KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The assassins arrived by motorcycle early in the morning, took aim at the tribal elder and shot him in the head. It was just one in a series of assassinations that have rattled nerves and hampered U.S.-backed efforts to install a functional government and improve the lot of the people in southern Afghanistan's largest city.
The victim, Abdul Rahman, a man in his 80s, all but saw it coming. Rahman had risen before a gathering of his peers early last month and publicly criticized President Hamid Karzai for not doing enough to bring security to southern Afghanistan.
Other Kandahar elders told Karzai that they were putting their lives in danger by working with his U.S.-backed government to seize full control of the Taliban's spiritual birthplace.
Attackers in Kandahar province have killed 21 Afghans in the last six weeks, including half a dozen tribal elders like Rahman, according to a tally kept by Sami Kovanen, a veteran security consultant in Kabul. Insurgents have killed four Kandahar government leaders, including the deputy mayor, who was gunned down while at prayer in a mosque.
The latest killing occurred Tuesday, when gunmen on a motorcycle killed a top Kandahar prison official as he headed to work.
"There is no government at all," said a police official in Kandahar's rural Arghandab district, where Rahman was gunned down. McClatchy is withholding his name for his protection.
Insurgents have attached makeshift bombs to donkeys and bikes. They're delivering intimidating letters at night and making phone threats to pressure Afghans to quit working with U.S.-backed leaders.
Several Kandahar officials have quietly resigned or told their superiors that they're leaving the country for critical medical treatment.
"When I resigned, most of my friends called to congratulate me," said Latif Ashna, the 52-year-old former head of Kandahar's rural development department, who resigned last month.
"From my point of view, this is the weakness of the government," Ashna said. "They are not able to provide security."
"The civilian side is failing," said Khalid Pashtoon, a prominent Afghan lawmaker from Kandahar who chairs the lower house's internal security committee.
While the Taliban have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks, military strategists see a broader problem that's hobbling efforts to shore up the weak Kandahar government.
NATO officials and private analysts suspect that other players — including competing security firms and tribes with rivalries — are taking advantage of the instability to target their opponents.
"It is a lot less about the Taliban and more about disorder and criminality," said one top NATO official based in Kandahar, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"To me, that looks like anarchy," said Kovanen, the security consultant, who analyzes Afghan violence as a senior information analyst for Indicium Consulting in Kabul. "There are no rules. If you have the right connections, you can do whatever you want."
Rahman's killing last month amid Arghandab's pomegranate groves was one example of the pervasive violence.
Rahman was an elder from the Ghilzai branch of the Pashtun tribe that produced many of the Taliban leaders and historically has been at odds with Karzai's Popalzai branch of the Durrani Pashtun tribe in southern Afghanistan.
The local police official heard from tribal elders that the Taliban had claimed responsibility for the killing, but Rahman's son and nephew told McClatchy that local Taliban militants privately had denied responsibility.
"A few days ago someone brought me a letter that said, 'Do not be deceived that your father was killed by us,' " said Rahman's son, Abdul Raouf. " 'He was a Muslim. If he was killed, it was the result of tribal feuds.' "
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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