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Wednesday, 08.15.2012, 01:44am (GMT)
By Ben Farmer, Andar
An uprising against the Taliban has evicted the gunmen from 50 villages in eastern Afghanistan, according to local leaders, beginning a revolt that Kabul hopes will spread across insurgent-held territory.
More than 250 men have taken up arms in Ghazni province and are fighting nearly daily skirmishes against determined Taliban attempts to retake the area.
Their armed campaign began in protest at insurgent edicts closing schools and bazaars, as well as resentment that the Taliban were outsiders taking orders from Pakistan.
In four months of fighting, the uprising has lost more than 20 members and claims to have cleared an enclave of Andar district which had previously been under tight Taliban control.
Its progress is being closely watched by Nato and Western officials who have long hoped the insurgents' repression might trigger a movement similar to the Sunni 'Awakening' brigades which turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
But they are doubtful over who is directing the revolt and wary it has been hijacked by leaders from other armed factions.
Lotfullah Kamrani, a 24-year-old graduate who now commands dozens of anti-Taliban fighters, said his men were in daily clashes, some lasting up to 10 hours.
Since kicking out the insurgents from around a sixth of Andar's villages they had been able to reopen shops in the district centre and boys' schools which had been long closed.
Militiamen on motorbikes patrol their fields and villages armed with a jumble of their own weapons left over from the Russian occupation and ensuing civil war.
"The Taliban are very strong, but according to my belief the community is on our side and they cannot stand against us," Mr Kamrani said.
As he showed off his force, they received a call that Taliban had been spotted near one of their villages and several of his men took to their motorcycles to chase them away.
Frustration with the Taliban had grown in recent years, he said, as they appeared to be controlled more and more by outsiders from Pakistan.
"They were applying the law of Pakistan here in Afghanistan. They were creating their own rules on the orders of Pakistan," he said.
Mohammad Nazir, a 42-year-old father of four, said the Taliban had initially been welcomed in Andar, but had grown tyrannical.
"We were helpless in many things," he said. "The schools were closed, the shops were closed, my sons were not able to go to school. We had talked about what to do many times in the past, but we decided to rise up in the spring."
The Taliban deny the rebellion is a popular movement, saying it is funded and directed by America and the Afghan government. They have promised to retake the area and this week distributed letters again threatening to kill those who resist. Privately though, they have tried to negotiate.
"The Taliban have requested many times for us to talk with them," said Mr Kamrani. "There's no trust left though."
Many observers are still suspicious of who is really behind the uprising. Local MPs and Western officials say that Asadullah Khalid, Mr Karzai's southern security chief, had tried to take control and steer it to other areas.
Mr Khalid and Mr Kamrani both confirmed he was helping the uprising to find ammunition, but claimed he was acting independently of the government because his family was from Ghazni province. The government had no involvement in the uprising, they said.
Another fear is that the fighting may only be a power grab by a rival armed faction which had been disguised as a popular movement.
Mohammad Aref Shah Jahan, a former intelligence chief in the province, said the revolt had been orchestrated by members of Hizb-i-Islami, a powerful faction dating from the war against the Russian invasion of the 1980s founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and remembered for its brutality in the civil war. Hekmatyar has led his own insurgency against Nato and Mr Karzai since 2002.
Fighters conceded that many of their number had once belonged to this group, but denied they were organised along political lines.
Faizanullah Faizan, a former governor and senior Hizb-i-Islami commander now playing a leading role in the uprising, said: "It's a 100 per cent civilian uprising. It doesn't belong to any political party, but we are made up of all the old groups."
Nato commanders stress they are watching, but not giving support. Brigadier-General Lewis Boone, from the International Security Assistance Force, said: "The basic situation in Andar is they don't like us and they don't like the Taliban. They want to be left alone essentially. Are we looking at it closely? You bet we are. Is it another uprising like we saw in Iraq? I think that would be a leap."