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.

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