Taliban assassination campaign impedes governance

AP News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 9:26 AM
Taliban assassination campaign impedes governance

For seven years, Rahim Baz Mohammad was an Afghan police detective on a spectacularly perilous beat _ a province sitting directly between the capital and Taliban strongholds to the south and east.

His case files bulged with kidnappings and murders. Recent victims included a government reform official shot to death in front of his house. In another case, a deputy provincial governor was killed when a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden rickshaw into his convoy.

This month, after various threats on his own life by anonymous callers, Mohammad turned in his badge and locked himself inside his house.

"There are lots of assassinations here," he said. "I am thinking of moving to a place where no one knows me. I don't want to be a policeman or work for the government at all."

While the U.S.-led coalition has repeatedly cited the recruitment and training of Afghanistan's civil society and security forces as a key requirement for the withdrawal of international troops, the Taliban is thwarting those efforts with a sweeping assassination campaign that has killed scores of local government officials.

The campaign is proving deeply demoralizing to many Afghans who already view the international coalition as an occupying force and their own government as ineffectual and corrupt.

Senior military officials predict insurgents will continue to use assassinations against Afghan political leaders and their supporters to undermine the government.

Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the second-ranking U.S. general in Afghanistan, predicted last month that the Taliban _ having lost ground to coalition troops in some areas during the fall and winter _ will employ more indirect tactics, including the use of "assassination hit teams" against their opponents.

The Taliban have vowed as much.

"Assassinations of government officials is part of the military strategy of the Taliban," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press. "Our fight was with the foreigners, but unfortunately there are lots of government officials who are willing to be used by the foreigners so we have increased our assassinations of them."

Coalition commanders said the Taliban are hitting "soft" civilian targets because they cannot match international and Afghan troops on the battlefield. They described the assassinations as the desperate tactic of an insurgency in decline.

A joint report in February by the United Nations and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said targeted killings of government officials were a "dominant feature of 2010."

At least 140 government officials were killed in 2010, according to the U.N. The world body did not provide a count of assassinated government employees in 2009, but its latest report suggests that the number is increasing. Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghan human rights commission which co-authored the report, said 462 civilians, most of them perceived government supporters, were assassinated in 2010, more than double the number the previous year.

Martine van Bijlert, an expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a policy research organization, said the assassination campaign was meant to "counter the narrative of the insurgency as a spent force."

"We've seen a sequence of high profile assassinations and attacks that are designed to make people wary of working with the government," she said.

Afghan security forces are also under dire threat. Since March 2009, at least 1,345 police officers and 726 Afghan soldiers have been killed, according to Afghan government officials. The Ministry of Interior said it did not have last year's figures, but the Afghan military said the current number of military fatalities represented a 13 percent increase.

"The killing of large numbers of civil servants highlights the government's failure and inability to implement it's obligation to protect civilians during the conflict, and safeguard the population from violence" and made it harder to fill government positions, the report said.

For example, of five district governors and two deputy mayors of Khandahar killed in 2010, two of those positions remain unfilled. And U.S. military trainers have complained that 32 percent of Afghan soldiers and 23 percent of Afghan police quit each year. Trainers say that the high rate of attrition is due, in part, because of their involvement in heavy fighting against insurgents.

This month in northern Kunduz province, where international forces recently staged an offensive against the Taliban, the insurgency struck back with a suicide bombing at an army recruitment center, killing at least 35 volunteers. The bombing _ the second at the recruitment center since December _ punctuated a series of assassinations of high-ranking local officials.

"They killed the governor, a district chief, and the provincial police chief," said a district police chief in neighboring Baghlan province, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. As Kunduz's security has deteriorated so has Baghlan, he said. Two months ago his brother was killed.

"My brother was a simple person," he said. "The Taliban assassinated him because I am in the government."

The police chief said he has not left his home for two weeks.

Despite the Taliban's efforts, coalition and Afghan officials said they will still meet a recruiting goal of 305,000 troops by October. Sediq Sediqqi, an official with the Government Media and Information Center, said that while the assassinations are regrettable, they are not an insurmountable obstacle.

"The enemy will try to kill government officials like they have in Kunduz province," he said. "But it is not difficult to fill these positions."

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Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.