Deadly traps lie in wait as Nato surge begins to drive Taliban out of Kandahar

Sophisticated roadside bombs greet troops on first day of fight for control of insurgents' birthplace, writes Kim Sengupta in Malajat

The "daisy chain" of nine explosive devices had been hidden at the base of a wall flanking a narrow alleyway. Two deafening blasts came within seconds of each other, spraying shrapnel and debris in an arc as the patrol came alongside. It was the second time in five days that the American and Afghan forces had been targeted in Malajat, a notoriously violent area used by bombers and gunmen as a base from which to strike into Kandahar City.

The attacks illustrate the difficulties faced in attempting to clear the militants out of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. There are, however, signs that the tide may be turning following a series of military operations in an area which, not so long ago, was regarded as "lost".

The offensive launched yesterday – one of "the most difficult and most important" to be carried out since the start of the war, according to Western commanders – comes at a pivotal time with a Nato summit in November set to shape the future course of action. General David Petraeus, the commander of Nato forces, is also to present his assessment of the campaign to the White House before the end of the year.

The Taliban have been ruthless in their attempts to hang on to their most important and symbolic military stronghold, assassinating over 500 tribal elders, religious scholars, and elected representatives in the process. The killings have been stepped up in the months preceding the Nato campaign.

Many of the murders have been planned and launched from Malajat, a feeder route into the city for insurgents. Three weeks ago a large US force, with a sizeable contingent of Afghan police, moved in, arresting suspects and seizing large amounts of bomb-making equipment and material. "After that we had a bit of a quiet time, no IEDs (improvised explosive devices) no shootings. You couldn't get too relaxed, but considering what the place was like..." Sergeant Robert Yonts said. Then, last week, a bomb went off two feet from him along a pathway, he received minor injuries, his eyes saved by protective goggles. "If it weren't for them I would be blind, simple as that," he said.

In the second attack Sergeant Anthony Gonzalez was with another patrol when the bandolier of bombs began to detonate. "The problem is that they are using very little metal content in the IEDS now, it makes them very difficult to detect," he said.

Colonel John Voorhees, commanding officer of the 504th Military Police Battalion, which is in charge of training the Afghan police in Kandahar, says the scale of insurgent activity has been drastically curbed.

But as the course of this war has shown, winning ground is one thing, holding it is another. Whether the Kandahar mission succeeds or not will depend on whether the Afghan security forces, especially the police, are able to fulfill that function.

The rising incidence of police officers taking part in attacks against Western troops – including the murders of five British soldiers – has also raised concerns about just how far the Taliban has infiltrated its ranks. Lieutenant Colonel Rowley Walker, who served in Helmand, was just one of many senior British and US officers to warn that corrupt police are turning people against the government and "acting as recruiting sergeants for the Taliban".

But preparing the police to take over security remains one of the key planks of the West's exit strategy. Captain John Cromley, of 1st Battalion Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, said: "I took part in police training in Iraq, in Baghdad and Basra, and we have actually got more people here doing that job. I think that shows how seriously we are taking all this."

Col Voorhees added: "A lot of the successful operations we are seeing now are Afghan planned and led. This is absolutely essential. But at the same time it is also essential that we continue to try and root out corruption.

"It's not just security, we have to establish co-ordination between various branches of the judiciary, enforcement, prosecution and sentencing. It's very demoralising for the police to arrest someone and then see them released because a tribal deal was done."

Haji Zikraya Khan and Mehboob Ali, both members of Kandahar's provincial assembly, had spoken out repeatedly against the Taliban. Last month they paid the price, both of them killed in a bomb attack. Mr Khan's family say that as well as being victims of insurgent brutality they, like many other Kandaharis, have first-hand experience of the rapacious police. "My uncle died because he was speaking out against oppression by the Taliban and revealed how the Pakistanis are supporting the terrorists." said Zulmai Mohammed.

Mr Mohammed's sister, Amina, used to be a clerk in government service. She stopped working after receiving a warning from the Taliban to stay at home. "They do not want women to have any independence. I will know security has improved when I can go back to work. A lot of other women feel the same way. Maybe things are getting better, but we are still afraid, we know women who have been killed for refusing to stop working."

Mr Mohammed conceded that there are some signs of improvement. "The security has improved in the city but there are still Taliban around, and we believe some of the police still sell them information. Things can get bad again. I am a target of the Taliban because of my family, because of what I have said. I must stay careful."

Colonel Ali Shirzaad, the police officer in charge of security in Kandahar City, insisted that most of the active Taliban in the city had been arrested or forced to flee into the surrounding rural areas. Taliban reinforcements, he claims, will come from across the country's border. "It is now well known what the Pakistanis are doing. There is a training school near Peshawar where the ISI (the Pakistani secret police) train people to make IEDs. And they also send their people here, we have arrested many of them."

But there are also powerful figures in the Afghan establishment who exercise a malignant influence, a group of strongmen wielding enormous influence. Major General Nick Carter, the British head of Nato forces in Kandahar, said they had emerged during the Russian occupation in the 1990s. "When you needed a patron, mobs and mafia prevailed, protection rackets were the order of the day. Within that environment it's very easy for the insurgents to intimidate and threaten those associated with the government."

Saif Rahman, a police officer, and his colleagues accept they will face attacks in the future and would like to be better protected against the threats. "We have just one AK [AK-47 assault rifle] between three of us, so we go out on patrols without rifles" he said. "I do not think the Taliban have the same problem."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

Technical Account Manager - Java, FIX Protocol, FIX 5.0, C++

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Account Manager - Java,...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform