Taliban Regains Firm Hold On Logar Province
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You know, last month two US Navy personnel wandered into Afghanistan's Logar province and were killed in a Taliban ambush. Logar is so close to the Afghan capital of Kabul you could wind up there with a wrong turn, yet it is almost completely under Taliban control, which leads to a question: How did insurgents manage to gain such a firm hold so near to Kabul? NPRs Quil Lawrence went to Logar and sent this report.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Its hard to avoid the feeling of a tightening ring around the Afghan capital, when the neighboring provinces of Logar and Wardak have become no-go areas. American officials considered the capital of Logar, about 35 miles southeast of Kabul, to be safe and friendly until just two years ago. Thats when a Taliban ambush killed four employees of a U.S.-based charity as they drove the main highway back to Kabul.
A year later, in August 2009, the Taliban took over a five-story building in Logars capital and held it for several hours of gun fighting with the Afghan army and police.
Muhammad Agha is the district of Logar closest to Kabul, maybe 20 miles away. Shop keepers here ushered a visitor into a small auto parts store and out of sight from the road. Small villages with trees full of chirping birds hug the main highway through Logar, but it would be unwise to venture out, they say. The Taliban are watching.
Mr. ZAFAR KHAN (Security Guard): (Through translator) During the day they dress like a civilian, but during the night they are like Taliban.
LAWRENCE: Zafar Khan is a security guard at the local cell phone company.
Mr. KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Khan says that some have turned to the Taliban because the economy is bad, and the insurgents offer good pay and motorcycles and even take care of families when their fighters are killed or put in prison. And, he says, the Afghan police are corrupt and abusive.
Mr. KHAN: (Through translator) Yeah, because the police has very bad behavior, so people are willing to have Taliban than the police.
LAWRENCE: Its a familiar story around the country - the government is corrupt and ineffective, the Taliban dispense timely and very harsh punishments they call justice.
The Taliban began by taking over the southern districts of Logar as far back as 2006, according to an Afghan analyst in Kabul who is from Logar but asked not to give his name. He says the Taliban cells got stronger and infiltrated the rest of the province by 2008. That year the governor of Logar died in a bomb attack outside his home.
In late 2008, the U.S. military announced that many of the incoming surge troops would be sent to Logar. But that didnt necessarily help in public perception.
Ms. SHAKILA HASHIMI (Member, Parliament): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Shakila Hashimi is a member of parliament from Logar. She said the Americans have often made matters worse. In 2006 and 2007, the use of airstrikes killed many innocent women and children, she says. And even after airstrikes were restricted by the U.S. military out of concern for civilian casualties, house raids by Special Forces have continued to anger people.
In April of this year, angry rioters blocked a NATO fuel convoy and burned 12 tankers on the main highway through Logar.
Mr. WAZIR MUHAMMAD: The Taliban is coming every day much (foreign language spoken)...
Unidentified Man: Stronger.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Yeah, stronger.
LAWRENCE: Wazir Muhammad, another shopkeeper in Muhammad Agha district, says the Taliban attacked Americans here just the night before. He doesnt want the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan, but the provincial government here, appointed by Kabul, is unpopular. And President Karzai himself has been to this district once in eight years, says Muhammad. He wants the Americans to keep fighting, but without angering the good people in Logar.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: No, no. They should not stop the fight with the Taliban, but they should stop searching the home, house. They should stop in the nighttime. If they want to search, they should go in the daytime, not in the nighttime.
LAWRENCE: American forces are unlikely to stop searching houses and less likely to give up the advantages they have at night to move undetected and find suspected insurgents in their homes.
A NATO official said that American commanders here are just beginning to understand the depth to which Logar is penetrated by the Taliban, and they will be focusing on provinces close to the capital in the coming months.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.