Afghanistan: Under their flag, but still under fire

Despite victories in Marjah offensive, Afghans worry that militants have lived to fight another day
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Ten days ago, in this dusty town in Helmand the Taliban banner was triumphantly torn down and replaced with the Afghan national flag, a highly publicised celebration of the capture of Showal, where the insurgents had been running their "shadow government" for the Marjah region. A week later, just 20 metres from that newly hoisted flag, a roadside bomb exploded under a British truck.

The device had been planted on the main route into the town centre some time previously but the battery pack had been connected overnight, the telltale sign was a mound of fresh earth covering the twisted white electrical flex. One British officer noted the "sheer neck" of the Taliban in daring to activate the device in the presence of large numbers of coalition troops.

Fortunately, only the detonator and a small portion of the charge had gone off, for the full 30lbs would have made short shrift of the truck's crew and of others nearby. But the violence in the area, which was hailed as one of the first to be retaken in Operation Moshtarak, was a potent reminder that this war is far from over and many of the Taliban fighters have lived to fight another day.

If more evidence were needed, 24 hours later, on Wednesday, another improvised explosive device was found on the same road. And a shura, or public meeting, taking place in the same area near Shaheed came under fire, setting off a gun battle.

However, it cannot be said that a counter-offensive has started, that the Taliban are co-ordinating a massive response to what has been billed as the biggest Nato operation since the war began in 2001. The Taliban attacks, so far at least, have been sporadic, but they are designed to send a message that the insurgency is alive in this area, which is not only of great symbolic significance but is also a strategic arms and heroin depot for the militants, and a sanctuary where attacks can be planned and then launched elsewhere.

Operation Moshtarak got under way almost two weeks ago, heralding the start of Washington's much-trailed Afghan "surge", and the stakes could not be higher in what is now very much Barack Obama's war. The military push is to be followed by massive reconstruction and development, and a return of civic society that will hopefully pave the exit from a war that is becoming increasingly costly in "blood and treasure".

In Showal, the insurgents fought a series of fierce skirmishes to keep British and Afghan government troops away. Around 200 IEDs were found, some planted, others primed, another half-dozen had gone off. But they were outmanoeuvred by an air assault carried out by the 1 Royal Welsh Battle Group and had no answer to far superior Western firepower.

While the British and Afghan government forces prevailed relatively quickly, in Marjah the US Marines are still fighting, and paying a bloody price, to take control of the last remaining Taliban redoubt. However, as American and British officials have stressed, the immediate and more important challenge is not on the battlefield but in winning over the population and establishing the credibility of Hamid Karzai's government.

It was Showal that General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, chose to visit not long after its capture, in an attempt to show that the campaign was going well and once again emphasise the commitment to the return of civic society. "I am convinced that the Taliban will come back here, we will see a lot of violence. There will be a lot of difficult days for coalition forces because the insurgents are not rolling over," he said. "But the main task is winning the trust of the people. It's like we have a huge task in front of us. But we have figured out how to make it work."

In Showal, as in other areas retaken from the Taliban which The Independent visited, very few people said they wanted the return of Taliban rule but not all the Talibs were viewed as brutal oppressors, as they can often be depicted in the simplistic school of Western analysis. This, in fact, should be a source of encouragement to Nato, given their new policy of reintegrating militants who are prepared to lay down their guns.

Agha Jan, a 48-year-old farmer, was one of those ambivalent to the Taliban regime. No, he said, they did not mistreat him, or extort money, but he was glad they had been replaced. "My daughter's leg was cut very badly by farm machinery and she was bleeding. But some passing foreign soldiers found out what happened and they took her by helicopter to Camp Bastion where she has been treated," he said. "The Taliban could not have done that, I would have had to get her to the hospital at Lashkar Gar and she may have died on the way."

Although, for Mr Jan, the deciding factor was not what the Taliban did, but rather what they could not deliver, some of his neighbours had a much darker experience of Islamist rule. "I was bringing over some food for my family and my neighbours on those," said Mohammed Ilyas, pointing at the wreckage of a couple of trucks in the middle of a field. "The Talibs took the food and burned the trucks. They said I was a traitor for accepting food from outsiders, non-believers. When I protested they beat me and beat my son very cruelly. They said they would kill us if this happened again."

There is, undoubtedly, a fresh sense of purpose in the Nato side. After a period of drift, caused by political vacillation in Washington and London, there is a belated recognition that the key focus must be to engage with the Afghan people.

But that is not always easy. There are past issues that need to be resolved. At a shura, British officers expressed their vexation at why there was such disinclination on the part of the local elders to accept the hundreds of thousands of pounds of aid on offer. "We have asked you to form a committee so that we can get these projects moving. We have asked you this for 12 days now," said Captain Neil Hassell, of the Military Stabilisation Support Team.

"We want to put new roofs on the bazaar, we want to improve drainage, we can build a clinic, a school. But you must organise yourselves quickly so we can get on with this," he said. "I saw 20 young men sitting on a field doing nothing. We would like to give those men jobs, so they can earn money, otherwise the Taliban have an opportunity to recruit them. Surely you can see that?"

Of the 16 elders, the few who spoke had a variety of reasons for the delay. "A lot of people who left the area because of the fighting have not returned. Let us wait," said Haji Lawang. "These things take time, we shall talk among ourselves and maybe come back in 10, 12 days' time," added Mullah Mohammed Ullah. "We need to find the people who own the various shops," added Mohammed Nabi.

A young Afghan army captain, Abdul Latif, had had enough. "I am ashamed for you! Have you no sense of responsibility towards your family? Your community?" he said, not hiding the bitterness in his voice. "We have been here two weeks, we are your country's army, but not one of you as community leaders has pointed out to us where a bomb has been hidden. Not one of you has offered my men, who have travelled across Afghanistan to free you, even a cup of chai. Even now you cannot look me in the eye."

It was a high-risk strategy, Captain Latif had questioned the leaders' izzat, their honour. There was an uncomfortable silence, the British officers looked at the ground, the elders looked at each other and tugged their beards. Eventually Haji Shamshullah spoke. "The British and you have the guns, the Taliban have the guns, we are just the people whose land you are using to do your fighting. We hear fine words now, but will you be here in the future to protect us when the Taliban come back to punish us for co-operating with you? Or will you do what you have done in the past, come here, say fine words and then just leave?"

Afterwards, the elder sought me out to elaborate. "They want us to form a committee. But those in the committee will then become targets of the Taliban, that is what they don't understand. Believe me, they [the insurgents] have left plenty of people behind to tell them what's going on. Of course we want the bazaar open, people need to buy food, clothes. But we shall do it quietly," he said.

"Then, once we are sure the Taliban will not kill us, and we have security, we shall come back and form the committee they want and work with them. But we are genuinely worried about what will happen. We want the Afghan army to stay, but we do not want the police here. They were here before, they were thieves, they abused us."

Colonel Abdul Hussein Adel, the commander of the Afghan troops, was adamant that things needed to improve. "The Afghan National Police must behave better than they have done in the past. The people have a right to be angry with them. I do not want to see all we are doing here ruined by some bad ANP people. There are new officers here, but they must not fall into the old bad habits. I have already had a word with their commander and told him how important this was."

Police commander Qada Shah Kubi, from the Panjshir Valley in the north, said there was new training and personnel, but he is an ANP veteran and defensive about the force. "The ANP are working all over Afghanistan and they are doing a good job. It is only here in Helmand that there has been this trouble and that is because of the history of this place, there has been so much violence here, so many feuds. But we are from a different area, we do not have the history, and we shall work with the people."

The following day three men appeared at the bazaar and asked a British officer, Major Shon Hackney, whether it was safe to open their stores. He was, of course, only too happy to be able to answer yes. One of the men, Omar Morad, the owner of a hardware shop, explained that tribal elder Haji Shamshullah had told him that it was time for the market to start up again, but it should be done "without too much noise".

Civic society was returning to Showal, the Afghan way.