Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taleban Call the Shots in Ghazni

Government forces appear to be struggling to quell the insurgency in a volatile southern province.
By Borhan Younus
Just south of Ghazni city, on a wide, dusty plain, lies Andar, a predominantly Pashtun district that has lately seen an upsurge in Taleban activity.

The roads in Andar, Ghazni’s largest district, are eerily quiet these days, with just a few bicycles and donkeys ferrying people between villages or to the provincial capital.

But it is not poverty or backwardness that has silenced motor traffic in the area. It is a battle of wills between the Taleban and the government.

Following the latest in a series of assassinations, the government in mid-April banned unregistered motorcycles and pillion-riding throughout the district, depriving the insurgents of their preferred mode of attack.

Not to be outdone, the Taleban promptly issued a decree of their own: no vehicular movement would be allowed in the district at all. Those defying the order would be prime targets for Taleban revenge.

The result is that the roads are almost empty of traffic. Ten days after the bans, motorcycles started to trickle back, but very few cars, testimony to the fact that residents fear the Taleban much more than the government.

“We very rarely see a police patrol or a government team to come to our village, but we see armed Taleban patrolling the area every day,” said Rahmatullah, a shopkeeper in Safaraz village. “Whom should we fear more?”

“This is a test of who rules the area,” said one Taleban commander, who did not wish to be named.

A fierce Taleban-led insurgency in recent months has placed Ghazni, which lies just 135 km south of Kabul, among the most volatile provinces in southern Afghanistan.

According to one government source, 28 officials have been gunned down by the insurgents in Andar alone in the past six months.

The most widely publicised incident was the mid-March assassination of the province's former governor, Taj Muhammad. Qari Baba, as he was known, had recently taken over security in the district and had vowed to stop the insurgency.

The Taleban have warned that they will step up their campaign this year, calling 2006 “the year of defeat” for the enemy.

But the government is playing down the confrontation in Andar.

Abdul Rahman Sarjang, police chief of Ghazni province, denied that the Taleban had control of any area in the region. There are, he said, no restrictions on the movement of vehicles or people.

"There are many… roads in Andar and nobody can block all of them," he said.

Interior ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanizai also denied that any area was under the control of the Taleban, and said that the provincial police were taking care of the situation.

Following the Taleban’s decree, the provincial police, the Afghan National Army and US-led Coalition forces launched a joint operation and arrested 25 suspected Taleban fighters in Andar.

But residents of the district tell a different story.

Zahir Khan, from the village of Rustam in Andar, said he was sitting in a small town when a group of more than dozen Taleban riding motorbikes paused and distributed handwritten papers, warning people to avoid travelling in cars.

“You risk your life travelling by car in Andar now,” he said.

In the days immediately following the ban on cars, the insurgents shot out the tyres of four vehicles that had ventured out onto the road.

Those most seriously affected are the sick, who are not able to get to hospitals and health clinics.

“Some people end up walking to the provincial capital on foot,” said Zahir Khan.

Jandad Khan, a bus driver who travels regularly from Andar district to Ghazni city, said that outside district headquarters, security posts and major roads, the government exerts little authority.

"The real authority in the countryside is in hands of the Taleban who are patrolling in the area freely, without any fear, day and night," he told IWPR.

"It looks like 100 years ago. Everyone travels by bicycle or donkey. They do not dare to bring their vehicles on roads."

Local Taleban commander Mullah Muhammad Anas (not his real name), who claims to be appointed by the militia's so-called governing council to lead insurgency operations in Andar, claimed that the authorities are reluctant to confront his forces.

“Their strategy is to avoid the Taleban,” he said. “We see police in checkpoints along the roads standing idle. We pass by them constantly.”

According to Anas, the Taleban are winning in Andar, not only because of better equipment and tactics, but also due to the increasing support and growing sympathy of the population.

“We are gaining influence among the people,” he said. “We had very few sanctuaries in the district two years ago, but now there is a place for us in every village."

Borhan Younus is a freelance reporter in Kabul.