US thins Taliban's ranks, but their ideological grip remains strong

Taliban clerics still hold sway over mosques and schools in Afghanistan's Zabul Province, the recent site of heavy US fighting.

Almost two years after the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul, the regime's mullahs (or clerics) are still wielding power in many of Afghanistan's unruly provinces, especially in Zabul and Paktika.

The central government's lack of control in these ultraconservative areas is providinganopportunity for Taliban mullahs to regenerate the ranks of the militia.

While US and Afghan forces have killed more than 100 suspected Taliban militants in a major operation launched in August, the continued grip of Taliban ideology in the villages near the battlefields suggests that the roots of the insurgency remain.

On Friday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Pakistani clerics to stop backing the ousted Taliban. Mr. Karzai said Pakistani clerics and preachers were involved in recruiting and sending members of the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan.

"I am addressing those who, in the name of madrassahs, are building a force of war against Afghanistan," he said in a press conference in the presidential palace in Kabul, referring to Muslim religious schools.

"President Hamid Karzai's assertion does have some logic, but at the same time it is not only the clergy in Pakistan," said Pakistan's Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat.

While Pakistani Muslim clerics and madrassahs have long been associated with training and funding the Taliban, their Afghan counterparts are just as powerful.

"We have Afghan mullahs who are accepting the financial support of the Pakistanis and assisting them in undermining the Karzai government," said Gen. Nazar Mohammed Nikzad, head of crime investigation at the Afghan Ministry of Interior.

As in most Islamic countries, mullahs are highly respected community leaders with great power over social and political affairs. In Afghanistan, where the majority of the population is illiterate and villages are isolated from the outside world, mullahs, in the mosques and madrassahs, are often the only source of information.

"I support any Islamic group that works against an Afghan government that doesn't fully embrace sharia [Islamic law]," says Mawlawee Sahib Khalik Daad, head mullah of the Central Madrassah of Shah Joi District in Zabul Province.

He says he has about 55 students that come to study Islam. The boys range from eight years old to about 15. Their studies include five levels of Islamic interpretation along with the memorization of the Koran. Subjects like biology or mathematics are not taught, and most boys do not attend public schools.

Mr. Daad says he is not a member of the Taliban. But he does not want the "evils of the Western world in Afghanistan." Daad's vision of sharia includes banning girls from schools and women from the workplace, laws similar to those imposed by the Taliban regime.

"Women in Ghazni city and Kabul are working in offices and walking around without proper cover; this is not how an Islamic country should be," says Daad.

The chief of Shah Joi, Haji Zabeet, says he knows of at least 25 Taliban madrassahs and mosques operating in his district. He says he fears mullahs more than former or current Taliban soldiers. "The more dangerous Talibs are the mullahs, who play on the emotions of the people. Some mullahs use persuasion and some use fear," he says.

With local elections just weeks away and the writing of the country's constitution almost complete, Taliban mullahs, Mr. Zabeet says, are ramping up efforts to create anti-Karzai sentiment.

Zabeet says he cannot remove Taliban mullahs from Shah Joi. "It would be sacrilegious to remove a mullah or shut down any mosque, even if it is a Taliban mosque. The public would rise against me." Even if the political will existed, Shah Joi doesn't have an organized police force to enforce any kind of law. Zabeet says he doesn't have funds to pay them a salary. "They have no professional training, just shoes and a gun."

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