Why America must get more involved - not less - in Afghanistan
(Page 2 of 3)
To add irony to this crash course in aid delivery, I was caught in the crossfire of Afghan and American notions of how I should be working. An independent film crew making a documentary on the Akokolacha project began questioning my attitude: Why wasn't I more sympathetic to the villagers' desires? Wasn't I imposing my Western image of an Afghan village on them?Skip to next paragraph
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In my other ear, Abdullah was remonstrating in the opposite vein: "Why do you keep listening to these thieving villagers? Will you just let me run this job?"
Through it all, trenches were dug, and wizened stonemasons were deftly choosing pieces of rock to Rubiks-together into solid, mortarless foundations.
Abdullah came to me one September morning: "There's a problem with the stone for Akokolacha. Gul Agha's soldiers stopped our tractor. "
"Zu," I said, "Let's go." And we headed for our battered black Toyota Land Cruiser and the quarry that held stone needed for Akokolacha's new foundations.
The road there cleaves a dun-colored wasteland of rock and clay, hardened by the punishing sun. Only a fleet of nappy-haired camels, some sheep combing a parched field, and the patchwork tents of impoverished nomads break the monotony. Up a sandy track to a hollow in the flank of some rocky hills, we found the quarryman's son.
"Bikhi bad sarai," he said. A "very bad man" had come with a Kalashnikov-toting tough, twisted a fistful of collar under the young man's chin, and warned that no one was to take foundation stone from the quarry. The "bad man" was the nephew of Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of Kandahar Province. The nephew and the governor's brother, it emerged, are opening a gravel plant next to the old quarryman's operation. The governor's kin had snatched the old quarryowner's contract with the US military base for the large amounts of gravel and stone it requires. And the former quarryoperator was no longer allowed to sell any stone or gravel at all.
At a time when reconstruction is perhaps Afghanistan's highest priority, no one can legally obtain stone for foundations. That's because there is a lucrative market in stone crushed into gravel that Gul Agha is cornering for himself.
"Only with a written order from Gul Agha can I give stone," explained the white-bearded quarryman.
"Zu," I said to Abdullah. "Let's go see the governor."
Gul Agha - literally "Noble Flower" - Shirzai was governor of Kandahar Province in the early 1990s, and so much mayhem and rapine flourished on his watch that much of the population welcomed even the draconian Taliban, which banished him and his ilk. The one fear consistently expressed by Afghan refugees during last year's war was that the end of the Taliban regime would bring back warlord rule.
Gul Agha returned to Afghanistan in November 2001 as part of the US "southern strategy" to compliment its reliance on the Northern Alliance. Military pressure on Kandahar was needed as well as the patient negotiating tactics of Hamid Karzai, now transitional president. So Gul Agha's men, together with several Pakistani Army officers, were inserted just south of Kandahar.
When the Taliban were ready to surrender, Mr. Karzai asked Gul Agha to remain outside the city with his troops - at the very airport that Akokolacha abuts. But Gul Agha, accompanied by his US and Pakistani advisers, advanced on Kandahar militarily to take it from Karzai. He was threatening exactly the kind of civil strife that has brought Afghanistan to its knees over the past decades. Forced to give in to this blackmail, Karzai named Gul Agha governor.
In its hurried effort to support "the government" and consolidate even the most superficial stability, the international community has funneled its aid to the region - overt and covert - almost exclusively through Gul Agha. As a result, a fatalism is growing among Kandaharis and international actors alike who fear that Gul Agha is, in fact, "the" government, that his hold on power is acceptable, and that there will be no recourse against him. He treats the province as his personal property, enforcing his will at gunpoint.