We squeeze into the cramped rear seat of a green Ford Ranger Afghan National Police truck. Neither Air Force Lt. Col. Andy Veres — the Provincial Reconstruction Team 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.
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. There are now about 50 miles of paved road in Zabul besides the national ringroad, Highway One; there were none in 2007.
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 Lt. Col. 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.
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 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 Hamid 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, e-mail, project assessment.
Why not just replace Nouri? Politically impossible: District governors are presidential appointees. A real villain, Mohammad Wazir, was evicted from one district for heroin-running and general evildoing after enormous effort by Oclander — only to be reassigned by Karzai to a different district. The tribal leaders there recently protested that they would drag him naked through the street if he dared return. Maj. Derrick Hernandez, who served under Oclander in Zabul, commented, “Just imagine how far along we would be if the people actually voted for their district and provincial leaders!” Lt. Col. Veres, on the other hand, cautions that Afghan voting is a work in progress, and elected district governors might not be any more capable, though they might better serve their local tribes.
And so it goes, in a struggle for governance, the rule of law, and civil society that can assume horrific or comic dimensions. As we walk with Nouri through the pitiful Shahr-e-Safa bazaar, we pass under the American-funded solar street lights, stripped of their solar panels by locals oblivious to the public good.
“I won’t be in a hurry to replace these,” Veres says.
Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and writes for the Weekly Standard, in which this first appeared.