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NATO or the Taliban: Who's Winning Afghan Hearts and Minds?

Afghan villagers.

Haji Juma Gul and other Pashmul residents abandoned their village more than four months ago because of military operations.

Besieged by suicide bombings, assassinations and a wider war just outside the provincial capital, Kandahar is a place that even war-hardened Afghans warned me about visiting. Kandahar was relatively stable and thriving until last spring. Then the Taliban returned. By summer, it seemed they would capture Kandahar City, a city considered Afghanistan's second capital. Today, fear and frustration still grip many Kandaharis.

"The Taliban rule by night, and the government rules by day," one displaced villager told me on a visit to Kandahar late last year. His statement not only describes the insurgency across the southern province, but how deeply rural residents feel trapped between the two sides.

In recent months, Taliban fighters have launched numerous attacks from the district of Zharey, 20 miles southwest of Kandahar City. When I asked 70-year-old Haji Juma Gul why the Taliban was fighting from his village of Pashmul, he said his orchards provided good cover for the insurgents.

When I asked 70-year-old Haji Juma Gul why the Taliban was fighting from near his village of Pashmul, he told me his orchards provided good cover for the insurgents.

Last September, Operation Medusa, which ended the Taliban's summer siege, cost NATO untold hearts and minds among Afghans. According to Pentagon figures, during the campaign, American forces supporting NATO dropped 987 bombs in the region between June and November. Many of those bombs fell on villages like Pashmul, killing dozens of civilians and leaving tens of thousands without a home. The U.N. Refugee Agency and other humanitarian groups estimated that 30,000 people were displaced during the Kandahar campaigns. Villagers wholly dependent on the land lost their livelihoods overnight.

NATO vehicles on the streets of Kandahar.

In Kandahar, NATO has increased military operations to help secure the region so that reconstruction can take place.

Many refugees, like Haji Juma Gul, now live on the edges of Kandahar City.

"My orchards are burned. Our houses are ruined," he said. "I argued with the Taliban. I told them that they're putting the women and children in danger by attacking from our house."

The Taliban beat him for that, he told me. Afterward, he fled with his family, but their car hit a mine that was probably intended for NATO troops. A cousin died, and six others were hurt. A few weeks after he settled in Kandahar City, government officials told Haji Juma Gul and other villagers to return to Pashmul to assess the damage so that they could claim compensation. When they arrived, they were arrested by NATO troops and held for four days, until officials could confirm that they were not Taliban members.

It's a familiar scene for villagers in the south, who have seen their relatives rounded up in counterinsurgency operations. Yet Haji Juma Gul does not want foreign troops to leave his country; he says he needs them for security and reconstruction.

Another village elder told me: "The Americans are carrying Pakistan in one hand and Afghanistan in the other. They should tell one or the other to sit down. Then the issue will be settled." The Taliban's current base, Quetta, is just a few hours' drive across the border into Pakistan.

"The Americans are carrying Pakistan in one hand and Afghanistan in the other. They should tell one or the other to sit down. Then the issue will be settled."

Most villagers said they just want what was promised them by the West: peace, reconstruction, factories and hospitals. But they warned that many Kandaharis were growing tired of local corruption and NATO attacks and were turning to the Taliban for support.

Without security, however, there can be no reconstruction. For refugees like Bibi Amina, it means continuing to live in an abandoned military compound outside of Kandahar City. The compound is a labyrinth of crumbling mud-baked buildings with dirt floors. Amina has been camped there with her five children for several months. Like most Afghans, she was already a war refugee, who had resettled from a Pakistani border camp to Sperwan, about 15 miles outside Kandahar City.

She says she doesn't want cash compensation, just to return to her village.

"We sit in the middle of a yard here with nothing. Our men stay home all day. NATO should leave. America should leave, so we can go back to our home."

Traffic circling Kandahar city center.

Aid agencies have left Kandahar City in the wake of increased violence.

On the day I visited the elders of Pashmul, they were on their way to meet with NATO troops about the construction of a road through their district. The general view among foreign aid givers here is that, where the road ends, the Taliban begins. One of the earliest American-backed projects in Afghanistan was the reconstruction of a 242-mile highway between Kandahar and Kabul. Built in 2003, the expensive highway is little used today. Many see it as Taliban territory all the way from Kandahar to Wardak, just 30 minutes' drive away from the capital.

Talking with many of Kandahar's residents, I was struck by the smaller things that revealed how nervous the people are here. One group of young men said they used to wear jeans but now dress in traditional Afghan clothing because they don't want to be identified as Western. "The Taliban are everywhere; they have a lot supporters," said one university student, who didn't want to be named.

In this conservative region, the vast majority of women and girls wouldn't think of leaving the house without wearing a burqa, but the veil is the least of their worries. Safiya Ama Jan, a veteran women's rights activist, was gunned down in public a few months ago. At the time of her murder, she was in charge of the ministry of women's affairs department. A man connected to Hizb-e-Islami, a militant party aligned with the Taliban, confessed to her killing.

When I met with Ama Jan's successor, Rana Tareen, she put on a brave face, telling me that she was not scared. But during our conversations, Tareen was clearly preoccupied with the lack of security around her. She said she doesn't trust the local police to guard her compound, but she also can't afford to hire private guards she knows and trusts.

Najiba Rais.

Najiba Rais is a veteran Kandahar high school teacher. She says the recent assassination of a women's rights activist was meant to intimidate women.

Najiba Rais, a friend of the murdered woman, teaches at an all-girls high school in Kandahar. She believes her friend's killing was a warning to other women not to work. But she, too, refuses to be intimidated.

"When I came back to my country four years ago, I made a decision that I would step out of my house," she said. "I am not going back on my decision."

Another woman, Ruqiya, who teaches literacy at a local women's NGO, told me that since the assassination fewer students have been attending her classes. Her older students are already behind because of the Taliban's ban on education for girls. Although she lives just one block from her office, her husband escorts her because she's too scared to walk alone.

"Women are killed all the time," she claimed. "I know two women who were killed on their way to get vaccinated. It's not in the news, but it happens."

Ruqiya is lucky she still has a job. Many NGOs have left Kandahar since the violence increased, ending much-needed employment for the city. There are still signs of growth around the city, mostly in the form of new construction, but it's easy to understand why investment has slowed. When I met Mohammad Naseem last November, he had just finished fitting bronze-tinted windows to his coffee shop and restaurant. When I returned three weeks later, one window had been blown out from the impact of a nearby suicide attack on NATO forces; another window was pierced with bullet holes. Naseem is not cutting and running. He's an Afghan-American returnee, determined to create a space for families and youth to hang out, but foreign investors may not share his commitment.

In the first week of December alone, there were 12 suicide bombings in Kandahar City. Kandahar's governor, Haji Asadullah Khalid, is the only person who spoke in positive terms about the region's future. Sitting in his modest office inside the historic government palace where Taliban leader Mullah Omar used to hold court, Governor Khalid said NATO was vital to the region.

"We had very successful operations," he said, referring to Operation Medusa. "With the new plan that we have, I'm more optimistic that security will get better."

The new plan is Operation Baaz Tsuka (meaning Falcon Beak) -- an attempt to bring villagers and government together to rebuild bombed districts in Kandahar. But even as those efforts are under way, more bombs are being dropped on suspected Taliban targets.

Kandahar's provincial governor, Asadullah Khalid.

Kandahar's provincial governor Haji Asadullah Khalid believes security will improve in Kandahar. He cites the return of several hundred displaced families to war-torn areas.

Khalid assured me that Afghans understand what is at stake: In order to establish security, sacrifices have to be made, and civilian deaths are to be expected, he said. But, Afghans also believed that peace had already arrived. In one example of the growing helplessness many feel, President Hamid Karzai wept in public recently during a speech to mark International Human Rights Day.

We can't prevent the coalition from bombing the terrorists, and our children are dying because of that," he said with tears in his eyes.

More than 4,000 Afghans were killed in 2006, marking it as the bloodiest year since U.S.-led forces first ousted the Taliban in 2001. People are bracing for more of the same this year. The fact that NATO continues to bomb the same districts in Kandahar and elsewhere suggests that Western governments are following the wrong strategy, or that the Taliban is just too resourceful. Both prospects offer little relief. In an interview with the Associated Press after Operation Medusa, NATO's former commander in Afghanistan, British Gen. David Richards, warned that if there is another year like the past one, more than 70 percent of Afghans will prefer the Taliban to the government.

This spring, under U.S. command, NATO is poised to expand its offensive against the Taliban. Speaking in Kabul last month, Maj. Dominic Whyte, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by NATO, defended the force's double role as bomber and protector.

"NATO and ISAF accept that it can be confusing," he said. "But we also recognize that the alternative to not doing what might be nontraditional tasks, like delivering aid, is to leave a vacuum. You defeat the insurgency by engaging the local community and by providing them with resources to reconstruct and develop their communities. This is a future we can provide. What future did the Taliban provide?"

In one promising sign, hundreds of families have returned to at least one embattled district under a government-led plan. But when I asked Kandahari native and military affairs expert Toran Nek Muhammad for his assessment, the former army colonel told me he could see no end to the violence -- particularly in the absence of a political solution that factors in Pakistan.

"Five years on," he said, "the peace now looks like it was just a cease-fire."

* * *

Roya Aziz is an Afghan-American reporter who divides her time between Kabul and California.

Related Stories

Read "The Trouble With Afghanistan," a recent dispatch by Roya Aziz.

Watch "Return of the Taliban," an October 2006 FRONTLINE report from the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where producer Martin Smith finds a safe haven and complex alliance of Al Qaeda and resurgent Taliban fighters.

Revisit our October 2003 broadcast where American war correspondent Sarah Chayes reports on Afghan villagers rebuilding their community in "A House for Haji Baba."

In this 2005 Rough Cut, "Weight of the World," Brent E. Huffman films an aspiring bodybuilding community in Kabul.

REACTIONS

Agnes Glenn (Dr) - Winnipeg, Manitoba
Very interesting article, especially since I spent 2 years working in Afghanistan (1977-1978) being ordered home by the Canadian Goverment for whom (CIDA) I was team leader of an education project for girls in Kabul.Roya's mother was a student in my school and my senior secretary in my project upon her graduation. I love her and her entire family dearly and have visited them often in USA. I am happy that Roya is doing such fine work but I am worried for her safety. She is a very clever young lady.