Reversal of fortune leaves Kabul under Taliban's thumb
KABUL — At a gas station on the outskirts of Kabul, lounging in the shade of a transport truck, Mohammed Raza describes how he escaped death.
Last month, a U.S. contractor promised him $10,000 if he'd drive a truck full of diesel from Kabul to Kandahar, offering seven times more than he could earn by transporting his usual shipments of sugar. But the Taliban forbid drivers from carrying fuel to the foreign troops, he said, and the insurgents run checkpoints on the road between Afghanistan's two largest cities. He rejected the offer. One of his friends took the assignment, he said, and the Taliban cut off his head.
"Many drivers now are selling their lives," the 25-year-old said, nervously twisting the fringe of his beard.
The Taliban are isolating Afghanistan's capital city from the rest of the country, choking off important supply routes and imposing their rules on the provinces near Kabul. Interviews suggest that the Taliban have gained control along three of the four major highways into the city, and some believe it's a matter of time before they regulate all traffic around the capital.
That marks a shocking reversal of the insurgents' fortunes. Taliban were fleeing along the highways out of Kabul less than seven years ago, abandoning their government offices, dying under a hail of U.S. air strikes as they scrambled to flee. Now the Taliban and their allied militias are creeping back up the same roads, quietly showing their presence on the outskirts of the city.
Kabul itself is heavily guarded, and nobody expects a frontal assault.
But the insurgents don't need to attack the capital; by hobbling the government's ability to reach its own citizens beyond the city gates, security analysts say, the Taliban make the rulers of Kabul irrelevant in broad swaths of the country. It's more than a propaganda victory; the insurgents are grabbing the same political high ground the Taliban exploited during their previous sweep to power in the 1990s, by positioning themselves as the best enforcers of security in rural Afghanistan.
The roadblocks have also started to pinch the foreign troops. Military bases find themselves running short of fuel and other supplies.
Commercial aircraft were repeatedly warned this summer that they would not be able to purchase fuel at Kandahar Air Field, and the airfield shut down some facilities to reduce electricity needs during the peak fighting season. The insurgents have also targeted aid shipments, with 800 tonnes of food stolen from World Food Program truck convoys in the first half of the year – only about 0.5 per cent of the WFP's average food deliveries in Afghanistan for a six-month period – but still enough to feed 80,000 people for a month during a food crisis in which the WFP says it's facing a vast shortfall in supplies.
Figures obtained from Afghanistan's Interior Ministry show the government's count of major attacks on supply trucks around Kabul has increased sharply this year, with 80 incidents in the first six months as compared with 45 over the entire previous year. Analysts say those numbers are conservative, but even so, the official statistics illustrate how strikes on supply routes are growing faster than the general rise in violence.
People who work for the government, or have any association with the foreign presence, now travel covertly on the main highways of southern, central, and eastern Afghanistan. They disguise themselves as rural peasants, carry no identification cards, and erase numbers from their cellphones that might connect them with the government.
Some devise even more elaborate strategies for dealing with Taliban checkpoints, arranging for friends to impersonate religious figures who can vouch for them if they're stopped by the insurgents.
Truck drivers often leave a rear door open at the back of their tractor-trailers, securing their cargo with a spider web of ropes, so that Taliban can easily look inside and check the shipment for anything forbidden by the insurgency. The Taliban even scrutinize the drivers' customs paperwork to certify that the goods are destined for non-military consumers.
The problem of Taliban influence on the southern highways grew especially acute this summer, said Brigadier-General Richard Blanchette, NATO's chief spokesman in Afghanistan.
"There was this saying, that the insurgency begins where the highway finishes," Gen. Blanchette said, referring to a popular aphorism among the foreign troops. "Well, for a while it was almost the opposite."
The Taliban make a point of allowing ordinary Afghans to drive the roads without harming them, but Gen. Blanchette said their actions are starting to affect the average traveller.
"We had the infrastructure attacked – which was a first, you know, the insurgents had not destroyed bridges before," he said. "The farmers couldn't bring their products any more, and it choked the economy."
He added that NATO has recently successfully countered the Taliban strategy by devoting more aircraft, surveillance, and Afghan troops to patrolling the highways south of Kabul. The result has been a drop in insurgent attacks on those routes in the final weeks of summer, he said, although he acknowledged that the slowing violence may represent a seasonal trend; attacks always decrease as winter approaches. He added that patrolling the highways has been difficult for Afghan troops because they're spread thin.
Not only do the Afghan security forces lack numbers, but they're also corrupt and even colluding with the insurgents, said Colonel Asadullah Abed, chief of the criminal investigation division for the 10 central provinces around Kabul.
The 40-year-old policeman says he's no friend of the Taliban, and has a sheaf of threatening letters from the insurgents to make his point.
But he worries that his colleagues at small posts outside the city are not so devoted to the government's cause.
Each of the four major gateways into Kabul are guarded by Afghan police, soldiers, and intelligence officers, Col. Abed said, but the insurgents easily bribe their way through. People with loyalties to the insurgents have also infiltrated the ranks of Afghanistan's security establishment, he added: "They're not working honestly."
Col. Abed paused to look at a reporter's military-issued accreditation card, and noted that the small piece of identification would be a death warrant on most highways outside the city. "You're a foreigner travelling with this," he said, pointing to the ID badge, "and you can travel the Shomali road okay, but any other road they will capture you after one kilometre."
The colonel may have been exaggerating for effect, but it's widely accepted that the road to the Shomali plains now serves as the only genuinely safe passage out of the capital. Even foreigners drive the road for fun, roaring up the paved highway that crests the ridges north of Kabul and enjoying a picnic by the river, or meandering up the scenic Panjshir valley.
But at a bus stop on the dusty edge of the Shomali plains, drivers and ticket-sellers say even this road is getting worse.
"Only one road remains now, this road, but in a year you won't be able to travel even this one," said Nafis Khan, 36, a ticket vendor.
"The Taliban are not the problem," he added. "When people saw the bad behaviour of the foreigners and government, the Taliban stood up to protect them. Day by day, their power increases."
Still, insurgent leaders admit they still don't have a choke hold on the city. The Globe and Mail sent a researcher to the mountains of Nirkh district in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul, where a large group of Taliban often gather to raid the main highway between Kabul and Kandahar.
Wearing a black turban, surrounded by heavily armed men, the Taliban commander bemoaned the fact that his power is vastly greater on the Kandahar road than the Shomali road. He claimed that his men ambush vehicles three times a week on the Kandahar road, but such brazen acts are not possible on the northern road.
"Only the Shomali road is safer than others, because the influence of Taliban is less," he said, in a video-recorded interview. "Those are Farsi-speaking people on the Shomali road, so for Taliban it's difficult to enter that area, and that road is the only one secure for government and their convoys."
The Taliban's struggle to gain control of Shomali road reflects the insurgents' broader effort to get a foothold outside of their traditional ethnic group. In recent years, most of the Taliban's support has come from Pashtun tribesmen, and during the previous Taliban government the Pashtun-dominated regime fought bitter wars against the Farsi-speaking Tajik and Uzbek warlords of the north.
One of the ways the Taliban are trying to broaden their appeal is by proving themselves better than the government at providing road security. It's a propaganda move aimed at people such as Del Aga, 40, a bus driver, who says the police have robbed him more often than bandits or insurgents. He usually doesn't slow his bus for men with guns because he's afraid of criminals, he said, but he feels obligated to stop for uniformed police with marked police trucks. "I stop for the police, and they rob my passengers," he said.
Even when the police aren't directly implicated in the shakedowns, Afghans often blame the government forces for failing to stop them.
Nasar Ahmed, 38, said his bus was ransacked by bandits only a short distance from a police checkpoint, leaving him with the impression that the local authorities were either neglecting their duties or helping the robbers. He has been working as a bus driver for 14 years, mostly on the road between Kandahar and Kabul, and he says security on the highways has reached its worst point since the civil wars of the early 1990s.
The major exceptions to the worsening trend are the zones where the Taliban have completely seized control, Mr. Ahmed said. Buses frequently had trouble with a large band of thieves in Nimroz province until the Taliban drove them away, he said.
"The areas that belong to the government are less secure than the Taliban areas," said the big-bearded driver.
In areas of Wardak province described by locals as dominated by the insurgents, only 30 kilometres' drive away from Kabul, shopkeepers told The Globe and Mail's researcher that security has largely improved since the Taliban took over.
"Our security is better, we don't have any problem with Taliban, and the government is far from us," said the keeper of a mud-walled shop selling dry goods and hardware.
That's the impression that Taliban say they're trying to create. An insurgent commander emphasized that the Taliban do not demand road tolls and refrain from attacking vehicles not associated with the government or the International Security Assistance Force.
"Local traders' vehicles can go and transport every kind of thing that they need to carry," the commander said, surrounded by fighters on a riverbank about two kilometres from the government centre for Wardak province. "And the tankers or vehicles that belongs to ISAF or government, we shoot them and burn them."
Despite the insurgents' claims of bringing security for ordinary people, however, the highways in Taliban territory are still rife with stories of banditry. Mohammed Amin, 52, a shopkeeper, said he was driving on a winter morning toward Kabul from Kandahar in a convoy of five buses when they were stopped by a roadblock. Criminals searched all the buses, he said, taking money, cellphones, and other valuables from the passengers. A man sitting beside him lost all the money he'd saved from working six months in Pakistani coal mines.
"The thieves did their work very slowly and with confidence, because they weren't afraid of anybody," Mr. Amin said.
Taliban checkpoints also terrify many travellers, if they have the slightest connection with the government or reason to worry that the insurgents might get suspicious.
A man who identified himself only as "Matin" said he was riding a bus to Kabul from Kandahar with friends when the vehicle was pulled over by insurgents.
"My friend looked like a military guy, because he was tall and clean-shaven," the young man said. "The Taliban pulled me aside with my friend. When the bus was driving away, I slipped back into the crowd and got inside the vehicle. My friend was captured." His friend worked for a logistics company and the Taliban eventually released him, after local notables petitioned for his freedom.
Many others aren't so fortunate. Taliban have executed so many suspected collaborators on the highways this year that local truck drivers held a protest at the Spin Boldak border crossing in Kandahar in late June, refusing to work until the government gave them better security on the roads.
Mohammed Naim, 40, a ticket seller for a bus company in Kabul, said the situation has become so well known that he doesn't bother warning most passengers about the likelihood of hitting a Taliban checkpoint.