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Two Westerners Under Taliban Rule In Kandahar

U.S. military officials are preparing to attempt to take control of Kandahar away from the Taliban later this year. Two young Western residents of the city, Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten, describe what it's like to live and work under Taliban rule.

Plans for a U.S. offensive on Kandahar were announced after the Taliban was forced out of Marjah. But Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, is the heart of the extremist Islamic movement.

Asked about conditions under Taliban control, Kuehn said that the group's influence may not be immediately obvious to an observer. For instance, while the city has a police force, there's barely a government.

"It's about being able to operate with impunity," Kuehn said, "to assassinate and have access to whomever they want to have access to."

Since last summer, Kuehn said, their friends in Kandahar have been noticing a new influx of Taliban to the city. And that has only increased in recent months.

"Ever since we've heard that now the big push is going to be to Kandahar, the Taliban are also preparing for this."

"There's a general feeling of fear," Kuehn said.

For instance, when people part ways in the city, their goodbyes are tentative. Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten have written that the common farewell has become "I'll see you soon, if we're still alive."

Working in and around Kandahar, the two edited a memoir by Mullah Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan. A former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef has a long history with the Taliban; he was present when Mullah Omar was selected as the Taliban's leader.

As they worked on the translated memoir, the safety of the two partly depended upon Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtun people that requires the protection of guests.

Still, Strick van Linschoten says, their main strength is having many friends, who vouch for them and can guarantee their safety.

"If someone wanted to make trouble for us — kill us, kidnap us — it would be extremely easy," Strick van Linschoten said. "But you know, we've been living down there for two years now, which is an indication, I guess, that we're doing something right."

The Westerners' friends include tribal leaders and district chiefs. If someone were to attack them, Kuehn said, their friends would want to know who was responsible. "And in Kandahar city, nothing is a secret," he said.

"This relationship, and this kind of guarantee," Strick van Linschoten said, "we wouldn't go down there if we couldn't count on it."

Even so, the pair follow a set of security rules. They avoid falling into patterns as they travel, for instance; they don't call ahead of time to tell people where they'll be; sometimes they even switch cars during an outing.

And one basic rule persists.

"Don't deal with people you don't know anything about," Kuehn said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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