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Dent in Afghanistan war strategy: Why Kandahar locals turn to Taliban

The key to success in the Afghanistan war, Sen. John McCain said yesterday, is Kandahar. But despite efforts under way to improve governance, locals say they prefer the Taliban's quick justice to corrupt local courts.

By Staff writer / July 6, 2010

An Afghan policeman searches a man at a checkpoint in Kandahar city, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 2. New police checkpoints ringing Kandahar are the first visible signs of an operation under way to break the Taliban's grip on their birthplace and bolster the Afghan government's control in the nation's largest city in the south.

Rahmat Gul/AP

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Kandahar, Afghanistan

As he took command of the Afghanistan war this weekend, Gen. David Petraeus wrote to NATO troops of building “a brighter future for a new country in an ancient land.”

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But around Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland and what Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona called Monday the "key to success or failure" in the war, growing numbers of citizens are turning away from the new Afghanistan’s corruption-plagued justice system to an ancient means of resolving disputes that is overseen by the Taliban.

Some go because they’re Taliban partisans, most others because the Taliban have something to offer that the government of Afghanistan so far does not: Fast, generally impartial justice from a court that doesn’t demand bribes for its services.

The phenomenon is part tradition – local mullahs have been adjudicating disputes between farmers and small businessmen for centuries.

But it’s also evidence of a government that has so far failed to deliver the governance that is crucial to success of America's strategy in Afghanistan, according to its advocates. They are well aware that it was the predatory behavior and corruption of local warlords in the early 1990s that drove many Afghans, seeking honesty and an end to anarchy, into the arms of the Taliban.

Why Rahmatullah recommends Taliban courts

Kandahar – and Afghanistan more generally – is far from the state of collapse that prevailed then. But the fact that citizens are turning voluntarily to the Taliban’s parallel government in a city and province that is now the focus of a massive US and Afghan military buildup is a reminder of the limits of arms alone in defeating the insurgency.

“I don’t like our current government at all, and I don’t really like the Taliban, either. But I can either spend months in the government court and pay bribes, or I can go to the Taliban and have the matter settled in one day,” says Rahmatullah, who helps manage a construction site on the plains outside Kandahar where Al Qaeda once maintained training camps. “It’s an easy choice to make.”

He says he returned home in 2004, after almost 20 years in Pakistan, with optimism about the government of President Hamid Karzai. But he says he’s lost faith. “In the government areas, there are warlords everywhere and all the police have their hands out.”

An official working with the Canadian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar says they’re well aware of the issue, and that part of the problem is the lack of competent judges. He says they’re running a crash program to give basic training and hope to add 15 to 20 new judges to the Kandahar court system in the coming months.

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