– Knight Ridder Newspapers

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A violent resurgence of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan is putting U.S. soldiers and international aid workers at increasing risk, especially in the southern part of the country, the back yard and birthplace of the Taliban.

U.S. military patrols are frequently coming under attack. Highway construction workers – foreigners and Afghans – have had their throats slit merely for tampering with Taliban flags placed along roadsides.

Nearly three years after the U.S. military toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan, it’s increasingly obvious that the military effort has failed to fully defeat the enemy, which has regrouped and now threatens efforts to create a stable government there.

Election workers are being abducted, shot and beheaded. Voter-registration sites are being bombed, even when they’re located at mosques. And now the Taliban has begun delivering ominous “night letters” – notes slipped to local officials warning them not to help with upcoming elections.

The country’s first-ever presidential election is scheduled for Oct. 9 – three months later than originally planned due to security worries – and parliamentary elections have been pushed back until April.

In a shocking announcement Wednesday, Doctors Without Borders said it’s withdrawing from Afghanistan after nearly a quarter-century of operating here, including service throughout the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and the subsequent Taliban rule. Doctors Without Borders won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in some of the world’s most deprived and dangerous places.

The group said the Afghan government has identified the men who killed five of its staffers in June but refuses to apprehend them for political reasons. The government’s failure to act “sends the message that it’s acceptable to kill aid workers,” said operations director Kenny Gluck.

Taliban and militia groups continue to threaten Doctors Without Borders and other aid agencies. U.N. projects in the south have been aborted due to the threats and attacks, and the United Nations refuses to re-enter the region until U.S.-led coalition forces can establish better security there.

A multinational force of some 17,000 troops is deployed in Afghanistan, including 6,600 U.S. combat forces. The fledgling Afghan National Army is still being trained and equipped.

U.S. and NATO forces have a strong presence in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but their grip on the rest of the country is tenuous. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed president, is derisively said to be little more than the mayor of Kabul.

Much of the rest of Afghanistan is controlled by powerful warlords who command large private militias. They are largely financed by a booming and lucrative export trade in opium and heroin.

In southern and eastern Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are believed to be hiding, the Taliban effectively controls large swaths of territory. U.S. military officials say foreign Islamist fighters and al-Qaida financiers are aiding the Taliban.

“These guys are coming over from Pakistan, migrating into our districts (in the south),” said Lt. Col. Mike McMahon, an Army commander at Kandahar Air Field. “They come across in groups of 10 or 15.”

McMahon’s comments came in an interview at the sprawling southern air base, the launching point for a new series of strikes against the Taliban as well as goodwill missions focused on remote villages. His makeshift quarters at the base are located in a building used by senior Taliban leaders during the final days of the war. The U.S. troops call it the TLS Building – Taliban’s Last Stand.

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McMahon, 40, a West Point graduate from West Hartford, Conn., said his men are making some progress against the Taliban in the south, but voter registration drives remain in jeopardy.

When McMahon sent an Army cavalry troop to a registration site north of Kandahar last week, it found the remote mountain settlement largely deserted. Intent on preventing registrations, the Taliban had come the night before and kidnapped 18 men. Most of the other terrified villagers had fled.

“The people in this district were supposed to register to vote here,” said Capt. Brian Peterson, the troop commander, “but that’s not going to happen now.”

As the 34 U.S. troopers were leaving the area, their convoy of 11 Humvees was ambushed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. The Americans suffered no casualties in the ensuing firefight, and they took four prisoners.

Later, near dusk, as the soldiers checked their weapons, Spc. Nick Plummer, the baby-faced gunner on Peterson’s Humvee, cranked up a tune on the vehicle’s CD player. The song was by Green Day, and part of the lyrics went, “Back off, I’ll take you on. … This is not where you belong.”



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AFGHAN-VIOLENCE

AP-NY-07-30-04 1604EDT



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