Resurgent Taleban

Pashtun villagers crowded round as the Afghan government team from the faraway city lifted the unfamiliar silver object from the car. The mullah was called to help to explain the mystery.

He recognised the object immediately. It was a ballot box, brought to help the villagers elect a local council to apply for reconstruction aid on behalf of their people.

“It is un-Islamic to put your vote in the box,” the mullah warned his congregation as the visiting team listened in shock. “Anyone who does so must answer to Allah and he will punish you.”

Then he walked off with a sweep of his long, silk turban. The villagers exchanged looks, got up and quickly melted away. The ballot box was reloaded into the car and the visitors drove off at speed.

The mullah may have had good reason for his hardline stance. Only weeks earlier, two clerical colleagues from neighbouring villages in the remote Shawal-e-Kot district of Kandahar province were killed for voicing their support for elections. No one had any doubt who was responsible.

In this area of Kandahar, as in increasingly large swaths of the south and east of Afghanistan, a familiar force is returning with a vengeance.

Two years after they fell from power, the Taleban are back, rearmed with guns and a determination to stop the march of development and democracy in an attempt to win back the hearts and minds they once controlled.

Their strategy is simple: to stop the benefits of postwar reconstruction reaching the people, and thereby cash in on the resulting sense of alienation and disenfranchisement.

With at least nine months to go until elections are due, the Taleban have already embarked on a concerted effort to stop them.

Threatening and executing mullahs who support elections is not their only strategy. Just as hundreds of United Nations election officials were poised to fly into the country last month a UN refugee worker was murdered in Ghazni, a killing claimed by the Taleban.

Then an explosion ripped through a market in Kandahar where a car bomb was detonated only two weeks earlier outside the UN’s election office. The arrival of the international monitors was quickly cancelled, which was a huge blow to the effort to begin registering voters across the country.

“Those events changed things for us very dramatically,” Reg Austin, the head of the United Nations electoral commission said. “The entire operation is now going to be dependent on security. If the environment doesn’t change our staff are simply not going to be able to reach great areas of the country.”

That is already the situation for aid workers across much of the south and east of the country, the Pashtun belt from which the Taleban emerged nine years ago. Much of the region is now a no-go area for foreigners with more than half of the aid community pulling out and the rest threatening to do so if action is not taken.

In a report released yesterday, the UN compared the current security situation in Afghanistan with that which gave rise to the Taleban in the first place, when the instability of the Mujahidin administration sent people into the arms of those who promised them peace.

Just as then, the Taleban is once again strengthening, spreading its influence further and further north towards Kabul. In remote, dusty villages across the south and east, no one questions who is stopping the aid getting through. In the parched village of Sangesar, birthplace of Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader, villagers are hard-pressed to think of any great change that the fall of their former favourite son has brought.

“The Government promised us the world and yet we still have nothing,” Abdul Gul, 35, a farmer said. “They do not support us and we do not support them.” The nervousness among the assembled villagers is palpable when asked if they still support the Taleban.

Taleban fighters are active in the rocky mountains just miles from here and intelligence officials say that this is one of many villages they effectively control, if not during the day then at least at night.

“We will support anyone who helps us,” Mr Gul said enigmatically.

Disenchantment with the coalition forces and their often heavy-handed techniques, witnessed this week in the killing of 15 children in airstrikes, have also garnered support on which the Taleban can rely. “The military activities of the coalition have delivered people to the Taleban,” Vikram Parekh of the International Crisis Group said.

“They haven’t done anything affirmative at all, worse when you look at these attacks on civilians. That lends the Taleban a powerful legitimacy as a force fighting to throw foreign forces out of the country.”

That a supposedly defeated force should be able to rise so dramatically from the ashes comes as no surprise to those in the know: there were no ashes.

“They were never defeated,” Nick Downie, the head of ANSO, a body which monitors the security situation for aid organisations said. “They tactically withdrew, regrouped, recruited, retrained and re-equipped.”

That was partly made possible by the support of their allies in the Pakistani intelligence services who gave them a safe haven across the border, training camps in which to induct new recruits and funds for satellite phones and motorbikes to launch operations.

What has changed in recent months, intelligence officials say, is that while the training camps and safe havens remain, the Taleban are no longer merely running across the border and back again but operating inside Afghanistan for long periods, with the support of the local population, be it out of fear or fervour. The potential that gives them to launch attacks, security officials say, is devastating.

One recent report on the elections predicted that if the current security situation does not improve, voter registration would be impossible in a third of the country, all in the Pashtun southeast.

The pressure to hold the elections, however, is great from all sides, both from the United States, which needs to prove its intervention has been a success, and from President Karzai, who is anxious not to appear to be clinging to power without a popular mandate.

“This the most difficult transition I’ve ever seen in 20 years of election experience,” Mr Austin said. “It’s not a post-conflict situation. We’re doing this in the middle of a war.”