Helmand’s new Taliban governor, who spent years as a commander fighting the British in Sangin, greets visitors with an assault rifle resting on his desk. Yet he insists that the time for fighting is over.
He has a message for the British and the rest of NATO: recognize the Taliban as the rightful rulers of Afghanistan, then come back, but with money, not weapons.
“We faced each other in combat, we didn’t get to know each other in normal times,” said Talib Mawlawi, a native of Helmand who fought for the Taliban when the group first controlled Afghanistan. “Now you can win our hearts and make us happy if you recognize this government. “
Now that the Taliban have taken control of Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand, the fighting has ceased for the first time in two decades. The vast majority of the 457 British soldiers who died in the long war perished here in this province, as they fought to keep the Taliban at bay.
Like most of Afghanistan, however, Helmand is on the brink of economic collapse. And like Taliban officials across the country, its governor is calling on foreign governments to help close the gap.
“All these foreign countries invaded and killed our women, our children and our old people, and destroyed everything,” he said. Now the international community must help us with humanitarian aid and focus on the development of education, business and trade. “
“The international community helps countries that have the support of their civilians. We have provided security and we have the support of our people, so they should help us and recognize our government. “
The extraordinary appeal, from a man who was once the archenemy of British troops in the province, shows how much the landscape has changed since the withdrawal of foreign troops, and now that the group is faced with the task of leading the war-torn country. country.
Government salaries have not been paid for several weeks, straddling the last month of the old rule and the first month of the new one. Many people who worked for foreign NGOs have fled or their projects have come to a standstill, restaurants are half-empty and business in shops is slow.
A big question hanging over the prospect of foreign aid is whether women will be able to work and study. Before the Taliban took over all of Afghanistan, the signs of the Helmand areas they already controlled, like Sangin, were bleak, with no education for girls.
But with leadership changed or adapted to international opinion and the cost of denying all girls an education, primary schools across the country have been ordered to reopen. Lashkar Gah does not seem to be an exception; the girls were at their desks in a school that the Guardian unexpectedly visited.
Higher education will also reopen to women, although segregated by gender and with a stricter dress code. “The government advised them not to come as free as before, they should wear the burqa or the Arab hijab.”
It is less clear whether secondary schools would reopen for girls or whether women working outside of health care and education could return to work. Mawlawi said he would follow the central government on these issues. “The ministries still have meetings for this, not yet finished; whatever they say, we will.
He has spent most of the past 20 years fighting for control of Helmand. During this period, the Taliban have been accused of targeting civilians, including one of Helmand’s leading journalists, Elyas Dayee, who was killed by a bomb explosion last fall.
The Taliban denied the attack, but Mawlawi admitted that a few months ago, before settling into the comfortable USAid-funded headquarters in Lashkar Gah, a meeting with a British journalist would have gone very differently.
“I was a commander in Sangin when we were fighting the British,” he said. “We were fighting them only two kilometers away, all the inhabitants of the neighborhood were helping us. They weren’t interested in the presence of the British, ”he said. After Sangin fell under the control of the Taliban, he left to fight in Musa Qala.
He insists that now people can rebuild in peace, people can earn a living. “There have been 20 years of fighting, so it will take some time to get back to normal. “
The security is welcomed by the residents of Lashkar Gah after intense fighting in the provincial capital which destroyed many houses. But people are worried about the economy and whether the Taliban will try to take back their ruthless control over people’s lives.
Samiullah, 26, runs a shop in the Women’s Bazaar, selling jewelry and decorations. “My first question to the British, please recognize our government and give us economic aid.”
He praises the security that “everyone in this town has given to someone, no family has escaped,” he said, but has also heard the stories about the previous Taliban rule, including their checks on everything from beard length to bans on card games. “I hope they won’t interfere in our personal lives.
Parts of the economy have also remained precarious with the collapse of the government. People with links to the British and NGOs – often those with money to spend – fled the country.
Khatera, who has four children, was a widow when her soldier husband was killed in action earlier this year. She started cleaning and doing laundry for some of the city’s wealthier families in order to make a living, but most of her former employers have now fled.
The small perks she received as a military widow also ceased. With no money to pay the rent and no parents to house her, the family sleeps in the bazaar.
“I have no problem with the Taliban, my children need to eat. The last government was recognized by the whole world, now they have to recognize this one so they can help us. “
This is the same message Mawlawi wants to leave. “Our final message for all NATO countries is: we have helped them. They should be grateful that we gave them a chance to leave peacefully, we could have stopped them so they couldn’t leave without a fight. And they should recognize our government.