Attempts to install a ‘government in a box’ in Helmand’s deserts have stalled in the face of tribal jealousies
The white sedans came from nowhere, sliding to a stop amid a plume of dust. Out stepped Haji Zahir – the figurehead for Nato efforts to bolster governance in Marjah, a sleepy Afghan backwater that has seen precious little of it over the past two years. Marjah is the Taliban stronghold which General Stanley McChrystal, until recently the Nato commander in Afhganistan, famously called a “bleeding ulcer”.
The coalition showcased the district and made it the focus of its campaigning earlier this year, pouring in thousands of US and Afghan troops in one of the most heavily advertised attacks in history. They also installed what officials called “government in a box” and made Mr Zahir Marjah’s new district governor. US and British experts work with him, struggling to build a local administration from scratch. This approach and its subsequent success, the thinking went, would show the war could yet be won.
On this particular evening Mr Zahir was the model of a local politician. He had come to encourage young men to join the fledgling police force. “We will pay their wages,” he assured families gathered at one of the intersections that criss-cross Marjah. They heckled him; he stroked his beard; they jabbed their fingers; he grinned broadly and settled everything with a firm word and a friendly hug. Then, sunglasses set rakishly on his nose, off he went in search of more constituents.
In Mr Zahir, the district has a leader who “possesses a number of strengths that any politician would like to have, specifically, excellent oratory skills and solid rapport with his constituents”, according to the US State Department representative Edward Messmer. “Where governor Zahir hits headwinds are [in] his administrative abilities and managerial experience.”
In a country fractured by mountain ranges and ethnic splits, local government can assume an importance unseen in more benign environments. Turning it into a functioning branch of the state is integral to Western hopes for a stable Afghanistan. Yet months after Nato and the Afghan government first rolled in, Marjah appears to some to be stagnating.
“Everyone involved, of course, would like the process to move faster,” explains Mr Messmer. But to ensure that schools, clinics and refurbished irrigation canals – crucial to a community that has reclaimed its farmland from the Helmand desert – stay open long after the coalition has left, “we all want to do it right the first time”.
It is the slow rate of progress here and across Afghanistan that has helped undermine the relationship between military and political leaders in the West, culminating in General McChrystal’s astonishing resignation last week. There is little sign so far that his mentor David Petraeus, who has taken over direct responsibility for the Nato campaign in Afghanistan, will abandon his protégé’s strategy – and he has notably failed to endorse timelines set by President Barack Obama to start bringing US troops home.
It is what happens in the shadows, though, that will, perhaps, have the largest impact. Night and day, bearded men wearing Afghan robes walk into the Helmand countryside and try to persuade people here to stand up against the insurgents and criminals. They are US Special Operations Forces. And worryingly for politicians still hoping for an imminent exit, they say there is nothing to suggest change will come quickly.
Captain Matt, a Green Beret operating in southern Marjah, describes what his 12-man detachment does as “weeks and weeks of going out and talking, talking, talking”. Because Marjah was a patch of uninhabited desert until a 1950s development programme brought water to the area, it lacks the social cohesion of more traditional Afghan settlements.
“It’s a tough thing to put your finger on,” he says. “People are scared of each other as much as of the Taliban. When a single tribe is in an area they’re more comfortable but here it’s very small enclaves. [There's lots of] mistrust. People are worried about sparking jealousies.” With “300 major tribes” present, this splintered demographic – “like New York City”– is hindering efforts to create anti-Taliban unity among Marjah’s residents, Capt Matt says. Poverty and a lack of understanding of what the counter-insurgency is trying to offer compound the problem.
“Most insurgencies over the past 40 or 50 years are pre- or post-colonial failure,” Capt Matt says.
“You had a common language. When you talk governance here you may as well try to describe a mermaid in a land-locked country… The coalition is a liked force. They are in no doubt we are here to reconstruct… [But] we’re dealing with guys who don’t really understand what we’re trying to sell.”
The intimidation campaign waged by the Taliban is not as potent as some in the coalition feared, but it is much in evidence in southern Marjah. According to US forces, out-of-work men regularly let off rounds of gunfire into the air to make cash by fanning perceptions of insecurity. Yet anyone who accepts support from Nato is questioned by the Taliban within 24 hours.
And when the provincial government issued a curious edict, banning the use of motorcycles for 10 days, shopkeepers in the bazaars – symbols of government control, Nato largesse and Marjah’s future prosperity – were ordered by the insurgents to stay at home under pain of death.
Crouching down in a lush green field, an informant told one US patrol that the Taliban wanted to create the impression of a local strike against the edict, which was hampering their operations: motorbikes are the militants’ preferred getaway vehicle.
Several villagers saw fit to discuss the intimidation campaign with the US Marines they see daily. But no one wanted to cross the insurgents, and their shutters stayed down, day after day.
Western and Afghan officials have outlined ambitious plans for a new Marjah that include erecting new schools, reforming the police force, and upending the drug trade. Rebuilding Marjah and other towns is now seen as critical to NATO’s Afghanistan war strategy.
LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN
Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.
Down white-tiled corridors and behind code-locked doors on their base in Helmand Province, a handful of American and British officials planned for months how to turn this swath of irrigation ditches and mud compounds, ruled for two years by Taliban militants and crime syndicates, into a beacon of peace and prosperity.
This is the “build” part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy set out last year by the top NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
It could become a blueprint for winning the war – if it works.
It is here that the insurgency has raged most fiercely, costing NATO 408 lives and the local population many times more.
Kabul takes interest
Governance experiments in Afghanistan have failed before, but this one is different, the planners say, because more resources and thought are being put into it.
The apparent emergence of political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government, after years of neglecting to support their provincial and district counterparts in Helmand, is also a factor.
Last Tuesday a delegation from the capital arrived to discuss agriculture with provincial officials.
Kabul’s interest in Helmand grew last September. That month, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi visited the town of Nawa, which US Marines had recently cleared of militants, and promised to follow up with development.
“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ”
Mapping out a new Marjah
In Marjah a similar void would allow the crime bosses and Taliban commanders just driven out to return. They “exercised far too much control over the population” in the past, says Marlin Hardinger, a US State Department official in Helmand. The “most important and difficult [thing now is to] build better governance.”
Although the insurgency is still flickering in Marjah, it is mainly in the form of roadside bombs strikes, about five a day. Officials, who have access to $500 million for stabilizing Helmand, don’t expect to know if they have won over the population for at least three months.
A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.
Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.
“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.
Rooting out opium
Another challenge will be how to deal with Helmand’s thriving opium economy. Powerful players in the drug trade in the province, such as former governor Mohammad Akhundzada and his police chief Abdurrahman Jan, have much to lose by acceding to a new political economy. Mr. Jandemonstrated his intent to reestablish his influence over Marjah last month when he took control of a local council.
Posed against these strongmen is current Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, a technocrat who burnished his reputation by busting kidnapping rings and crooked police since taking office two years ago. He has won praise from Western advisers for using the media to spread a message of inclusive government and for traveling around the province to hear complaints from his constituents.
He’s also earned plaudits for his handling of men like Mr. Akhundzada and Jan. “Mangal’s played the technocratic card brilliantly,” says Hawkins, who has worked closely with the governor. “He has managed the situation rather than (1) allowing the situation to manage him or (2) confronting the situation. If you confront the situation in Afghanistan, you’ve lost.”
Mangal will also have to wean farmers away their opium crop without alienating them. Counternarcotics experts have praised his “food zone” program, which combines the stick of poppy eradication with the carrot of improved wheat seed handouts. Although Helmand still produces more poppy than the rest of the world combined, they say there are tentative signs of success.
Christian Science Monitor
Less than two weeks into the Marjah offensive in Afghanistan, an Afghan governor flew into town on Monday and began holding meetings.
The shots haven’t even died away in one of NATO’s biggest offensives of its nine-year war in Afghanistan, but US State Department officials are already rushing in Afghan government staff as part of the ambitious next phase of Operation Moshtarak.
The speedy rollout in Marjah of the new US strategy to “clear, hold, and build” is part of the renewed US strategy of wresting momentum from the Taliban. But some experts warn there is no way to install good government overnight.
Ten days into the fight – with US Marines and their Afghan counterparts still advancing on Taliban fighters holed up in the north and west – Marjah’s new subdistrict governor was brought in and held a shura, or council, with local elders in the town center.
Haji Zahir will hold a flurry of similar meetings with other community representatives as soon as he is properly installed, possibly before the end of the week, in makeshift offices while the real ones are cleared of bombs and refurbished.
Civilian stabilization and governance advisers will assist him as he seeks to extend his reach as far and as quickly as possible. In the northern part of Nad-i-Ali, the district to which Marjah belongs, fighting has slackened sufficiently for development specialists to start rolling out “schools-in-a-box.” Repairs to irrigation canals are also under way.
Window of opportunity
Everyone from lowly subdistrict administrators to the government ministries in Kabul is involved in planning Marjah’s future, Western officials are keen to emphasize.
“We’ve planned to have all this in place very quickly partly because we – the Afghan government and Western advisers – feel like we have a window in which to win over the local population,” says Bay Fang, a State Department spokesperson in southern Afghanistan.
“Installing a subdistrict administrator along with governance and stabilization advisers allows the work of government to start straight away. Because basically we want to show the people that the government can deliver basic services and is a viable alternative to the Taliban.”
According to the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy championed by top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the real battle for Marjah – and for the rest of Afghanistan – lies in governance and security, not gunfights.
Operation Moshtarak is “in many ways … a model for the future: an Afghan-led operation supported by the coalition, deeply engaged with the people,” McChrystal told reporters on Sunday.
The rush to roll out a functioning local government may also reflect the tight deadline that coalition forces face in Afghanistan. Large amounts of territory remain to be cleared of insurgents, developed, and restored to Afghan sovereignty before President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline for a drawdown of US troops.
Operation Moshtarak is the first phase of an 18-month campaign plan mapped out by McChrystal. The focus of coalition and Afghan forces will soon switch to the neighboring province of Kandahar, where the Taliban movement spluttered to life in the early 1990s, and where power has traditionally resided in southern Afghanistan.
There, as in Marjah, troops will try to clear out the insurgents and install a new government. But the battle to win hearts and minds can be easily set back by civilian casualties. According to the Afghan government, a US airstrike on Sunday killed at least 27 civilians on the border of Uruzganand Day Kundi Provinces – NATO’s third botched bombing raid in seven days. Afghan government ministers called the strike “unjustifiable.”
Not everyone is convinced by the rapid effort to impart good governance in Marjah.
“Is [Operation Moshtarak] going to address one of the root causes of this insurgency – bad governance and exclusionary politics? That’s at the heart of it,” says a Western analyst in Kabul, who asked to go unnamed.
“What can the West bring? More resources? Yes. Better politics? Unlikely,” he says. “At the end of the day people want local leaders they can trust. That can’t be delivered overnight. That takes years. It isn’t that this operation is without value but we’ve got to get away from the idea that we can just parachute in a ready-made government.
US and Afghan troops moved towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and mine fields. Sixty percent of the front-line forces are Afghan troops.
Thousands of US and Afghan troops ground their way towards the center of the Talibanstronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and even greater numbers of home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated.
US Marines raised an Afghan flag inside the town limits but pockets of Taliban militants dug in, with some veterans comparing the intensity of the fighting to that encountered when they stormed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2005.
“In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we’re coming in from different locations and working toward the centre, so we’re taking fire from all angles,” Captain Ryan Sparks told Reuters.
The operation to clear Taliban insurgency from their biggest stronghold in Helmand province looks increasingly like an acid test of Western military and political strategy in Afghanistan, with the outcome likely to deal a powerful propaganda blow one way or the other.
With US General Stanley McChrystal’s reinvigorated counter-insurgency campaign placing the emphasis on protecting communities rather than killing militants, the first measure of success for the thousands of US, NATO, and Afghan troops involved in Operation Moshtarak (the Dari word for ‘together’) will be avoiding civilian casualties.
The vast majority of Marjah’s civilian inhabitants, of whom there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, have stayed put after a NATO information campaign entreated them to “keep your heads down” and the Taliban mined all approaches to the town.
Afghan officials say the involvement of Afghan forces in unprecedented numbers – 60 percent of the front-line forces are said to be Afghan – will help alleviate the threat because Afghan soldiers are better able to distinguish between “terrorists and farmers.”
Civilian casualties a key metric
So far this advantage and the coalition’s tactics of attacking in overwhelming numbers but with a restrained use of its overwhelming firepower has largely worked, with civilian casualties limited to 12 killed when a rocket landed 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from its target, and seven wounded in separate incidents.
In an indication of how important the issue of civilian casualties may prove to be, General McChrystal promptly offered his apologies to President Hamid Karzai and launched an investigation into the incident. Mr. Karzai only signed off on the operation hours before it began and senior members of his administration reportedly had reservations about advising inhabitants to shelter in their homes rather than fleeing Marjah.
Ghafar Jan, a 32-year old farm laborer living in Marjah, reached by telephone, said that powerful explosions had cast a pall of dust and smoke over the town, and that the “lightning” of rockets was visible from his house.
“The Taliban will fight until the last minute because the attack is coming from all directions so I don’t think they can fall backward to safety,” Jan said. “I don’t know what will happen. God knows what will happen.”
The top Taliban commander in Marjah, Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund, insisted that his fighters had pushed back the NATO and Afghan allies who were, he claimed, involved in a face-saving operation masking their defeat in Afganistan.
“Tens of foreign soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs and we have also destroyed many vehicles. By the grace of God we have had few casualties,” he said.
He was contradicted by NATO reports that two of its troops — one American, one British – had been killed in the fighting.
Meanwhile, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said that a government-in-waiting is ready to sweep in once coalition forces have cleared the town of Taliban, bringing with them up to 2,000 Afghan police to provide security. Civil servants and development specialists will organize the local administration. Previous town officials were killed, co-opted by the insurgents, or forced to flee. With a new administration, in theory, will come schools, hospitals, and jobs.
“The most important thing will be the aftermath,” says Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst in Kabul. “How quickly will the coalition countries fix the town? How quickly will the Afghan government provide services to people? And how quickly will they be able to provide justice and security?”
Mir notes that in the past some police officers had pursued vendettas against people they accused of colluding with the Taliban.
North of Marjah, coalition forces are also battling Taliban militants in Nad-i-Ali district, supposedly an area under government control. Although fighting there has been less intense than some of the battles raging in Marjah, it is an indication of the difficulty of holding ground, let alone building on it.
Of particular importance in any area restored to government control will be providing alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers: central Helmand is a drugs-producing hub with many locals complicit in the narcotics industry.
“I’m sure they are well-prepared for that,” says Mir.
“All we want is peace,” said Ghafar Jan, the farm labourer. “People are tired of fighting, people are hungry now, and there is no medicine for the sick. I don’t care who is in control. I want those who can bring peace, justice and Sharia law.”