'Helmand was safer under the Taliban'

Afghan locals live in fear as US operations fail to prevent corruption and increase in crime.

After 11 years of war, residents of southern Helmand, such as these shoppers in a bazaar in Lashkar Hag, one of the deadliest battlefields in Afghanistan, are frustrated by the lack of development and widespread insecurity despite attempts by US-led forces to stabilise the area.  Anja Niedringhaus / AP Photo
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MARJAH, AFGHANISTAN // Nearly three years after US-led forces launched the biggest operation of the war to clear insurgents, foster economic growth and set a model for the rest of Afghanistan, angry residents of Helmand province say they are too afraid to go out after dark because of marauding bands of thieves.

And, during the day, they say corrupt police and government officials bully them into paying bribes.

After 11 years of war, many here long for a return of the Taliban. They say that under the Taliban, who routinely punished thieves by cutting off a hand, they were at least safe from crime and corruption.

"If you had a box of cash on your head, you could go to the farthest part of Marjah and no one would take it from you, even at night," said Maulvi Daoud, who runs a cubbyhole-sized shop in the town.

"Today you bring your motorcycle in front of your shop and it will be gone. Now the situation is that you go on the road and they are standing in police and army uniforms with weapons and they can take your money."

In Marjah in early 2010, about 15,000 Nato and Afghan forces waged the biggest battle of the war. They not only fought the Taliban with weapons, they promised to bring good governance to Marjah and the rest of the southern province of Helmand - and demonstrate to the residents the advantages of shunning the militants.

But it appears the flaw in the plan was with the quality of Afghans chosen by the president, Hamid Karzai, to govern and police the area after most of the fighting ended. And that adds to growing doubts about the entire country's future after foreign troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

Many claim the US-funded local police, a type of locally sanctioned militia, routinely demand bribes and threaten to accuse those who do not comply of being members of the Taliban. Good governance never came to Marjah, they say.

In villages of sun-baked mud homes, at crowded bus stops and in local tea houses where residents sit cross-legged at plastic-covered tables drinking tea and eating off communal plates, people scoffed at claims of security and development. They heaped criticism on the Afghan government and officials- accusing them of stealing billions of dollars in aid money meant for the people - and on an international community that they said ignored their needs and pandered to a corrupt administration.

Mr Daoud, the Marjah shop owner, said there had been more security under the Taliban, who were ousted by the US-led invasion in late 2001.

"They were never cruel to us and the one difference was security. It was better during the Taliban," he said.

His partner in the rickety shop along Marjah's chaotic one-street bazaar, Mohammed Haider, said poppy farmers who planted substitute crops such as cotton are losing money because they cannot sell their harvests. He predicted poppy production would double when foreign soldiers leave in 2014.

Analysts who know Helmand say a corrupt government poses one of the biggest hurdles to stability, alienating the locals and driving them into the hands of the Taliban.

The province is strategically important because of its large-scale poppy production that is financing the insurgency and fuelling criminal activity. While some success has been achieved at getting farmers to plant substitute crops, Helmand is still one of Afghanistan's largest opium-producing provinces.

The Nato-led coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, claims there are tangible gains against the Taliban in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar province.

"While insurgent activity remains problematic in several districts, primarily in northern Helmand and western Kandahar, data from the battle space shows a marked decrease in overall enemy activity," an ISAF spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, said recently.

Despite a drop of 8 per cent in militant attacks from January to October compared with the same period last year, Helmand and neighbouring Nimroz province accounted for 32 per cent of all such attacks reported across the country from October 2011 to October this year, according to the ISAF.

Ryan Evans, a research fellow at the US-based Centre for National Policy, called Helmand the "most dangerous and violent" of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Some Afghans believe their countrymen are responsible for the current state of affairs.

Haji Khalil, who moved his family from Marjah to Lashkar Gah during the 2010 offensive, blamed Afghans for the rise in thefts and lawlessness since the defeat of the Taliban.

"During the Taliban no one would steal because we knew the punishment, but when they left everyone began to steal," Khalil said. "We became worse after the Taliban," he said. "The problem is with us."