Taleban step up tactics to keep valley their own

By Julius Cavendish

Taleban gunmen have begun assassinating their own rank and file in a desperate bid to stop a remote mountain valley sliding from their grasp, as well as bringing in new commanders to oversee their fightback in Sangin, Afghanistan's most violent district, the Independent can reveal.

They are also attacking tribal elders trying to broker a peace deal between disillusioned members of the insurgency - resentful of Taliban commanders from other tribes and districts ordering them about - and government officials eager for peace.

Speaking by phone, a tribal elder in the upper Sangin valley said Taleban gunmen ambushed and wounded an elder from the Alokozai tribe called Badar Agha as he left home for morning prayers last month.

Two local Taleban commanders known to be sympathetic to a detente were less fortunate. Riza Gul and Pahlawan disappeared soon after the attack on Badar Agha. "Everyone says they've been killed," the elder said.

Losing control of the upper Sangin valley would be a disaster for the Taleban proper. Not only do they get a lucrative cut of the district's drugs revenues, but the area is totemic for the number of Nato casualties there - 133 dead, and counting.

More important is its location. Sangin controls access to the Kajaki dam - described by one Afghan politician as a "national treasury".

The Taleban proper have also appointed a new shadow governor to the district. Mullah Wali Mohammad is said to bring crucial skills to the table.

"He is sociable, well-informed and not too strict," one acquaintance said. "He interacts with people very well."

Besides bringing a silky touch to the fractious politics of the upper Sangin valley, Mohammad has a trait that - in the wake of so much betrayal - the Taliban high command will prize. A nephew of Mullah Rauf Akhund, a founding member of the Taleban, he is a staunch loyalist who is unlikely to switch sides.

The Alokozai have a history of defiance. In 2007, they rose up against Taleban interlopers who had arrived in their valley, only for the Taleban to crush the revolt.

To make a point, they chained the leader of the uprising to a truck and dragged him to another province. Nato and the Afghan government forces were too stretched to ride to the rescue - a fact that left many mistrustful of the alliance.

Some villagers suspected President Karzai ignored pleas for help because of business links between his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and Haji Lal Jan, one of four major drugs barons from Sangin.

A successful uprising would have hurt Jan's business interests, and by extension, Ahmed Wali Karzai's, whom a US diplomatic cable in 2009 characterised as "corrupt and a narcotics trafficker".

The rumour helped dampen chances of a second uprising for years.

Enter Badar Agha and co, whose emergence as de facto leaders of the tribe has triggered this second rebellion. Nato and the Afghan Government would do well to heed warnings of elders interviewed by the Independent, who showed little interest in exchanging one set of overlords for another.

Several sources said the arrival of US marines had compounded their woes.

A source said villagers were afraid to report the full scale of their losses "since they don't trust the government and marines, who always promise but never deliver".

- INDEPENDENT

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