Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan — Can Afghanistan make progress against its Taliban insurgency if neighboring Pakistan fails to curb its own increasingly powerful jihadis?
This is the question that shadows President Obama’s “AfPak” policy as the United States dispatches 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and as Pakistani and Afghan leaders visit Washington this week.
Afghan officials complain bitterly that Pakistan’s military helps Taliban fighters cross the border from safe havens in Pakistan to fight here. (Pakistani officials deny this.) “Five days ago, I arrested three suicide bombers of Pakistani nationality in Kandahar,” Afghan Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said in an interview. “We also (recently) arrested five suicide bombers in Nimruz who were trained in Pakistan.”
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told me, “If there’s no change in Pakistan’s policy, the fight will be longer, harder, and more expensive.”
Nevertheless, American and Afghan officials still believe they can make headway against the insurgents.
Elders offer clues
I got good clues about what they need to do in a conversation with elders on the district council of Maidan Shahr.
Maidan Shahr is the bare-bones capital of Wardak province, population 900,000, a region of snowy mountains and valleys traversed by key highways just west of Kabul. Eight months ago, Taliban fighters were blocking these roads and potentially threatening Kabul.
An infusion of 1,500 U.S. troops and the efforts of a dynamic young provincial governor, Halim Fidai, has defused the threat for the present. Last week, I visited Fidai’s headquarters, a spartan, two-story building with signs instructing visitors: “Please unload weapons.”
There, I heard the hopes and complaints of 23 of Maidan Shahr’s elders. They sat, somewhat uncomfortably, around a long conference table — some of them farmers, some government employees, some former military; all bearded and wearing turbans or flat Pashtun hats and enveloping cloaks; a few holding cell phones.
They helped me understand what must be done to prevent a Taliban return.
Afghans want training
“We need to establish security in this country,” said Baktujan, a government employee in a folded Persian lamb hat who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.
“You must train Afghan soldiers, and then we won’t need your help,” pleaded Haji Sultan Aziz, a dignified, elderly man in a beige turban and cape.
The elders seemed unaware of the current intensive U.S. efforts to train and double the size of the Afghan army. Perhaps that is because the Obama administration began the efforts so recently. Or perhaps it is because the United States and the Afghan government are still failing to make such news known to the people.
Memo to the Obama and Hamid Karzai administrations: Get the word out.
But when I asked about the collateral damage caused by U.S. efforts to flush out the Taliban, almost every elder leaped up with a story. Gov. Fidai says most of these incidents happened a year or more ago, and their numbers have fallen sharply in Wardak province; more U.S. troops means less bombing. But, clearly, memories resonate, and this issue has the potential to turn Afghans against the U.S. presence. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported dozens of civilian deaths from a U.S. bombing in Farah province this week, although U.S. officials say at least some of the casualties could have been the result of Taliban attacks.
Memo to the U.S. military: Intensify ongoing training for incoming units on how to avoid harming innocent civilians.
Economic aid is key
The elders got equally exercised about international promises of economic aid and job creation that haven’t materialized. “Unemployment is one of the biggest problems,” Baktujan said. “The Taliban have motorcycles and money, and the people of Afghanistan are jobless, so the Taliban offer them these things. If the people were busy with jobs, they would never go to the Taliban.”
Murmurs of assent were heard around the table.
“Our government and the foreigners promise new projects, roads to villages, schools, irrigation, fixing our mosques, but we see nothing,” complained Haji Abdel Kadim, the dark-bearded, intense council chairman. Again, murmurs all around.
Afghan cabinet ministers and senior U.S. officials told me they understand the need for quick delivery on development projects after Afghan regions are cleared of Taliban. This is part of the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency mantra. It aims to show villagers that there is more practical benefit to backing their constitutional government than there is to following the Taliban. U.S. officials talk of funneling more money through provincial and district officials, so it conforms to local needs.
Yet Fidai says international aid bureaucracies and his own government’s bureaucracy still hamper economic progress. “My hands are crippled,” he said. “I have no development funds.” U.S. projects are in the pipeline, but the momentum gained from securing Wardak is fading as locals lose confidence that jobs are forthcoming.
“When the Americans keep their promises, build these projects, and train Afghans, the problems will be solved,” said Kadim, the council chairman.
Memo to U.S. officials: Pay attention to the elders of Maidan Shahr.