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    South Asia
     Nov 19, 2010

Marjah residents take on the Taliban
By IWPR trainee

A group of villagers in the Marjah district of Helmand say they have formed an armed force to fend off the Taliban, in the first movement of its kind in the restive southern province.

In Doottanow, a poor village where most survive through agriculture and livestock farming, members of the 150-strong group say they are opposed to operations by not only the Taliban but also Afghan and coalition forces in their area.

Their leader, known as Baazgul, is a former mujahideen chief who is also now the head of the Marjah district council. All the members of the armed group belong to his tribe.

However, the group rejects any suggestion that they have formed


a tribal militia, and insist they are not affiliated to - or receiving any funding - from state institutions.

"We discussed with the government that we have taken up weapons in order to provide security to our own village, the government accepted this and have also agreed not to bother us if we carry arms around in our own area," Baazgul said.

He says the village militia has driven the Taliban out of their neighborhood. This, in turn, has prompted Afghan police and coalition forces to stop conducting local searches and night raids, which have in the past resulted in civilian casualties.

"We will keep security here till the time that overall stability can spread across Marjah and people can live in peace," Baazgul said.

Gesturing at village children on their way to class, he added, "These innocent children have been away from education for many years, but now itís a moment of blessing that they are going to school. From our village alone, around 300 children are going to school, which they could not do in the past."

There have been attempts to create volunteer defense forces by coalition troops, including the Village Stability Program, a scheme to train rural residents to provide their own security, rolled out last year by United States special forces.

But it is a highly sensitive issue, given Afghanistanís troubled history of conflict among rival militias.

The early 1990s saw mujahideen groups that had fought the Soviets - as well as units formerly loyal to the communist government, principally those commanded by General Abdul Rashid Dostum - turn on one another to fight for control of the country in a bitter civil war.

Members of the Doottanow armed group insist they have only modest ambitions to secure their own immediate neighborhood.

Standing with his AK-47 slung from his shoulder, Safar Khan, said: "We have not taken up arms to start quarrelling with anyone - all we want is to protect our areas and ourselves. We will fight with anyone who destabilizes our local area, who enters our homes, prevents our children from going to school or creates anarchy in our peaceful lives."

Khan, his fingers running through his beard, said that their biggest problems had been Taliban efforts to prevent local children going to school and stop villagers accessing aid projects.

"The Taliban said that this assistance was haram (forbidden) and anyone who dared to receive it was beaten very badly, that is why no one had the guts to do that," he added.

Some 15,000 foreign and Afghan forces took part in Operation Moshtarak (Together) in January, battling 2,000 Taliban fighters for control of Marjah, a major drug production hub in Helmand.

While the military push was hailed as a success, locals have since warned of growing insecurity in the area.

Malang, from Doottanow, has also joined the village militia. His chubby face is clean-shaven, a clear sign of his opposition to the Taliban.

"We have not taken up arms to defend our own tribe but because we want to defend all the people," he said. "We are compelled to take a stand and provide security in our area, in clinics, schools and other areas as well."

It was unclear to what extent the groupís activities are being coordinated with the local authorities.

The police commander of Marjah district, Ghulam Waali, said that the group was being helped by the government, although he did not specify how. He said that Kabul officials were working on a process to register them with the interior ministry so that the authorities could find a legal means to pay them salaries.

"Although we have not helped them in a big way so far, whenever they face threats from anyone here we heed their call and support them," he said.

However, Dawoud Ahmadi, the spokesman of Helmand governor Gulabuddin Mangal, strongly denied that the village group was affiliated to the government or would be connected to them in the future.

"It is true that people in Marjah have taken up arms to bring security to their neighborhood so they can live in peace. These are not tribal arbaaki [militias], neither has the government helped them in any way nor has the government allocated them wages," he said. "The reason they have taken up arms is because they were fed up with the atrocities of the Taliban."

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi denied any knowledge of the village militia and said that the insurgents enjoyed widespread local support.

"People are happy with us everywhere and people do not have any problems with the Taliban. That is one of the secrets of our success - that the people are happy with us," he said, adding that the only men who had taken up arms in Marjah were the insurgents.

"We do not accept that the people have joined with the government to form a militia against the Taliban. The government is trying hard to do this but it has all been in vain."

However, some among the local population are opposed to residents setting up militias.

Sharafudeen, who lost a foot during the civil war of the early 1990s, works as a laborer in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.

"In the past, when militias were formed the only thing they did was mess up peopleís lives, kill and spread insecurity," he said. "So this time around it will have the same result."

Abdul Khaliq, a resident of Naaway district in Helmand, said that no matter what the circumstances were, distributing weapons to residents would only bring more sorrow.

"Under whatever name weapons are handed out, we consider it to be a bad thing," he said. "When the government and 40 countries of the world cannot bring stability and defeat the Taliban, then what are a 100 or 200 men going to do? The only thing they will create is trouble for themselves and their tribe, thatís all."

Meanwhile, Doottanow residents report that life is much improved. They say that in sharp contrast to other villages in the area, they are being provided with medical care, such as a polio vaccination scheme, and their children are benefiting from being able to go to school.

"I attend school with a peaceful mind now because there are no more Taliban to stop me from going," said Zaar Waali, 10, as he raced towards class, his schoolbag on his back. "Now our people have also taken up arms not to let the Taliban prevent us from going to school. I am very happy that I can study now."

Haji Mullah, a medical worker involved in the vaccination campaign, said that ever since the villagers took up arms he has been able to go about his job without fearing for his life.

Other villages were now discussing going down the same route as Doottanow, he added.

"Right now there are jirgas [tribal meetings] going on in many villages which want to maintain the security of their own neighborhoods," he said. "If the Taliban come to the area they are followed by the government and the coalition troops, and when the government and coalition troops come then Taliban comes for them - so the best solution is not to allow any of them in."

(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)

Afghan militia policing role under fire (Sep 24, '10)

Marjah residents flee unrest
(May 22, '10)

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