'We want to talk to the Taliban. But they would rather kill themselves'

Control of Kandahar is key to withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the coming US offensive there will be a bloody one, writes Kim Sengupta

The first sign of the attack was somewhat mystifying: a tractor suddenly going up in flames on farmland beyond the base.

But there no ambiguity about what followed. A group of men charged, the first blowing himself up as he reached the fence, the others behind opening up with rifle fire. At the same moment, the first of a salvo of rockets launched from a distance landed inside Kandahar airfield.

It lasted no more than a few minutes. Once the tractor packed with explosives had prematurely detonated there was little chance of the Taliban fighters getting through, their suicide vests exploding as the Western troops cut them down. As the gunfire ended, and the smoke and fire began to clear, body parts and dismembered heads could be seen lying amid the unused arsenal – rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades and Kalashnikovs.

There was no intrinsic military gain for the insurgents in the assault, a fortnight ago, with only a 4ft-wide hole in the fence to show for five deaths. There was little chance of escape for the fighters even if they had turned back, with a dozen warplanes and helicopters already overhead. But it had propaganda value with some news reports declaring a "complex operation" which "led to a fierce hour-long firefight". The fact the target was Nato's airbase at Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and scene of the next major US-led offensive, gave it greater resonance.

"But what a waste of lives, blowing themselves up at a fence, what's the point of that?" asked Group Captain Ash Bennett, of the RAF Regiment, whose troops provide security at the base, later on. "Why don't they talk to us instead? Then we can see where we can go from here. At the end of the day this thing will have to be settled by talking."

Whatever the ideal, though, there is little doubt that there will be a lot of bloodletting in Kandahar before the talking begins. Clearing Kandahar and its hinterland was one of the main goals of General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, before his sacking by Barack Obama. It is now the first big test for General David Petraeus, his successor.

Gen Petraeus has stated that he does not consider himself bound by a July 2011 deadline set by President Obama to begin the withdrawal of US forces – a deadline that President Hamid Karzai yesterday said had boosted the Taliban's morale. It is highly unlikely that any large scale pull-out can take place until the Kandahar region has not only been reclaimed but held to prevent the Taliban from infiltrating back into the area.

There are contentious factors at play in Kandahar. Powerful local strongmen hold sway in large parts of the area, running private armies, seemingly not answerable to authority. The most high-profile and controversial of these is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the President, who is accused of running his fiefdom like a Mafia boss. At the same time, however, he is credited by the Afghan government with keeping a lid on the insurgency and, according to evidence at a Congressional hearing in Washington, is a CIA asset.

Even without the Nato clearance operation getting under way, the tempo of action is rising now that the poppy crop has been harvested. "There's little doubt we are facing a very hard summer ahead of us, it's not going away, we are facing a tough enemy," Group Captain Bennett acknowledged. But he stressed that information supplied by the local community has led to his troops, from 5 Force Protection Wing, recently arresting a senior Taliban leader responsible for planting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) the insurgents' weapon of choice.

British forces here can provide something lacking in other parts of Afghanistan – continuity. The RAF Regiment had been providing security for the airbase and the surrounding area for many years. "They know us and we have built up a relationship," said Squadron Leader David Caddick. "We can provide protection for these communities along with our Afghan partners. They tell us what they need and we help if we can."

But co-operation with Western forces and the Afghan government can be dangerous. The Taliban have killed over 500 tribal elders, religious scholars and elected representatives in the last six years and with the impending Nato offensive, have stepped up a campaign of assassinations against locals expected to help provide governance.

Two days ago Qari Abdol Wahed, the deputy chief of highway protection force, was killed in an ambush. Last week six policemen were shot dead after being poisoned, a similar attack to one in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country, in which six bank guards were drugged, then had their throats slit. On the same day two members of the provincial council who had spoken up against the Taliban, Haji Zikraya Khan and Mehboob Ali, died in bombings.

A few weeks earlier Abdul Jabar, the district chief of Arghandab, one of the localities where the autumn operation is to take place, was killed along with his son by a car bomb. This followed the massacre of 50 people, many women and children, by a suicide bomber.

Women in Kandahar have suffered the most under the Taliban. Many in public life have been murdered, among them Safia Amajan, the highest-ranking public official in southern Afghanistan, and Commander Malalai Kakar, a police officer who ran a unit rescuing abused women. Zarghuna Kakar, an MP, had to flee after her husband was killed and a daughter injured in an ambush. Before the shooting, Ms Kakar had repeatedly pleaded for security.

She turned in desperation to Ahmed Wali Karzai. "He told me there was nothing he could do," she recalled. "He also said that I should have thought about what may happen before I stood for election. But it was his brother, the Americans and the British who told us we women should get involved in political life."

Afghans living in areas under Taliban influence wait with trepidation on what is about to unfold. Habibullah and Mohammed Asim, farmers from a village near Zhari, west of Kandahar, described how the Islamist fighters arrived one morning and took up residence.

Speaking during a visit to Kandahar City to buy spare parts for his ancient tractor, Habibullah recalled how around 20 militant fighters arrived by motorcycles and cars and stipulated what was required from the inhabitants. "They have been there for many days and they are in charge," he said. "The Taliban said because they are looking after us we must help them. They did not take money but they took food – sheep, chicken and barley. Then we also have to feed them and sometimes let them stay at night. We do not like it, but what can we do? Where are the police and the army?"

But the two men also speak of their fear of when the security forces do arrive. "If they [Nato and government forces] carry out an air raid at our homes because the Taliban are there, or send soldiers at night, what will happen to us? We keep the women in a separate section but if we stay away from our homes at night they get suspicious. We feel we are trapped."

Air Commodore Gordon Moulds, in charge of Kandahar Airfield, stresses that avoiding civilian casualties remains the priority. "If we kill or injure civilians it gives a lot more support to the Taliban, it's as simple as that," he said. "I can understand the difficult position the people are in. There are atrocities being carried out by the insurgents, assassinations, people being beheaded. We are not up against a very nice enemy."

Air Commodore Moulds insists that progress is being made. "There are definitely signs that things are getting better. Just take one example, we have a school going which started with just eight children, now we have 40 down there ... the kids are sucking in education, speaking English they have picked up themselves. It shows how much the people here value things like education when they have a chance."

At present, however, there simply are not enough Afghan security forces to provide security and the gap is being filled by private security companies run by local power brokers like Ahmed Wali Karzai. Many citizens of Kandahar are wary of these strongmen. "These people are very powerful and it is not safe to go against them. I know what happens to people who go against them," said Mohsin Mohammed, an unemployed engineer, in a chai shop.

Major General Nick Carter, the British commander of Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, stressed that much progress had taken place since phased, low level, security operations got under way in Kandahar last April.

But he continued: "The nature of the problem in Kandahar City is one characterised by Moscow in the 1990s. When you needed a patron, mobs and the 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.

"But we are getting on with it and I would hope by the time the parliamentary elections come around [mid-September], Kandaharis would feel a little bit more secure. I'm a great believer in Afghanistan in doing things quietly if you can, under-promising, then hopefully overachieving."

Kandahar City Timeline

Winter 2001: Taliban forced from city by US Special Forces with Afghan allies

Spring 2004: A revitalised insurgent force fails in major offensive to take back city Summer 2005 Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's brother, becomes city's key powerbroker

Winter 2006: Canadian troops take responsibility for the province from US

Summer 2008: Taliban gain control of areas 10 miles west of Kandahar City and launches campaign to intimidate pro-coalition locals

Summer 2010: With Canadian forces due to withdraw next year, allies consider moving British troops from Helmand – a proposal still under consideration

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