Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Protecting the “bullet magnet” and improving life in southern Afghanistan

November 7, 2009

Katrina Manson is a Reuters reporter based in East Africa. She recently accompanied the British government’s development agency, DFID, on a visit to Helmand  province in south Afghanistan.

                                               By Katrina Manson  

The new head of Helmand’s Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT), tasked with helping to develop one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and conservative provinces, says that the 300-strong group’s greatest achievement to date is the fact that the governor has managed to visit all 13 districts.

It might sound a strangely slight claim to success for a body that will this year spend £190 million on efforts to rebuild the province and help provide basic services such as justice and education, but for PRT head Lindy Cameron, success is about somebody else doing the work. The PRTs are joint foreign military and civilian teams trying to rebuild the war-torn nation.

helmand-3“My job is making the government good,” said Cameron. “The point of us being here is to get district government and services up and running and to support the government to be effective enough that people will see it as credible. We have a particularly active and energetic governor who sees it as his job to get out to the people rather than to twiddle his thumbs in an office in Lashkar Gah.”

A favourite of the British military and development officials, Helmand’s provincial governor Gulab Mangal, has been credited for championing opium poppy replacement programmes and helping to steer parts of Helmand’s population away from the Taliban.  

Governor Mangal, is known by British helicopter pilots as a “bullet magnet” for just such feistiness (the helicopter he was travelling in was hit by rocket fire last year). Mangal’s successes against the insurgency and his close cooperation with British and U.S. forces in Helmand have brought him many Taliban-shaped enemies who would be happy to see the back of him. 

Since taking up the post in March 2008, he has wasted no time in getting out and visiting the districts – opening schools, recruiting police officers, and attempting to convince farmers to grow wheat instead of poppy – recording a 33 percent drop in poppy cultivation this year and hoping for a further 50 percent drop next year.

Nato’s new commander General Stanley McChrystal has said of the military strategy in Afghanistan that “the objective is the will of the Afghan people”. As Nato soldiers attempt to make safe more areas in the province — in which 86 British troops have been killed this year — the PRT is trying to show life under the government is better than life under the Taliban.


“We’re no longer discussing which comes first, the chicken or the egg – security or development – but recognising that we have to do both,” says Cameron. “We are managing an astonishing level of cooperation.”

“We need to compete for hearts and minds through government structures,” says Cameron. “We need to make Taliban fighters feel like they have a constant choice, not that once they join the Taliban they’re beyond the pale but instead give them reasons to think life is better elsewhere.”

Life, however, remains insecure and hard. A report commissioned by the USAID, the U.S. donor agency, makes clear the limited scope for legitimate economy: “There is no manufacturing sector of any significance,” it said, finding that narcotics in the province — which this year provided 54 percent of the world’s opium — account for half Helmand’s economy. It also said infrastructure needs $17 billion in investment, notably into electricity — only 14 percent of Helmand’s population have access to the public electricity grid — and roads.

Donors are attempting to bring the province back to life, designing a $60m road project to link Lashkar Gah, the political capital, to Gereskh, the commercial capital, which should be finished by 2011, as well as bringing the Gereskh hydro power station back to life in a $40m project. US donor money has already helped to reopen the civilian airport nearby at Bost, and efforts are underway to create agro-processing plants so the province’s many crops, which include pomegranate, grapes and nuts, can be transformed and exported.

For many, progress is coming too slowly, however. “We have invested in great big new machines this year but none of them is running because we have no electricity from the grid,” said Mirkalam Zahidy, director of a marble factory that employs 100 people and was hoping to expand.”It’s too costly for us to fuel the generators so the machines are just off.”

Governor Mangal will have to keep on getting into those choppers if he’s to convince people throughout the province that progress is on its way.


A peaceful and prosperous nook in a country troubled by violence can be used to spread peace in the whole country. But the condition is that “peace” is not bought as some foreign “peace keepers” have done in the past in Afghanistan. Also, one must note that poppy seed is a part of food in Afghanistan and other neighboring countries. So eliminating poppy growing altogether could cause problems. I suggest that some poppy growing may be permitted on condition that the harvested opium may only be sold to some government appointed agencies. Opium collected thus could be sold to pharmaceutical firms or destroyed in return for financial aid from countries concerned about the spread of narcotics.


Most of the people who live in the central Helmand districts of Nad-i-Ali, Marja and Nawa (Shamalan) are double cropping, cash cropping farmers with the largest irrigation system in the country and have been asking for help with their markets to get out of opium cultivation which they all consider an evil crop but with a reliable market and an informal credit system which we have been unable to match in our 7 years of occupation. And this area that produces some 50% of the worlds opium is a well irrigated field crop area with wheat, corn, cotton (yes cotton), peanuts, vegetables, melon, watermelon etc.While the media and perhaps the developers tend to focus on grapes, pomegranates, nuts etc.Why not focus on the crops that they still continue to cultivate along with poppy and for which they ahve continually asked for help? For example, there is a still functioning government cotton gin in Lashkar Gah built by the British in the mid-60s, and the farmers have been asking for help with cotton prices, a crop which they like and know with the primary market being the convenient cotton gin which had a credit system working with it before the Soviet invasion. The farmers picked up free seed at planting,(which they still do) got fertilizer on credit at the gin and repaid when they brought their cotton crop in for sale. We have been unable or unwilling to support this continuing cash crop that the farmers see as one alternative to poppy.???


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