Taleban Rockets Target Helmand Capital

Residents worry that rebels, facing huge offensive by foreign troops, are taking out their anger on them.

Taleban Rockets Target Helmand Capital

Residents worry that rebels, facing huge offensive by foreign troops, are taking out their anger on them.

Friday, 31 July, 2009
Lashkar Gah is pretty stable,” said a British official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Except for the rockets, of course.”

Ever since British and American forces unleashed their major offensives against the Taleban at the beginning of July, the capital of Helmand province has become a target for the anger and frustration of the insurgents. An average of two or three rockets a day land in the town, frightening children, angering residents, and adding to an already tense atmosphere.

What is surprising is that, to date, there have been no casualties and relatively little damage.

“We’ve had two or three land right inside the PRT,” said the official, speaking of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, which sits on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah. “This is obviously a desperate response by the insurgents.”

Operation Khanjar (Dagger Thrust), headed by United States marines and directed to the south of Lashkar Gah, has had a fairly easy time of it in the three weeks since the offensive began. The Taleban seem to have melted away, allowing the soldiers time to put their new hearts-and-minds policies into practice.

To the north of the capital, the British are bogged down in a serious fight with the Taleban in Operation Panjai Palang (Panther’s Claw).

For the residents of the capital, it is worrying sign that the Taleban, unable to hold their own in a straight fight with foreign troops, are taking out their anger on them.

“It was evening when the rocket landed in our house,” said a man from the Chel Metra area of Lashkar Gah. “It blew up a room and broke all the glass. Even the glass in our neighbours’ houses was broken. But thank God nobody was hurt. We have two children in our house. They are traumatised. You can’t even talk to them, they are so afraid.”

His neighbour, Nazir Ahmad, is angry that the government seems helpless to do anything about the attacks.

“These commanders are saying every day that they have made so many achievements. At least they should be able to prevent this,” he said. “We ask them and the governor to protect us. There is a whole PRT there. Why can’t they go out patrolling those areas where the rockets are launched from? If they can’t do it from the ground, why can’t they use air patrols?”

Helmand police chief Assadullah Sherzad told reporters in mid-July that his officers had arrested several people on suspicion of being involved in the rocket attacks but the destruction continues.

“Many people who worked in NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in Lashkar Gah have quit,” he said. “They said it was just impossible to live in Helmand any more.”

Qaru Yusuf Ahmady, a Taleban spokesman, had a simple explanation for the attacks.

“This is war,” he told IWPR. “We are using everything – rockets, missiles, suicide bombers, guerrilla attacks, face-to-face combat. We do not want civilians to be killed. We are very careful about our targets.”

But rockets are notoriously hard to direct. So far they have landed in the PRT, the governor’s compound, a central park, and an empty lot next to the IWPR office.

“I was in the park with my grandchildren,” said an old man holding his two-year-old grandson by the hand. “We heard a very loud explosion. My grandchildren started screaming. They were frightened to death. It is very hard these days. The rocket does not know who you are, which is your front and which is your back. Wherever it is going to land, it will land. It does not matter if it’s a house, a mosque, or whatever.”

The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, does not seem to be unduly worried about the rockets.

“Very soon the opposition will be swept from Lashkar Gah and the districts,” he told reporters. “We have full security in the town, and it will get better very soon, and reconstruction efforts will speed up.”

It can’t be soon enough for Sahel Darwesh, a staff member at a large international organisation, who is in town temporarily.

“I am worried with every step I take,” he told IWPR. “It’s not just the rockets any more. When I come to the office I try and disguise myself. I wrap my laptop in a patu (a large blanket-type shawl), and I change what I wear every day. Sometimes I wear a hat, sometimes no hat. I am afraid of kidnapping, assassinations.

“All we needed were the rockets – now it’s impossible to work. The first day that the rockets landed the office would not let us leave the compound. We could not get out, others could not get in. Flights have been cancelled for days. How can we work in this type of environment?”

Shahin, a reporter for Al Jazeera’s Arabic section, had a very close encounter with one of the rockets.

“My colleague and I were broadcasting live on the situation in Helmand, from a rooftop near the governor’s house,” he told IWPR. “A rocket landed about a kilometre away, and we caught it in the background. But then one passed right over our heads and landed in a corner of the yard. It destroyed half the wall and shredded our car. It was very frightening.”

Then he smiled, “But it was the best clip of the day on Al Jazeera.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.
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