It was late November, 2001, and the Taliban were on the run everywhere in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance had captured Kabul and much of the rest of the country; only parts of the southwest—including the province of Helmand, remained in the Taliban’s hands. In Marjah, a quiet market town near the Helmand desert, the dying Taliban were making a last stand against a local tribal commander named Abdur Rahman Jan. The battle lasted for nearly two days, and many reinforcements came from the surrounding areas. But the Taliban, beleaguered around the country and bereft of public support, soon succumbed; Jan’s force overran Marjah and the Taliban fled in disgrace.
Jan went on to become Helmand’s police chief under the new government of Hamid Karzai. His close friend Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, a strongman with deep pockets and roots in the area, became the governor. The two quickly populated the seats of local government with their friends, family members and those from their tribes. The local government revenues became part of their personal piggy bank, locals say, and they became heavily involved in the opium business. They marginalized other tribes, destroyed the poppy fields of rivals, took bribes and kickbacks for government contracts and filled the ranks of the police with hated former mujahedeen commanders. One resident of Marjah told me, “The police were the biggest criminals. We were more afraid of them than of anyone else.”
By 2006 Akhundzada, Jan and others were removed, but much damage had been done. The Taliban were returning to many parts of Helmand, and establishing a shadow administration to undertake the basic tasks that the Helmand government had failed at, such as having a police force that did not steal from the local population. Jan and Akhundzada, away from the prying national and international eyes (Coalition Forces had once found nearly nine tons of opium in Akhundzada’s office), turned to their thriving drug business.
One day in August in 2008, the Afghan National Police in Marjah abandoned their posts. The Taliban promptly took complete control of the area. No one seems to know exactly why the police left, but many Marjah residents point the finger at none other than Abdur Rahman Jan—the very person who had ousted the Taliban in the first place. These officials say that Jan encouraged police to leave because a Taliban administration, which in this part of the country facilitated opium production and smuggling, would bring better profits.
Three weeks into the much-publicized U.S. offensive in Marjah, the Afghan flag has been hoisted atop the town center and the allies are beginning to declare a resounding victory. But as Helmand’s history shows, ultimate success will not be measured in martial terms, but political ones. I first became interested in Marjah two years ago, when I befriended a number of villagers there while on a trip through southern Afghanistan. By then Marjah was already under the Taliban’s firm control, and my contact with them provided me a rare glimpse of life under the Taliban.
Many Marjah residents say that the two years of Taliban rule were better than the six years of Afghan government rule that preceded it. The Taliban ruling apparatus was not sophisticated, but for the rugged, simple town of Marjah it met the bare-minimum requirements. This was not necessarily a positive appraisal of the Taliban; rather it was an indictment of the Afghan government and its Western backers.
According to locals, the Taliban administration in Marjah had three basic functions: it collected taxes, undertook repair work (such as building irrigation canals) and ran a makeshift police and court system. And of equal importance, there were certain things it did not do, such as interdict the local opium economy (the main source of income for many residents there).
The Taliban were comprised of three elements—homegrown fighters and commanders, high-ranking commanders who used the area as a hideout or staging ground for attacks elsewhere, and foreign militants. The local Taliban in particular were intertwined in the opium economy—family members grew the crop and many were involved in smuggling.
The Taliban’s protection of the drug economy—which many in Marjah are involved in—and the provision of rudimentary services (judiciary, policing, and some development) won them support from the local population. As one Marjah resident told me:
The Taliban leave us alone. They are Islamic and they provide security in our area. We can grow all produce here without being bothered by the government. We are afraid that when the Americans come, they will start putting more regulations and there will be more corruption. We don’t want to harm other people, we just want to be left alone.
After the offensive, another resident, who owns a poppy farm, says:
The Taliban have been here for years. They are much better than the police, who are like criminals. If anyone was caught stealing anything, the Taliban would punish him. They allowed us to grow poppies and did not bother the people.
Of course, not everyone supported the Taliban. The presence of foreign fighters, in particular, bristled many. One elder recently told me:
There are good Taliban and bad Taliban. The bad ones are like an achar [a pickle dish made with a variety of ingredients]. There are Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, [it seemed like] everybody in the world [was in Marjah]. They respect no one. They are our oppressors.
As Coalition Forces install a new Afghan government in Marjah they would do well to learn from town’s recent history. Locals tell me that none other than Abdur Rahman Jan has been angling for position in the new administration. Meanwhile the man that the Coalition Forces have picked to be mayor of Marjah—and balance Jan’s influence—is Hajji Abdul Zahir, who has lived in Germany for the last 15 years. And Western and Afghan officials are already talking about eradicating Marjah’s many poppy fields, possibly destroying poor farmers’ livelihood and giving the Taliban propaganda machine a major boost.
The battle for Marjah is far from over—it will instead be decided in the next months and years. If a predatory Afghan government or corrupt Afghan police force return, if poppy fields are eradicated with no profitable alternative on offer, or if the town becomes a drawn-out battle ground between Coalition Forces and insurgents, the people of Marjah may one day choose the stability of Taliban rule once again.