The Magazine

Recovering a Province

The rise and fall (and rise again?) of Khost.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Khost Province, Afghanistan

Recovering a Province

"Few people in Khost support the government because the government are thieves!” Tall, gaunt Haji Doulat, 65, was fighting a headache and perhaps depression as he sat with the men of his family in his shabby, red-carpeted mejlis. Doulat lives with his brother, wife, sons, and many nieces and nephews in a modest family compound in a village between two big American bases, Salerno and Chapman.

I was used to staying at Salerno—less than a mile away—as an embedded reporter with the American military. But this time, I’d taken Doulat up on an invitation to visit his home. I’d come to admire him on four trips between the summer of 2007 and the fall of 2008, when I wrote about the progress of the American counterinsurgency here (see “A Counterinsurgency Grows in Khost,” May 19, 2008, and “Policing Afghanistan,” December 22, 2008).

At the time, Doulat was the subgovernor of Mandozai district, in the center of Khost Province, which borders on the mountainous, lawless Waziristan region of Pakistan. Rated as the best of the 12 subgovernors by the American military here, Doulat was considered to have an inside track on becoming governor himself. (Subgovernors and governors in Afghanistan are appointed by the president.) A graduate of the German high school in Kabul, he was one of the more educated officials in the province. Before the years of civil war, he’d worked for the Ministry of Power and Light in Kabul, where several of his children were born. Doulat was fascinated by irrigation and would, at the drop of a hat, sketch maps of where dams should be built in Khost. I thought of him as the technocrat in a turban.

Haji Doulat pushed a dozen or more major Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) projects to completion in Mandozai: several bridges, $1.4 million in irrigation canals and dams, nine school buildings including a girls’ high school, one medical clinic, the district’s administrative office, and a big mosque. (There’s apparently no limit to the number of mosques Khostis covet; there seems to be one every hundred yards, and in 2008 an American officer told me the ideal would be a mosque next to every house.) 

In 2007-08 Khost seemed on an upward course, guided by good American counterinsurgency strategy. It was blessed by the combination of Navy Commander Dave Adams, an unusually active PRT commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Scottie D. Custer, the maneuver commander from the 82nd Airborne Division, who oversaw Khost between the beginning of 2007 and March 2008. The Afghan governor, Arsala Jamal, was educated and competent, and the American commanders designed systems to make sure he didn’t dip his hands in the till of the numerous development contracts funded by American tax dollars.

In 2007, Adams’s team completed 68 miles of road—there were only 9 when they arrived. An additional 11 miles, a road from the highway to Spera District, has been built since, bringing the total to 88. Adams’s PRT also built 9 schools, 300 wells, and 35 irrigation dams. Fifty new schools were built in 2007 and 25 in 2008.

Custer, now retired, had secured Khost by dispersing about 200 paratroopers to live around the province in district centers. This is classic counterinsurgency strategy: Secure the population so they will trust their government. (Doulat reads it differently: He thinks it worked because it made the enemy disperse their forces to oppose the Americans.) When Custer turned over command in March 2008, the province was in pretty good shape with the exception of the Sabari district. Custer’s successor Lieutenant Colonel David Ell was to focus on pacifying Sabari, beset by a tribal feud and a favored infiltration route from Pakistan used by insurgents.

The Afghan government had big plans for Khost, which the U.S. Army agreed to finance: a modern municipal hospital, a commercial airport connecting the province to the Gulf States where many Khostis work, an industrial park, an electrical grid and water system for Khost City. A USAID project, asphalting the unpaved section of Highway One, the Afghan ringroad that links Kabul to Khost, was to be finished by November 2009. Paving or repaving the 62-mile stretch between Khost and Gardez, known as the K-G Pass Road, would cut the travel time from Kabul to Khost from six to four hours and boost commerce.

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