Clutching scarves nervously around their faces, the women whispered details of Taliban atrocities taking place in their native Helmand province: A translator's body found in a sack, carved into pieces. A police officer taken hostage, blinded and garroted with wire. A woman shot and hanged by her thumbs.
"All of our lives are in danger now. Our schools are shut, and anyone who works for the government is branded as an infidel," said Ma Gul, 52, a teacher who traveled to the capital this week with 20 other women from Greshk, a town in Helmand 300 miles south, to demand better protection and the removal of weak regional officials.
Gul's woes echo across this country's four southern provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is on a fierce rebound five years after U.S. and Afghan forces toppled the Islamic militia from power in Kabul. Months of aggressive ground combat and NATO airstrikes have failed to halt continuous violence in the south, as well as some sporadic attacks in other parts of the country.
According to a new report by a commission of Afghan and foreign officials, insurgent and terrorist attacks nationwide have increased fourfold in the past year, reaching 600 incidents per month by September and causing 3,700 deaths since January.
The report was issued by a group called the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, set up in February under U.N. auspices to promote and measure Afghan government performance. It said the violence threatens to reverse recent economic and political gains across the nation, and has led to a partial or total withdrawal of foreign aid in some provinces.
In Helmand, a vast and arid region where much of the worst fighting has taken place and thousands of people have fled their homes, residents and elders have been sending urgent but contradictory signals about how to restore peace.
While the delegation of women recounted Taliban abuses, a group of visiting elders from another Helmand district described local Taliban fighters as "brothers" and said their worst problem was the devastation from months of bombing by foreign military forces. If the authorities would allow tribal leaders to administer their district, they said, they would guarantee no further Taliban attacks.
"This bombing has destroyed hundreds of shops and many vineyards, but it has not driven the Taliban away," said Mohammed Rahim, a bearded farmer from Helmand's Nau Zad district. "We know the local Taliban; they are fighting against corruption and abuses. Once we have our own administration and the bombing stops, we trust they will obey us and the central government."
As a result of the mixed messages from victims of the conflict, and the growing public resentment over civilian casualties from bombing, NATO and Afghan officials now confront a strategic question: whether to keep pressing to forcibly defeat the Taliban, or begin accepting its presence in areas where tribal elders promise to rein in the militia.
Much of the south is still at war, with attacks and armed clashes occurring daily in Kandahar, Zabol and Uruzgan provinces. But in Helmand's Musa Qala district, NATO has cautiously agreed to test the tribal approach. Under a deal brokered in September by the provincial governor, NATO agreed to pull back British forces from Musa Qala, and local elders pledged that Taliban attacks would cease.
So far, reports from the isolated region, which is also a major center of opium smuggling, are confusing and contradictory. Some residents and visitors say the district is effectively under Taliban control, and a recent BBC video report showed squads of armed insurgents patrolling Musa Qala in fast pickup trucks, much as they did during the era of repressive Taliban rule that ended in 2001.
But both NATO and senior Afghan officials say they are largely satisfied with the arrangement, which they said has brought fighting to a halt and allowed foreign troops to focus on creating a central zone for security and development around Helmand's capital city, rather than manning scattered outposts and chasing after bands of insurgents.
"Musa Qala has proved to be a very good deal," said Maj. Luke Knittig, a U.S. Army officer and the chief NATO spokesman in Kabul. "After the agreement, there were 34 days of calm, which led us to believe the elders had made good on their word." However, he added, "we have our eyes closely on Musa Qala. If we see it being used as a launching pad for attacks, we will go back and address that."
President Hamid Karzai defended the pact last week against criticism that it has been a major concession to the Taliban. Speaking on Radio Free Europe, he said he had complete trust in the region's elders and in their promise not to allow any "saboteurs" in Musa Qala. However, Karzai also expressed concern about reports that a local Islamic cleric was humiliated by Taliban fighters and a senior tribal leader had disappeared.
Karzai's embrace of the agreement stands in marked contrast to the skepticism he and other Afghan officials have shown toward two similar peace deals reached this fall between the government of Pakistan and tribal leaders in districts abutting the Afghan border. Those districts are widely believed to serve as havens for Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda fugitives who train insurgents and send them across the border to fight against Afghan and NATO forces.
Some observers here worry that the Musa Qala deal is not only setting a tone of conciliation toward the insurgency, but that it also means Karzai and his foreign defenders are falling back on Afghanistan's tribal system of jergas, or informal consensual agreements, at the expense of modern democratic institutions.
"This is the wrong way to solve things," said Noorulhaq Olemi, a member of parliament who chairs its security and defense committee. "Our problem is that we have a weak government. We need a better national army and police. We need reconciliation with the people, not with terrorists. If we go back to the tribal system and jergas, we could end up with the country divided into pieces."
Although Helmand residents disagree on the issue of negotiating with the Taliban, many express common anger and disillusionment with regional authorities. Both the Greshk women and the Nau Zad elders said that many police and civilian officials in Helmand are abusive and corrupt, and that this problem is creating local support for the Taliban.
‘Scourge of the narcotics industry’
The diplomats and academics on the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board agreed, stating in their report that the factors driving the insurgency in the south include poor government services, corrupt officials and lack of law enforcement. In Helmand especially, they added, the "scourge of the narcotics industry" has significantly helped fuel the insurgency.
"When there is an absence in basic service delivery by the government, people inevitably look to alternative sources," the report said. "Only by eliminating corruption can the government diminish the freedom of operation that insurgents and drug traffickers now enjoy."
To the women from Greshk, who include government teachers and professionals, the Musa Qala agreement is a frightening example of authority caving in to powerful miscreants. One member of the delegation said the Taliban and their criminal allies had already built a plane runway and a heroin laboratory in Musa Qala.
But to the elders from Nau Zad, mostly poor farmers whose homes and livelihoods have been savaged by months of fighting, Musa Qala represents a model for peace that they desperately hope can be replicated in their district.
"Some people call it a Taliban agreement, but that is wrong," said Mohammed Anwar, a member of parliament from Nau Zad who hosted the visiting elders in Kabul. "The foreign Taliban are terrorists, but the local Taliban are the sons of Afghanistan. They will speak with us and live under the flag with us. If the government cannot bring security and stop this terrible bombing, they should let the elders try."