is one of the police force’s most powerful guardians in Helmand. He is a stalky, blustering man, who receives visitors while reclining on floor pillows.

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He has good business reasons for being the security force’s protector.

President Hamid Karzai was forced to replace Akhundzada late last year after U.S. drug agents caught the governor red-handed with almost 10 tons of opium in his office.

Karzai softened the blow by appointing Akhundzada to the House of Elders, Afghanistan’s senate. Akhundzada’s brother Amir was allowed to keep an eye on the family’s interests as Helmand’s deputy governor.

Akhundzada insists that he is not a drug trafficker. But he fields a militia that, along with fighters for known drug lords, constitutes the only permanent armed opposition to the Taliban and its allies.

“In the south, nobody believes the government and nobody trusts the government,” the former governor said. “And if they don’t take care of it, the government will collapse and the Taliban will arrive in Kabul.”

The Defense Ministry openly acknowledges that failed military and reconstruction strategies allowed insurgents to regroup and gain control over many parts of the south.

“We could have taken much better steps toward reconstruction of the country, which we didn’t,” Azemi said. “We could have taken much better steps to reform or to make a management system for the remote areas in that region, which we didn’t.

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“We could have built our complete army in the last three years and we didn’t. If we had a strong army of 70,000 soldiers, there would be no need for the international community’s soldiers to fight in the region.”

Afghanistan’s national army has 37,000 soldiers, including ministry staff in Kabul. That’s just over half the size coalition authorities believe is necessary for the Afghan military to defend the country on its own. The soldiers earn $70 a month -- about what a day laborer makes in Kabul -- and fight with poor equipment alongside U.S. troops.

“In reality, the morale of our national army is very weak because of these situations, because they see differences between human beings,” Azemi said.

“One soldier has strong weapons, strong and modern machinery, tanks, jets, bulletproof jackets and helmets, and the other is fighting with a single weapon that he doesn’t even trust.”

The coalition plans to supply equipment to Afghan police, including pistols, body armor, shotguns, grenade launchers and light tactical vehicles, and “there are similar plans in place” for the Afghan army, said Navy Lt. Tamara D. Lawrence, a coalition spokeswoman.

At least 40 foreign troops, 26 of them Americans, have died in combat in Afghanistan this year.

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Afghan troops are the largest contingent in the force of more than 11,000, including American, British and Canadian personnel, that launched Operation Mountain Thrust last week against insurgents in Helmand and three other provinces.

Akhundzada thinks the latest offensive in the south is a farce.

On Sunday, when Taliban fighters attacked the house of Dad Mohammed Khan, Helmand’s former intelligence chief and now a member of parliament, near a U.S. base in Sangin, the battle between insurgents, Khan’s militia and police raged for 12 hours in Sangin’s bazaar.

U.S. troops never intervened, Akhundzada said. Khan’s 16-year-old son and two of Khan’s brothers were among at least 32 people killed. His 17-year-old son is missing.

“If the Americans didn’t help them in the bazaar, which was only a mile away from their base, how could they have an offensive?” Akhundzada asked. “There is sorrow in many houses now. What good can rebuilding a bridge do for those people? Is that more important than the lives of these 30 people who died?”

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