Twenty minutes south of Kabul, along one of Afghanistan’s few newly paved roads, lies Logar Province. In another country Logar’s desert villages and accessible mountains might be a place city dwellers would use for quick rustication. But in Logar the Taliban are back, coming out at night to burn schools, assassinate liberal imams, launch rocket attacks on government buildings and plant mines to kill NATO soldiers.
The drive from Kabul to Logar is a mind-bending lesson in political geography, showing how badly deteriorated the occupation of Afghanistan has become. It seems the infamously insurgency-torn “south” of this country now extends very far north.
“The Italians call that the Valley of Death,” says my local guide matter-of-factly as we pass a lush little cluster of villages wedged between two desiccated slopes. We are still in Kabul Province, the Musayi district: “Six of them were killed there a few months ago, and they never went back in.” Then, after a pause: “The green is all pistachio trees.”
According to NATO only two Italians were killed, with four wounded. Nor does NATO admit that any area of Afghanistan has been ceded to the insurgents–let alone a valley right outside the capital. Whatever the case, most Afghans are beginning to think that the Taliban are winning. This raises several questions: Who are these insurgents? Why are they fighting? What dynamics fuel their growth? And ultimately, how, when and to whom will the United States and its allies finally leave Afghanistan?
When we arrive at Shaffad Sang, a cluster of villages just off the main road, the tension grows palpably thicker. Our contact, a man named Zibullah Pimon, who works for a foreign construction company, is visibly nervous. Because of the Taliban activity here, Pimon spends all his time in Kabul, returning to his village only once a week to visit his family for a few hours before racing back. We slip into the privacy of his qala, or mud-walled compound, and then into his neatly whitewashed and carpeted guest room, away from the women in the family quarters.
“There were no police here and no Afghan army,” explains Pimon. “So the Taliban saw their chance and came in.” He says Taliban actions in Logar started about a year ago, when organizers infiltrated from Pakistan, using money and arguments to reactivate networks of former fighters and win over local imams. Opponents were killed or run off with warnings.