Evan Vucci/AP
US Army Col. James Markert, right, salutes Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a full honors arrival ceremony, hosted by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Thursday, Jan. 10, on the Pentagon River Parade Field at the Pentagon.

Afghanistan: Taliban may be 'weak,' but fear remains

As President Karzai discusses his country's future with President Obama in Washington, many Afghans continue day-to-day fight against extremist intimidation on the ground.

The television is always tuned to the news channel at the police station in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan.

When the screen shows the images of a suicide bombing at another police headquarters elsewhere in Afghanistan, officer Said Sarwar Husaini turns up the volume to hear the report. The TV shows black smoke billowing from a station just like his; frantic Afghan police are both victims and rescuers.

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets US President Barack Obama during a high-profile visit to Washington this week for strategic discussions about Afghanistan's future, the Afghan officer represents part of a real fight for Afghanistan that is playing out at ground level and highlights just how much grip the Taliban still has over Afghans – and also, how little. 

"Yes, there are lots of threats, but as police we are used to danger," says Mr. Husaini, the Kunduz police spokesman, of the risks of being a member of Afghanistan's 350,000-strong security forces in the midst of an insurgency that has foiled US and Western forces after 11 years of war.

Analysts note that although the Taliban have been able to mount a dangerous insurgency, few say that will mean the ultra-conservative group will be able to topple the Afghan government even when the bulk of US and NATO forces depart by the end of 2014.

Yet the Taliban have been effective in creating a calculus of intimidation in many parts of the country, influencing the decision making of Afghans like Husaini.

"At the beginning, when someone joins the security forces to help people, it's a difficult decision," says Husaini, after the TV news report is over. His police station is on a main road in Kunduz, but encircled by soil-filled Hesco barriers, multiple checkpoints, and coils of barbed wire. Six months ago, he survived an explosion from a bomb attached to his car.

"They threaten me, they know me from the TV," says Husaini of the Taliban. "They say: 'This spokesman, finally we will catch and kill him.'"

But Husaini and many other Afghans say they don’t believe nation-building efforts wrought since the Taliban and their Al Qaeda "guests" were forced from power in late 2001 will unravel.

"People want freedom, they are not ready to accept the Taliban again," says a veteran Afghan police trainer in Kunduz, who asked that his name not be used for his own safety.

"People won't again accept a strict social environment, or being forced to wear long beards, and women not being allowed to go to school or to work," says the police trainer. "[The Taliban] know very well they are not accepted. They are not as strong as before; they are weak."

"I can't say everything is finished with the Taliban," the Afghan adds. "But in the past, the fear they created was 90 percent; now it's 20 percent." 

Oft-voiced fears of a return of Taliban preeminence after 2014 may be overblown, some here argue, because Afghans already lived through years of their Draconian rule in the late 1990s. Back then, even images of the human form were banned – and checkpoints were marked by sparkling bunches of video and audiotape pulled from the cassettes of passing motorists.

"The Taliban have become weaker," says Hilaluddin Hilal, a military analyst and one time deputy minister for security and parliamentarian.

"The numbers of that younger generation who want an education and want democracy are increasing," says General Hilal, speaking in Kabul. "And those who want the Taliban, who are uneducated, are decreasing."

Taliban not out of the picture

That doesn't mean the Taliban and other ultra-conservative elements don't continue – sometimes effectively – their efforts to derail nation-building efforts in Afghanistan.  Many blame the Karzai government for scandalous levels of corruption that have contributed to its limited authority.

But the list of grim Taliban tactics has turned many off. There have been multiple reports of poisonings of water supplies at girls schools – including a high school in Kunduz. And suicide and other attacks on US and NATO forces, and on civilians, don’t seem to stop.

Indeed, frequent and lethal insurgent attacks led by the Taliban marked 2012, including a string of suicide bombings that targeted even mosques and shops.

In the past year alone, more than 60 incidents of Afghan security force members turning their guns on their American and NATO counterparts have unsettled a fragile relationship. The Taliban claimed many of those attacks as the work of their own infiltrators.

Growing civil society

"But at the same time, we have seen civil society grow, and watched people be very vocal and adamant about their social rights," says Massoumeh Torfeh, the director of strategic communications in Kabul for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

"People are becoming more vocal, they are saying they are not going to let [anyone] take away the achievements of the past 10 years," says Ms. Torfeh, referring to efforts that emerge from the Taliban as well as some haphazard dealings from officials to curb citizen rights.

"Of course, it is impossible for ordinary people to stand up to [Taliban] suicide bombings – they can't," says Torfeh. "But in whatever way they can, they have done it in all provinces across Afghanistan." For example she says, "as soon as there are threats to the democratization process, the media warn about it." 

Outside influences don't help

While that may be the trajectory, Afghan militants have long had help from outside the country, says the Kunduz police trainer.

"Unfortunately our neighboring countries [Pakistan and Iran] do not want us to have a good police, they want to keep Afghanistan poor and weak and not self-sufficient; they benefit from this weakness," says the police trainer.

"They keep families under pressure, and use insurgents to do it. They say, 'Tell your cousins, your family, to stop working for the government,'" says the police trainer. "They have many tools to make people afraid."

One former Afghan translator for US and British forces knows those tools well. Despite working that job for a very short time several years ago, in the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the translator – who asked not to be identified for security reasons – has not been able to visit his home village.

The last time he was back, he avoided two explosions aimed at another relative who was a senior government servant. No one was even officially aware of his own work, helping what are seen in his Pashtun region as "occupying" forces.

"People in my area are so against the US," says the Afghan translator, speaking in Kabul. "Some work with the Taliban, but some just sit at home, really, really hating the US."

The risks even in Kabul were brought home to him in recent months, when a friend who had translated for US Special Forces received threat letters from the Taliban. Then a grenade was lobbed into his house. Within a week he had fled to Europe.

"Believe me, people do not feel safe in this city," says the translator. "No one wants to be far from their family. But it has gotten worse, [such work] is remembered [by the Taliban] more and more.

"A clear fact is that they are such bad people," adds the translator. "When you realize if bad people think like that, it's a threat, and it's forever."

Still, says Husaini, the Kunduz police spokesman, "One thing that gives us courage is our faith in God." 

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