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Afghan Village Fights To Keep Taliban At Bay

By Muhammad Tahir
Fighting For Survival In Northern Afghanistani
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October 01, 2010
Fifty Afghan militiamen are putting their lives on the line to keep the Taliban out of their village. But without support from the government in Kabul, they might be forced to give up their fight.

(WATCH: Muhammad Tahir visits the militiamen fighting for their village.)


TARBUZ GUZAR, Afghanistan -- The village of Tarbuz Guzar nestles in a forest along the banks of the Konduz River.

It is surrounded by green, even in the heat of summer, giving it little in common with the images of rolling arid land in many other parts of Afghanistan.

But if the village looks idyllic, and its good farmlands make it relatively wealthy, it is living a nightmare.

For over a year, Tarbuz Guzar has been on the frontline of the fight to keep the Taliban spreading further north in Konduz Province. It is a lonely fight, waged by the village's own militia force and funded almost entirely by the villagers themselves.

It is also a desperate fight. The villagers are too poor to sustain their force of 50 militiamen forever. The commander of the militia estimates that if it does not get outside help, he cannot continue to fight the Taliban for more than another three to four months.

The precise frontline is a mud-and-brick fortress that stands a few kilometers south of Tarbuz Guzar and is the militia's stronghold. It has a commanding hilltop view over flat land that changes from the forest by the river into desert scrub farther out. The walls of the fortress are pockmarked with bullet holes from repeated Taliban attacks.

Nadir Sheikh, the leader of the militia, is a slight man in his mid-40s with a mild but commanding appearance. He has been fighting all of his adult life, beginning as a mujahedin against the Soviets. But with his own family living in the village he is defending, the fighting has never been as personal for him as it is now, or the future as threatening.

"I hope we can stand firm until the end of this year. God willing, we will try. By then we hope the government will have made its decision [to help]; if they haven't, then how long can we hold up? It has been 14 months now; I think we can only stay for four more months. Our number of fighters is growing but the villagers do not have enough resources to continue to support us."

In The Grips Of The Taliban

The Afghan government announced in July it would begin recruiting thousands of militiamen nationwide to strengthen security forces against the resurgent Taliban. The militiamen, operating under the auspices of the Interior Ministry as a kind of local police force, were to be supplied with weapons unless they already had their own and were to be paid 60 percent of a regular police salary.

The militia post near Tarbuz Guzar, in northern Afghanistan
But despite continuous talks with officials, Tarbuz Guzar's fighters have yet to see any significant assistance. And the Taliban, who already partially or fully control much of Konduz Province, including Chahar Dara district just south of Tarbuz Guzar, is continually increasing its pressure.

Just a few hundred meters from the front of the fortress is a small village -- Zlum Abat -- which already has been partially taken over by the Taliban. It is in no-man's land, belonging to the Tarbuz Guzar militia by day and to the Taliban by night. The disputed village succumbed to the Taliban when it first began getting ultimatums from the resurgent force, the kind of ultimatums Tarbuz Guzar refused.

"The Taliban came to our district of Qala-i Zal," Khawaja Murad, one of Nadir Sheikh's fighters, describes the way the ultimatums arrive. "They didn't even go to talk to the people, they just informed the imams of the mosques by letter that people should pay ushur and zakat [religious tithes] from their agricultural products, such as grain. With one letter, they were able to collect 24,500 kilograms of grain."

He says they also got similar tithes from other agricultural products before demanding payments of 1,000 afghanis from each married couple.

"Then they ordered us to elect a commander and to create a 10-member local Taliban force," Murad says.

Murad also has a family in Tarbuz Guzar. He says his fellow villagers met and decided to resist the Taliban demands, even though they knew the consequences of taking up arms. If the Taliban ever take their village by force, it will kill the families of all those who opposed them.

Murad wears dark glasses and doesn't take them off to talk, even though that is considered impolite in Afghanistan. The glasses hide one shattered eye, which he lost fighting during the mujahedin times. He is one of the militia's most motivated and capable warriors, frequently volunteering for night duty.

Taliban Tactics

It is at night when the Taliban usually attack, creeping up through the trees and scrub to surround the fort on three sides. Mostly, they wait for a night when informants in Zulm Abat tell them the fort is undermanned. Those are the times when many of the militiamen have gone off to attend a wedding in their village or on other personal business.

Khawaja Murad (top row, left) and fellow militiamen at their post on the frontline near Tarbuz Guzar.
A few nights ago, when only Murad and two novice fighters remained behind to guard the fort, the Taliban arrived almost immediately. Murad fought them off by racing between the fort's single heavy machine gun in one tower and its single rocket launcher in the other. Only his years of experience at reading how a battle is evolving allowed the three men to keep their attackers at bay until other members of the force got back to help them.

But even as the local militia is able to hold off the Taliban in firefights, it cannot stop the Taliban from conducting their own version of a hearts-and-minds campaign to weaken the population's resistance.

Last month, the Taliban killed the district chief of Qala-i Zal with a roadside bomb placed near to this office. Two weeks earlier, a bomb went off in the bazaar of one of Tarbuz Guzar's neighboring villages, Ak Depe, killing three civilians and injuring many others.

Perhaps more worrisome, says militia commander Nadir, the Taliban have sympathizers even in Tarbuz Guzar who help spread their message that Afghanistan is being conquered by foreign troops. He says one of the Taliban's most powerful propagandists is the village's own mullah, who runs a boarding-school madrasah next to the mosque.

The mullah, who used to also be the mosque's imam, or prayer leader, once gathered together his pupils to collect stones and wait for a German army convoy which was scheduled to visit Tarbuz Guzar. When the trucks arrived, the boys stoned them. After that, Nadir and other village elders removed the mullah from his post as imam but the religious man's stature in the village prevents taking any further steps against him.

Occasionally, Nadir says, young men defect from the village to join the Taliban. Some go because of their own convictions, some because their families feel it is safer to have representatives on both sides of the conflict. The uncertainty of whether the government will finally help the militia only adds to the frequency of the defections.

Desperate Appeals

The government's inaction is a source of constant complaints from the militiamen, who formed their group approximately 14 months ago. The inaction is particularly galling because, Nadir says, government officials at the time were among those urging the village to raise a defense force.

"We got ready and from the other side the government encouraged us to arm ourselves. District government officials promised to help us, but so far nothing has came from them," Nadir says. "It is the villagers who have done everything and the majority of our bullets are even purchased for us by the people. Our weapons were also purchased by the people. Some rich people of the village helped us, they bought us motorbikes and weapons, all of them were made available by our people."

The German military, which is the NATO force responsible for defending Konduz as well as several other northern provinces, has been a little more helpful.

The fighters say that sometimes as battles rage, the Germans send a helicopter to fly low over the battlefield, not firing but making a lot of noise. That is enough to force the Taliban to retreat for better cover and turn the tide of the fighting. After a battle is over, a German helicopter sometimes also evacuates the badly wounded. But the fact the Germans don't take any part in the fighting themselves strikes the militiamen as mysterious.

By contrast, the Taliban have proven to be both a determined and well-coordinated force that appears able to bring in fighters as needed from other parts of Konduz and even farther afield.

One of the militiamen takes up a battle post near Tarbuz Guzar.
The Tarbuz Guzar militia is a mixture of ethnic Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, the three other main communities which share Konduz Province with the Pashtun.

That ethnic difference might suggest that the creeping Talibanization of northern Afghanistan is due to the Taliban using ties within the Pashtun community to reassert itself. The Taliban in southern Afghanistan has its core in the Pashtun population and many Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan have family as well as linguistic and cultural ties to the south.

But the fighters who are holding the Taliban back from Tarbuz Guzar, and who know their enemy well, say the story is more complicated than that.

Murad says the Taliban are able to recruit across community lines because they offer one thing that all Afghans want equally: security.

"Regardless of who rules the area, the people of Afghanistan only care about security and the Taliban seemingly do provide security. So people are easily taken in by the Taliban," Murad says. "But once the villagers let them into an area, the people become hostages, because after taking charge of the region, the Taliban force them to obey their demands. So in this case, people are left with only two options: to leave their homes or bow to the demands of the Taliban."

Ironically, the men who are fighting the Taliban now face virtually the same desperate choice, despite the fact that they took up arms expressly to avoid it.

As the militia's supplies dwindle and the government continues to delay without explanation, the prospect that the militiamen's fort could be over-run increases. And then the choice would be simply between flight and joining the Taliban.

For those with extended families, joining the Taliban would likely be the better choice. It would spare their kin revenge killings and allow the village as a whole to continue its life.

The prospect that even the Taliban's bitterest foes could one day switch sides to save their relatives does not strike those who know the rules of the game as even strange.

A leading politician from Qala-i Zal who does not want to be named says that if the militiamen "do not want to put the lives of their fellow villagers in danger, they may negotiate with the Taliban by sending their elders to them."

"But in this case, I am afraid the negotiations would be according to the Taliban's terms," he says, "which means that if the militiamen do not want to be killed, they will be forced to join the Taliban and attack the government in Konduz."

For now, such reversals are far from the militiamen's minds as they say they are both determined and able to fight the Taliban advance. But whether they ultimately will succeed in their effort now depends as much upon what happens in Kabul as upon the battlefield -- and about that they have no certainty.
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by: Jean-Claude Forget from: Budapest/Hungary
October 01, 2010 12:04

Between 2001 and 2006, hardly any effective/efficient and well coordinated support was extended by the international community (despite many pledges to this effect in international conferences, too many!) for the reconstruction and socio-economic development across the Afghanistan territory that would have definitely made a real difference between the Taliban's and Karzaï's western countries backed administration's eras. Such a support would have then - in all likelihood - successfully triggered/boosted commitment by regular religious conservative Afghans living in rural areas (who represent nothing but some 90% of the overall Afghan population) to avoid the Taliban's "come back".

Why are the Germans - Nato's military forces in the Konduz province - not providing an active military support to such militiamen in Tarbuz Guzar/Konduz province , while the latter are disgracefully left alone face to face with the Taliban by Karzaï's administration ?

The way resistance to the Taliban goes on in Konduz province and everywhere else in Afghanistan, against the background of well rooted corruption at all levels in the Afghan administration coupled with judicial inpunity for warlords' HR violations and for common-law criminals' activities it is therefore not whether the Taliban will conquere all the regions in Afghanistan that are not yet under their full control, but when...



by: Kaity from: USA
October 01, 2010 17:28
This makes completely no sense! Why doesn't the Afghan government give these guys supplies? These are devoted soldiers who are trying to defend Afghanistan and are willing to do it with no pay. If the government doesn't want to lose their country, and UN forces don't want to be fighting this war for the next 10 years, they should really get their act together before it is too late.

by: Baybal
October 02, 2010 09:55
Tragically, the only thing I can say is that I want to laugh at an absurd of the situation. Even me myself who was hanging on Afghan Turkment BBSes 24*7 last month can't mock up what's actually happening in the Afghan north now. It's completely free for all now. Thank you Mr. Bush for your bombs! You have brought neither democracy, neither autocracy, but simply death of many!

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
October 02, 2010 17:33
As an American taxpayer, all I can say is 'what a joke!' How do we know these guys are not merely using the threat of Taliban to extort money from foreigners? Here's one solution: pack a C-5 filled with stacks of $100 bills and fly over region releasing the cash to the locals. Then set up a weapons store, where the locals can buy guns and ammo. Sure to be as effective as the current madness. Bring American troops home now!

by: Ahmad
October 03, 2010 08:10
I think helping these local foxes are really good idea to keep the taliban out of the town, because these guys knows who those Talibans are and how they can be prevented from further advancement.

First they have a personal reason to stop Taliban, because while they fight, they fight not only to save the village but also save their own life and life of their family members and tribes, so they do it not for a money, but for a personal reason.

While foreign and Afghan soldiers fight for money, and are not from the same region, therefore when they fight back against the Taliban, they make lots of mistakes by orchestrating mass killings of innocent people in the name of taliban, which makes more enemies against the government and Int. community.

I think all what the American or afghan government should do is, while keeping these local militia in control, help them, remain closer to them, which will allow officials to know what is going on among the group members.

As I understand they however doesn’t say, that they don’t want to be under the government control, in fact they insist to be part of any official frame work, so its madness to not back them and not take them.

Because they are achieving some thing, which tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign troops can’t. Failure to support them will be a nightmare for afghan government and int. community, because these guys wellingly or unwillingly has to support taliban if they were defeated.

In case of their surrounded what the Taliban make them do is no less then putting them frontline and make them attack to the foreign troops as well as the government.

I think in case they will have even more reason to attack against the government because, officials seems encouraged them to establish this militia with false promise, and now they left alone face to face with their destiny.

by: A.S.
October 05, 2010 20:58
NATO should partition Afghanistan along ethnic lines, as proposed by Robert Blackwill. The NATO forces should withdraw from the Pashtun south and protect the Non-Pashtun north. Non-Pashtun militias, like the one in the article, should be supported. That would reduce the cost of the war in the US and Europe, it would reduce the number of soldiers needed, and it would integrate the local population. Right now, the mostly Non-Pashtun army of Afghanistan is directed to the south to fight Pashtun Taliban for a corrupt Pashtun government which totally neglects the needs of the Non-Pashtun north and west. There is no will and no motivation to fight the Taliban. Once Afghanistan is partitioned, there will be a will and the need to fight the Pashtun Taliban, the same way Non-Pashtuns fought the Taliban prior to the 2001 NATO invasion. Afghanistan is not a united country, it is a de facto partitioned country right now.

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