In Kandahar, the Taliban targets and assassinates those who support U.S. efforts

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A01

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- The Wolesi family was everything the American military cannot afford to lose.

The father was a devoted civil servant. The mother taught sewing classes for the United Nations. The eldest son, Jawed Ahmad, worked as an interpreter at the NATO base.

But with a dozen bullets last month, the Taliban won the battle for the Wolesi family. Ahmad's father was executed in the street. His mother quit her job. Ahmad dropped out of college and does not want to leave the house. Or open his mouth: "When my father passed away, I lost my English," he said in Pashto.

In Kandahar, the Taliban's most powerful weapon has become the calculated assassination. The tools of this campaign are rudimentary -- ropes, knives, old rifles -- but the results have been devastating. By executing those who work or sympathize with the government, the Taliban has made clear that those supporting the American military effort here are risking their lives. Each new death brings more dread in a city of hunters and hunted.

"They're watching us. We don't know who, but they're watching," Ahmad said. "Nowhere is safe. We cannot escape."

The killings take aim at the fundamental goal of the U.S. military's planned summer offensive in Kandahar: to build a credible local government that responds to the needs of the people. In the past month, about six people have quit the already understaffed provincial government, and other federal ministry representatives in the province have taken leave. Targeted by bombs and killings of their local staff, foreigners working for U.S. government contractors and the United Nations have fled for Kabul.

The tactics in Kandahar differ from those in other major cities, such as Kabul, where attacks often involve high-profile, multipronged assaults by gunmen and suicide bombers against government or commercial buildings. The killers here rely on stealth and speed.

The spate of killings has reached the rate of one to two a week. Targets are everywhere: government bureaucrats, policemen, aid workers, tribal elders. In the first four months of the year, 27 government officials or Afghans working with foreign contractors in Kandahar city were assassinated, according to U.S. figures. In the same period in 2009, there were 15 such killings; in 2008, there were six.

Last Wednesday, it was Nadi Gul Khan, the office manager of Kandahar's Saraposa prison, shot by a bicyclist who pedaled up to his car window during his morning commute. Before that came Azizullah Yarmal, the city's deputy mayor, executed as he bent to prayer in a mosque. Three weeks after tribal elder Abdul Rahman rose in a crowded hall to tell President Hamid Karzai about the problems in Kandahar, Rahman lay bleeding in the dirt outside his house. His assassins roared off on a motorcycle.

The attacks are occasionally preceded by a warning. The chancellor of Kandahar University, Hazrat Mir Tota Khil, held out with a trembling hand his Nokia cellphone. "We've warned you many times to stop working with the government," the text message began. "Just keep counting the days of your life. Your death has been approved."

Nearly four months ago, Ahmad's father, Mohammad Hussein Wolesi, who ran the cooperative farm program at the Agriculture Ministry, woke to find a similar message taped to his gate. The note was penned in blue ink on Taliban stationery, addressed to "Mr. Manager."

"For a long time we've been receiving reports about you, your sons, and your women. They are working with the government," it read. "If they do not stop within three days, you will not have a chance to complain."

Wolesi dialed the phone number at the bottom of the letter. The man who answered demanded money. Wolesi arranged to deliver more than $1,000 in Pakistani currency, the handoff conducted at a traffic circle near the family home. As a precaution, Wolesi told his wife to stay away from the office and sent his son to Kabul. But he kept working.

"We didn't have enough money to move the whole family to Kabul," Ahmad said. "He never thought the Taliban would actually kill him."

Shots fired as warning

The tribal elder Manan Khan received his warning in the form of gunfire directed at his house last August. He was a former district chief who traveled with a phalanx of bodyguards and worked within sight of police headquarters.

On May 7, Khan and three bodyguards sat down for a meal of okra and yogurt at his office. They soon grew drowsy. The men who entered the room worked with dispatch. They stabbed Khan in the heart. One guard was gutted. A second beheaded. The third was taken alive.

The police and Khan's relatives suspect the men were poisoned: A puppy that lapped up the food wobbled for a while, then keeled over dead. But by whom and for what purpose is unclear.

The motives behind assassinations in Kandahar are often complex. Relatives weave complicated theories, not all of which involve the Taliban. Without an effective justice system, disputes over women or money can hurtle unchecked. Revenge is a daily reality.

"The people who live here have cautioned us: 'Don't assume it's all insurgent. And don't assume it's mostly insurgent,' " one U.S. official in Kandahar said. "The Taliban is a cover for a multitude of sins down here."

Sometimes the victims themselves are a mystery. On the same day Khan was stabbed, police in the Arghandab River valley found a man strung up like a hammock -- head tied to one tree, feet to another. Apparently he was enjoying a picnic of mulberries in a walled garden before he was killed. Police found a note warning that anyone who works for the government would meet a similar fate. "We have no idea who this man was," said Haji Abdul Ahad, the Arghandab police chief.

Too much for police

Kandahar has about 2,000 policemen, but they are generally considered ill-trained and unprofessional.

"We can't assign a policeman to every resident in the city," said Kandahar's police chief, Sardar Mohammad Zazai.

To protect Afghan officials, U.S. and Canadian military contingents in Kandahar have provided armored cars, assigned foreign security details and launched ambitious plans to fortify government buildings. One idea is to build a bulletproof "ballistics walkway" between the offices of the mayor and governor.

Zazai disputes the notion that the Taliban is getting stronger in Kandahar. "This is all a propaganda campaign. They want to show the world that the government of Afghanistan is weak," he said. "The Taliban can't fight our forces face-to-face; they can only assassinate the people."

When Abdul Rahman stood up at a gathering in early April, he told Karzai that the president must unite the tribal factions for security to improve in Kandahar.

Rahman had personally seen some of the area's worst violence. He was a tribal elder and major landowner in the lush orchards of the Arghandab, an area adjacent to Kandahar city where U.S. troops had suffered heavy casualties before reinforcements flooded the valley. An aging former guerrilla who fought the Soviet occupation, Rahman walked with a cane, but his word carried authority.

Rahman was close to the police chief and supported government programs, his relatives said. He participated in a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development that employed a few hundred residents on his farm. Earlier this year, gunmen came to his fields and demanded that the project stop. Rahman became furious.

"He told everyone to come back to work and said, 'Nobody can dare threaten you to stop working,' " said his son, Abdul Raouf.

Rahman's family is not sure what to make of his killing. They don't believe his association with the United States was the main reason, or his friendship with the police chief. He was a wealthy man; maybe it was about money. And there are many people in the government they do not trust.

"We really don't know what was the cause of his killing," said his brother, Mohammad Naeem. "God only knows whether he was killed by the Taliban or by the government. We have our suspicions about both."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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