After a suicide bombing, an Afghan village turns against Taliban

A suicide bombing at the wedding of the chief of a US-backed Afghan village anti-insurgency unit soured even the strongest holdouts for the Taliban.

By , / Correspondent

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    At the site of a suicide bombing of a wedding that turned the Afghan village of Nagahan against the Taliban, elder Haji Pahlawan says the insurgents made promises to villagers they never kept.
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After much hand-wringing, Abdhul Haleem came home to this farming village in the Arghandab Valley last June. He'd spent the previous year in Kandahar City to escape the insecurities of the Taliban's grip on the area. The occasion was the wedding of a friend who had joined an anti-Taliban local protection force set up by American Special Operations Forces. Their efforts, and a surge of NATO forces, had created a respite from violence.

"The people of Nagahan are in control of the village," Mr. Haleem recalls locals saying. "The situation is under control."

For all his indecision about coming back, it took only quick notice of an unfamiliar "fat-looking" wedding guest for Haleem to know the situation was not under control. He and hundreds of wedding guests sat on carpets spread in a field. He saw the man approach the cooking area and he realized the bulkiness wasn't natural – there was something under the man's clothes. In the next instant, there was a flash and a blast. Forty people were killed and nearly 90 injured – huge collateral damage for a Taliban attack aimed at the groom and a score of guests on the anti-Taliban force.

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It was the final straw for villagers – if they'd been on the fence before, such carnage soured them on the Taliban. But none say it pushed them totally into the camp of Western forces, whose surge of 30,000 additional troops aimed to eliminate insurgents and their havens, especially here in Kandahar Province, their historic stronghold. At best, locals seem neutral about the ongoing surge, glad to have what security it has offered, but attributing its gains to local security forces.

War and its shifting alliances are a part of the cultural DNA here: Large swaths of the village are crumbling ruins from the Soviet war of the 1980s. During decades of fighting, the economy has struggled to grow beyond subsistence farming. Here where the barren desert ends in cultivated greenery near the river, Taliban forces found easy cover amid vineyards and orchards, shaking down locals and laying land mines for Western forces.

And it is civilians like those here who have taken the heaviest losses in the course of the West's war in Afghanistan. Most in a district like the Arghandab have lost family to fighting. Take Nagahan elder Haji Shahjan: Asked if he'd been personally affected by the violence, the aging farmer stroked his white beard and said it hadn't really touched his life. Then he paused, sifting the clutter of violence in his memory, and revised: His son was killed by a suicide bomber three years ago.

While the death toll of US and NATO troops has climbed since their 2001 invasion – to a total of at least 2,480 – Afghan civilians have taken the heaviest losses. In 2010 alone – the bloodiest year of the war – 2,777 Afghan civilians were killed. And despite outrage over continued NATO-caused civilian deaths, United Nations data suggest that the number of Afghans killed by international forces dropped by 26 percent last year – with insurgents blamed for 75 percent of civilian deaths.

As some civilians try to band together to create security, the problems arising are reminiscent of the civil war and possibly beyond the control of foreign forces.

NATO and Afghan forces have nearly doubled in the Arghandab. Local policing efforts have become firmly entrenched, so violence has dramatically decreased. But the damage of the siegelike conditions Nagahan villagers faced before the surge remains: While they had freedom of movement inside their village, they couldn't safely leave. As a result, most farmers were forced to sell produce at below-market prices to the few merchants willing to risk a trip here.

"The insecurity affected us a lot, especially the fruit farmers," says Shabaz Khan, who grows pomegranates and grapes near Nagahan in an area called Lowy Manarah. "People couldn't go out and take care of their farms, and [many] fruit trees died."

When the Russians came, villagers here say they were among some of the first to resist. During the Taliban's rule in the 1990s, Nagahan managed to remain semiautonomous when it surrendered early on and brokered a deal that allowed residents to keep weapons and police their own town.

When the Taliban began a resurgence in 2006, Nagahan was at a crossroad: People here were not natural enemies of the Taliban and some were even sympathetic, but they had relatively friendly relations with NATO and the Afghan government.

"The Taliban would say they were the real representatives of Islam, that they would provide a peaceful atmosphere, and that they would give people money," says Haji Pahlawan, an elder in Nagahan. "The people who supported the Taliban used to warn them that they needed to bring ... basic services, otherwise they would stop supporting them...."

When this didn't happen and the Taliban started killing civilians, most people in Nagahan turned against the insurgency. The area's history of self-policing made it a natural choice for the US Special Forces program to develop village security organizations that would become known as the Afghan Local Police (ALP).

A year after the wedding bombing, the program is firmly established and US forces now refer to the area as the "Nagahan security bubble."

"The US forces are increasing their operations, but they don't know who is from here and who isn't," says Mr. Shahjan. "The ALP are the ones really making the situation better."

It is unclear whether the program can transfer well to other areas. With Afghanistan's history of militias and tribalism, it's not surprising that there are already reports that ALP units are extorting people in their areas. Residents here are almost exclusively Pashtun.

But the north is a heavy mix of Pasthuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, and militias are usually made up of one ethnic group that harasses rival groups.

Editor's note: This is part of a cover story project that is a report card on the surge, with on-the-ground reports from three facets of the surge: the US military, the Afghan security forces, and the Afghans themselves.

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