Afghan Rebels Wage War On 'Soft Targets'

Afghan Rebels Wage War On 'Soft Targets'
May 14th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Afghan Rebels Wage War On 'Soft Targets'

Afghan Rebels Wage War On 'Soft Targets'
Chicago Tribune
May 13, 2007
Insurgents hope to silence clerics and government allies, intimidate followers
By Kim Barker, Tribune foreign correspondent
NARAY, Afghanistan -- The cleric was known throughout eastern Afghanistan as "The Muslim" for his great knowledge of Islam. At a community meeting last month, he thundered at his audience, waving his arms and pounding on the lectern.
"Everywhere innocent people are dying!" Fazal Ahad shouted at the crowd members, who listened silently. "My people, please do not use the word Islam to justify your bad deeds."
Four days later, on April 29, Ahad's vehicle was pulled over as he was on his way to negotiate a dispute between tribes in remote Nuristan province. His three companions were told to leave or be killed.
As they rushed for help, they heard a gunshot. Ahad, considered the top religious leader in Nuristan, had been fatally shot in the face.
He was a victim of a different war being waged by Afghan insurgents, this one targeting so-called soft targets -- religious leaders, teachers, government employees and reconstruction workers, all accused of links, however slight, to the West and the U.S.-backed government.
In many ways, the militants' battle to silence the clerics is a fight over Islam in Afghanistan. Taliban-led insurgents justify their movement largely with Islam and the alleged religious duty to expel foreign infidels from Muslim soil.
But most Afghan clerics have decided to support the government, although some halfheartedly. Their support and Islamic seal of approval could have tremendous influence with Afghans, swaying them to support the government more than any new road project, or any new school.
The killing of the clerics could intimidate average Afghans more than other insurgent attacks, as well as remove powerful allies of the government.
Ahad is only the most recent victim. In the last 31/2 years, since the founding of the national cleric council, a body of about 2,000 leading Islamic clerics, 30 have been killed, mostly in the south. An additional 21 have been injured.
"Our enemies are scared of the clerics and of their preaching," said Fazel Ahmad Manawi, a member of the national council. "They want to create fear among the clerics so they don't oppose the insurgents."
No one has been arrested in connection with Ahad's killing, but that is not unusual. The Taliban denied responsibility for his death.
Insurgents in Nuristan are often connected with the Afghan militant group Hezb-i-Islami or a branch of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group. Some are simply criminals, preying on instability, setting up illegal checkpoints and robbing people.
Ahad, 56, was once the tactical commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba in Nuristan. He was a feared military commander, besides being a respected religious leader, who came from a small town near Bargi Matal. The remote stretch of eastern Nuristan province between the towns of Bargi Matal and Kamdesh has long been insurgent territory, where U.S. troops frequently come under attack.
Last year, Ahad was even on the "watch list" of the U.S. military base at Naray, in Kunar province, just over the Nuristan border.
"He had ties to bad guys," said Lt. Col. Mike Howard, who commands the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, which has bases in Naray and Kamdesh. "He used to be a bad guy."
But last November, after considerable prodding by the Nuristani governor, Ahad agreed to run a new council of clerics in eastern Nuristan. About 30 top clerics traveled from village to village, trying to persuade people to stop fighting the government and instead work to improve Afghanistan. Ahad was considered an "intermediary," influential with insurgents and the government.
Over the following months, Ahad took increasingly strong stands, often meeting with Howard and defending U.S. troops when he thought it was necessary. Like many clerics, he also criticized U.S. troops and seemed at some points a reluctant ally. He tried to make a female U.S. soldier at Kamdesh cover her hair, and continued to pressure Howard about the woman after she refused. He yelled at Howard if U.S. troops went into a village before asking Ahad's council to solve any problem, even when troops were attacked.
"We debated fiercely, but he was a friend," Howard said. "Every time I saw that guy, he gave me a big hug."
Howard said he believed the killing of Ahad would anger many Afghans and backfire on the insurgents.
Ahad's last public appearance was April 24, at a meeting of about 400 elders in the Kamdesh district center. There, Ahad said that Afghans needed to build up their own security. Once that happened, foreign forces would leave. That was his goal.
Another cleric at the meeting, Maj. Abdul Razzak, the cleric for a local Afghan National Army battalion, estimated a third of the 400 people at the meeting were opposed to the government.
"They didn't want the coalition there," Razzak said.
U.S. soldiers said Ahad's killing was a big problem. His tacit support lent them legitimacy. His death was a setback, causing fear in the other clerics in the fledgling council.
Cleric Abdul Raouf, who was second to Ahad in the council, told U.S. soldiers he had no interest in running the group. He told a reporter he was not sure what to do. If he supported the U.S.-led coalition, Al Qaeda would kill him, he said. But he also believed that if he supported Al Qaeda, the coalition would kill him.
"I don't know who killed Ahad," said Raouf, who had known Ahad for 32 years. "His number was up. Tomorrow or the next day, my number will come up. They will kill us, one by one."

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