Taliban establishes elaborate shadow government in Afghanistan

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

LAGHMAN, AFGHANISTAN -- Like nearly all provinces in Afghanistan, this one has two governors.

The first was appointed by President Hamid Karzai and is backed by thousands of U.S. troops. He governs this mountainous eastern Afghan province by day, cutting the ribbons on new development projects and, according to fellow officials with knowledge of his dealings, taking a generous personal cut of the province's foreign assistance budget.

The second governor was chosen by Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and, hunted by American soldiers, sneaks in only at night. He issues edicts on "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" stationery, plots attacks against government forces and fires any lower-ranking Taliban official tainted by even the whiff of corruption.

As the United States prepares to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to bolster Karzai's beleaguered government, Taliban leaders are quietly pushing ahead with preparations for a moment they believe is inevitable: their return to power. The Taliban has done so by establishing an elaborate shadow government of governors, police chiefs, district administrators and judges that in many cases already has more bearing on the lives of Afghans than the real government.

"These people in the shadow government are running the country now," said Khalid Pashtoon, a legislator from the southern province of Kandahar who has close ties to Karzai. "They're an important part of the chaos."

U.S. military officials say that dislodging the Taliban's shadow government and establishing the authority of the Karzai administration over the next 18 months will be critical to the success of President Obama's surge strategy. But the task has been complicated by the fact that in many areas, Afghans have decided they prefer the severe but decisive authority of the Taliban to the corruption and inefficiency of Karzai's appointees.

When the Taliban government was ousted in 2001 following five disastrous years in power, a majority of Afghans cheered the departure of a regime marked by the harsh repression of women and minorities, anemic government services and international isolation. Petty thieves had their hands chopped off, and girls were barred from school.

Today, there is little evidence the Taliban has fundamentally changed. But from Kunduz province in the north to Kandahar in the south, even government officials concede that their allies have lost the people's confidence and that, increasingly, residents are turning to shadow Taliban officials to solve their problems.

Pashtoon said that on a recent visit to Kandahar, he heard from constituents who were pleased with the Taliban's judges. "Islamic law is always quicker. You get resolution on the spot," he said. "If they had brought the case to the government courts, it would have taken a year or two years, or maybe it would never be resolved at all. With the Taliban, it takes an hour."

For many Afghans, there is no choice. Across broad swaths of the country, especially Afghanistan's vast rural areas, the government has little to no presence, leaving the Taliban as the only authority.

Shadow government officials collect taxes, forcing farmers at gunpoint to turn over 10 percent of their crops, according to accounts of officials and residents. Taliban district chiefs conscript young men into the radical Islamist movement's army of insurgents, threatening death for those unwilling to serve. And the Taliban's judges issue rulings marked by a ruthless efficiency: With no jails in which to hold prisoners, execution by hanging or automatic rifle is the swiftly delivered punishment for convicted murderers and rapists, or for anyone found guilty of working with the government.

"Whether people like them or not, they have to support them," said Fatima Aziz, a parliament member from Kunduz, a province where she said the shadow government has emerged only in the past year.

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