Taliban Truce in District of Afghanistan Sets Off Debate
Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed British troops last week at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, where they have been in heavy fighting against the Taliban but have withdrawn from one district under an agreement.
By CARLOTTA GALL and ABDUL WAHEED WAFA
Published: December 2, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 29 — After a series of bruising battles between British troops and Taliban fighters, the Afghan government struck a peace deal with tribal elders in Helmand Province, arranging for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of both sides from one southern district. A month later, the ripples are still being felt in the capital and beyond.
The elders in the Musa Qala district brokered a local peace pact.
The accord, reached with virtually no public consultation and mediated by the local governor, has brought some welcome peace for residents of the district, Musa Qala, and a reprieve for British troops, who had been under siege by the Taliban in a compound there for three months.
But it has sharply divided former government officials, legislators and ordinary Afghans. Some say the agreement points the way forward in bringing peace to war-torn parts of the country. Others warn that it sets a dangerous precedent and represents a capitulation to the Taliban and a potential reversal of five years of American policy to build a strong central government. They say the accord gives up too much power to local leaders, who initiated it and are helping to enforce it.
“The Musa Qala project has sent two messages: one, recognition for the enemy, and two, military defeat,” said Mustafa Qazemi, a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament and a former resistance fighter with the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for seven years.
“This is a model for the destruction of the country,” he said, “and it is just a defeat for NATO, just a defeat.”
As part of the deal, the district has been allowed to choose its own officials and police officers, something one member of Parliament warned would open a Pandora’s box as more districts clamored for the right to do the same.
Some compare the deal to agreements that Pakistan has struck with leaders in its tribal areas along the Afghan border, which have given those territories more autonomy and, critics say, empowered the Taliban who have taken sanctuary there and allowed them to regroup.
“It is the calm before the storm,” one senior Afghan military officer said of the accord.
Even President Hamid Karzai, who sanctioned the deal, has admitted to mixed feelings. “There are some suspicions in society about this,” he said in a recent radio interview with Radio Free Europe.
“I trust everything these elders say,” Mr. Karzai said, but he added that two recent episodes in the area — of killing and intimidation — gave pause and needed investigation.
For their part, foreign military officials and diplomats expressed cautious optimism, saying the accord had at least opened a debate over the virtues of such deals and time is needed to see if it will work. “If it works, and so far it appears to work, it could be a pointer to similar understandings elsewhere,” said one diplomat, who would speak on the topic only if not identified.
The governor of Helmand, Mohammad Daud, brokered the deal and defended it strongly as a vital exercise to unite the Pashtun tribes in the area and strengthen their leaders so they could reject the Taliban militants.
Appointed at the beginning of the year, Mr. Daud has struggled to win over the people and control the lawlessness of his province, which is the largest opium-producing region as well as a Taliban stronghold.
Some 5,000 British soldiers deployed in the province this year as part of an expanding NATO presence have come under repeated attack. Civilians have suffered scores of casualties across the south as NATO troops have often resorted to airstrikes, even on residential areas, to defeat the insurgents.
It was the civilians of Musa Qala who made the first bid for peace, Mr. Daud explained.
“They made a council of elders and came to us saying, ‘We want to make the Taliban leave Musa Qala,’ ” he said in a telephone interview from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. “At first we did not accept their request, and we waited to see how strong the elders were.”
But the governor and the British forces soon demanded a cease-fire, and when it held for more than a month, they negotiated a withdrawal of British troops from the district, as well as the Afghan police who had been fighting alongside them. The Taliban then also withdrew.
Eventually the governor agreed on a 15-point accord with the elders, who pledged to support the government and the Afghan flag, keep schools open, allow development and reconstruction, and work to ensure the security and stability of the region. That included trying to limit the arming of people who do not belong to the government, namely the Taliban insurgents.
They drew up a list of local candidates for the posts of district chief and police chief, from which the governor appointed the new officials. They also chose 60 local people to serve as police officers in the district, sending the first 20 to the provincial capital for 20 days of basic training, according to provincial officials.
One energetic supporter of the deal is Abdul Ali Seraj, a nephew of King Amanullah, who ruled in the 1920s, and leader of the Coalition for National Dialogue With the Tribes of Afghanistan, which is working to bring peace through the tribal structures.
“Musa Qala is the way to do it,” Mr. Seraj said. “Sixty days since the agreement, and there has not been a shot fired.”
The agreement has been welcomed by residents of Musa Qala, who said in interviews by telephone or in neighboring Kandahar Province that people were rebuilding their houses and shops and planting winter crops, including the ubiquitous poppy, the source of opium.
The onset of the lucrative poppy planting season may have been one of the incentives behind their desire for peace, diplomats and government officials admitted.
Elders and residents of the area say the accord has brought calm, at least for now. “There is no Taliban authority there,” said Haji Shah Agha, 55, who led 50 members of the Musa Qala elders’ council to Kabul recently to counter criticism that the district was in the hands of the Taliban.
“The Taliban stopped fighting because we convinced them that fighting would not be to our benefit,” he said. “We told the Taliban, ‘Fighting will kill our women and children, and they are your women and children as well.’ ”
What the Taliban gained was the withdrawal of the British forces without having to risk further fighting. Meantime, the Taliban presence remains strong in the province, so much so that road travel to Musa Qala for a foreign journalist is not advised by United Nations security officials. While residents are happy with the peace, they do not deny that the militants who were fighting British forces all summer have neither disbanded nor been disarmed.
According to a local shopkeeper, Haji Bismillah, 40, who owns a pharmacy in the center of Musa Qala, the Taliban have pulled back to their villages and often come into town, but without their weapons.
“The Taliban are not allowed to enter the bazaar with their weapons,” he said in a telephone interview. “If they resist with guns, the tribal elders will disarm them,” he said.
He said the elders had temporarily given the Taliban “some kind of permission to arrest thieves and drug addicts and put them in their own prison,” since the elders did not yet have a police force of their own.
The district’s newly appointed police chief, Haji Malang, said the Taliban and the police had agreed not to encroach on each other’s territory. “They have their place which we cannot enter, and we have our place and they must not come in,” he said in a telephone interview this week.
Some residents said the deal would benefit the Taliban. “This is a very good chance for the Taliban,” said Abdul Bari, 33, a farmer who accompanied a sick relative to a hospital in neighboring Kandahar province.
“The people now view the Taliban as a force, since without the Taliban, the government could not bring peace in the regions.” he said. “It is not sure how this agreement will work, but maybe the Taliban will get more strength and then move against the elders.”
Opponents of the agreement warned that the elders were merely doing the bidding of the Taliban and would never be strong enough to face down Taliban commanders.
“The Taliban reappeared by the power of the gun, and the only way to defeat them is fighting, not dealing,” said Haji Aadil Khan, 47, a former police chief from Gereshk, another district of Helmand.
One event that has alarmed all sides was the killing and beheading of Haji Ahmad Shah, the former chief of a neighboring district, who returned to his home after the agreement was signed. Beheading is a tactic favored by some Taliban groups, and his friends say it is a clear sign that the Taliban are in control of the area. Elders of Musa Qala said that Mr. Shah had personal enemies and that they were behind the killing.
The governor, Mr. Daud, and the elders said a number of the opponents to the agreement were former militia leaders who did not want peace. “The people of Musa Qala took a step for peace with this agreement,” said the chief elder, Haji Shah Agha. “The Taliban are sitting calmly in their houses.”
Another elder, Amini, who uses only one name, said: “For four months we had fighting in Musa Qala and now we have peace. What is wrong with it, if we have peace?”