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Former Communist 'Hero' To Lead Fight Against Taliban In Restive Afghan Province

Abdul Jabbar Qahraman surrounded by senior officers of the Afghan army.
Abdul Jabbar Qahraman surrounded by senior officers of the Afghan army.

NAD-E ALI, Afghanistan -- The man who relentlessly criticized Afghan security forces for failing to contain the biggest Taliban offensive in a decade is now tasked with utilizing his military prowess against the insurgents in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces.

Lawmaker Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, 56, is back in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, where the Taliban overran large swathes of territory last year. In December even senior Helmand officials warned of a "rapid Taliban advance" in the largest Afghan province, which borders Pakistan and is close to Iran.

Days after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appointed former Lieutenant General Qahraman as the 'operational commander' of all Afghan forces in Helmand, on January 27 he promised officers and soldiers the implementation of a robust system of rewards and punishments.

"People of Helmand, I promise you that I will take away the uniform of a general if he fails to serve [and protect] you," he told villagers during a surprise midnight visit in the rural Nad-e Ali district, where Afghan forces often fight tough battles against the Taliban. "I also promise to even recommend soldiers to become general if they perform their duties."

Qahraman says President Ashraf Ghani has tasked him with implementing rewards and punishments without fear or favor. "Even if I serve for one day, I will enforce these rules," he promised.

The Taliban have combined conventional gun battles with ambushes, suicide bombings, and roadside bombs to capture large swathes of Helmand after launching a multi-pronged offensive last spring. Helmand is the epicenter of global poppy cultivation and drug trafficking.

Lack of coordination, personal rivalries, and endemic corruption among government forces consisting of national and local police and the Afghan National Army have helped the Taliban offensive in Helmand. During the Taliban stint in power in the 1990s, the region provided a large number of foot soldiers to the hard-line movement, and its illicit drug trade filled their war chest.

Qahramn says he's determined to change that. "I intend to visit every trench and security post from Deshu [district in the south] to Musa Qala [district in the north]. I will listen to every soldier and officer and will order the authorities to resolve their problems," he vowed. "I am capable of carrying out what I am promising."

Qahraman, Pashto for 'hero', was the title Abdul Jabbar won from Afghanistan's communist regime for leading some of the most successful campaigns against anti-Soviet mujahedin guerillas in southern Afghanistan in the 1980s. He also participated in the ensuing civil war after the collapse of the Afghan communist regime in 1992.

He remained in exile during Taliban rule and returned to the political limelight after winning a seat in the lower house of parliament in 2005. He was re-elected in 2010 and became a firebrand political commentator, often dominating nighttime Afghan television talk shows by invoking patriotism, discipline and transparency.

"We have enough forces, but leadership is the real issue," he recently said.