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U.S. CASH FOR AFGHAN WATER PROJECTS GOES TO TALIBAN

by Mirwais Atal

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(ENS) GHAZNI -- When U.S. troops in the southern province of Ghazni handed out cash to village elders, they must have thought they were winning friends. The money, intended for bridges, wells, drinking water, irrigation systems and other infrastructure projects, was supposed to convince the local Afghans that the foreign presence would benefit their country in general and themselves in particular.

After distributing the funds to villagers in Ghazni's Andar district in early October, the U.S. soldiers departed, having done their best to get the district on side.

Their hearts and minds campaign is part of a major anti-Taliban offensive codenamed Operation Mountain Fury, which U.S.-led coalition forces launched in mid-September in conjunction with the Afghan National Army, ANA.

But the resources intended to combat Taliban influence ended up doing just the opposite. Local people in several parts of Andar district say that almost as soon as the coalition forces left their villages, the money found its way into Taliban coffers to finance the jihad against the foreigners.


"American money is haram [unlawful in Islam]," said Abdul Jalil, an elder in one village. "We could not use it to improve our lives. So we decided to give it to the Taliban. The most important thing we could do with this money was help the Taliban to pursue the jihad."

At a gathering in the local mosque, mullahs exhorted the faithful to reject foreign blandishments and contribute to the insurgency, said Jalil. The elders agreed, so the Taliban were summoned and the money handed over.

An elder in another village called Lashko, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the villagers were well aware that they could not use the funds without Taliban consent.

"It's the Taliban who are with us in the night time," he said. "They are powerful: they can enforce their rules and punish those who violate them. One day, the U.S. troops gave us 50,000 afghani (US$1,000) for a construction project, but the Taliban came to us that evening and asked us what we were going to do with it. We told them it was their decision. They took the money and left."

According to this man, U.S. troops arrived a few days later to see what had been accomplished with their donation. At a loss to reply, villagers told them that the Taliban had taken the money by force.

"The soldiers were angry and threatened that they would not help us against the Taliban," he said.

Cash disbursements and distribution of goods were part of a special drive carried out in the course of military operations in areas where support for the Taliban has been strong. The fact that the aid was distributed by soldiers from an "occupying force" seems to have particularly angered the militants.

Other reconstruction projects administered by donors and carried out by contractors have had more success, although in places like Ghazni, implementing partners are becoming increasingly scarce, leaving assistance money and projects vulnerable to pressure from insurgents.

Asked about the military's cash handouts, Larry Falkenhausen, a spokesman for the Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, in Ghazni, acknowledged there had been problems, but said such incidents were few and far between.

"The Andar district chief told us it happened in one village," he said.

District Chief Muhammad Rahim Disiwal, however, suggested that a number of villages were involved, though he suggested the aid money was extorted from the civilian population rather than given freely.

"We have received such reports from some villages," he said. "The Taliban have used force to take aid materials distributed to villagers, which shows how they are robbing poor people and that they won't even let other people help them."

There are varying reports as to the level of force used by the Taliban to confiscate the aid. According to villagers, a combination of intimidation and persuasion seems to have been employed to get the residents of Andar district to refuse to cooperate with the coalition forces.

Ghazni had turned into a hub from which militants would spread into other areas, and Andar found itself at the center of Operation Mountain Fury, designed to combat the increased "Talibanization" of southern Afghan provinces.

Government officials in Andar were unable to venture beyond their district center, and police were afraid to turn off the main highways. The fighters, who had developed a well organized intelligence network with the help of local residents, would mine secondary roads and target any government convoys travelling along them.

Sympathy for the insurgency has been growing among villagers frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction as well as by government corruption and the deteriorating security situation.

The Taliban have made inroads in the province over the past several months, and now are beginning to bring back their own form of justice.

Ghazni has suffered a spate of armed robberies, and crime has been rife. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for eliminating one prominent bandit, Bismillah Khan, who was shot along with several others on the main Kabul-Kandahar road.

During the summer, the Taliban distributed so-called "night letters" in villages prohibiting residents from taking their legal problems to government courts. Instead, they set up Taliban courts to hear disputes, and villagers in Andar say the results have been welcomed by locals.

Organizing a shura or council in a mosque or home, a Taliban judge settles disputes according to Sharia law. Villagers see the process as quick, fair, free of corruption and enforceable, since the Taliban have armed men all over the area.

Operation Mountain Fury was supposed to rid the region of the Taliban, but in some cases it only made things worse, say Ghazni residents.

Some people complain that ANA troops deployed to protect them robbed their homes when they came to their villages. Reports of brutality against local residents by ANA men increased sympathy for the Taliban and hostility towards the coalition forces who were seen to be in league with the Afghan government military.

Maulavi Abdul Hakim, an influential religious scholar in Andar district, delivered a blistering sermon on the Eid holiday in November condemning those who had accepted cash and goods from the coalition forces.

"Giving this aid to our people is intended to win our support and justify their invasion," he told a crowd of villagers, after turning off the loudspeakers so that his lecture could not be heard from the road. "Those who help them are criminals whom God will not forgive."

While it is impossible to gauge with certainty the level of support enjoyed by the Taliban, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is considerable. During the hour or more that this reporter spent with a mid-level Taliban commander, the conversation was interrupted numerous times by phone calls, which the commander said were from ordinary people sharing intelligence.

When coalition forces enter a village, said the commander, local residents alert the Taliban by cell phone. The Taliban then have time to stage an ambush or mine the road leading away from the village.

Andar residents say that while the American forces were visiting villages to distribute aid, the Taliban were conducting a shadow campaign to discourage people from accepting anything from the foreigners.

Nasrullah Khan, a resident of the village of Bakhshi, said that the Taliban came into the mosque to warn the community that if they accepted money and goods from the soldiers, it would be their own fault if the militants conducted suicide attacks against the coalition forces in the village.

According to Nasrullah, a group of Taliban would go to every village right after the U.S. troops left, confiscating and burning any materials that had been given to the villagers and not yet divided up among people. They would make a public bonfire and destroy everything, he said.

"No one could object or stop them," he said.

Mullah Nasir Kakar, the Taliban's representative in one Ghazni district, with dozens of combatants under his command, said his men were harbored by villagers, and insisted that the cooperation was voluntary.

"We burn things that the foreign soldiers have distributed to try and win people's sympathy. We also take the money given to them. This is by order of our leadership," he said.

Mullah Naseer said that the money was used to buy supplies such as weapons, explosives, motorcycles and mobile phones.

"We are not allowed to keep a penny of that money for ourselves," he said.

Operation Mountain Fury is now over in Andar, and the Taliban boast that they have come through largely unscathed. Many of them simply left the province at the height of the offensive. Since Ghazni is flat, without forests or mountains, they prefer to plant mines and stage hit-and-run attacks rather than face a well-equipped enemy head on.

But according to residents, the situation is now "normalizing" meaning that once again, the Taliban are regaining control.


© 2006 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Mirwais Atal is the pseudonym used by a freelance reporter in Ghazni.


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Albion Monitor   December 5, 2006   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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