Battle for hearts and votes reaches Taliban heartland

The ballots in Pashtun region could settle next week's crucial poll. Kim Sengupta reports from Helmand

It is a small town in Helmand, with nothing much to show for itself except decaying relics of American investment from the days of the Cold War and a landscape of unusual greenery amid the vast arid plains of southern Afghanistan.

But yesterday, Char-e-Anjir was the subject of much attention when it hosted a visit by VIPs from Kabul and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, who were accompanied by the international media. A shura, or community meeting, was held for local people and a ceremonial lunch for community elders.

The spotlight was a precursor to the Afghan presidential election. With just over a week to go before the polls and the race now anything but an easy romp home for Hamid Karzai, what happens here in the Pashtun belt has become acutely important. How the people here vote and how many vote, will decide the outcome.

Char-e-Anjir is of totemic importance in an election taking place in a country at war. The area slipped under Taliban control before British troops took it back through Operation Panther's Claw which, alongside an American offensive, was designed to improve security in a lawless region so thatabout 80,000 people could vote.

The registration and mobilisation of voters in the south is taking place alongside last-minute operations by British and American forces to drive the Taliban away from some of their remaining strongholds in the Helmand river valley.

Yesterday, helicopter-borne US Marines, backed by Harrier jets from the UK, stormed the town of Dahaneh, taking it after an eight-hour battle. The threat of violence is constant and the shura at Char-e-Anjir was guarded by British troops from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who were involved in some of the heaviest of the recent fighting and lost seven members.

As well as the threat of violence – the Taliban has warned they will kill anyone who votes – the push for Pashtun votes also takes place amid feverish political manoeuvrings in Kabul.

More details are emerging of President Karzai's offer, first revealed in The Independent, of a cabinet seat for one of his rival candidates, the former finance minister and World Bank official Ashraf Ghani. The ploy is an attempt to undermine Mr Karzai's chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

A deal would help solidify the southern vote behind Mr Karzai – both he and Dr Ghani are Pashtuns – against Mr Abdullah, who is half Pashtun, but retains little power base in the community because of his long association with the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance.

Analysts say the deal has the support of the international community which would like a technocrat like Dr Ghani to bring his management experience to an increasingly wayward administration while keeping the Pashtun community, from where the Taliban draw their support, within the fold.

The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, who flew into Char-e-Anjir for the shura, denied that the international community had any intention of interfering in the election.

"What happens in this area will be extremely interesting because it is vitally important that the Pashtuns should come out and vote," he said.

"They make up 40 per cent of the population and of course they should have a say in the running of the country. This area has been brought back into the rule of the Government of Afghanistan, and we are slowly seeing normal life returning."

The Taliban's departure has already resulted in the town slowly resuming its economic life. Fazel Rahim, a 28-year-old shopkeeper, said: "We had fighting going on all the time and I could only open my store a few hours a day. But it's been more peaceful recently and I have a lot more customers. If things keep like this we will be happy. I am going to vote for the candidate who can maintain the peace, I have not decided who, but I'll vote."

But the scars of a traumatised society are only too evident. As the shura ends, Shah Mohammed, a 48-year-old farmer, flings away the election literature he has been handed.

"I will not vote for anybody. Our lives have been ruined. I cannot return to my farm because of the fighting and my crop has been destroyed. I blame everybody, the Government, the Taliban, the Americans, the British. What have they all brought us but misery?"

His nine-year-old son has an injured arm, the result of a blast. "I don't know who did it, the Taliban or are the foreign troops, but this is what we have to live with," he said.

Ahmed Jan, a carpenter, complains about security. "I have three children and they cannot go to school because the Taliban killed the headmaster. They say now that we are safe, but the school is still shut.

"What would happen is that the British would fight the Taliban, drive them away, and then go away themselves. The Taliban would come back and the fighting would begin again. The British are here now, and they should stay, we need security."

A voter's view: 'All I want is peace'

Wali Mohammed has experienced Afghan history in microcosm during his 71 years. His first job was with the Americans who invested heavily in Chah-e-Anjir to counterbalance Russian influence. Since then he has worked for four different masters.

"The Americans sent me to Iraq and Iran to teach me English. It is strange what happened later but at the time they were friends with these countries. We were sorry when they left because they spent a lot of money here and they treated us well.

"Then the Russians came [in 1979] and asked me to continue working here. They brought us tractors, they brought us food. But then there was fighting and they left as well.

"After that the Taliban came and burnt all the shops, but they asked me to stay and work and I did that. It was a difficult time but they left us alone and we just continued with the work of repairing what the Americans had built, but we had no spares and everything began to slip away in front of my eyes. Now we have the British and I am still working and I like it here, I wonder who else I will see in Afghanistan before I die," he says.

"I will probably vote for Karzai, there is no one else. I have had three sons killed in the violence, and that is very hard for a father. All I want is a chance for peace."

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

Technical Project Manager - Software and Infrastructure - Government Experience

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Central Lon...

Head of Technology

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Head of Technology needed for a Outsta...

Maths teachers needed in Cromer

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teachers requir...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits