Facing the Taliban and His Past, an Afghan Leader Aims for a Different Ending

Facing Taliban (Credit: cyrusreporter.com)
Facing Taliban
(Credit: cyrusreporter.com)

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — When mujahedeen guerrillas captured this southern provincial capital in 1993, Gen. Abdul Jabar Qahraman was the Afghan government commander on the last flight out, surrendering the city.

In a resonant twist more than two decades later, Mr. Qahraman is again the face of the Afghan government here as an insurgency threatens to overrun his post.

This time, it is the Taliban at the city gates. The insurgents are firmly entrenched in a suburb of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and separated from the seat of government by only the calm waters of the Helmand River. They control or contest at least 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand Province, Afghanistan’s largest in both size and opium production.

Mr. Qahraman came to Helmand last month as President Ashraf Ghani’s representative, taking charge of efforts to hold the province against the Taliban. But insisting that military measures alone are not the government’s best chance, the former general has also been trying to engage Taliban commanders in negotiations.

“Back then, too, I believed that the solution to the problem of this nation is not in fighting, and I believe that today,” Mr. Qahraman said in an interview last week at his command center here, in between aides’ frequently handing him the phone with military commanders, local officials and elders on the line. “Artillery, tanks and warplanes are failed instruments and should only be used very rarely, only when you think you will be destroyed.”

“Our first attempt is to slow the fighting, to quiet the fighting,” he added.

In some places, however, that has looked like retreat.

The army recently abandoned its last bases in the districts of Musa Qala and Now Zad, pulling out as many as 1,500 soldiers in an apparent move to strengthen a security belt around Lashkar Gah. American Special Operations forces have been drawn into the fight, recently moving to help clear roads to the provincial capital and getting involved in planning its defense.

Mr. Qahraman, 58, has been here before. His command was the last bastion of the Russian-backed Communist government in southern Afghanistan, and he became personally identified with its collapse here in 1993, when he withdrew his forces and turned Lashkar Gah over to the C.I.A.-backed mujahedeen. He went into exile in Moscow for a decade afterward.

He returned to Afghanistan after the United States invasion in 2001 and the fall of the Taliban, and became a member of Parliament. His views on how to engage the resurgent Taliban are a sympathetic fit with those of Mr. Ghani, who has tried to open talks with the insurgency’s leaders in an effort to reach a political end to the long war.

But in the immediate crisis, tribal elders here see his efforts as impractical and hopeless — the desperate acts of a nostalgic commander. The Taliban, instead of responding to his peace calls, have challenged him to a “face-to-face” fight, and they do not like the government’s chances.

“I think Mr. Qahraman is in daydreaming mode,” said Hajji Mohammad Tahir, an elder from Sangin District who recently attended discussions with Mr. Qahraman. “Right now, the Taliban have the upper hand, the government is beneath. Once you bring them down militarily, then it would be possible for local Taliban to put their weapons down and join the peace process — not now.”

Mullah Abdul Rahman Ehsan, a Taliban commander in Sangin, said Mr. Qahraman had clearly returned to Helmand to make up for past humiliations.

“Let’s fight first, and forget about peace and laying weapons down,” Mullah Ehsan said. “First we need to fight, then work on the peace process.”

Others even saw cynical motives in the recent events in Helmand, particularly after the surrender of the army bases. After a disastrous year militarily, the government might be striking deals with the Taliban in the districts to keep them away from the city, just as the Communist government did in its final days in southern Afghanistan.

The suspicion is furthered by the fact that the man in charge of Helmand operations is talking peace, and that the minister at the helm of national defense, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, was until last year effectively in charge of the national peace process.

“The question that is going through my head, after they just retreated from Musa Qala, is what if they are saying we won’t resist in the districts and you don’t attack the city?” said Abdul Majid Akhundzada, the deputy head of Helmand’s provincial council, whose father was a leading rebel commander against Mr. Qahraman in the 1980s. “If that is not the case, why are they leaving without a fight?”

Mr. Qahraman, who said the recent retreats were necessary and not part of any deal, admitted to facing an uphill task.

In Helmand, the government has lost to the Taliban not just most of its districts, but also, over the course of the past few years, much of its public support and any semblance of corruption fighting. The allure of opium profits has ensnared Taliban and government officials alike.

Deep in the deserts that are supposedly Taliban territory, officials and local elders report nighttime drug raids by security forces. Bodies are left behind, but lucrative bags of opium end up disappearing.

“If you send me out in the whole of Helmand right now and say, ‘Jabar, find me a couple good district governors, a few good district police chiefs, a few good directors,’ I can’t find you one in the whole of Helmand. I absolutely can’t,” Mr. Qahraman said. “Even if you appoint these men closest to me, they will turn into wolves — the mentality has turned like that. The bad has become good in the perceptions.”

After a few disastrous months of fighting in Helmand, with the government territory shrinking, a delegation of senior officials recently dispatched by Mr. Ghani found that only about half of the Afghan Army force there on paper was actually on duty. Many troops were missing because of desertion, casualties or corruption, one member of the delegation said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate information.

While acknowledging such problems, Mr. Qahraman said there should be enough forces in Helmand to fight an insurgency that he believes does not number more than 2,000 fighters. The Afghan forces are well supplied, he insisted, calling the modern army’s NATO support “a genetically modified cow that gives good milk” compared with the Soviet support a generation ago, which he called “a skinny cow.”

The problems lie in how the forces are managed, he said, and in corrupt leadership eating up supplies before they reach the units.

“Their only art is that they are mobile,” Mr. Qahraman said about the Taliban. “For us, on the other hand, even preparing the convoys takes days. They have an upper hand — they are locals, they know the terrain, and their load is smaller.”

Still, Mr. Qahraman said he hoped to make a difference in Helmand. He recited a Pashto poem:

“If you keep swimming after it, it will come to your hand / Who says there are no pearls in the sea?”

But Hajji Sharafuddin, 53, a mujahedeen fighter who battled Mr. Qahraman in the 1980s, fears that the former general’s history in Lashkar Gah will continue to repeat itself.

“Tomorrow, you will have another plane come for you,” Hajji Sharafuddin said, “and we will be left here watching.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan

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