High-risk bid to register Afghans
On a violent trip through Afghanistan, a UN team urges Taliban tribesmen to vote in fall elections.
GOMAL PASS, PAKTIKA, AFGHANISTAN — The first RPG explosion sounds like a car backfiring in the distance - a thud, then a gentle plume of smoke. "Gulf One, No Fear Three Papa," barks Capt. Kelley Liztner into his radio, calling for an Afghani governor's vehicle traveling one mile ahead. "Have you been hit?"
The radio crackles: "Yes."
There's another burst, this time closer to the convoy inching through a treacherous boulder-strewn pass.
The attackers had bided their time for this strike, waiting until the group carrying UN and US State Department officials entered a perfect kill zone: There's no place to hide at this crucial moment on an eight-day journey in early June through Taliban country to persuade local tribes to come under the central government umbrella.
In the end, Taliban forces fired 11 rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) at the convoy. Incredibly, no one on either side appears to be injured. For Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the new governor of troubled Paktika province, it's just another battle in the long fight to lure Taliban villagers in from the cold.
"Our enemies are afraid," he says. "They see us coming with a message of peace and ... stability, and the only thing they can do is fire a warning to people not to participate."
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt presidential and parliamentary polls expected to take place in October. Three separate bomb attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad have killed six people, including three women on June 26 working to register female voters. In southern Uruzgan, meanwhile, the Taliban have brutally massacred more than a dozen people after finding them with voter registration cards.
The spike in violence has led to the suspension of election and reconstruction work across much of the country, leading some to argue that elections must be delayed until spring, an eventuality President Hamid Karzai calls unacceptable.
Amid that backdrop, the "carrot and stick" mission Governor Mangal is leading through hostile Paktika province - an area roughly the size of Connecticut - is as complex and ambitious as it is risky.
The delegation comes bearing farm equipment for cooperative districts. There are workers from Global Risk Strategies, a private contractor working with the UN, to map out sites for voting and voter registration.
The group also comes ready to protect itself. More than 300 US troops from the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment, Afghan soldiers, and local police accompany the diplomats.
"We feel that working together we can tip the balance so that people will participate in the national process, both in reconstruction and in the election," says Sebastien Trives, the UN's architect of the mission. "And every single person here has an important role to play."
It's not an easy journey. As the fleet snakes its way through minefields and down spine-crunching roads, the convoy gets lost in villages and mired in sand traps. On a recent segment of the journey, most villages welcome the delegation in Pashtun fashion: performing tribal dances, firing guns into the air, or charging across the desert on brightly adorned horses.
Yet this is Taliban country, and at times the road is laid with land mines rather than red carpet. "I think stability everywhere is inevitable," said Lt. Col. Walter Piatt, the battalion commander, a day after an improvised bomb exploded just five feet from his vehicle. "It just can't happen overnight in every place."
The goal of the project is to win support of the local tribes, since it's unlikely Taliban forces would dare go against decisions taken by the tribal councils, who serve as the defacto government in these remote and isolated areas.
"The Taliban also function inside this tribal tissue," says Mr. Trives. "So after we leave their ability to undo our work is very limited."
But getting the tribal councils on board can be arduous. They haggle for hours over seemingly middling details. In some areas, they never reach consensus and so the convoy moves on. The UN hopes to have success in 50 percent of the districts they visit before elections slated for this fall.
Critics wonder if it's worth it. Some argue the costs and risks of such an operation in Taliban country hardly outweighs the payback of winning over a few thousand villagers. There's concern that future attacks on the mission might cause loss of life and intense controversy within the UN over working so closely with the US military.
Yet supporters say if it works, the project promises to wrest large swaths of Afghan territory from Taliban control. At the same time, it brings the reconstruction this region badly needs.
For the UN and the Afghan government, the project also promises to boost the legitimacy of the elections by increasing the numbers of Pashtun voters.
"We can not afford to let bureaucrats sitting in Kabul decide this is too dangerous," says Trives. "We have a duty to be bold and to engage these people."
For the US-led coalition, the mission also yields a wealth of intelligence, identifying which leaders work closely with the Taliban or Al Qaeda forces.
They also come across various clues as to how the enemy operates. "We have an urgent need for weapons like mines and rockets," reads a letter to a Pakistani extremist group found with a Taliban weapons cache. "You need to send them with animals across the border using the secret trails."
More importantly, the mission presents American soldiers as friends not foes. "I thought I was coming here to kill Taliban," says Captain Litzner, after a long day of mapping out aid projects with local tribesmen. "But out here you figure out quickly that digging wells and building schools is more effective than a bomb or an artillery battery."
The litmus test will come later, when it becomes clear how many villages in southern Paktika join the reconstruction process. Members of the mission say they have little doubt their approach is the way forward for Afghanistan and that denying the Taliban influence is the best way to win the war against them.