The sixth of occasional postings
Guest Post by Afghanistan Ag Man
As Obama prepares to deliver a major policy speech on Afghanistan tonight, I want to share some thoughts on where we stand from my vantage point. I may have more to say after the speech.
The fighting season is in full swing, but it is much different than last year.
Many of the strongholds that the insurgency enjoyed last year are gone. Once ambivalent, many villages are now showing full-fledged support for their local government officials. And many of the financial resources that propped up the insurgency in years past are gone, due to a poor poppy harvest.
Despite these successes, Taliban insurgents remain as ruthless and inhuman as ever. Last year, the strategy of the insurgency was to primarily attack military bases; implant indiscriminate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in orchards; and create vehicle-borne IEDs to crash into markets, government buildings, and into other vehicles containing key Afghan leaders.
The new modus operandi of the Taliban insurgency? Brutal assassinations that target not only police chiefs and government officials, but also methodically target effective, anti-insurgent maliks (village leaders) in remote, rural areas.
Within the last month, eleven maliks have been killed in my area of operation alone. The malik represents a community’s interests on councils, lobbies government officials for resources, and provides leadership and stability in the face of the insurgency. Two of these men—Haji Irfan and Haji Mohammad Abdul*—were especially good men who ultimately gave their life for a cause that was bigger than themselves: a peaceful Afghanistan.
Those that knew these two men will share stories of their deep character, bravery, and leadership. From an American perspective, this is my small attempt to tell their story and depict their senseless end.
Haji Irfan was a good man who lived in southern Afghanistan for well over eighty years. He was old—perhaps the oldest man in his district. His mind was not as sharp as it once was, but he was always very happy and had a smile. In fact, the last time I would seesaw Haji Irfan alive, he sat next to me at a local development shura. He wanted to take a picture with me so he could carry it around in his pocket; his expression in the snapshot is, ironically, the only time I saw him somber (as is the traditional way for Afghan men to take a picture!).
Haji Irfan was a well-respected and widely-known figure in the district not only for his age, but also for his relatively mild demeanor. Some villages have maliks that are viewed as merely “symbolic, ” where the malik serves as the official representative of a village to the government, but has no real power among his villagers. On the other hand, an “actual” malik often serves as a shadow figure that wields power and carries significant sway among villagers, but does not participate in official government shuras and councils (often due to this individual’s ties to both insurgents and the government). Haji Irfan commanded both symbolic and actual titles among his villagers and his government. He was a good man.
I learned about Haji Irfan’s death when I came back to my post from a field assignment. He was driving down a road when insurgents stopped his car. Armed men asked specifically for Haji Irfan, which reveals that they were foreign to the area—as anyone who had lived in this district would immediately recognize Haji Irfan.
Willingly—and I imagine, bravely—Haji Irfan walked out of the vehicle and stood in the roadway. There was a brief conversation, after which the insurgents shot him in the head with a single bullet. They left his body on the roadway for his children—who sat in the car with their mother while the insurgents committed their dastardly murder—to load their dead father into the vehicle.
Haji Mohammad Abdul was a wily malik compared to Haji Irfan, one that I worked briefly yet closely with. I first met him when I was on a patrol just outside his village in the spring. The troops I was embedded with were new to the area of operation and did not know who he was. Because he was accompanied by several of his young nephews and sons (usually a sign of insurgent movement), our patrol had a lot of questions—only to find out he was a local malik and these boys comically served as his small, misfit group of guards.
Haji Mohammad Abdul had another distinguishing feature: a fake leg, which earned him instant credit among the patrol. After assuring the troops of his identity through his government-issued taskira (national identification card), he left us with a gap-toothed grin.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would work well with him. Haji Mohammad Abdul’s village was located just outside of an area that got notable national attention due to the “village rebuild efforts” of the US Army. This neighboring village was laden with so many improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that all the residents left for other villages, and the only safe solution was to level the area by airstrike.
The US Army—set on rebuilding a community—returned and employed local nationals to rebuild the village. Due to the focus on the rebuild, however, Haji Mohammad Abdul’s village had been overlooked. He was an effective malik because he was successful in keeping transient insurgents out of his village. As a nod to his success, I was asked by the local commander to come give special agricultural assistance to Haji Mohammad Abdul’s village.
In the second shura I had with his village, he invited over neighboring villagers to meet “the farmer from America.” I spent the next two hours fending off question after question about agriculture: lime sulfur application, pruning techniques, root rot, aphid infestations, narrow range oil applications, etc. After surviving this Afghan version of Great Britain’s “Prime Minister’s Questions” and several glasses of chai, they all started laughing: Haji Mohammad Abdul had set me up and told his neighbors to combatively test my knowledge of agricultural—and I passed, thankfully.
As I left Haji Mohammad Abdul’s compound, he still wore a mischievous grin. I would like to say we had a heart-to-heart in which I expressed my respect for his fierce opposition to the insurgency and my deep admiration for the level of protection he afforded his family and neighbors. But I didn’t. Perhaps this was a subconscious defense mechanism so as not to get attached to anyone here and to live ignorantly (and blissfully) in the idea that everyone I work with will be safe. Or perhaps I genuinely believed he was invulnerable.
I left Haji Mohammad Abdul with a simple “Alaikum Assalam,” ironically a wish for peace to be upon him.
I would learn later that an insurgent jumped over the qalat (or compund) wall of Haji Mohammad Abdul, broke into his home, and shot him in his one remaining leg. He was rushed to a hospital in Kandahar City where—after several days—he died of a heart attack attributed to the wound.
These stories exemplify the level of sacrifice many maliks and government officials make each day. Yes, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is flawed, corrupt in many ways, and often ineffective in providing many basic needs of average Afghans. And yes, there are just as many corrupt and thieving maliks that sympathize with the insurgency and steal from their own communities as there are selfless and decent ones.
Those that are committed to resisting the increasingly brutal and senseless insurgency, however, should be noted and honored.
It is because of men like Haji Irfan and Haji Mohammad Abdul that I vehemently disagree with an expedited troop withdrawal and arbitrary timetables for withdrawal. Without a doubt, premature removal of foreign forces will cause displacement of current troops, leave many “hold” areas vulnerable to slipping back into the “clear” stage, and lead to a significant uptick in assassinations of local leaders that are merely holding out against a destructive insurgent force.
I admit that my view is jaded by the events on the ground here. Recently I witnessed my grief-stricken district governor find out that yet another very old and very respected malik had been kidnapped by two gunmen on motorcycles, executed, and then dumped in an alley of Kandahar City.
That same district governor—knowing I spend most of my time working in orchards and fields—handed me a bracelet for “good luck.” With such an experience, I cannot help but identify with his fearful emotions of an Afghanistan that could perpetually fall into an animalistic pattern of assassination and intimidation.
Is the current military and development strategy working as well as it could? No. Is the budget for development projects bloated, somewhat feudal, and unsustainable? Perhaps.
But is it necessary for foreign security forces to stay here for the foreseeable future as a residual “enforcement mechanism”? Yes. And should civilian-led capacity building (not merely “nation building” through large-scale infrastructure projects, but true mentorship of Afghan government officials) continue? Unequivocally yes—and I predict this will be the goal of Operation Enduring Freedom moving forward.
*The actual names of the murdered maliks have been changed, locations have been altered, and a time delay in posting this blog has been made to ensure the safety of the victims’ families.