Boisterous city falls silent as Taliban returns

Militants have become increasingly active in an Afghan city formerly considered a success story with series of attacks on music shops and recording studios.

JALALABAD // The music of some of Afghanistan's most famous singers used to be an inescapable feature of life in Jalalabad. Their voices drifted out from shops in the city, where they would mix with the cries of market traders and the buzz of passing rickshaws.

Then, just a few weeks ago, the soundtrack to the streets began to fall silent for the first time in almost nine years. Under the cover of darkness, the law of the Taliban had returned. "I didn't get any warning like some of the others. They blew up a music centre on our right at night time. One day later they blew up another music centre in another market and then each night they were blowing them up," said Zalmai, a shopkeeper, who, like many Afghans, only uses one name.

According to a number of traders, insurgents are now openly active in Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan that has been regarded as one of the country's few success stories. The rebels announced their presence in late June with the first in a series of attacks on recording studios and stores selling CDs and cassettes. Shopkeepers were left so terrified some closed their businesses, and there is now widespread fear that the regional cultural hub is becoming a new frontline in the Taliban's apparently unstoppable return to power.

Zalmai had invested about US$4,700 (Dh17,263) in his music store, but five days after the bombings started he switched to selling electrical household items such as light bulbs and plug sockets. He keeps his old merchandise at home and has no idea when, or if, he will be able to bring it out in the open again. "I had only Afghan music in my shop. I swear I wasn't selling any bad or rude CDs or DVDs," he said.

That defence appears to carry little weight with the Taliban, who regarded all music as un-Islamic when they were in government. Back then, cassettes could be found unspooled and strung from trees as the regime sought to rid society of anything it regarded as morally corrupt. Even to their supporters and sympathisers, it is often remembered as being a step too far. Now, though, a similar situation is developing right under the noses of US troops and their Afghan allies.

With its reputation as a centre of learning and culture, for years this city, which is the capital of Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan, and most of its surrounding districts managed to stay relatively peaceful as both sides of the frontier were gripped by violence. Local tribes were seen as hostile to the Taliban and there was none of the bloodshed that has spread like wildfire through the two countries, from Peshawar to Kandahar.

Today that is beginning to change. People claim that the insurgents have control throughout many rural areas in Nangarhar. Using a suicide car bomb and rocket-propelled grenades, last month a team of rebels staged a co-ordinated attack on a US base here - one of the biggest in Afghanistan. The assault injured two security personnel. At about the same time, owners of music stores were targeted and warning letters ordering them to close started to arrive. They are in the heart of the city, circled by police and military checkpoints, but still within the insurgents' reach.

A 26-year-old shopkeeper named Ismail invoked the name of one of Afghanistan's most dangerous places when he warned that "Nangarhar will be a second Helmand" unless something is done to stop the rebels. "We need to change our business. If we don't the Taliban will burn and destroy all the money we have invested," he said. Although who exactly is behind the recent attacks is unclear, one particular insurgent group is known to be highly active in the area. It is run by Anwar ul-Haq, the son of a famous mujahideen leader, Mawlawi Younus Khalis, who died in 2006 having spent his life committed to jihad.

Mr Khalis was born in Nangarhar and went on to fight against the Soviet and US occupations under the banner of his own faction of the militant organisation Hizb-e-Islami. He is still talked about with great reverence here, having also been a mentor and colleague of the Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, who now heads arguably the most feared rebel group in all Afghanistan. "People love Mawlawi Khalis because he was not involved in the civil war and he also didn't change his ideas," said Najibullah Nail, a local resident. "He was a strong Muslim."

Mr ul-Haq's group is thought to be called the Tora Bora Movement and it operates as part of the Taliban. "I like them a lot and I want them back in power because they are mujahideen and they are Muslims," said Sahfiqullah Manmawal, who fought alongside Mr Khalis against the Soviets. "If they come to my house obviously I will help them, and I am sure other people in the villages are helping them."