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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne in Kandahar.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington.

In the five years since an American-led coalition drove out the Taliban a lot has improved in Afghanistan. Five times more children are in school, a third of them are girls. A paved highway connects Kabul to Afghanistan's other big cities: Kandahar in the south and then Herat in the west. A president and a parliament have been elected, and for a time the Taliban were gone. But now the Taliban have reemerged as a threat to the new Afghanistan.

Renee, you've been reporting from what was the Taliban's heartland.

MONTAGNE: And, Steve, the Taliban would like to take the land around Kandahar back and make it their heartland again. In fact, last month Taliban fighters dared to take a stand against Canadian troops under NATO command and fight them in a conventional way. NATO says it killed more than 500 of those Taliban fighters. It's generally regarded here as a big victory for NATO. But the Taliban are hardly gone. They resorted to suicide bombings, improvised explosives and rocket-propelled grenades. And in the end, who wins will come down to who wins over the villagers.

Steve, let me take you now to the center of that particular struggle. It's a 20-minute drive from Kandahar. It's just down a dirt road from where some of the heaviest fighting was. It's the Panjwai bazaar.

The bazaar functions as a kind of main street for the Panjwai district, and that's a place where they've always grown grapes and pomegranates. The bazaar is lined with small, open shops displaying bolts of cloth and bicycles, pots and bags of grain. It's also home these days to some of the 7,000 refugees who still can't get back to their villages nearby. And that's about half the people who fled the fighting.

Kudra Tula(ph) is one. He's a farmer whose house was demolished by a bomb dropped from a NATO plane.

Mr. KUDRA TULA (Farmer): (Through translator) All the houses are destroyed, completely destroyed. The mosque, the houses, everything is destroyed.

MONTAGNE: Does he think there will be more fighting?

Mr. TULA: (Through translator) He say that still it hasn't been finished. We are all the time in danger. If I am going and checking my house, so if the Taliban catch me, they say that you're being spy for the government. If the government catch me, they say that you are Taliban.

MONTAGNE: You hear it again and again from the people here. They're caught in the middle. Their problems began earlier this year when the Taliban, all of a sudden it seemed, were everywhere. The district chief of Panjwai says he knows why. Neyaz Mohammad Sarhadi sits in the shade of the district police station, his carefully trimmed white beard set off by a gray, silk turban. And he offers, through an interpreter, a bit of history.

Mr. NEYAZ MOHAMMAD SARHADI (Chief, Panjwai District): (Through translator) Most of the Taliban leaders were from Panjwai district. And they had lands, they had gardens, they had everything here. And they left the area and they were living in Pakistan. And they were looking for a chance.

MONTAGNE: The chance to return. That chance came last spring when it became clear that American forces would turn over command of the south to NATO forces this summer. It was an opening, says the district chief. The Taliban figured the newly arrived NATO troops would be soft, not like the Americans, not willing to fight, especially if the Taliban hid among the people. The Taliban figured wrong.

Mr. SARHADI: (Through translator) Most of the people, they were helping Taliban because they're scared. The government doesn't have any power in this area. That's why they were, because of their sacredness; just they were helping Taliban, most of the people. But now I don't think that they will help Taliban anymore, because their houses were destroyed because of Taliban, their gardens were destroyed because of Taliban. They left their area because of Taliban, and many things were happened to them because of Taliban.

MONTAGNE: To say that many in Panjwai no longer help the Taliban is not to say that they embrace the NATO troops or believe the Afghan government will be there for them.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: On this morning, District Chief Sarhadi is in the street listening to grievances presented by a group of women. Their faces are covered by dark veils or blue burqas, but it's clear they're angry.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: Aid is being distributed at the far end of the bazaar to refugees from the recent fighting. These women say that the man in charge is refusing to allow them to register.

District Chief Sarhadi was brought into the dispute by a Canadian reconstruction team which had been sent to Panjwai to help the villagers. The women first came to Warrant Officer Dean Henley. He turned to the district chief, figuring he'd have a better take on how legitimate their grievances were.

Warrant Officer DEAN HENLEY (Warrant Officer, Canadian Reconstruction Team): This has ended much better than if I had taken the lead. And that's why I asked the district leader to come over, because he can ask the questions that are appropriate sometimes, but wouldn't be appropriate coming from me. You know, where is your husband, and why are you here by yourself, and why are you the head of the household. Stuff that's not a normal trend around here. So it's easier for him to be able to pick up on those small nuances better than I am.

MONTAGNE: Questions like, well, are the men out fighting?

Warrant Officer HENLEY: That's what it is, exactly. It could be they're on this side or they could be on the other side. That's something we have to figure out later on.

MONTAGNE: Both the military and the provincial government have begun handing out a half a million dollars worth of humanitarian aid. NATO forces have committed to compensating families for injuries, losses and property destroyed.

Last week, the district chief met with NATO officers and Kandahar's governor to organize a survey of damaged houses and vineyards to see who needs what rebuilt. It's an effort to bring the villagers around to the government's side. But so far the word seems not to have gotten out to the villagers. Not to Rahm Atula(ph), whose house near the bazaar was damaged, nor to the farmer, Kudra Tula, whose house was destroyed.

Mr. RAHM ATULA (Resident, Panjwai District, Afghanistan): (Foreign Language spoken) We haven't heard anything from anybody. Once the foreigners came and they were surveying the village, and they surveyed my home also.

Mr. TULA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHIR (Translator): He said that I haven't heard anything from the NATO still. I don't know that will they help me or not. And we should leave this area.

MONTAGNE: That last quiet order, we should leave this area, is from our translator, Kahir. And he's serious. Even with the police headquarters, the Afghan army and a couple of Canadian soldiers just a few blocks away, it's extremely unwise to linger long in the bazaar. A glance across the street tells you why. There, all that's left of a row of shops are charred walls and twisted metal. Twenty one villagers died one day in August when a suicide bomber targeted that spot. Which is why talk of rebuilding can only go so far until villagers feel they'll be protected.

District Chief Sarhadi figures it will be 10 years before the national army can go it alone, and he'd like to see NATO stay that long.

Mr. SARHADI: (Through translator) Both of them are important, peace and reconstruction. If there is reconstruction but not peace, it's not good. Both of them is most important for this district.

MONTAGNE: At this moment, says the district chief, the villagers could go either way: get behind the Afghanistan government or return to the arms of the Taliban.

Tomorrow, we travel just a few miles from the Panjwai bazaar to where NATO's Canadian soldiers are still battling Taliban fighters nearly everyday. At the same time, combat engineers are bulldozing a road.

Unidentified Man #1: For the last couple of days, we've been pretty safe. In the area we're working right now we have pretty good security out. But we have had various rocket attacks and this and that on the troops while they're working and dozing and pushing the road through.

MONTAGNE: And, Steve, the aim here is to link these isolated farmers both to the markets and to the government.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks, Renee. Good to hear you.

You can see life on the streets Panjwai and explore more of Renee's reports from Afghanistan by going to our Web site, npr.org.

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