Living in a Minefield: Panjwayi after the US Surge
In the words of one local elder, life in Panjwayi resembles living in a minefield. The district just southwest of Kandahar city has been a major arena for the US troop surge that was ordered in 2009 by President Obama dispatching 33,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The surge ended in September this year and was hailed as a success by the US government. But according to Pentagon figures, the district is still among the ten most violent in the country. AANâs Borhan Osman travelled to Panjwayi in late September to look at how the surge changed the situation. He found that it did not help to stabilise the area and, in some parts of the district, even has backfired.
Panjwayi seems to be a land from which mines grow: Booby traps are attached to everything people plant in Panjwayi: pomegranate trees, grape vines and tomato bushes. They dot theÂ alfalfa(lucerne) fields, grown as food for the animals, and keep the locals indoors. They were installed by the Taleban and the US forces often remove them by harvesting both the IEDs and the plants. A Taleban-imposed night curfew is in place in this district just at the gates of Kandahar from 7 pm to 8 am. Those who could afford to have fled their homes, and the remaining ones find themselves caught in a situation they describe by saying, âWe live by luck only.â
Panjwayi â a district stretching from Kandahar cityâs outskirts southwest all the way to the border with Helmand province, and one of the most fertile areas in Kandahar province â first became internationally known in 2006. The Taleban had dug in there, and the allied troops feared they might use it as a springboard for an attack to take over Kandahar city. A major operation led by Canadian forces to prevent this centred on the district and resulted in the famous Battle of Panjwayi, during Operations Medusa and Zahar. The Canadian troops fought their fiercest battles there, suffering a significant number of their total 154 casualties in this area. But Panjwayi belonged to the Taleban movementâs heartland when it emerged in the mid-1990s. It was in Panjwayi that Mulla Omar started his Taleban campaign in 1994 and where he had earlier fought in the anti-Soviet jihad. Other key leaders of the Taleban movement also come from Panjwayi, including its former defence minister, Mulla Obaidullah; its treasurer, Mulla Akhtar Muhammad Osmani; its first chief commander, late Mulla Borjan; and its former ambassador, Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef.(1)
US troops, who had already held âcombat responsibilityâ (but no permanent bases) in Panjwayi before 2006, started flooding into the district in early 2009. It became one focus of the US surge that started in 2010 as part of President Obamaâs exit strategy.(2) The US troops took over completely from the Canadians in early July 2011 when the latter completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Panjwayi again was at the core of international news in March this year when a rogue US soldierÂ massacredÂ 16 Afghans. (Local people still believe he was not alone.)
Now, that the surge has been officially declared over in Afghanistanâs south, Panjwayi remains one of the three most insecure districts of Kandahar and among the 10 most dangerous districts in the whole country, according to informationÂ obtained by US mediaÂ from the Pentagon. And the anti-IED operations of the US forces have done a lot of damage to local property.
In late September, a handful of grey-bearded elders was sitting in the district governorâs office and chatting about the previous dayâs cricket match; they all agreed in wishing that Pakistan had lost the game. They had convened for the District Community Council that brings together 41 elders every Sunday. The floor of the office, located inside what is called a âcivil-military facilityâ, guarded by both Afghan and US forces, was covered with red mattresses and pillows to the walls (it reminded me of the Taleban Emirateâs era; the only difference was a new black 28-inch TV on a small wooden table near the door). Soon the discussion turned back to one of the recent cases of destruction. Jan Muhammad, 68, a short thin man with a stoop from Sperwan area briefed the district chief Haji Fazal Muhammad and the District Community Council (DCC) members about the bulldozing by US troops of a 2,500-tree orchard that belonged to Haji Saifullah, a local resident. All 2,500 pomegranate trees in his garden were destroyed by the US military, he said, because it was used by the Taleban for mounting attacks on US and Afghan forces.
Haji Nek Muhammad, a DCC member from Sperwan, followed up. âNow, they [the Americans] plan to do the same in Sperwan as they did in other areas such as Do Ab, Mushan, Zangabad and Talokan,â he said, referring to wider destruction of grape and pomegranate orchards in the four areas which are known among foreign forces as the âHorn of Panjwayiâ. âIf they have brought security by that trick to those areas, they can do it in here, too,â Nek Muhammad lamented with some bitter irony.(3)
On a separate occasion, Haji Saifullah, a former governor of Maiwand district (2006â07) where his property had been destroyed by the Taleban, said he lost a ready-for-harvest pomegranate crop worth USD 150,000. He told AAN, âIt had been ten years now that I planted 2,500 pomegranate trees and had intensively looked after it spending a lot of money. Finally, this year, I had a fully-grown orchard containing 120 metric tonnes of pomegranates that was worth USD 150,000. I had prepared 12,000 cartons with USAIDâs assistance for packing and exporting the pomegranates to Europe. On the morning of 19 September, my tenant called me, screaming on the phone. I asked him, âwhat happened?â and he said the Americans had destroyed the whole orchard with bulldozers and heavy-chain tanks.â When asked why the trees were uprooted, Saifullah said, âThe Americans have told my brother that their spy balloons could not see Taleban through the dense trees.â According to Saifullah, the Taleban, for their part, had earlier destroyed his vineyard of 5,000 vines in the Hasan Jan Karez area of Maiwand district because of his relations with the government.
The destruction of orchards comes in two ways. Most often they are bulldozed because they âpose a threatâ to US and Afghan troops, as in Saifullahâs case. In other cases, and less frequently, they are bulldozed for what the foreign forces say is road-building. In the words of Nek Muhammad the levelling is often not followed by real road-building; but the land is taken out of the landownerâs use in most cases. âAround two months agoâ, he told AAN, âforeign forces started bulldozing 15 to 20 orchards east of the Sperwan military base. They flattened a large area from the asphalted road towards Haji Salam Khan village. It has no destination, as it did not reach that village, and ends midway among the orchards.â Since there are already sufficient regular roads built recently or in the past in the area, Nek Muhammad concluded that the bulldozing was âa bizarre excuse for destroying propertyâ.
A presidentially-appointed commission in early 2011 found that the material damage suffered by civilians during a single operation in the three districts of Panjwayi, Zhari and Maiwand in the previous year had caused an estimatedÂ property lossÂ of USD 100 million. The commissionâs head, Muhammad Seddiq Aziz, said, âOur investigations showed that from 800 to 900 houses were destroyed besides crops and fields and more than 100,000 fertile and non-fertile trees in three districts.â(4) Such destruction has been done more widely in Zhari district, namely in its most volatile area of Pashmol where residents talking to AAN put the rate of destruction very high, around 60 per cent of all the trees and grape vines. This trend started in 2009 as US and Canadian troops went on a campaign to destroy the Talebanâs so-called IED cells and bomb-making factories in Panjwayi and Zhari, and it has spread widely since then, according to the residents of the two districts. The residents also said that victims of the destruction have been compensated with money in a few cases in both districts, but were not compensated in most of the cases, especially in the past two years.
The destruction of orchards by foreign troops is only one side of the suffering for residents in Panjwayi, some of whom have lost their main livelihoods as a result of it. The other side is that Taleban IEDs which are found âeverywhereâ, according to a DCC member, Haji Ahmad Khan, take peopleâs lives regularly. âThe Taleban are inflicting on peopleâs lives and the Americans on their properties,â a frustrated Kandahar-based businessman told AAN. He had left his 12,000- grape vine orchard back in Zangabad (locals pronounce it âZangawatâ, under this name it also comes up in the media sometimes), Panjwayiâs most populous and most fertile cluster of villages told AAN. The 43-years-old businessman, who wished to remain anonymous due to complex security reasons, counted 90 people killed over the past five years only in his village, which also goes under the name of Zangabad and which has 150 homes. Most of them have been killed by the IEDs, the rest in home raids, military offensives and bombings by Western forces. âMore than half of the population [of Zangabad] have abandoned their homes, farms and orchards and are displaced to other safer areas,â he said.
These formerly âsaferâ areas, such as Sperwan and Panjwayiâs district centre (except Kandahar city), have also been turning volatile despite the presence of multiple Afghan and US military and security facilities in Panjwayi Bazaar. IEDs have killed about a dozen police and several civilians there from mid-August to mid-September, according to the district chief, Haji Fazal Muhammad.
The picture of life in Panjwayi as presented in interviews by AAN with about a dozen residents supported the impression shared by local journalists in Kandahar city before I travelled to the district centre, namely that major parts of Panjwayi are virtual minefields where only the poorest people, who cannot afford to flee, continue to live. The Talebanâs bombs have become their prime concern, the major news and a normal, but fatal, part of their lives. The Taleban of every area have their own experts for placing IEDs, connecting and disconnecting them from the fuse and â if not needed anymore â taking them out. At night, they connect all the bombs which are placed on main unpaved roads and paths that lead through the farms, orchards and even around the mud houses of the people, so if Afghan or American troops come to the area, they will be blown up. People are not allowed to take their patients to hospitals during the night. At 8 am, the bomb experts come to disconnect the IEDs again. For their movements during the day, every villager is informed about the locations of the bombs. But that does not mean that casualties are avoided among locals. The Taleban themselves sometimes forget the mined locations and do not care much to point out all the locations to all the villagers.
Because tracks and unpaved footpaths, even inside orchards, are all mined, merchants and market agents are prevented from travelling to many volatile parts of Panjwayi and from taking fruit to the markets, Haji Mahmud, head of Panjwayiâs district community council said. The people of the countryside – de watan khalk as Kandaharis call them â have the grapes and pomegranates as their only way of earning a livelihood. If these orchards are destroyed, their lives are destroyed. Or, in the words of Haji Shahzada, a tribal elder and former jihadi commander, the orchards and trees are âas water for a fish; if you deprive him of water, he diesâ. And he added, âThe Kandaharis are dying twice now: once by destruction of their livelihood and next by the mines.â
(1) He is rendering his youth in his bookÂ My Life with the Taleban.
(2) Major military offensives were Operation Bawar (âTrustâ) and Operation Hamkari (âCooperationâ) in late 2010 by joint Afghan, US and Canadian forces. The much-hyped Operation Omid (âHopeâ) in summer 2010 and led by the US military particularly stood out as it stirred controversy between the central government and US/NATO troops over the property losses experienced by civilians.
(3) Earlier reports about destruction caused by US troops came in early 2011 and can be readÂ hereÂ andÂ here. In March the same year, theÂ Los Angeles TimesÂ carriedÂ a reportÂ about a destroyed village rebuilt by US forces. AAN commented on itÂ here. And a photo gallery âDestroying to Save Livesâ can be viewedÂ here.
(4) According to a report on similar destruction in Zhari by theÂ Global Postin 2010,Â reprintedÂ by CBS. President Karzaiâs concerns about the issue are reportedÂ here. UNAMAâs 2010 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict can be readÂ here, see particularly see pp 52â3.) It also reported âsubstantial property destructionâ during the military operations by ISAF and Afghan forces that year. It reads:
There are numerous reports from elders and others that many houses were destroyed to dispose of IEDs and to improve the defenses of ISAF and ANSF bases; that military vehicles drove off roads to avoid IEDs but destroyed walls, gardens, and irrigation systems in the process; that buildings used for drying grapes were destroyed to prevent their use as fortifications; and that buildings, homes, land, trees and crops were destroyed, purportedly to allow ISAF forces to establish check posts and build additional roads where ISAF was unwilling to use existing roads for security reasons. Reportedly these operations were conducted without prior consultation with elders or owners of the land. Panjwayi and Zhari districts were the worst affected, but there was also significant destruction of property in Arghandab and Dand.