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from our 2006 archives

The official story of Operation Medusa has been repeated many times in recent days, after NATO declared success with its biggest offensive to date in Afghanistan.

In speeches from Kabul to Washington, military commanders described the two-week campaign as a simple, clear-cut triumph: The Taliban entrenched themselves in a swath of terrain, terrorizing local villagers; Canadian soldiers led a massive assault, killing more than 1,000 Taliban and routing others; and now villagers are welcoming the return of government rule. Military officials say the operation may have destroyed up to one third of the insurgency's hardcore ranks.

It's an inspiring tale, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization calls on members for more troops and struggles to gain support for the war.

But interviews with tribal elders, farmers and senior officials in the city of Kandahar suggest a version of events that is more complicated, and less reassuring.

Many of the fighters killed -- perhaps half of them, by one estimate -- were not Taliban stalwarts, but local farmers who reportedly revolted against corrupt policing and tribal persecution. It appears the Taliban did not choose the Panjwai district as a battleground merely because the irrigation trenches and dry canals provided good hiding places, but because many villagers were willing to give them food, shelter -- even sons for the fight -- in exchange for freedom from the local authorities.

The government has regained control of this restive district southwest of Kandahar city, and has promised to muster donations from Canada and other countries to rebuild. The Canadian military says it will help local security forces establish a new base to make sure the Taliban do not return to Panjwai.

But there are troubling signs that the area may be sliding back toward the same conditions that sparked the violent revolt.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Taliban fighters continue to lurk around the district, and that police in the area have resumed the abusive tactics that originally ignited local anger. Farmers say gangs of policemen, often their tribal rivals, have swept into Panjwai behind the Canadian troops to search for valuables. They have been described ransacking homes, burning shops and conducting shakedowns at checkpoints.

"This is a case of bad governance," said Talatbek Masadykov, head of the United Nations mission in southern Afghanistan.

"Maybe half of these so-called anti-government elements acting here in this area of the south, they had to join this Taliban movement because of the misbehaviour of these bad guys," Mr. Masadykov said, referring to undisciplined local police.

Police commanders in Kandahar city declined to be interviewed. The allegations from local farmers are difficult to confirm, because it has been only two days since Panjwai was deemed safe enough for civilians to return home, and the area remains too dangerous for Western journalists to visit.

But even politicians who generally support the government concede that the situation in Panjwai was aggravated by the missteps of local authorities.

The most notorious of the blunders was the case of Abdul Razik. Last month, concerned about the growing number of Taliban on the doorstep of Kandahar city, the provincial government assigned Mr. Razik to clear insurgents from Panjwai. Mr. Razik serves as a police commander in Spin Boldak, near the Pakistani border, but his fighters have a reputation as a kind of militia, all drawn from the same tribe: the Achakzai, a branch of the Pashtun ethnic group.

In the borderlands, the Achakzai often feud with another Pashtun tribe, the Noorzai. The two tribes also dominate the strip of farmland in Panjwai where Mr. Razik was dispatched, although the tribes have usually co-existed peacefully -- until the arrival of Mr. Razik. Word spread quickly through Panjwai that the police commander intended to kill not only Taliban but any member of the Noorzai tribe; true or not, Mr. Razik soon found himself facing an armed uprising. His men were ambushed southwest of the village of Panjwai District Centre, and many of their bodies were left rotting on the road as Mr. Razik retreated to the borderlands.

But having fought off Mr. Razik, the local Noorzai tribesmen soon ended up fighting his more disciplined colleagues from the police and Afghan National Army.

"This was a bad idea, to bring Abdul Razik," said Haji Mohammed Qassam, a provincial council member in Kandahar with responsibility for security issues.

"One village had 10 or 20 fighters against the government before he came, and the next day, maybe 200."

It was only one example among many complaints cited by people from Panjwai as they described the deteriorating relations between locals and the government. Well before Mr. Razik's arrival, villagers say, they were subject to police stealing their cash, cellphones and watches. Even motorbikes and cars were seized by police patrols, locals say.

Abid, 32, a farmer from the Pashmul area, roughly 15 kilometres southwest of Kandahar, said the thievery by police got so frequent that his friend tried a novel tactic when he encountered a checkpoint two months ago.

Rolling toward a roadblock on a motorbike in the late evening, he said, his friend turned off the motor and started coasting toward the police.

"He took the keys out of the ignition and threw them into the bushes, so they couldn't steal it," Abid said. "This made them angry. They beat him, took his money and his watch. But he kept his bike."

The depredations stopped as the Taliban gained control of the area, villagers said. The insurgents imposed a strict order; some reports suggested they had returned to their habit of cutting off thieves' hands.

Abdul Ahad, 44, a wealthy farmer and landowner from the village of Sangisar, said he appreciated the Taliban, despite the terror he felt every time he passed through one of their checkpoints.

In a recent interview, Mr. Ahad removed a black leather diary from his breast pocket and showed a reporter where he had scribbled a few numbers for government officials. Those numbers could have got him killed, he said, if the Taliban had found the diary during their regular searches at checkpoints, because the fighters would have assumed he is a spy.

Still, risking death at the roadblocks was better, he said, than the random thievery and beatings meted out by the Afghan police.

"The Taliban didn't take any tolls at the checkposts," Mr. Ahad said. "Even when they came to my farm, they did not eat my grapes without permission."

The Taliban also endeared themselves to the locals by returning to their roots as a protest movement. The name Taliban first gained notoriety in Afghanistan in 1992, after a group of religious students started attacking the roadblocks in Panjwai to remove the corrupt jihadi commanders who once waged holy war against the Soviets but had settled into gangsterism after the Soviet withdrawal.

"Policemen [now] are like jihadi commanders in the past," said Mr. Masadykov, at the UN office in Kandahar.

"They are misbehaving sometimes, looting, going to search and at the same time stealing everything in the houses. We are receiving a lot of complaints about it. We have to work on it."

Mr. Qassam said the government has learned from its Panjwai experience and will try to avoid repeating it. Taliban are now infiltrating the Khakrez district, he said, but the government will try sending more disciplined Afghan forces to maintain order, rather than requesting an onslaught of NATO power.

Mr. Qassam also emphasized an aspect of NATO's story about Operation Medusa that few people in Kandahar question: The city itself now feels a little more secure.

The encroaching insurgency had left the educated city dwellers feeling unsafe. Housing prices, and even vehicle prices, were depressed in recent months.

Merchants in the city were even sending packages of phone cards and cash to the Taliban in Panjwai, hoping to curry favour with the insurgents in case they overran the provincial capital, Mr. Qassam said.

"When the Taliban were in Panjwai, all the people in this area were worrying: 'Where will I move my family?' " Mr. Qassam said. "They are more relaxed and happy now."

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