Kandahar slides into lawlessness as Taliban attacks force government to retreat

By Keith B. Richburg
Sunday, March 14, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- Even in this dusty, dangerous city long accustomed to violence, the killing last month of Abdul Majid Babai managed to shock.

Babai, a well-liked writer and poet, was the provincial government's minister of information and culture and was working to locate and preserve Afghanistan's antiquities. He was fatally shot Feb. 24 by two assailants on a motorcycle as he walked to work, as he always did, alone and without bodyguards.

His death appeared intended as a warning: No one, no matter how respected, is safe.

"Whoever is working for this government, the Taliban will kill him," said Haji Mohammed Qasim, a physician and tribal elder who was close to Babai. Qasim now carries a pistol in his pocket, travels only with two armed bodyguards and rarely leaves his home; for exercise, he jogs on his roof. "I am afraid," he said.

In theory, the Afghan government is in place in Kandahar, but its authority is nominal. Bombings and assassinations have left the government largely isolated behind concrete barricades and blast walls. In the latest burst of violence, a suicide squad struck across the city late Saturday, detonating bombs at a recently fortified prison, the police headquarters and two other sites, the Associated Press reported. At least 30 people were killed.

For the first time in years, however, the U.S. military again has Kandahar in its sights.

American troops are seeking to reclaim the city and surrounding province, where the Taliban has proved resurgent, more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion forced the group from power. But a visit here last week made clear that American forces will face an insidious enemy that operates mainly in the shadows and exercises indirect control through intimidation and by instilling fear. The provincial governor remains mostly behind barricades. The provincial council has trouble convening because many members have fled to Kabul. The police are viewed as ill-trained, corrupt and possibly in league with criminal gangs.

"I think nobody is in control," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who recently visited Kandahar. "What was worrying to me is how the government is nonfunctional."

In many ways, that makes the environment here more complicated than the one the Marines have encountered in neighboring Helmand province and the town of Marja, where the Afghan government's presence was nonexistent and where Taliban fighters were massed in large numbers. The Marines took Marja with relative ease, installing a governor handpicked by the Kabul government.

In Kandahar city, residents say, real power rests with Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the council and the younger brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Ahmed Karzai has been accused of vote rigging and involvement in the drug trade, allegations he has consistently denied. The eight judges still working in the city and province live together for security, packed into an impregnable compound, behind gray concrete walls topped with razor wire.

"If we want to walk, we just walk inside our building," said Judge Dilagha Hemat, director of the Kandahar appeals court, who like others hears cases in the fortress, where judges sleep two to a room and a cook prepares the meals.

In the past few weeks, the precarious security situation in Kandahar city has worsened, with several assassinations and car bombings.

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