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TARIN KOT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan authorities are investigating why Taliban militants were able to push past checkpoints in the central city of Tarin Kot with such ease during a recent attack that exposed the fragile defences of many remote regions.
The Sept. 8 raid on the capital of Uruzgan province briefly sparked fears of a collapse like that in the northern city of Kunduz last year, a short yet symbolic victory for an Islamist insurgency that shows few signs of weakening.
The Tarin Kot advance was eventually repelled when reinforcements, backed by U.S. airstrikes, arrived, but not before local officials had fled to the airport in fear.
"Police left around a hundred checkpoints without even firing a bullet, and we have to clear up why this happened," said Dost Mohammad Nayab, a spokesman for the Uruzgan governor.
Heavy fighting continues along the highway linking Tarin Kot with Kandahar in the south, a vulnerable route that in parts is no more than a dirt road that heavy vehicles struggle to pass.
Bitter recriminations have broken out between officials since the attack. Such squabbling is not limited to Uruzgan and often hampers security forces' effectiveness, even if capabilities are improving steadily in many areas.
Events in Uruzgan, a patchwork of competing tribal groups that lies on a smuggling route bordering the volatile opium-producing region of Helmand, also highlight Kabul's often tenuous control outside the capital.
Western officials and some Afghan commanders say only a small number of Taliban fighters, many moving swiftly on motorcycles, appear to have been involved in the assault, suggesting minimal resistance was offered.
Taliban fighters warned police to abandon checkpoints and sent text messages to residents, prompting local shopkeepers to pile belongings into cars and flee. Large quantities of ammunition and equipment were abandoned.
U.S. officials said surveillance drones picked up no signs of significant combat activity and nothing to support media reports and social media postings that hundreds of gunmen had broken through into the city.
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul said they were "aware of recent allegations regarding checkpoints in Tarin Kot", but referred questions to Afghan authorities.
Shortly before a conference in Brussels where international donors are expected to maintain support for Afghanistan for four more years, the Uruzgan raid paints a bleak picture of armed forces who control no more than two thirds of national territory.
The insurgents were quickly pushed back with the aid of U.S. air strikes after the arrival of reinforcements led by General Abdul Razeq, a powerful police commander from the neighbouring province of Kandahar known as a ruthless enemy of the Taliban.
Further reinforcements were brought in, including units from Kandahar and police special forces from Herat.
Tarin Kot's own performance is under close scrutiny.
"Some of them (police) made deals with the enemy and brought them into Tarin Kot. They are still in their jobs because we could not prove their responsibility," provincial governor Haji Nazir Kharotai told a delegation of Western ambassadors and U.S. generals who visited Tarin Kot last month.
The province's chief of police Wais Samimi and provincial security chief Abdul Qawi have been summoned to Kabul and sacked, and further investigations will follow.
"This is not over," spokesman Nayab said.
Whatever investigations may show - and opinions in Uruzgan differ sharply over who is to blame - fragmented command contributed to the problem, local leaders said.
"There was no coordination between police forces," said Amanullah Hottaki, an elder in Uruzgan and former head of the provincial council. "If they don't learn from their mistakes, the Taliban will attack again and win," he said.
The problem partly reflects the complicated makeup of Uruzgan, a rugged province where Dutch, Australian and U.S. forces spent years trying to create a stable government.
As in other provinces, its web of tribal groups and local strongmen has hampered attempts to impose central control, and affects most aspects of politics and security, including the police.
"We don't have a national police yet," Hayatullah Hayat, governor of Helmand, told a gathering of local elders. "They serve in the police based on tribal and friendship ties. Until we fix this issue, the situation will remain the same."
Former President Hamid Karzai gave key positions in Uruzgan's local government to members of his Popalzai tribe, creating resentment among others, like the Barakzai, Achekzai and Noorzai who felt shut out.
Although police chief Samimi took the blame for the checkpoints, there has also been criticism of one of the main Popalzai powerbrokers in the province, deputy police commander Rahimullah Khan.
Rahimullah's power base was inherited from his late brother Matiullah, a militia commander who amassed a fortune through levies paid to his semi-official highway police before he was assassinated in mysterious circumstances last year.
President Ashraf Ghani tried earlier this year to sack Rahimullah, but, according to several officials, he was stymied by the family's powerful position in Uruzgan and its connections in Kabul.
"The government cannot deal with the Taliban and Rahimullah at the same time," said Obaidullah Barakzai, a member of parliament and a longtime enemy of Rahimullah, who blamed the deputy police chief's men for handing over their checkpoints.
Rahimullah rejected accusations of a deal with the Taliban as "baseless" and said: "If they have evidence that we made any kind of deal with the Taliban, they should show it."
By his account, his men fought until their ammunition ran out and he accused other officials of running away.
"You can fight with bullets and weapons, not with empty hands," he told Reuters. "Our forces withdrew from the capital because they didn't have bullets and weapons.
"There were high ranking officials at the airport and we were the ones to fight the Taliban and defend this soil."
Additional reporting to Mohammad Stanekzai in LASHKAR GAH, Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR and Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Editing by Mike Collett-White