In Oasis, Peace but Little Hope ; Afghans Show Scant Faith That Government Can Hold Gains after U.S. Pullout

By Rubin, Alissa J | International Herald Tribune, January 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Oasis, Peace but Little Hope ; Afghans Show Scant Faith That Government Can Hold Gains after U.S. Pullout


Rubin, Alissa J, International Herald Tribune


Residents of the mostly peaceful Helmand Province are angry at the government for what they see as widespread corruption and the policies relating to the opium trade.

The battle against the Taliban in Helmand Province was so fierce two years ago that farmers here say there were some fields where every ear of corn had a bullet in it.

Now it is peaceful enough that safety concerns were an afterthought during this year's harvest. In districts of Helmand like Marja and Nad Ali that used to be Taliban strongholds, life has been transformed by the American troop surge that brought in tens of thousands of Marines three years ago. Over several recent days, a reporter was able to drive securely to places that in the past had been perilous without a military escort, and many of the roads were better paved, too.

So why, then, is it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand Province?

In conversations with dozens of tribal elders, farmers, teachers and provincial officials, three factors loomed large: dissatisfaction with the Afghan government, the imminent departure of Western troops and recognition that the Taliban are likely to return.

Few expressed much faith in the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the security gains won by the huge American and British military effort here.

Although some people said they believed that areas near the provincial capital would remain secure, beyond that there was little confidence, and many voiced worries that much of the province would drift back under Taliban control after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014.

Even now, with at least 6,500 Marines still in Helmand after a peak of 21,000 troops last year in Helmand and neighboring Nimroz Province, local people say the Taliban have begun "creeping back." Residents report that threats from nearby militant commanders have increased, and that the Taliban are sending in radical mullahs to preach jihad in the mosques and woo the young and unemployed to their cause.

As fearful as residents may be of a resurgent Taliban, they are also angry at the government for what they see as widespread corruption and hypocrisy. Some of that anger focuses on bribery connected with government services, and some on policies relating to the opium trade, which supplies more than 40 percent of the world's product, according to United Nations statistics.

Even farmers who are willing to grow other crops are angry at officials who have eradicated poppy but failed to provide enough help with alternatives. Farmers say some of those same officials profit from the drug trade they profess to be fighting.

"Before the surge, the government in Helmand did not control even a single district," said Hajji Atiqullah, a leader of the powerful Barakzai tribe in the Nawa district of central Helmand. "They had a presence in the district centers, a very small area, but the Marines cleared many districts and they expanded the presence of the central government."

Afghan forces now control his district, he said, but will not be able to hold it unless "the foreigners manage to get rid of corruption in the Afghan government, in the districts and the province levels."

Local elders fear that many farmers, especially those impoverished by the government's strict poppy eradication policies, will return to opium cultivation and look to the Taliban or other criminals for protection because the government has not offered them a satisfactory substitute livelihood.

"Before the Marines launched this big offensive, Marja was the center of the opium trade," said Ahmad Shah, the chairman of the Marja development shura, a group of elders that works with the government for change here. "Millions and millions of Pakistani rupees were being traded every day in the bazaar. People were so rich that in some years a farmer could afford to buy a car.

"We were part of the eradication efforts by the government," he added, "and if they had provided the farmer with compensation, we could have justified our act. …

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