Afghan home of Taliban founder defies conquest

(dpa) - "If we go 300 metres we come under sporadic fire, any further it's heavy fire - and we're under surveillance 24/7," says a Canadian infantryman, peering over sandbags toward the former home of Taliban chief Mullah Omah.

Almost seven years after the radical Islamic militia was driven from power by US-led forces, the authority of the Western-backed government in Kabul ends here at the grape fields and mud compounds around Sangasar in southern Afghanistan.

The village in Kandahar province's Zhari district is where the fugitive mullah lived and preached before he roused followers against brutal local warlords in 1994. He went on to enforce hard-line Islamic shariah law across the country before his ouster seven years later.

"It's the cultural centre of the Taliban so that tends to be the rallying cry that's used here," Captain Darren Hart, acting operations officer for Canada's Task Force Zhari, said of this nest of resistance covering some 65 square kilometres.

"I don't see them giving it up and abandoning it."

But the tenacious defence of the insurgents, estimated to number in "scores rather than hundreds," goes beyond ideology and identity to embrace hard tactics, the officer notes.

Zhari flanks Highway 1, Afghanistan's main road and economic lifeline, and sits on the doorstep of Kandahar city, the former jewel in the Taliban's crown. Whoever controls the city, controls the south.

Since 2006, the district was periodically flushed out by Canadian and Afghan government forces in fiercely fought operations. But with insufficient troops available for a permanent and broad presence, the insurgents retook control.

Mullah Omar may not be here - many people believe he is hiding in Pakistan - but his followers fight on with great effect: Dozens of Afghan troops, police and civilians were killed and injured in attacks in Zhari this year and at least five foreign soldiers died.

The Afghan commander of the Spin Pir police post located three kilometres north of Sangasar also says the reach of his patrols is badly limited.

"This is the heart of the Taliban, villages here have links with the Taliban and shelter them - when we go there they lay anti-tank and anti-personnel mines so we don't try," said Lieutenant Hussein, who like many Afghans has only one name.

It's superb terrain for guerrilla warfare. Walls, ditches and lush foliage offer the insurgents ample cover, while the many grape-drying barns have air vents that serve as firing slits. Their mud walls are so thick that only an air bomb or tank round will breach them.

Despite a chain of outposts guarding the twin-lane highway, the militants regularly encroach on the traffic, destroying vehicles with roadside bombs and laying waste to convoys carrying supplies for the military.

On one day in mid-July, five tankers were ambushed and destroyed with rockets a kilometre from Spin Pir, incinerating 150,000 litres of fuel intended for military operations in neighbouring Helmand province. The next day a police column came under a barrage of fire in almost the same spot, losing a jeep to another rocket.

The back of the resistance could likely be broken by ploughing more troops into the area and keeping them there. But the Canadians have only 2,500 for the whole of Kandahar - Zhari is one of 17 districts in the province - and are already thinly stretched.

In the long term, development is seen as the best weapon, sapping support for the Taliban in this and other hot spots by building wells, schools, clinics and roads for the local population.

"The answer is giving people something they don't want to lose," Hart said, noting that construction teams are advancing into Zhari and its twin district of Panjwayi.

It's a slow and dangerous process. But despite surging violence in the summer months, some say the whole area is approaching a tipping point where the locals will reject the Taliban altogether.

"When the fighting started here two years ago they wanted to try to use it gain control of Kandahar city," said Haji Baran, the Panjwayi district leader who battled the Soviets in the 1980s and knew Mullah Omar when he was fellow mujahedin fighter.

"They took lots of casualties so now they just try to maintain a symbolic presence here, moving from village to village," the battle- scarred 52-year-old administrator added.

A staunch ally of the Canadians, he cites an increase in the number of shops in his district from 2 to more than 200 in the past year as proof of improvement.

The Afghan official and his foreign partners can be expected to apply positive spin, but even as ambushed tankers burn on the highway there are other encouraging signs.

Locals who are clearly tired of the fighting have started tipping off the authorities to the Taliban's movements, weapons caches and IEDs.

And in a vivid illustration of trouble for the insurgents on their home turf, an aerial surveillance drone observed scenes in which Taliban fighters who were removing casualties after a recent clash were being being pelted with stones by farmers.

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