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

Musa Qala: The Shape of Things to Come?

The Taleban who control this northern district are confident that they will extend their reach to the rest of Helmand over the coming winter.
By IWPR Afghanistan
Late afternoon was sliding into evening in a corner of Musa Qala, and I was still watching dozens of military vehicles parade past me.

Green, grey and white, they looked exactly like the Afghan government’s police and security vehicles. The major difference was that here it was the Taleban’s footsoldiers with fierce, frightening demeanours who sat behind the wheel.

They wore dishevelled turbans, mostly black, and their feet dangled over the sides of the truck beds. In their hands they held Kalashnikovs, machine guns, even rocket launchers.

One of the Taleban told me that they had captured most of the vehicles from the government.

I saw their commander walking through town, unarmed, as if he did not want to attract attention. In this he was quite unlike the British soldiers in Helmand, whom you never see without weapons.

He answered my questions readily, and even told me his name, Enqiadi. He allowed me to take his photograph, although he covered his face with his dark red scarf when he was in front of the camera.

“Five districts of Helmand are totally under the Taleban,” he said. “The rest of them, except for Lashkar Gah, are also Taleban territory, except for the district centres, where the British and Afghan forces have small islands of control.”

Helmand has 13 districts, and even the government acknowledges that at least four are held by the insurgents. Movement into and out of these districts has to be coordinated with the Taleban.

This has restricted the flow of assistance into these areas, since the Taleban do not allow foreign organisations on “their” territory. In September, when the government wanted to start a polio vaccination programme, it had to get permission from the Taleban to work in their areas.

“We want to help the people ourselves,” said Enqiadi. “We only let the vaccination programme operate because it was for the children. Other than that, NGOs are not welcome here.”

The Taleban’s concern for children does not extend to the opening of schools. Except for some private classes, no schools are operating in Musa Qala.

“It’s because the curriculum has changed,” said Enqiadi. “If they would use the old curriculum, we would not try to stop them.”

The Taleban had their own ideas about education when they were in control. Even children’s reading books had to be in line with their philosophy - “A” is for Allah, for example, and “J” for jihad.

Taleban control also means that the Kajaki dam project, southeast of Musa Qala, been delayed. The United States has been trying to reconstruct the dam to improve hydroelectricity provision for the province.

Enqiadi pointed to the road leading to Kajaki. “This road is being built by the Americans,” he said. “But we will never let them do it.”

The commander seemed confident that the Taleban could do what they want.

“Last year we used guerrilla attacks,” he said. “This year we will organise frontal assaults. Our lines are so strong that the foreigners will never break them. The foreigners say they are going to launch a major operation in Musa Qala. We are ready for that. In Musa Qala alone, we have 2,050 fully armed fighters. It will be very easy for us to resist the attack. We want to take the whole province this winter,”

The government does not seem to know what to do about the Taleban and their growing strength.

Helmand’s chief of police Hossein Andiwal confirmed that a large part of Helmand has been under the Taleban for a long time.

“We pulled out of those areas in order to ensure people’s safety. When we were there, the Taleban were going into people’s houses and killing them - beheading them for working with the government. But we hope to recapture those areas as soon as possible,” he said.

“What the Taleban is doing is inhuman. They are terrorising the population.”

Andiwal hinted at a foreign presence among the Taleban, but would not go into specifics.

“The Taleban are acting for other people,” he said. “Everything they do is for the benefit of outsiders. I wish they were really working for their own people, and for Islam, the way they say they are.”

But Enqiadi rejected any suggestion that the Taleban were acting on behalf of other countries.

“We are not helped by anybody,” he said. “We are independent. Pakistan does not work with us, and there are no foreign al-Qaeda here. That’s just anti-Taleban propaganda.”

Enqiadi also dismissed as propaganda the body counts released by the government and the international forces. Every time there is a major battle, officials say their forces killed numerous Taleban fighters, while the insurgents claim the dead were all civilians.

“The government is always shouting that it kills lots of Taleban in its operations, but all of them are civilians,” he said.

Enqiadi said he and the rest of the Taleban are fully committed to the armed struggle.

“We have fought these invaders many, many times. It is our job,” he said. “Our jihad continues.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR reporter in Helmand.

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