Zaranj is the first provincial capitol to fall in Afghanistan but that fight is not over

Yesterday the newly appointed governor of Nimroz province pulled out of the capitol allowing the Taliban to enter Zaranj. The new governor, Karim Abdul Brahui, was serving as the governor in 2010-2011 when the company I was working for (CADG) moved into Zaranj and completely overhauled the provinces major irrigation systems. Nimroz borders Iran in the west, Baluchistan in the south, Helmand in the east, and Farah in the north. It is mostly flat desert and was sparsely populated but gained back much of its farmers after our irrigation projects re-opened the farmlands.

Governor Karim Abdul Brahui is a graduate of the Kabul Military Academy and was a Mujaheddin commander during the Soviet Afghan war. The Soviets were never able to hold Nimroz province and the Taliban also had problems controlling the area. Governor Brahui is not a politician – he’s a fighter and my understanding is he pulled out of Zaranj to spare the city from the destruction resulting from fighting the Taliban inside the city. The day before the Taliban entered Governor Brahui took his weapons, men and equipment to his home compound in the Charborjak district. If the Taliban want fight the Governor and the forces he controls they will have to do it in the open desert where Governor Brahui has the distinct advantage of long experience fighting in vast Dasht-e margo (desert of death) where he was raised .

Explaining how USAID works to Governor Brahui at the Kang district irrigation project in 2011

The governor is from the Brahui tribes who are considered to members of the Baloch despite having a different, distinct language. The Brahui people occupy a swath of desert extending from Quetta in Pakistan to the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan and they are not known to tolerate outsiders like the British, Russians, Taliban etc… well. There is no doubt in my mind that any Taliban attacks into the Charborjak district will be violently opposed and that the Governor did not abandon Zaranj out of any fear of the Taliban or respect for their fighting abilities. He will fight to protect the lands and property of his people but his willingness to fight and his ability to do so are two different problems. The Governor is an Afghan patriot, a well respected leader with legendary battlefield accomplishments but I do not believe he can fight a protracted battle without the support of Iran.

Zaranj is on the Iranian border. When I flew into Zaranj my cell phone would ping off Iranian cell towers and I would a message in English welcoming my to Iran. One of the factors involved in Governor Brahui’s decision to evacuate the city has to be the problems faced by the Taliban dealing with local Iranian security authorities, who are also Baloch or Brahui, and thus not inclined to cooperate with the Taliban.

Before landing in Zaranj pilots had to sweep the runway of the feral dogs. They did this by flying down the runway at full power – at the end of the field they reduce power and climb while turning right until they almost stall then they drop the left wing, kick out the landing gear and set down on the runway. It is a super cool move which happens fast and is scary to the uninitiated. There are few things in life more fun then being flown around Afghanistan by African bush pilots

The timing of the fall of Zaranj could not be worse because of the decision by the Biden administration to start a well intentioned P1/P2 visa program. Under the old SIV program I was unable, despite years of effort, to get my loyal companion/interpreter JD a visa. A reporter who knew him was able to track down the Special Forces team that had hired him back in 2002 as their interpreter and as soon as the the Green Berets heard JD was facing roadblocks with his SIV application they sorted him out and got him to the USA in a few months.

When JD worked for me on USAID projects it was under a contracting vehicle called a “cooperative agreement” which is how the Ghost Team became heavily armed humanitarians because we did not have to meet the UN minimum occupational safety standards. Under the SIV program Afghans working for cooperative agreement contractors were not eligible, last week the Biden Administration changed that instituting the P2 program which allows every supervisor, driver, and security guard who worked for me and the other Freerangers to get a visa.

When Zaranj fell yesterday about two dozen of the Afghans who worked for me reached out for recommendation letters which were promptly provided. But now they and their families are going to try to make it to Kandahar to catch a flight to Kabul to get their paperwork processed. What they should be doing taking their families and scooting across the Iranian border to safety. Even I know where the unguarded crossings into Iran are – it is an easy trip but one nobody asking for my help is taking it.

This old fortress marks the entrance to the Charbojak district from Zaranj. Under this ancient old fort is a massive spring of the coldest, purest drinking water I have ever tasted but we never could get the money to build a pipeline and pump station to Zaranj for here (about 5 miles).

This where the loss of General Raziq in 2018 has such serious consequences. Were he alive today the Afghans trapped in Zaranj could jump the border, make their way to Spin Boldak, and from there to Kandahar if perfect safety. The loss of General Raziq meant the loss of Spin Boldak was a matter of time and that time is apparently at hand. The other option is to use the highway, paved by India years ago, to Delaram and then use the ring road to travel to Kandahar. Driving that highway at night is dangerous because of moving sand dunes. You can see them when you fly into Zaranj, arrow shaped mounds of sand that dot the desert floor. You can drive from Delaram to Zaranj and the highway is open, on the return trip there could be a 40 foot mound of sand blocking the road and they are normally not detected in time and the results of hitting them are the same as hitting a concrete wall.

I have been hearing first hand reports that the Taliban are going door to door looking for Afghan government officials and people who collaborated with the Americans. I have also heard about summary executions from multiple sources. If these stories are true it would be one of the few times in history initial reports from a battlefield defeat were accurate. I cannot imagine any mass arrest or detention program going down in Zaranj without the Iranians putting a stop to it. There are a significant number of Iranians living in Zaranj and there are also significant Iranian business presence there which would have made it impossible to do USAID work in the province had I not ignored it.

For those of us who know Afghanistan and care about her people this new phase in an old war in heartbreaking. For us Americans the manner in which Bagram was abandoned adds more embarrassment to the load we carry for being true believers in our ability to set things right. That we never understood what “right” was to your average Afghan never occurred to me or anyone I knew over there. We meant well, we tried hard, we took enormous risks, but in the end everyone we thought we were helping is now in harms way because they believed in us. And that is a bitter pill….it just sucks.

The posts I wrote from Zaranj decade ago are pasted below and contain loads of pictures if you want to get a feel for the land and its people.

Free Ranging The Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death)

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

High Noon in the Forgotten Province

Diplomacy 101