A Mullah Dies, and War Comes Knocking

By Sarah Chayes
Sunday, November 18, 2007

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan

Wednesday, Oct. 31: I woke to the sound of artillery thudding -- like the beat of a heavy heart. It was Afghan army batteries firing into Arghandab, at new Taliban positions there. Through several nights, I had been listening, my ears pricking like a dog's, to the faint popping of gunfire, the clattering of helicopters, the whine of personnel carriers speeding along the roads, falling asleep only when the morning call to prayer rang out in the pre-dawn chill.

I can't explain how this felt, the penetration of war to this crucial part of Kandahar, where I have lived for six years. Arghandab district, with its riot of tangled fruit trees, is the lung of Kandahar province; its meandering, stone-studded river is the artery of the whole region. Arghandab is shade and water, and mud-walled orchards, and mulberries and apricots, and pomegranates the size of grapefruits hanging from the willowy branches.

This magical land was first given to the fighting Alokozai tribe by Nadir Shah, who brought down the Safavid empire of Persia with its help in 1738. The latest in the line of Alokozai leaders was the gentle, jocular military genius Mullah Naqib, who died of a heart attack in mid-October. Mullah Naqib fought the Soviets from his base in Arghandab; they were never able to dislodge the mujahideen from this place.

As the Taliban gathered strength and insolence recently, they would contact the mullah from time to time, trying to strike a deal, telling him that they wished him no ill, but just to pass through Arghandab. He would bellow his retort. He would get on the radio and vow by God that if they dared set foot inside his Arghandab, the whole population would rise up. And thus he held his fractious, disgruntled tribesmen firm against them.

A week after the mullah's death, Zmarai, the district police chief, received a phone call at 1 a.m. "You're alone now that Mullah Naqib is gone," said the voice on the line. "We're coming to Arghandab, no matter what. Why don't you just stand aside? We're your friends and tribesmen."

"If you're coming as our friends," Zmarai shot back, "don't. If you're coming as our enemies, we will fight you."

I heard about this the next day, at an Alokozai elder's house where some friends of Mullah Naqib's had gathered to figure out how things would shake out in the wake of his death. It seemed as though the governor of Kandahar, President Hamid Karzai's two brothers and the president himself were deliberately creating the conditions for disaster in Arghandab.

They had interfered in the recent selection of a new elder, sidelining a man who had been Mullah Naqib's deputy during the anti-Soviet jihad, army corps commander after the fall of the Taliban, then chief of police in two cities. This man had been implacable in his opposition to the Taliban since before the Islamic radicals first appeared in Kandahar in 1994. If anyone knew how to fight the Taliban in Arghandab, it was he. And yet the government's machinations were plainly aimed at shutting him out.

We spent several urgent days thinking strategy, poring over maps, cross-checking the stories people were reporting. The Taliban now owned the whole district of Khakrez, just to the north of Arghandab. They had mined the roads and trapped the police and government officials in the district government building.

We looked at the roads leading down through the mountains, picking out good places for checkposts to stop a Taliban advance. Veteran fighters said each one needed only about 50 NATO soldiers and 200 Afghans. When I went to the local Canadian peacekeepers with the advice, they laughed. The Canadian commander simply didn't have the men.

Some days later, after a couple of desultory Taliban advances across the Arghandab district line, word leaked out from an infiltrated contact that they were withdrawing back to Khakrez, that we were safe for a time. It was a lie. And the effectiveness with which it was put about, the degree to which the truth was sealed away, demonstrated a significant level of command and control.

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