Things can only get better: The town that came back to life

Three months ago, a resurgent Taliban regime was driven from the Afghan town of Musa Qala. Since then, ordinary people there have had a tantalising taste of what a normal existence might offer. Kim Sengupta tells a rare good news story

In some senses it could have been a school opening anywhere. A refurbished building, smiles all around and some glad-handing by visiting dignitaries. Pupils ordered to sit in line to listen to speeches, then presented with new bags and books to mark the occasion.

But anyone who had seen the children arrive at their new school in Musa Qala would have realised that Afghanistan is not like anywhere else.

Children as young as six years old were searched for arms and explosives as they arrived; nearby buildings bore scorch marks from bomb blasts, and among the rows of teachers there was an empty seat; the deputy headmaster has gone missing, no one knows what has happened to him; and there are no girls at the school.

Behind a tight security cordon provided by British and Afghan troops, with snipers on rooftops, the district governor, Mullah Salaam, proclaimed through a microphone that the "crazy" Taliban were the enemy of God and of Afghanistan, and must be defeated. A day later, however, sitting at home, he admitted: "Yes I am a Talib," adding that he was a good Talib, not a bad one.

Musa Qala has been much in the news over the past few days because this was where Prince Harry was based before being airlifted out after his presence in Afghanistan was revealed by an American website. But long before that sideshow, this town, in northern Helmand, had become of iconic significance in this war as the place where Western policy in Afghanistan is being defined. It was here that British forces found their biggest battleground and here also that the bitter recriminations between Britain and America began. This war-torn town has also played a role in the continuing and very public discord between the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, and the UK.

Under a deal in 2006, British forces withdrew in return for local elders pledging to keep out the Taliban. But the arrangement was criticised by the Afghan government and the Americans who claimed that the area had been handed over to the insurgents.

The open Taliban control of the town, with the insurgents levying taxes and imposing a brutal version of Sharia law, was an embarrassing example of the seeming impotence of the Western-backed Karzai government. Musa Qala became a centre for orchestrating bombings and shootings across swaths of the country and a centre for mass production of opium with much of the proceeds being used to fund the insurgency.

Musa Qala was recaptured at the end of last year in an operation by British, US and Afghan forces. Civilian casualties – "collateral damage" – were kept to a minimum under plans drawn up by the UK's Helmand commander, Brigadier Andrew Mackay.

The town is now the focus of a huge "hearts and minds" project in which millions of dollars are being spent on reconstruction – a belated start by the Foreign Office and Dfid (the Department for International Development) who were notable for their absence when British soldiers were fighting and dying in Helmand to create the space for development which did not come.

About 300 Taliban fighters were killed in the operation to retake the town, and follow-up operations continue to clear insurgents from surrounding areas. Having suffered heavy reverses in the field, the insurgents are increasingly adopting the tactics of Iraq: roadside and suicide bombings. The latter are claiming the most victims and have been spreading terror across the south of the country. Two bombings in the past fortnight, within 24 hours of each other, claimed 146 lives in Kandahar City and Spin Boldak.

Much expectation and money have been invested in Mullah Salaam, the new governor of Musa Qala, by the British. The mullah was once a Taliban commander but has changed sides, converted by Michael Semple, an Irishman working for the European Union who, along with fellow diplomat Mervyn Patterson, had been involved in a British-backed plan to entice insurgents to change sides.

President Karzai, who claimed that he had been kept in the dark about the scheme, expelled the two men, another in a line of belligerent acts against the UK following a public denunciation at the Davos summit of Britain's performance in Helmand and the blocking of the appointment of Paddy Ashdown as the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai's extended court in Kabul remain suspicious of Mullah Sallam. But the Mullah, who recently survived an assassination attempt when a suicide bomber forced his way into the British headquarters where he was staying, was in a bullish mood:

"Why are you surprised that people change sides? Yes, I am a Talib, but I am not a Talib who wants to kill and destroy. I want to help and protect my country," he said. "Mullah Omar [the Taliban's former leader]d went to Pakistan, so why should I continue to follow him? This is my country, and this is where I am going to stay. Will the Taliban try to retake this town? Of course they will. They tried to kill me, and we have seen all these suicide bombings.

"But there are Talibs who we should encourage to come and work with the government. There are some who are not involved in terrorism and in the opium trade – these are the Talibs who can help us. But we need more help, we need more aid projects." Aid projects are, in fact, under way. The main mosque and a medical clinic, both damaged in the fighting, are being repaired; commercial life has begun to return to the town.

And the music is back. Bollywood tunes – banned by the Taliban – blare from transistor radios, and DVDs are on sale.

Most importantly, at a place where the insurgents hanged young boys for "spying", 650 pupils have already enrolled in the school. The headmaster, 52-year-old Abdul Basir, believed that a girls' section may open next year, although he could not see women teaching. "It is just too dangerous now, they will get threatened, they may get killed," he said.

It is not just female teachers who are at risk in Afghanistan. Mohammed Halim, a headmaster who I knew, was killed in Ghazni last year after refusing Taliban demands to shut down a girls' school. He was taken away at gunpoint in front of his weeping wife and children from his home in the village of Qara Bagh; was part-disembowelled; and was then torn apart with his limbs tied to motorcycles. The remains were left outside the girls' school, which shut the next day.

The Taliban had shut down the old school in Musa Qala while they were in charge. Mohammed Issa, a 55-year-old teacher, was told to stay away. He has started back at his job but remains apprehensive. "We do not know if the Taliban will return at night, and we do not know how long the British and the Afghan army will stay. They were here before and they left. If the Taliban return I will have to stop teaching. I have got a family and I do not want to die."

Inside Musa Qala, the mood is one of weary neutrality. On Friday morning, with no women in sight, a British patrol is watched in silence by men. There are none of the friendly waves and smiles that one gets in most other towns.

The Taliban are not without sympathisers here. Janaan Ali, sitting on a charpoy on the roadside by the bazaar, said: "We had no problems with the Taliban here. Then we had security and now we have robberies. We also don't like these foreign troops firing warning shots in the air whenever they pass: it frightens the children.

"Nothing good has happened to me since Isaf [International Security Assistance Force] came back. I used to have a little restaurant but the building has now been taken over by the police. I have received no compensation."

Others, however, are worried about what may happen if the British leave. Ahmed Shaikh, 33, a carpenter, said: "We are glad the Taliban had gone, but the British allowed them to come back last time. How do we know that will not happen again? If the British want to stay they must realise that they will have to keep fighting.

"We are glad that aid projects have started. But the British also must talk to us, the people, and not just the powerful ones like Mullah Salaam. But let me tell you: the Taliban have not gone away."

There is similar uncertainty in the villages outside Musa Qala. Abdul Rahman, the headman at Wandi Safala, said: "We did not have anything to do with the Taliban, but there was nothing we could do about them either. We don't want them to come back, but it is up to Nato and the Afghan government to stop them."

Abdul Salaam, a farmer at Dand, the next hamlet, said: "I have had my land flooded repeatedly. We need the foreigners to build us a dam to stop this happening. If people get aid, the Taliban will not get support." The two farmers are examples of a problem which has been one of the main reasons for the British presence in Helmand. The province produces almost half the opium of Afghanistan, which provides 92 per cent of the world's supply of the drug. The fields owned by Mr Rahman and Mr Salaam have been planted with the opium poppy, the crop which gives them, they say, the best return.

The Afghan government and its Western allies want to eradicate the poppy fields, but the farmers point out that this will ruin them. "I have to feed a family of 22 people and I have just had to borrow 450,000 afghanis (£4,600) because of the flooding. If the government and the foreigners come with their guns, what can I do? I do not know what will happen to us." The British forces do not want to create enemies among dispossessed farmers in the eradication process while still battling the Taliban.

Just a few miles away, Corporal Stuart Hendy of the 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, struggled to save the life of an Afghan soldier blown up by a landmine. "He had quite severe injuries to his face and neck and he had lost a lot of blood. We got him out of there because we were expecting more attacks. He had a lot of internal injuries as well and he is in hospital."

Cpl Hendy, 25, from Darlington, is a trained medic and has seen his share of bomb injuries recently. He says quietly: "There was a five-year-old who was very badly cut up, and an elderly man who lost both his legs. We try to help the best we can, but these are pretty hard things to see."

Brigadier Mackay said: "The Taliban are definitely worn down. In a pure tactical military context, 2007 was an extremely satisfying year. They are suffering from a lack of man power, and that is why they are having to rely on foreign fighters." But the brigadier believes that body counts "are a corrupt way of measuring success... It is building civic society which is essential. Talking simply in terms of winning the war is meaningless."

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