U.S. eager to replicate Afghan villagers' successful revolt against Taliban

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010

GIZAB, AFGHANISTAN -- The revolt of the Gizab Good Guys began with a clandestine 2 a.m. meeting. By sunrise, 15 angry villagers had set up checkpoints on the main road and captured their first prisoners. In the following hours, their ranks swelled with dozens of rifle-toting neighbors eager to join.

Gunfights erupted and a panicked request for help was sent to the nearest U.S. troops, but the residents of this mountain-ringed hamlet in southern Afghanistan held their ground. By sundown, they managed to pull off a most unusual feat: They kicked out the Taliban.

"We had enough of their oppression," Lalay, the one-named shopkeeper who organized the uprising, said in recounting the late April battle. "So we decided to fight back."

U.S. diplomats and military officials view the rebellion as a milestone in the nearly nine-year-long war. For the first time in this phase of the conflict, ordinary Afghans in the violence-racked south have risen on their own to reclaim territory under insurgent control.

It is a turnabout that U.S. and Afghan officials were not certain would ever occur. One U.S. commander called it "perhaps the most important thing that has happened in southern Afghanistan this year."

Although Gizab had long been used by the Taliban as a rest-and-resupply area for fighters traveling to battlegrounds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, losing access to the area represents at best a tactical blow for the insurgency. It will not, by itself, change the course of the war. There is no indication that the defeat will have any immediate effect in violence-plagued areas such as Marja or the city of Kandahar.

But U.S. officials say they have heard concern voiced by Taliban commanders on intercepts of telephone conversations. Several rank-and-file fighters, and even a few mid-level leaders, have put down their weapons and reintegrated into the community. Residents of neighboring towns have told Gizab elders that they also want to rise against the insurgents.

"The Taliban thought this place was untouchable, and what the people here showed them -- and everyone else -- was that they could stand up and break free from that grip," said Brig. Gen. Austin S. Miller, the top U.S. Special Operations commander in Afghanistan. One of his Special Forces teams moved here after the uprising to train the self-appointed local guardians, whom the American troops christened the Good Guys.

The insurrection did not draw immediate attention in Kabul or Washington because Gizab is in a remote part of the country that has largely been ignored by the Afghan government and international military forces. But as word of what occurred here has trickled out, U.S. and Afghan officials have scrambled to understand how it started and how it can be replicated.

Conversations with Gizab leaders and Special Forces officers suggest that there was no single proximate cause. The uprising appears to have been the result of a combination of Taliban overreaching, U.S. encouragement and local resentment.

"We're looking for the patterns," said a State Department official in southern Afghanistan. "If we can find it, we'll be on the verge of a breakthrough."

People's revolt

The first wave of Taliban commanders moved into Gizab in 2007. The residents were initially acquiescent, and unemployed young men in the area were eager to sign up as fighters for hire. The police's presence was nonexistent.

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