Bill Ardolino is currently embedded with US soldiers from the 4-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Panjwai, Afghanistan.
“Property ownership is a human right,” argued a grey-bearded Afghan in a black turban, wagging his finger at a roomful of Afghan government officials, US military personnel, and village elders gathered in the Panjwai district headquarters. “It is also a law of Afghanistan. But before that, it is a human right.”
The civil servant was making the Jeffersonian case in a bid to get someone to pay for the use of local property housing International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat outposts and checkpoints. The Americans and Afghan government officials had called a shura on March 25 to broach the issue and to explain that the facilities and the land they sit on were to be turned over to Afghan security forces. Not much was achieved during a circuitous discussion: the Afghan civilians repeated their claims to reimbursement, while US military personnel asserted that there was little they could do beyond documenting that a meeting took place.
“The land is going to the ANA (Afghan National Army),” explained one US representative. “It’s a decision made by GIRoA (the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and not us.”
The unresolved shura and the confusing lines of authority illustrate some of the challenges for local governance in Panjwai. A recent grassroots uprising against insurgents presents a unique opportunity for ISAF and the Afghan government to strike a blow against the Taliban in a district considered the birthplace of the extremist movement. But the durability of improved security may depend on whether an often fractious network of tribes spread throughout numerous villages can come together and sublimate their discontent into support for the government that opposes the insurgency.
The obstacles to governance here are steep. As in many portions of Afghanistan, official government has an inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent track record. The district government in Panjwai has limited authority and almost no financial support from the provincial and national governments that would allow it to undertake development or employment projects. Nearly all applicable resources come from private aid, international governmental agencies like USAID, and the US military. This tepid support from the government in Kabul and the provincial capital of Kandahar City calls into question whether district officials will maintain enough influence to capitalize on the recent security developments as the withdrawal of US support accelerates.
At the center of this bureaucratic maelstrom sits Hajji Faizal Mohammad, whose yearlong tenure as district governor presents a case study in trying to accomplish a lot with very little. Hailing from Mushan village in western Panjwai, the 56-year-old served as a district civil servant for eight years before being appointed governor. Prior to the arrival of US forces in Afghanistan, he held unofficial sway as a land owner and elder of his Ishakzai tribe during the “difficult … time of the Taliban.”
The DG seems to walk a precarious line between enthusiastic endorsement of his American benefactors and the political language necessary for reconciliation. Some of Mohammad’s artful statements indicate keen awareness that less committed current and former members of the Taliban will need to be reintegrated, given the group’s influence in Panjwai. Yet despite his attempts at outreach to local insurgents (and his survival of at least one assassination attempt), the DG seems unafraid to publicly declare his appreciation of US and international support.
His closest American partner speaks highly of the gregarious DG, whose easy smiles and jokes project a grandfatherly aura that softens the calculated persona common among politicians.
“He truly cares for his people and is constantly seeking ways to take care of them,” assessed Major George Plys, the officer in charge of the Panjwai district headquarters, and Mohammad’s principal US adviser. “Regardless of the support he gets from his own country.” Another American, without providing any examples specific to Mohammad, offered a more cynical assessment, and one that is routine for Westerners working in Afghanistan: “No one” in a leadership position is free from certain forms of corruption common to Afghan society, he asserted. “It’s part of their culture.” Nevertheless, overall US assessments of the governor are positive, and some are enthusiastic.
The Long War Journal’s interview with the district governor follows.
The Long War Journal: Why did you decide to stand up and become a district governor?
District Governor Hajji Faizal Mohammad: I personally didn’t want to be a district governor, but my people wanted me to be a DG. The people of my village have always wanted me to take care of their problems. They requested me to the provincial governor because I have eight years in the government and I’ve always been a trustworthy person who takes care of their problems in the shura. Whatever decisions we made in the past in the shuras, I was impartial, so I have a lot of supporters. People wanted me to be a district governor, not me. [he laughed]
[Note: American biographical sketches of Mohammad somewhat contradict this assessment, analyzing that he “lobbied hard to become the new DG after the assassination” of his predecessor. These same documents also regard the governor as an “ardent and vocal supporter” of security efforts, and outline that he “has articulated three goals: to extend governance to western Panjwai; to promote education and employment opportunities to young people; and to make health services readily available.”]
LWJ: How has security in Panjwai been lately, and how has it been trending for the past year?
DG: Until like 2004, once ISAF was here, everything was OK, the Taliban were in their houses, the area was safe. But starting in 2004 to 2006, security started [declining], the Taliban started laying IEDs everywhere and it was very dangerous.
LWJ: And why did that change happen?
DG: Because the people who were in the government started torturing the Taliban. The Taliban were sitting in their homes and the government used to go … beat them, take their rifles and abuse them really bad. So they had no choice but to fight against the government, and so they started becoming friends with Pakistan; relationships with Pakistan started [developing] back and forth.
LWJ: You think the government cracking down on the Taliban caused the Taliban to resurge in this area?
[The interpreter interjects]: Yes.
DG: But the last five or six months [security has] become normal, better.
LWJ: Why have things improved recently?
DG: Every day, people start to trust the government, people start following the law, they respect the people of the villages. We have a different [quality of] and more intelligence; we have the NDS [Afghan National Directorate of Security] now, we have the AUP [Afghan Uniform Police], we have established the army, and the people trust them.
LWJ: Which of these security forces are the most effective in the district?
DG: The Afghan Army (ANA), because of the training they get, they respect people. Everywhere people love the ANA because they never harm the villagers. Second would be ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police), then the AUP (Afghan Uniform Police; a national police service) and then ALP (Afghan Local Police, akin to local militias integrated with the police force). So it all depends on the training, the education level.
LWJ: Have there been problems with the [Afghan Local Police] shaking people down for money or taking other resources from locals?
DG: Unfortunately that happens. Whenever the ALP get trained, at graduation we always give them advice, talk to them [about it], but unfortunately we have issues with it, with the ALP. They just have no education. But even if they do something wrong, the villagers come and complain to us, and we will question that person [accused policeman] and we will follow the law and detain them. ….. [E]ven now there are some policemen detained for not following the law.
LWJ: Does the district chief of police [Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammed] assist in these [anti-corruption] efforts?
DG: In some things, [Lt. Col. Mohammad] is very serious, he is doing a good job. Some other things are negative, I am not for it. But some things are good, [like efforts] against the enemy; he is very serious against the enemy. Wherever we tell him the enemy is and to do operations, he has no problem. But there are little issues we have, but they can be resolved.
LWJ: Explain to me who the enemy is … I realize that answer may seem obvious to you, but explain to outsiders who the enemy is; are they Taliban, are they ideological [insurgents], are they criminals? Who are they?
DG: You all know better than us. Pakistan is the biggest enemy of Afghanistan, and then it’s Iran. We’ve said it 10 times, we’ve said it a hundred times, but those two countries don’t want Afghanistan to be an independent country. The district chief of police does a great job, especially during this period with security. It’s okay to open your arms to the people and welcome them, but also you have to be ready to protect your bag, because they could attack you. The enemy will try to reintegrate with you when he is weak, but when he is strong, you have to be prepared to be attacked.
LWJ: But is the enemy here fighting and planting bombs for money, [in the name of] Deobandi [Islamic] ideology, to expel infidels, the Americans — why are they doing it?
DG: It has nothing to do with Islam. The Americans, the ISAF (international security forces) they have never stopped us from practicing our religion or disrespected us, or anything. Right now you see me in my traditional clothes with my turban. When it’s time to pray, the Americans respect me; they sit or they go outside and let me finish my prayer. [The actions of the insurgency] make the name of Islam bad. These people are not really Muslims, because it’s not written in Islam that you should plant IEDs, do suicide attacks, and kill innocent people.
LWJ: But what about the youth who come from madrasas in Pakistan and blow themselves up? Don’t they have a perception that they are doing it for [religion]?
DG: Their brain is not working right. They train them over there, that’s why they use the younger generation, they start on them at a very young age, they tell them … to ‘go blow yourself up to go to paradise. That Afghanistan is taking over.’ In Pakistan they brainwash the younger generation and send them over here, but that has nothing to do with Islam.
LWJ: I heard you speak at the shura about reintegration programs regarding the youth. Do you find that there is a big split in the ages of local insurgents, young vs. old, and what are your reintegration programs like?
DG: There are three categories of Taliban: the first one, he really doesn’t have a job, he’s not really a Talib, they just gave him a radio. He does it for work, to get some kind of income. Then there is another category that they are against our government. And the third [category] is terrorists; there is no way they will come back to our side because they have been trained by Pakistan. You can’t trust them, whenever they get a chance they will [attack]. But the younger generation, like his age [points to a man in his mid-twenties], if we can find them jobs, an opportunity for a paycheck they might come to our side. It depends. If the government gives them seed (for farming) and listens to their voice, it’s possible. We need to put a lot of pressure on Pakistan to leave Afghanistan alone. If Pakistan wouldn’t interfere with us, I promise you, in one month this country could get better.
LWJ: How has the support of the Afghan government to the local population been? It’s my understanding that you don’t operate [as district governor] with a traditional budget from the government, and that a lot of the resources you’re distributing come from foreign aid. [Can you describe] how the government has provided resources and how you see this trending?
DG: To be honest, the Afghan government started with nothing. From army to police, we didn’t even put our flag up. So there was nothing before the Americans and ISAF. Then we got paved roads, schools, colleges, embassies everywhere and it’s all because the Americans were supporting us. The way I see it right now, our government doesn’t provide much for the people, everything is done because of ISAF. Nothing is possible, from education to road projects to anything [without ISAF].
I think in the future there will be [Afghan government] projects …, but everything now, it’s like we have to beg for it from our own government. What can I say about the future? I wish I could tell you that our government is going to do this … hopefully it will be better, hopefully we will have different programs like health clinics, agriculture, but I can’t say I could do these things, I don’t have [any resources]. Even the recent uprising of the people [against the Taliban], I didn’t have anything to give to them. ISAF and the Special Forces [US Green Berets] had to give them resources. The only good thing [the government did] was to open the schools, but even then it was ISAF that helped us. Clinics, medication, it is because ISAF provided it.
LWJ: You’ve mentioned the uprising that’s taken place and started in [the] Zangabad [area of Panjwai], can you tell me how this came about?
DG: Since I’ve been district governor, I’ve taken 46 trips to different villages in Panjwai, and most of the trips my American friends have gone with me to make sure and promise people that security will get better. Every time I went to those villages, I told people that security was only possible if you want it, I need your support, you need to help us and be on our side. Finally the people realized it, how important it is. We opened a total of 12 schools, and that’s because the people are tired of it, they wanted change.
LWJ: What are they tired of?
DG: They lost their family members, they lost legs. The Taliban forced them to let them come to their houses any time and they were forced to feed them. The Taliban planted IEDs on their farms, in front of their houses, they lost children, they couldn’t do anything. They were forced. So we opened their arms to them, and they trusted the government.
LWJ: Regarding trusting the government — everyone farms around here, and a lot of those people cultivate poppy [for cash], but opium is illegal. How do you reconcile not upsetting the people by taking their livelihood vs. enforcing the law?
DG: In Islam it is not allowed to grow opium. Even if it is one benefit to make money, there are ten other things that hurt people. So people have to understand that, and that it’s the law. The other thing is that the biggest income source for the terrorists is poppy, so the people don’t really have any other option but to listen and follow the changes.
[Note: While poppy farming and the opium trade do constitute a significant revenue stream for the insurgency, some intelligence assessments have indicated that foreign support of the global jihad is a greater source of insurgent funding.]
LWJ: What are the major tribes here, and do tribal politics make it difficult to keep the people united in this uprising?
DG: Noorzai is a big one, Ishakzai, Alokozai and [Popalzai]. These are the main ones, and of course there are smaller tribes. Tribal politics are very important; everything runs through the tribes in Afghanistan. A long time ago, each tribe had its own malik (representative), and whatever that leader said, that’s it. In the time of the Russians, they tried to destroy all of the maliks, but they still play a big role in Afghanistan.
LWJ: What do local civilians think of the American forces? And I ask this in the context of the murders that took place in the two villages west of here that are attributed to Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. What is local opinion about that [event] and Americans in general?
DG: Those are, of course, very horrible memories, thinking back about that time. The people were very horrified, they couldn’t believe it. But [given] all of the eight years of Americans helping us, supporting us, in shuras, we always mention they are here for peace, and to help us and support us. [The incident] kind of changed the mindset of people in thinking about the Americans in Kandahar, and especially in Panjwai. But, you know, most people started understanding that that was only one person that committed a horrible crime like this. We tried to explain it to them after it happened, that this was … just one person, it was not all Americans. We always say that it was very bad what happened, people were hurt and the enemy was happy. The enemy wanted everyone to demonstrate.
I’m glad that I was the second or third person who arrived in the area and I talked to the shura members. I went to the compound where the 13 family members were killed and burned, especially the children. I talked to the villagers, most of them thought it was more than one person, and we tried to explain to them that that’s not how it was, it was only one person. We told them that the American was mentally ill, and that [the killings] are not what Americans do, that’s not what they are here for. And there were also a lot of incidents where Afghans shot at innocent Americans, including soldiers. Does this mean all the Afghans and all the Americans are bad? No. It happens.
All the villages around here, it’s surprising, but they are happier for Americans to come instead of their own Afghan government forces and police, because the Americans don’t steal from them, they don’t beat them up or torture them. The Americans have more education and understanding, and they respect their culture. That was just one incident, and people realize that it was a crazy person, and we explained that most all Americans are here for peace.
LWJ: I have spoken with a number of local citizens and it seems that the general [belief] is still that it was more than one person [who committed the crime], but I do agree with you that most people [I have spoken to] have contextualized that it does not [represent] all Americans, and many say they have moved on. Have people really moved on?
DG: Yes, they have moved on. They’ve opened a school there, they’ve had Afghan local police training there ….
LWJ: Belembai? [one of the villages where the murders took place]
DG: Yes, Belembai. So they’ve been back there and things are better. They’ve also had poppy eradication there, so there aren’t really problems. People understand.
LWJ: Is the security situation improved here? And the uprising, is it sustainable? [Especially] as the Americans are pulling back from the combat outposts and various bases?
DG: It’s important that the people keep on trusting us, and we welcome them, listen to them, and support them. We do need support from our Interior Ministry to have some kind of program for those people who are on our side now. Any kind of support, projects to help them in different ways. If we had a budget, we could help them; right now I don’t have much. But we have the Afghan Army, the Afghan Police, and they will continue security in this area. We have heard from the Taliban in Pakistan now, that they are worried about the uprising happening here in Panjwai, and they will continue sending insurgents here to try and destroy the security. I have hope, but we still need a lot of support from the Afghan government.
I hope that America will stay and keep its promises and that it doesn’t leave the Afghans completely alone. We don’t want the past to be repeated [after assistance against the Soviet Union], with the Taliban taking over. It’s important that you stay on our side and support us. Don’t completely leave Afghanistan.
Bill Ardolino’s forthcoming book Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, which tells the story of the tribal Awakening in 2006-2007 that changed the course of the Iraq War, will be published by Naval Institute Press on May 15. All of the author’s proceeds from the first edition will go to the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.