Afghan officials live in fear of Taliban assassins

KABUL – During his two years as a provincial governor in Afghanistan, Arsalah Jamal survived four suicide attacks.

Once, a Taliban bomber dressed as a doctor struck as Jamal dedicated a hospital wing. Twice, car bombs slammed into his convoy. Another time, an attacker blew himself up at a funeral Jamal was attending for a fellow governor killed in another blast.

Jamal, 45, escaped harm each time, but he resigned late last year as governor of the eastern province of Khost and moved his family to Canada — a victory for the Taliban and its campaign to intimidate and assassinate Afghan officials.

Assassinations have intensified this year, with more than 100 officials and pro-government tribal elders attacked — half of them fatally. Echoing a strategy of insurgents in Iraq, such killings sow fear, undermine the already weak government and make it difficult to fill official posts with educated and competent Afghans.

"The Taliban know that if you kill one guy in the government, it discourages another 10 from being in that job," said Jamal, who returned to Kabul this year to work for President Hamid Karzai's re-election.

The campaign of fear is another indication of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, where a record number of U.S. and NATO troops have also died this year. President Barack Obama must decide whether to send more American troops to a country already in political limbo because of the hundreds of allegations of fraud from the disputed Aug. 20 presidential election.

Top U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in a confidential assessment that more troops are needed within a year to prevent "failure" in Afghanistan. Even with more troops, McChrystal said the mission would fail unless Afghanistan reverses a "crisis of confidence" in government.

Many Afghans blame the Karzai government for rampant corruption and the revitalized insurgency at a time when most people still lack basic services such as sewer systems and electricity. Reversing those trends is a mammoth task for the next administration, and the assassinations make it much harder.

Fear of being targeted also cuts off many officials from the people they are charged with serving. Several district chiefs around Afghanistan told The Associated Press they've hired private security but still cannot leave the main towns in their district because insurgents control the countryside.

Even bodyguards, used by some Afghan officials, can offer little protection against bombings. One of the attacks on Jamal's convoy killed two of his guards along with his driver.

More than 50 Afghan officials and tribal elders have been killed in more than 100 attacks targeting government leaders in 2009, said Sami Kovanen, an analyst with the security consultancy Tundra Group, which tracks violence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban seek to weaken local government authority, Kovanen said. "Then they set up their own system of Shariah law and they install their own shadow government."

In one recent attack, a Taliban suicide bomber killed the country's deputy intelligence chief, Abdullah Laghmani, and 22 other people as they were leaving a mosque in Laghman province.

"Once you are in a government position, you have many enemies," Jamal said. "My daughters couldn't go to school. The teachers told me the whole school was in danger because of my daughters."

Sitting in a courtyard garden where caged parakeets chirped and armed guards stood outside, Jamal ticked off on his fingers the assassinations last year in Khost province: one of his district chiefs killed by a bomb, a judge slain by a sniper, another district chief who escaped one suicide attack in 2008 only to be killed by another this year.

Hundreds of local leaders have been threatened. Tribal elder Khaki Jan Zadran said militants from the powerful Haqqani network vowed to kill him last year for serving on Paktia's provincial council. He left his village five months ago and now stays in the eastern province's capital, Gardez, living more like a fugitive than an elected official.

"I don't stay in one place more than two or three nights," Zadran said. "And I can't go back to my village."

"He was killed, unfortunately, this year," Jamal said. "He was a very successful mayor, but he was killed."