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Eyewitness: 'I can't remember a single day of peace in my home'

Jerome Starkey
Monday 13 July 2009 00:00 BST

Their homes have been destroyed, their schools have been closed and all three know friends and family who have been killed in the fighting. Helmand, their homeland, has been transformed in the past 60 years from a beacon of international development into a giant narco-farm controlled by the Taliban.

But the three students I met in Lashkar Gah were strangely optimistic about the future. None of them have gone the way of jihad. All three of them were desperate for change.

I spent four days in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, to get a rare glimpse of what ordinary people think about the increasing violence. It was the first time a British journalist had visited Helmand outside of the carefully managed military "embed" process for almost a year.

Photographer Jeremy Kelly and I flew from Kabul to Helmand dressed from head to toe in Afghan robes to look inconspicuous. It did not work. As soon as our flight was called a fellow passenger sidled up to me. "Are you going to Helmand?" he asked in hushed tones. "It's very dangerous, especially for foreigners."

But the three students, like most people we met in Lashkar Gah, were happy to talk to us. "Things are getting worse," said Mohammed Issaq, an 18-year-old from Now Zad. "We can't remember a single day of peace." His town in the far north of the province is one of the most remote settlements in Helmand. The soldiers there can barely venture outside their camps before the Taliban attack. Once garrisoned by the British, it was handed over to the Estonians, then back to the British and finally to the Americans, who call their base there "The Alamo".

But, he said: "We are optimistic about the future. If the British troops stop surrounding people's homes and killing innocent people, then the people will sit dow; they won't fight. But if they do not stop, then people are obliged to join the Taliban, take AK47s and defend themselves."

His classmate Rafiullah, 18, grew up in Sangin, the town that has become synonymous with British casualties. Mohammed Sabir, 19, came from Garmsir in the south, where 4,000 Americans have just launched the biggest operation in Afghanistan to flush out the Taliban since the Soviet occupation.

"The British troops they come, they bomb the area, and capture an area, then they give it back and the Taliban come back," said Mohammed Sabir. "The Taliban come back and security gets worse. The fighting begins again and in between the civilians get killed."

Today, the students live together in a small room above a shop on one of the city's main bazaars. Lashkar Gah is the only place in Helmand where it is safe enough to go to school. More than 3,000 British troops are involved in a bloody operation a few miles to the north, and 4,000 American marines are fighting a similar distance to the south.

For three years, British troops have battled to convince local people that they are better off shunning the Taliban and supporting the government in Kabul. With the extra troops, British and American commanders have promised to stay in the areas they clear until the Afghan army is ready to take over. But the mood in Lashkar Gah suggests that efforts so far have been hamstrung by civilian casualties and a corrupt and ineffective government.

Niamat, a 13-year-old from Garmsir, lost his father in a crossfire when foreign troops came to his village. His chest was still bandaged from where he had been struck by shrapnel. He and his father had been sleeping in their fields, as is customary in rural Afghanistan, so they could water their crops at night. But the Taliban had laid an ambush and the soldiers fought back.

"The bullets were full of fire," Niamat said, remembering the moment his father died. "Twice I tried to pick him up but then I saw his head had burst open." Niamat said he blamed the infidels. He accused the foreigners of waging war on Islam, but he has not volunteered to fight. Instead, he said he wants to be a doctor, a reminder that these are people with normal ambitions, who can still be won over.

His older cousin Abdul Ghani was more circumspect. "How can I like the Americans?" he said. "They martyred my cousin. He was an innocent man. He went to water his farm, just to earn a living. He was doing his work and they shot him. We are suffering from one side and the other. When the Americans come they are very cruel and when the Taliban come they are also cruel. All over our homeland we are sick of them both."

Nato troops are desperate to change that. Senior officers routinely spout mantras such as "The population is the prize". But they are struggling to win hearts and minds. In the opening phase of Operation Panther's Claw, the major British offensive to clear districts between Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, Helmand's second-biggest town, troops shot a civilian in a car because they thought he was a suicide bomber.

The senior mullah in Lashkar Gah, Haji Maulavi Mokhtar, said civilian casualties are the only reason people support the Taliban. "The Taliban don't dig any canals, they don't pave roads, they can't rebuild hospitals or mosques," he said. "All they do is commandeer people's property without paying. They ask for food, for money, for cars and motorbikes. Why would anyone join them or support them, of their own free will? There's one reason why the people join them: because during the bombardment a lot of civilians get hurt, then they get angry and then the Taliban have volunteers to fight."

He said most people were suspicious of foreigners because of the Soviet occupation. But he added that people in Helmand were particularly suspicious of the British because the believe the British are here is to seek revenge for the Anglo-Afghan wars in the 1840s. But he said he was confident, the British will win.

"I believe that they are slowly cleansing Helmand one bit at a time," he said. "I like the tactics they use. They have conquered all over the world. They know how to behave and how to act on the battlefield. They let everyone do whatever they want, and after they grow confident they go and destroy them."

He listed several senior Taliban commanders who have been killed by the Special Forces, one of Britain's more tangible successes. "The high-value Taliban leaders who were killed in Helmand, compared to the rest of Afghanistan, a lot were killed here."

Unfortunately, Nato have not built many canals either. Helmand has received billions of dollars in aid money. If it was a country, it would have ranked third on the list of American beneficiaries. But the results have been limited. "Efforts to win hearts and minds with quick impact projects have been largely futile," said Matt Waldman, the author of a report on aid effectiveness.

It was not always like this. In the 1950s, Lashkar Gah was a model of international development. The town was built by American aid workers who installed two major dams and a network of canals, now used to water the province's poppy fields. Helmand was the bread-basket of Afghanistan.

Aid workers built schools and houses a hotel and a hospital. It was once one of the best in Afghanistan, but today it feels like a museum. Nothing has changed there for 50 years.

"Our instruments are very old," said one of the hospital's dentists. "They were imported 50 years ago by Usaid. We don't have any modern equipment. We just pull out teeth and incise abscesses; we can't do fillings because we don't have the material."

Abdul Walid worked for the Americans as a young man. He remembers the city's glory years. "Lashkar Gah was very beautiful," he said. "People called it Small America." He remembers inviting Americans to his house for dinner and trips into the countryside for picnics. "Now I can't go two kilometres outside the city," he said.

Today, the Bost Hotel on the banks of the Helmand river stands empty. Many of the detached homes that imitated suburban America have fallen into disrepair. Governance is the other problem: while untold sums have been spent on the military, far less has gone towards building up Helmand's government, which is riddled with corruption funded by the drugs trade.

State justice is virtually non-existant. Eight years after the US-led invasion, Lashkar Gah's new courthouse is still a concrete shell under construction. "In the past seven years, no one has been punished for any crime," said shopkeeper Abdul Karim.

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