Taliban sneak back into Kandahar, dressed as grape farmers

Guardian, Sep. 14, 2014

Afghan National Army troops march through Ma'sum Ghar camp in Kandahar province

The men were dressed as migrant workers. Over the course of two or three days, as many as 600 of them made their way through the checkpoints dotted around the southern Afghanistan province of Kandahar. Many of them hauled trolleys carrying crates of freshly picked grapes as they headed towards the outlying district of Zheri, some 24 miles (38km) west of Kandahar city.

Some of the men shared idle banter with the police officers, speaking laconically of this year’s grape harvest in neighbouring districts. The police officers let them pass; if they had looked more carefully they may have spotted the guns and ammunition hidden under the shipments of grapes.

“That is how the Taliban came to us,” explained the local police commander of Zheri district, Daad Gul, his voice weary.

Most of the news from Afghanistan in recent months has focused on the struggle for power in Kabul in the aftermath of a hotly disputed presidential election, but in Kandahar the struggle is one for survival. A dozen interviews in the restive southern region have revealed a growing resentment at the political deadlock and a sharp worsening of the security and economic situation on the frontlines of the civil war.

Battles against the Taliban in recent weeks have been more intense than previously reported, local elders and security officials said: according to one estimate around 400 people died when Taliban infiltrators fought Afghan troops in Zheri for a dozen days in August.

“The bodies were everywhere,” said an elder from the area who asked not to be named. “In streams, orchards, people’s gardens, my own garden, on the side of the road, in front of the mosque.” The smell of rotting flesh, he said, had hung in the air for several days after the fighting stopped. On some days, he could still feel it on the tip of his nose, he said.

The villagers collected the bodies and buried them beneath the grape vines, slow and gruelling work that took them four days to complete. “There was fighting for nearly two weeks,” said Haji Salwar Khan, an elder from the district. “But the people are not upset at the Taliban. It is their job to attack. The people are upset at the politicians. They are the only ones not doing their jobs.”

Neither of the two candidates in the 14 June election runoff, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minster Abdullah Abdullah, has admitted defeat.

Instead, Abdullah has boycotted the UN-sponsored audit, and Ghani remains obstinately against compromise of any kind. International donors have threatened to pull funding should the current gridlock continue, to no avail.

Diplomats and military officials in Kabul have so far been reluctant to draw a connection between escalating violence and the political deadlock, but many in Kandahar say the stalled election has encouraged the insurgency.

“Six months after we first voted, still we don’t have election results,” Khan said. “There is no central command. The government has no money. Of course the Taliban is going to attack – they would be stupid not to.”

Khan served as a campaign organiser for Ghani, encouraging men and women from his district to participate in the elections despite the risks. “They were scared, but they still voted,” he said. “Where are their votes now?”

In recent weeks, such discontent has spilled over into street protests in other parts of the country, but in Kandahar the provincial governor has discouraged local campaign organisers from allowing demonstrations, apparently because of fears that they could turn violent.

The tension has already started to hurt the economy, as farmers complain that the price of Kandahar’s famous grapes has dropped to about a third.

In nearby Shorabak district, Sayed Ahmad was letting out his pent-up frustration by lifting weights at the local bodybuilding gym. He had run as a provincial council member in local elections and was widely rumoured to be the winner. The election commission, however, has delayed announcing the results until after the presidential sparring is settled.

Ahmed had inquired about the delays. An election commissioner told him that the provincial council election results were tallied, logged, “all ready to go,” but that they were waiting until the presidential election disputes were resolved. They feared, the commissioner had told Ahmed, that the disgruntled losers of the provincial council election would join Abdullah’s faction and drag out the current impasse.

Ahmed said this angered the 28-year-old and his constituents: “One of them told me the other day that democracy doesn’t exist in Afghanistan, only power.”

For the workers of the governor’s palace, the political became personal when it was announced a month ago that they would no longer be receiving lunch, tea, or potable water at the office. The current administration had used up its funds and needed the incoming president to approve the new budget.

Certain departments considered essential and those in managerial positions were exempt from the austerity measures, creating an awkward situation where the chosen few had to surreptitiously slip away for a cup of tea or a bite of food while the rest went without. Out of the 97 working in the governor’s palace, 72 to 75 were working in privation.

“If you are expected to work for five hours without food or water, of course there is anger,” said one staffer who asked not to be named. “We don’t need lunch, fine, but we do need tea at least,” the staffer said. Tea drinking is integral to the culture here, and it is unthinkable to Afghans that they could not offer a cup of tea to a visitor.

As for Haji Salwar Khan, the elder from Zheri, he was preparing for the pomegranate harvest that begins at the end of September. Was he hopeful that there would be a new president by then? “The last 13 years, no, make that 30, had taught me not to hope,” he said dryly.

Read at Guardian.com.