Half a beard 83

General Petraeus has claimed counterinsurgency success in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. But if this Washington Post report provides a true picture of what success amounts to, it makes failure hard to define.

Helmand is the place with the highest concentration of American troops, and the site of the first major operation under the new military strategy, when U.S. Marines in February retook the Taliban-held town of Marja. Coalition commander Gen. David H. Petraeus now points to parts of Helmand, such as Nawa, as examples of counterinsurgency success.

But the Helmand refugees living in this squalid camp, known as Charahi Qambar, offer a bleaker assessment. They blame insecurity on the presence of U.S. and British troops, and despite official claims of emerging stability, these Afghans believe their villages are still too dangerous to risk returning.

“Where is security? The Americans are just making life worse and worse, and they’re destroying our country,” said Barigul, a 22-year-old opium farmer from the Musa Qala district of Helmand … “If they were building our country, why would I leave my home town and come here?” …

The camp has since grown to more than 1,000 families, making it the largest of some 30 informal settlements around Kabul. …

The residents say they are mostly farmers who brought their bundles by bus and taxi to live in these mud hovels or under scraps of tarp. It is a place of wailing children and dirt-caked faces, where husbands search for menial labor and wives burn heaps of trash to cook their daily gruel. …

Ahunzada, a 35-year-old mullah, gets by on meager donations from other refugees, given to him as payment for teaching Islamic classes and leading the daily prayers in a low-ceilinged makeshift mosque built from mud. Two years ago, he left his opium fields in Sangin, one of the most violent parts of Helmand, which British troops recently handed over to U.S. Marines after taking casualties for four years.

“Every day, fighting is going on there. The more infidels who come to our country, the more Afghans die, and the less safe we become,” he said.

Ahunzada has little affection for the Taliban. His father, Mohammad Gul Agha, and his brother, Abdul Zahir, both died when a fireball engulfed their car on the road to the provincial capital. The insurgents, he said, had planted the bomb to target a passing U.S. military convoy.

“We are not happy from either side, but I believe the British and American troops are more cruel than the Taliban,” he said. “I have seen it happen: The Taliban come on motorbikes, they open fire, then they leave. Then the Americans just come and kill us, they bomb us, they open fire on us, they kill the children and innocent people.”

He makes this claim although “U.S. commanders say they have made reducing civilian casualties a top priority, and they say their soldiers accept more risk in order to minimize collateral damage” – a deplorable fact we know to be true.

Barigul [the 22-year-old opium farmer mentioned above] and his family left Helmand last month. He said the decision was the culmination of long-running harassment from American troops and their insurgent enemies. He has been detained, he said, accused of planting bombs, searched at checkpoints, and slapped in the face by foreign troops. Outside the Musa Qala district center, where American troops are dominant, the Taliban patrol the villages, block children from attending school and kill Afghans accused of collaborating with foreigners.

“If we grew our beards, the Americans arrested us and put us in jail saying we were Taliban. If we shaved, the Taliban gave us a hard time,” he said. “What are we supposed to do, shave half of our beard?”

These camp residents – refugees though they are, who have sought protection in the camp from the Taliban – have decided that the Taliban is after all the lesser of two evils. They “clearly want foreign troops to depart”.

They blame the Americans for bombing them out of their homes:

“Who are the Taliban? They are our brothers, our cousins, our relatives. The problem is the Americans,” said Lala Jan, 25, also from Musa Qala. “If somebody attacks from one house, the Americans bomb the whole place. If the Taliban come inside, during the night the Americans come and raid the house. That’s the problem.”

As the number of foreign troops has risen – there are now about 140,000 U.S. and allied NATO soldiers on the ground – the population of those who have been displaced from their homes and have moved elsewhere in Afghanistan has also grown.

Mohammad, a 36-year-old imam, said that during the Marine operation in Marja, his family hid in a hole, covered by boards, for 12 days as the Taliban fought Americans from house to house. This spring his mother-in-law’s home in Marja was obliterated by an American bomb, he said, killing six of his relatives.

“It was impossible to stay,” he said. “The house had collapsed. “If I go back to Marja, I will have to pick a side,” he said. “If I support the foreign forces, the Taliban will behead me. If I join the Taliban, I will also get killed.”

For many, the lure to return remains strong. The rain seeps into Ahunzada’s hovel. … He lies on the floor at night and yearns to return to Helmand.

“I keep thinking I should go back to my village, either to cultivate opium or to stand alongside the Taliban. Then at least I will have money. I could send it to my wife and son,” he said. “I think about this every night.”

Yet he is not quite ready.

“When the infidels leave our province, on the next day I will go home.”

Where in this calamitous story does an Afghan army come in, well trained, effective, competently commanded, and seriously willing to take on the Taliban without foreign assistance?  Is it even remotely in prospect?

Without such a thing – and who at this stage can seriously believe in it? – whenever the infidel forces withdraw, whether in 2011 or in 2014 (dates that have been named) or in any unspecified year beyond that,  the Taliban will have won.