The Taliban's chief VIP target appeared to be Musa Khan, the governor
of Ghazni, who took off just ahead of us in a Polish Hind helicopter--an
upgraded version of the Soviet choppers used against the mujahadeen in
the 1980s. The shura, a traditional gathering of male elders
and leading citizens, was Khan's idea. Through speeches, gifts, and new
schoolbooks, Khan was trying to make the case to the barely literate
people of this tiny mountain village in the Taliban-infected southeast
of Afghanistan that his way, the way of the New Afghanistan--the way of
the international community, America, and NATO--was vastly better and
more prosperous than the way of the Taliban, who have kept a NATO-funded
new school from opening for three years.
And he's very impressive, Khan is. Black-bearded and black-turbaned,
he is eloquent and learned in the Koran, and he has a deep, sonorous
voice that puts you in mind of, say, Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia.
As some 250 townspeople, their faces a deep reddish-tan from years of
exposure, sat squinting quizzically in the sun, Khan delivered "my
message to the Taliban," saying he and his government were every bit as
religious as the Islamist radicals, observing "all the pillars of
Islam," and that he delivered justice every bit as well (Khan made a big
deal of his chief judge sentencing two killers to hang the day before).
Khan also bravely countered the Taliban line that he and the national
government of President Hamid Karzai were merely stooges of America and
the West. "The Taliban are fond of saying that our plans are made up by
foreigners, but the clothes you are wearing are also made by
foreigners. The Toyotas you are driving, these are also made by
foreigners," he said. "The Taliban are keeping you from the good life
and the international community, from sending your children to school,
from paving your roads."
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It all sounded hopeful, and many villagers applauded and walked away
happily down the stony path to their mud-walled homes carrying thick
gray woolen blankets and donated new plastic sandals as gifts. "I think
it went very well," Khan remarked to me afterward. "The first shura, we
had only four people." Other villagers praised the newly strengthened
Afghan police and army, saying the Taliban was less brazen and weaker
than a few years ago, before President Obama's "surge" began.
But the mortar attack at the end was an abrupt reminder of what a number of Afghans attending the shura
told me and a visiting group of reporters privately. "Two hours after
you leave, they will be back," said Mohammad, a 32-year-old farmer.
"They will burn those gifts."
Indeed, what looked like a simple village gathering on the surface was actually the product of a sophisticated ISAF-led clear-and-hold operation involving not just Polish troops but, very quietly, U.S. special forces as well, who had come into Zana Khan several days before the shura to round up any suspects. "I think when we leave it's going to fall apart," said "Moose," who described himself as a U.S. special-forces soldier and said he and his team had rounded up nine suspects with alleged bomb parts or fragments in their houses. He was referring not just to Zana Khan but to Afghanistan. "Their special forces are good, really good, but the regular army's kind of lazy. I think it's going under."