Life after Taliban 'rule of gun' in Takhar
Over the past few years government forces have battled with Taliban militants who infiltrated the once-peaceful province of Takhar in north-eastern Afghanistan. But now the insurgents have been driven out, the BBC's Bilal Sarwary finds that the locals have a new set of concerns.
"Flying is the only option if you want to reach Takhar," a friend in Afghanistan's internal spy agency told me as I sat down to discuss my trip with him.
"But I drove down to Takhar in 2009," I protested.
"Yes, but that was two years ago. The road connecting Kunduz with Takhar is now contaminated with roadside bombs, and I am sure you wouldn't like to risk life and limb just to be in Takhar."
So we hitched a lift north with the military in a Blackhawk helicopter.
"We have succeeded in pushing out the Taliban from Takhar. But the insurgents mined the roads before fleeing," General Dawood Dawood told me as we lifted off. He commands a special police unit called Pamir 303.
When we landed at the district headquarters in Khawja Ghar, the general was received by a dozen officials and some locals.
"Two years ago you wouldn't have been able to roam freely in the bazaar as the threat of suicide attacks was very high," Gen Dawood said. "But now you can."
Several Afghan officials, including the governor of neighbouring Kunduz province, Haji Omar, have been victims of suicide attacks in Takhar.
In recent years, like much of Takhar, this district too had become a hotbed of Taliban activity.
"The insurgents closed down schools and began collecting taxes from the people. It was the rule of the gun," a senior Afghan intelligence agent in the province said.
Fighters from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya were believed operating there, he said.
"Most foreign fighters were killed in clashes with government forces and Taliban leaders fled to Pakistan," he said.
"People don't want the Taliban here."
He was right. Khawja Ghar is known for its contribution to the Afghan security forces. More than 5,000 men from this area have enrolled with the Afghan National Army so far and some 7,000 have joined the Afghan National Police.
"We were never for the Taliban," a village elder told me. "But, unfortunately, the government failed us."
Several people suffered for their connections with the government.
Mohammad Gul says he was fined 100,000 Afghanis ($2,222; £1,362) by the Taliban because his brother had joined the army. Others were barred from working on their farms because they were seen to have helped the government in some way.
"Where were the Afghan government and the international forces when we were suffering?" Mr Gul asked. Corruption and poor governance is what concerns these people now.
We could hear verses from the Koran being recited at the local mosque, part of a programme organised by the district administration to declare the area free of Taliban.
About 300 village elders and several officials had been invited. Speaker after speaker talked about Afghan heroism and condemned the Taliban as the enemy of Islam.
Sceptical locals, wearing chapans (long, thick cloaks) listened in the mosque. Dozens of others, who couldn't fit inside, gathered at the gates outside.
"People here are thankful that the government has driven away the Taliban," said Jan Mohammad, a 39-year-old farmer. "We now want it to drive out the corrupt officials, replace Arbakis [local militia allied to government] with local police and help in clearing the landmines."
Another man, Shir Agha, added: "They should also arrange regular water supply for us."
Inside the mosque, Gen Dawood was promising peace and security to the people. "The Arbakis will be punished if they commit any wrong. Corrupt officials will be dealt with sternly and the government will help build bases for the local police force," he said.
"Khawja Ghar was in the hands of the Taliban for few years," said district governor Mullah Omaar.
"We have a lot of work to do to regain the trust of the people."
But locals like Sayed Ghulam say the government should talk less and work more.
"When the Taliban were here, nobody wanted them. But there was less corruption then," Mr Ghulam said.
"The economy here is dependent on agriculture. Can we feed our people if our fields continue to be mined?"
Although they are free from the Taliban, the people of Khawja Ghar are still waiting for the answers to such questions from the Afghan government.