PAVING THE WAY IN AFGHANISTAN
Good roads and irrigation surpassing security issues? Call that success.
SEAN M. MALONEY
The Nyala armoured vehicle rolls out of Camp Nathan Smith on a cold morning, headed west of Kandahar city. The troops have an iPod speaker system in back, incongruously blasting AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. “I would have preferred Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’tFear) The Reaperl” I yell to Sgt.-Maj. Michel Pelletier, who laughs and nods. The Nyala and its LAV III escorts wind their way through the city and up a pass. In no time, thanks to the new paved road, we’re overlooking Arghandab district, a rolling agricultural zone flanking the vital Arghandab River. Surrounded by hills and with the Dala Dam situated like a cork in a bottle to the north of the valley, this district is vital ground for the security forces. It is the western gateway to Kandahar city.
We’re here for the weekly shura with the district’s formal and informal leadership. We dismount, meet up with “Hamid,” our interpreter, and pass by bored policemen and through a maze of shoes left outside by the attendees. The meeting room is cozy and soon crowded. I’m amazed by the different varieties of turban worn by the bearded district elders: greys, browns, gold piping, silver piping. The turban is an expression of individuality and class in an otherwise dun-coloured environment. Everybody is shaking hands and I hear parchment-like flesh rasp as an elder grips my hand and raises his hand to his heart. I return the gesture: “Assalaam alaikuml” There are elaborate greetings: “How are you, God be praised?” “My health is good. God willing, my crops will also be plentiful this season. How is your health?” Chai is offered and poured. Pelletier and I are introduced, and the shura begins. Shuras are robust, lively meetings: I’ve
attended many in Afghanistan. I’m expecting recriminations about security—where are the coalition forces? What are we doing about corrupt police? About insurgent intimidation?
I brace myself for a barrage of finger pointing. Pelletier asks about security, and a bearded Pashtun wearing spectacles rebuffs the question. “It isn’t a matter of security. We want to talk about generators for electricity. We want to improve the irrigation system along the river. Oh, and you’re building roads for those who hate you in Panjwai district. We like you— but you’re not building roads in Arghandab! Why not?” The shura erupts in a chorus of guttural “Wuhs\”, Pashtun for “Yeah!” I’m taken aback. For a shura to be focused solely on development issues is a complete turnaround from last fall, when Canadian and Afghan forces were fighting to eject the Taliban from the banks of the Arghandab.
In late October 2007, there was a flurry of reports that the Taliban were going to seize Arghandab district, about five kilometres northwest of Kandahar city. The district’s patriarch, the charismatic Mullah Naqib, had recently died from complications in the wake of an assassination attempt, leaving a power vacuum. The Canadian intelligence apparatus kept a careful watch, but until the enemy brought together forces and made an overt move, little could be done to pre-empt them. Then, some 200 Taliban fighters infiltrated the district in small numbers and massed across the river from the district centre. They told the population they were in charge.
A tidal wave of cellphone calls from the inhabitants caused a panic within Kandahar city, and as far away as Quetta, Pakistan, and even the United States. The exponential growth of the cellphone network in southern Afghanistan, practically non-existent back in 2003, dramatically escalated this panic, as did the local and international media. Karen Foss, a Foreign Affairs staffer at the Provincial Reconstruction Team, received calls from practically everybody she knew in Kandahar: “ I had a friend who lived in the city that was even prepared to cancel his wedding. We had a disturbance in Arghandab, and here were people
convinced that the city was about to fall!” Essentially,
200 enemy fighters managed to intimidate a city with a population of around a half-million. Inadvertently.
Retaking Arghandab district was a geographical imperative as much as a psychological one. Brig.-Gen. Guy Laroche, his commanders and Afghan allies could not allow the Taliban to gain a foothold. “It was critical that Arghandab not be turned into another Zharey [where the enemy is entrenched next to the city], so we went in as quickly as we could,” Laroche explained. “The enemy had continuously tried to surround and interdict Kandahar city—it is his objective. We couldn’t allow this to take place.”
Within 24 hours, lightning speed in circumstances like this, B Company from 3rd Battalion, the Royal 22nd Regiment, pulled out of their positions and headed north. The new Leopard 2 A6M tanks from the Strathcona’s C Squadron linked up with an Afghan National Army infantry company. With the tanks and the Afghans on the left and Maj. Dave Abboud’s B Company on the right, the combined force led by Lt.-Col. Alain Gauthier fought its way through the complex terrain of woods, fields and compounds west of the river. Afghan National Police forces screened to the east. “The battle took two days,” said Abboud. “We had a couple of really sharp firefights. We went in dismounted because of the terrain. The Taliban weren’t expecting that. They’re used to us fighting from vehicles or blowing us up with IEDs.” The Taliban force was corralled, with the Afghans and the tanks pushing them east and B Company pressuring them to move north and away from the river. A single air strike killed a group of Taliban after they pulled back and were consulting with their commanders, leaving the snake headless. Resistance collapsed and the tattered remnants
melted away. “The word that we’d succeeded in Arghandab got out as quickly as the panic had,” Karen Foss explained. Canadian and Afghan forces were treated to what amounted to a victory parade as they departed. For Dave Abboud, it was the proudest moment of his career thus far. “We were exhausted, but the people were lining up and cheering. It was like Holland in 1944.”
The importance of operations like Arghandab won’t show up in the pessimistic, sterile numbers generated by international organizations and think tanks based in Kabul, organizations whose personnel rarely travel to the south. I asked the PRT commander, Lt.-Col. Bob Chamberlain, why this was the case. “Our Civil Miliary Co-operation [CIMIC] people have their pulse on the communities in ways that those groups don’t. They rely on polling conducted through various intermediaries. We hear that the local people are tired of constantly being asked questions by strangers. The possibility that the numbers don’t accurately reflect attitudes and dissatisfactions is very real. It is only through constant contact with the communities that we can even approach some understanding of what is going on here,” Chamberlain emphasizes, “especially in terms of development.”
Panic similar to the Arghandab event, however, exists within the development community. The kidnapping of a female U.S. aid worker in January led to more “the-sky-is-falling” behaviour from the NGOs, who assumed it was Taliban action. It is still not clear whether it was or not, but it sparked fear and, in some cases, was used as an excuse to suspend activities. “The issue here,” Rashid, an Afghan friend, tells me, “is that there is a severe perception problem. We are constantly astounded by the pronouncements of some of these organizations. It just doesn’t conform to what we’re seeing here in terms of enemy activity. Or in terms of development.”
The reality is that the development is uneven. The most egregious failure I saw was the inability of the Canadian International Development Agency to carefully monitor paving progress on Highway 4, the vital millennia-old trade route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. CIDA dismissed reports from Canadian reconnaissance squadrons that work was not being done, preferring to rely on the reports of its contracted partners. After five months, tens of kilometres of road remain an unpaved dust bowl with frequent jingle truck rollovers, their cargoes spilled out on the ground, leaking lubricants and fuel. I travelled to Spin Buldak with Maj. Pete Huet’s
Recce Squadron along Highway 4—there is no security problem from Kandahar city until you get to the outskirts of Spin Buldak, where Taliban suicide bombers constantly try (and fail) dramatically to kill Col. Abdul Rezziq, the local commander of the border police. For a country that built a railroad through British Columbia, there is no excuse for the lack of progress in paving Highway 4.
On the plus side, CIDA’s ability to work through intermediaries has paid off in health care. CIDA’s representatives are upbeat about the polio eradication program, and particularly about education efforts to improve birthing techniques in the remote districts, even those with a significant enemy presence. Indeed, I was told that UNICEF would not even be operating in the province if it weren’t for the Canadian PRT and the Canadian Forces working alongside the aid agencies in the field. CIDA representatives are at the forefront of “banging on the doors of the development community” to get more action in the south, according to a CIDA staffer.
I spoke with Bob Chamberlain about blockages in development at the provincial level. “Asadullah Khalid [the Kandahar governor] is now down to two cellphones from six. He now has more and better staff and he’s finally delegating.” In the past, the governor was
focused nearly exclusively on security issues, but now he is directing more attention to economic and social development. I sat in with the Provincial Development Committee, an organization that had been moribund for the past two years, and was surprised that real business was actually discussed: in this case, a $22-million CIDA project to improve the water and sewage system in Kandahar city. Such discussions, and the amounts of money, would have been inconceivable a year ago.
To find out how this was all working at the district level, I went with Sgt. Dan Frenette to Dand district, south of the city. Like the Arghandab shura, the Dand shura was focused on development. Frenette said the local community development councils—effectively village councils—were now working with district development assemblies to sort out priorities among themselves without immediately coming to the Canadian PRT. There is, however, a severe backlog in uncompleted projects, which is generating grievances. One reason is the emergent provincial mechanisms. As one Dand shura member told me, “Our dissatisfaction is with the province. Kabul is a remote place. We don’t know anybody there. Canada is even further away.”
There’s also frustration with the slow pace CIDA and the NGOs operate at, their traditional development timelines (which can run into years), and a comparative lack of accountability. Such organizations are not used to having to react quickly in a counterinsurgency environment, and are completely unaccustomed to the sort of microscopic scrutiny and demands for accountability that are brought to bear on the Canadian Forces in the post-Somalia environment.
There are other needless delays. For example, according to PRT staffers, demands from bureaucracies in Ottawa that the Sarpoza Provincial Prison should somehow conform to Canadian building code and Western human rights standards have frustrated Correctional Services of Canada. This has a spillover effect on improving the justice system—if you have no place to put people, is there any point in arresting them? “Why should prisoners have a higher standard of living than the average Afghan citizen?” one bewildered PRT staffer explained.
The Taliban contests Zharey district and the northern part of Panjwai district. Another agriculturally rich area, it abuts the vital Highway 1, the main east-west highway in southern Afghanistan. In 2005, coalition forces didn’t venture into Zharey district. After several battles in 2006 and incursions in 2007, the Taliban are now on the defensive and are incapable of using the area as a base to attack Kandahar city or to interdict Highway 1. Maj. Louis Lapointe leads the Police Operational Mentor and Liaison Team in the area. “We have several improvements in this district— the police now have a joint coordination centre and we now have a 911 tip line. The expansion of the cellphone system has led to more and better information on enemy and criminal activity in the district. We now have locals telling us when the enemy lays IEDs.” Afghan police and army personnel are now largely responsible for Zharey, with Canadian mentoring backup. The enemy is so frustrated he is now burning cellphone towers to stop the flow of informationeven though the insurgents need the same
‘The expansion of the cellphone system has led to better information. We now have the locals telling us when the enemy lays IEDs.’
system to communicate.
Capt. Mike Laroque, the passionate and energetic CIMIC leader for Panjwai, is involved with several projects, including road paving.
This joint project employs 450 local men and will eventually connect both districts.
“This serves several purposes,” he says. “Employed people are less inclined to be insurgents, and the population has a stake in the project and will be inclined to protect it. We get better security from IEDs, and communities can get produce to markets more efficiently.”
The effect of these and other operations has been to force the Taliban away from the more important centres in both districts—and away from Highway 1 and the city. The Taliban still lash out with IED attacks, but the movement has lost a lot of ground with the populations of both districts, and is at present incapable of mounting the same level of violence it exhibited back in 2006.
The action is shifting west. Maywand district has had a reputation as Taliban-dominated, a seam between Helmand province and Kandahar province, and one of the insurgents’ logistics routes into Zharey district. Maj.-Gen. Marc Lessard, commander of ISAF’s Regional Command South, decided to launch a series of raids into Maywand using the 1st Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, a British unit that is the ISAF’s southern regional mobile reserve. I accompanied the Gurkhas, led by Lt.-Col. Jonny Bourne, on this operation.
The Gurkha battalion flew in at night on Chinook and Lynx helicopters and surprised the insurgents in Maywand. Those who panicked and tried to escape were killed by air strikes. Others who hid among the population were flushed out as the Gurkhas searched compounds and discovered a number of cars that were being prepared as suicide bomb vehicles, and vast amounts of information on enemy intentions and structures. Enemy leaders in Maywand were even instructed by their command to escape the onslaught and make their
way to Pakistan, but several were apprehended. At the same time the Afghan army rolled into the town of Hutel and conducted joint patrols throughout the area with the Maywand police, who had recently been replaced to a man as their predecessors were fired for hijacking World Food Programme convoys. The population was pleasantly surprised by the show of force: “We have an army again!” one grinning elder proudly told me.
The Gurkhas took time to attend community shuras, where the locals enjoyed the novelty of encountering British-led Nepalese troops, who in some cases spoke common languages and who bought, cooked and ate the same animals they did rather than relying on precooked rations. Expecting hostile pro-Taliban locals, the force got a surprise. “We’re thinking of establishing an army strong point here,” Bourne said, sounding out the shuras. “What do you think?” Invariably, the response from the grey-bearded elders was, “Sure. If you keep those corrupt bastard police from Hutel away!”
The Taliban were exploiting local grievances for their purposes and even pretending to be police. When I asked an elder what he thought about the Taliban, he said “They’re un-Islamic bastards who can do nothing but kill. But what do we do if the police don’t protect us?” It was the kind of story heard in Zharey and Panjwai back in 2006. No Taliban stronghold here, just a place where security and governance haven’t yet arrived.
Six years into Afghanistan, and two years after Canadian troops took on the volatile south, all types of violence employed by the Taliban in Kandahar province are at significantly lower levels compared to 2006. There have been two rocket attacks against Kandahar airfield in the past three months: one on Christmas Eve, and one in February. In the summer and fall of 2006, there were rocket attacks nearly every second night. The Canadian base at Masum Ghar has been rocketfree for nearly three months; a Canadian Leopard 2 engaged and destroyed a Taliban rocket team with its 120-mm gun and the attacks dropped off. There are no longer suicide car-bomb attacks on Highway 4. Ambush activity on Highway 1 is low. At this point, the Taliban are incapable of holding districts with positional defence like they tried in 2006. All they can do is launch IED attacks against the security forces, blow up civilians with suicide bombers and conduct “night letter” intimidation campaigns. The Taliban do not control any of the critical districts they need to control Kandahar city. Without Kandahar city, they cannot succeed
in southern Afghanistan. Special operations forces have made the city a lethal place for terrorists. When all is said and done, the Taliban have been continuously thwarted in their stated aims
The Taliban, said one elder, are 'un-Islamic bastards who can do nothing but kill. But what do we do if the police don’t protect us?’
over the course of the past three years.
Most importantly, the Taliban have completely failed to provide a serious alternative for the Afghan people. Indeed, the government and its allies hold the initiative and have forced the Taliban to react to their development gains. Elders in Panjwai district sent a delegation to Quetta, where the Taliban is headquartered, and told them to stop attacking schools. There hasn’t been a school attack in months. The Taliban backed away from interfering with health care delivery—in 2005, they were assassinating doctors and nurses. If the insurgents again use violence against doctors and teachers, they will lose influence with the population. If they do not attack, the development effort succeeds, and the Taliban lose influence over time to the government.
The most encouraging sign is the new splits that have appeared within the Taliban movement itself. The horrifying suicide attack that killed 100 and wounded 80 in February was so counterproductive that the Taliban refused to take credit for it. “The commanders who perpetrated that attack are now at odds with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, who has always been leery of mass casualty attacks directed against the civilian population,” one analyst explained. A second attack the following day in Spin Buldak was probably not related to the first one, but the public backlash after another 38 deaths is causing some angst within the Quetta shura.
The first high-level defectors from the movement are coming forward, particularly Mullah Abdul Salaam in Helmand province. Salaam, who had been fighting the coalition and the government since 2002, has now changed sides and brought his fighters with him. Other commanders in Kandahar are inquiring about amnesty. Their reasons? Their followers are losing their enthusiasm in the face of improved security measures and no longer relish the corporeal non-existence generated by a precision air strike or the ignominy of being killed at night by adversaries they can’t see. Consequently, the movement is starting to rely on more and more foreign fighters, who will be easier to kill because they can’t blend into the population.
As one analyst quips, “If the Taliban can’t get it up in 2008, they might as well just PTS [join the amnesty program] or commit suicide and get it over with. They are accomplishing nothing, and they have nothing to offer. Why do more people have to die? To what end? The greater glory of God? Or Mullah Omar? Or Osama bin Laden?”
The Taliban may very well wind up like the IRA, with splits generating ultra-violent but minority factions of smaller and smaller size until the effort peters out. Or it may be supplanted by al-Qaeda, much like the PLO was supplanted by Hamas in Gaza. The violence may not completely stop, but the coalition forces and their Afghan partners have a real opportunity to make up for lost time, provided bureaucratic gridlock and competition do not prove insurmountable. M
Sean M. Maloney teaches in the war studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada and is the strategic studies adviser to the Canadian Defence Academy.