x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Khost braces for record bloodshed

Anger and anxiety in Afghan province as US prepares to fight an increasingly ambitious and powerful group of Taliban.

KHOST // As Afghanistan prepares to enter another fighting season, the people of Khost are gearing up for what is likely to be the bloodiest year of the war so far. There is a palpable sense of anxiety and anger in the province, with US troops getting ready to face off against an increasingly ambitious and powerful group of local Taliban.

"Security is not good and we are all very scared," said Ismail, a resident. "We don't know who will help us. Both sides attack us." Lying to the south-east of Kabul and bordering Pakistan, Khost has become one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces in recent years. However, in 2009 the violence reached a new and alarming level, with high-profile attacks against government institutions and foreign forces.

In May, rebels launched a co-ordinated assault on the provincial capital, armed with suicide vests and Kalashnikovs. Many were disguised in army uniforms, but at least one wore a burqa. A number of civilians died or were injured. Then in July another group of insurgents struck again, targeting the police headquarters. But the most notable incident came in December, when a Jordanian double agent blew himself up inside a US base, killing seven members of the CIA.

Now, with the weather getting hotter and the Afghan New Year approaching, local people are expecting a fresh wave of fighting to begin. Describing the large concrete walls that surround government buildings as "shameful", Ismail, 27, complained that the heart of Khost was no longer safe. "We don't even have security in the city so why do you want to ask me about the districts?" he said. The man behind most of the violence here is Jalaluddin Haqqani, a leading mujahideen commander during the Soviet occupation and former member of the Taliban regime. Now aligned with al Qa'eda, he is respected and feared by the local population.

His son, Sirajuddin, is in charge of the group's military operations and what American officials call the Haqqani network is also believed to be responsible for a series of deadly attacks as far afield as Kabul. Khawri Ibrahim, a shopkeeper and father of eight, is too scared to go out walking after dark. He said, "They are very powerful here because he fought the Soviet Union and he was a big leader in the past. After 4pm, control of the night belongs to Jalaluddin Haqqani's people."

A recent US drone strike across the border in Waziristan killed a brother of Sirajuddin. However, critics regularly accuse Pakistan's ISI intelligence service of helping shelter the insurgent network. Tahir Khan Sabari, the acting governor of Khost, received minor injuries in a bomb blast in early January. Although he claimed security is improving in the area, he fears the Taliban will try to increase their presence here in response to the surge of 30,000 troops ordered by Barack Obama, the US president.

"We have a lot of checkpoints along the border [with Pakistan] but our province is mountainous so the Taliban can find ways to cross for fighting," he said. "We have heard about Haqqani sahib's group [operating] here, but I think a large number of the Taliban belong to the ISI." The head of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has previously warned that Mr Haqqani's group "controls some of the key terrain" around Khost and is ultimately aiming to get "full control of its traditional base" here and in the neighbouring provinces of Paktia and Paktika.

On the ground there is certainly a sense that momentum is with the rebels. Many local residents are unhappy with the government and its foreign allies and as a result they are gravitating towards the insurgents. One 34-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, described Mr Haqqani as a "mujahid" who is "continuing the jihad". He, like large numbers of Afghans across the country, believes the Taliban will eventually return to power.

"I think they are very strong and they will come back," he said. Describing the Americans as "worse than the Soviets", he warned that the surge in troops would be met with a violent backlash from people in Khost. "Everyone will get a gun and fight them because they are not acceptable for us." skarim@thenational.ae