Afghanistan, bazaar, counterinsurgency, culture, culture of dependency, daily life, economics, economy, GIRoA, government, government effectiveness, import, international relations, ISI, Pakistan, Pashtuns, politics, security, services, Taliban, taxation
The people living in eastern Afghanistan have a peculiar sort of love-hate relationship with their neighbor Pakistan. The other country is right there on their doorstep. In Khost Province, there are areas where you can stand where, if you look north, south or east, you’re looking at mountains in Pakistan. Anyone from this area who spent time as a refugee from Afghanistan in the past 30 years probably was living in Pakistan. Millions still do. On both sides of the border, people share the same Pashtun ethnicity and language (ish). In fact, there are more Pashtuns living in Pakistan than Afghanistan, though because of country size, they make up only 15% of Pakistan’s population and around 40% of Afghanistan’s.
And according to the Afghans who live near the border, Pakistan is the root of all of Afghanistan’s problems.
In Paktika Province, high on the plateaus in the district of Khayr Kot, I was asking some villagers about their opinion on reconciliation and reintegration of Taliban fighters. One grumpy old spingeri (“whitebeard”) said, “If the government wants to stop the fighting, they have to close the borders with Pakistan. There are no Afghan Taliban fighters, they’re all foreigners…all Pakistani, working for their government, here to destabilize our country.”
I asked a similar question of villagers in mountainous Wazi Zadran district in Paktiya Province. One man, probably in his early 30s, replied, “There are no Taliban around here. The only bad people we have are foreigners, government-sponsored Pakistani fighters who move through the mountains at night. Pakistan wants Afghanistan to fail.”
Then in the fertile valleys of Mandozai district in Khost Province, I asked some villagers…
Well, you get the idea.
I finally wised up and changed my tactics. You see, in Afghan culture, especially Pashtun culture, lying is generally frowned upon, but using clever word play to lead people astray is an art form. Calling someone out using indirect and subtle language can earn respect and laughter.
So one day, I responded to one of these “blame the Pakistanis!” comments with, “Wait, wait, wait. There are a lot of Afghans who live in Pakistan now [including much of the Afghan Taliban, though I didn’t say that directly because it’s cleverer to be subtle and imply it]. Some who are in their 20s now were even born there. So when you say, ‘Pakistanis,’ do you mean real Pakistanis or Afghans who are just living in Pakistan?”
The crowd around the speaker burst into laughter, while he looked chagrined. He mumbled in admission, “Well, they come out of Pakistan, anyway.” Point for me! “But,” he went on, “they’re all funded by the ISI, because Pakistan wants our country to be weak and unstable.” ISI. Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s formidable intelligence agency. That, I have to admit, was harder to argue with, as many western commentators say much the same thing. Me? I don’t know. I’ve never seen definitive proof one way or the other, though the ISI did support the Taliban back when they were in charge and they supported lots of mujahaddin groups against the Soviets (ahem).
Pakistan and the ISI. Every Afghan I met would assure me how evil they were and how they were intentionally and actively responsible for Afghanistan being a mess.
At the same time, there are some serious dependency issues going on here. The official currency in Afghanistan is called the afghani. (An Afghan is a person, afghani is the money.) But in many eastern parts of the country, the primary currency is actually the Pakistani rupee. Seriously, you go to the bazaars and people look at you funny if you try to pay with afghani. Part of this is because Afghanistan is an import economy. They do very little manufacturing of their own, or food processing, so just about everything people need to survive comes with a little metaphorical tag that says “Made in Pakistan.” Locals figure it’s easier to just do all business in rupees since everything comes from there anyway. (Well, except maybe this guy’s wallpaper, but then again, with outsourcing, who knows where Chips Ahoy wrappers are made:)
And down in places like Spera district that are right along the border, people sometimes consider themselves to be Pakistani (the borders aren’t exactly well marked). Even the ones who don’t might as well. I was asking a man who lived in a village near the border where his kids went to school, in an effort to see how well the Afghan government provides services in remote areas.
“Oh, they go to a government school in Pakistan.” I must have looked stunned, because he laughed and continued, “That’s where we go to the doctor too. And to go shopping for food and clothes and everything. It’s closer and easier to get to than anything here and no one there seems to mind.”
So Pakistan may be a big, evil, conniving bad guy, but, er, it turns out that for some Afghans, the Pakistani government takes better care of them than their own. (It’s a good thing no one really pays taxes in Afghanistan, or they might be mad about that.) And yet, Pakistan is bad. But Afghans economically rely on them. But…
Love-hate. Co-dependent. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not a particularly healthy relationship and should be…fun…in the years to come. Does NATO do relationship counseling?
So last time, I promised a story about Pacha Khan Zadran, the (in)famous man from the Zadran tribe of Paktiya Province. Here goes…
I first met Pacha Khan on a sunny day in October 2010. He had been invited onto the Afghan Army base where I worked to be congratulated by the Afghan Brigade Commander for winning the recent Parliamentary elections. With a bandolier strung jauntily over his shoulder and a turban gracefully adorning his brow, he nodded sagely at the Commander and staff, accepting their gracious and humble aplomb after his hard-fought battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate.
Welll, that may have been what he was envisioning, but it wasn’t quite the truth. He was, in fact, visiting the base to throw a man-sized temper tantrum. He did have the bandolier, though.
Pacha Khan Zadran’s deep history is a little murky, but he claims to have fought the Soviets as a mujahaddin, side by side with the likes of Jalaluddin Haqqani (founder of one of the more problematic sets of insurgents in southeast Afghanistan). But they’re not so close now, as he and Haqqani reportedly had a bit of a falling out after the Haqqanis tried to assassinate his son.
Prior to 2001, he was hiding out in Pakistan, where he was recruited by American forces after we arrived to help control the local population. With some American money and guns and some men, he basically set himself up as a local warlord in service of the Americans in the provinces of Paktiya, Paktika and Khost, helping us hunt down al-Qaeda members (okay, so maybe some of the targets were actually his political opponents he wanted the Americans to take out for him, but that’s reasonable, right? The Mafia would be proud).
The local population didn’t like him much and he did tend to lob rockets at them and put up “taxed checkpoints” (i.e. roadblocks demanding bribes) up and down the major highway, but he declared himself governor and the newly-minted President Karzai sort of acknowledged it, almost out of sheer amazement. He attended the Bonn Conference and the Loya Jirga in 2002 to help decide the fate of Afghanistan (where he declared support for the former king Zahir Shah rather than Karzai, who he never seemed to really like).
After a time, Karzai changed his mind and accused PKZ of murder, so Pacha Khan was ousted as governor and embraced his new outlaw status, generally making a nuisance of himself for everyone. He eventually fled to Pakistan again, was arrested there in 2003, and returned to Afghanistan in 2004. His punishment? He was allowed to run for Parliament in 2005 and won, going from warlord to governor to outlaw to member of parliament in less than four years. Though how he won in the same province where he launched rockets at the population is beyond me. And then, for some icing on the cake, his son was appointed as (and still is) a District Governor in that same province. Another son is a contractor and conveniently wins a lot of bids for work in that area…
In the fall of 2010, Afghanistan held its second set of elections for Parliament and Pacha Khan was trying to keep his seat. Lo and behold, he did not win. He was shocked. (The people of Paktiya Province, incidentally, were less than surprised.) Everyone loved him. (They didn’t.) Surely the only way he could have lost was if the ballots were rigged–it must have been fraud! (Okay, the elections were far from perfect near as I could tell, but he insisted over a million votes needed to be reincluded and if he lost by that many…)
So what did he do after being cheated out of his seat? He went to an old standby, got some men (hey, enough money and guns will buy a little loyalty), and threw up a roadblock to protest.
Civil society in action, right? That’s great! Except the roadblock was on a major highway that the American and Afghan Armies use daily. And that was why he had been “invited” to the Commander’s office, where he waxed from cool to quite vehement in declaring that he refused to end the roadblock until there was a recount and he was declared the winner. He was firm and unyielding and had the upper hand when it came to rhetoric. The American XO and I watched in amazement and amusement as he stormed across the room.
Until a relatively low-ranking, generally light-hearted and unassuming Afghan Battalion Commander leaned forward and said in a low voice, “Either you take that roadblock down, or I will.”
Pacha Khan stopped his pacing and stared at the Commander. There was a long, uncomfortable pause as the men stared at each other. Then PKZ grinned widely, saying that, of course, Army forces could go through anytime, it was only closed to civilian traffic to protest, but he would also let through anyone who needed to go to the hospital or anything like that. The Commander leaned back slowly, nodding, and suddenly everyone was all smiles. But we all knew who won.
After a little while, the barricades came down. There was no recount. PKZ lost his seat and little was seen of him afterward. For now.
As I watch the news and see the continuing violence in Iraq, I can’t help but noticing that a lot of the stories focus on the province where I lived and worked. Baquba is the capitol city of Diyala Province and it features in at least half of the now-regular reports of bombings and deaths. Thing is, while we were there, it wasn’t really all that bad. It had been previously–with a healthy dose of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, it was a good spot for insurgents to try and take advantage of ethnic and religious divisions–but the American units had done a pretty good job of restoring a bit of order and security.
And the Iraqi Army wasn’t half bad–they had an old guard who had been in the military for a long time and they tended to be pretty devoted to the idea of a strong government (most of the coups in Iraq had a strong military angle. Sure, some of it was people wanting power, but some of it was because they believed in a thing called Iraq, which is kind of a big deal in the Middle East or Afghanistan where belief in religion or ethnicity or family often trumps nationalism). The Diyala Operations Commander, General Tariq, was particularly fantastic. He was old school and gruff. Religion and ethnic ties meant so little to him that I was never entirely certain if he was Sunni or Shia (or both). Why? Because it didn’t matter. What he wanted was a strong, stable Iraq.
While there, I got to attend a bunch of ceremonies where the Americans turned over bases or official security to the Iraqis. Everyone was always a little nervous about the aftermath, but there was still a lot of pride in Iraqis taking back control of their own places. In one, they even had a giant wooden key (a couple of feet long) that the American Commander handed over to his counterpart. General Tariq did his best to instantly take charge, even if that might sidelining the Americans who were still there to help him. To be fair, he did so in a very friendly sort of way, as he was the kind of person who was quick to laugh. (Probably still is.)
But obviously, even if we weren’t in charge any longer, the American presence helped maintain a bit of security. In Iraq, I guess it’s a trade-off between security and sovereignty, which is fine. Because when you got out and talked to everyday people, even when you asked them about their concerns about security, it turned out that’s not what they were worried about.
Me: “So how safe are you here? Do you feel more or less safe than before? What do you think will happen in the future?”
Iraqi Villager: “Security is fine, we aren’t worried about that. That is all in Allah’s hands. What scares us is the government. They are big and corrupt and take everything but give us nothing when they’re supposed to take care of us. They arrest us for money. It’s like a mother eating her own children.”
Like a mother eating her own children.
I was floored, and sadly, it was not the last time I heard similar phrases. They didn’t fear violence. They feared their own government.
I wonder, though, what those same people would say now?
Following on from the last post, there are some people in Afghanistan who do wind up moving even though they’re aren’t nomads. Well, aside from politicians moving to Kabul when they get elected, but they’re rather fond of that so they don’t count. The Afghan Police.
Unlike in the U.S., most of the Afghan Police forces are not local units, but are national and so can get moved around a lot. For an 18 year old Afghan who’s most likely illiterate or barely so–and frankly, I’m pretty sure some of those kids were younger than 18–moving away from the protected and certain environment of his village is a big deal.
We think nothing of moving out once we’re 18. For Afghans, it’s an unexpected way of life and after the initial excitement wears off, largely unappealing. They’re only allowed to go home once every few months. Families don’t move along to the place of assignment, so the older ones with wives and kids of their own are out of luck. The job is already dangerous and not being able to see your loved ones for long periods of time makes it even harder. Ask any deployed American, though at least we get the luxury of not being deployed full-time for 11 years. (I know, “it’s their country.” “But who started the war?” “But who let bin Laden in?” “But who let the Taliban come to power?” But, but, but. The whys are less important than the reality people have to live through.)
Being a policeman or soldier is at least a relatively steady paycheck, though. And sometimes police do get assigned to their home district. But there are a load of complications that can come up in either situation, making it very difficult to tell if its a good idea to keep these guys local or to move them away.
1) Not-local: Language issues. There are two major languages in Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto. While working in some rural areas of Paktika where everyone speaks Pashto, our partner police unit had only Dari speakers. The police could not talk to the people they were supposed to be policing unless they used one of our interpreters.
2) Local: Investment. When you’re from an area and you know all the people who live there, you care about it. You will work harder to keep people safe because they’re your people. Plus, when you’re from an area, you know when someone new shows up and starts making trouble because everyone knows everyone.
3) Local: Danger. When you’re from an area and you’re committed to working hard to keep it safe, one way to discourage you from being over-eager is to threaten your family. Killing bystanders is something insurgents do sometimes. How effective will you be at stamping out violence if doing so means risking the lives of your loved ones?
4) Local: Corruption. If the people you’re policing are your own people, you may be inclined to turn a blind eye when they do something wrong, especially since your (Afghan) culture values family over individual responsibility. Or you may abuse your position to get rid of family rivals (or, as happened in Paktia Province a few years ago, convince the dumb Americans that your rivals are insurgents and so have us capture them for you).
5) Not Local: Corruption. But then again, if you’re local, you’re not likely to extort the local population or abuse them, as was a common complaint in Yahya Khel District. If you’re not from an area and it’s not your grandfather you’re extorting, who cares if you make a little money or take out some aggression on the locals? Who’re they going to tell?
6) Not Local: Voting. During the 2010 elections, I spoke to some police (and Afghan soldiers) stationed away from home about how they vote. They told me they couldn’t because they were away from home. Funny thing about Afghanistan. No postal service. Hard to do a mail-in vote without one. At best, they got someone in their families to do it for them.
So, yes, a lot of complications about whether to keep Afghan Police local or not. In my mind, it’s always worth it to keep them local because that investment piece outweighs the others, but then as I once had a friend who worked with police in post-apartheid South Africa, in America we have a mythos about police. They’re our lawmen, the source of justice and security stemming from our wild west days. Other countries don’t have that to quite the same degree.
Most just revel in the paycheck. But some believe and do their job well. I met one youngish police officer who (in his own words) was famous for stopping violence and insurgents. And he did do a better job than most, but he and most of his guys were local. I asked if he wasn’t worried about his family coming under threat. He nodded.
“It is always a worry, my wife, my children. But as I long as I am alive, I promise, no one will ever be able to harm them.”
He stopped for a second, then shrugged fatalistically. “But if I die, they will probably be in trouble.”
One of the questions that people actually don’t ask me very often is why I do what I do. There’s the bin Laden ruining my study abroad piece, of course, but the real answer is much, much deeper.
I’ve heard several versions of the details of the story below after comparing the newspaper accounts with what I had been told more directly, but the beginning and the end are the same and they are what counts.
Diyala Province, Iraq, Summer 2009:
Things had been pretty quiet as far as insurgent activity, though there had been a consistent presence in the area in the past (and it continues–the Provincial Capital still frequently gets bombed). But things were fairly calm for the summer. Police arrested people and politicians went to work and tried not to be corrupt. One such man, an elected member of the Provincial Council, had a son who was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. He went to school. He played soccer. He was probably a bit mischievous at home.
Until the day he was kidnapped.
Insurgents often have trouble with financing. If you don’t have a big sponsor, sometimes you have to find your own money and kidnap/ransom schemes are one way to do that. This politician’s son was a good target because his dad had access to more money than your average person.
They had had the boy for a few days and had issued their ransom note. We were all on edge. I heard the father paid the money, but read that he hadn’t managed to, so I’m uncertain of whether money changed hands. In the end, it doesn’t matter.
Because what I do know is that the kidnappers did not give the boy back.
They found his body a couple of days later in a small stream. I saw the pictures. From head to toe, he was covered in bruises and the occasional burn from what looked like a hot iron. There were marks on his wrists and ankles of where he had been tied up. His body was contorted and broken, his face twisted in agony. It was brutally clear he had been tortured to death.
I have a strong ability to understand other people and what motivates them, even if I absolutely disagree with their ends or methods. And I know that othering people, convincing yourself that they are evil or not quite human is what helps us to kill. But I cannot fathom how or why anyone, anywhere could do that to a child. It is beyond the realm of anything I can conceive of. It is humanity at its very worst and the pictures left me breathless in horror.
His parents were, of course, distraught. In their pain and anger, they did something remarkable. When someone dies in the Middle East, their families often post fliers with the deceased’s photo around town to notify people. This boy’s parents did that, using a picture of him standing in a team uniform with a soccer ball. In an unprecedented and potentially dangerous move, they put of picture of his mangled body as it had been found next to it. They also included a description of what had happened and a condemnation of anyone who would do or support this kind of activity. They turned their grief into a call to action. They couldn’t bring their son back, but maybe they could do something to prevent it happening to anyone else.
Can you argue that this happened at least in part because the U.S. invaded and created a space for chaos and violence? Sure. Can you also argue that Saddam did just as bad or worse? That the Taliban regime did? That warlords in Africa or drug lords in South America do? Also yes. That terrible things happen here at home every day? Absolutely. There are unthinkable atrocities all around us that most of us never even see, things that would break our hearts if we dared to look.
I choose to see them, to look into the face of the devil. I don’t know if what I do actually makes a big difference or any difference at all, but I’ll be damned if I ever stop trying.