Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan — Is there any way to get around Afghan President Hamid Karzai?
This question dominates the U.S. debate as President Obama prepares to announce his long-delayed Afghan strategy. A leaked memo to the White House from the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, opposes any troop increase until Karzai tackles corruption. Many think Karzai’s flaws will undermine the entire NATO effort.
But there is a way to circumvent the Karzai problem: a bottom-up strategy that deals more directly with effective governors and ministry officials in troubled provinces. Smarter diplomacy might even bring Karzai on board.
I spent two days in Wardak, a strategically important province west of Kabul, where a substantial Taliban presence was pushed back by more U.S. troops working with an effective governor, Halim Fidai. What I saw in Wardak proves progress can be made despite problematic leadership in Kabul.
A year ago, the Taliban was rocketing Wardak’s capital city, Maidan Shahr, and controlled key roads and many districts within the province. On this trip I drove with Gov. Fidai along the Jalrez valley road, lined with apple and apricot orchards below snowcapped mountains. Roadside bazaars teemed with people, who said the Taliban no longer were a presence.
More U.S. forces. A crucial infusion of additional U.S. troops helped clear Taliban from many districts of Wardak, although roadside explosives remain a serious problem. Fidai has a good, cooperative relationship with Col. Michael Gabel, who commands the forward operating base across the road from the governor’s modest, two-story office.
Governance. The hold-and-build part of any effort to push back insurgents depends on the ability of government to connect with the people. Fidai, who worked for 14 years with international NGOs and speaks fluent English, is constantly in motion, listening to local grievances in his office, traveling to outlying districts, attending a shura of 500 elders in Kabul on the problem of Afghan prisoners held at Bagram airfield.
Fidai brought electricity to Maidan Shahr (most of the province is still without); this in turn encouraged local merchants to invest in rows of three- and four-story shops near his office, with sidewalks, built with small U.S. grants, that enable shoppers to avoid wallowing through mud.
With the help of some forward-looking Afghan officials in Kabul and U.S. aid funds, Fidai has introduced indirectly elected district councils to his province. As I sit in his office, two council members are trying to mediate a land dispute among a dozen local residents; typically, the dispute has dragged on for a dozen years in Afghanistan’s weak court system. “If I don’t find a way to resolve these cases, they will go to the Taliban,” Fidai says.
Message: It’s crucial for local villagers to feel that government officials respond to their problems. That can help reverse Taliban gains.
- Economic progress feeds security and vice versa. We head out along a newly paved stretch of road (Italian funds, Chinese contractor). The road was delayed for two years for security reasons; when construction restarted, tribal elders demanded that the Taliban — who are behind the mountains on one side of the valley — not interfere with the road workers. Once villagers were given an economic benefit, they wanted to protect it.
New roadside bazaars have sprung up along the road and almost every house — small, concrete or mud-brick boxes — sports a satellite dish. Clearly, villagers no longer fear the Taliban, who would destroy the dishes were they there.
- The “build” piece should be local. USAID has two staffers at the U.S. military base in Maidan Shahr, and they have good ideas about water projects and helping Wardak farmers market their apples. But delivery of promised U.S. civilian aid is still too slow, which creates mistrust, and that aid is still too dependent on high-cost international contractors. “The United States should send technical assistance directly to governors,” says Fidai, to help them improve staff skills in administration, security and development.
Message: The biggest, fastest bang for the development buck will come from helping Afghans help themselves. More U.S. aid should go to effective governors and ministries that have the best provincial outreach, such as Agriculture and Rural Reconstruction and Development. This change is supposedly on the way, but it should be sped up.
- Local security helps keep the peace. At intervals along the newly paved “Chinese road” stand armed local home guards. They are the controversial Afghan Public Protection force, known as the AP3, who are recruited by local elders, paid by the Afghan Interior Ministry, and trained (briefly) by U.S. forces. They are a transitional force meant to watch for outsiders. I was skeptical about their usefulness when I visited Wardak in May. But Fidai, who promoted the AP3, says that “where there are AP3 there are no IEDs,” because locals are more willing to give intelligence tips to homeboys. So the AP3 should be retained until the Afghan national police can be expanded sufficiently to man remote areas of Wardak.
Message: Local forms of security emerge once an area is cleared and villagers have something to protect.
In sum, an effective governor can be the pivot point for Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of “clear, hold and build.” But governors are appointed by Karzai. So this bottom-up strategy requires persuading the Afghan president to appoint good governors and ministers, rather than warlords to whom he’s politically indebted.
“Make clear to Karzai that this is a benefit to him,” says Fidai, “and that it will reflect well on him, by helping deliver services to the people. Don’t approach this as a criticism of Karzai, but emphasize that these governors will be part of a team that he heads.”
This may be the hardest part of a bottom-up strategy, requiring deft private diplomacy. Yet the effort is essential. As I saw in Wardak, when a good provincial government offers a better alternative, Afghans reject the Taliban.