Crime, casualties undermine U.S. gains on Afghan battlefield

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Since U.S. forces began stepping up air strikes against the Taliban, Kunduz shopkeeper Najibullah no longer fears another insurgent takeover of the northern Afghan city. But he does fear robbery or kidnap by militia gangs.

Afghan police officers keep watch at their forward base on the outskirts of Kunduz province, Afghanistan November 26, 2017. REUTERS/Nasir Wakif

With Afghan forces improving and on the offensive, U.S. commanders have more freedom to attack the Taliban and insurgents no longer threaten any major urban centers.

Although Taliban-controlled areas begin within a 10-minute drive of the city, Kunduz – a strategic hub that fell twice in the past two years – is largely calm. But there is a long way to go to build confidence in daily security.

“In the past people were afraid that the Taliban would come but no-one talks about that now,” said Najibullah, who like many Afghans, uses only one name.

“Now we have internal problems,” he said, leaning over the counter of his shop in the city center and talking softly to avoid being overheard. “There are gunmen that do anything they want. There are people in this city, if they know you have money they’ll come to your shop and rob you in broad daylight.”

Outside the city, where the Taliban still hold sway, the risk of being caught between helicopter gunships and the insurgents or swept up in a clearing operation means life is also more difficult for villagers on the front line.

Last month, locals say 16 people were killed by U.S. helicopters in a night raid near the villages of Qatl-e Am and Gharow Qushlaq in Chahardara district, an area largely controlled by the Taliban. A U.S. investigation concluded there was no evidence any civilians were killed.

“Since the Americans announced their new strategy and signed the new agreement, the situation has been getting worse,” said Atiqullah, a villager who said he was about three kilometers away when the raid took place.

NOT SAFE

The shift in perceptions on the ground suggests ordinary Afghans are seeing the fresh strategy is hitting the insurgents. But their new fears underline how much more is needed to build trust in the Western-backed government.

“I‘m a businessman but I can’t go anywhere without a gun,” said Jamal Nasir Aymaq, who owns a number of bakeries in the city. “Our businessmen and rich people have already escaped Kunduz and children are not safe.”

Kidnapping and robbery are rife and there…

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