Villagers digging in against the Taleban

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am

With spade and gun, Afghans are rebuilding, now they need faith in government

It is an unexceptional rural scene - scores of peasants digging a canal through wheat and cumin fields. But then the village leader points to several heavily armed lookouts standing on the distant ridge line. On the other side of those barren hills, he says, are the Taleban.

The men of Narjoy, in Taleban-dominated Uruzgan province in south-central Afghanistan, are defending their village against the Islamist fanatics, even as they repair their rudimentary irrigation system, ruined by years of neglect, with the help of a Singapore-based NGO, the Central Asia Development Group.

'The Taleban threatened to kill us three days ago if we continued work on the canal,' said head man Dad Mohammed. 'They say what we are doing is not jihad, that we're working for non-Muslims. They want every house in the village to give them one young man for their jihad.'

Under Mr Mohammed's leadership, Narjoy has refused to side with the Taleban. 'I was a commander in the jihad against Russia,' he said. 'Later, the Taleban came and ruled us for seven years. But they did nothing - they only persecuted us. Even now, all they do is talk of religion.

'But we need water, we need seeds, we need fertiliser. This canal hasn't been repaired for 13 years. Once the work is done, we'll have enough water.'

The Singapore group is one of only two or three international NGOs still active in Uruzgan. The rest have fled, along with the UN, in the face of a renewed Taleban onslaught. It also is the only group using foreign aid workers - a New Zealander, an Englishman, and two Filipinos, including the cook. They are the only foreigners living and working outside the Dutch military base in the province.

'We've got nine irrigation and agriculture projects on hand,' said the Englishman, Jamie Bailey. 'The people here need help.'

It's tough, dangerous work, for foreigner and Afghan alike. The Taleban has been systematically killing its 'enemies' - aid workers, doctors, engineers, teachers, journalists, government officials, even barbers and clerics opposed to its brand of Islam.

In a report on the human cost of the insurgency, Human Rights Watch ranked 2006 as the deadliest year for civilians since 2001.

Unlike in other provinces, there have been no civilian deaths from foreign military action in Uruzgan since the Dutch arrived in August and introduced a policy of restraint in fighting the Taleban. Only four non-insurgents have been killed - members of a hastily trained village auxiliary police mistaken for the Taleban.

Yet the people of Uruzgan are perplexed by the Dutch policy.

'If we build a school, the Taleban come and destroy it. They kidnap our engineers and teachers,' said Al-Haj Rahmatullah, director of education, former provincial governor and a long-time associate of President Hamid Karzai.

'People here don't support the Taleban, support comes from foreign countries,' said assistant, Mohammed Noor. 'The Taleban are terrorising us, we're afraid and helpless, but the soldiers from Holland are watching like they're in a cinema. They need to do more.'

It is difficult for outsiders to visit Shah Zafar village, 14km northeast of the Uruzgan capital, Tirin Kowt, without risking abduction and beheading by the Taleban. So Haji Baqi and his associate Abdul Bari come to the Dutch military base to talk over problems in their village.

'They don't like us, we don't like them,' said Mr Baqi, even though he is from a sub-tribe of the Gilzai, the Pashtun tribal confederacy from which the Taleban draws most support. 'Today's Taleban are different. They oppose everything, don't help the people, and only want jihad. Really speaking, today only 20 per cent of the people support them.'

Mr Baqi, who runs a paramedic clinic in his village, blames much of the Taleban's resurgence on a feeling among people that the provincial government was against them. Under former United States-backed governor Jan Mohammed Khan, Mr Baqi's son was killed and he was jailed. Mr Baqi insists it is too late for the soft-handed Dutch approach to work against the insurgency.

Mr Bari said: 'The government should be more active, support the people, and give leaders weapons.'

A village defence organisation is also an idea being pushed by Kabul. But no one in Uruzgan supports destruction of the opium poppy crops, which are almost ready to harvest.

'It's a poison plant, and the opium is becoming a threat to our people too, with young men getting addicted,' said Mr Mohammed. 'But unless the government helps us grow alternative crops, we have little choice.'

As the Taleban's spring attacks begin, neither the Kabul government nor the Nato forces seem to have a strategy to deal with them.

One thing is clear - a purely military strategy is doomed to defeat. Whatever policy is adopted in the war, it must accompany development and justice, so the people can regain faith in the government.