WASHINGTON - Villagers in an area of southern Afghanistan that was the birthplace of the Taliban movement two decades ago have staged a first-of-its-kind uprising against the insurgents, a senior American commander said Wednesday.
Army Maj. Gen. Robert B. Abrams said in a video teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon that this was a new and promising development in Kandahar province with potential to spread even as U.S. and allied forces are playing more of a back-seat role in fighting the insurgency.
"This is absolutely the first time that we have seen this sort of an uprising, where the people have said, `Enough is enough,'" Abrams said, speaking from his headquarters in Kandahar city. He commands 14,000 U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan whose role has switched from direct combat to helping Afghan forces take the lead.
Abrams said the uprising in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province began about one month ago, and at this point the Taliban have been "kicked out" of all but about four villages - not at the initiative of Afghan or coalition troops but that of the villagers. "I suspect the rest of those villages will fall here in short order," Abrams said.
Abrams said Afghan officials told him there were two main triggers of the uprising. One was the arrival about six weeks ago of a new district police chief with "a renewed energy, vigor, an offensive mindset." The second was the beating of a villager by Taliban fighters who, when reprimanded by the village elder, proceeded to humiliate the elder.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Abrams said. He identified the village as Peshigan.
There have been local anti-Taliban uprisings elsewhere in Afghanistan in recent years - most notably in Andar district of the eastern province of Ghazni last year - but they have not developed into anything close to a national movement.
Seth G. Jones, a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corp. and a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, said he thinks the Panjwai and other local uprisings are significant even if they are not decisive.
"It does show some of the weaknesses of a (Taliban) movement that is not that popular," Jones said in an interview. "What this may suggest is that for the foreseeable future the struggle in rural parts of Afghanistan, including districts like Panjwai, will see-saw back and forth between insurgents, the government and then locals."
A distinguishing feature of the Panjwai uprising is its location in a traditional Taliban stronghold. Mullah Omar, who founded the Taliban movement in the early 1990s, is originally from nearby Zhari district. Panjwai has been the scene of fierce battles between Taliban and U.S.-led coalition forces for the past six years. It was the scene of killings in March 2012, allegedly by Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, of 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, in two Panjwai villages. Bales is scheduled to be court-martialed in September.
Abrams called the uprising "a long time coming," adding, "In short, the people have said, `Enough is enough,' and they became fed up with the Taliban. They have asked for the support of their government."
Abrams said there is no formula for triggering popular uprisings against the Taliban.
"If there was a magic recipe, we would have figured it out years ago and sprinkled it throughout the (south)," he said. "So it's really based on the individual nuances and tribal customs and so forth, as well as the security environment inside each of the districts."
Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War and an occasional adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, said in an interview that Panjwai is "one of the most unlikely" places for a popular uprising, given the Taliban's strong influence there and the risk villagers take by standing up to the militants.
It suggests to her that the Taliban have overstepped the boundaries of what ordinary Afghans will tolerate even in an area where the Taliban traditionally enjoyed sympathy and support.