Afghanistan’s Helmand a quicksand of instability


Lashkar gah (Afghanistan)—Bruised and frightened, three-year-old Fatima flinches as the thunderous boom of Taliban rockets rolls across the capital of Helmand, an opium-ravaged province that epitomises the biggest failure of the 15-year US-led war in Afghanistan. For years Helmand was the centerpiece of the Western military intervention in Afghanistan only for it to slip deeper into a quagmire of instability, with almost the entire southern province teetering on the verge of collapse. Intensified fighting has killed hundreds and forced thousands to flee to besieged capital Lashkar Gah, sparking a humanitarian crisis as the city — one of the last government-held enclaves — risks falling to the Taliban’s repeated ferocious assaults. Bearing the brunt of the Taliban upsurge are ordinary civilians such as Bismillah, who lost everything when an artillery shell landed on his house in the volatile district of Nad Ali. “My house was on the frontline,” said the father-of-eight, holding his daughter Fatima in his arms, a plaster cast on her tiny leg. “Cattle were getting shot, humans were getting killed, everyone was running for their lives,” he told AFP at Lashkar Gah’s Italian-run Emergency hospital, as bursts of rocket fire echo outside. The packed surgical centre last month received 216 war-wounded over a two-week period, the highest number ever. “Bullet, mine, shrapnel, bullet, amputation,” said Vesna Nestorovic, Emergency’s medical coordinator, pointing out injuries from bed to bed. “And there are lots of children.” Some 5,000 war-displaced families have streamed into Lashkar Gah in recent months, fleeing in pickup trucks with jerry cans, mattresses, firewood and farm animals. “My children have not eaten bread for two months,” said one woman in a sky-blue burqa begging for assistance outside a relief agency’s office. The desperate new arrivals, many uprooted from once-peaceful districts, are sheltering in the mud-walled homes of locals — often dozens to a house. Lashkar Gah’s burial sites also are ever expanding, with graves now encroaching onto thoroughfares. Helmand, a mosaic of mountain-fringed flatlands criss-crossed by the Helmand river, is the heart of the multi-billion dollar opium trade and long a coveted prize by the Taliban.The province, Afghanistan’s largest, also offers safe exit routes to the insurgents across the border to Pakistan or to neighbouring Iran.