SAROBI, Afghanistan — The atmosphere inside the district headquarters had grown as torrid as the pulsing summer heat outside when tempers finally exploded.
"If you keep rudely interrupting me, I'll stomp on you," thundered Ali Ahmad, a grizzled tribal elder. Dozens of men leapt from the floor, some with fists and teeth clenched, others pushing apart would-be brawlers.
The uproar that ended the traditional tribal parley last week was a measure of the volatility that's left Sarobi the only one of 15 districts in Kabul province that the U.S.-led international security force hasn't transferred to Afghan responsibility.
This Taliban-haunted district's dysfunctional governance, power struggles and long-standing rivalries offer a grim microcosm of the national crises that plague Afghanistan. Together, they're fueling fears that the drawdown of allied combat forces that began last month could push the country deeper into turmoil and perhaps even all-out civil war.
Sarobi's struggles may not be unique in Afghanistan, but the 425-square-mile district of sweeping mountains and remote valleys, home to about 120,000 people, is especially crucial to the country's fate.
Sarobi is a strategic gateway to Kabul, the Afghan capital. The main highway linking Kabul to the Pakistani border runs through here, a vital corridor for trade, travel and U.S. military supplies.
The highway skirts the Kabul River as it plunges through the cliffs of the Kabul Gorge and finally spills into a mountain-ringed basin, where it feeds an azure lake formed by a decrepit, Soviet-built hydroelectric dam. Tracing a route that invaders used for centuries, it passes between rocky choke points that make perfect defenses.
In 1996, after overrunning the district center, Taliban fighters took less than 24 hours to storm into Kabul, 30 miles to the west, where they consolidated their grip on Afghanistan and set the world on a collision course with Sept. 11, 2001.
Residents of Sarobi — a clutter of ramshackle stores, flyblown fruit stands and dank eateries straddling the highway — recall the factional battles that convulsed the town during the civil war that followed the 1989 pullout by Soviet troops.
"I hope God doesn't bring those times back," said Rahmatullah Ahmadzai, sitting in his shop stuffed with DVDs and CDs, which the Taliban banned as un-Islamic. "The Taliban say that killing one music shop owner is the same as killing 12 French soldiers."
Some 3,900 French troops are deployed in Sarobi and a neighboring district. French commanders had hoped to begin pulling them out as early as this past February but the move was delayed until late this year. a prospect that still fills residents and officials with dread.
"The security here depends on the foreigners," warned Hazrat Mohammad Haqbin, a veteran bureaucrat who runs the district administration. "A neutral force of some kind will be needed here when the French leave. People in this region are murderous to each other and they will kill each other."
Violence is way down from when the French deployed here three years ago and lost 10 soldiers in an ambush, the French army's single biggest loss in 25 years. The Taliban fire at vehicles on remote stretches of the highway and stage occasional bomb strikes, though they stay away from Sarobi town.
The insurgents, however, may just be waiting for the French to leave. They're in many parts of the district , and residents say they have a stronghold in the remote Uzbin Valley, where Afghan forces rarely venture.
"There are so many Taliban in the valley," said Malik Waheedullah, a tribal elder. "The government hasn't been there yet."
Local politics are making the situation more brittle. Rival groups of tribal leaders, businessmen and other prominent figures are competing over who's the real district council, exchanging charges of nepotism, greed and corruption that nearly turned last week's parley into a punch-up.
"This piece of paper will ignite fighting between the people of Sarobi," Ahmad yelled. He displayed a government certificate that verifies the victory of the 50-member "official" council in a March election that Kabul held in an apparent bid to tighten its grip on the district.
Both groups have ties to the Taliban: The brother of one official council member served several years in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay. Others include local powerbrokers and former commanders of anti-Taliban militias-turned-political parties that many Afghans fear are rearming, preparing for the vacuum that the U.S.-led military drawdown is creating.
District councils have no real power, but they resolve local feuds and act as partners in small-scale foreign aid projects, roles that confer influence and prestige on members — and provide opportunities to skim funds and corner contracts.
Tribal elders selected Sarobi's "unofficial" council of 80 members from among themselves four years ago. Because of its informal nature, the group reached understandings in some areas with Taliban fighters that allowed it to employ locals who were desperate for work on projects such as drilling wells and building culverts, members said.
"We have worked in places controlled by the Taliban," recounted Waheedullah, an unofficial council member. "The official council can't go to my village."
Unofficial council members warned that the truces will collapse unless the official council, whose members they accuse of buying votes, allows their group to remain in an unpaid advisory role. Otherwise, they said, aid projects will stall, fueling support for the Taliban.
Moreover, they said, the official council is hamstrung by its association with President Hamid Karzai's U.S.-backed government, which pays council members a monthly salary of about $130.
"The Taliban has warned people to cut their connections to the government. Otherwise they will saw their heads off with a shoestring," said Allah Mohammad, the clerk of the unofficial council.
Abdul Mubin Tawkalzai, the official council chairman, denied the vote-buying allegations against his 50-member group. Those who are making the charges are just angry that they lost their races for the new body, he said.
"They are losing their economic interest and their public reputation and are being pushed out of the district's political scene," said Tawkalzai, a heavyset, bearded man. "The election was transparent and there were no problems."
He dismissed the idea that his council is too closely associated with the Karzai government to supplant the unofficial group, saying, "We are independent people."
A June report by the International Crisis Group research agency identified Tawkalzai as a former Northern Alliance commander whose militia fought over Sarobi in the late 1990s against a militia aligned with the Taliban.
Tawkalzai — whose nom de guerre is Commander Mubin — and his former rival faction leader "have continued to exert considerable influence over Sarobi through their relatives and proxies, several of whom are fighting on behalf of the Taliban," said the report, quoting residents.
Adding to the tensions, Karzai's government has decided to establish and arm a 300-man volunteer police unit in Sarobi under a U.S.-funded program that's designed to boost security in rural areas. But some warlords associated with Afghanistan's three decades of factional slaughter have used the Afghan Local Police program to build personal militias known as "arbaki."
Ordinary Afghans accuse the formations, which are trained by U.S. special forces, of committing crimes and other abuses with impunity.
"Who is going to recruit these arbaki? The former commanders of the mujahedeen," said Haqbin, the district chief, in apparent reference to Mubin and other power barons. "Instead of weakening these former commanders, this will strengthen them."
Sarobi residents worry that the departure of foreign troops will turn back the clock to the chaos of the 1990s, when rival factions battled over checkpoints used to extract tolls from drivers who dared to ply the highway.
"There were 20 different checkpoints along this road" remembered Lal Gul Sahebzada, who runs a teahouse in the town bazaar. "If you were in a truck carrying goods, you had to pay a huge amount of money at each checkpoint."
"At some checkpoints, they'd release a dog to frighten you into paying them," he continued. "There was one fighter whose commander called him 'Dog' and used him to do the same thing."
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011