In Afghanistan's South, Mixed Signals for Help

Two of the women from Helmand province who traveled to Kabul to protest violence and poor governance in their province, which is plagued by insurgency.
Two of the women from Helmand province who traveled to Kabul to protest violence and poor governance in their province, which is plagued by insurgency. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 20, 2006

KABUL -- Clutching scarves nervously around their faces, the women whispered details of Taliban atrocities taking place in their native Helmand province: A translator's body found in a sack, carved into pieces. A police officer taken hostage, blinded and garroted with wire. A woman shot and hanged by her thumbs.

"All of our lives are in danger now. Our schools are shut, and anyone who works for the government is branded as an infidel," said Ma Gul, 52, a teacher who traveled to the capital this week with 20 other women from Greshk, a town in Helmand 300 miles south, to demand better protection and the removal of weak regional officials.

Gul's woes echo across this country's four southern provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is on a fierce rebound five years after U.S. and Afghan forces toppled the Islamic militia from power in Kabul. Months of aggressive ground combat and NATO airstrikes have failed to halt continuous violence in the south, as well as some sporadic attacks in other parts of the country.

According to a new report by a commission of Afghan and foreign officials, insurgent and terrorist attacks nationwide have increased fourfold in the past year, reaching 600 incidents per month by September and causing 3,700 deaths since January.

The report was issued by a group called the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, set up in February under U.N. auspices to promote and measure Afghan government performance. It said the violence threatens to reverse recent economic and political gains across the nation, and has led to a partial or total withdrawal of foreign aid in some provinces.

In Helmand, a vast and arid region where much of the worst fighting has taken place and thousands of people have fled their homes, residents and elders have been sending urgent but contradictory signals about how to restore peace.

While the delegation of women recounted Taliban abuses, a group of visiting elders from another Helmand district described local Taliban fighters as "brothers" and said their worst problem was the devastation from months of bombing by foreign military forces. If the authorities would allow tribal leaders to administer their district, they said, they would guarantee no further Taliban attacks.

"This bombing has destroyed hundreds of shops and many vineyards, but it has not driven the Taliban away," said Mohammed Rahim, a bearded farmer from Helmand's Nau Zad district. "We know the local Taliban; they are fighting against corruption and abuses. Once we have our own administration and the bombing stops, we trust they will obey us and the central government."

As a result of the mixed messages from victims of the conflict, and the growing public resentment over civilian casualties from bombing, NATO and Afghan officials now confront a strategic question: whether to keep pressing to forcibly defeat the Taliban, or begin accepting its presence in areas where tribal elders promise to rein in the militia.

Much of the south is still at war, with attacks and armed clashes occurring daily in Kandahar, Zabol and Uruzgan provinces. But in Helmand's Musa Qala district, NATO has cautiously agreed to test the tribal approach. Under a deal brokered in September by the provincial governor, NATO agreed to pull back British forces from Musa Qala, and local elders pledged that Taliban attacks would cease.

So far, reports from the isolated region, which is also a major center of opium smuggling, are confusing and contradictory. Some residents and visitors say the district is effectively under Taliban control, and a recent BBC video report showed squads of armed insurgents patrolling Musa Qala in fast pickup trucks, much as they did during the era of repressive Taliban rule that ended in 2001.

But both NATO and senior Afghan officials say they are largely satisfied with the arrangement, which they said has brought fighting to a halt and allowed foreign troops to focus on creating a central zone for security and development around Helmand's capital city, rather than manning scattered outposts and chasing after bands of insurgents.

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