Context & Culture

New troops too late for Badghis?


Inactive foreign troops and gross human rights violations with an ethnic bias have made the population of Badghis ‘poor, fed up and completely alienated from the government’, an ideal breeding ground for the Taleban and an eight-fold increase of poppy cultivation. A rare glimpse into one of the most neglected provinces of Afghanistan. By Mònica Bernabé(*)

‘The bodies of a man and two women remained for three days in the middle of the street because no one could collect them due to the fighting’, explained Abdul Wahid in October 2007. He had fled from Bala Murghab district, in the north-west of Badghis province, where clashes between Taleban and the Afghan police were going on. Like him, so many other Afghans –more than 400 families– escaped from that area and looked for shelter in Herat city.

Badghis is the Afghan province for which Spain took responsibility within the ISAF framework. A Spanish PRT is based in the provincial capital Qala-e Now, since May 2005 and has committed to contribute to Badghis’ security and reconstruction with troops and cooperation projects. ‘We patrol in Bala Murghab once per month’, Pedro Rolan, the colonel in charge of the PRT at that time, said in October 2007. This is not too much, but what to do? Bala Murghab is about 70 kilometers from Qala-e Now where the Spanish troops are based, the road was in such a bad conditions that the troops needed more than eight hours to reach the district in the North-west, and Spain only had 225 soldiers in Badghis at that time, a province of about 20,000 square kilometers and half a million habitants. The number of Afghan security forces was also very low, with around 100 soldiers and 600 policemen, 300 of which were based in Qala-e Now.

One year later, in 2008, the Afghan population that had welcomed the Spanish forces in Badghis in 2005, started to blame them. The security situation was getting worse and worse and the Spanish didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. That year, military operations of British and American forces in the south of Afghanistan pushed the Taleban up north, and a lot of them found a perfect shelter in Bala Murghab: a valley with mainly Pashtun population, with no presence of international troops and near to the border of Turkmenistan, where the Taleban, according to the American troops, get supplies from. The Bala Murghab Pashtuns had been the victims of large-scale human rights abuses in 2003, committed by the men of Ismail Khan, a Tajik warlord. Some men were reported beheaded and some women throw themselves into Murghab river in order to avoid to be raped. Ismail Khan’s troops were fighting against Abdul Rashid Dostum’s men – an Uzbek warlord from the northern Jawzjan province – at that time for the control over that area.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and UNAMA had launched two investigations but the Afghan Government never took any action against the perpetrators. Therefore, the Taleban were able to take advantage of a population poor, fed up and completely alienated from the government. Badghis was also the first northern province overrun and held by the Taleban during their rise to power in late 1996. Now it is one the Afghan provinces with a rising opium cultivation. Last year, 5,411 hectares were planted with poppy. This means an 822 per cent increase compared to 2008, according to the latest UNODC report. Most of that poppy is grown in Bala Murghab. ‘Badghis is a Taleban heaven’, Brenden Anderson, an American official in charge of the training of the ANA and ANP in Qala-e Now, summarized the situation in August 2008.

At the beginning of 2009, Norwegian troops took responsibility of the security of Ghormach district, another district of Badghis, further to the north-east of Bala Murghab. Their aim was to stop the spread of the insurgents further up to the north, to Faryab province, where they originally are deployed. Ghormach was not the only district, the Taleban were spreading from Bala Murghab – and nobody was stopping them.

Now, the Americans have a base in Bala Murghab. They control Bala Murghab town and have established Afghan security forces check points around it, but the Taleban dominate still the rest of the district. At the beginning, some Spanish troops were also deployed there, but were soon replaced by Italians. ‘Everybody has left because of the fighting’, the American Major Richard Wade said in June 2009 to justify why very few civilians could be seen in the Bala Murghab bazaar. ‘The Taleban have check points outside the town and force the people to pay if they want to enter’, he added. ANA captain Abbasi Ghazanfar described the brutality of the insurgents: ‘When they capture an Afghan soldier, they take out their eyes first and afterward behead him. Only those soldiers who are Pashtuns have a chance to save their lives.’ Every evening, the mobile phones stop working at six o’clock in Bala Murghab. The insurgents force the companies to disconnect the antennas. And in last summer, they were attacking the American base almost every night.

At the end of last year, Spain decided to increase the number of its forces in Afghanistan, sending 511 extra soldiers. Most of them will go to Badghis. The deployment will start this month. It might be too late now, however.

(*) Mònica Bernabé is a freelance journalist from Barcelona (Spain) working mainly for El Mundo daily as well as the founder and director of the Association for the Human Rights in Afghanistan (ASDHA) (www.afgancat.org). She is based in Afghanistan since 2007 and has been to Badghis six times (August 2006, October 2007, August 2008, and March, June and July 2009). See her blog (in Spanish) on her stay there here and a video here.

Photo: Mònica Bernabé

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Rights & Freedoms, Turkmenistan