Near Kabul, 2 provinces see security slip away


The devastating attack on a U.S. helicopter in eastern Afghanistan over the weekend has underscored the harsh reality that even now, at the height of the NATO troop presence and not far from the Afghan capital, large stretches of the country are perilous and heavily infiltrated by insurgents.

Logar Province, which lies to the south of Kabul, and Wardak Province, which lies to the west, are gateways to the capital. Yet it was there, in a valley traversing the two provinces, that insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter in the early hours of Saturday, killing 30 Americans, including 22 members of an elite Navy Seal team, 7 Afghan commandos and an interpreter.

Both provinces have become increasingly insecure even as NATO has stepped up its troop numbers nationwide.

”It was not as bad in Logar two years back, but recently it has deteriorated dramatically,” said Nafisa Hejran, a member of the Logar Provincial Council, who two weeks ago received a death threat from insurgents telling her to quit her job. She said most members of the provincial council in Logar no longer attended council meetings either because the journey from their homes was dangerous or they had nowhere safe to stay once they arrived.

”The Taliban are setting up checkpoints on the main road, searching people’s pockets for I.D. cards and documents that indicate they work either for Afghan government or the international forces,” she said. ”If they find something, then they behead the person on the spot to create fear and terror among the people.”

The attack on the helicopter was a reminder of the insurgency’s ability to entrench itself almost anywhere that the Afghan government is weak, absent or hated for its corruption. Despite all the increases in NATO forces, those troops cannot assert themselves in every village and valley, and too often when they do, their night raids and intrusions into people’s homes stir up resentment, said a number of people interviewed in Logar in the past week.

”The reason the security situation began to deteriorate is that the international forces were not paying attention to the customs and traditions of the people,” said Abdul Hakim Suleiman Khail, 51, a member of the Logar Provincial Council. ”They were doing night raids, and since they don’t know the area well, they are mistreating the people, which increased the gap between the government and the people; and they were detaining innocent people.”

He added that in his native Charkh district, which he said was so violent that 20 percent to 30 percent of the residents had fled, ”the international forces say they are there to help us, but they are there only to endanger our lives and destroy our property.”

He noted that an eminent Charkh family of more than 300 people had to leave its ancestral village because of cross-fire. The Americans then destroyed the family home so the Taliban would not use it. The family has yet to be compensated, said Nasir Ahmad Yusufzai, the clan elder, who now lives in Kabul.

Afghan government officials, U.S. military officers, and residents in Logar and Wardak repeatedly said that several districts in both provinces – including Saydabad district in Wardak Province, where the helicopter went down – were no longer under government control, except in the district centers.

In a June 27 report on the rising insurgency around Kabul, the International Crisis Group described insurgents as having ”a stronger hold” in Logar, Wardak and Ghazni than in any other provinces around the capital. It also noted the pervasiveness of Taliban courts in Wardak, which crowd out the government’s judicial function.

Local officials are loath to discuss the depth of the problem and insist that the situation is bad primarily because U.S. and Afghan forces have searched out the insurgents in their mountain redoubts for the first time, provoking them into striking back.

”There are fewer Taliban this year, but they are more active,” said Shuja Oudins, the Logar deputy governor.

The Wardak provincial governor, Halim Fidai, said his forces and U.S. troops had been fighting the Taliban in the most rugged areas. In response, he said, the insurgents were striking back. While that appears to be true, there is no tipping point in sight when the government and the Americans can claim they have the upper hand.

Wardak and Logar share a border and a similar insurgent profile. Both have an unsavory brew of Taliban, Haqqani network operatives, criminals and, in Wardak, Hezb-i-Islami fighters, said Capt. Kirstin Massey, the assistant intelligence officer of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which has responsibility for the two provinces.

The insurgents share in the lucrative business of raiding NATO supply convoys traveling on Highway 1, which runs through Wardak, helping finance the groups, Afghan and U.S. officials said. The Tangi Valley, where the helicopter went down, is not far from the highway.

The Haqqanis, who have long had some presence in Logar, seem to be extending their reach into more of the province and moving into Wardak, U.S. officials said.

”We are seeing some pockets of Haqqanis, people linked with that family mafia, since the early spring,” Captain Massey said. ”I think they are trying to expand.” The Haqqanis’ trademark is their brutality: Beheadings, summary killings and intimidation, and all three have begun to appear regularly in Logar. A suicide bombing in a usually peaceful district of western Logar killed 30 to 35 people at a hospital in June, and that was probably undertaken by the Haqqani network, Captain Massey said.

At least three bodies of engineers who worked for a nongovernmental organization showed up in the Logar hospital morgue in June. Those killings, along with a recent one of a headmaster at the Porak school, suggest that the Haqqanis are active in the region, Afghan and U.S. officials say.

The day after news of the engineers’ bodies got out, 800 Afghans working at the U.S. base did not come to work, Captain Massey said. The provincial council member, Ms. Hejran, said the same thing happened in government offices, which were deserted for several days. The rumor in the city was that 15 people had been decapitated. Most people returned, but others did not, she said.

The governor of Wardak, Halim Fidai, said he had also seen signs that Haqqani operatives had begun to work in Wardak during the spring. He hypothesized that they were coming from Logar. He began to get reports from elders ”that they were there brainwashing suicide bombers,” he said.

The bazaar was busy on a recent Monday morning here in Porak, with men buying rice and bags of cement. Four young boys stood by the side of the road, the main route from Kabul to Khost, their heads cocked, listening to the pop of distant gunfire. The home village of the Taliban shadow governor is nearby, Captain Massey said. Two minutes later, a bomb went off.

The windows in cars about 45 meters, or 150 feet, ahead on the road trembled, and moments later, the target, a pickup truck full of police officers, sped by unharmed. The bomb had missed them. A couple of younger police officers brandished their guns in the air.

Such attacks have become nearly daily occurrences here, though this one would never be recorded in the NATO list of ”significant violent acts” because it neither harmed anyone nor was aimed at NATO forces. But it is part of an eerie picture of a province that is slipping away.


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