Bullets Fly Around Provincial Peace Talks in Afghanistan

Taliban ambushed a provincial governor’s convoy en route to peace talks, killing two police and one civilian — but the international coalition calls the Helmand meeting a success

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NICK MCDONELL

Tribal elders greet one another at a peace jirga in a Sangin, Afghanistan, district office

From the district-office roof, an Afghan Special Forces (ASF) team stared into the dark that had fallen over Sangin’s mud compounds. They were pulling overnight guard for a peace-and-reconciliation meeting, listening to a captured Taliban radio. Ranking officer Bashir swept a forearm against the starry horizon.

“They are close.”

He turned up the volume. Taliban fighters were discussing safe areas, movements, a car bomb, who would bring the blankets. It was a chill night.

“Mostly it is propaganda,” said Bashir. His men remained vigilant.

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It had been a long day. That morning, they had driven from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Their convoy included an array of Afghanistan’s security forces — ASF, Afghan Border Police, Afghan National Police (ANP) and National Directorate of Security (NDS). All had come to secure the area in advance of the peace meeting, or jirga. Word was that Helmand Governor al-Haj Mohammed Naeem, High Peace Council chairman Salahuddin Rabbani and several other notables — including U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham — would be attending. Sangin is a famous Taliban stronghold, but according to Afghan officials, significant gains have been made. The meeting occasioned the release — and intended reintegration — of 20 insurgent prisoners.

Bashir and his team had more immediate concerns. Their convoy had taken fire on the way up. They escaped unscathed, but in the governor’s convoy, a few hours behind, two ANP officers had been killed, a third injured.

The location of both attacks — Fatikhan village — was unsurprising to Bashir. Fatikhan is distinguished by a fertile bend in Lashkar Gah — Sangin Road. An Afghan National Army base overlooks the turn, and Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) posts line it. These forces, however, have not driven the insurgents from the surrounding cornfields and poplar groves. Several ANCOP officers simply looked on as rounds zipped into the first convoy.

Still, on the morning of the peace jirga, some attendees were optimistic. Haji Malim Showali Khan, chairman of the Lashkar Gah Peace and Reconciliation Council, sat beneath a wall of banners he agreed with: “Peace is life, war is death; make unity for a better future and join the peace.”

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Khan was a turbaned old man with a grand gray beard. He quoted the Koran: “The love of country is the love of faith.” While he conceded obstacles to peace with the Taliban — “hostility between the tribes, poverty, the neighbor countries” — he insisted that compared with 2009, there is much less violence in Sangin. International reports bear out his assessment, citing decreased attacks since U.S. Marines arrived in September 2010. As one U.N. report notes of the area, however, “there is a high likelihood of underreporting.”

Above the banners, Bashir patrolled the mezzanine. Pashtun elders filled the courtyard. Cross-legged in the corners, Afghan journalists traded notes. Explosions in the distance did not unsettle them. “When the insurgency started, it started here,” said Helmand Khamosh, a reporter with Shamshad News. “This is why, when the peace starts, they want it to start here. This is why they are coming here: to make the point.”

The point sounded simple. Under a poster of President Hamid Karzai, Governor Naeem asked the people of Sangin to support reintegration, which would in turn facilitate development projects like the district highway and Kajaki Dam turbine. Chairman Rabbani called on the Taliban to reintegrate. Lesser officials echoed them through bouts of deafening feedback. Behind the podium, local elders sat in easy chairs marked for Ambassador Cunningham and other embassy staff.

In conclusion, the officials thanked God and the assembled and returned to the district governor’s compound. Elders hurried to free flat bread and stew. Assistants packed up the banners and speakers. Everything was going back to Lashkar Gah. When the courtyard cleared, programs and printed Koran verses were strewn about the ground.

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Above, Bashir and his men ate a late lunch. A pair of NDS officers stopped by for a smoke. Bashir’s men offered them soft drinks.

“Don’t drink too much,” said one, “you’ll leak when you get to Fatikhan.”

“I’m drinking Pepsi,” joked the other, “it will all come out as gas.”

A call came over the radio. The convoy was departing. Bashir and his men packed into their Hilux. They sped through Sangin’s narrow bazaars out into the beige countryside, back toward Fatikhan.

Several trucks behind, a squat Border Police commander, Ghulam Rasul, shouted to the gunners in his bay. Intelligence reported potential ambushes in two places, he said, and Taliban in possession of an 82-mm antitank gun. The convoy would thus circle the barren backside of Fatikhan.

It was impossible, at times, to see through the dust kicked up by the truck ahead. But all passed the village without incident. Rasul and his Border Police halted. The dust had cleared, and the road was paved again, but the front of the convoy — ANP and Bashir’s ASF — had sped out of sight. They could not be raised. The back of the convoy, NDS, seemed far behind. The Border Police, for the moment, were alone.

Rasul tried to make a call, but had no reception. He barked for another phone. For a few tense minutes, officers exited their vehicles and loitered, some silent, some laughing. Shots cracked in the distance. When the rear of the convoy reappeared, the Border Police jumped in their cars and squealed off.

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A few minutes south, bullets struck Rasul’s truck. Border Police returned fire as the convoy condensed into a traffic jam behind a cluster of abandoned mud buildings. At wall’s edge, Bashir windmilled a long arm, urging the various forces along. But there was little progress beyond the buildings. It seemed safer behind them. Though outgoing fire dwarfed incoming, both were consistent.

Stuck behind an armored humvee, Rasul stepped to the asphalt. He walked at ease among the crowd of machine gunners, apparently issuing orders. As some of the vehicles broke cover, Rasul’s driver wove ahead and lost his commander in the fray.

At that point, Rasul later explained, a civilian walking along the road was shot. The commander had not been delayed long: “If he was injured I would have helped him. Unfortunately he was dead.” Even so, when his truck reached the far end of the compound, Rasul was sprinting to catch up. He slammed the door behind him. Bashir and his men had driven on. It was still two hours to Lashkar Gah.

Between moments of lighter gunfire that followed, Rasul lamented the plight of civilians in general. He estimated that it was only 10 to 15 Taliban that had tied down the convoy of 20-plus vehicles. He complained of corruption and lack of planning among the security forces. But there were no more traffic jams, and the convoy arrived in Lashkar Gah at dusk, with only minor injuries.

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“I would love to retire,” remarked Rasul, heading to his barracks. He claimed he was a 29-year veteran of the Border Police. “But the country needs me.”

Three days later, the international coalition’s Regional Command Southwest issued a press release. It included footage of Cunningham inside the Sangin district governor’s compound, but not of the jirga itself. “The successful Sangin peace jirga,” it concluded, “gave the diplomats a firsthand view of the progress being made in the once insurgent hotbed of Sangin.”

In Lashkar Gah, there was a different view. One civil-court judge, Qazi Fazily Ahmad, noted that “a peace meeting normally means a group comes from both sides. But there was no one representing the other side. The government received their answer.”

Contacted by phone, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi was even more dismissive of the jirga.

“Step by step we have our own movements,” he said in a measured crackle, “our own resistance. These infidels and their slaves, what they are doing is nothing. These jirgas are happening, but there is resistance everywhere. These kinds of things have no result. This is not the time of peace talking.”

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