Afghans beating swords into ploughshares

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — It stands alone near the edge of vast desert — a powerful reminder of Afghanistan’s recent, bloody past and a symbol that Afghans say should be demolished.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — It stands alone near the edge of vast desert — a powerful reminder of Afghanistan’s recent, bloody past and a symbol that Afghans say should be demolished.

Tarnak Farms, the giant mud-walled complex that once housed Osama bin Laden, towers over thousands of hectares of parched farmland that irrigation has slowly and painfully brought back to life this spring.

The isolated, one-time al-Qaida training camp — the place where 9/11 was allegedly hatched — was bombed into rubble immediately following the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But the ghostly skeletons of buildings, twisted columns and smashed masonry remain.

In a country that is largely illiterate, symbols are often more important than words. Tarnak Farms is a powerful reminder to Afghans of the Taliban and everything they have endured since.

“The ruins mean the Taliban are still here,” said Abdul Hai Niamati, director of the Kandahar office of the Afghan Agriculture Ministry.

“Destroying them would help convince people they are gone and not coming back.”

Niamati is encouraging the Canadian and U.S. governments to help tear down the structures and reclaim the area, which remains littered with unexploded munitions.

The ministry owns the roughly 960 hectares of land surrounding the complex and has been trying to entice tenant farmers into the area.

It has met with limited success because of the area’s persistent reputation as a one-time terrorist training camp, said Shah Wali Achakzai, director of the farm.

“The damaged buildings must be removed from the area and new buildings must be constructed for the farmers,” said Achakzai, who joked that he moved into Tarnak when bin Laden “split.”

About one-third of the land surrounding the complex, a short drive from Kandahar Airfield, is back in production growing grapes, melons, wheat and grass.

Achakzai said the area currently employs about 100 farmers and could provide a livelihood for at least 500 more if all of the land was utilized.

“It would be a very good thing,” said Niamati. The Taliban, he said, draws much of its strength from the ranks of unemployed farm workers.

He said the time is right to tear down the camp because Canadian reconstruction work has reached a milestone. For the first time in decades, water from the Dahla dam in the northern part of the province is flowing into the parched fields.

Restoring the dam is one of Ottawa’s signature projects. The federal government has also spent heavily on restoring the complex series of irrigation ditches and canals that were wrecked by the Soviets as they withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

Niamati said the first water from the dam started flowing through the ditches around complex about 10 days ago.

“It is good news,” said Jim Melanson, director economic development at the provincial reconstruction base.

“It’ll be a huge boon for livelihoods in the area.”

Tarnak Farms, which was also the scene of a friendly-fire incident that killed four Canadian soldiers in 2002 marking the first Canadian casualties in Afghanistan, was once an agricultural research station before it was abandoned and turned into a terrorist training camp.

Melanson said the plan is to return the area to its original use.

He wouldn’t comment on the call to bulldoze the old camp, but said the Canadian government is working alongside Afghan agriculture officials to draw up a master plan for the area.

The aim is also to build a training institute and conduct research into what could be the best crops for the area, which was once known for raisins and wheat.

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