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Helmand's new war

Khalil Rahman Omaid
Officials blame neighboring countries as casualty count climbs in troubled province
7.07.2014  |  Helmand

Even as government forces reclaimed and secured other districts, fighting in Sangeen has entered the third week, says Omer Zwak, spokesman to the governor of Helmand. The Interior Ministry cites Afghan security forces' lack of equipment as the main reason for the prolonged violence. 

Many officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have publicly accused the intelligence services of neighboring countries, namely Pakistan and Iran for indirect involvement in the fighting. They say the 800 insurgents participating in the fighting strategized and organized in Quetta, a city in Pakistan's province of Baluchistan. These insurgents, while fighting in Helmand, followed the orders of Pakistan Army officers, Afghan officials claim. 

Civilians from the troubled areas in Helmand confirmed that fighters who neither understood the local language nor looked like Afghans were among the insurgents. 

To find the exact reasons that contributed into prolonging this war, the House of Representatives of Afghan National Assembly--the Wolesi Jirga--summoned the ministers of interior, defense, and chief of intelligence July 2 to provide an explanation. 

The main cause for delay in defeating the enemy is poor military equipment. However, we have been able to clear a large area that was taken by the enemy, Interior Minister Omer Daudzai said while addressing the Wolesi Jirga.

He further added that the absence of NATO forces in these operations was another reason for the prolonged fighting. Afghan security forces still need the air and technical support of NATO and U.S. forces, Daudzai said. In the parts of Helmand where the government was successful, the Afghan forces' collaboration of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) played a key role, he added.

Rahmitullah Nabil, the head of Afghanistans intelligence services, said Afghans knew about the insurgency's plan to attack Helmand ahead of time, but lacked the means to prevent it. Other parts of the country face similar insurgency plots as Helmand, Nabil said, adding that Afghan intelligence are doing everything they can to prevent them.

Daudzai said the ongoing fight in Helmand is part of an effort by the Pakistan government to include Taliban in Afghanistan's next government. “Through this type of fighting, the government of Pakistan is seeking to either include Taliban in the upcoming Afghan administration or to compel afghan government to surrender some its provinces to the Taliban," he said.

According to Attaullah Afghan, the deputy chairperson of Helmand's provincial council, the main reason for the ongoing fighting is drug trafficking. For several years, violence has erupted in areas like Helmand around this time of year, with the end of opium harvests. 

The green and strategic district of Sangeen, besides providing an easy access to Paksitan via Deshow, shares border with Kandahar, Ghor provinces, as well as Kajaki, Nawzad, Musa Qala, Grishk, and Deshow districts.

“From a strategic viewpoint, Sangeen is of utmost importance for the armed insurgent groups," said Afghan. "The smugglers, with the help of neighboring countries, can easily transport their drugs to Pakistan and traffick them to the world markets.”  

Other members of the Wolesi Kirga, including Shukrai Barakzai and Aryan Uon, said the war was an effort to disrupt the election process, which is expected to result in a peaceful transfer of power from the incumbent President Karzai to his successor. 

Jabar Qaraman, a member of Wolesi Jirga from the Helmand province, says there is  evidence that Pakistan is actively supporting the insurgency throughout Afghanistan. The way out, he said, was national unity.

Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry strongly rejected the accusations made by the Afghan officials regarding the country's involvement in the Helmand war. Pakistan has never sought to destabilize neighboring Afghanistan, officials said.

 

'Harsh consequences'

Shamsullah Sarahi, one of the elders of Sangeen district, said those involved in the current fighting are not as tired as the locals. When the insurgents entered the area, they asked the local people to leave their homes to avoid the severe and deadly consequences of war, Sarahi said. But because of the hot weather and lack of financial resources, civilians were finding it difficult to relocate, as they can barely afford to feed their families. 

Some left the area shortly after they received the warning, Sarahi said, but those who couldn’t make it now are trapped in the war, he said. Access to food supply lines is also becoming difficult. 

“Last night, a family attempting to flee the area were attacked in a car," Sarahi recalled. "As result of incident, a number of people, including women and children got injured.”

Meanwhile, the thousands of families that left their homes have settled in the desert, where they face water and food shortages in the scorching summer heat. "They are faced with problems one can hardly imagine," Sarahi said. "They have been through very tough situations and will continue to suffer the harsh consequences of this war.” 

So far,  an estimated 3,200 Helmand families have fled their homes. While some of them found shelters in the cities and district capitals, most live in tents set up in the bare desert. 

Some 300 families have received food supply and other basic shelter items from World Food Program (WFP), Helmand officials said. Efforts are under way to deliver assistance to other needy people who have escaped the war.

A majority of the 3,200 displaced families hail from Sangeen district, said Omer Zwak, spokesman for the governor of Helmand province. While they receive some assistance from WFP, the families still face poor living conditions. Local officials have called for assistance from the central government, Zwak said.

Helmand province had seen its share of violence in previous years, most recently in 2010 when a large-scale military operation involving some 15,000 Afghan and international troops swept through the area. But before the new wave of  fighting began three weeks ago, Helmand had been enjoying a period of peace and relative stability, Zwak said. Now, some 215 people lost their lives according to official estimates. 

Another 385 people, including 30 children and 62 women, sustained injuries. The United Nations noted a 30 percent increase in child casualties since last year, when 545 children dies as a result of war and another 1,149 were injured.

As the fighting continues in Sangeen district, some 14 national police have been killed, while around 20 are injured, Zwak said.

Even though there is no accurate number of the casualties from the insurgency, the chief of police department of Helmand province, Abdul Qaum Baqizoi, says that around 500 Taliban are believed to be dead or wounded. 

As the fighting continues, the civilians caught in the middle face an increasingly hopeless scenario. In Helmand hospital, an 8-year-old boy had both his legs amputated after an attack on his home. “We were playing in our house when the rocket landed. It got me and many others of my family members,” he said.  “I will never be able to play with my friends again.”