Graeme Smith / Globe and Mail – 2007-04-17 23:02:28
As Night Follows Day, the Taliban Return
Graeme Smith / Globe and Mail
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (April 13, 2007) — Fear darkens the bloodshot eyes of Abdul Rahman as he explains why he can’t sleep. A few months ago, he felt confident that life was improving in Sangisar, a cluster of villages about 40 kilometres west of Kandahar city, where a double bombing killed two Canadians this week.
The Canadian troops had recently asserted control by building a new forward base near Mr. Rahman’s home, and the foreign troops were popular: They didn’t steal from anybody, they respected local customs and they gave the villagers an electrical generator and lights.
But eventually the Canadians went away, he said, and that’s when the trouble started again. Sangisar is just one warren of mud huts among thousands where the Canadians are trying to maintain security, in the dangerous swath of farmland along the Arghandab River. The Canadians are following the textbook rules of counterinsurgency, establishing dominance in a so-called ink spot, and hoping the zone of security will grow as they push outward.
That doctrine calls for backfilling the foreign troops with Afghan forces, but the well-trained ranks of the Afghan National Army are stretched thin. As the Canadians grew embroiled in operations elsewhere in the province, the villagers of Sangisar noticed that the Canadian and ANA forces at local outposts had been replaced by men who wore police uniforms but didn’t behave like professional officers.
Meet the Topakan
These rogue security forces are a problem so familiar to southern Afghanistan that the Pashtun language now includes a word for them: topakan, roughly translated as “gun lord.”
When the roadside bombs exploded this week in Sangisar, the local villagers acknowledged that the explosives were probably planted by Taliban fighters. But the Taliban would never have gotten back into Sangisar, they say, if it weren’t for the topakan.
Mr. Rahman, a wealthy landowner, said he saw groups of eight to 10 armed Taliban in his village this week. Residents had encouraged them to return, he said, because the corrupt police who recently replaced the Canadian troops were trying to muscle their way into the local opium trade.
“This was an argument between the people and the topakan, and the Taliban took advantage of this,” he said.
The Sangisar bombings were part of a recent spate of explosions that have killed eight Canadian soldiers in the past week, prompting some Canadians to wonder whether conditions in southern Afghanistan have worsened.
In fact, police records obtained by The Globe and Mail suggest that bombings around Kandahar have remained a constant threat over the past 12 months.
But the recent bombings highlight a dilemma faced by Canadian war planners: As the Canadian troops expand their zone of influence around Kandahar city, the size of their territory forces them to rely more heavily on Afghan forces to keep the peace.
Warlords in Police Uniforms
Even the simple task of identifying gunmen who belong to officially sanctioned Afghan security services is often problematic, however. Two weeks ago, two armed men in police uniforms blocked a road in Kandahar city and started pulling aside motorists, asking to check their vehicle papers. Police say the gunmen seized two motorbikes on the pretext that their papers weren’t valid; the bikes’ owners were told they could collect their vehicles the next day at a local police station, and it wasn’t until the next morning that the confused motorists realized they had been robbed.
“They wear police uniforms but they don’t work for the government,” an Interior Ministry official said. “They have big compounds, their own jails and they kidnap teenage boys for sex. The situation is very bad.”
The problem isn’t just warlords masquerading as police, the official said. Police forces in some districts are often composed of warlord militias absorbed into the police ranks.
Cops as Robbers
These topakan are so unpopular that Kandahar residents say impromptu celebrations broke out in the city’s northern slums after insurgents ambushed a notorious police unit in Uruzgan, killing 14 officers.
“If we change a commander in the districts, the new commander will have to bring all his own soldiers, so it’s very hard to bring security to these areas,” said Colonel Shir Ali Saddiqui, 47, the only human-rights officer on staff at the Kandahar police department. “And, always, there is corruption everywhere.”
Mohammed Ehsan, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, said the Canadians must do more to professionalize the police and break the tribal structures within the force.
Only eight months ago, Mr. Ehsan said, his personal guards caught two thieves ransacking a house in his neighbourhood. Mr. Ehsan handed them over to the police, but three days later he was astonished to see the same men wearing police uniforms, patrolling outside his home.
“In this situation, how can people trust the government?” he said.
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