Connect to share and comment

What comes after Marjah?

As the wave of US-led Operation Moshtarak sweeps through Marjah, Afghanistan, local tribal leaders are scrapping for the spoils sure to follow.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai talks to locals March 7, 2010, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Karzai heard a litany of complaints from residents of Marjah, the town in the south that thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan troops just seized from the Taliban. Karzai promised better security for the former Taliban stronghold after complaints of corruption, looting and arrests were reported. (Dusan Vranic-Pool/Getty Images)

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.