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Afghanistan: Volatile Helmand Province Grapples With Insecurity

By Abubakar Siddique and Salih Muhammad Salih --> Thousands of Helmand residents have been displaced by violence in the province (RFE/RL) October 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Helmand, with a population of 1.4 million and an area roughly the size of Switzerland, is among the largest of Afghanistan's southwestern provinces.

Its vast expanse of desert and arid mountains border Pakistan and stretch to within 100 kilometers of Iran.

At the heart of the battle for Afghanistan's future, Helmand also is inarguably the country's most troubled province.

Taliban fighters have waged a comeback, and now control several rural areas, despite the presence in Helmand of some 7,000 British troops under the UN-mandated ISAF mission.

This year's bumper crop has also turned Helmand into the world's largest opium-poppy-producing region.

But most Helmand residents simply yearn for security -- which tops their list of desires.

Bismillah, who like many Afghans has only one name, lives in the Musa Qala district, which has fallen sporadically under Taliban control.

In comments to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Bismillah echoes the sentiments of many Helmand residents.

"There is no security in Afghanistan," he says. "If there were security, why would we kill each other even though we are brothers? People are killed for 10,000 or even 5,000" afghanis -- about $100. Violence takes place in a climate of impunity, Bismallah said. "If we had security in Afghanistan, we wouldn't be in such a desperate situation."

Casualties and Displacements

Such bleak descriptions are often matched by the situation on the ground. Helmand has seen more than two dozen suicide bombings since March 2006. Enemies of the central government employ brutal tactics, such as beheadings and kidnappings, to create an atmosphere of fear.

Despite numerous NATO military operations, the Taliban temporarily captured several districts in the past year. The Dishu and Garmser districts on the Pakistani border are now largely under Taliban control.

The Afghan Ministry of Refugee Affairs says fighting has displaced some 20,000 families. Three years ago, people could move freely around Helmand without fear of violence; but now even the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, is unsafe. Civilian casualties caused by NATO bombings add to local resentment.

Helmand residents accuse the Afghan government, its international allies, and the Taliban for the worsening security situation.

"We don't have peace now. On the one hand, we have the government, while on the other [we have] the Taliban," says Helmand resident Muhammad Tayyab. "If you are carrying anything, any [gunman] can snatch it from you. Civilians are always killed in the crossfire."

Many in the Pashtun heartland of southern and eastern Afghanistan believe that the insurgency is aimed at preventing development. Others take that argument further by pointing to the ambitions of the neighboring countries.

Ali Shah Mazlumyar, a tribal leader, thinks that Helmand's strategic location is being used as a springboard to spread chaos across Afghanistan.

"The root causes of insecurity in Helmand and the rest of the Pashtun belt are not here," Mazlumyar says. "Some locals might gravitate toward the enemy, but they are a well-organized and well-funded movement who have declared jihad against the Afghan government and the international community here. All of the world's terrorists are supporting them."

Such pronouncements are indirect references to Pakistan, where many Afghans believe the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have safe havens.

Afghan police and troops, like these National Army soldiers, have been unable to restore security in Helmand

But Mazlumyar maintains that weak governance is part of the problem. He says the lack of reconstruction and development is contributing to insecurity.

A poorly paid, understaffed, and lightly armed Afghan police force remains the main target of Taliban insurgents. Some estimates suggest that around 400 police officers have been killed so far this year.

Police Under Fire

But for most Afghans, the police are too corrupt to be of much help.

Lal Mohammad, a Helmand farmer, shares an eyewitness account of police corruption. "People roam around freely and nobody checks them at these checkposts," Mohammad says. "Yesterday, I saw a car full of drugs passing through one of the checkposts and the policeman on duty let them go after they paid him just 10 rupees [about $0.16] to fund his hashish habit."

Others in Helmand point to the challenges the nascent police force must overcome. Tribal elder Mazlumyar tells Radio Free Afghanistan that any honest appraisal of the police force must take some tough questions into account.

"When the police are just paid 3,000 afghanis a month...[and] when they are butchered and their beheadings are recorded on CDs and sold in the bazaars, when their widows and orphans have no help, how can you expect them to be honest and function properly?" Mazlumyar asks. "Under these conditions, it will be impossible to prevent smugglers, thieves, and terrorist sympathizers from infiltrating their ranks."

Helmand's new police chief, Mohammad Hosayn Andiwall, agrees with some of the criticism leveled at the police, but says that training new officers is an ongoing process.

"In six months, we should be able to reform the police so that people can trust them," Andiwall says. "I can assure you that I will not be part of any corruption, within the police ranks or outside them."

Corruption and inefficiency are not limited to the police force; there are corruption woes across Afghanistan. But the situation in Helmand is particularly dire and contributes to the insecurity.

At present, there is little accountability within the government. Corruption sometimes drives people to seek justice from the Taliban that is often perceived to be swift and cheap. The lack of justice also pushes many unemployed young people into the rebel ranks.

Mohammad Hosayn Shariatyar is a local journalist and analyst in Helmand. He says public officials need more integrity and the administration needs to be freed of individuals who are loyal to warlords.

"I have seen many people who cannot get justice cursing this [political] system and saying that even the Soviet [Red Army] was better," Shariatyar says.

Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa, however, remains steadfast and pledges to transform the provincial government to enable it to serve the people.

"All officials and I will be the public's servants and not their masters," Wafa says. "We will try to control bribery, nepotism, and corruption to create an honest administration."

Such pledges are being backed by large-scale aid and development projects. Helmand is the fifth-largest recipient worldwide of aid from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Taliban and Afghan government sources have recently hinted at the possibility of peace talks.

On the Afghan time scale, however, it might be some time before Helmand sees the peace that its people so strongly desire.

Afghan-Pakistani Border
EYE OF A STORM: Afghan officials first suggested that insurgents or terrorists were crossing the border from Pakistan in 2003. Relations have run hot and cold ever since. But the roots of the problem go back much further.

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