Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Helmand: Stage-Managing Disaster

No amount of public relations work can convince people in Helmand that the situation is improving.
By IWPR trainees
The pattern is now all too familiar - a carefully orchestrated “shura” or council at which village elders, government officials and foreign forces tout their successes against the insurgency and promise rapid development.



Within days, there is another Taleban attack, another village is destroyed, and dozens of civilians are killed.



This time the setting was Greshk, approximately 50 kilometres from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, and one of the cornerstones of Operation Lastay Kulang (“Axe Handle”), launched in early June to clear the Taleban out of the upper Sangin valley.



On June 18, the Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, and NATO forces invited international and domestic journalists to observe a shura in the district centre. Greshk is under the control of the Afghan government, which means that while no one is saying the Taleban have disappeared completely, the Afghan flag is flying and the national army is holding its ground.



Hajji Pir Mohammad, the deputy governor of Helmand province, made a plea for cooperation from the local community when he addressed the assembled elders.



“After this, we will put a stop to the fighting in our homes, our villages and our country,” he said. “We cannot rebuild the country through bloodshed. We can only do it by working together.”



Attaullah, the area commander of the Afghan National Army, ANA, in Greshk, told the crowd that his troops could claim numerous successes.



“The security situation in Greshk is now good,” he said. “We have disarmed many people, including thieves, terrorists, and other criminals. And we have delivered them into the hands of the law.



“ANA soldiers are sons of the soil, and they are working 24 hours a day, come rain or shine, in the service of Afghans and Afghanistan.”



Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, acting head of the Helmand PRT, appealed for cooperation.



“We have promised the government of Afghanistan that we will bring security to Helmand,” he said, speaking through a translator. “And we have planned reconstruction work, for example hospitals, schools, roads, But we need people’s help.”



A cornerstone was laid for a new school, there were smiles and congratulations all around.



But Greshk’s mayor, Sayed Daur Alishah, was more cautious in his optimism.



“Things are better than before,” he said. “[NATO] began the operation in Greshk and have cleared out the Taleban, to an extent.



“The centre of Greshk is fairly secure. But outside it, there is no security. The enemy is there - they attack the convoys and then run away. Then the bombing begins.”



Alishah’s assessment was spot on. Three days later, on June 21, the village of Barakzo in the Adamkhan area of Greshk district, was bombed by foreign forces.



According to eyewitnesses and the district authorities, 25 people were killed, including three babies and several women. An elderly mullah was also among the victims.



“ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] bombed the Adamkhan area and killed 25 civilians,” said Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, the newly-arrived police chief of Helmand province. “Three children between three and six months old were killed, along with nine women. So was Mullah Abdul Hakim Akhund, the village’s religious leader.”



Eyewitnesses supplied more details.



“The bombing began at 1:30 in the morning,” said Daad Mohammad, a resident of the area. “Two houses were totally destroyed.”



Before the aerial bombing began, there was a firefight between the Taleban and foreign ground troops, he added.



“Hajji Nasrullah’s house was totally destroyed,” said Mohammad Nabi, another local resident. “All his family were killed along with him. And the village mullah was killed and his house was destroyed as well.”



When the smoke cleared, the villagers put the dead bodies in a tractor bed, and set off for the district centre to show the victims to the governor.



“We had to pass a checkpoint,” said Nabi. “Security men asked us what we were doing, and when we explained they made us go back. They said we would bring disgrace on the government of Afghanistan if we took the bodies to the district centre.”



Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Mayo, spokesperson for ISAF in Helmand, confirmed there had been bombing but insisted that the houses that were hit were used by the Taleban.



“Fighting began when ISAF forces were informed that there were 30 Taleban in the Adamkhan area,” he told IWPR. “ISAF forces moved to that area and requested air support.”



Lt-Col Mayo was unable to confirm or deny any civilian casualties. Nor did he have any information about casualties among the Taleban or the British troops involved in the clash.



A local Taleban commander who did not want to be named said in a phone interview that the Taleban had caused serious damage to the foreign troops.



“The Taleban attacked when a foreign convoy was passing,” he told IWPR. “During the fighting, two tanks were burned out and 12 soldiers inside them were killed.”



According to the Taleban commander, only two of those killed in the bombing were Taleban. The rest, he said, were civilian.



Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf confirmed that two Taleban had been killed, and claimed that the toll among foreign forces was 15.



The issue of civilian casualties is becoming more and more explosive in Afghanistan.



On June 24, Afghan president Hamed Karzai expressed deep anger at the growing civilian death toll, implying that the foreign forces were not exercising sufficient caution.



“Afghan life is not cheap,” he told a news conference in Kabul. “It should not be treated as such.”



Karzai said that he would require foreign forces to obtain authorisation from the Afghan government in the future.



But just two days later, the Pentagon replied, saying its tactics in Afghanistan were perfectly suited to the situation.



“We think the procedures we have in place are good,” Brigadier-General Joseph Votel told a gathering of reporters in Washington. “They work, they help us minimise the effects on civilians.”



That might be a difficult message for Afghans to swallow. Over the past two weeks, at least 90 civilians have been killed, according to official figures. The real toll could be significantly higher.



In Helmand, where the majority of fatalities are taking place, people are angry and desperate.



“I spend my days and nights in fear,” said Mohammad Nadir, a resident of Greshk. “I don’t work for the government - I own a shop; I repair televisions.



“But there is no security. Those who are supposed to provide us with security pay no attention to us. They do not apply military regulations to their own conduct. They make promises and do not keep them. There are not enough police, and we cannot turn to the government because they are one of the major reasons behind the lack of security.”



Abdul Shakur, a teacher at Greshk High School, was equally pessimistic.



“Outside the district centre, there is no security,” he told IWPR. “There are just Taleban who go back and forth in their cars and on motorbikes and attack NATO. Then the Taleban leave and the bombing starts. Women and children get killed.”



Abdul Rahman, who works with the Lashkar Gah PRT, defended the behaviour of the military, although he admitted aerial bombing was causing casualties.



“ISAF is good on security,” he told IWPR. “And they treat people well. But there have been bombings in Greshk and a lot of civilians were killed, and not many Taleban.



“Security is very good right now,” he continued. “But we can’t tell by looking at people who they really are. It is possible that the Taleban are among us.”



One man who owns a watch repair shop in Greshk seemed on the verge of despair as he spoke to an IWPR reporter.



“ISAF cannot do anything about security,” he said. “They have bombed houses and killed people. I have asked God for many things, and I have always been granted what I asked for. But this time. all I want is unity for the Afghan nation, freedom and liberty, peace and stability. And this is the one thing I have not been granted.”



IWPR is implementing a journalism training and reporting project in Helmand province. This article is a compilation of trainees’ reports.