Their faces concealed with chequered scarves, the Taliban assassins found Haji Zahir Arian sitting on cushions in the living room of a friend’s house. They wasted no time in striking a blow against peace.
The first hitman to enter the small room raised his rifle and loosed off four rounds as Arian, the deputy head of the peace council in Helmand province, lifted his arms to shield himself.
One of the bullets grazed the 59-year-old’s underarm, striking a wall behind him. The other three rounds thudded into his chest, causing his body to convulse against the wall before it slid to the floor.
The Taliban fled, leaving Arian’s friend, Najibullah Popal, trembling with fear as he watched the body ooze blood into the cushions.
Afghan policemen guarding a checkpoint just 100 yards away failed to give chase as the gunmen sped off in a black Toyota Corolla. “Who killed him?” asked Ghulam Farooq, a colleague and close friend of Arian whose uncle was strangled by the Taliban two months ago. “The security forces killed him, by failing to protect him.”
The assassination of Arian on April 23 is one of several attacks in which the Taliban have singled out “soft targets” inside Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, in recent months.
The killings are aimed at destabilising the town as British troops prepare formally to transfer control to Afghan security forces next month. The handover marks the beginning of the end of British and American military engagement in Helmand.
Last week President Barack Obama announced a faster-than-expected withdrawal of American soldiers from Afghanistan: 33,000 to go by September next year.
British, French and other Nato forces are to follow suit despite warnings from senior commanders that pulling out too quickly may allow the Taliban to creep back.
The impact on Nato’s operations remains to be seen. What seems certain is that the handover of security to Afghan forces will be accelerated.
But are the Afghans ready to assume control of towns such as Lashkar Gah? Or are American commanders right to fear that their hard-won gains will be jeopardised by politicians intent on hastening the end of an increasingly costly and unpopular war?
ATTACKS on Lashkar Gah have been intensifying since May 19, when the Taliban launched multiple assaults on Afghan checkpoints before lobbing in rockets. One exploded close to a police station, killing the young daughter of a police commander.
In the ensuing chaos two Taliban gunmen rode into town on the back of a motorcycle and gunned down a policeman. A colleague manning a checkpoint froze in fear and “never fired his weapon”, according to a police official.
A week later Taliban gunmen launched a 30-minute barrage at the compound of Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal. Only when American drones appeared above the Taliban’s position on the far bank of a river did the insurgents flee.
The governor came under attack again days later as he returned from a meeting in Sangin district. It was the first time a Helmand governor had travelled by road to Sangin in eight years.
Two Taliban gunmen hiding in a tree fired a volley of bullets at his armoured car, piercing the engine compartment with 12 rounds.
“I wasn’t too scared,” said Mangal as he recalled how his bodyguards shot and killed the insurgents. “It’s possible it was an inside job but the Taliban had five hours to plan the attack. This is ample time to organise an ambush.”
Earlier this month the Taliban began to lay improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in large numbers in the capital. Some of the bombs are attached to police vehicles. Others are hidden in crates.
As I stood on my hotel rooftop last Monday evening, the large crump of an exploding bomb shook the city. It had been hidden in a wheelbarrow and placed next to the bus terminal. The explosion wounded seven Afghan civilians, some severely.
That morning police discovered another IED six miles to the northwest. Lacking the tools to defuse the bomb conventionally, an Afghan policeman simply shot it.
The Afghan police have only one trained IED expert in Helmand, Captain Khan Mohammed, 51, who volunteered for the job so that his police chief would not lose face in front of his men. “The IEDs are increasing inside the city. The Taliban can’t fight us face to face so they lay mines instead,” he said.
A majority of residents in the bazaar say they are impressed by the police and soldiers who patrol the town’s streets.
“Security has improved over the past two years,” said Sami ul-Haq, 35, a landowner, before angrily recounting how British soldiers raided his uncle’s home two weeks ago, accusing him of sheltering Taliban fighters.
“The police and army look more professional than they were a year ago and they behave with the people — unlike the foreigners. They don’t rely on bad intelligence, like the British and Americans.”
The governor admitted that the police force suffers from corruption and there are concerns about its leader’s level of commitment. When I tried to arrange an interview with Helmand’s police chief, a candid official told me: “The chief goes to sleep for four hours every afternoon and then plays volleyball in the evening.”
There are also doubts that Helmand’s political elite is strong enough to hold out against the Taliban. The links between powerful drug lords, the government and the insurgents remain strong, according to local officials.
The corruption that afflicts most provinces in Afghanistan is still prevalent in Helmand, despite attempts by the governor to sack dishonest officials.
Last week the mayor of Lashkar Gah, who is known simply as Daoud, was sacked for pilfering British and American aid funds, according to local officials.
“He would get money for road projects and the like, give half to a construction company and keep the rest,” said a government official.
The mayor spent $100,000 on his wedding in Kabul, officials said. He flew in 40 friends to the event at a cost of $8,000 alone.
“His official salary is only about $600 a month, so it was obvious that something was wrong,” said an intelligence officer who tracks government corruption.
The former mayor refused to respond to repeated requests for a comment.
HELMAND’S judicial system also suffers from deep-rooted corruption. Three months ago a judge told Malikia Helmandi, a member of the provincial council, that she would have to pay $23,000 to get a woman wrongly accused of murdering her husband released.
Another official recounted how he had to pay $9,000 to prevent his wife being sent to jail. On paying the cash, he was sent a letter absolving her of any blame.
Western aid money has markedly inflated house prices in the city, but only £7,000 has been spent on a Nato-backed scheme to persuade Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons. Most of the cash has been spent on office equipment and staff wages, according to members of the province’s peace council.
In the 18 months since the British government pledged to spend £6m on the programme, only 29 Taliban fighters have agreed to join the peace process in Helmand. Of these, just one has been given a job — unpaid — milking cows. The former insurgent is given free milk that he can sell in the bazaar, peace council officials said.
“So far the government has broken its promises,” said Mullah Maqsud, 23, a former low-level Taliban commander from Marjah district, who was paraded on television and given a pen and a picture book telling him not to grow poppy plants after he joined the peace process four months ago.
“What kind of example is this to others who want to join? The Taliban have tried to kill me and yet I’ve seen no benefits.”
The incentives to stop fighting are meagre compared with the risks that fighters take to join the peace process, officials say. In Sangin, the country’s most violent district, the Taliban killed one of its former commanders for joining the Afghan police.
Commander Amzullah, who brought nine of his men over to the government, passed vital intelligence to marines in Sangin by pointing out the bases of senior Taliban commanders. He was also an expert at defusing the IEDs he once planted to kill British soldiers.
Six weeks ago Amzullah was lured into a Taliban trap. A bomb he had knelt down to defuse exploded in his face, killing him instantly.
Military commanders fear that Obama’s decision to withdraw troops faster than they had hoped will make it harder for the West to combat the drug trade, fight the Taliban and tackle corruption.
The president’s decision to pull 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, followed by a further 23,000 next summer, has led to fears that the military will be too focused on the logistical burden of withdrawing forces to combat the Taliban effectively during the summer fighting season.
By the end of 2014 Nato wants to hand over total control of the country to Afghan security forces. In the meantime British forces in Helmand will gradually cede control of areas under their command to Afghans. Other parts of the country will follow.
American officials in Kabul and the Afghan government are in secret talks that could result in five huge bases remaining in US hands long after the bulk of Nato troops have departed.
“There’s a fear that Nato will disengage completely,” said Colonel Andrew Jackson, the deputy commander of British troops in Helmand. “But we are not going to be out of the door quickly.”
American diplomats are struggling to broker a peace agreement with senior Taliban leaders, but so far talks have yielded little.
“The clock is now ticking. A political settlement will have to be found because the Taliban aren’t just going to disappear,” said a western official.
“I don’t think anyone envisages that by 2014 everything will be solved,” said Michael O’Neill, the head of Helmand’s provincial reconstruction team. “There are significant security threats and huge problems with narcotics but we are making real progress in both these areas.”
For men such as Haji Esanullah, whose 28-year-old son Ashikullah was slaughtered by Taliban insurgents posing as police officers in March, the progress remains fragile.
The Taliban tied Ashikullah, a Sangin policeman, to a bed and bound his feet. Three men then pinned him down on his back, and a fourth severed his neck down to the spine with a cut-throat razor.
“Where is the law and order here?” asked Esanullah, Sangin’s former deputy district governor. “Assassinations like those of my son still continue. IEDs are increasing in the city. It’s hard to see how the police will ever be able to stop this.”