Taliban shadow officials offer concrete alternative
Many Afghans prefer decisive rule to disarray of Karzai government

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.

There are no clear lines between the Taliban's fighting force and its shadow administration. Insurgents double as police chiefs; judges may spend an afternoon hearing cases, then take up arms at dusk.

But the shadow government represents an essential element of the Taliban's strategy. The Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s as an alternative to the lawlessness of the warring mujaheddin factions, and its leaders quickly imposed rigid rules of order in areas under their control.

Having been forced underground or into exile in 2001, the Taliban has returned not just to wage war but also to demonstrate that it is capable of delivering a different model of governance from the one offered by Karzai and his allies. Afghans who live under Taliban control say the group's weaknesses remain the same as during the movement's five-year tenure ruling the country. The Taliban provides virtually no social services, leaving Afghans on their own when it comes to health care, education and development.

Fed up with corruption

Hajji Hakimullah, a 38-year-old shop owner in Laghman's central city, Mehtar Lam, said he celebrated when the Taliban was ousted in 2001 because he believed the movement's extremist ideology was sending the country backward at a time when it should have been modernizing.

But after eight years of Karzai's government, he said he would happily welcome the Taliban's return. Government officials, he said, have demanded hundreds of bribes just to let him operate his modest fabric shop, and he can't take any more corruption.

"If he was honest, I would accept even a Sikh from India as my governor. But if my own father was governor and he was corrupt, I would pray that Allah destroys him," said Hakimullah as he sipped a murky cup of tea, his walls lined with a kaleidoscopic array of silks.

The Karzai-appointed governor of Laghman, Lutfullah Mashal, has developed what some fellow officials and residents here say is a well-earned reputation for corruption.

The governor, they say, has pocketed money from the sale of state lands, earned profits on the local timber trade and stalled international development work until the contractors pay him bribes.

The provincial council chief, Gulzar Sangarwal, played an audio recording for a Washington Post reporter that he said involved a provincial official insisting that a bridge construction project would not move forward until the governor was paid at least $30,000.

The authenticity of the tape could not be independently verified.

Mashal, in an interview, denied taking any bribes and said local contractors had turned against him because he demanded high-quality work.

Fearsome but clean

While Mashal is viewed with contempt by many residents, the shadow governor, Maulvi Shaheed Khail, is regarded as fearsome but clean. A former minister in the Taliban government, he became the shadow governor here last year after being released from government custody. Residents said he spends most of his time in exile in Pakistan but occasionally crosses the border to discuss strategy with his lieutenants.

This year, Taliban forces took full control of several Laghman villages, forcing 1,700 families linked to a pro-government tribe to flee. The families now live in a squalid camp on the edge of Mehtar Lam.

The tribe's leader, Malik Hazratullah, said that back in his home village, "there is no stealing, there is no corruption. The Taliban has implemented Islamic law."

By contrast, he said, provincial officials regularly steal wheat, oil and flour intended for the refugees in the camp and sell it on the black market.

"When I see what this government is doing, it makes me want to join the Taliban," said Hazratullah, a massive, one-eyed man whose beard extends to his chest.

But Hazratullah has already cast his lot with the United States and Karzai, and he said it would be nearly impossible for him to switch back now.

If the Taliban government ever returns to power across Afghanistan, Hazratullah said, he has no doubt what will happen: "They will cut off my head."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company