Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Sunday, 23 March 2008

New hope for Helmand province

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Gulab Mangal
Mr Mangal is a Pashtun from Paktika province
There are few jobs in Afghanistan as daunting and as dangerous as governor of Helmand province, but this weekend step forward Gulab Mangal, the new hope for Helmand.

The southern province, where thousands of British troops clash daily with Taleban insurgents, grows half the country's opium poppies, and it has had two governors in the last two years.

There are few places as complicated.

Traditional tribal structures have broken down and Taleban militants, drug lords and criminals mix into an already complex set of tribal tensions and historical rivalries.

So what makes Governor Mangal think he can succeed where others have failed?

"It's a big challenge, but there will be a lot of changes in the next year," he says.

Push for reconciliation

For a start he is not from Helmand, but a Pashtun from Paktika province in the south-east.

I'm going to work hard to get the insurgents to change sides and work with the government rather than against it
Gulab Mangal

He argues it means he is more likely to strike a balance as he does not come into the job with the baggage of being from one tribe at the expense of another.

"The first thing I will do is to hold a series of shuras, or meetings, with tribal councils across the province to try and gain widespread support for the Afghan government," he says.

And he sees reconciliation with local Taleban commanders and foot soldiers as an important part of the job - trying to persuade them to switch over and back the government.

"I'm going to work hard to get the insurgents to change sides and work with the government rather than against it.

"The British are already doing this and we will work together," he adds.

He brings experience, credibility to the job - credibility in both security and development issues
Chris Alexander
United Nations Assistance Mission

Despite the controversy which saw a British and an Irish diplomat being expelled last December, talking to the Taleban is official government policy.

The new district head of Musa Qala in Helmand is a former Taleban commander.

He was brought in to govern after the Taleban were forced from a town they had held for months by a joint operation involving Afghan and international security forces.

Things in Musa Qala are going well so far, with 500 children now going to the refurbished school and a number of development projects being put into place to persuade people the government is better for them than the Taleban.

Jalali Popal is head of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance which has been tasked with strengthening an area crucial to Afghanistan's success.

Refurbished school in Musa Qala
Afghanistan's government has reopened many schools

He sees reconciliation as an important element of improving security.

"Anyone who wants to lay down their guns and accept the Afghan constitution, values and current version of the administration can enjoy all the privileges of any Afghan. It's always been the policy," he says.

"We choose our governors on five criteria - loyalty to the constitution and the current administration; efficiency and effectiveness; leadership and management skills; interacting with the international community effectively; and fighting corruption.

"Gulab Mangal has been very successful as governor of Laghman and Paktika - which was in a similar position to Helmand at the time - he brought a union between the government and the people effectively.

"We think it is more useful that someone not from Helmand should be appointed there."

Tribal dynamics

And Governor Mangal comes well recommended by members of the international community and the British who will be working with him.

"He is one of the most accomplished governors to have served Afghanistan since 2001," said Chris Alexander from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

"He brings experience, credibility to the job - credibility in both security and development issues."

But a former Governor, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, is close to President Hamid Karzai and has been perceived as a strong voice of opposition to the previous governors, Daud and Wafa.

Governor Mangal will have to tread carefully in the complex tribal dynamics of Helmand, where there will be many pitfalls and, of course, the constant threat of attack by suicide bombers.

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