The Taliban gunmen drove into the bazaar last Saturday in a three-car convoy. Tyres screeched as the vehicles skidded to a halt outside a shop where eight Afghan interpreters working for the US army were packing newly bought fruit into plastic bags.
The Taliban levelled assault rifles at their heads and ordered them into the cars. As bystanders fled, two of the translators made a run for it. Ducking into an alleyway as bullets ricocheted off the walls around them, they escaped.
Their six colleagues were less fortunate. They were driven to a Taliban “safe house” in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Early last Sunday their headless corpses were found on the south-western outskirts of the city. The Taliban had cut out each man’s tongue and placed his head on his chest.
A note pinned to one body read: “The same fate awaits those who work for infidels.”
The killings appear to be part of a Taliban initiative aimed at disrupting Nato’s counter-insurgency strategy, which hinges on the soldiers’ ability to protect the Afghan population.
Last weekend Nato announced that it had intercepted a letter from Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, which had apparently been sent in June. It called on Taliban field commanders to kill or capture civilians working for foreign soldiers and the Afghan government.
If genuine, the directive has come as US forces dig in across Kandahar in preparation for a fierce fight to wrest territory from the Taliban. ]Interpreters such as those killed last week will be crucial: the military relies on them to act as its eyes and ears as it struggles to win over the local population.
“The Taliban know we’re a vital asset for the Americans. That’s why the Taliban have singled us out,” said one translator stationed with American troops in Kandahar.
Nato acknowledges a steady rise in murders of interpreters, many of them unreported.
On Kandahar airfield, the largest Nato base in southern Afghanistan where the six beheaded interpreters worked, news of their killing spread swiftly. Colleagues quit in ones and twos, telling their American bosses they needed to visit sick relatives at home.
“We’re frightened,” said an interpreter who calls himself Rocky for security reasons. As he spoke about the killing of his friends, Rocky, who earns $600 (£390) a month translating for US soldiers training the Afghan national army, hid his military identity card. “You never know who’s watching you,” he said.
Many interpreters suspect the Taliban have spies in Nato bases. In his letter to subordinates, Omar, the Taliban’s one-eyed supreme commander, instructed fighters to recruit informants with access to foreign military bases, Nato said. The translators believe someone on Kandahar airfield had tipped off the Taliban as the eight translators prepared to buy food and clothes.
“They’re local people hired to work as cleaners and builders. The Taliban tell them they can only work in the bases if they spy for them,” said an interpreter. He had worked with British forces in Helmand before quitting when the Taliban pasted a letter to the door of his home threatening to kill his family.
Earlier this year Taliban fighters stopped an interpreter employed by British forces as he drove home in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, according to colleagues.
The militants accused him of working for the British. He denied it but the Taliban produced photographs of him in British military uniform. Ten days later his body turned up with a bullet hole in the head.
Many fear that as American military bases expand to make space for the 30,000 additional US troops sent to Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama’s surge strategy, Taliban infiltration will increase.
“The situation is only going to get worse because the Taliban will have access to more people who are willing to pass back information,” said Rocky.
Employees of aid groups and contracting companies are also concerned that colleagues are spying for the Taliban. This month three Afghans working for a construction company in Kandahar were beheaded.
“Few of these people are paid to inform on us. Most are just scared,” said an Afghan adviser to USAID. “They feed the Taliban to save their own lives.”