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Kandahar slides into lawlessness as Taliban attacks force government to retreat

Along with the violence go the threats. Bismillah Afghanmal, a member of the provincial council, said that in the weeks since Babai's killing, he has been getting threatening calls and text messages on his cellphone. Afghanmal still has scars on his head from when he survived an attack last year by seven suicide bombers who stormed the council building, killing and wounding scores. With Babai's killing, he said, "the whole system has been intimidated."

The violence has become so widespread in recent weeks, and so seemingly random, that many residents are suggesting that other shadowy forces -- criminals, drug lords, corrupt local officials and police -- may profit from the instability.

"The Taliban are just part of the problem," said Abdul Qader Noorzai, the Kandahar program manager for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "The increase in criminal activity is out of the control of the local authorities."

If Kandahar city is sliding into lawlessness, the surrounding province appears in even worse shape. In the city, the government has retreated behind concrete barricades; in much of the countryside, there is no government presence.

Kandahar province is divided into 17 districts, and the human rights commission said the government is in control of five. As for the other 12 districts, "I cannot say they are under the control of the Taliban," Noorzai said, "but they are out of the control of the government."

Haji Raz Mohammed, president of a district council, said he regularly negotiates with the Taliban to prevent its fighters from destroying development projects. "The Taliban is there, the Americans are there, the government is there," he said, "But nobody is really in control of the district."

To operate so easily, in the city and the province, the Taliban must rely on some level of local support. Khalid Pashtun, a member of parliament from Kandahar, estimates the Taliban's support at about 10 percent or less of the area's population, emerging either from tribal connections or ideological affinity.

Abdul Satar, a former Taliban minister of refugees and returnees who switched sides a year ago, estimates that there are 3,000 to 4,000 active Taliban fighters in Kandahar province, and he said people assist the Taliban not out of loyalty, but out of fear.

"The majority of people say they are afraid of the Taliban," said Satar, who works as a paid adviser to the government's reconciliation commission in Kandahar. "But they are better than the government, because the government is so corrupt."

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