Beaten, robbed and exiled: life on the frontline of someone else's war
Villagers caught in crossfire between the Taliban and government forcesThe soldiers rounded up the villagers at first light. The Taliban had just pummelled the new Afghan National Army (ANA) base at Gaza in the Arghandab Valley, a notorious rebel nest in Zabul province. Now the soldiers wanted to know who was sheltering them.
They grabbed Jamal Ludin as he left for morning prayers. The 32-year-old grape farmer said he had been lined up beside a ditch with 50 other men and thrashed with wooden poles and an electric cable. "They said, 'Tell us where are the Taliban'," he said.
Gingerly lifting his shirt, Mr Ludin showed bandages on both sleeves and his chest. He said the soldiers had taken his money and searched his house without permission - a grave dishonour in Pashtun tradition.
Mirza, a 26-year-old, came from another village near the ANA base. After threats from the soldiers his family fled to the provincial capital, Qalat, a jolting three-hour drive away. He admitted having helped the Taliban.
"We have no choice," he said. "They come in groups of five, 10 or 20. Some are local, others are speaking Urdu [the national language of Pakistan] or Arabic. They ask for food but you can't refuse. You can't argue with men with guns."
Now he feels trapped between the insurgents and the central government. "To be honest we cannot fight anyone. We don't like either side," he said.
Four other men gave the Guardian similar accounts of beatings, theft and searches near the ANA base in Gaza three weeks ago. Their stories could not be verified independently - Arghandab is too dangerous to visit - and local government and US officials partly dispute them as "Taliban propaganda".
But the incident highlights how Afghan civilians have become caught in the crossfire of a vicious rural war as Operation Mountain Thrust, the American-led drive into the Taliban's southern strongholds, gathers momentum.
Coalition commanders often present Zabul, one of four provinces targeted by Thrust, as exemplary. It has received millions of pounds in US development funds; the corrupt local government has been replaced with a clean-dealing one; and the police and army have been retrained and re-equipped.
"Coalition, police and army - we are all working together very successfully," said the governor, Dilbar Jan Arman, citing a 25-mile new road and greater consultation with tribal elders.
But the governor's influence crumbles just a few miles from his office. In Shahjoy district, 45 minutes away, only one of 31 schools is open, said the provincial education director, Muhammad Hanif. He waved two sample "night letters" - threatening notices delivered under darkness - that had driven his teachers away. "Parents want their children to be educated but the government cannot build a base in every village. So what next?"
Shahjoy straddles the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, a smooth road that was once a proud symbol of western-led reconstruction. Now the Taliban roam the orchards, riverbeds and desert plains that border the road, and most foreigners take a UN flight that passes four miles overhead.
Afghans are fearful, too. The corridors of Qalat's modern hospital echo gloomily. Completed three months ago with a £1.1m Arab donation, the hospital needs 26 doctors but has found just seven. "Money is not the issue. We pay double normal wages for women and 50% extra for men" said the hospital director, Saifur Rehman. "The problem is security. People are afraid to work here."
The US base outside Qalat, a desert citadel ringed by razor wire and blown by a fiery breeze, provides some security. But 1,000 Americans are stretched tight across 10,800 sq miles and face an agile but often invisible enemy.
Last week, the Taliban dispatched an unusual suicide bomber to the base - a donkey loaded with landmines and explosives. Base guards shot the animal before it could reach the gate.
As the Guardian arrived, a US convoy screeched in with three men blindfolded and bound at the wrist in the back of a Humvee. Hours earlier the Taliban had ambushed a joint Afghan-US patrol, killing four policemen, wounding two Americans and destroying a Humvee.
"It's a cat and mouse game with the enemy. Every time I get ahead of him, a new tactic comes up," said the base commander, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Sturek. Like many Afghan officials, he said the insurgents were streaming across the nearby border. "The ones who come shooting hard are straight from the madrasas in Pakistan," he said.
Indiscipline within the ANA is also a growing worry across the south. Several of the Arghandab villagers said ANA soldiers had shouted ethnic slurs as they beat them. "They said the gardens of the Shomali plains were destroyed by our guns," said Izatullah, a shepherd, referring to the site of a Taliban atrocity in the 1990s.
Residents in Kandahar province have made similar complaints, and two UN staff were recently assaulted at an ANA checkpoint, said the UN office head, Talatbek Masadykov.
The regional ANA commander, Brigadier General Rahmatullah Raufi, said he was unaware of any ethnic tensions within his ranks, but promised to investigate the alleged abuses.