- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan | Mohammed Zahair stands passively outside the offices of the Red Crescent as a throng of Afghans seeking help pushes frantically toward the compound’s black metal gates.

The 75-year-old wheat farmer and his extended family of 18 fled their village some 30 miles to the north in January, after clashes between NATO-led forces and Taliban insurgents killed his two sons, a brother, two nephews and destroyed his house.

“We have nothing,” Mr. Zahair says.

As the United States begins deploying more than 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to reinforce more than 58,000 international forces already on the ground, casualties among civilians are rising across the country.

Here in Helmand province, a predominantly agrarian region in the southern part of the country, NATO-Taliban fighting also is financially crippling displaced civilians.

The issue weighs heavily on U.S. and NATO forces because it gives the Taliban a powerful propaganda weapon against foreign intervention.

It is also a perpetual source of tension between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States. As Mr. Karzai met with President Obama at the White House last week, Mr. Obama apologized for a U.S. air strike that Afghan officials say killed nearly 150 civilians.

A recent United Nations report says the war here “is taking an increasingly heavy toll on civilians,” underscoring a 39 percent increase in civilian deaths last year. Militants, according to the report, were responsible for 55 percent of the 2,118 civilian deaths, while 39 percent were a result of operations conducted by the U.S. military, Afghan forces and NATO.

The combat in Helmand, which has a population of more than 700,000, has been particularly fierce this year.

The civilian population “is caught between the Taliban and government and international forces,” says Mohammed Asham Azizi, who tracks displaced Afghans in Helmand, one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

Qari Mohammed Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, didn’t offer much hope for relief in a telephone interview.

“I can only tell you, the more the foreign troops are involved here in the fighting, the more problems they will face,” he says.

In Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, anecdotal evidence supports the grim view of the situation.

Hajjim Mohammed Wali says he fled with an extended family of 28 from his home in Musa Qala, about 60 miles north of Lashkar Gah, in November after clashes left his two sons, ages 5 and 6, with bullet wounds.

The 55-year-old farmer says the Taliban seized his village and demanded food and money, boys and men to fight, and women for marriage. “From every side, we’re surrounded,” Mr. Wali says.

The fighting also has forced thousands of other Afghan families in rural areas to simply abandon their homes and crops.

According to Mr. Azizi, the war forced 14,870 families in Helmand to flee their homes last year and settle in Lashkar Gah. “Some people are fleeing their homes and then returning, only to leave again,” he explains.

Mohammed, who like many Afghans uses only one name, says he abruptly left his village in Helmand’s Nad Ali district in January amid Taliban shelling and NATO counterstrikes. The 45-year-old returned in February only to find his family’s livestock and other valuable possessions looted.

“I escaped the fighting, but nothing was left,” Mohammed says.

For others, there is little hope of returning home soon.

Abdullah, who also uses one name, says he fled his home in Nawa-i-Barakzayi - about 15 miles west of Lashkar Gah - early this year after his sons, 3 and 6, and 30-year-old brother were killed during fighting between militants and security forces.

“We left everything behind, but we can’t return home yet,” says Abdullah, who isn’t certain of his age but believes he is about 40.

While many people have found refuge here in the provincial capital, few can sustain their households, and the fighting is “turning more people into beggars,” says Ghulam Mohammed Isahqzai, director of the Red Crescent office.

Mr. Isahqzai says his office is assisting 550 displaced families from three neighboring districts with monthly rations of rice, beans, sugar, tea, cooking oil and salt, along with tarps, blankets, food utensils and water jugs. However, he concedes, “the number of people coming to us every day is increasing.”

Mr. Zahair, the 75-year-old farmer, complains that he barely can afford the $40 monthly rent for a two-bedroom home for his 18-member extended family. “No one is helping us,” he says. “We’re hungry and thirsty.”

In the meantime, the Afghan army and police are struggling to secure the province, an area slightly smaller than West Virginia. Complicating matters, Helmand is the largest poppy-cultivating province in the country and responsible for an estimated 40 percent of the world’s opium production.

Gen. Mayodin Ghoori, 47, the Afghan National Army commander for Helmand, says his brigade of soldiers has gained ground throughout the province in the past four months, but he also welcomes the upcoming deployment of about 1,500 U.S. Marines here as reinforcements.

“We need more [troops] to gain control of the province,” Gen. Ghoori says.

Asadullah Shirzad, the police commander of Helmand, says population centers throughout the province and the capital are secure, but concedes that the fighting continues outside of those areas.

“When I first arrived, the Taliban controlled the other side of the bridge,” Mr. Shirzad says, referring to an area along the Helmand River on the edge of Lashkar Gah. “Since then, we’ve been pushing them farther away.”

Still, Lashkar Gah, which translates from Persian to “camp of soldiers,” has the feeling of a dusty town under siege with militants surrounding its borders.

In March, a suicide bomber detonated a vest of explosives at the entrance of the police command center, killing 11 and injuring 28. Mr. Shirzad complains that his men are lightly armed and forced primarily to confront militants in military operations, rather than fight crime.

During a recent visit to a checkpoint at the town’s eastern border, a lone 18-year-old police officer randomly stops vehicles for inspection with a ragged AK-47 slung across his shoulder. There is no other defense or support.

“Security is finished at the end of this road,” says the guard, Abdullah, who uses one name, as he casually points farther east.

The militants’ ability to freely roam the countryside has allowed them to continue staging attacks, keeping international and Afghan security forces in pursuit rather than expanding their areas of control. As a result, provincial officials in Lashkar Gah worry about losing support in the face of growing Taliban influence.

“The Taliban’s propaganda and lies are pushing people away from government,” says Helmands deputy governor, Abdul Satar Mirzaqwal.

The civilians dodging firefights and air strikes in Helmand wouldn’t necessarily disagree - even if they have a less-complicated view of things.

“I just want security,” says Mohammed Wali, a farmer displaced from Nawa-i-Barakzayi who is no relation to Hajjim Mohammed Wali. “I don’t care if the Taliban or the government provides it.”

• James Palmer can be reached at .

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