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Rural Afghans eke out fight against Taliban

Jan. 18, 2013 - 08:53AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 18, 2013 - 08:53AM  |  
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ANDAR, GHAZNI PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Former Taliban commander Mullah Ramahtullah expresses contempt for the militants he once considered brothers in arms.

Though he still wears his hair long, as many Taliban members do, Ramahtullah said he has broken away from Afghanistan's former hard-line rulers and is supporting an uprising against them in a remote corner of Ghazni province known as Andar district.

"The people in Andar realized that the Taliban weren't acting according to sharia law," said Ramahtullah in a recent interview with USA Today, referring to the militants' decision to shut down schools in the district and force shopkeepers out of business.

Since last spring, residents of some rural villages in Andar have been waging sporadic battles against the Taliban in regions where there are no Afghan troops or U.S. forces to help. They do this despite the fact that uprisings against the Taliban often end quickly with Taliban forces wiping out those who object to their strict rule.

Both Afghans involved in the fighting and U.S. military leaders at nearby bases say the revolt against Taliban rule was prompted by the militant group's policies of oppression. At first, neither the Afghan government nor coalition forces knew what to make of the movement, but they have since endorsed it.

"We support this uprising against the Taliban — unfortunately, we cannot provide them with weapons," said Sadiq Sadiqqi, spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior, noting that it would be illegal for the ministry to arm civilians. "But we do support the movement against those that turned their lives into a living nightmare."

Ramahtullah is one example of what motivates Afghans to turn against the Islamic clerics who ruled Afghanistan before they were deposed by the U.S.-led military invasion following the 9/11 terror attacks.

Ramahtullah was one of them and served three years at a U.S. military prison in Afghanistan after his capture in Ghazni for militancy. After his release, he promptly rejoined the Taliban until last spring. That was when his brother was killed by the militants, and he saw what they were doing once they regained control of villages.

"The Taliban won't allow schools, which is a civil service. And shops were closed. Why should that be?" Ramahtullah said.

In one uprising, Ramahtullah was shot through the hand during a fight against Taliban militants who had surrounded a village where anti-Taliban locals lived. Though several residents were killed, it provided the spark for the movement now several months in the making.

U.S. military officials in Ghazni said they suspect the uprising is getting more than just moral support form the ministry and Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, or NDS, the country's top intelligence agency.

NDS head Asadullah Khalid was born in Ghazni and is known to have taken a keen interest in ousting the Taliban from his homeland, having survived several assassination attempts by the militant group. Khalid was also implicated in human rights abuses during his tenure as governor of Kandahar province from 2005 to 2008 and is accused of ordering the deaths of five U.N. workers by bombing during that time.

"This movement needed help, and he (Khalid) was there to provide the movement with help with the blessing, I think, of the Afghan government," said Lt. Col. Kevin Lambert, a battalion commander in Ghazni.

U.S. forces currently based in Andar district are relegated to roles of advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces in the region.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai declined to comment on the uprising. But a group of former and current leaders from Andar said they recently met with Karzai to explain what was happening in the remote regions of the country and to ease concerns that the rebellion might be against his elected government as well.

"The president admitted that (he) was suspicious of the uprising at first, but now he understands the reality," said Abdul Jabbar Shulgari, a former member of parliament for Ghazni province.

Reports are scarce as to just how well the uprising is faring. Some schools closed by the Taliban are known to have reopened in Andar, as well as local businesses, U.S. forces said.

Lutfullah Kamran, one of the leaders of the uprising, said he and about 300 anti-Taliban fighters have wrested control from the Taliban of 55 of Andar's villages. Kamran said the movement has momentum enough to sustain itself in Andar for the time being, though he said the uprising can't grow without help from the outside.

"We wanted to spread the uprising," Kamran said. "We are close to including other districts in Ghazni but cannot move forward because we lack weapons and financial support."

Some say the uprising is already fracturing amid internal disputes. An expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank, said leaders of the uprising are guilty of committing their own abuses against villagers.

"So far, these guys are not well-structured and have rivalries within the movement," said researcher Emal Habib, a pseudonym he uses to protect family still in Ghazni. He said locals accuse the uprising fighters of "robbing, detaining and killing anyone who supports the Taliban."

Habib said the origin story of the fledgling uprising has been misconstrued, asserting it was originally a battle between rival militant groups: the Taliban vs. the Hezb-e-Islami, otherwise known as HIG.

"The Taliban may have been undermined," he said. "But they are never short of new fighters."

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