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Britain In Afghanistan New AOR

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The bandits wait for the British
Christina Lamb, Grishk, Helmand

EARLIER this month a British advance party in Helmand held a series of meetings with locals, asking them about their lives in Afghanistan’s largest and most lawless province. When they asked, “What’s good about life in Helmand?” nobody had any answer. When they asked, “What’s bad?” the people did not know where to start.

Their main complaint is lack of security but even that is not straightforward. Dust-swept Helmand, where 3,300 British troops will be deployed in May, is the heartland of the Taliban. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, fled there when his regime fell in 2001.

It is also the world’s biggest opium-producing region, responsible for 22% of the total last year. Many of the mud-walled houses have gun turrets, for this is tribal feud territory where brother kills brother over land and girls as young as 11 are seized as booty.

Even by day, central government writ extends for barely a mile outside the main towns of Lashkar Gar and Grishk. Only the foolhardy venture out after sunset when Helmand becomes the preserve of bandits, Taliban and drug smugglers who sneak back and forth across the borders with Pakistan and Iran.

“Coming to a province where there has been no military presence at all and with so many problems, we are bound to draw fire,” said Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley of the Royal Green Jackets, who has been in Afghanistan since October. “It really is like poking a stick in the hornets’ nest.

“I don’t accept reports of Falklands-scale casualties. But the Taliban are a major threat. We’re under no illusions at all that they’ll have a go at us.

“I don’t single out the Taliban. There is such a blurring at the edges of drugs, gangsters, tribal spats. This is not a place where the enemy wears a uniform.”

Suicide bombers have recently been thrown into the mix. One got into the governor’s compound last month while a meeting with the local US commander was under way. The intruder was shot by American soldiers before he could blow himself up. His car, too, was packed with explosives.

The Taliban claim to have 200 suicide bombers to target foreign troops. “Of course there’s fear,” said Worsley. “Because no troops have been here our intelligence is weak and it’s a hidden presence.”

The official line is that suicide bombs are the last throes of a decimated organisation. Others point out that almost 1,600 Afghans were killed last year — more than in any year since 2001 — along with 66 American soldiers.

“The Taliban are not just regrouping in the south; they are winning,” said a western intelligence source. “Two years ago they were wintering in Pakistan. Last year they stayed in Helmand all year but wintered in remote hills. This year they have remained in the villages.”

When I told Afghan friends I was planning to go to Helmand, most tried to dissuade me, even though I have been travelling in Afghanistan since 1988. One described it as “the Falluja of Afghanistan, only bigger”.

The defence attaché at the Afghan embassy put my chances of being abducted at 25%. An MI6 agent who has travelled the country said he would not attempt it without seven vehicles of armed guards.

As we headed toward Helmand along the road from Kandahar — through Maiwand where the British suffered one of their worst defeats in 1880, losing almost half a force of 2,600 — it was difficult not to think of these warnings.

Partly it is the inhospitable landscape, a stony desert in shades of beige and grey, full of dips and culverts in which bandits might lurk.
The paved road has not yet reached Helmand, as the Taliban keep killing construction workers and the police who guard them. Tracks snake back and forth across the barren plains and the few vehicles throw up huge clouds of dust.

Occasionally we passed men in black turbans, crouched with guns on their backs, waiting and watching for who knows what. As we reached the capital, Lashkar Gar, we drove past a school where both the caretaker and a pupil were killed last month. The few women on the street were all in burqas.

It is hard to believe that back in the 1960s this was known as Little America, the breadbasket of Afghanistan, famous for its watermelons and grapes. In those days it was home to many foreigners and intellectuals. Girls studied in mixed schools and did not even wear headscarves.

Since then, years of fighting by the Afghans, first against the Russians, then against each other, have destroyed the American-built irrigation system and dam. These days the only thing that grows is the poppy. Most educated people have fled.

Development in the four years since the Taliban fell has been minimal. There may be more than 1,000 aid agencies in Kabul but there are only five in Helmand because the United Nations considers the frontier land a no-go area, marked red on the map. One of the aid agencies, a Bangladeshi organisation, recently had an engineer shot in the mosque.

There were no international forces here until a US-led provincial reconstruction team was established last year in Lashkar Gar. The 80-strong unit has funded the rebuilding of the madrasah (religious school) and plans to install windmills, but lives under heavy guard and rarely ventures out.

Many question the commitment of the international community to Afghanistan. Even with higher than expected numbers of British troops, Nato will have only 16,000 peacekeepers in Afghanistan, compared with 40,000 still in Kosovo.

The complicated scenario into which the British troops in Helmand will be thrust was illustrated by Fauzia Ulumi, 49, a courageous woman who before the Taliban era was headmistress of a girls’ school and who recently set up the only women’s centre in the province.This is the first port of call for girls like 15-year-old Parwin, who was forced to marry a 64- year-old man because he was the most powerful drug smuggler in her area.

“A lot of girls that come to me are victims of smugglers,” said Ulumi. “Farmers who have been paid in advance for poppy but then cannot honour the debt because their crop has been eradicated will give their daughters. Also we are seeing an increasing number of opium addicts and fathers who cannot afford to pay for their supply and have no option but to hand over their daughter.”

Ulumi was furious when the women’s minister refused to attend the inauguration of her centre on the grounds that it was too dangerous. “The government in Kabul talks about equality for women but here in Helmand women have no value,” she said.

Ulumi receives regular death threats, mostly in the form of “night letters”, Taliban missives warning that they will kill those who send women out to work.

The Taliban is focusing on soft targets such as teachers and engineers. Many schools in Helmand have closed after night letters were posted on doors warning that anyone who sent their children to school would die. Three schools have been burnt down in the past fortnight and a teacher at one was pulled out in front of his class and killed. Ulumi estimates that fewer than half the province’s 7,000 pupils are now at school.

I travelled with her to Grishk, where the main British contingent will be based, to see some of the problems. Before we left we were told that two road police had just been blown up there. We were forced to take 11 guards armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers for the 90- minute journey.

Throughout the bumpy ride they scanned the desert for white Toyota Corollas, the vehicle of choice for suicide bombers, and taxis, which often contain Taliban. Those were about the only cars we saw.

In a house full of yellow-dyed nightingales, we picked up Razia Baluch, a member of Grishk provincial council, who was married at 11 and a mother by 12. She told us of the massacre last month of an entire family of 10 who had refused to let a daughter become a smuggler’s bride.
The family had gone into hiding but the prospective bridegroom turned up one night with his militia, gunned down mother, father, brothers and sisters, then took away the girl.

“Opium is behind many women’s problems and insecurity in this province,” said Baluch. “I am very worried that if they eradicate poppy, many will be left with debts and the only way to pay will be with [their] daughters.”

Embarrassingly for Britain, which oversees the Afghan counter-narcotics programme, Afghanistan produced 87% of the world’s opium last year.

This year Helmand’s production is expected to double. According to Shah Mehmood Maihani, leader of the province’s poppy eradication team, more than 90% of the province is under poppy. “It’s unparalleled,” he said. “Even in the desert where there was no water, people have dug wells and are now growing poppy.”

On Friday the governor took his eradication plan to Kabul for approval, requesting 300 extra national police and weapons. The implementation will be the job of Colonel Faisal Ahmad, chief of the counter-narcotics squad, who receives just $80 a month for doing one of the most dangerous jobs on earth.

“We’ve held meetings of village elders and warned them that growing poppy is illegal,” he said. “But people don’t take it seriously because they know in the past there has been little eradication and that district police could be bribed. The only way to eradicate it is with a real show of force.”

At the village of Abazan, just outside Grishk, Mohammad Gul Barahawi, an old man with a grey turban and white beard, said he had been growing poppy for three years and it was the only way to support his 15 family members. He makes more than 10 times as much as he would if he grew wheat.

In another bone-dry field, the recently widowed Jan Mohammed and his three dusty-faced children were pulling out weeds with a scythe. His wife Salima had agreed to smuggle opium to Iran under her burqa last year to raise money for her brother to be freed from prison, but she was arrested on the way. When she was released, the buyer accused her of selling it to make money for herself. He gunned her down in front of the children while she was saying her prayers.

The British troops are not arriving until May, by which time the poppy will have been harvested — or eradicated. “It would have made much more sense to be here in March as they originally promised so they could help us,” a senior official said angrily.

According to a senior Afghan intelligence source, Britain will pay off drug lords in the region to destroy their production. “They want it to look good for [Tony] Blair,” he said. “That was the point of coming into such a difficult state as this.”

Worsley insisted that British forces would not take part in poppy eradication. “Counter-narcotics is the Foreign Office’s responsibility,” he said. “We certainly won’t be marching into fields and stripping poor farmers of their crops or taking them away at gunpoint or searching vehicles of drug barons.”

The Department for International Development has allocated £20m to spend on alternative livelihoods for farmers. But Worsley conceded that if the Helmand administration did carry out its planned eradication of poppy over the next two months, the British troops would be arriving at a time of much local resentment.

The British forces may encounter some expectations that have not been foreseen. “We are very pleased that the British are coming,” said Abdul Salam, a former Taliban commander (known as Mullah Rockety for his talent with rocket-propelled grenades against the Russians). He recently became an MP and now wants to see the North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces of Pakistan reintegrated into Afghanistan. “If they help us get back that soil then I can guarantee they will be very successful in Afghanistan. If not then people will be very suspicious.”