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Violence escalates in strategic Afghan province as US continues peace talks

Residents in Kandahar's Zharay district walk in their fields on April 9, 2019. Some in the rural area say they don't support the government or the Taliban and would be happy with anyone who would provide security and improve the local economy.

PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN/STARS AND STRIPES

By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 6, 2019

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Stability has deteriorated sharply in the key southern province of Kandahar, home to a sprawling U.S. military airfield, following the assassination last fall of a U.S.-backed police chief, local officials said.

Kandahar province, considered the Taliban’s spiritual homeland, has seen some of the bloodiest fighting in America’s 17-year war. In recent years, Gen. Abdul Raziq’s police tactics were considered heavy-handed by some but effective in stemming the violence.

Raziq was killed in October during an insider attack at the provincial governor’s palace. He had just met with the top U.S. commander in the country, who escaped unharmed.

Since Raziq’s death, some residents — including those in Kandahar city, Afghanistan’s second-largest — have complained of declining security and an uptick in targeted killings.

“When these kinds of crimes start to happen in the city, you know the security is getting bad,” said Abdul Qayoum, a father of nine, whose 19-year-old son was a police officer killed after Raziq’s death. “Now there is insecurity and we’re scared. Most people around here think the situation will get worse.”

Last weekend, Taliban fighters rammed four explosives-packed Humvees into a government compound during a pre-dawn raid in eastern Maruf district, killing 19, including 11 police officers. It wounded two dozen other officers, the Interior Ministry said, though the Taliban touted higher casualty numbers.

The violence in the cities and vast stretches of Kandahar province, which is about the size of West Virginia, hasn’t directly affected most U.S. servicemembers at Kandahar Air Field.

The number of foreign forces on base are a fraction of what they were during a 2010-2012 troop surge. Many of the roughly 550 U.S. and coalition troops killed in the province throughout the war died during that time, while fighting for control of the provincial capital.

Many base amenities, such as American eateries that once lined a boardwalk, have since been removed, amid the U.S. drawdown five years ago, making room for a growing Afghan air wing.

But a realignment in early 2018 brought more U.S. troops and aircraft back to the base, including the fearsome A-10 aircraft and several MQ-9 Reaper drones, highlighting the continued importance of the province and the region, where the Taliban remain heavily ensconced. The move was intended to help thwart insurgent gains and drive the group to the negotiating table.

Yet, even as the latest round of U.S.-Taliban peace talks comes to an end, in many of Kandahar’s districts only the central towns are controlled by the government, Mohammad Yousaf Younasi, a member of the provincial council said in a recent phone interview. “The rest of the area is controlled by the Taliban.”

Increasing insurgent activity in Khakrez, northwest of the provincial capital, has left its district center “completely surrounded” and forced most government officials to flee, district governor Agha Noor told Stars and Stripes.

Most residents refuse to support either the Taliban or U.S.-backed government forces as they’re unsure who will eventually be in control, he said.

“If there is no connection between the government and the people, how can we win their hearts?” Noor asked.

Throughout the province, the first half of 2019 saw more than four times as many reports of armed clashes, roadside bomb blasts and insurgent rocket attacks than in the same period in 2018, data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project shows. This year’s figures were nearly 2.5 times higher than the same period in 2017.

“We’re losing many soldiers and police on a daily basis now,” said Younasi, the provincial council member. “It’s worse after the death of Gen. Raziq.”

Though he was endorsed by the U.S.-led coalition, Raziq had been accused of brutal tactics, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and torture. But he was credited with increased stability, largely by developing an influential network.

Some local officials said his brother Tadin Khan, who took his place, has failed to maintain the security gains.

“Tadin is our friend, but unfortunately, he cannot do a single thing Raziq was doing,” said provincial council member Ataullah Ata, during a visit to his villa in an affluent Kandahar neighborhood, where several framed photos of him and Raziq hung on the walls.

Khan’s biggest flaw is a lack of collaboration with influential tribesmen or politicians in districts outside the capital, Ata said.

“If (Khan) continues like this and the situation doesn’t change, maybe the fighting from the front lines will arrive inside the city,” Ata said.

Khan’s supporters acknowledge the Taliban is focused on destabilizing Kandahar, but they disputed concerns about his leadership.

“When Gen. Raziq was alive, even then, there were terrorist attacks,” said Abdul Hanan Munib, Kandahar’s deputy governor.

Munib said the government has killed or captured hundreds of armed militants in recent months.

“Overall we don’t have to worry,” Munib said. “The tribes are collaborating with the government, even though some people will say otherwise.”

The biggest threat now is the possible withdrawal of U.S. forces and their aircraft, said Munib, who said a precipitous exit risks undermining its sacrifice of troops’ lives and taxpayer dollars.

American and Taliban representatives have for months been negotiating terms for a withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of the ongoing peace talks, and President Donald Trump has long said he wants to pull out the roughly 14,000 troops in the country.

“Everyone’s concern is that if the international community stops supporting Afghanistan, there will again be internal wars,” Munib said.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

wellman.phillip@stripes.com
Twitter: @pwwellman

 

A pair of A-10 ''Warthog'' Thunderbolt II planes prepare to take off on a mission from Kandahar Air Field in 2018. A force realignment in early 2018 brought more U.S. troops and aircraft back to the base, including the A-10s and MQ-9 Reaper drones.
CHAD GARLAND/STARS AND STRIPES

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