By Keith B. Richburg
Sunday, March 14, 2010; A13
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.
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."