What comes after Marjah?

LASHKAR GAH, Helmand — If nothing else, Marjah tribal leader Alishah Mazlumyar is a man of remarkable contradictions.

“I am a little bit of a writer, a little bit of a poet, a little bit of a politician,” said Mazlumyar, who also happens to be the head of Helmand’s Department of Information and Culture. “And I have a Kalashnikov under my desk.”

The tall, burly, turbaned Mazlumyar has an open, friendly face, with a broad grin cutting a white swath in his dark, heavily bearded face. He is a prominent and highly controversial figure — hence the Kalashnikov.

He is also a symbol of the complexities and contradictions that might still short-circuit attempts by the Afghan government and the international community to stabilize Marjah, and, with it, the rest of Helmand.

Mazlumyar is a khan, or major land-owner, backed by the powerful Achekzai tribe.

“I am not a simple man,” he says modestly.

But the khans have been playing a dicey double game with the government and the Taliban for quite some time.

Land in Helmand means poppy, and the riches that it produces. This one province alone is the largest producer of opium poppy on the planet, furnishing more than half of the world’s raw material for heroin.

Drugs and instability go hand in hand. The Taliban protect poppy fields, accompany drugs to the border and make sure the police get nowhere near the opium bazaars that flourish in the spring. Once the government establishes control over an area, poppy eradication and arrests of drug lords inevitably follow.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Marjah, which had served as the main opium bazaar and heroin processing center for Helmand. The governor is determined to root out drugs and corruption — and the landowners stand to lose quite a bit if he succeeds.

Therefore, the powerful men of Marjah are caught between their professed allegiance to the government and their marriage of convenience with the Taliban.

“There is a bond [between drug smugglers and the Taliban],” said Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal. “This is normal. It is a business, and they have common interests. In areas under the control of the government there is no poppy.”

Mazlumyar heatedly denies that he has drug interests in his native Marjah, but at a recent shura, or council, during President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Helmand, the local population denounced him as corrupt and cruel.

“We do not want people like this Mazlumyar,” said one tribal elder. “He took all the poppy money for himself.”

Mazlumyar, not surprisingly, rejects the accusation.

“These were not tribal elders,” he snorted. “They were a collection of shoemakers and terrorists.”

Aside from its now endangered poppy culture, Marjah is a fairly insignificant piece of land not far from the capital, Lashkar Gah. But Operation Moshtarak, the largest and most widely advertised offensive of the war to date, has vaulted it to prominence.

“The eyes of the world are on Marjah,” said Governor Mangal, with some satisfaction.

Operation Moshtarak is supposed to bring a tsunami of assistance money in its wake, and there has been fierce jockeying for position among Marjah’s local khans. Each felt that he should be the one to lead Marjah out of the crisis.

The crown eventually went to an outsider — a native of Helmand who spent more than 15 years in Germany, nearly five of them, according to media reports, in prison for assault.

But Haji’s Zahir’s conviction for stabbing his stepson has not dimmed his luster in the eyes of his constituency.

“He is a good man,” said Mohammad Iliyas Dayee, a prominent Helmandi journalist. “These are internal family matters, and should not affect his status.”

One reason Haji Zahir has had such an easy time of winning over the locals, say many, is the violent dislike many residents of Marjah feel for the former rulers of the area — men like Mazlumyar.

“Boys could not leave the house without fear of being kidnapped [when he was in charge],” said one resident. “People had their lands extorted. He is a bad man.”

“Nonsense,” snapped Mazlumyar. “Show me one family where a boy has been kidnapped.”

No one took him up on his offer.

But Mazlumyar cannot be counted out, despite his unpopularity in his native district. He was appointed to his post as head of Helmand’s Department of Information and Culture by the president himself, and he retains close ties to the central government.

“Karzai told me after the shura that he did not believe those people,” said Mazlumyar. “ He said he knew it was just a plot against me.”

Mazlumyar also has close relations with other tribal leaders, powerful men who have little love for Governor Mangal and his reformist ways. They stand to lose power, position and money if the governor is able to push through his anti-poppy, anti-corruption, populist measures.

Mangal may be battling the central government as well. President Hamid Karzai, during a contentious meeting with Marjah elders, reportedly told them that their poppy would be protected this year. The fields are nearly ready for harvest, and Karzai told them they had been through enough.

The governor’s spokesman, Dawood Ahmadi, confirms that Karzai did make the statement.

“But it was just verbal promises, we have nothing in writing,” he said. “We will begin eradication poppy in Marjah within the next two weeks.”

This is unlikely to win them many friends in a district where poppy was the major industry. And Mangal will need a lot of friends if he is to retain control of Marjah.

Despite the Afghan flag that flies over the Marjah district center, the district could still pose serious problems for the Afghan and foreign forces that are now patrolling its mine-strewn streets.

“The Taliban are building their nests again,” said Dayee. “They are lying in wait in houses, with their guns and their explosives. They go out at night to shoot foreign forces and plant mines, then they are quiet during the day.”

Haji Zahir, the district governor, shares this worry.

“If the Afghan and foreign forces do not start a clearance operation soon then there is a possibility that the situation will spiral out of control,” he said.

In Marjah, the locals certainly seem to feel the strain.

“I have not been as terrified for the past 20 years as I am now,” said Haji Toza Gul Rahimzai, a local elder. “You do not know who is an enemy and who is a friend. The Americans are slow, and this gives the Taliban heart. They come out of their houses and meet each other and make plans.”

The foreign forces are being restrained in their house-to-house searches, in large part due to the new counterinsurgency strategy of General Stanley McChrystal, who has put his hearts and minds campaign firmly front and center. But the tactic may backfire in Marjah, as it gives the insurgents time and room in which to maneuver.

“They have not cleared Marjah,” said Dost Mohammad, a Marjah resident who wore a black turban and glanced nervously around as he spoke. “You cannot see the Taliban; they are not visible. But their structure and their communication with their leaders are still in place. They change their tactics every day. At night they come out and plant mines, and the next day the foreigners arrest civilians.”

There is a small window of time in which to convince the skeptical residents that the foreign forces will stay long enough to stabilize the situation, that the Afghan police will be able to contain the Taliban and that they will be safe if they cast their lot with the government.

But residents are losing faith by the day. When Karzai visited Marjah on March 7, he had a decent turnout of tribal elders. But after he left two of the attendees were beheaded.

“Nobody wants to face the sharp knives of the Taliban,” said one local leader.

The fear on people’s faces is palpable.

“The Taliban walk around during the day with no guns,” said Janat Gul Aka, a resident of the Hashtiyan area of Marjah. “But they are warning us with their eyes. They look at us as if to say ‘just wait, the night is coming.’”