ZANGIABAD, Afghanistan—A captured Taliban rifle dangling at his side, commander Sultan Mohammed swaggers through a bomb-cratered district that was once a hornet’s nest of insurgents, symbolizing a rare Afghan military triumph where US forces failed.
Panjwai was one of the centerpieces of US President Barack Obama’s 2009 troop surge ambitiously aimed at crushing the Taliban, but the southern district soon became a poster child of the failed intervention.
Strongmen including Mohammed, the Panjwai police chief with a reputation for brutality, in recent years did what the Americans could not—tame the insurgent haven that had come to be known as the “blood fountain”.
The Taliban are now out of sight in the district in Kandahar, pomegranate orchards stand on fields once awash with land mines, and poppy farms that boosted militant coffers are just a memory.
“When US forces were here, the Taliban were within one kilometer of their bases. Now they aren’t even within 100 kilometers,” Mohammed said, trailed by armed loyalists.
“We did what American soldiers could not—rid the area of the Taliban.”
To get a full measure of the turnaround, juxtapose Panjwai against the turmoil convulsing the wider region, increasingly drawing Nato troops back into the conflict a year after their combat mission ended.
The neighboring opium-rich Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, is teetering on the brink of collapse.
Overstretched Afghan troops are retreating from the volatile southern districts, ceding swathes of key areas to the Taliban.
And conflict-induced displacement is edging towards a new record as the Taliban now control more territory than in any year since 2001.
Panjwai offers a striking contrast: children in schools learning algebra instead of a Taliban curriculum, grape farmers tending their vines even after sundown, and once-wary visitors jaunting around on pheasant-hunting trips.
The transformation of Panjwai, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, defies the common perception that Afghan security forces—bedeviled by high casualties and desertions—cannot stand alone without Nato backing.
To its advantage, observers say Panjwai is not a messy froth of tribal and economic dynamics. And unlike the neighboring districts gripped by violence, it does not fall on a major drug trafficking route.
“Being a backwater has helped Panjwai achieve detente that has seen many local insurgent fighters return to farming,” a Kabul-based Western official told AFP.