Sunday, November 29, 2009

Town where Taliban were driven out learns to live again

Nawa in the heart of poppy-growing country south of Lashkar Gah is not a particularly pretty place.

But it is not as ugly as it was last summer, when the Taliban had the community in its grip and the small British training garrison of 60 under siege.

It took a three-day battle involving 1,000 US Marines, aircraft and helicopters to drive back the Taliban.

Over the past few weeks Nawa has moved from being the heart of darkness to the heart of the matter in the battle of wills against the Taliban.

The council is now up and running, a clinic is being built, the school and barracks renovated. More than 80 stalls and shops now open most days in the bazaar.

At the beginning of the Muslim festival of Eid yesterday, Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor of Helmand, made a gesture of thanks to Nawa by giving out rice and cooking oil to 300 of the poorest families, chosen because each had suffered bereavement at the hands of the Taliban.

He said: "Don't trust the Taliban because they preach a false Islam. They believe in killing, not helping people, and that is not true Islam."

Haji Mohammed Khan, the administrator of the district council, tells me: "Since peace came here, it is like Eid every day."

He recalls the dreadful days in autumn when the head of the council was kidnapped and executed by the Taliban and two councillors were shot.

At first only six of the remaining 42 councillors would turn up for meetings, now they always get a quorum of at least 25.

"The British didn't have enough numbers when they were here - only 60 soldiers. Now the US Marines have enough men that we can win peace.

"If the international forces go away, there will be a big disaster, and the world will fight here - and we will have a really big war."

A few weeks back the bazaar was a battleground. But today US Marine escorts and British aid workers do not have to wear flak jackets or helmet.

"We try to get out among the people whenever possible," said US Captain Brian Huysman of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion the 5th Marine Brigades.

"I really feel we are beginning to win. We've learned some lessons from Iraq. First you have to work out the right approach to the people, second you have to apply the right force numbers - and that's something the British have learned the hard way."

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