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Maullah Daoud, who together with Mohammed Haider runs a rickety shop in Marjah, Afghanistan's chaotic one-street bazaar, says he felt better during the Taliban. "If you had a box of Afghanis on your head you could go to the farthest part of Marjah and no one would take it from you, even at nigh.t"

Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press

After 11 years of war, better off under the Taliban?

  • Article by: KATHY GANNON
  • Associated Press
  • December 11, 2012 - 9:07 PM

MARJAH, AFGHANISTAN - Nearly three years after U.S.-led forces launched the biggest operation of the war to clear insurgents, foster economic growth and set a model for the rest of Afghanistan, angry residents of Helmand Province say they are too afraid to go out after dark because of marauding bands of thieves.

And during the day, they say corrupt police and government officials bully them into paying bribes. After 11 years of war, many here long for a return of the Taliban. They say that under the Taliban, who routinely punished thieves by cutting off a hand, they were at least safe from crime and corruption.

"If you had a box of cash on your head, you could go to the farthest part of Marjah and no one would take it from you, even at night," said Maulvi Daoud, who runs a cubbyhole-sized shop in the town of Marjah. "Today, you bring your motorcycle in front of your shop and it will be gone. Now the situation is that you go on the road and they are standing in police and army uniforms with weapons and they can take your money."

It was in the town of Marjah in early 2010 that about 15,000 NATO and Afghan forces waged the war's biggest battle. They not only fought the Taliban with weapons, they promised to bring good governance to Marjah and the rest of the southern province of Helmand -- and demonstrate to the residents the advantages of shunning the militants.

But it appears the flaw in the plan was with the quality of Afghans chosen by President Hamid Karzai to govern and police the area after most of the fighting ended. And that adds to growing doubts about the entire country's future after foreign troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

Despite military claims of gains across the province and an overall drop in violence, Marjah residents said that NATO's counterinsurgency experiment has failed. Many claim the U.S.-funded local police, a type of locally sanctioned militia, routinely demand bribes and threaten to accuse those who do not comply of being members of the Taliban. Good governance never came to Marjah, they say.

In villages of sun-baked mud homes, at crowded bus stops and in local tea houses where residents sit cross-legged on plastic-covered tables drinking tea and eating off communal plates, people scoffed at claims of security and development. They heaped criticism on the Afghan government and officials, accusing them of stealing billions of dollars in aid money meant for the people and on an international community that they said ignored their needs and pandered to a corrupt administration.

Daoud, the Marjah shop owner, said there was more security under the country's Taliban regime that was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

"They were never cruel to us and the one difference was security. It was better during the Taliban," he said.

His partner in the rickety shop along Marjah's chaotic one-street bazaar, Mohammed Haider, said poppy farmers who planted substitute crops such as cotton are losing money because they cannot sell their harvests. He predicted poppy production would double when foreign soldiers leave in 2014.

At a bus stop in Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, residents scrambled for dilapidated old buses and cars to go to parts of Helmand. Hamidullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was waiting for a bus to Sangin district -- the scene of some of the most violent fighting between the Taliban and British and U.S. forces.

Like the majority of those at the stop, he wanted foreign forces to leave Afghanistan.

"All these foreign soldiers are here and it is totally insecure everywhere in Helmand," Hamidullah said. "For the time that they are in Afghanistan we will always have war."

Afghanistan continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with the average person earning less than one dollar a day despite $32 billion in foreign investment.

The country has also plummeted in corruption ratings assembled by Transparency International. Afghanistan was ranked 117 out of 158 countries in 2005, then slid to 180 out of 183 nations last year. The scandal-ridden Kabul Bank milked millions of dollars from Afghans' savings.

Some Afghans believe their countrymen are responsible for the current state of affairs.

Haji Khalil who moved his family from Marjah to Lashkar Gah during the 2010 offensive, blamed Afghans for the spike in thefts and lawlessness since the defeat of the Taliban.

"During the Taliban no one would steal because we knew the punishment, but when they left everyone began to steal," Khalil said.

"We became worse after the Taliban," he said. "The problem is with us."

© 2014 Star Tribune