- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | The Taliban is seeking to blunt the surge of an additional 20,000 U.S. troops through stepped-up attacks on Afghans working with the U.S.-backed government, U.S. and Afghan officials say.

For much of the past year, the militant group has worked to weaken the link between the government and citizens through targeted assassinations of people who work for or with Afghan institutions. This wave of intimidation is an enormous obstacle to Afghan officials and local tribal council members trying to reach out to Afghan citizens, often in areas where the government has lacked a firm grip.

“It’s becoming more difficult to recruit new people who are outspoken and willing to speak against the militants and violence, and for the government,” said Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads Kandahar’s provincial council and is a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “There’s just no proper security in place.”

A police chief and three of his officers in Jalrez district, west of Kabul, the Afghan capital, were the latest victims. They died Monday in a roadside bombing. U.S. forces who were deployed into the area earlier this year had helped to organize the local police force.

Taliban leaders have made it clear that Afghans with ties to the government or foreign troops, or who display any other forms of resistance to the militants, are liable to be assassinated.

“We have already warned people not to work for the government, not to spy for the foreigners, not to denounce our men,” said Qari Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman. “If they are going in the wrong direction and do not take care about what we tell them, we do not let them live.”

Afghan officials say that hundreds of people have been killed, although there is no official tally of civilian deaths.

A U.S. counterterrorism official with knowledge of Taliban tactics said that Afghan civilians working with the International Security Assistance Force have been targeted in response to “additional pressure” by the U.S.-led coalition in recent months. U.S. forces will reach 68,000 within the next few months.

“They’ve clearly acted out more in very bad ways,” said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.

A U.S. defense official, who also spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the nature of his work, said the Taliban has been “invoking fear” by targeting innocent people who work for the U.S.-led coalition.

“It’s how they warn others, so that people will think twice before taking a job on a U.S. or foreign base,” the official said. “They see anyone who aids in the international effort as a traitor. It doesn’t matter if they’re only working as a street sweeper.”

Thousands of Afghan civilians work as janitors, ditch diggers and cafeteria workers on U.S. bases. More educated Afghans take on jobs as interpreters or as specialists in law enforcement.

The attacks also target local officials.

A suicide bombing in April killed two officials and wounded two others at a gathering of the provincial council in downtown Kandahar.

Some Afghans are defying the threats.

“There’s no other way for me to assist government but gather support of people,” said Saeed Mohammed, 62, a cleric and member of an anti-Taliban scholars council. He said he is determined to keep working with that group even though two dozen of his colleagues have been killed since late last year.

“There is much support among the people for the government; they want it to work. The Taliban get many to join them by threats, but there is no time or room to run away,” he said.

Evidence of government support is also apparent in remote parts of Kandahar province where Afghans have requested weapons to form local militias.

Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar and a former professor of agriculture at the University of British Columbia in Canada, said establishing security is just one concern. He’d also like to work for job creation and income growth among the population.

“People will go against the government here unless we reduce unemployment and enable people to support their families,” said Mr. Wesa, who has suggested creating cement factories and vocational programs to boost the province’s economy.

But time is running out, as even some moderate Afghans are losing faith in their government after seven years of little progress in the everyday lives of the majority of the population.

“The international community is supporting a corrupt and incompetent government,” said Ehsanullah Ehjan, 38, who runs a private school in Kandahar. “Security and the economy are getting worse but what is the government doing?”

Sara A. Carter reported from Washington.

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