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Afghan Village Fights To Keep Taliban At Bay

Fighting For Survival In Northern Afghanistan
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(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.