By Jon Hemming
KHELE MALAL, Afghanistan, June 16 (Reuters) - Just off Afghanistan’s main highway, Taliban insurgents regularly visit the village of Khele Malal. So do Afghan and U.S. forces, leaving local farmers caught between the two sides.
The Taliban and Western-backed Afghan troops are locked in a battle for Highway One, Afghanistan’s main trade route that runs south from the capital Kabul to the second city Kandahar before swinging northwest towards Iran.
Securing the highway means securing the villages either side of it through which the Taliban infiltrate from their mountain hideouts to launch ambushes and roadside bomb attacks against Afghan and international forces, or man impromptu checkpoints to demonstrate their presence.
"Security is not good," says village elder Haji Abdul Qader. "Yesterday there was fighting close by. The people are scared."
Khele Malal sits surrounded by groves of fruit trees watered by irrigation ditches from the hillside above. Ripening wheat fields slope down to a rocky river bed below. But just beyond that is the strategically important Highway One.
There are scores of such villages along the road in this, Zabul province, just northeast of Kandahar, and hundreds along its 450 km (280 mile) stretch between Kandahar and Kabul.
Groups of Taliban, sometimes just a few, sometimes up to 40 come to Khele Malal, sometimes every few days, sometimes every few weeks, the villagers say, clearly not wanting to be too specific.
The Taliban demand food and sometimes shelter from the villagers, Afghan and U.S. officers say. But across the south and east the hardline Islamists have also hanged or beheaded dozens accused of acting as informers for foreign forces.
"GIVE US SECURITY"
"We are powerless, we cannot tell the truth either to you or to them," Qader tells visiting local police chief Gul Mohammad, gesturing over his shoulder to the hills where the Taliban have known safe havens.
The Afghan police, unlike the more mobile army, are stationed permanently within communities and often bear the brunt of Taliban attacks. They suffered hundreds of casualties last year alone in their fight to contain the insurgency.
Zabul’s newly retrained police and their U.S. army mentors know they do not have enough forces to patrol every village every day, so see winning over villagers as key to denying the Taliban food, shelter and staging areas for attack.
U.S. troops also have funds for schools, mosques, clinics or wells to help the task.
"What do you want from these Americans?" Mohammad asks the clutch of poker-faced farmers standing round and stroking their beards. Two U.S. officers stand back at some distance, letting Mohammad do the hard sell.
"Tell them now. Do you want a mosque? What do you want them to build for you?" Mohammad says.
"We don’t want a mosque, we don’t want them to build anything for us, we have but one request to them, just do not disturb us," replies Qader.
"They," interjects another villager, Asadullah, referring to the Taliban, "won’t let us use one of your schools."
"If we were to give you supplies. We have teacher supplies, books, notepaper, pens, could you use that and not get in trouble?" asks U.S. army Major John Payne, joining in to try to find a way out of the impasse. A lengthy heated debate among the men of the village ensues before that offer is also declined.
"We don’t need any help, we just want security," says Qader, stroking his white beard and adjusting his sun-glasses in the already hot sun of early morning.
"I can provide security," the police chief replies, "but I need your help".
The police chief is clearly looking for information or tip-offs on Taliban movements but Qader, who at the age of around 75 has survived several decades of Afghan conflicts, is too cagey give anything away and risk trouble with the notoriously ruthless insurgents.
"You have mortars, heavy guns, trucks and aircraft, lots of soldiers and about 40 governments helping you and you’re asking me for help?" he says "I am an old man with a white beard and you are asking me about security." (Editing by Dominic Evans)