Conflicting loyalties among Afghans at Mullah Omar's mosque

SANGESAR - At the mosque where Mullah Omar founded the Taliban movement 20 years ago, villagers are weighing up whether to side with the insurgents or the government as the United States ends its long war in Afghanistan.

The mud-brick village of Sangesar, west of Kandahar city, has been at the centre of the conflict since US air bombardments pummelled it in October 2001, weeks after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Mullah Omar often stayed in Sangesar when he was a lowly jihad fighter battling against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and he lived there full-time in the early 1990s with his growing family.

He studied and preached at the small one-storey mosque, emerging as a militia leader in the chaos of the civil war when many Afghans welcomed the Taliban as a stabilising force amid the savage misrule of competing warlords.

Bismillah, the current mullah at the mosque, which stands in a walled enclosure surrounded by gravestones, remembers Omar from his childhood.

"Mullah Omar was a fighter. He had allies among some warlords and then he took control of Kandahar city," he told AFP.

"We are happy the Americans are leaving now. That is a good thing," said Bismillah, 30, who became the mosque's mullah last year.

But he complains that the village has been left to the Afghan Local Police, who have a bad reputation for corruption and misconduct.

"They demand food and bribes, and they fight as part of the tribal conflict here. They even fight among themselves, killing each other," Bismillah said.

Sangesar has dwindled from 25 families to just six and Bismillah says they are waiting to see who gets the upper hand -- government or Taliban.

"Either way, what we want is more books and stationery for our school, and a loudspeaker for the mosque," he said.

Where it all began

By 1996, Mullah Omar had swept from Sangesar all the way to Kabul, enforcing the Taliban's version of Islamic Sharia law and sheltering the Al-Qaeda militants who masterminded the 9/11 attacks.

"You feel close to Omar in the village because many people have connections to that time and they tell stories, like how his men hanged rivals from tank barrels," said Bette Dam, a Dutch author writing a book on the Taliban's origins.

"It is one of the most important places in his life. The Taliban masterminds might not be there any more, but the movement is disparate, not centralised.

"Every village has someone who can be a Taliban fighter, motivated by exclusion, jihad, drug money or opposition to the US and the government."

For locals such as Samad Khan, a 33-year-old farmer, the fight for control of Sangesar, in Zhari district, is in the balance as US-led NATO forces end their combat mission against the Taliban on December 31.

He told AFP that without US money and weapons, the Afghan army would be easily overwhelmed by the Taliban.

"Fighting here is all personal. If there is an attack, then officials who belong to one tribe punish other tribes, saying they are Taliban. We will have to see who is strongest," he said.

Still at large

The Taliban regime fell in 2001 after the US-led invasion, but Mullah Omar -- who lost his right eye fighting the Soviets -- has never been found, despite years of searching and a $10 million bounty.

Fears are growing that the declining NATO presence in Afghanistan could lead a return to civil war as Omar's followers step up their bloody insurgency against the Kabul government.

"We have been waiting to see professionalism from the security forces for 13 years, but nothing has changed," said Abdullah, a 27-year-old shopkeeper from the nearby village of Pashmul.

"People will support the Taliban and I have no problem with that. The Taliban were here for a long time and they can come back."

US troops left Zhari district in August during a summer of vicious fighting between the Taliban, local tribes and the Afghan security forces.

Witnesses said bodies were left rotting in the open around Sangesar as people were too scared to collect them.

Since then the Afghan army has regained control of the symbolic village in an effort to show that at least the Taliban's birthplace is under nominal government authority as foreign forces end their war.

But news from neighbouring Maiwand district, where the Afghan army and police have been fighting the Taliban in recent weeks, could be an ominous sign.

"The security situation is really bad, with constant fighting between drug smugglers, the Taliban and security forces," said Malik Din Mohammad, 54, a tribal elder from Maiwand.

"The government is not powerful enough to contain the situation."