Afghan informers play dangerous game in Taliban heartland

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The news comes at noon: there is a cache of rockets right in the middle of Kandahar city, birthplace of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

The informant holds a thick yellow sheet tightly around his face, lest it falls. We must act quickly, he has told US forces, or the weapons will be fired at Camp Nathan Smith that evening.

For cash, but risking his life, he has given valuable information to the 293rd US Military Police Battalion, who train Afghan forces in a densely populated northern district of Kandahar, a known staging area for insurgents.

"A lot of Taliban leaders live here," said US Sergeant Michael Crowley.

The population has good reason to be afraid to tip off or cooperate with Afghan and Western forces for fear of reprisals.

"There have been threats. (The Taliban) cut hands off construction workers building government-funded projects, after sending them threatening letters," Crowley said.

US forces depend on local intelligence as extra troops surge into Kandahar this summer, part of a mammoth build up designed to drive the Taliban out of the city in a critical campaign intended to help end nine years of war.

But the Taliban has executed a number of locals it has accused of spying for Western forces, and even civil servants who cooperate are also a prime target.

On Tuesday, the chief of Kandahar's Arghandab district was killed in a suicide car bomb. He was considered a traitor by the Taliban, his villagers being funded and supported by US special forces to protect against the insurgents.

Arriving at the location of the rocket cache, a field strewn with mounds of rubble, US soldiers struggle to find the weapons with a metal detector. The informant, hidden in a vehicle, refuses to expose himself to help look.

Finally, after the site is emptied of Afghan forces, the man is brought out from hiding.

"The informant was worried the ANP (Afghan national police) would see him," said American Sergeant Charles Smith.

Still covered with the sheet, the man quickly uses his hands to dig at a patch of earth in ground surrounded by high walls. He exposes the cache, then bounds back to the vehicle.

The bomb squad is brought in to dig up the relatively modest catch: five Chinese-made 62-millimetre recoilless rifle rounds, wrapped in a sack of rice.

"I carefully dug down with my hands, made sure it was not booby trapped and took them out," said a bomb squad member who gave his name as Toby.

"Originally, the intel was that there were rockets."

But for the Americans, it was still a small victory. And for the "mole", a significant amount of money.

A US military official based in Kandahar said informants are paid through a programme called "small rewards" if they help find mortars, rockets and other armaments.

"It's a means of compensating these people to put their life on the line," he said, refusing to disclose how much they were paid.

Nevertheless, a US intelligence officer says security needs to improve significantly before the population of Kandahar can be a dependable ally.

"They can't really support us, out of fear of any consequence. They're waiting to see what happens," he said.