The Talib who turned

February 19, 2008

There was little in the dismal reception room to dispel the all-pervading cold of the snow outside. Mice scurried among the relics of half-eaten food on plates scattered around an unlit wood-burning stove. Apart from a few blankets and a couple of kalashnikovs the space was bare. Perhaps I had expected finer trappings for Musa Qala’s new governor.

Mullah Salaam was, after all, the Talib who turned; the insurgent commander whose promise of defection resulted in a battle, of sorts, for the town and Britain’s most tangible victory in Helmand to date.

But as he told his story, kicking off his silver-sequinned, curl-toed sandles to reveal an impressively dyed set of toe-nails, it was clear that the legend behind Mullah Salaam’s ascent to power was rather grander than the reality.

Nevertheless, it remained a classic Afghan tale of treachery, bloodshed, farce and fate which exemplified both the finest traditions of hill-station intrigue as well as the murky undercurrents of Helmand’s political scene.

Mullah Salaam had indeed served the Taliban, but had long since laid down his arms when he first met Michael Semple in Kabul just over a year ago. Semple, a veteran Irish diplomat with unrivalled experience in Afghanistan, was serving in the country as an EU diplomat.

But he was also working on a project central to the British strategy to divide the Taliban through covert negotiations with biddable elements. Salaam had something to offer.

The 45 year old Afghan had left the Taliban in 2001 after the collapse of the fundamentalist regime.  Imprisoned for eight months by Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, the infamous governor of Helmand appointed by President Karzai, he was released from jail in 2002 and returned to his home in Shakahraz, 15 kilometres east of Musa Qala.

Disaffected with Karzai’s representatives in Helmand, he was also disillusioned by the neo-Taliban who seized Musa Qala in 2006. Two of the leading Taliban commanders were from rival Alizai sub-clans to Salaam’s own, a situation antagonised by existing tribal disputes.

This status, combined with his knowledge of the Taliban and his own tribal powerbase, led him to identify himself to Semple and Karzai as a useful behind-the-lines ally. After a series of meetings in Kabul in 2007 he returned to Musa Qala, by then something of a Taliban sanctuary, where contact was retained with him through British and Afghan intelligence handlers.

Last autumn Salaam travelled again to Kabul for a further meeting with Karzai. He captured the Afghan president’s imagination with the promise of a tribal uprising against the Taliban. Karzai was not the only one tempted by the possibility of having Musa Qala delivered into government hands with barely a shot fired. The idea led to a war cabinet in Kabul which included the British and American ambassadors and ISAF commander General Dan McNeill.

The result was Operation Mar Karadad, an ambitious plan to take control of Musa Qala on the back of Mullah Salaam’s tribal uprising. There was just one hitch. There was no uprising.

Far from leading a rebellion against the Taliban, as Afghan, British and American units closed upon Musa Qala last December, Mullah Salaam remained holed-up in his compound in Shakahraz with a small cortege of fighters.

From there he made increasingly desperate pleas for assistance both to Karzai, an Afghan General acting as an interlocutor for British intelligence officers, and Michael Semple. The authorities in Kabul were at first dismayed, then angered.

“He said that he would bring all the tribes with him but they never materialised,” recalled one British officer. “Instead all that happened was a series of increasingly fraught and frantic calls from him for help to Karzai. He was seen a sideshow after COMISAF made the decision to move upon Musa Qala and he hadn’t come up with the goods.”

The British had promised Salaam protection and in the newest twist, as NATO and ANA troops advanced towards the town an Afghan militia force was transported in British armoured vehicles to Mullah Salaam’s village as a guard force.

To British annoyance Mullah Salaam rejected the force, claiming it was not heavily enough armed. So the militia were transported back to Lashkar Gar. Then Salaam changed his mind. This time dressed in police uniforms, the unit eventually succeeded in making it back to Shakahraz and securing Mullah Salaam’s compound.

Meanwhile the Taliban fled Musa Qala anyway. Unsettled by the size of the forces deployed against them they gave little fight. Total allied fatalities were one British soldier killed by a mine during the advance and an American killed in a gun battle. The ANA, who entered Musa Qala to find it empty, lost not a single man, and Taliban casualties were estimated to be in the dozens rather than hundreds.

With Mullah Salaam still bogeyed up in his compound to the east, the British set about trying to find a governor for the district by facilitating a series of local shurahs. Apart from a leading narco-dealer there were few volunteers. But on 24th December Mullah Salaam came back to town. He appeared in Musa Qala utterly alone, but wished to address a shurah.

“It was the first time we had heard Mullah Salaam speak,” a British officer recalled, “and he spoke bloody well. In fact he dominated the whole show. He gave the government message: anti-Taliban, counter-narcotics, interspersed with Qoranic verses. He came across as an accomplished politician, far away from the reports from Kabul where he had been pilloried by then as a fraught and frantic man. So we reported back up the chain that he was a charismatic, good orator.”

In a series of further shurahs Mullah Salaam seemed to impress Musa Qala’s locals too. He wooed tribal elders with the promise of health clinics, schools and madrassas in which to educate their children rather than send them to Pakistan. It was a strong if simple message that appealed to the heart of rural Pashtun desires.

In January Karzai confirmed Salaam’s appointment. The onetime Talib was Musa Qala’s governor, sudden centrepin to an ambitious stabilisation plan whose success or failure will deeply influence Helmand’s future.