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.
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.