The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming US forces with an even harder job than expected in reversing military losses to the Taliban and winning over the population.
Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes, several community representatives said in interviews. Others have been moved to join the insurgents out of poverty or simply because the Taliban’s influence is so pervasive here.
On Thursday morning, 4,000 US Marines began a major offensive to try to take back the region from the strongest Taliban insurgency in the country. The Marines are part of a larger deployment of additional troops being ordered by the new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley A. McChrystal, to concentrate not just on killing Taliban fighters but on protecting the population.
Yet Taliban control of the countryside is so extensive in provinces like Kandahar and Helmand that winning districts back will involve tough fighting and may ignite further tensions, residents and local officials warn. The government has no presence in five of Helmand’s 13 districts, and in several others, like Nawa, it holds only the district town, where troops and officials live virtually under siege.
The Taliban’s influence is so strong in rural areas that much of the local population has accepted their rule and is watching the US troop buildup with trepidation. Villagers interviewed in late June said they preferred to be left alone under Taliban rule and complained about artillery fire and airstrikes by foreign forces. “We Muslims don’t like them — they are the source of danger,” a villager, Hajji Taj Muhammad, said of the foreign forces. His house in Marja, a town west of this provincial capital that has been a major opium trading post and Taliban base, was bombed two months ago, he said.
The southern provinces have suffered the worst civilian casualties since NATO’s deployment to the region in 2006. Thousands of people have already been displaced by fighting and taken refuge in the towns.
“Now there are more people siding with the Taliban than with the government,” said Abdul Qadir Noorzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in southern Afghanistan.
In many places, people have never seen or felt the presence of the Afghan government, or foreign forces, except through violence, but the Taliban are a known quantity, community leaders said.
“People are hostages of the Taliban, but they look at the coalition also as the enemy, because they have not seen anything good from them in seven or eight years,” said Hajji Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a district council leader from Nadali in Helmand province.
Foreign troops continue to make mistakes that enrage whole sections of this deeply tribal society, like the killing of a tribal elder’s son and his wife as they were driving to their home in Helmand two months ago. Only their infant daughter survived. The tribal elder, Reis-e-Baghran, a former member of the Taliban who reconciled with the government, is one of the most influential figures in Helmand.
The infusion of more US troops into southern Afghanistan is aimed at ending a stalemate between NATO and Taliban forces. The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, said extra forces were needed since the Taliban were now so entrenched in southern Afghanistan that they had permanent bases from which they mounted operations.