Helmand, Afghanistan, Asharq Al-Awsat- The path that leads to the criminal investigation center in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the Afghan province of Helmand takes you down dusty unpaved roads, which are considered to be a source of continuous danger by the coalition forces that fear elements from the Taliban setting up explosive devices on these roads at night.
In Lashkar Gah, we left the camp where British forces were staying early in the morning after we had put on our helmets and military bulletproof vests, which weighed at least 15 kilograms. Strapped up tight, I kept repeating a prayer under my breath while I was in the armored vehicle. I watched the impressive guards, who had previously served in the British army bearing their SA80 rifles and handguns, ready to face any potential threat.
The convoy consisted of three armored Land Rover vehicles and I was instructed by the guards to not leave the car under any circumstances even if there was an exchange of gunfire until I was ordered to do so. Outside of the car, I was instructed to lie facedown at the sound of open fire. Instructions and warnings were transmitted continuously through the radio between the three vehicles such as “beware of the motorcycle on the right”, or “do not allow the car at our side to overtake us”. The guards and drivers remained on the lookout for roadside bombs, a new tactic that has been adopted by the Taliban following the Iraqi example.
Today, the fear in Helmand where active elements of the Taliban are present is not only because of suicide bombers but also by virtue of the explosive devices placed on the road or the RPG launchers that are aimed from rooftops at vehicles of the international alliance. Such vehicles are known to frequently change their routes when out on an official mission.
However, these instructions are not subject for debate considering that they can determine between life and death. As the 4×4 vehicles reached unimaginable speeds on the unpaved roads, I occupied myself by reciting Quranic verses out of fear of dying in this armored vehicle despite the military bullet-proof vest that obstructed my breathing and the heavy helmet that caused me to sweat heavily.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) affiliated to NATO was deployed in December 2001 to Afghanistan and eventually took control of the northern, western and then southern areas, the latter of which are the most turbulent areas where large numbers of Taliban fighters remain.
The Taliban movement had vowed that 2007 would be the bloodiest year for foreign forces who had entered the country in 2001. This year, in addition to the east, southern Afghanistan in Helmand and Sangin Valley have seen the worst clashes since the forces led by the United States toppled the Taliban regime in the war against terror in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
At the center of criminal investigations, Asharq Al-Awsat met Officer Ali Aziz who under the Taliban regime, worked as a shoe salesman in Lashkar Gah. Today, Aziz is clean-shaven but at the same time, he still fears reprisals from the Taliban since he works for its enemy. He admitted that the Taliban had a strong presence in Lashkar Gah and the surrounding areas. This is mainly since the vast majority of the population wears the same black turbans, grows the same long beards and speaks the same Pashto language and thus it is difficult for one to differentiate between Taliban affiliates and civilians through the windows of armored vehicles.
“We cannot differentiate between affiliates of the Taliban and others except by the RPG launchers that they carry on their backs and the Kalashnikovs they carry over their shoulders, or sometimes only until after they have opened fire on us,” said a senior British officer who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat in Camp Bastion.
Asharq Al-Awsat visited the public prison building in Lashkar Gah, which the British government is refurbishing, in addition to constructing a new building to assist the center for criminal investigations and train its cadres on the use of modern investigation methods, with the intention of reducing the levels of violence. Inside the prison, there were dozens of juveniles who were involved in crimes as a result of unemployment and lack of awareness, and there were also elements of the Taliban of various ages.
Sanger is an interpreter who lives in the military barracks in Lashkar Gah. He accompanied Asharq Al-Awsat on the journey to the headquarters of the Lashkar Gah province and the public prison. Sanger, a Pashtun, discreetly leaves the camp in Helmand with a clean-shaven face once every two weeks to spend some time with his wife whom he married five months ago. He has been threatened openly by the Taliban forces that stated that he would be slaughtered for his cooperation with the enemy.
Sanger, like dozens of Afghan interpreters, speaks Pashto, Dari and Urdu and serves the international coalition forces in Qandahar, Camp Bastion, Lashkar Gah and Camp Souter in Kabul. He receives a large salary that seems quite minimal when compared to the deaths threats and terror posed by the Taliban. Sanger makes US $600 a month, while a criminal investigation officer receives no more than US $100 monthly. Sanger says that he is surrounded by danger from every direction whenever he leaves the camp. He adds, “If I fail to escape the Taliban, then I pray to God day and night for forgiveness and for Him to accept me into heaven if I die. That is all I can do. I think everyone is afraid.”
At the moment, in Afghanistan, drivers resort to slowing down their vehicles when passing military convoys or avoiding certain routes altogether for fear of becoming victims of Taliban attacks. Furthermore, there are also fears of being shot by soldiers who become highly agitated when the convoy is approached. This has prompted the United Nations and foreign aid groups to advise their drivers to avoid military convoys.
With the increasing number of Taliban attacks in Helmand, some residents stop their children from attending school according to Ali Muslamani, a Pashto tribal leader and the official in charge of the commission for restoring stability in Helmand. Muslamani said that the Taliban had burnt two schools in Helmand and attacked teachers, which had traumatized the parents of pupils. He added that some families prevented children from going to school because of the danger posed by suicide attacks.
Nowadays, official Afghan reports state that the Taliban has burned down 183 schools, killing 61 students and professors over the past two years. This is in addition to the rebellion that led to the closure of some 400 schools, mostly in areas where the Taliban had stated that it wanted to open its own schools; amidst questions whether the Taliban would ever permit girls to be educated in schools. During the years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, girls were forbidden to attend schools. Government officials in Helmand stated that the Taliban uses education as a pretext to establish conservative religious schools that teach Islamist extremism, which serves to feed the insurgency.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to one British diplomat who works on reconstruction and development programs and who had spent many years in the Middle East. He explained that the Pashtuns dislike the foreign forces, especially those that brandish weapons around their territories.