Afghanistan’s Hel­mand a quick­sand of in­sta­bil­ity

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Bruised and fright­ened, three-year-old Fa­tima flinches as the thun­der­ous boom of Tale­ban rock­ets rolls across the cap­i­tal of Hel­mand, an opium-rav­aged prov­ince that epit­o­mizes the big­gest fail­ure of the 15-year US-led war in Afghanistan. For years Hel­mand was the cen­ter­piece of the Western mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Afghanistan only for it to slip deeper into a quag­mire of in­sta­bil­ity, with al­most the en­tire south­ern prov­ince tee­ter­ing on the verge of col­lapse.

In­ten­si­fied fight­ing has killed hun­dreds and forced thou­sands to flee to be­sieged cap­i­tal Lashkar Gah, spark­ing a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis as the city-one of the last gov­ern­men­theld en­claves-risks fall­ing to the Tale­ban’s re­peated fe­ro­cious as­saults. Bear­ing the brunt of the Tale­ban up­surge are or­di­nary civil­ians such as Bis­mil­lah, who lost ev­ery­thing when an ar­tillery shell landed on his house in the volatile dis­trict of Nad Ali.

“My house was on the front­line,” said the fa­ther-of-eight, hold­ing his daugh­ter Fa­tima in his arms, a plas­ter cast on her tiny leg. “Cat­tle were getting shot, hu­mans were getting killed, ev­ery­one was run­ning for their lives,” he told AFP at Lashkar Gah’s Ital­ian-run Emer­gency hospi­tal, as bursts of rocket fire echo out­side. The packed sur­gi­cal cen­tre last month re­ceived 216 war-wounded over a two-week pe­riod, the high­est num­ber ever. “Bul­let, mine, shrap­nel, bul­let, am­pu­ta­tion,” said Vesna Nestorovic, Emer­gency’s med­i­cal co­or­di­na­tor, point­ing out in­juries from bed to bed. “And there are lots of chil­dren.” Some 5,000 war-dis­placed fam­i­lies have streamed into Lashkar Gah in re­cent months, flee­ing in pickup trucks with jerry cans, mat­tresses, fire­wood and farm an­i­mals. “My chil­dren have not eaten bread for two months,” said one woman in a sky-blue burqa beg­ging for as­sis­tance out­side a relief agency’s of­fice. The des­per­ate new ar­rivals, many up­rooted from once-peace­ful dis­tricts, are shel­ter­ing in the mud-walled homes of lo­cals-of­ten dozens to a house. Lashkar Gah’s burial sites also are ever ex­pand­ing, with graves now en­croach­ing onto thor­ough­fares.

‘Po­lit­i­cal fail­ure’

Hel­mand, a mo­saic of moun­tain-fringed flat­lands criss-crossed by the Hel­mand river, is the heart of the multi-bil­lion dol­lar opium trade and long a cov­eted prize by the Tale­ban. The prov­ince, Afghanistan’s largest, also of­fers safe exit routes to the in­sur­gents across the border to Pak­istan or to neigh­bor­ing Iran. But how a few hun­dred Tale­ban fight­ers took swathes of Hel­mand from tens of thou­sands of Western-trained army and po­lice still beg­gars be­lief, high­light­ing the fail­ures of the US in­va­sion of Oc­to­ber 7, 2001, ob­servers say. “Hel­mand most of all epit­o­mises not a mil­i­tary fail­ure but a po­lit­i­cal fail­ure,” said Stephen Grey, au­thor of “Op­er­a­tion Snakebite”, a book about Western mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment in Hel­mand. “By fail­ing to un­der­stand the prov­ince’s tribal dy­nam­ics, we con­sis­tently ended up fight­ing with the wrong side, al­ly­ing our­selves with in­ter­ests re­garded with con­tempt by many or­di­nary Hel­man­dis.”

The rapid fall of dis­tricts has raised con­cerns about the ca­pac­ity of Afghan forces, be­set by un­prece­dented ca­su­al­ties and blamed for cor­rup­tion, de­ser­tion and “ghost sol­diers” who do not ex­ist on the pay­roll but whose salaries are usurped by fraud­u­lent com­man­ders. Fears that am­mu­ni­tion is be­ing sold to the Tale­ban has prompted the gov­ern­ment to is­sue a new edict: new am­mu­ni­tion will be is­sued only upon re­ceipt of ex­pended bul­lets.

Hel­mand Gov­er­nor Hay­at­ul­lah Hayat has sought to down­play fears of the fall of Lashkar Gah. He has pulled hun­dreds of troops from farflung dis­tricts in a con­tro­ver­sial “strate­gic re­treat”, re­de­ploy­ing them to bol­ster Lashkar Gah as the US steps up air sup­port. — AFP

HEL­MAND PROV­INCE: In this pho­to­graph taken on Oc­to­ber 6, 2016, Afghan pa­tients wait for a med­i­cal con­sul­ta­tion in a wait­ing room at Emer­gency hospi­tal in Lashkar Gah. —AFP

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