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    Tuesday, November 27, 2007

    Taliban winning the hearts and minds?

    A bystander offers a rose to the Taleban.
    Taleban troops parade through Musa Qala.
    Armed to the teeth.

    Winning Hearts and Minds

    The Taleban have avoided the worst excesses of the past in a bid to win popular support.

    By Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Musa Qala (ARR No. 275, 27-Nov-07)
    "We don't want foreigners here! We do not want kafir [unbelievers]. Do you hear me?"

    I was not trying to interview this man, whose name was Abdul Raziq - he simply forced himself in front of the microphone.

    "All Muslims reject the current government!" he shouted. "But we watch the Taleban closely, too. If they do anything we don't like, we will stand up to them."

    Musa Qala has been a world apart ever since the Taleban took control of it in February. The government does not venture in, while the British troops deployed in Helmand province restrict themselves to air strikes on the perimeter of the district.

    The area was the scene of intense fighting between NATO's International Security Assistance Force and the Taleban through the late summer and early autumn of 2006. In October that year, 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 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.

    Reporters have stayed clear of the area since then. The Taleban's attitude towards journalists whose reporting they dislike is too familiar for comfort.

    But when a group of us received an invitation from the Taleban to see Musa Qala, it was too tempting to resist. For the first time, I could speak to these people directly; try to find out what they were thinking and feeling.

    The local Taleban administrators told us that everybody supports them and that they face little or no resistance.

    "We are winning people's hearts and minds day by day," said the Taleban district governor, who is called Haqani.. "That is why people cooperate with the Taleban. We are fighting not only in Helmand, but all over Afghanistan."

    The Taleban took over Musa Qala without a struggle, and many reports in the past nine months have indicated that residents are happier under the fundamentalist regime than before, when the area was a battle zone, their homes were under constant threat of aerial bombardment, and they were ruled by a weak and often corrupt local government.

    "When the Taleban came, they brought security," said Amruddin Kaka, an elderly resident of Musa Qala. "When the Afghan government was here, they did not care about anyone. They did not respect people's property. But the Taleban help people solve their problems."

    The problems are numerous. The Afghan government contributes nothing to Musa Qala, said Amruddin.

    "We have no water, no hospitals, no schools," the old man grumbled. "One litre of fuel costs 40 afghani [80 cents]. People out in the rural areas water their farmlands using wells. If the government wanted to help, why didn't they do anything before the Taleban came? God will help us. We don't care about anyone else."

    When the Taleban hoisted their flag over the district centre in February, the population braced for the worst.

    Most recalled the years when the Taleban were in power in Afghanistan with fear and a certain amount of distaste - men beaten for having beards too short or hair too long, women restricted to the home, and music, photography, even kite-flying banned.

    But this time, the Taleban have not imposed such a strict regime on the population. The main reason for this apparent forbearance was that they saw no need to use harsh measures when most of the population fell right into line without a struggle.

    "All of the residents in this district are Taleban," said one Taleban official, who did not want to be named. "They do not need any reforms. Everybody here wants the Taleban law to be implemented."

    "We are not as strict as we were during the first Taleban regime," added Abdul Rahman, who leads a group of 50 fighters. "When we came into the district nine months ago, we gave the residents two months to change their lives, grow their beards and cut their hair. We told them they should stop listening to music. All of the residents agreed without our having to force them. Now there are no music parties or other illegal events. People do not play music during their wedding parties. If they do, they may be punished."

    One reason that residents have accepted the restrictions may be that they are still angry and bruised after a series of bombings left large parts of Musa Qala in ruins.

    Standing on a pile of rubble that used to be the local mosque, I met a man named Qari Abdul Halim, who seemed very angry.

    "We do not want anyone to come in here to do 'reconstruction'," he spat. "Look at this mosque. We now have to pray on bare ground, with no shelter. Is this reconstruction, that they should destroy the house of God? We don't want that kind of reconstruction. It is just another form of war."

    There is a lot of money in Musa Qala now, generated by drugs. The district has an open bazaar where opium is bought and sold. The bitter smell can be sensed from far away.

    I saw two men in the middle of the bazaar who were loading their Land Cruiser with four-kilogram bags of opium.

    "What can the people of Musa Qala do other than deal in opium?" said one of them, who did not want to be named. "There is nothing else here. The opium trade is the only economic activity that has improved people's lives a little bit. People are very poor now, but they will become rich after a few years in this business."

    The money being made has attracted merchants eager to sell their wares to the new narco-elite.

    One resident of Greshk district, who did not want to be named, said he had shifted his mobile phone business to Musa Qala because he could make a lot more money.

    "I make twice as much here," he said. "In Greshk, I never sold expensive phones that cost more than 5,000 afghani [100 US dollars]. But here in Musa Qala, I can sell phones every day that cost as much as 10,000 afghani."

    It was difficult to interview people in Musa Qala amid the noise of motorcycles and the bustle of the market. I had a hard time asking people about their problems. Everyone was staring at me.

    But one man, named Sarfaraz, agreed to be interviewed.

    "We've received no assistance from the foreigners other than bombs," he said. "I had a shop worth more than three million Pakistani rupees [50,000 dollars], but it was destroyed in the bombing. Many of my neighbours also had shops worth 1.5 to 2 million rupees. But it has all gone."

    Governor Haqani agreed.

    "The local residents are happy with the current Taleban because they have been oppressed by the foreigners and the Afghan government," he said. "One of the reasons behind our success is that ordinary people started supporting us. We have not received any foreign assistance."

    Haqani told me that the situation in Musa Qala had stabilised, and that security was good.

    "We have an active court, and a judge," he said. "We punish those who commit crimes. If someone steals, his hand is cut off. Murderers are subject to 'qisas" [where a victim's relatives can forgive the criminal or take revenge]. So far we have not had one case of theft. If we do, the thief will be punished accordingly."

    Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR reporter in Helmand.


    Maps, background,Musa Qala

    Ray Robison UpDATE, Outlook

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