The Back of Beyond: A Report from Zabul Province

After the Black Hawk helicopter cleared the landing zone, a handful of young paratroopers from the elite 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, walked a hundred yards to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Naw Bahar, Zabul Province, Afghanistan. The ninetheeth-century mudbrick fort stood out against the big sky; it was the tallest structure for miles around.

FOB Naw Bahar—justly nicknamed “FOB Nowhere”—is eight to thirteen hours by Humvee from any of the other population centers in Zabul Province. Given the threat of attack on Humvee convoys, American troops here travel by helicopter. The paratroopers who had just landed were some of the 764 soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander. It was late November 2009 and they had been operating in Zabul since late August. Their main mission was to advise the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan National Police (ANP), and Afghan National Army (ANA), but they were also conducting ground-level counterinsurgency missions.

The soldiers had arrived to rehearse an air assault on Faizabad Bazaar, the “Taliban Walmart,” fifteen kilometers away across the border of Ghazni Province, scheduled to take place in two days. The paratroopers were eager to maintain the fearsome reputation of their unit, which had fought up and down southern Afghanistan during two deployments. The purpose of the upcoming maneuver, however, wasn’t to engage the enemy in Faizabad, but to obtain fingerprints and retinal scans from men of military age and to discover more about the Taliban’s resupply visits to the bazaar.

Naw Bahar, which means “New Spring” in Dari, has the distinction of being one of the most remote, poorest, driest, and least governed districts in Afghanistan. It’s also where the rubber meets the road in the American effort to stand up the country’s national security forces and local governments.

Located on a flood plain more than six thousand feet above sea level, Naw Bahar’s estimated twenty-three thousand inhabitants produce meager amounts of wheat, almonds, and grapes using what the commander of the provincial reconstruction team in Zabul, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Andy Veres, refers to as “biblical” agricultural methods. Irrigation is provided by an ancient Afghan system of kerez, or underground canals, that move water from distant mountain streams to the fields, but the canals cost a great deal to maintain and it is rare to see any work being done on them. The United States and other foreign nations have dug some deep wells for household use in the nearby villages, but the water table in Zabul keeps falling.

Naw Bahar is not only spectacularly poor, but spectacularly ungoverned. A half-built stone district center stands abandoned in a field outside the forward operating base. Work on the center halted two years ago, for reasons no one quite remembers, although corruption and Taliban intimidation are said to have been involved. The district sub-governor, appointed by the provincial governor, has not shown his face since September. Members of the ANA here say that he sold nine hundred of the twelve hundred bags of wheat that had been provided as humanitarian assistance for the impoverished district. No other civil authorities operate in the district; just seventy-seven national policemen and eighty-seven members of the ANA.

Nor does Naw Bahar have a school, the Taliban having killed the only two local teachers a few years ago. The town’s residents probably reflect the Afghan provincial literacy rate of 11 percent overall, 1 percent for women. None of the nearby villages have electricity, even from private generators; nor does one encounter cars, given that the area has no roads. Most men travel by motorcycle, the poor by bike, the women not at all.

Zabul itself is a pretty good illustration of the term rural hellhole. Bigger than Connecticut but smaller than New Jersey, the province has between 250,000 and 365,000 souls widely dispersed in 1,517 villages and from more than twenty tribes.

Afghanistan’s newly repaved ring road, Highway 1, bisects Zabul, with just 26 percent of the population living in the poorer districts south of the highway (Naw Bahar is one). Initially the government expected that Highway 1—Zabul’s only paved road—would jump-start commerce here. But Zabul is just too poor. Its farmers don’t, for the most part, produce an exportable surplus large enough to justify road transportation, and therefore don’t have cash to spend on the goods that bazaars sell elsewhere. Most of Zabul’s villages sit far from the highway anyway.

Overwhelmingly Pashtun, Zabul may be the worst-off of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. It has always had an uneasy relationship with the national government. The capital, Qalat, was formerly known as Qalat-i-Ghilzai (“Fort of the Ghilzai”), after the predominant local tribal group. The Ghilzai are the largest Pashtun tribal confederation, comprising as much as 24 percent of the Afghan population. But since the eighteenth century, when the rival Durranis—about 16 percent of the population—took Kandahar, the Afghan kingship, and with it the juiciest land, the Ghilzai have lived to large degree in sullen, semi-rebellious rural poverty. Much of the Taliban leadership comes from the Ghilzai.

Lt. Col. Oclander, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger who commands men at twelve bases in Zabul and two in Uruzgan, notes, “About one in ten villages are very proud that they don’t allow Taliban. Their unity allows them to do that. The question is, what makes these villages unified and others not?”

The Taliban enjoy at least considerable passive support in Zabul. The typical route, Oclander says, would be for a jobless youth to go to Pakistan to find work and end up being radicalized or simply hired to work for the insurgency. He notes that the Taliban have responded to the counterinsurgency by appealing more vigorously to the people. “They have recognized some of their errors. They know they can’t alienate the local population.”

In much of Zabul, the only face of the Afghan government is the Afghan police and army. Few of the eleven district governors are literate, and only two actually live in their districts, in the two biggest towns of Qalat, the province capital, and Shajoy. Two Zabul districts, Mizan and Day Chopan, have no police advisers, and Mizan has seen so many IED attacks that it would take a brigade-level operation to move between the two American FOBs by ground.

Only one hundred Afghan Border Police (ABP) patrol Zabul’s sixty-four-kilometer border with Pakistan. The local insurgency uses this as a transit area, with perhaps a third of the Taliban resting and restaging in Pakistan at any given time.

Zabul’s governor, Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, is halfway-local; he went to Baba Hotak High School in Shinkaye, where many members of his subtribe live. He speaks English and the Americans here rate him as competent. In his previous post, as governor of Baghdis Province, he was accused of embezzlement. The governor has been authorized fifty-four staff positions but he has only filled six. Similarly, only nine of seventeen provincial line minister positions have been filled. With living conditions bleak even by Afghan standards, the province will surely remain under-governed. So the brunt of the American effort concentrates on standing up the Afghan National Security Forces. Counterinsurgency here lies somewhere between the “clear” and “hold” stages, meaning it features routine combat operations.

The ANA has made progress under American tutelage. Their elite troops could even be mistaken for Americans at a distance. And some of their leaders seem very capable and honest in a country where corruption tends to be commonplace. When it comes to working with the Afghan forces, Colonel Brian Drinkwine, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne, prefers the term “advising” to “mentoring.” He says,

Two of our provincial ANA commanders have graduated from American war colleges. They’ve fought the Soviets. We talk about advising, sharing intelligence, making sure the kandak (battalion) commanders are communicating with their superiors. The ANA is very top-down-centric.

The Afghan commander of the 2nd Brigade in Zabul, Major General Jamaladeen Sayed, gets high marks from his American adviser, Lieutenant Colonel Bob O’Brien: “He is introspective and deliberate but capable of making quick decisions, and he understands the enemy here.” The head of the Romanian training team that advises Jamaladeen’s headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Dorin Toma, adds that Jamaladeen figures out from experience where the enemy will go.

I visited two of Jamaladeen’s five kandak headquarters. The combat service support kandak operates out of the picturesque High Fort of Qalat City. While the lieutenant colonel in charge has mediocre ratings, the executive officer is excellent, according to Captain Burton Furlow, who advises the kandak. Here, too, new facilities are under construction. Furlow has launched an innovative program to address the ANA’s weakness in maintaining its equipment. His mechanics come to the kandak once a week in an exchange that sends the ANA’s mechanics to train at FOB Apache.

The new barracks will be similar to American quarters here, but even the old, weathered accommodations currently in place seem impressively clean and orderly. In fact, they were cleaner than most Afghan homes I’ve seen, and warmer. Each building houses a dozen or so men on metal bunk beds, with a wood heater in the center and a large television blaring.

Toma refers to the other kandak’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmadazai Wali Mohammad, as an “action man” and a Kandahari Pashtun who makes an effort to get to know the local elders. But the American report evaluating the unit concludes that “effective command and control of operations at [multiple] locations will probably never be a reasonable expectation.” Its Romanian trainers say that the 2nd Kandak can function independently at platoon and company levels but needs foreign support for battalion-level missions. The ANA officers can read a plan, but have trouble using maps.

The day I visited FOB Eagle was a major Muslim religious holiday, Eid al-Adha, so most of the officers were home on leave. In addition to the 112 men away for the holiday, and eleven who were ill, there were 170 soldiers absent without leave—out of a total strength of 763 men. The personnel officer, the only senior officer present, explained that low pay was the main reason for the AWOLs. (Base pay begins at 9,000 Afghanis monthly, or about $180, up from $100 a year ago, and General Stanley McChrystal plans to double that.)

Captain Michael Tumlin, an adviser with the 321st Field Artillery, says that the ANA troops he mentors at FOB Wolverine in Shinkay District don’t patrol unless coalition troops go with them. “The most important thing we can affect is their logistics system. They don’t plan ahead—cold weather had come before they ordered firewood and winter clothing from brigade headquarters.” They are weak on maintenance—again a cultural issue. “I am here five months and I never saw an ANA with a hammer,” says Toma, the Romanian team leader. “If something is broken they ask us to fix it.”

Things get worse the farther out one goes. In Afghanistan, the distance from the provincial capital or military headquarters translates into a regression of years or even decades. In the old mudbrick fort at Naw Bahar, the 3rd Company, 1st Kandak, 205th Corps, face difficult conditions bravely. Their American advisers, led by First Lieutenant Chris Goeke, comment in a written evaluation, “They have a lot of experience fighting . . . they are eager to fight and kill Taliban.”

But they cannot provide security for this beleaguered district without American help. The good-hearted but mainly illiterate troops have a limited attention span; the Americans can train them for no more than two hours in the morning, then must give them a break and return to the task in the afternoon. A first aid class I watched in November was constantly on the verge of chaos, with the ANA troops talking among themselves rather than listening to the interpreter as they cursorily watched the American sergeant demonstrate how to use a tourniquet, check for vital signs, and conduct other basic procedures.

Goeke’s boss, twenty-eight-year-old Captain Daniel Whitten (like Goeke, a West Pointer and a Ranger), explains that in the three locations where his Charlie Company lives alongside the ANA, the Afghans tend to perform better operationally than in logistics. Barely literate, they have trouble with future planning, and especially with supply forms, which often languish, unfilled, until the Americans finally yield to Afghan entreaties and just give them the supplies.


A more urgent matter concerns the relationship of the ANA to the local population. Afghan soldiers here come from Bamiyan, Jalalabad, Logar, Herat, Takhar, and Day Kundi Provinces—mainly central and eastern Afghanistan—and are overwhelmingly Tajik, with a few Hazaras. Pashtuns have tended to avoid the identification with national goals that joining the army implies, although in the last five years the ANA has made an enormous effort to integrate men of all ethnicities into its ranks. But the situation at Naw Bahar resembles that of a company of Union soldiers stationed in Georgia in 1870.

“When we were training to come over here, Chris [Goeke] and Dan Whitten and I talked about [French counterinsurgency expert David] Galula’s methods,” explains Captain Derrick Hernandez, Oclander’s operations officer. Hernandez and a few other paratroopers now with Oclander’s Task Force Fury served two years ago in the much more prosperous Khost Province, where they followed Galula’s practice of living alongside the national police and army in small district centers and helped bolster the local Afghan government. With just 250 U.S. troops providing security, Khost was relatively peaceful and thrived economically.

Oclander is well versed in counterinsurgency theory and committed to engaging the local population. “Back home, I told my officers, we’re going to fight this thing dismounted,” he says. “The only thing you dominate when you’re driving is the battlespace inside your vehicle.” But Oclander’s men can’t be everywhere in the two provinces he oversees, both of which have widely dispersed populations. So he substitutes frequency—higher operations tempo (op-tempo)—for proximity and numbers. This means that his men have to conduct more patrols, covering more ground and generally working harder (and smarter) rather than bigger.

Oclander forces higher op-tempo on the ANA units he works with, too, increasing the number of patrols and missions so that they see—and can be seen by—the populace. On average, the ANA here currently patrol three times a week; Oclander wants to bring that to five times, and add night patrols as well. One of the captains who works for Oclander, Jacob White, says that he tries to get the ANA he advises in Shajoy out one or two times a day, plus once for a night patrol. “They’re not afraid to patrol at night,” he says, “but they’re content with a low op-tempo.”

Hernandez cautions that we should be wary of making the Afghan Security Forces so much like American forces that they become vulnerable in the same ways—fighting from heavy, unmaneuverable vehicles. “They should train to fight like the Taliban and seize the high ground.” In places like Naw Bahar, the ANA use a mix of motorcycles and unarmored, American-provided Ford Ranger pickups—and may soon get ATVs.

The Afghan National Police (ANP) operate much further from full readiness—understandably, given that the United States just assumed the task of mentoring them two years and a couple of billion dollars ago. The written evaluations from Oclander’s advisers make clear that the Naw Bahar force has ample room to improve. “The police chief says he has squad leaders, but you would never be able to tell . . . They need basic training—how to wear a uniform and what a chain of command is.” Even district police chiefs travel in mufti when they visit Qalat, and nothing in their bearing indicates their occupation.

Animosity toward the ANP runs high in Zabul’s biggest town, Shajoy. At a shura (or traditional council meeting) to discuss security measures taken after a bombing killed two American paratroopers, one Shajoy elder shouted that the police were “thieves and drug addicts.” Much applause followed. The acting governor, Provincial Finance Minister Gulab Shah Alikhil, calmly retorted, “If you don’t like the police, we can take
them back.”

When I spoke with some of Shajoy’s ANP, they insisted that they were resented because they weren’t from Zabul. Indeed, they come from almost everywhere else in Afghanistan and only 20 percent speak Pashtu, the local language. This spells disaster in terms of conducting effective counterinsurgency, no matter how well trained the police may be—and these seemed pretty good.

Zabul’s police chief, Abdul Rahman Sarjang, is well-thought-of, but, perhaps in response to the governor’s wishes, he concentrates security in the local capital. About half of the province’s 1,621 policemen reside in Qalat, which has a population of just twenty thousand. Meanwhile, Shajoy, with double the population, has only 115 policemen.

Oclander thinks that his men have made some inroads with the ANA and, to a lesser extent, the ANP, but at just three months in, it’s hard to point to concrete measures. Lt. Col. Veres, commander of the provincial reconstruction team, also points to some progress since he arrived in July:

In Tarin wa Jaldak, we met with the shopkeepers in the bazaar and their primary concerns were the process for opening new shops and taxation. That’s a success—they were not fearing for their lives. In Suri, a part of Shinkay District, property values have risen due to the American troops stationed nearby.

Veres also notes that an agricultural reconstruction team—a large group of reservists with civilian-world expertise in farming and pasturage—is slated to arrive in early March and “could be a game changer.”

While I was embedded with Oclander’s troops, orders came down from headquarters that all American troops would be pulling back to Highway 1 and leaving the south-of-the-highway areas where only one quarter of the population of Zabul lives.

In late January of this year, Veres wrote, “Seventy-five percent of our focus is on the three key districts along Highway 1, then we divide the rest of our effort as required along the other less accessible districts.” Without the American security shield, it seems fairly obvious that places like Naw Bahar and Faizabad will not have schools or local government anytime soon, much less economic progress. The ANA cannot take the place of coalition forces here. Some in FOB Apache’s tactical operations center joked bitterly with me about the move: “You should come back for another embed when we’ve given the province to the Taliban.”

Proud soldiers do not enjoy forfeiting territory they have won in battle, as the 82nd has in two years of fighting. But would the citizens of Naw Bahar really be any worse off under the Taliban—with whom they share tribal roots and customs—than now? Do we have a moral responsibility to make them better off? And, if so, for how long, and at what cost?

Estimates put Afghanistan’s population at between twenty and thirty million, growing to eighty million in 2050. In places like rural Zabul, how many will be literate then? The Afghan paradox is that while reality here can be infinitely granular, differing almost from village to village, the whole picture counts too. Places like Zabul are impoverished because they are ungoverned, but they are also ungoverned because they are impoverished. Security is weak in such provinces because the central government remains a disaster, and the central government remains a disaster because these provinces have no security. Unraveling these paradoxes will be, as the American paratroopers here like to say, “a challenge.”

In Memoriam
Captain Daniel P. Whitten, USA

Ann Marlowe writes frequently on politics, economy, and culture in Afghanistan. She is the author of How to Stop Time and The Book of Trouble and a World Affairs blogger.

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