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One man's defiance inspires a region to stand up to the Taliban

ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — The uprising began in early February with a Taliban commander's knock on the door of Hajji Abdul Wudood.

The militant leader demanded that Wudood, a stout, weathered man of 60, surrender one of his eight sons, who was accused of spying on the Taliban for the Afghan government.

What Wudood did next triggered a revolt against the Taliban that has spread to a dozen villages in a region that has been among the nation's most formidable Taliban strongholds.

Fed up with beheadings and homemade bombs that killed 60 people in two villages the previous year, Wudood refused to hand over 25-year-old Abdul Hanan.

"I knew if I let them take my son, they would kill him," Wudood recalled.

Inspired by the actions of the former mujahedin fighter, Wudood's fellow villagers began ripping down Taliban flags and raising the black-red-and-green Afghan national colors. They have offered up their own sons and brothers to serve in a U.S.-trained local militia. And they have pointed out Taliban hide-outs and homemade bombs.

Many Afghans seethed under the Taliban's brutal eight-year domination of Kandahar province's Panjwayi district in southern Afghanistan. Their sudden defiance has helped embolden Afghan security forces who themselves have long been intimidated by the insurgents.

"It's a great thing," Haji Faizal Mohammad, the white-bearded Panjwayi district governor, said of the uprising's galvanizing effects. "Before, the enemy was chasing us. Now we're chasing the enemy."

The number of villagers joining the U.S.-backed militias has grown from 15 to 340, providing an indigenous bulwark against the Taliban. The army and police are working closely together for the first time here, urged on by U.S. commanders quietly seeking to nurture the uprising.

"We're on the sidelines, and that's a good thing," said Col. Michael Getchell, who commands a U.S. brigade in the area. "It's their uprising. If we go in and try to claim it, it's just going to die."

In the last three years, 10% of all U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have come in Panjwayi and adjoining Zhari district. A senior coalition commander in Kandahar called Panjwayi "the most fought-over piece of dirt in all Afghanistan."

"Nobody, including the Afghans, ever expected us to get to this point," the commander said, noting that the Russian army never tamed Panjwayi during its 1980s occupation.

The insurgents here are hardly vanquished. But the Panjwayi revolt is perhaps the most significant of such local rebellions in Afghanistan. It has expanded and — so far — succeeded as a model of Afghan-driven security backed by U.S. combat power.

"I swear to you, the Taliban will never return. It's my village, and I'm not afraid," Wudood said, squatting on the floor of the district governor's office. He pulled back his vest to reveal a pistol on his hip and an ammunition clip in his pocket.

On Feb. 5, Wudood didn't just send Taliban commander Noor Mahmad away empty-handed. He also called the new district police chief, a wily Panjwayi native and former mujahedin comrade named Sultan Mohammad.

That same day, the chief had heard from Abdul Kareem Agha, a mirab, or local water official, who complained that Taliban fighters had beaten him for cutting back brush, which they used for cover, from irrigation canals.

Chief Mohammad, 48, is a brusque and confident man — and fiercely opposed to the Taliban, though some of his relatives support the Islamist insurgents. Appointed chief Jan. 19, he shared rising resentment toward insurgents who ran kangaroo courts and dictated when farmers could work their fields. In the previous 12 months, 375 Panjwayi residents had been killed or maimed by insurgents' roadside bombs, he said.

"They're cowards," Mohammad said of the Taliban. "The people hate them."

The chief sent 15 armed policemen to Wudood's village, Peshingan. Villagers described Taliban hide-outs in grape orchards and pointed out dozens of homemade bombs.

Three days later, police joined by Wudood and his sons and 20 neighbors routed 25 Taliban fighters in a shootout, killing three and sending the rest fleeing, Wudood said. On Feb. 25, more than 100 Panjwayi residents formally declared their loyalty to the Afghan government. The district governor draped an Afghan flag across Wudood's sturdy shoulders.

At his base nearby, Lt. Col. James Dooghan watched the ceremony on a video feed emanating from a U.S. surveillance balloon. After his arrival in November as the commander of a U.S. battalion, Dooghan was frustrated by the timid local Afghan army brigade.

The brigade had received poor readiness ratings for six straight years. The police chief who was replaced by Sultan Mohammad had been afraid to leave his compound.

"They had no confidence going into contested areas," Dooghan said of Afghan security forces. "We thought we'd been given mission impossible."

After the uprising, U.S. commanders provided beans, rice, cooking oil and clothing for Panjwayi residents — delivered by Afghan security forces. U.S. Army engineers helped Afghan soldiers build a short road to three rocky hills nicknamed Dragon's Back, where the Afghan army and police established observation posts for the first time. Emboldened, the forces pushed into former Taliban strongholds.

It was easy to see the advantage provided by the new outposts. Never before had the soldiers or police dared to seize this high ground in Taliban country."This is a big advantage for us; now we can see the enemy coming," said an outpost commander, Sgt. Maj. Saeyd Faryadi.

Chief Mohammad's police force has set up and expanded several outposts. Recruit Shah Mohammad Gul, 22, said he was inspired by Wudood's defiance. (He also mentioned the AK-47, two ammunition clips and $200-a-month salary he receives.)

"Hajji Wudood gave us all a new idea — that we could defeat the Taliban," Gul said.

Lt. Col. Aga Khan, who commands a 700-man Afghan battalion in western Panjwayi, said the army enjoys local support here for the first time. "Before, they didn't know if they could trust us," he said. "Now they beg us to come to their villages."

American commanders have urged army and police commanders to work with Gov. Mohammad. Weekly security shuras, or meetings, sprang up at Mohammad's office here, nicknamed Wall Street, next to a U.S. Special Forces base called the Alamo.

At a recent shura, Gov. Mohammad, 55, flanked by the police chief and Wudood, led discussions about upcoming army and police operations.

Getchell and Dooghan sat nearby, asking questions and offering advice. The combat power they provide is a significant factor in the Afghans' rising confidence.

Afghan commanders mentioned a recent U.S. airstrike that killed seven insurgents who had been closing in on Afghan forces. Afghan soldiers here know that U.S. attack helicopters, fighter planes and armed drones stand ready to kill insurgents planning ambushes or planting bombs.

The U.S. military also shares intelligence gathered by surveillance balloons and drones. U.S. soldiers train Afghans, provide medical evacuation for the critically wounded, help clear roads of bombs and back up Afghans on joint patrols.

It was U.S. forces, not Afghans, who killed the Taliban shadow governor of Panjwayi after the uprising erupted and who captured his brother and chief lieutenant. U.S. forces killed the shadow governor's replacement a week later.

"We aren't going to let them leave," Gov. Mohammad said of American forces, only half-joking.

Asked whether Afghan forces remain too dependent just 19 months before the U.S. combat mission ends, Dooghan said Afghans were being slowly "weaned." The confidence they gain now, with U.S. backing, should lay the groundwork for them to operate on their own, he said.

Chief Mohammad put it this way: U.S. and international forces "have put a pacifier in the mouths of the people. We need to remove the pacifier."

The police chief and Gov. Mohammad complained bitterly about the lack of support from the central government in Kabul. Provincial officials often criticize Kabul as remote, incompetent and deeply corrupt.

"We get nothing from the government," Gov. Mohammad said. "If they would offer just a little help, we could spread this uprising everywhere."

In the district village of Sperwan, residents blamed the Taliban for the recent death of a 10-year-old boy killed in a firefight with police. Residents marched, 150 strong, to the governor's office to demand a promise of police help, which they received.

The Taliban has ordered the deaths of the police chief and governor, and vowed vengeance against the uprising's leaders. Insurgents still profit from the opium crop in this district of about 60,000 people, and still plant homemade bombs.

On a recent foot patrol to Dragon's Back, a U.S. soldier with a bomb-sniffing dog and another with a hand-held monitor swept a dusty footpath for explosives. The patrol was heading up the rocky outcrop to monitor three new observation posts.

Villagers had pointed out six bombs to Afghan forces. They lay in the shade: yellow jugs and glass containers filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and other ingredients.

After climbing Dragon's Back, the patrol watched Afghan soldiers and police fire machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades toward fields of poppies and wheat far below. The Afghans said Taliban gunmen hiding there had fired on them.

The outposts are fired on almost daily as insurgents fight to reestablish control, the sergeant major said. Two days earlier, his men had killed two Taliban fighters in a wheat field. The previous week, he said, one of his soldiers was shot through the head and killed by a sniper.

Just then, there were more gunshots. The sergeant major watched a man on a motorcycle race away, half-concealed by a grape orchard in the hazy distance.

"Taliban," he said.

In nearby Peshingan, not far from mud compounds where U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians last year, Hajji Wudood is a beloved figure. People pray for him, he said. They thank him for their liberation.

Wudood totes an AK-47 assault rifle along with his pistol. Soon, district authorities promise, the man who stood up to the Taliban will be given his own Humvee.

He smiled beneath his ragged beard. "Everyone has the responsibility to stand up to anyone who treats us so badly," he said.

Wudood now commands a 30-man Afghan local police militia made up of villagers. Among them is Abdul Hanan, the son demanded by the Taliban.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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