Afghan City Paralyzed by Threat of Taliban

The Taliban is slowly taking back power in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. Life in the city of Lashkargah is at a near standstill, as many Afghans fear being kidnapped or killed.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next across Pakistan's border into Afghanistan, to a remote place that used to be called Little America. This place once friendly to the United States is slowly being paralyzed by the Taliban. More Afghans are refusing to go to work or school for fear of being kidnapped or killed, and that's especially true in cities like Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It's 4:00 PM, a time when the main shopping district here traditionally comes alive. But few people shop at the fruit and vegetable stands on this day, or peruse sundries and fabrics from China and Pakistan in the open-air bazaar. Far more people are rushing to get home, kicking up dust along the city's unpaved roads, many of them on motorcycles, in motorized rickshaws, in cars with curtains shielding passengers from prying eyes.

Faisallah(ph), a 23-year-old policeman, is one of those who hurries home. He arrives in an unmarked SUV, accompanied by three fellow officers. He goes nowhere alone, not anymore.

FAISALLAH: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his mud-walled home, surrounded by his relatives, Faisallah explains how two policemen were kidnapped by the Taliban here five days earlier. Last month, he adds, the Taliban kidnapped his mother Zargola in broad daylight in the neighboring village of Bolan. She was the 45-year-old warden of Lashkar Gah women's prison. She was walking to the bus stop when three Taliban men on motorcycles carried her off. Her body, riddled with six bullets, was found in nearby Shingkazi(ph) the next day. Since then, Faissalah refuses to allow his wife and children to leave the house.

Mohammad Doullah(ph), a doctor who lives in neighboring Nadali, imposes a similar house arrest on his wife and children. When he travels to Lashkar Gah, like he does on this day to meet with a reporter, it's with two relatives armed with Kalashnikovs.

Dr. MOHAMMAD DOULLAH: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: The doctor, too, was kidnapped, except his kidnappers weren't Taliban. They were common criminals after a ransom. They told him, we aren't your enemy, we are the enemy of your money. There were three of them who pulled up in a car and grabbed him as he rode home on his motorcycle from his clinic last October. Mohammad Doullah's three young children who were with him were left standing on the side of the road.

His family and friends scraped together the ransom of $40,000. That's more than twice as much as he earns in a year. He says he's since helped pay the ransom for another Lashkar Gah-area doctor kidnapped by criminals. He says he sold a house he owned in Kabul to come up with the money.

These tales are hardly rare, all of them shared behind closed doors, for no one here will agree to meet in a public place. Talking to people on the street is out of the question. People hold up their hands and protest and back away. Afghan police and British military convoys may patrol this town, but that doesn't mean there is security, explains Fauzia Alomi(ph), a local women's rights advocate. Her driver was shot dead last May by an unidentified assailant dressed in a police uniform.

Ms. FAUZIA ALOMI (Women's Rights Advocate, Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan): (Through Translator) The problem is, we can't recognize our enemy because some of them come with Taliban uniforms, and some of them come with police uniforms.

NELSON: She adds that many of the threats she gets over the women's vocational programs she runs come from neighbors who say they are relaying the message for the Taliban.

Ms. ALOMI: (Through Translator) We are being attacked from all sides: the Taliban, the government, and those closest to us. Even my family is pressuring me to leave my job. They say what's the point of risking your life for the equivalent of $40 a month.

NELSON: She says during the Taliban-era, she at least felt safe being at home. In the provincial police headquarters a 10-minute drive away, General Nabi Jan Mullahkhil seems unimpressed when told about the growing security concerns of residents in Lashkar Gah. The police chief survived the suicide attack last month, when a bomber dressed as a policeman tried to get to him through an entrance reserved for uniformed officers. Four policemen were killed, and shrapnel from the bomb gouged a hole in the ceiling above his desk.

General NABI JAN MULLAHKHIL (Provincial Police Chief, Helmand province, Afghanistan): (Through Translator) We don't have a city in the world that is safe from such incidents.

NELSON: But when the recorder is turned off, Mullakhil tells a different story. He complains he has 1,000 policemen when he needs three times that many. And he says his policemen spend more time battling the Taliban than they do enforcing the law. He says there's no time to follow up on kidnappings, like that of the doctor in Nadalli. Mullakhil says the growing problem with drug smugglers and this, the biggest opium-producing province in the world, only compounds the security dilemma. For example, the poppy harvest, which begins this week, has led thousands of migrant workers from other provinces to Lashkar Gah.

Afghan officials here admit there simply aren't enough security people to make sure Taliban fighters are not among them. Haji Qurban Ali Uruzgani(ph), a senior member of Helmand shura, or provincial council, that meets in Lashkar Gah, is more direct.

Mr. HAJI QURBAN ALI URUZGANI (Senior Helmand Shura Council): (Through Translator) Helmand is about to collapse. The governor shares the same view. The proof of this prediction is that Lashkar Gah almost fell last month during an attack by the Taliban who had gathered in the town. If the government hadn't fought back, the Taliban would have captured this city.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: On this day, the sound of fighting can be heard in the distance from The banks of the Helmand River, to the west of Lashkar Gah. Word of mouth suggests it's the Americans. They've come as part of NATO's ongoing offensive to clear the Taliban from Helmand, particularly the northern part, which is home to the Kajaki dam. It was the United States that built the dam during the Cold War. If the area around the dam can be secured now and the structure repaired, it could provide power to millions.

Lashkar Gah residents say they are pleased that the Americans are part of this fight. Their city used to be called Little America when Americans lived here and built homes and canals as part of the largest development project in Afghanistan's history. They are not so welcoming of the British, who are the main NATO force here.

Many Lashkar Gah residents complain the British aren't doing enough to restore security to the province. Shura council member Saliman Sharifi(ph).

Ms. SALIMAN SHARIFI (Helmand Shura Council): (Through Translator) There are more than five and a half thousand NATO troops here with modern weapons and helicopters. Why can't they stand up to a few Taliban and defeat them? If they wanted to, they definitely could.

NELSON: Her belief is shared by many people in Lashkar Gah. That worries Sharifi's fellow council member, Haji Uruzgani(ph). He says if NATO and Afghan forces can't bring sweeping changes soon, more people will turn and support the Taliban; not because of their hard-line Islamist values, but because they figure the Taliban might bring them security.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Lashkar Gah.

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