Arid Afghan province proves fertile for Taliban

Some disaffected villagers in Zabul Province now offer shelter and assistance to militants.

Toor Jan is ostensibly a farmer, but he's also a spy. Jan roams the streets and gathers information about the movements of US and Afghan forces and passes it on to Taliban guerrillas.

"I cannot fight face to face with Americans but I am helping mujahideen on the other front," says Jan, not his real name, at a meeting behind a roadside shop in a village of southern Afghanistan's Zabul province.

Some villagers in Zabul - a hardscrabble and deeply conservative corner of Afghanistan - now offer shelter and assistance to Taliban insurgents. As the militants exploit both the mountainous geography and the political grievances of the Pashtuns here, the province is increasingly becoming a no-go area for foreign aid workers and a permanent irritant for US-led coalition forces.

Pashtuns in this region feel unrepresented by the Kabul government, despite the fact that President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun. Raids and house searches by US troops in the area have only furthered hostility among residents. Meanwhile, a drought has covered the already arid region with dust, depriving many of their livelihoods. And there is no sign of international reconstruction work to better their lot.

Disaffected villagers "are like a poppy crop for the Taliban, a form of hard currency and a great weapon against Americans," says Akbar Khan, an educated young man of Zabul.

Jan's village of Deh lies in the belly of the Barei Mountains, now a hub for hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas who operate from mountain caves and mingle with the local population.

The lifestyle and traditional beliefs of the population support the insurgents. Even today, bearded old men wear the black turbans favored by the ousted Taliban regime. Women cover themselves with burqas, and no music is played in the roadside hotels and cafes. Most belong to the same tribe as former Taliban ruler Mullah Omar.

"I help the mujahideen by providing shelter in the villages. I help them transport their weapons through children when US forces launch any operation," says Jan. "These goras [white men] search our houses. Entering the houses of Pashtuns is disrespectful to us and to our women," he says angrily.

Villagers talk of at least three recent search operations by Americans and Afghan forces in towns and villages. Jan recalls one such operation.

"I became very angry when American soldiers entered our village ... asking about the Taliban and Al Qaeda," Jan says. "I calmed myself and cleverly gave wrong information about the wanted Taliban leaders. I shook hands with them and also said hello to them."

Last week, a fierce gun battle between hundreds of Afghan troops and a group of Taliban guerrillas in Zabul, left 11 Taliban fighters dead. Five were captured alive.

The captured Taliban fighters are locked up in an iron container lying within a huge compound of the Zabul governor's house.

Abdul Naseer is one of them. While fighting for the Taliban for the last several months, he has slept in caves and taken shelter in villages. He says every group has eight to 10 fighters, but form a large group of 40 to 50 before any attack.

"I fire rockets at Americans' check- posts. I targeted their slaves [Afghan forces] to cleanse our land of infidels," says the bearded fighter, Mr. Naseer. The firmness of his belief was clearly reflected in his tone, despite being handcuffed and shackled. "We will kill gora Americans. They have occupied our land."

Naseer's colleague, Abdul Wali, says he is a new recruit and joined the guerrilla fighters after hearing Taliban elders preaching in the name of Islam.

"I was a farmer. Only a few days ago, four Taliban came to our village and announced the decree that Muslims should wage jihad against the Americans," he says. "They gave me 5,000 Afghanis [$116] to leave with my family before joining them for jihad."

Only 2-1/2 months ago, about 200 Taliban fighters captured nearby Chopan district, fleeing only when US forces launched an air strike against them. When they took control of the area, thousands of villagers shouted slogans in favor of the Taliban and vowed to usher in another Islamic revolution in Afghanistan.

And Sunday, Afghan forces seized 300 rocket-propelled grenades and dozens of antitank mines in a raid on a Taliban hideout near the Pakistan border.

Foreign aid workers are now too afraid to go to Zabul, which lies on the Pakistan border and is sandwiched between Kandahar, the Taliban's former headquarters, and Uruzgan, the home province of the Mullah Omar. After sunset, sources say the villages become hideouts for the insurgents, and Afghan forces based in the main city of Kalat are restricted mainly to and around the governor's house.

"There is a game of death every day," says Zabul's governor and former mujahideen commander, Abdul Hameed Torkhi. "They try to kill us and we try to kill them." Mr. Torkhi warns that he is losing his soldiers to lack of pay and support. "The Karzai government gives us a very little amount; don't even ask me it is not worth mentioning," he says.

One of Torkhi's soldiers, Sardar Khan, says: "It is not an ideological battle against the Taliban as it was against the Russians, so why should I fight for free?"

Afghan security officials accuse Pakistan of providing training and funding to the Taliban fighters in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, a charge denied by officials in Islamabad.

"They are being trained in Pakistan, provided with funds, and sent back to Afghanistan to fight," says the commander of Afghan forces in Zabul, who identified himself only as Abdullah. "We keep on making them run and they keep on coming back with a new lease of life from Pakistan. It is frustrating."

Meanwhile, Zabul's poor farmer finishes his spying "task" for the insurgents and heads to a mosque for prayers. There, he says, he will meet his comrades.

"We have pledged that we shall not sit idle until we throw out the Americans from here," he says.

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