A BELEAGUERED country suffered its
deadliest day of the year on August 14th, when a series of bombings
in northern and south-western Afghanistan killed 50 in markets
crowded with people shopping for the Eid feast at the end of Ramadan.
Nobody claimed responsibility, but NATO-led foreign forces soon
blamed the Taliban militants they have been fighting for more
than a decade.
Faced with such barbarism, and seeing their own campaign progress uncertainly, Western soldiers often ask why Afghans themselves do not take more of a stand against the Taliban and related insurgents. Villages have a tradition of arming and defending themselves against outsiders. Weapons are plentiful, and many men have martial experience. Although the national government in Kabul of President Hamid Karzai is disliked, so, increasingly, are the Taliban. American soldiers recall that in Iraq in 2007 an awakening of Sunni tribes who turned on al-Qaeda in their midst did more than anything to improve security.
So excitement has grown since reports emerged earlier this summer of clashes between villagers and the Taliban in Andar district in Ghazni province, south of the capital. Confrontations had happened before, but the scale and duration of what is taking place in Andar is unusual. In an all-out war, the Taliban were driven from villages, with fatalities on both sides. When the Taliban tried to counterattack, the locals successfully resisted.
The sparks that ignited the revolt were a Taliban ban on boys schools, and restrictions closing some bazaars. Tensions had been growing for some time, however. At first the Taliban were welcomed in this conservative area, yet before long locals felt outsiders from Pakistan were taking over and becoming high-handed. Rules appeared stricter in Andar than elsewhere. Concerns among locals grew with rumours that Mullah Ismail, a senior Taliban leader and influential Ghazni native, had been arrested in Pakistan during an internal purge.
The revolt began in Payendi village and quickly spread. Over three months later militia leaders boast of having 250 men and control over 50 villages, representing 4,000 families. Andars fields and orchards are patrolled by men on motorcycles. Sporting assault rifles and ammunition belts, they look like the men they are fighting. The combat has been fierce. Lotfullah Kamrani, a student who leads dozens of men, says they have fought 33 skirmishes, in which a score of fighters have died defending their villages. Weapons are easy to come by, he says, since most Andar homes own at least one. Ammunition, however, is in shorter supply.
The progress of Mr Kamrani and his comrades is being closely watched from the capital. Just because they are fighting the Taliban does not mean they are friends of Mr Karzai, still less of NATO. Many villagers say they are sickened by the corruption and injustices of the Kabul regime. They just want to be left alone.
In Kabul people wonder who is funding the movement, and whether other forces are behind it. As the uprising has grown, it has attracted leaders associated with the Hezb-e-Islami party. The faction, founded by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, was the biggest group fighting the Russians during the Soviet occupation; it later played a key and brutal part in Afghanistans civil war. One Western diplomat who has followed events says that Hezb-e-Islami is now hijacking Andars home-grown uprising. Mr Hikmatyar, presumably now based in Pakistans rugged border areas, is no friend of the Karzai regime.
Another unknown is the role of powerful figures within the Afghan government. Asadullah Khalid, chief of security for southern Afghanistan and another Ghazni native, is suspected of trying to take control of the uprising. He denies the government is backing Andars fighters, but admits lending personal support.
How long the rebels can hold out is unclear. The revolt has recently spread beyond Andar to Muqur district, yet remains localised. The Taliban vow to quash what they call an American plot, but they may quietly seek a compromise, perhaps by loosening their edicts or freeing Mullah Ismail. For now, the Taliban who were in Andar are only the latest in a long line to learn that Afghans do not take kindly to being bossed about by outsiders.