The men came for Badar Agha before dawn, opening fire on the grizzled, turbaned elder as he set out for the local mosque in January. A senior figure in the Alokozai tribe, Badar Agha's offense was to yearn for peace in his native Sangin, a bucolic slice of farmland and river that U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates described as perhaps the most dangerous place on earth. Cutting a peace deal here is dangerous business and common sense dictated that Taliban gunmen would try to kill him.
Amid the snap, snap, snap of passing bullets, Badar Agha fired back with the Kalashnikov he was carrying. Though wounded, he managed to squeeze off enough rounds to put his attackers to flight. Days later, "Badar Agha is fine and back in Sangin," a fellow elder from his village said and still trying to broker peace. Two local rebel commanders known to be sympathetic to a détente were less lucky. Riza Gul and Pahlawan disappeared soon after the attack on Badar Agha and are presumed dead by members of their community. "Everyone says they've been killed [by the Taliban]," the elder says. Individually their deaths might seem like small change in Afghanistan's grim arithmetic. But they are significant casualties in a desperate fight-back from the Taliban as years of intrigue and skulduggery come to a head.
Badar Agha's saga began late last year when he and about three dozen elders agreed to risk all to negotiate a ceasefire. What prompted their decision isn't clear. But for years now, the hope in Sangin has been that local rebels only nominally aligned with the Taliban insurgency, and resentful of commanders from other tribes ordering them about would agree to put down arms and join with a government desperate to bring order to the place. The trouble has been finding someone to lead them in from the cold.
Enter Badar Agha and company. On New Year's Day they brokered a deal allowing the Afghan government and NATO safe passage through the Alokozai lands in return for development projects and a promise not to disarm Alokozai fighters. More than a month after, villagers were saying violence was down, reconstruction up and NATO special forces have curtailed the night raids that made coalition forces so unpopular. Just as tellingly, there are rumours that another tribe, the Barakzai, has entered its own talks with the government. For a second time in just a few months, "Elders are trying to pave the way so local Taliban... can talk face-to-face with government so we know what their demands are," says a government spokesman in southern Afghanistan.
To suppress the peace-makers, the Taliban have appointed a new shadow governor to the district named Mullah Wali Mohammad, a.k.a. Mama, or Khaliq. Mohammad was installed after the attacks on Badar Agha, Riza Gul and Pahlawan and "is sociable, well-informed and not too strict," according to one acquaintance. "He interacts with people very well." But besides bringing a deft touch to the fractious local politics, Mohammad has a trait that the Taliban high command will prize in the wake of so much betrayal. As the nephew of Mullah Rauf Akhund, a founding member of the Taliban, he is a staunch loyalist whom they will count on not to switch sides.
And, as the first spring blooms signal the onset of the fighting season, hardcore Taliban fighters who have rested up and re-equipped over the winter are re-infiltrating the valley. Coalition "gains are fragile and reversible," Gates said on a visit to Sangin this week. "This spring and summer the Taliban will try to take back what they have lost."
What exactly is NATO's interest in such a recondite tribal squabble? First, Sangin is totemic the site of 133 coalition deaths and counting. It is also one of the country's most notorious poppy-growing areas, providing lucrative revenue streams for the insurgency. But most importantly, Sangin is the gate to a hydroelectric power station capable, with the right repairs, of delivering electricity to hundreds of thousands of people in the region. Described by a provincial governor as Afghanistan's "national treasury" the Kajaki dam needs only "straightforward" maintenance to double its output within two years, say U.S. officials in Kabul. Bringing it fully online would show Afghans that their feckless government and its international partners can actually deliver. It would batter the insurgents' legitimacy.
Yet even if the Alokozai fighters do successfully throw off their Taliban oppressors, they'll have little interest in swapping one set of overlords for another. "Basically in Sangin they have lots of guns, lots of heroin infrastructure, key distribution points, and zero interest in 'government' which may just want to control the heroin," one former Western diplomat with first-hand knowledge of Helmand cautioned. It's "not always useful to look at things as 'government' versus 'Taliban' rather than a hotch-potch of interest groups cut along tribal, political, historical lines fighting for control." If the resentment of the non-Alokozai Taliban by local tribesmen shows anything it's that outsiders Taliban, government or NATO are rarely welcome.