SANGIN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The message couldn’t have been clearer.
Keep out the Taliban and we will bring millions of dollars in aid, create thousands of new jobs, and build hospitals, schools and roads.
But let the guerrillas return, and you will get nothing but more war.
British and U.S. forces offered lavish promises of aid — but also remarkably blunt threats of more violence — to Afghan elders on Thursday at their first meeting since a battle to clear Taliban guerrillas from a mountain valley that could be a key to controlling southern Afghanistan.
The meeting had a friendly start but broke up suddenly in an atmosphere of tense unease, making clear the challenge NATO forces face if they hope to end fighting and launch a long-awaited large-scale reconstruction and development mission in the opium-growing heartland of the Taliban.
More than 100 bearded elders assembled, sitting shoeless and cross-legged behind sandbag fortifications in the portico of the Sangin district centre.
The building, clinging to the banks of a swift-flowing canal along the Helmand River, has been part of a British base for the past year, during which some of the heaviest fighting of the war laid waste to the surrounding area.
The town is now largely quiet after NATO operations to flush Taliban fighters out of the valley to the north, which culminated with a combined U.S.-British assault, Operation Axe Handle, last week.
The operation’s British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Carver, told the elders it had been a success. The Taliban were gone, some having fled, others killed.
“Clearing them out in the first place was the easy part. The more difficult part is making sure they do not come back,” he said.
A U.S. official promised that Afghanistan’s biggest aid project, the reconstruction of the Kajaki Dam at the head of the valley, could soon begin, with work starting within weeks on a new road up the valley to reach the dam.
The road project will create 2,500 thousand new jobs, the project’s head, Stu Willcuts of USAID, told the elders. It will link their villages to market year round. Reliable electricity and improved irrigation will follow.
“We need your help. We need the wisdom of those of you who worked on this project before. We need the strength of the arms of the young people.”
Other British and U.S. officials, military and civilian, rose in turn with promises of schools, hospitals, roads and canals.
There were polite speeches of gratitude from the elders, and carefully worded requests for faster aid.
But then a U.S. Special Forces commander sprang to his feet, silencing the gathering.
“My job is to assist the district chief with security by killing as many Taliban as I can. Period,” he said.
“All these gentlemen here want to bring aid to Sangin district. They can bring millions of dollars to assist you,” said the bearded American commander, who wore a uniform with no insignia and identified himself as Major Gill.
“Honestly, what I have seen is you don’t actually want that assistance. Because you continue to allow the Taliban to enter your villages,” he said.
“I have seen you allow the Taliban to use your women and children as human shields. I have seen you allow Taliban to use your women and children to resupply ambush sites.”
“You say you want schools, hospitals, electricity. How are we going to do that if you continue to let Taliban come into your villages? The workers will not come and build anything if they’re going to get killed,” he said.
He offered pardons for any Taliban who surrender and turn in weapons, and help for farmers looking for crops to plant other than opium poppies.
When the Special Forces commander fell silent, the elders erupted in murmurs and shouts. Several leapt to their feet.
“The troops have taken over my land! They are using my land to make a checkpoint!” shouted one.
“I have just two acres of land and 20 people to feed. I have to grow poppies. Otherwise, I cannot feed my family!” yelled another.
Afterwards, sitting on a carpet in an outbuilding with a small group of neighbors eating chicken and rice, one of the elders, Haji Mohammed Yaqub, said he believed the valley was indeed now quiet enough for the road work to begin.
“Many places have been cleared of Taliban, so they can start reconstruction,” he said.
But he added, it was probably too late for the NATO forces to be welcomed by most residents.
“They have destroyed people’s houses and their lives,” he said. “So, what do they expect?”