Despite US troops, Taliban roam freely in south

It wasn’t enough for the Taliban to name judges in one stretch of southern Afghanistan.

Sensitive to residents’ concerns about corruption, the militants in the Musa Qala area of Helmand province even set up a committee to make sure the judges didn’t take bribes. And unlike many of the official government bodies, this one worked.

“One judge was found taking a bribe and the Taliban put black all over his face and tied him to a tree,” businessman Eitadullah Khan told The Associated Press. “When he was released, he was fired.”

Southern Afghanistan is the focus of the U.S. deployment of an additional 21,000 troops this year, and the region where many say the legitimacy of Thursday’s presidential and provincial elections will rest, depending on voter turnout.

But it’s also the region where the Taliban have their strongest infrastructure — one that goes beyond warriors to a shadow government that includes a justice system and militant-appointed governors.

Many of these Taliban institutions are viewed as less corrupt and more efficient than the Afghan government, and locals say they prefer them — or fear using anything else. That makes it even harder for the U.S. and NATO’s attempts to get residents to back operations against the militants, and for Afghans wanting to raise voter turnout.

Publicly, U.S. officials play down Taliban capability to operate a shadow government, while at the same time acknowledging their ability to intimidate.

“The Taliban lack the capability to run a shadow government — they do not operate that way. Their actions are aimed at tearing this country apart using fear and terror,” said Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a U.S. military spokesman. “We take them seriously as a threat to the people of Afghanistan, but we know that the people will prevail and not the Taliban.”

Privately, however, some U.S. officials acknowledge there are “no-go” areas for Afghan forces that are effectively controlled by the Taliban. In an interview last month with The Los Angeles Times, top U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said that “practically speaking, there are areas that are controlled by Taliban forces.”

Almost six years ago, Mullah Mudaser was among the first batch of Taliban to learn how to make the roadside bombs that are behind the escalating deaths of Western troops.

Back then, he had to sneak across the border to train in Pakistan. Today, he can train militants in Afghanistan, and has no problem meeting an Associated Press reporter in the middle of the city of Kandahar over a meal of lamb kebabs.

Mudaser said the Taliban store weapons, ammunition and suicide vests in some neighborhoods of Kandahar, which was the Taliban’s spiritual and operational headquarters before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Despite more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Kandahar residents say Taliban militants move through the city’s northern and southern suburbs with impunity, distributing threatening “shabnamas” or night letters and attacking female activists and schoolgirls.

The militant infrastructure is most prevalent in the rural areas. The Taliban say they control about 65 percent of the ethnic Pashtun-dominated countryside, a figure that could not be confirmed. In Kandahar, Zabul, Helmand, Uruzgan and Nimroz provinces, the militants control several districts, the U.N. said.

“The rural areas are difficult for the government to control,” U.N. official Samad Khaydarov said in an interview at his Kandahar office, protected by blast walls, a thick steel barrier and several uniformed police. “The Taliban have influence especially among the clergy and the tribal elders in several districts and some regions.”

The Taliban’s strictly Islamic judicial system is the most glaring example of the militants’ influence.

In Helmand — the province neighboring Kandahar where thousands of British troops are deployed — the Taliban in Musa Qala district have regular court dates, said Khan, the businessman. Every Thursday, villagers stand before the Taliban judge, usually to settle disputes.

Khan, 30, who once supported President Hamid Karzai, has grown disillusioned with his government’s rampant corruption and spoke of the Taliban’s work in a voice laced with admiration.

“The Taliban were not good, but these people now — the government — they are thieves and killers,” he said.

One of the largest landowners in the Zherai district of Kandahar said the Taliban move freely in the area and have set up courts there as well. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to security fears.

“In some areas they are Taliban at night and government officials by day,” said one former government official who also spoke on condition of anonymity because “no one can protect you from the Taliban.”

U.S. and Afghan officials are racing to secure the south ahead of the elections. Already, the militants in the region have warned that residents who vote face violence.

U.S. troops are engaged in a major offensive in Helmand province’s Now Zad district, trying to clear the Taliban from the town of Dahaneh so a voting center can be set up.

Afghanistan’s government and U.S. intelligence put the headquarters of the Afghan Taliban in neighboring Pakistan, where a 10-member committee, known as the Quetta shura is said to be located.

Mudaser said the Taliban infrastructure in Afghanistan began to coalesce in the last two years.

In his home province of Zabul, the insurgent governor is Mullah Ismail. The military commander and Mudaser’s boss is Mullah Bashar, who reports to the Taliban’s countrywide defense chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader. Since the 2006 death of Taliban military chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Usmani, Barader has been running the battlefield command for the Taliban.

In dozens of districts throughout the ethnic Pashtun-dominated south, Mudaser said the Taliban have also appointed their own police chiefs.

Mudaser said he has 120 Taliban under his command and has taught hundreds of militants to make roadside bombs. With so much militant control in southern Afghanistan, he said he no longer has to make clandestine trips to Pakistan to impart his skills.

“Now we have hundreds of people who know how to make them,” he said, adding that they get materials from the market and using up to 220 pounds of explosives.