Taliban strangle southern heartland

Published November 18, 2006

KANDAHAR: Thousands of cars, gleaming in the desert sun, fill sales yards along the road to the airport in Afghanistan's second city. The shops and bazaars of Kandahar are full to bursting.

But the prosperity is deceptive in the city where the Taliban was born, now a centre of violence amid a resurgence by the hardline Islamist group five years after it was toppled from power by US-led forces.

“It's getting worse. I am afraid -- these suicide attacks happen all the time,” said Ahmad Shah, a 60-year-old tyre mechanic outside his shop -- an old shipping container on the airport road by the city gates.

“The foreigners fight only for themselves. The Taliban fight only for themselves.”

The road from the city to the airport, a major military base, has been the scene of many bombings targeting foreign troops.

In August, a suicide bomber rammed his car into a Nato convoy near Shah's shop, killing a civilian and wounding several more.

This has been the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the Taliban's hardline government was ousted in November, 2001.

A resurgent Taliban is fighting back, fuelled by drug money, safe havens in Pakistan and growing frustration and anger among Afghans at the lack of reconstruction or a real economy.

“It is getting worse because they (the Taliban) have got stronger,” Shah said. “It's getting worse because people don't have jobs. They have nothing.”

Until recently, the Taliban had virtually surrounded Kandahar, where one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar began his movement in 1994.

In September, the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) launched a two-week offensive against the insurgents, killing at least 500. Attacks in the south have dropped since, but the Taliban remains strong and active.

“If it keeps going on like this, nothing will get better,” said Faizal Huk, who runs one of about 70 car sales yards along the airport road. “Fighting for the Taliban is like work. That's all they have.”

He estimates his business has almost halved in the past few months due to worsening violence. The middle-aged father of six never fled his homeland during years of Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule.

“Now, I will go anywhere,” he said. “I spent all my life in Afghanistan. Now we will be refugees. I don't think things will improve. It is getting worse day-by-day.

“We don't have any hope for our children. Tomorrow or the day after we will die, we are old. What will happen to our children?”

Increasingly in Kandahar, people are talking of leaving the country or of friends or relatives who already have, although there is no real evidence yet of a mass exodus by residents.

The head of the 31,000-strong ISAF, British General David Richards, has warned failure to reinforce military victories with reconstruction, jobs and a better life is undermining the mission in Afghanistan.—Reuters

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