Talking replaces guns in war with the Taliban
In the great tradition of tribal politics, the government and its British allies yesterday called a Jirga, a gathering of hundreds of Spin Giri (literally White Beards) in an effort to convince local tribesmen to reject the Taliban.
A gathering with an almost medieval atmosphere, it had been arranged for a week as a forum for setting out aid projects designed to win over local "hearts and minds". But there was a problem.
...A few hours before the bombing of the civilians, a Taliban commander named Haji Wali Mohammad held an angry meeting with local people.
According to tribal leaders, the community begged him and his 50-strong group of Taliban fighters to stop using the area to launch attacks.
"Haji Wali Mohammad refused and said he would continue with the jihad against the foreigners. So when he was walking home after the meeting the local people killed him and his two bodyguards," said a source. Nato commanders believe that with increasing security and a raft of aid projects they can begin to embolden the people in other areas to reject the Taliban, though such hopes must be weighed against the fury caused by continuing civilian deaths.
David Slinn, the senior British diplomat in the south, assessed the mood at yesterday's Jirga as one of "latent support" for the government.
Certainly there was little love for the Taliban, though it was fearfully expressed in whispers. Many elders seemed happier, though, to say that they simply wanted to be left in peace by every side. "People are deaf and dumb if you ask them to tell you their real feelings," said one elder before the meeting, refusing to give his name.
"We have no hope. If we say the government should lose power, we will be killed by one side. If we say they are good, we will be killed by the other."
However, as they left the elders seemed somewhat encouraged by some lavish promises of Western aid in the weeks to come. "This meeting was very beneficial," said a man who would only give his name as Haji Mohammad. "They speak of benefits for local people."
Within a week, work is to start on a 12-mile stretch of road in the district of Nad Ali, just south of Gereshk.
At the same time a much larger £10 million American-funded road scheme will begin in Gereshk and Sangin aiming to connect the two within five months. It will create 2,000 jobs for local people.
Western officials discreetly point out that intelligence suggests that many Taliban in Helmand are simply long-term unemployed local men, without ideological motivation, who are hired to fight on day wages. They hope the road project will help drain the pool of Taliban manpower.