Special Report: Afghan surprise in Ghazni province

At a meeting to celebrate the Taliban's 'retreat', what could possibly go wrong?

Zana Khan, Ghazni, Afghanistan

The mortar rounds came in from the hills, spraying shrapnel as they sank into the red earth; long bursts of machine-gun and Kalashnikov fire followed, all aimed at the helicopter landing strip. The attack just missed its target – the aircraft in which the governor was leaving after a public meeting to celebrate the defeat and expulsion of the Taliban from this area. The helicopter scrambled away, as did a second one in which a group of journalists was due to travel, with just two passengers on board. The rest of us ran to a disused school which was being used as a headquarters by Afghan and Nato forces for the mission to clear insurgents from the villages in this harsh and unforgiving stretch of Ghazni province.

The firefight lasted for 70 minutes, with Soviet-era heavy machine guns, manned by Poles and Afghans, answering the incoming Taliban rounds. A few of these fell on a track leading to an old fort of the Gilzai tribe, 300 yards away, where senior officials had been telling a crowd of about 500 villagers at a shura, or public meeting, about the bright future which lay ahead for them, now the enemy had been forced to flee.

The Polish pilots of the Russian-made Mil Mi-24 "Hind" helicopter-gunships dived and banked overhead. The firing from the ridges began to die down and finally ended when a howitzer found its mark, to cheers from the troops. But not before, in one of the last exchanges, a Polish instructor with the Afghan police was shot and fell injured.

By the standards of this vicious war, this was a relatively minor skirmish. What it did illustrate, however, was just how difficult and unpredictable it is to gauge success in an insurgency. The Taliban have been driven back from here but the assault announced they were very much alive to fight another day.

What happens in districts like Zana Khan is of intrinsic importance as the West charts its exit strategy from this long and costly war. Earlier this week, General John Allen, the US head of international forces in Afghanistan, said the Taliban were in retreat, their leadership in Pakistan divided and the dispirited foot soldiers deserting in large numbers. Afghan security forces, he and other senior US and British officials insist, will be able to maintain the government's writ across the country with help from abroad.

Operation Shamshar was aimed at hitting four insurgent positions in Zana Khan, a sparsely populated but vital area near Highway 1, the route that transports people and goods to market and is needed to establish governance and commerce in this unstable part of Afghanistan. "We are fighting ghosts. They shoot at us and they disappear and hide away. It's not easy," said Major Krzysztof Wojcik, a Polish officer mentoring the Afghan forces, as he sheltered in a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) armoured vehicle. "This is a never-ending story. We have carried out this same clearance operation five times now but they keep coming back. This low-intensity battle will continue if there is no political solution. We already know there is no military solution to this; the two sides need to sit together and talk and form a government.

"What is happening now is because the Taliban knew the shura was taking place. They wanted to attack the governor and the journalists."

A force of 400 Afghans and Poles took part in the Afghan-led operation, with General Daoud Warfada Shah in charge. "The Taliban are cowards," he said. "They do not dare to fight us face to face. They are thieves in darkness, trained to bomb and to murder in a neighbouring country. It is our duty as Afghan soldiers to protect our citizens and take control of these villages. Most of the Taliban we are facing now are not Afghans, but Pakistanis."

But as Jamshed Ghawse, 31, a local journalist, pointed out: "The problem is that the foreign troops, and our security forces, have never stayed for very long. They come along and then they go after a while. When the Taliban come back, they take revenge on all the people they blame for co-operating with the government.

"Sure, you have some Pakistanis coming over and they are very bad people. But you have a lot of local people as well who are Taliban. Villagers from here go to the Taliban to get disputes settled because it is cheaper and quicker than going to the courts. They deal strictly with criminals. But if the government was effective and stayed in the area, the local Taliban would give up their guns."

The governor of Ghazni, Mohammed Musa Khan, claims that during his two-year administration he has gained a degree of credibility by being tougher on corruption and reaching out to the armed opposition. "There are three kinds of Taliban," he said.

"Those who are driven to it because of injustice by officials, those who are driven to it by poverty, and those who are being used by our malign neighbours in Pakistan and will not change. We must look after the first two; the third we must fight. In the meantime, we must help the people and educate the young."

After the speeches, books with Koranic inscriptions against violence were handed out to children and clothing to the adults. "There will be trouble if the Taliban come back and catch people with these gifts," warned Mr Ghawse.

The governor, meanwhile, spoke about the success of the shura. "Today was very well attended," he said. "The first time I came to one here, no one showed up. The second time the Taliban actually started firing mortars. No, today has gone really well."

With that, after shaking hands with the assembled dignitaries, he set off for a helicopter ride home to Ghazni City.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Website Editor

£15 - £17 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently r...

Primary Supply teaching jobs in Stowmarket

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: The Job An inner city Birmingham sc...

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

Day In a Page

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
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments