Afghan violence snares civilians

More than 90 people have been killed in the past 10 days, as guerrillas hit softer targets.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

High up in the Sultan Sahib mountains west of Kabul, there is a mystery brewing worthy of an Afghan Agatha Christie. The police chief for this district was murdered Monday, along with eight of his most senior officers, and nobody can agree on who did it.

Local people say it could be thieves or nomads or people who had a personal feud with the police chief, Abdul Khaliq. Officials in Kabul and the local governor say it was definitely the Taliban. But about the only thing that everyone agrees on is that the security situation in this area has gotten worse, leaving villages to defend themselves.

"There is no security," says villager Hakeem. "If the government people come under attack, where is the security for us? It is possible tomorrow they can come to my house and attack me."

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The apparent ambush on police here in Logar province is just one of a spate of attacks that have left more than 90 people - the vast majority of them Afghan civilians - dead in the past 10 days alone. From the bombing of a minibus full of women and children in Helmand Province to the nighttime assault on a border security post in Khost, these recent attacks are part of what US and Afghan officials say is a pattern of shifting attacks away from well-armed US bases and toward more vulnerable civilians, aid workers, and local officials.

Whatever the origin of these attacks, the effect is being felt across Afghanistan, as foreign aid organizations pull out foreign staffers, and Afghans lose hope that the international community will ever rebuild their country.

US military officials say that they are primarily focused on hunting Al Qaeda. While the US does come to the aid of the Afghan national forces, commanders say they simply do not have the manpower to protect every village.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has been calling for a larger international military and security force in Afghanistan, one that could provide security outside Kabul. But as yet, member nations have not agreed to that, and observers do not see it as imminent.

"The attacks overall have been steady, but there are more attacks on Afghan civilians than on coalition forces," says Lt. Col. Douglas Lefforge, spokesman for the US military at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. "That's generally how cowards do their business. They attack the weak. They hide behind a cause, Islam, but everything they do is against their own belief systems in Islam."

Experts say there is no clear pattern of increasing attacks, but the death tolls have certainly grown, especially in the last week - the bloodiest since Operation Anaconda in March 2002. But unlike previous battles, those of the last two weeks have not involved the 12,500-strong US-led coalition.

Afghan government sources suggest that the Taliban has changed its tactics because its attacks on US forces have proved ineffective. Rocket attacks against the US military base in Asadabad this week are typical. Three rockets were fired on Monday, according to Colonel Lefforge, but the closest rocket fell 500 meters from the base.

More effective was Sunday's attack on a police station in the Barmal district of Paktika Province, south of Kabul. Anywhere from 200 to 400 Taliban fighters or sympathizers overran police headquarters, leaving 22 dead on both sides.

Another large group of suspected Taliban fighters attacked the Afghan police station at Turwa, a border village. There, attackers killed three Afghan police officers, and captured four more, according to local Afghan officials.

Afghan officials say the attacks are evidence that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped, and that they receive substantial support from groups in Pakistan. Pakistani officials, for their part, contend that while there may be a few cross-border incursions, the bulk of the violence is Afghan on Afghan.

Here in Logar province, state officials say that the region overall is peaceful. Gov. Abdul Malik Hamwar, for instance, says, "the Taliban have not found a foothold in Logar, I don't think so."

Here in Kharwar district, site of the most recent of the alleged Taliban attacks, there are certainly few signs of resistance to the government, or even of danger. In the village of Khwaja Angur, for instance, the main crops here, corn, wheat, and cannabis, are all grown in nice neat rows, watered by a spring that never runs dry. There is no school here, so most children grow up hardworking, but illiterate, leading a life of raising crops, sheep, and more illiterate children.

But the district chief of Kharwar, where Wednesday's attack took place, doesn't feel safe in this village, or even in the district he supposedly runs. He says that he has no immediate plans to go back to his district.

"If the situation remains like this, we will lose that district," says Bismillah Khushiwar, the district chief, sitting in a mosque in the provincial capital, Pul-e Alam. "I am here, and most of the people from the district government are here in Pul-e Alam. It is not safe for us to be there."

Mr. Khushiwar doubts that the attack on police chief Khaliq was just a personal vendetta. "If this was just personal, they could have killed him alone. But they killed eight other people. All but two of them were of the rank of general. This is definitely the work of Al Qaeda and Taliban."

Residents of Kharwar district throw cold water on rumors of the Taliban.

"It is perfectly safe here, even for foreigners," says Haji Samar, a local tribal chief. "If the officials tell you that Al Qaeda is coming to this district, that is wrong."

"In our district, the government doesn't care about us and we don't care about them," he adds. "District officials don't ever stay here, they just pass through and have a cup of tea and then leave. When it comes to security," he says, patting his chest, "I'm responsible."

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