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Tribal Leaders Oppose Creating A Safe Zone For Taliban Talks In Southern Afghanistan


Afghan soldiers pose for a group photo during a patrol in Helmand province on February 14.

One of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces is rife with speculations that Kabul is on the cusp of relinquishing large swaths of the region into Taliban control to create a future venue for direct peace talks with the insurgents.

But lawmakers and tribal leaders in Helmand, Afghanistan's largest province, oppose such a proposal and liken it to a de facto partition of their homeland.

The controversy over Helmand's fate has intensified at a time when Kabul and the Afghan insurgents are expected to participate in rare direct talks, slotted to begin in Pakistan this week. China and the United States are backing the talks, which aim to bring the decade-old Afghan war to an end through a negotiated settlement.

The mood in Helmand, however, is deeply skeptical. Karmi Atal heads Helmand's provincial council and says Helmand's residents, politicians, and tribal leaders will oppose and even fight against plans, which will recognize or encourage insurgent control over parts of Helmand.

"We want to clearly tell the [the current Taliban leader] Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, his rival Mullah Ghulam Rasool, the Afghan defense and interior ministers, and even the Afghan president that they do not own our land," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "Our land belongs to all Afghans so only they have the right to decide its future. Government representatives and their opponents cannot be allowed to make deals over its fate."

Earlier in February, Afghan forces abandoned bases in northern Helmand's strategic Musa Qala and Nawzad districts. Mohammad Moeen Faqir, an Afghan Army commander in the region, says troops were being pulled back from the region to reinforce forces in Gereshk.

The dusty agricultural town straddles the main Highway One, which links the Afghan capital Kabul to the southern and western provinces. Some of the 1,500 soldiers were also deployed to reinforce defenses around the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

The Taliban have made significant gains in Helmand after launching their biggest offensive last year following the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Helmand, where most of the world's opium is grown, is seen as a traditional recruiting ground for the Taliban. The insurgents now control or contest 11 of the region's 15 districts. During the past year, the Taliban added the districts of Nawzad, Musa Qalah, and Nawmish to the Dishu and Baghran districts they already controlled. The Taliban and Afghan forces are now fighting over Nad-e Ali, Kajaki, Marjah, Khan-e Nashin, Sangin, and Nahr-e Saraj districts.

If the government cedes these contested districts to the Taliban, the insurgents will rule most of Helmand, a territory roughly the size of Switzerland.

Haji Shahabuddin, a tribal leader in Kajaki, accused the government of betrayal if it hands over the region to the insurgents. He says that years of their sacrifices in preventing the Taliban from taking over the district are now likely to be wasted.

"Some 200 families of our police forces are now being besieged in Kajaki," he said. "Just imagine that our brave soldiers are standing up to the enemy despite being not paid for three months."

Former communist general and lawmaker Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, the 'operational commander' of all Afghan forces in Helmand, vehemently denied contemplating giving away to territories to the Taliban. He says the recent withdrawals from Musa Qala and Nawzad are tactical.

"The violence levels have dropped. Sometimes there is no fighting for a whole 24 hours," he said. "You will see that not only will we reclaim these territories but will also push out the insurgents from most regions in the province. Tactical withdrawals are part of the game in most wars."

Rauf Meherpur, a Helmand-based commentator, says Kabul still needs to sell its peace plan to the Afghan public.

"Everyone wants to have peace, but they want greater transparency in peace talks," he said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Marjah, Helmand.

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