Civilians killed and wounded by Taleban mines
Rebels make Helmand a sea of landmines, targeting military and civilians.
"I hate the world now," said Ismail, standing outside the emergency hospital in Lashkar Gah. "My wife has been killed. I wish that Mullah Omar's wife would also die in this type of explosion."
Gulana, Ismail's wife of just three days, along with her mother and two of her brothers, hit a land mine on election day, August 20. They were bringing their mother from their native village of Zarghon, in Nad Ali district, to the hospital in Lashkar Gah for treatment of a gunshot wound to the chest. All were killed. Three neighbours who were with them also died in the blast.
This is the new face of the war in Helmand, the volatile and violent province in southern Afghanistan that has become the testing ground for the new United States military policy. In early July, 4,000 marines, part of the new contingent of troops approved by President Barack Obama to turn the war around, began a large-scale military offensive called Operation Khanjar (Dagger Thrust), aimed at the southern Helmand river valley. The British, who have been fighting in Helmand for the past three years, were at the time engaged in Operation Panther's Claw, targeting northern Helmand.
Squeezed out of their normal haunts, the Taleban have retaliated by planting thousands of mines and other "improvised explosive devices", IEDs, all over the province, causing numerous casualties to both military and civilian populations. Due in large part to the increase in these homemade devices, August was the deadliest month ever for US troops in Afghanistan, with 51 killed.
"We have changed our tactics," said Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi. "The mujahedin are now being told to plant mines, conduct guerrilla warfare, and increase suicide bombings."
The switch signals a loss of face and fighting spirit, said a former Helmand police officer, who did not want to be named.
"The Taleban have lost their morale," he said. "They can only challenge the foreign forces with these mines. Helmand has become the home of land mines. Many civilians will be killed as well as the military."
Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, who heads the marines in Helmand, told the media that the Taleban had salted the terrain with IEDs. Speaking to reporters in Nawzad district right after the foreign forces gained control of it last month, General Nicholson acknowledged that progress had been slowed because of the explosives.
"If we start clearing the mines from Nawzad right now it will take us eight months to get them all," he said. "If the Taleban put their efforts into reconstruction rather than making devices like these, Helmand would be great by now."
Many of the new crop of IEDs are homemade bombs put together from wooden plates and springs, say experts. They may be crude, but they are nevertheless deadly.
"Most of the damage caused by these mines will be to civilians," said Helmand governor Gulab Mangal. "The military are taking mines out of the land like birds scooping up fish from the water."
In Nawa, just south of the capital Lashkar Gah, more than 100 civilians have been killed in the past two months, according to Afghan officials.
"Every day people are losing loved ones," said Hajji Torkhan, a former provincial council member from Nawa.
He called on the Taleban to stop targeting civilians, and asked the foreign troops to help the civilian population.
"We need a comprehensive plan for de-mining Nawa district," said Torkhan. "The foreign forces should patrol early in the morning, before civilians go out. They have mine detection devices. They can clear the area."
Nafas Khan, the district chief of police, told IWPR that mines and IEDs were the greatest danger to civilians and the military in Nawa.
"The Taleban have been weakened by 60 percent," he said. "But they have become much stronger and more sophisticated in planting mines. We get reports every single day about these things."
To the south of Nawa lies Garmsir, a large district that is also experiencing a surge in IEDs. Last week a family of 21 was wiped out when their vehicle hit a mine.
"This is the Taleban, the enemies of the people," said Daoud Ahmady, spokesman for Helmand's governor. He at first insisted that only five people were killed, not 21, and that they were all women and children. His version, however, was later contradicted by Helmand's chief of police, who confirmed the higher figure.
The mines are causing quite a few problems for the Taleban themselves. According to a Taleban fighter in Marja district, who did not want to be named, many of those who originally laid the mines have either been killed or left the area.
"Our Pakistani friends gave a lot of help and training to the Taleban in Marja," he said. "They planted mines all over the place. But then they got killed or were driven back to Pakistan, so now nobody knows where all the mines are."
In Greshk, to the north of Lashkar Gah, the son of a local Taleban commander was killed when he drove over a mine laid by his father's comrades-in-arms.
"They only found one of his hands," said Mohammad Islam, a resident of the area. "It was Mullah Qudous's son, and he drove over a mine his father had planted on a bridge."
The residents of Nad Ali now call their district "mine alley" and say the roads are empty.
"Nobody walks on the roads, and we don't let out children go outside," said Zainullah Stanekzai, a journalist from Nad Ali.
But on August 25, three children under nine years old were killed in Nahr-e-Saraj district. They had found a mine and were tossing it around like a football. All three were brothers.
"My sons!" sobbed Noor Ahmad. "They thought it was a ball."
Sardar Wali Haqqani, an official at the Italian-funded Emergency Hospital in Lashkar Gah, showed a reporter his hands, stained with blood from transferring the bodies to the emergency room.
"These kids were playing with it," he said in disgust. "With a mine the Taleban had laid for the foreign forces just the night before. The wind had exposed the mine. Now three kids are dead, and four others injured."
Ayub Khan, the deputy police chief in Helmand, admits that the mines have made life tough for the ordinary people and the officials in the province.
"The Taleban have closed all the roads with mines, and they keep themselves inside a belt of mines, so that the Afghan and foreign forces cannot get to them easily," he said. "They want to show that they are strong. But we have the time and the space for this. We will progress, and we will get rid of the Taleban."
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand.
Von: http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/SODA-7VGMSX?OpenDocument, 01.09.2009