QALAT, Afghanistan -- Malik Ali Mahmad and his small security team were on high alert last Tuesday night. They had recently been sent to establish a government outpost in an isolated, Taliban-plagued district, Khaki Afghan, and there were rumors that the Islamic militia was planning a retaliatory raid.
"I heard they had issued orders to kill me," Mahmad said Friday. "At 11:30 p.m. they attacked. There were hundreds of them. They had heavy weapons and rockets and Kalashnikovs and grenades. The fight lasted 4 1/2 hours. I killed their commander, but I lost two of my sons and my best friend."
Bismillah Khan, left, a shopkeeper in Qalat, said Taliban members had ripped up people's voting cards in the town.
(Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
The beefy, turbaned man spoke tersely, his eyes red with grief but his voice brittle with contempt. He had returned to Qalat, the capital of the southeastern province of Zabol 50 miles to the south, to bury his sons. A circle of men sat around him in a carpeted mud hut, silently paying their respects.
"How do I feel? I am a brave man, but I cannot answer you properly," Mahmad said, staring at the carpet. Then he looked up sharply. "I lost two sons, but I have two more. We will not let the Taliban control that district. We will not let them stop the elections. We will not let them destroy our tribes and our country."
The attack on Khaki Afghan, in which officials said three security men and seven Taliban fighters had died, was just one skirmish in the accelerating war between Afghan and anti-government forces, whose struggle for control of the rugged rural region bordering Pakistan has intensified with the approach of presidential elections set for Oct. 9.
The Taliban, an extremist Islamic militia that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted in November 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion, has vowed to sabotage the elections, which it decries as a sham exercise orchestrated by "infidel" Western interests. In recent weeks, Taliban fighters have asserted responsibility for numerous attacks on Afghan civilian officials and facilities, as well as Afghan and U.S. military posts and convoys.
At the same time, however, many Afghans say they are more worried about a different source of abuse and intimidation during the elections: pressure from local militia commanders to vote for certain candidates, which in turn would preserve the post-election grip on power that men with guns now wield in many areas of the country.
Two recent international reports on security and the Afghan elections found that repression by local gunmen and militia factions was a far more widespread concern than Taliban-related violence, even in southern border provinces such as Kandahar, just south of Zabol, where Taliban threats and attacks have been frequent.
"While many observers . . . continue to focus on the Taliban as the main threat to human rights and political development, in most parts of the country Afghans . . . are primarily afraid of the local factional leaders and military commanders," Human Rights Watch said in a report released last week. "Far from a Taliban problem, most Afghans tell us their main fear is of jangsalaran," the Afghan word for warlord.
In a survey conducted by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium in June and July, 88 percent of Afghan respondents said the government needed to do more to reduce the power of militias and 60 percent wanted both Afghan and foreign forces to protect them. In Kandahar, 93 percent wanted more official action to curb warlordism, and nearly half thought elections should be postponed until there was more progress on militia disarmament.
An ambitious program to demobilize tens of thousands of militiamen before the election has been accelerated in recent weeks after making painfully slow progress for the past year. To date only about 18,000 men have turned in their weapons, although the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters last week that "we are breaking the backbone of the warlords."
Pressure From Commanders
In a few cases documented by human rights groups, militia and tribal commanders have applied blunt pressure to potential voters. Leaders of one tribe in southern Khost province threatened to burn down the houses of anyone who did not vote for President Hamid Karzai, while militiamen in Jowzjan province forced people to swear on copies of the Koran that they would support Gen. Abdurrashid Dostom, a militia leader in Mazar-e Sharif who still commands thousands of troops and has been widely accused of human rights abuses.
But usually, pressure by commanders is a subtle business in a society where most people act as their community elders dictate. Often it is a matter of knowing who is in power and prudently following his lead. Actions by the Taliban, in contrast, are far more dramatic and easier to identify as a challenge to Afghanistan's nascent democracy.
Last month, a rocket was fired at a helicopter carrying Karzai, an explosive device was detonated under a convoy carrying a vice president, and several dozen armed attacks were staged against government buildings, Afghan security vehicles and posts, and convoys of U.S.-led troops. In a single day, U.S. military officials reported eight separate attacks; in most cases Taliban spokesmen asserted responsibility.