x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Kandahar, bellwether of Afghanistan, caught in cycle of escalating violence

Daily reminders that city remains in conflict even as foreign leaders discuss withdrawal spawn worry that unrest will spread to the rest of the country.

KABUL // With Nato vowing to bring security to Kandahar this year and the Taliban showing no sign of retreat, the southern city and its surrounding districts are shaping up to be the key battleground of the war in 2010. Almost every day it seems there is news of another attack: elders are shot, government buildings are bombed and death threats have become routine.

Yet local politicians are far from reassured that they and their foreign allies will be victorious. Instead, they paint an often-bleak picture that could leave the province sucking the entire country deeper into chaos. "Kandahar is like the heart of a human. If the heart is sick all the body is sick, and if the heart is fine all the body is fine," said Mullah Sayed Mohammed Akhund, a senator in the upper house of parliament.

"If you see the history of Afghanistan, all of the governments are made by Kandahar, and brought down by Kandahar." Although Kandahar has been unstable for some time now, violence has reached new heights this spring as both the Taliban and international forces make it clear how much they value control of the city. Since talk about launching a major military offensive in the area emerged from Nato, the rebels have responded by striking at will inside and outside the provincial capital.

In March at least 30 people were killed during co-ordinated suicide attacks on buildings including the police headquarters. More recently, a female Afghan working for a US-based development company was shot dead and foreign contractors were targeted in a fatal car bombing. On April 19, the deputy mayor was also assassinated while praying at a mosque. The UN, meanwhile, has evacuated Kandahar of many of its international staff and told national employees to remain at home.

Mr Akhund's family has suffered directly from the rising violence. Last month his brother, a father of nine, was murdered as he headed out to do some shopping. "Right now we do not have security in the city. We have a lot of small groups who are terrorising the people, killing them and stealing their money and jewellery. We need to get the co-operation of the people." Mr Akhund claims that much of the bloodshed is caused by an incompetent and corrupt local government dominated by former Communists. He warned that unless senior officials are sacked soon, the problems would only get worse.

"All the people know the Taliban will take control of Kandahar if this situation continues. The insurgents are killing our elders and no one cares," he said. It was in Kandahar that the Taliban first surfaced in the 1990s, bringing law and order to a region that had been torn apart by the militias of different warlords. The movement's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, lived in the provincial capital even after seizing control of Kabul in 1996.

In early April the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, visited Kandahar and discussed the idea of a major military offensive with elders, who voiced their objection to any such plan, complained about corruption and warned they would be killed if they spoke out against the insurgents. One was indeed later gunned down. The prospect of a large, set-piece operation similar to that launched in neighbouring Helmand this year has now faded. However, the head of US Central Command, Gen David Petraeus, has predicted that the rebels will conduct "horrific actions" in the weeks and months ahead.

Mohammed Omar Sherzad, another senator for Kandahar, claims that the Taliban control around 80 per cent of his home district, Zheray. He has not returned to the area for the past four years out of concerns for his safety. "If they meet me face to face, they will kill me," he admitted. Mr Sherzad outlined three main reasons for the trouble in the province: its border with Pakistan, the Taliban's emphasis on making it the centre of their operations, and a corrupt local government.

"Each day the Taliban are killing our tribal elders and official workers, but we have still not killed one Talib in the city," he complained. "All of those who terrorise the people live inside the city but their neighbours do not report them because they are scared." Even a recent survey commissioned by the US army adds weight to the idea that success in Kandahar will have to come against the odds. Of the 1,994 residents questioned in the province, more than 50 per cent claimed the Taliban were "incorruptible" and an overwhelming majority described them as "our Afghan brothers".