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    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    Helmand::Kinder, Gentler Taleban? DRUGS

    Helmand: A Kinder, Gentler Taleban?

    As combat operations rage across Helmand province, Musa Qala district is quiet – and firmly under Taleban control.

    By Aziz Ahmad Tassal (ARR No. 264, 21-Aug-07)
    Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand province, is unusually peaceful these days. Children are getting ready to go to newly-opened schools, and farmers in this opium-rich region are busy preparing their fields for autumn planting.

    In contrast to the rest of Helmand, security is good in Musa Qala. There is little crime, and the bitter battles that have scarred surrounding areas seem far away.

    Nor do residents live in fear that the Taleban are coming – they are already here.

    "The Taleban control everything in Musa Qala," said Mohammad Aref, 26, a shopkeeper in Musa Qala bazaar. "They have reinstated some traditions from their old regime of five years ago. They collect food rations from every house, and they drive around in their trucks.

    "But the Taleban don't treat people badly, the way they did before. They are very calm and they respect people. Everyone is happy with them."

    The Taleban took over Musa Qala in early February, after a tenuous truce brokered by tribal elders collapsed. So far, there is little sign that either the Afghan government or the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, is ready to intervene and change the status quo.

    "We have no plans to recapture Musa Qala," said Ghulam Mahayuddin Ghuri, commander-in-chief of the Third Corps of the Afghan National Army.

    Face to face with the Taleban, residents like Mohammad Aref are making the best of things.

    "People are very happy that the Taleban have brought security," he said. "And they are not forcing families to give them a male fighter, like they used to."

    During the Taleban regime, from their capture of Kabul in 1996 until the United States-led Coalition drove them into retreat in late 2001, they would conscript soldiers from the local population. They levied one male member from each household, or from everyone who owned a shop or plot of land. Anyone who could not afford to pay someone else to go in his place was forced to join the Taleban.

    In addition, the Taleban instituted a brutal regime to impose their strict interpretation of Islam on the general population. Music, films, television, photography, even kite-flying were banned. Men could be beaten for wearing their beards too short, women could not work or study, and in some places they could not even leave the house unless accompanied by a male family member.

    Even in this conservative southern province, people chafed under such restrictions, and most welcomed the freedom that came with the new government and the international presence in Afghanistan from the end of 2001.

    But in the past few years, disillusionment has set in. The promised reconstruction has been slow to arrive, and the Kabul government is seen as weak and ineffectual, unable to provide security or development. Local government and the police are plagued with corruption, crime is booming, and the drugs industry is taking over the economy.

    The foreign military presence is also becoming increasingly unpopular. As ISAF mounts operation after operation to clear away the insurgents, the civilian casualties climb.

    Musa Qala was the scene of intense fighting between ISAF and the Taleban throughout the late summer and early autumn of 2006. In October, the British-led forces withdrew from the district after reaching an agreement with tribal elders designed to keep the Taleban out of the district centre.

    But that agreement broke down in early February 2007, after an ISAF air strike, which the Taleban claimed fell within an agreed exclusion zone, killed the brother of a powerful commander.

    The Taleban swept in and established their own regime, complete with district governor, police chief and Sharia courts.

    But according to residents, they have learned a bit about winning hearts and minds since the fall of their government in Kabul.

    "If people want to watch television in their homes or listen to music, they can do as they wish. We won't say anything to them," said a Taleban commander, who did not want to be named.

    "Everyone gives zakat [Muslim tithe] to their own mullah. It is voluntary. If they don't give it, no one will force them."

    The commander said the rules imposed by the Taleban were "Afghan Islamic law", and he said people were very happy with it.

    "No one tells people what to do," said one local resident, who did not want to be named. "They can shave their beard or let it grow. And no one bothers you if you are cultivating poppy. Opium is bought and sold on a very high level."

    Helmand alone will supply close to half of the world's heroin this year. Its poppy crop increases annually despite all the rhetoric from the Kabul government and the international community linking the war on drugs with the war on terror.

    The Taleban eradicated opium production almost entirely, in a one-year campaign conducted in 2000-2001. But this time around, they are being more lenient, perhaps because they too are benefiting from the profits of the trade.

    Musa Qala is now known locally as "Smugglers' District", and some observers say that many of the factories that process opium paste into heroin have relocated here, since it is a no-go zone for the government and its counter-narcotics forces.

    But it would be a mistake to assume that the Taleban have gone all soft, say residents.

    "The Taleban are not forcing people, the way they did before," said Sher Mohammad, 20, a resident of Musa Qala. "But still, people are changing themselves, they are going back to the way they were during the first Taleban regime. For example, instead of playing music in the shops they now play Taleban songs. Women still go out, but not too much."

    The Taleban have also expanded their radio station, the Voice of Sharia, to Musa Qala, backed by a wealthy patron from the district. It broadcasts a daily ration of exhortation to join the jihad, news and analysis, and music such as national, jihadi and fighting songs, always sung without musical accompaniment. Staffed by volunteers, its major message is of resistance to the government and to the foreign presence in Afghanistan.

    A local Taleban, Mullah Ezatullah, praised the new regime, noting that there is a new district governor, Mullah Matin, while Mullah Mohammad Hassan doubles up as deputy governor and town mayor. The chief of police, Mullah Torjan, has managed to get the security situation under control, he added.

    "If someone commits a crime, he is punished," said Ezatullah. "If a person steals, his hand is cut off. All things are done according to our law.

    "Our government is not like [President Hamed] Karzai's," he told IWPR. "In Kabul, when someone is a high-ranking official, people have to fear his friends and relatives. But in the Taleban government, all people are equal. And all the people support the Taleban."

    That may be a bit of an overstatement. Despite the welcome calm in the district, there is tension in the air.

    "People are not happy," said one resident, who would not give his name. "Many are afraid to come to the bazaar from neighbouring villages. They are afraid that the foreigners will come and bomb the district. They are afraid of an attack from the air, as well as from ground troops."

    After the Taleban took over in Musa Qala, hundreds of families fled in fear of both the Taleban and the expected retribution from the foreign forces. Many are still living elsewhere, camping out in ruined buildings, as they are afraid to return to their homes.

    The Taleban do enjoy broad support among the population, said this resident, but there was an element of fear in the people's acquiescence.

    "The Taleban are very serious in this district, and when they say something, they do it. People give them food, and other kinds of help, not because they are forced to but because they don't want to upset the Taleban," he said. "People don't play music at weddings unless they get permission from the Taleban."

    Abdul Bari, another Musa Qala resident, is also disgruntled with the new government.

    "Who knows how much they have changed?" he grumbled. "We can't watch television, we can't watch the news, and there are other restrictions that upset us."

    The Taleban are also taxing local businesses, added Abdul Bari, although he would not disclose the percentage or amount.

    The Taleban have allowed some privately-run schools to open.

    In Musa Qala, as in much of the rest of Helmand, most schools have been closed due to security concerns. Many schools have been burned, and teachers and schoolchildren have been killed. The mayhem is most often attributed to the Taleban, although they have denied the charges.

    "I am now back in school, and very happy," said Faiz Mohammad, a local teacher. "But the schools have been flattened, ruined by the bombs. So I have made my own house into a school. People are very happy, but unfortunately we don't have desks, chairs, or anything else."

    "I love going to school," said sixth-grader Ahmadullah. "I am very happy that I am going to be studying again."

    "The Taleban have encouraged us to send our children to school," said Zia ul-Haq, a resident of Musa Qala's bazaar district. "We are very happy now, because literacy is light and without it a person is blind."

    At present, however, most girls are still denied an education. While the Taleban do not publicly oppose girls going to school, they will not allow co-education. Until the situation improves and separate new schools are built, girls will most likely stay at home.

    "We are not opposed to education," said a Taleban commander. "We support schools that are in accordance with Afghan culture and Sharia law. Boys and girls should not study together."

    He insisted that the Taleban did not close schools to hamper education, and certainly did not burn them. "When schools are closed, it is because they have been bombed or there's been fighting in the area. And those who burn schools are criminals and anti-Islamic," he said.

    He said the Taleban keep a tight rein on the curriculum. As an example of the kind of schooling they favour, he said, "We like schools that teach 'A is for Allah' instead of 'A is for Anor' [pomegranate]. Not 'J is for Jawari' [maize], but 'J is for Jihad'."

    Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand. IWPR trainees in the province contributed to this report.


    Everyone's a Winner at Helmand's Drug Bazaars
    The arrangements are quite open and operate semi-officially, according to Hajji Aligul, 55, a tribal leader in Nadali.

    By IWPR trainees in Helmand (ARR No. 255, 1-June-07)
    A distinctive odour ( sweet purfume, flower smell ) hangs over the local bazaar in Chan Jir, a small village in Nadali district, just 15 kilometres from the Helmand's provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Most of the two dozen or so shops in the market specialise in just one commodity – opium.

    Sayed Gul, a tall young man of 25, stands outside his shop, his hands covered in sticky brown paste. A merchant with a bulky bag under his cotton patu, or scarf, passes by, and Sayed Gul springs into action. Running so fast that his sandals kick up the dust behind him, he catches up to the stranger and takes his arm.

    "Where are you going, man?" he says, leading him into the shop

    Once out of the burning sunshine, serious negotiations begin. Sayed Gul calls for his young son to bring the Hajji Sahib, or respected guest, some tea. He is eager to offer him some of his poppy paste – the man is a small-time trafficker buying up opium in Chan Jir to sell on to larger dealers in Pakistan.

    "I attended a shura [council] where we negotiated with the government," he told IWPR. "We agreed that we would give 220 grams of poppy paste per jerib. The police commander told us, of course, that if we did not reach agreement, they would take the paste by force."

    The poppy harvest is in and everyone from the Taleban to local government officials is cooperating to get the opium crop to market.

    But cooperation has been so close that farmers say the Taleban scaled down their "spring offensive" this year so as not to interfere with bringing in the crop.

    "It is not beneficial to have fighting during the harvest," said Shah Mahmud. "The Taleban and the government both receive money from poppy – they lose out if the crop is destroyed by bombing or fighting."

    In several places, villagers have requested that the Taleban leave the area until after the harvest. more.

    The first story was pro-Taliban, second was not.
    Which is true?

    From the 1960's "History of the Poppy", hasn't changed much.

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