MAHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan — Last night, on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama stood in front of armored military vehicles at Bagram Air Base and spoke of "the light of new day on the horizon" after more than a decade of war. He told an American television audience, "The goal I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach."
But here in Kapisa province, less than one hour from where Obama spoke, lies an entirely different reality.
On the surface, the province appears tranquil, especially from the vantage of the governor's office, which sits high on a hilltop overlooking the provincial capital, Mahmud Raqi. It has a beautiful view of the river below and the mountains, trees and fields that stretch into the distance.
But just outside town, roadside bombs are planted to target NATO convoys.
Two of Kapisa's seven districts have been in insurgent hands for years, according to local residents, politicians and officials. One is Tagab, where the Taliban stop and search vehicles, run a shadow judicial system and stage regular attacks on foreign and Afghan troops.
This is one of Afghanistan's forgotten battlegrounds, a place quietly unraveling as Washington debates the future of the war. Behind the calm facade is a strategically vital part of the country with a fragile security situation that shows every sign of worsening.
"The government does not have control there. I am the representative of the people and I cannot go without employing very heavy security," said Al Haj Khoja Ghulam Mohammed Zamaray, deputy leader of the provincial council.
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Conditions are arguably even more extreme in Alasay. A June 2009 US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks described the militants as having "relative freedom of movement well inside putative secure areas" there. With NATO having since left the district, that has not changed. Elders and members of parliament all insist the Taliban walk openly in the local bazaar.
Similar situations can be found across rural Afghanistan, but history shows events in Kapisa are of particular concern. Guerrillas resisting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s traveled here from safe havens in Pakistan, via the provinces of Kunar and Laghman. It put them within striking distance of the Afghan capital and Bagram air base — then an important Russian facility and now a huge US installation — as well as the main highways connecting Kabul to the north and east of the country.
Speaking to GlobalPost, Abdul Jabar Farhad, a former mujahideen commander serving in the security forces, said “it’s the same story today” and the insurgents are now establishing crucial forward positions in Kapisa in preparation for a wider war.
Attempts to stop them have proved ineffective so far. In September 2010 the government launched the High Peace Council nationwide to help negotiate with rebel groups and persuade their men to lay down arms in exchange for financial aid and vocational training. It finally opened an office in Kapisa earlier this year. The man hired as the local head was Mawlawi Abdul Momin Muslim, who once fought against the Taliban regime. He must now convince his old enemies to accept the constitution.
He admitted people here often have more faith in the rebels than the corrupt government. "The Taliban will sit with them, issue serious orders and solve their problems," Muslim said.
Initial efforts to win over local residents have also backfired. When NATO delivered leaflets to villages announcing his appointment, insurgents called him to complain that the propaganda was written like a military decree, rather than an offer of reconciliation.
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It is a common grievance among Afghans that foreign soldiers have never understood their culture. In a spectacular example, US troops stationed at Bagram in February burned copies of the Quran. Despite a swift apology from NATO, the incident caused nationwide protests and less than a fortnight later the anger in Kapisa was still palpable, neither forgiven nor forgotten.
Haji Mohammed Ibrahim, aged 84 and from Tagab, summed up the mood when he said, "If someone has disrespected your religion, your holy book and your women, they are not your friends anymore."
In contrast, the Taliban have long possessed the ability to tap into the innate piety of life here. One elder recalled watching an insurgent deliver a sermon at a mosque in Alasay. Members of the audience were so moved by his speech, they cried.
This is not to say the Taliban are supported everywhere in Kapisa. The province is split along faultlines that date from the Soviet era. Tensions between two rival mujahideen parties are contributing to the violence. Fighters linked to Hizb-e-Islami are now swelling the Taliban’s ranks, while members of Jamiat-e-Islami hold key official posts, allying themselves to the government and by extension the occupation.
Ethnicity also plays a role in the unrest. Pashtuns and some Pashayi make up the bulk of the resistance. Tajik areas remain predominantly safe. The worry is that these divisions will grow when NATO leaves.
A small American military reconstruction team is based locally but the majority of foreign troops here are French. They are due to depart in 2013. The forces that remain may not be enough to prevent conditions from deteriorating.
Kapisa’s governor, Mehrabuddin Safi, said he has only 900 to 1,000 police and roughly 1,200 Afghan soldiers to protect a population of 700,000. Pro-government militias have been set up to boost the numbers. He was confident that with greater manpower, and improved training and equipment, he would be able to maintain security.
“This is our country, this is our province,” he said. “We have to look after it.”
Only time will tell if such optimism is misplaced, but the omens are not good. A combination of afflictions has left people struggling to survive. The foreign troops are increasingly mistrusted and opinion of the local authorities is little better, giving the insurgents free reign at the gates of Kabul.
Mohammed Farouq, a villager from Tagab, suggested what may be the future for Kapisa when he described a commander in the Afghan army verbally abusing women and deliberately firing mortars at civilians.
“If he is captured by us does he hope for mercy? There is no hope for mercy then,” he said. “But if we can’t do anything, then one day, if he is going somewhere, we will inform the Taliban.”