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Good News, for a Change

In Taliban country, a precarious success.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By ANN MARLOWE
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FOB Smart, Zabul PRT,
Qalat, Zabul Province

Good News, for a Change

We squeeze into the cramped rear seat of a green Ford Ranger Afghan National Police truck. Neither Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Andy Veres—the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) commander—nor the State Department’s James Dayringer nor I wear the body armor and helmet that used to be mandatory for any trip outside the wire of American bases here. Yet we are about to drive 30 miles from the PRT in downtown Qalat to remote Arghandab District in an unarmored car.

On my previous visits to Zabul in November 2009 and April 2010, we would have had to go with a company of American maneuver troops in Humvees. This is Afghanistan’s second-poorest province, where the Taliban’s roots are deep. And while today’s trip takes three hours each way, a year ago it might have taken days, depending on how many IEDs were discovered and how many exploded.

In November 2009, there were weekly suicide attacks in Zabul’s biggest town, Shajoy (population 40,000). There hasn’t been one since May. The mobile phone towers used to be shut down by Taliban decree from sunset to sunrise; now they’re open.

The point of our trip is practical: to show Afghans that the road has been cleared of Taliban and is open for business. Veres—a tall, skinny recreational mountaineer with 65 marathons and ultramarathons under his belt—counts every commercial vehicle we pass along the way up to Arghandab. “Maybe there were 12 cars today. But as people learn the road is open, this will give them the opportunity to take their crops to market in Qalat.” There are now about 50 miles of paved road in Zabul besides the national ringroad, Highway One; there were none in 2007.

Veres’s remark echoes the results of a recent survey of 1,000 southern Afghan men by ICOS. They cited the main contribution of foreigners to Afghanistan as roads (74 percent), schools (53 percent), jobs (21 percent), and elections (9 percent), while only 1 percent said “removing the Taliban.”

The 60 or so Pashtun elders we meet in Arghandab are, according to the local Afghan National Army commander, all illiterate. The blanket and shawl distribution funded by the Americans is a big deal; the local bazaar has only two shops, one a butcher shop without any meat.

The struggle for places like Arghandab isn’t easy. But Zabul seems to be on an upward path. One reason is the growing competence of the Afghan National Army here. The notoriously intractable police are also coming along.

Imaginative programs have been pushed through by a series of good American commanders. A self-defense initiative by former Zabul commander Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander rewards Shajoy men who sign up to police the bazaar with $1,200 bonuses to start a business or join the security forces permanently. Veres—who also served as PRT commander here from June 2009 to March 2010—started a program that places Zabul high school graduates in provincial ministries on internships to help the under-educated directors do their jobs better. He’s part of the Afghan Hands program that aims at creating area experts in our military.

Another factor is the near-doubling of foreign troop strength in Zabul over the last 12 months. In June, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment under Colonel James R. Blackburn arrived in Zabul, joining two Romanian battalions. While the Romanians train the Afghan National Army and protect Highway One, the Stryker battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Omar Jones is responsible for the more dangerous outlying areas.

The security has been won at the cost of many lives. Since June, Jones has lost 3 of his 850, and 7 other American Special Forces were killed, along with 2 Romanian soldiers. The loss among the Afghan police and army here is high: 22 dead since June. Since then, between 24 and 40 IEDs have gone off every month.

The next day, I trail Veres and State Department representative Jesse Alvarado—in his second year here—as they spend the day with Shahr-e-Safa district governor Shadi Khan Nouri. A Kandahari with a ninth-grade education, Nouri owes his position to his long relationship with President Karzai. His three advisers, paid the locally munificent sum of $500 a month each by the U.S. government, do the job he isn’t qualified to do: paperwork, email, project assessment. 

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