Afghanistan is slipping rapidly towards a state of anarchy. The security situation has degraded to the point where the lavish force protection measures adopted by the Department of State Regional Security Officers and the U.S. Military seven years ago now seem prudent. Media reports attribute the decline to a resurgent Taliban movement in Pakistan combined with the explosion in illegal drugs and a corrupt ineffective central government. Many of my colleagues and I believe the crippling of the reconstruction effort by unreasonable risk aversion based security rules has more to do with the current instability than anyone sitting in Washington would care to contemplate let alone admit.
It is easy for those not directly involved in the U.S. effort to highlight and criticize programs which have failed to delivery any quantifiable sign of improvement after years of effort and billions spent on poorly conceived off the shelf solutions. One example; we have spent over 2.5 billion dollars on a police training program which has produced nothing positive on the ground. The Afghan National Police are amongst the least trusted national institutions in Afghanistan with a well earned reputation for corruption and criminal behavior. Similar criticisms could be leveled at every other U.S. Department of State program running in Afghanistan but criticizing is always easy, especially when armed with 20/20 hind sight. In the Marines we had a saying which went something like “if you don’t have a solution you are part of the problem.” In that spirit a group of friends and I been working on finding solutions.
My colleagues and I believe that it is not too late to get effective aid and a permanent presence on the ground in districts currently slipping away and have a rare opportunity to present our views to a few decision makers. This concept paper has taken up most of the week and part of this concept required obtaining a little ground truth which is a good story. Our start point was a dialogue with the Maliks of Sherzad district to try and determine why the area was losing ground so quickly. The term Malik is used in Pashtun tribal areas for tribal leaders. Maliks serve as de facto arbiters in local conflicts, interlocutors in state policy-making, tax-collectors, heads of village and town councils. Although they do not officially represent the district government (they are part of a larger board) they do speak for the people.
Sherzad district is part of what is known as the “Southern Triangle” in Nangarhar Province. This is one of the areas where we have lost ground over the last year. The Sherzad district administrative center has been attacked three times in the past month by AOG fighters. IED discoveries and attacks are routine, night letters are frequently reported, as are other acts of intimidation. This district is the closest point of the southern triangle to our guesthouse and many members of our staff are from there. Finding out what is happening and why may add some weight to our concept paper but is also critical in determining our ability to remain in the Taj and operate the way we do. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to degrade identifying decision making trigger points for determining when to significantly increase our security posture or pull out altogether becomes more and more important.
We took over our primo guesthouse “The Taj” last December from a UN Ops subcontractor (PSS) who had been in this compound for the past three years while building roads deep into the southern triangle. I tagged along on one of their road missions last November all the way to the village of Wazir which is at the foot of Tora Bora in Khogyani district. PSS was a team of Australian and New Zealand engineering and security contractors who had a couple of anti mine vehicles and standard UN armored vehicles. As UN Ops contractors they were well armed eight internationals, twelve Nepalese mobile security guards and they traveled with a two-truck ANP escort. They were well liked by the villagers in the areas they worked and even talked to elders of Wazir into moving their ancient (nobody knows how old it is just that it has always been there) grave yard to accommodate the new road bed. It takes gallons of tea drinking to accomplish goals like that which can only be done if you have a continuous presence on the ground.
Our concept paper is modeled on the successful operations of PSS. They operated in the southern triangle for years without any AOG interference and portions of their operational area were considered very high risk during their time there. We know based on their model and our experiences that contacting and coordinating with the Maliks is the start point for working in any contested area so we invited some of them to Jalalabad for a working lunch which is the only kind of meeting worth having in Afghanistan. If you don’t fork over a good sized meal at these things nobody will take you seriously and it is also considered unspeakably rude in the code of Pastunwali which governs these lands.
I’ll sum up three hours of chatting into concise points. The Taliban in Sherzad is home grown but is being financed by groups in Pakistan. The local people know that the people financing armed attacks on the government and ISAF are not really their friends nor are they representing their interests. But the local people are bored and have no money. The Pakistani Taliban provide good pay to the villagers for planting IED’s, distributing night letters, and allowing them to kidnap people (not from the area) working on government funded projects. It is the “bad people from the mountains” who are launching indirect fire and small arms attack on the US Army’s FOB Lonestar (located next door in Khogyani district) not the local people but they pay for to move through their lands.
The elders said Governor Sherazai promised them jobs and irrigation projects if they stopped growing the poppy and so they did but have received nothing. They say that the governor is getting richer by growing the poppy on his lands in Khandahar while their children go without food or proper clothing. They also said (quite firmly) that if they get enough rain this winter they are going to start growing the poppy again because they feel tricked out of their share of the booming drug economy profits. Once they start growing the poppy they will not allow any foreigners or government people into the district to destroy the crop.
Now for a little ground truth from an old Afghan hand. I do not know how much of what they said is true yet. But nobody within the vast US effort could know how much of it is true either. You can’t learn ground truth from one meeting. Everything the Malik’s told me I could have guessed ahead of time. This is the standard litany of complaints (in one form or the other) I have heard in meetings from one end of Afghanistan to the other. This is not to say that everything they said that day was not true or how they felt but you need to do more work before you can claim understanding. I was certain of one thing as I drove back to the office and that is the Maliks still have Sherzad district under their control. When the Taliban move in they do so to fill a power vacuum and they gain control by eliminating any rivals. If the Pakistani Taliban were in Sherzad they Maliks would have been running scared and they clearly were not. They also would have been thinned out the killing of Maliks is something we pay attention to and that has not happened yet in Sherzad.
I pressed the Maliks hard about saying they had the district under control in one breath and then saying “bad men from the mountain” come down at night to create mischief on the other. Afghans are cool when you point out contradictions like that they will respond with a big smile and say “what do you expect me to say?’ Which is a good point. We shared a good laugh over what they could not say and I hope they were laughing with me and not at me. I am no regional expert and still do not catch everything they say my Pashto remains limited but in the end we knew why each other was there and seemed to be getting along like a bunch of old thieves. An apt metaphor given that the main industry of their tribes has been cross border smuggling for the past four or five hundred years. The next step was a visit to Sherzad district so they could host a lunch meeting. An exciting trip but one where I would have to go it alone without my usual wingman or additional back up, but I scored a guided tour of the Gandamack battlefield and I’ll tell the story in the next post.