Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Afghanistan: the Fight Comes to Helmand's Capital

Taleban Target Helmand's Capital

Over the past weeks, Lashkar Gah has become increasingly unstable, with bombs and murder almost daily fare. Now, for the first time in Helmand, the Taleban have killed a woman.

By IWPR trainees in Helmand (ARR No. 248, 27-Mar-07)

It has been a bad few days in Helmand’s capital, with a high-profile kidnapping and murder followed by a suicide bomb at police headquarters. Residents say the Taleban are becoming more and more visible in Lashkar Gah, and enjoy support among some segments of the population.

On March 27, a suicide bomber dressed in army uniform attempted to assassinate the chief of police.

“A man dressed as an Afghan National Army soldier came to police headquarters saying he needed to file an application for a passport,” said police chief Nabijan Mullahkhel. “He was targeting me, but the police stopped him at the gate checkpoint. So he blew himself up, killing four police and injuring two more.”

Another police official confirmed the incident, saying that a police commander was among the dead. He added that in addition to police, two civilians were wounded in the explosion.

The blast could be heard throughout the centre of Lashkar Gah, and was followed by rapid gunfire. Local residents say the police were shooting into the air to discourage crowds of onlookers from gathering at the site.

A high-ranking Taleban commander in Helmand took responsibility for the blast, although his estimate of the casualties differed from that given by police.

“We killed a lot of police, and injured many more,” said the commander, who did not want to be named.

The news from Helmand’s capital is getting worse by the day. As the spring offensive kicks into high gear throughout the province, Lashkar Gah itself is becoming a more frequent target of insurgent activity.

On March 26, the head of the women’s prison was kidnapped and murdered, in what her family says is a politically motivated killing.

Zargola, the prison warden, was seized by two men on motorcycles as she left her house in the morning, as she set out to visit her adult daughter, police officials said. A short time later, her body was found in Bollan, a district approximately one kilometre from the capital. She had been shot six times.

Mohammad Wais, chief detective with the provincial crime squad, confirmed the killing. “We found her body,” he said.

The Taleban claimed responsibility for the murder.

“We killed Zargola,” said Qari Muhammad Yousuf, spokesman for the insurgents in Helmand.

Zargola was a mother of three. Her elderly husband was unemployed and relied on her salary.

He eldest son, Amanullah, 27, runs a music shop in Lashkar Gah.

“My mother had been in this job for a long time, although she could neither read nor write,” said Amanullah. “She was killed because she worked for the government.”

While Zargola is the first woman to be kidnapped and killed in Helmand province, she is not the first to be targeted. Fawzia Ulumi, head of the official women’s affairs department in Helmand province, has received numerous death threats, and narrowly escaped assassination several months ago.

“Two gunmen on motorcycles shot at me in my car,” she said. “I survived, but my driver was killed.”

While even the governor, Asadullah Wafa, acknowledges that several of Helmand’s 14 districts are under Taleban control, the provincial capital itself has remained relatively stable until now.

But in recent days, residents have reported seeing armed Taleban patrols on the street at night.

“The police drive right by them and do nothing,” said one reporter in the town.

Residents of Lashkar Gah. especially those who fear they might be targeted, are worried by the growing boldness of the Taleban,

Sher Mohammad, 56, lives a few kilometres from the centre of the city. He hides his identity from his neighbours in the Tor Taang district because he fears retribution from the insurgents.

“I am a government employee,” he said. “But no one knows where I live. I hide because I’m afraid that the Taleban will come for me in the night.”

He has good reason to be worried.

One Taleb, speaking to a reporter, said that his entire job consisted of ferreting out government employees.

“We first leave them letters, warning them to leave the government or else they will be dealt with harshly,” he said. “If they do not obey, then we know what to do with them.”

But despite such tough tactics, the insurgents have their supporters, even in Lashkar Gah.

“Every night we are invited for dinner,” said the Taleb, “And local shopkeepers give us top-up cards for our phones.”

Residents say one motive for engaging with the Taleban is that they fear that the Afghan government is unable to protect them. Support for the Taleban is a way of hedging their bets.

“Security has become much worse compared with recent years,” said Abdul Karim, 42. “The police are unable to provide security. There are killings, robberies, all kinds of atrocities. Two years ago, there were schools open all over the district, reconstruction was proceeding and the situation was getting better.

“But with the arrival of more foreign soldiers, and the increase in numbers of police and army, things just keep getting worse.”

IWPR is implementing a journalism training programme in Helmand province. This story is a compilation of trainee reports.

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