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Afghan Crime Wave Breeds Nostalgia for Taliban

Child Abductions in Kandahar Crystallize Discontent With Governing Ex-Warlords

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A01

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- "We are savage, cruel people," the kidnappers warned in a note sent to Abdul Qader, demanding $15,000 to spare the life of his son Mohammed, 11. The construction contractor quickly borrowed the money and left it at the agreed spot. But the next morning, a shopkeeper found the boy's bruised corpse lying in a muddy street.

A wave of crime in this southern Afghan city -- including Mohammed's killing two months ago and a bombing Thursday that killed at least five people -- has evoked a growing local nostalgia for the Taliban era of 1996 to 2001, when the extremist Islamic militia imposed law and order by draconian means.

Afghans gather outside a hospital in Kandahar, where a roadside bomb killed five people and injured more than 30. (Noor Khan -- AP)

Residents reached their boiling point last week, after a second kidnapped boy was killed. Hundreds of men poured into the streets, demanding that President Hamid Karzai fire the provincial governor and police chief. Some threw rocks at military vehicles and chanted, "Down with the warlords!" Witnesses recalled some adding, "Bring back the Taliban!"

Both provincial officials are former militia leaders -- commonly called warlords in Afghanistan -- whose fighters reportedly preyed on residents before they were driven out by the Taliban. They regained power, like a number of other current officials, by joining the U.S.-led military forces that defeated the Taliban in late 2001.

In response to the protest, Karzai dispatched a top security aide to Kandahar and promises were made to bolster the local police force with reinforcements from the capital. There were also reports that Karzai might transfer the police chief to another province. But residents are demanding more action by Karzai, who was elected in October after making campaign pledges to remove the warlords from power.

"We don't want any more promises on paper," said a landowner and tribal leader who, like many residents, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the government. "We want Mr. Karzai to keep his word."

The Kandaharis' complaints echo those of Afghans across the country. Last Monday, demonstrators in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif called for the resignation of Gen. Attah Mohammad, the strongman who governs their province, complaining that he had stolen people's land.

Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based advocacy group, charged last week that numerous former warlords, who hold many provincial governorships and top police jobs, "have been implicated in widespread rape of women and children, murder, illegal detention, forced displacement, human trafficking and forced marriage." There are also allegations that some militia leaders and civilian officials are involved in drug trafficking.

The rising discontent in Kandahar could prove particularly problematic for Karzai, who was born here and has drawn much support from the region's Pashtun ethnic group to which he belongs. Many Kandaharis, once alienated by the harsh rule of the Taliban, say their early support for Karzai is now giving way to a grudging nostalgia for the Taliban era.

At that time, many said, a person could walk around the city carrying quantities of cash and drive roads long after dark without fear. Today holdups are common, few people venture out after sunset, and many are haunted by a sense of vulnerability.

Nazar Khan, who sells television sets in a bazaar, said that as a teenager, he hated the Taliban for banning music and forcing him to listen in secret to his favorite singers. "But at least under the Taliban we had security," Khan said.

Because of the kidnappings, Khan now drives his four older children to school and takes them to his stall afterward to keep a close watch on them. The 2-year-old stays with him all day.

"One moment I'm making a sale," he said. "The next minute I'm turning around and wondering: Where did my son go?"

There is much about Kandahar that underscores how far it has progressed since the Taliban's ouster. Bazaars are filled with merchandise, from photos to VCRs, that would have been unthinkable during the Taliban era. Picking through the wares are scores of women -- most of them veiled because of tribal custom, but far more numerous than they would have been in the days when the Taliban morals police prowled markets with leather whips.

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