Last chance saloon in Helmand
By Aziz Ahmad Shafe, Mohammad Ilyas Dayee and Aziz Ahmad Tassal
KHANSHIN, Helmand province - It is all too rare a phenomenon lately: local
residents cheerful at the sight of foreign troops. But Operation Khanjar
(Dagger Thrust), which the United States Marines Corps launched in early July
in southern Helmand, has so far delivered on its promise to put protection of
civilians ahead of killing the enemy.
"When the American forces first came to our village, we were very frightened,"
said Mohammad Isaa, a resident of remote Khanshin district, which the Marines
cleared just one day after the start of the operation.
"But there was no fighting, and no Taliban. The soldiers are just
walking around, but they haven't bothered anybody yet. They are not searching
houses. They tell people that they are here for our security, so we can
participate in the [presidential] elections. They also said, 'If you don't make
problems for us, we will never make problems for you.' We are very happy now."
Khanshin, one of Helmand's largest but least-populated districts, is mostly
desert. Villages are scattered throughout, most boasting just a bazaar with a
few dozen shops. It is one of five districts targeted in Operation Khanjar, the
others being Nawa, Garmsir, Dishu and Marja.
Assadullah Sherzad, the provincial chief of police, said that Nawa, Garmsir and
Khanshin were now clear and stable.
"In those areas that we have cleared, we have established security
checkpoints," he told reporters. "The police have been able to keep those areas
clear of the Taliban."
Operation Khanjar has met very little resistance since it got under way early
in July; the overwhelming firepower of the US forces doubtless had the Taliban
thinking better of a face-to-face fight. But even more surprising than the lack
of a counter-punch has been the reception given the troops by the Helmandis,
who have been battered and let down over the past eight years.
"These Americans are very good people," said Tak Mohammad from Nawa district.
"They wave and speak to us in a very friendly way. And they have helped us
finally to get rid of these cruel oppressors."
Chased out by the US-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban came back to Helmand in
force in 2006. For the past three years, local residents have been buffeted by
wave after wave of military operations that only managed to clear the target
area for a few months. Along the way, they caused untold damage to property and
livestock, as well as mistakenly killing many non-combatants in air strikes or
Once the foreign forces moved on, the insurgents came back, often exacting
revenge for any perceived collaboration with the enemy.
So it is understandable that the patience of the Helmandis is wearing thin.
While they may be prepared to put up with some inconvenience if Operation
Khanjar does free them permanently from the Taliban, they are unlikely to give
the foreigners another chance if, once again, they are abandoned to their fate.
"The standard for a successful operation is if they clear an area and stay and
hold it," said retired army officer Abdul Jabar. "If they just clear an area
and do not leave forces there, the opposition returns and things are even worse
than before. It leaves a very bad impression with the community, and they go
over to the insurgents because they see them as the dominant force."
Jabar was skeptical about Operation Khanjar. The overwhelming force of the US
Marines demonstrated a lack of understanding of the enemy, he said.
"Sure [the US] has a lot of troops, modern weaponry, artillery, tanks and an
air force, but come on! This is an army for five provinces. The Taliban are not
that powerful that you need to send so many soldiers to fight them," Jabar
But, while the insurgents lack the firepower of their foreign foes, they have
shown a remarkable capacity for survival, so it may be too soon to count them
"The Taliban haven't gone anywhere," said a political analyst in Lashkar Gah,
the capital of Helmand province, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are
here. Every one of them is in his place. They are not outsiders or foreigners.
They are in the community."
Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, spokesman for the Taliban, told IWPR that the battle was
still to come.
"We have not yet started the fight," he said. "We are launching our own
operation, Puladi Jaal [Steel Net], in answer to Operation Khanjar. We will
catch their 'dagger' in our 'net'."
Ahmadi acknowledged that the Taliban were not able to mount a frontal assault
at this time, but insisted that they had more than enough tactical arrows in
"We will use everything," he said. "Rockets, missiles, suicide bombers,
guerrilla attacks, and face-to-face fighting. This is war."
One weapon the Taliban have used to great effect is the improvised explosive
device, IED - the roadside bombs that target the vehicles the foreign forces
"I do not mind if I am killed, provided that the Americans get rid of the
Taliban this time,” said Sharaf, who had brought his injured son to Lashkar Gah
from Nawa. "Those tyrants have taken my son's leg. They laid mines on the
roads. Don't they see that these roads are also used by civilians?"
While keeping a low profile in the areas now controlled by the US Marines, the
Taliban have put up a spirited fight in other parts of Helmand.
Rockets rain down almost daily on Lashkar Gah, although so far they have caused
More seriously, in the central and northern parts of the province, the British
are facing a bitter and bloody battle as they carry out their own operation,
Panjai Palang (Panther's Claw).
But there are many who see the Taliban's present quiescence in southern Helmand
as a sign that they have lost their appetite for combat.
"If the Taliban are not resisting, it means they cannot fight any more," said
Ehsanullah Ehsan, a writer living in Lashkar Gah.
A former chief of police, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that
the Taliban were losing their spirit.
"The Taliban have lost their morale," he said. "Our sources say that the
insurgents are leaving Marja district, and have been ordered not to fight. They
are afraid they will be killed."
Nonsense, says Mullah Abdullah, a Taliban commander in Helmand.
"We have started our own operation, and we will continue until we kick the
foreigners out," he said in a telephone interview.
For now, Helmand residents and observers are willing to give qualified approval
to Operation Khanjar, but there is a long way to go before it can be termed a
"People are withholding judgement," said the political analyst in Lashkar Gah.
"They cannot say whether this operation is good or bad. They are afraid that
the forces will stay here for some days and then leave, so we will be alone
with the Taliban again.”
Many are waiting to see what the Americans can bring in the way of real
"It is still just the beginning," said Mullah Shin Gul from Nad Ali district.
"The Americans need to begin reconstruction, by agreement with the people. They
should establish centers here in the districts, and they should follow every
single Taliban and kill him. In a short while it will be too late. The people
will lose trust."
The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, looks much happier these days. He has
been very optimistic about Operation Khanjar, and told a news conference in
Lashkar Gah that as soon as the districts were cleared the government would
re-launch voter registration, to give people a chance to participate in the
August 20 presidential and provincial council elections.
"Everything is getting better," he told reporters at the opening of a
two-kilometer stretch of road inside Lashkar Gah. "In the near future Lashkar
Gah will have stable electricity. The side roads will be paved. Everything will
But many Helmandis are asking what will happen when the US forces leave, as
they eventually will do.
Once the Afghan National Army, ANA, is able to take charge, say officials, it
will instigate a system of house searches and checkpoints, which is sure to
rile local residents.
"The Americans did not bother people this time," said Mohammad Gul, a resident
of Nawa district. "But if the ANA come and start searching people's houses,
they will face a very fierce reaction from people. Afghans, particularly
Pashtuns, just do not like their houses being searched."
Villagers are also complaining about the Afghan National Police, the ailing
organization that has been almost universally condemned for inefficiency and
"The police are bothering people," said Fedaa, a resident of Nawa district.
"They are stopping anyone with a turban or a long beard. They accuse them of
being Taliban, and then they take bribes from them. We are very happy with the
Americans and the Afghan army, but we hate the police."
One tactic the Americans have implemented in their campaign for hearts and
minds is the shura - the traditional village councils that dispense
decisions for the community. By convening shuras, the US forces hope to
demonstrate that they have come to help, rather than suppress, the local
But local people say there is some skepticism surrounding these gatherings.
"It is not important for the Americans to make shuras, where they
deliver their deceptive speeches," said the political analyst. "They have to
prove their words with action. Only then will the people trust in them. The
American shuras will gain credibility when they do something that the
people can believe in. Otherwise it's useless. I'm not saying that people won't
go - they will. But they will not listen."
Of course, not everyone is happy about the presence of foreigners in this very
traditional, very conservative province.
"Yesterday the American soldiers came to my house and said, 'We are here for
your security'," said Hajji Sher Mohammad from Khanshin. "My son was standing
behind me, drinking a glass of water. And the soldier said, 'In a few days we
will be digging wells for drinking water.' I just told him, "We don't want your
drinking water. Go away and leave us alone. Your planes frighten my children,
they cannot even go outside.' We are God's servants, and may His will be done.
We cannot do anything, either with the Taliban or with these [Americans]."
Aziz Ahmad Shafe, Mohammad Ilyas DayeeandAziz Ahmad Tassalare IWPR-trained reporters in Helmand.