Making Musa Qala Work

The authorities have a brief window of opportunity to prove they will improve life in this battered town. If they fail, renewed conflict is more than likely.

Musa Qala, a dusty town in the north of Helmand province that was recently retaken from the Taleban, attracts the A-list these days. The American ambassador has been there, as have various Afghan ministers and the governor of Helmand.

They all have the same message to deliver - this time round, Musa Qala and the district around it will receive the assistance and money they need to rebuild, as well as the level of security required to keep the insurgents at bay.

“I have come here to Helmand with full hands,” the minister for rural rehabilitation and development, Mohammad Ehsan Zia, told tribal leaders in Lashkar Gah on January 17.

“I have money, lots of money, particularly for Musa Qala. Just ask for as much money as you need, and the ministry’s provincial head will give it to you.”

Zia was scheduled to visit Musa Qala but was prevented from getting there by bad weather. In all, he spent just a few hours in Helmand’s administrative centre Lashgar Gah.

That did not go down too well with his audience.

“You spent eight days in Kandahar. Helmand is a wartorn province and you should be here for a month,” complained Helmand’s deputy governor Pir Mohammad Akhundzada. “Instead you arrive at 10 am and leave at 2 pm. This isn’t going to work.”

Such reactions have significant implications. If central government and the international community cannot convince the people of Helmand that help is forthcoming, there is a good chance that the growing Taleban insurgency will gain an even firmer foothold.

“You must help Musa Qala as soon as possible,” said Hajji Zaher, representing the council of the Alizai tribe, a major Pashtun group in the area. “If you do what you did before and ignore this district, then you will lose the people’s trust.”

The international community, too, is trying to woo over a sceptical public.

“The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala,” said United States ambassador William Wood during a January 13 meeting with Musa Qala’s newly-appointed district governor Mullah Abdul Salaam, according to a Radio Liberty report. “We want the eyes of the world to see success, to see peace, to see reconciliation, to see health, to see education, and to see good governance.”

MUSA QALA SEEN AS A TEST CASE

But a battered and bitter population will need more than fine words to convince them.

“May God oppress the infidels as they have oppressed us!” cried Fazel Mohammad, a resident of Musa Qala who fled the fighting and is now living a miserable existence as a refugee.

“We had a good life in Musa Qala before, when the Taleban were there.”

Musa Qala has become a symbol of the insurgency in troubled Helmand province, where Taleban and opium poppy have flourished to the detriment of the local population.

The district has changed hands several times in the past 18 months: First the scene of a punishing standoff between the British forces and the insurgents, Musa Qala was all but ceded to the Taleban when the British withdrew in October 2006, under an agreement in which local tribal elders were supposed to keep the peace.

The Taleban made their domination official in February, 2007, and set up a district government.

In December, a combined NATO and Afghan operation dislodged the insurgents from their stronghold.

NEW MAN IN CHARGE HAS A MIXED RECORD

No sooner had the dust settled than the government announced the appointment of a new district governor, Mullah Abdul Salaam.

Abdul Salaam is a controversial and contradictory figure, not least because he used to be a high-ranking Taleban commander who was believed to be quite close to the movement’s leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

His most recent defection to the government side, accompanied by some 200 of his men, took place some time before the December assault on Musa Qala and was hailed as a great victory for the counterinsurgent effort.

But Abdul Salaam’s allegiance has shifted many times over the past half decade, say observers, and owes more to a complicated web of tribal feuds and personal grievances than to any conversion to democratic values.

Under the Taleban, Abdul Salaam served as governor of Uruzgan province, then moved to Helmand, where he was district governor of Kajaki. He had a reputation for being a harsh leader, but people who remember his time in Kajaki recall that Mullah Omar would not hear a word said against him.

“Mullah Abdul Salaam treated his own people very badly,” said Din Mohammad, a resident of Kajaki. “He especially abused the Hassanzai.”

The Hassanzai are one of the three major branches of the Alizai tribe, which largely controls northern Helmand. Abdul Salaam is from the Pirzai sub-tribe; the other major branch of the tribe being the Khalozai.

The sub-tribes have historical disputes going back decades, and according to residents, Abdul Salaam used his position to attack his Hassanzai enemies.

One of the Hassanzai, however, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, became governor of Helmand after the fall of the Taleban regime in late 2001.

During Sher Mohammad’s tenure, Abdul Salaam was briefly imprisoned and badly beaten.

Despite this, he left the Taleban and eventually joined the government. He even served as head of Sher Mohammad’s security detail.

However, his fellow-tribesmen never forgot the past affront. “They said, ‘this day will pass, our turn will come’,” said Din Mohammad.

According to local sources, when the Taleban re-emerged as a major force in the northern districts of Helmand, Abdul Salaam rejoined them, only to leave again several months later.

In September last year, the Taleban became convinced that Abdul Salaam was spying for the government and decided to eliminate him. Warned of the danger in advance, he managed to escape with the support of tribal elders and his own private militia.

At that point, he found it prudent to join forces with the provincial authorities again.

“When he was with the Taleban, Abdul Salaam was a good man,” said local Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf. “But we decided to punish him because he was a spy. He was playing a double game.”

The Taleban have made no secret of their distaste for those who cooperate with the government. They have assassinated several provincial and district governors, and attempted to kill many more.

Qari Yusuf made it clear that Abdul Salaam is firmly in their sights, “Now he is completely out of the Taleban, and we will treat him just like any other governor.”

Abdul Salaam’s new constituents seem less than impressed by their leader.

“I don’t think Mullah Abdul Salaam is going to last long as governor,” said a Musa Qala resident who did not want to be named.

“He just wants revenge for what happened to him under Sher Mohammad. He will begin to carry out his acts of cruelty again.”

MUCH YET TO BE DONE TO WIN HEARTS AND MINDS

The residents of Musa Qala are weary of being buffeted by opposing forces, and are nearing the end of their patience. Abdul Salaam, and the government he represents, will have a limited window of opportunity to make good. If they cannot convince the local populace that they are better off with the central authorities than with the Taleban, local support for the insurgency will grow.

Many of those who stayed in Musa Qala during the “liberation” from Taleban control in December are longing for what they already see as the good old days.

“The situation was very good under the Taleban,” said Hajji Abdul Qayum, a Musa Qala shopkeeper. “We could leave our shops open until 10 pm. Now we have to close them as soon as the sun sets.

“I left Musa Qala when the fighting started. The Taleban left as well. When I came back, my shop had been looted. I lost mobile phones worth over 300,000 afghani [6,000 US dollars].”

While he still hoped for peace, Qayum was not pleased with the change in administration.

“I was not happy when the Taleban left,” he said. “They treated us well. But I hope that the government will build schools, bridges and power stations, as well as a hospital.”

All this and more has been promised by the current governor of Helmand, Assadullah Wafa, who announced a major aid package for Musa Qala the day after the district centre was cleared of Taleban forces.

But that may not be enough for some residents.

“We don’t want schools,” said one man who identified himself only as Mohmad. “We don’t want reconstruction of the roads. The only thing we want is security. When the Taleban start fighting with the government, the only thing that happens is that innocent people are killed. They may lose ten people, but dozens and dozens of civilians die.”

On balance, Mohmad said he preferred the Taleban.

“I was happy with the Taleban, because there were no thefts during that period. Everyone was sure about his property. Now we have stealing once again,” he said.

UNCERTAINTY OVER WHETHER PEACE WILL LAST

Many people are worried that the last battle around Musa Qala has not yet been fought. Until signs of more lasting stability appear, they plan to maintain a low profile.

“When the Taleban were in charge, the bazaar was full of people. Now it’s empty,” said Mohammad Juma. “One of the reasons is that people aren’t coming in from the districts. In the centre you see Afghan and foreign forces patrolling, but there are Taleban outside the district centre. They patrol at night and warn people not to come in to the centre.”

Another Musa Qala resident, Hajji Naser, was not optimistic that the peace would last.

“I do not think that these forces will stay here for a long time. The Taleban are not a small force. You see, we have forces from 32 different countries, and still the Taleban get stronger by the day. The foreign forces have failed to eliminate them.”

With the withdrawal of the Taleban, Hajji Naser said his problems had only increased. “The moment the military came here, the price of food went sky high,” he said.

Others complain that foreign forces are unable to distinguish Taleban from ordinary residents, and often unfairly target the civilian population.

“The foreigners do not allow us to move around easily,” said Hajji Abdul Razzaq. “If there is a mine or a remote-controlled bomb, they start killing or arresting civilians.”

Noor Mohammad, who was injured in the fighting around Musa Qala, agreed.

“The foreign forces accuse us of being Taleban,” he said. “If they are shot at in a village, they come and bomb everybody. The whole village is not Taleban, and nothing will be improved by bombing.”

The International Security and Assistance Force, ISAF, the NATO-led military contingent that helped the Afghan army mount the Musa Qala operation, insisted that its troops acted with due care for civilians during the assault in December.

Following the fall of Musa Qala, ISAF spokesman Richard Eaton insisted that there had been no civilian casualties at all in the operation. Other sources gave figures ranging from four to 40, but there was no hard evidence on the number of dead.

“We are blamed for supporting the Taleban, but if the foreign forces can’t get rid of them, how can we?” said Noor Mohammad. “I want the government to tell the foreign forces to leave Musa Qala, and just let the Afghan army and police stay. They know our culture, and they know how to treat us.”

There are now several hundred Afghan National Army soldiers stationed in Musa Qala, with a smaller number of police and an undisclosed number of foreign forces. They will be trying to bring the calm needed before reconstruction can begin.

IMMEDIATE AID NEEDED AS WELL AS RECONSTRUCTION

Those who fled the fighting are in a desperate state, often living in makeshift housing during an unusually cold winter.

Helmand, in the south of Afghanistan, is normally quite mild in the winter months, but this year temperatures have dipped well below freezing.

Mohammad Ali 50, left Musa Qala when the fighting began in early December. He and his nine-member family live in one room in the Mukhtar refugee camp near Lashkar Gah. They have no door or windows, and only a tarpaulin for a roof.

“My little son died when the bombing started,” he said. “So we came here. We are afraid that our house in Mazasi district will be bombed and we will all die. We live near the front line between the Taleban and the government forces,” he explained, as his children huddled, shivering, in the corner.

“Recently 250 families have come here from Musa Qala,” he added. “No one is providing any assistance. I go to the bazaar looking for work, which I find once every five days or so.

“We had a good life in Musa Qala. We were happy there. Even if someone left a pile of gold on the road, no one would dare pick it up. Money and property were safe. We did not want anything more than that. Now we will see whether the government can do the same thing.”

Aziz Ahmad Shafe is a journalist based in Helmand. Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR staff reporter in the province, as is his Matiullah Minapal, who contributed additional material for this piece. Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s programme director in Afghanistan.