When the Taliban hammered on Haji Abdul Haideri’s door at 1am, he naturally refused to let them in. They responded by lobbing a hand grenade over a mud wall into his courtyard. Shrapnel tore into his leg.
Haideri, a frail old man of 70, picked himself off the ground and grabbed his rifle while one of his sons opened fire from the roof into the narrow street below.
As the Taliban fled, Haideri limped to his front door and loosed off a volley. By the time the gunfire had died down, the bodies of seven Taliban fighters lay in the road.
The old man then walked out to strip the bodies of their weapons. It was a fatal mistake. Two Taliban fighters, lying in cover, opened fire and four bullets thumped into his chest, killing him instantly. The assassins escaped through the shadows of Arghandab, a village near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
“He was a great man. He led his village for 25 years. The Taliban knew if they killed him, they would create fear and the locals would stop helping the foreign soldiers,” said his nephew Massoud, speaking days after the killing.
Haideri’s sons gave chase and spotted the killers pass a police checkpoint. They asked the deputy commander why his men had failed to stop the fighters. He allegedly replied that it was not his job. Furious, the youngest son raised his assault rifle and shot dead the deputy. Both sons are now facing murder charges.
Village elders such as Haideri are frequently murdered in Kandahar province.
In four years Taliban death squads have killed more than 400 elders, government officials and Afghans working for foreign organisations, according to a tribal expert who keeps a list of the dead.
The Taliban have now drawn up a hitlist of 633 Kandaharis, according to an official from the National Directorate of Security, the country’s intelligence agency. The government has refused to release the names for fear it would accelerate an exodus of officials.
The scale of the killings will worry Nato officials in advance of an operation intended to flush insurgents from the strategically critical city of Kandahar. The insurgents and Nato alike attach great importance to Afghanistan’s second city: it is the birthplace of the Taliban — and also of President Hamid Karzai.
In the coming months Nato and the Taliban will increase efforts to win over a population enraged by civilian casualties, government corruption and blood-letting among rival warlord factions. Many claim the international community has failed to address these problems despite nine years of conflict.
Nato faces an uphill battle to secure the city. In the past 18 days the central hospital has treated 24 people for gunshot wounds, mostly sustained in assassination attempts, doctors said.
“There is a vast increase in the number of people who are brought to us with gunshot wounds. Most are shot at close quarters in the back of the head or in the chest. Perhaps 20% survive,” said one doctor.
One tribal elder found he was on the hitlist after a friend overheard the Taliban talking about him at a madrasah (Islamic seminary) in Pakistan. Travelling to Chaman, a border town, the elder made contact with the insurgents.
After three days of negotiations, he persuaded them that his visits to the intelligence service and the Red Cross were made in order to secure the release of fellow tribesmen wrongly jailed by Afghan and Nato forces. His name was scrubbed from the list.
The Taliban told him that an associate who had flown with him on a recent trip to Kabul had tipped them off.
“A lot of the time the Taliban receive their information from their supporters inside the police or at your workplace,” said an official who claimed to have seen the list. “They do it for money but mostly they do it because they are scared of being killed themselves.”
Senior officials travel to work in armoured cars and many surround themselves with bodyguards, forcing the Taliban to target their junior colleagues.
One Kandahari who works for an international aid organisation said he pretended to work in his brother’s travel agency before and after his regular job. “The Taliban want to weaken the government by forcing people to finish their jobs or leave the city,” he said.
Nato, nevertheless, believes it has the upper hand over what it says is an increasingly desperate enemy. Its plans involve building a ring of 13 police checkpoints in the city while US troops will man bases on its approaches.
“The checkpoints won’t stop the assassinations. I’ve seen people killed 20 yards from a checkpoint and the police don’t do anything,” said a resident whose brother was killed in a suicide bombing last year.
Nato has begun to push American soldiers into several of the city’s surrounding districts. The reinforcements, part of President Barack Obama’s 30,000-strong troop surge, will be sent to the Taliban strongholds of Zhari, Panjway and Arghandab.
Many Kandaharis view the forthcoming operation with dread, believing it will do little to improve security. The central hospital has asked doctors and nurses to donate extra blood in anticipation of mass casualties.
Two days after the Taliban shot and killed Haideri, his nephew Massoud returned home last week. He parked his car and went out to eat.
When he returned he found a bicycle with a gas cylinder strapped to it left next to his car. A shopkeeper told Massoud he had seen a suspicious-looking man leave it there.
Massoud rang the police but they refused to leave their headquarters. So he called in the Canadian soldiers with whom he had previously worked.
They dispatched a reaction force and his fears were confirmed. The canister contained explosives and ball bearings.
“I’m scared of the street now,” said Massoud. “I tell you, there is worse to come in this city. This is only the start.”