The murder of a French UN aid worker Sunday by two Afghans on a motorcycle has dealt a setback to one of the few Pashtun regions to flourish in the last two years.
Police captured the gunmen and have identified them as Taliban. The killing, along with a recent car bombing outside UN offices in Kandahar, prompted the UN Monday pull its international staff out of Ghazni and to suspend operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Other aid groups are considering similar moves.
Until this incident, Ghazni Province had been one of the last Pashtun areas considered safe enough for international aid workers. The lack of Taliban attacks until now has allowed the province to flourish into Afghanistan's model of progress outside of Kabul, and turned its 35-year-old governor, Haji Asadullah, into a rising star and possible successor to President Hamid Karzai.
"Most of the Ghazni's violence is done by 'drive by' Taliban, mostly on motorcycles coming from neighboring Zabul," says Mr. Asadullah, acknowledging that some violence persists.
Ghazni has stood out from nearby provinces along the border with Pakistan, not only as relatively calm, but also as a glimmer of civil society in an otherwise anarchic landscape.
"The governor has given every ethnicity, tribe, and person in Ghazni their rights. Most political leaders in Afghanistan just favor their own," says Asadullah Khalid, an election officer in Ghazni. Women in this conservative province, speckled with minarets and mosques, have been widely included in the election process. There is also ethnic harmony between the mix of mostly Pashtuns, Hazaras, and some Uzbeks and Tajiks.
Things weren't always this good. When President Karzai appointed Mr. Asadullah governor in May 2002, the province had few civil institutions and many former Taliban combatants.
"People were fighting in every district of Ghazni, mostly over land and local leadership. But what I recognized early on was that the problems were workable, there weren't too many deep-rooted ideological differences," says Asadullah.
He was also quick to see that if the security situation was stabilized the province could get a considerable amount of attention from NGOs and donors, especially because of its proximity to Kabul, Afghanistan's hub for international aid.
While the recent violence has dealt a sudden setback to development work, a UN spokeswoman expressed hope that it will be only temporary. "As soon as we can get security clearance, we want to start resuming our assistance to the people," said Marie Okabe.
Asadullah's initial success at bringing stability came after he devoted his first six months to beefing up his security forces. Drawing from his experience as a anti- Soviet fighter and as one of the few Pashtun commanders under the Northern Alliance, Asadullah put together a provincial military force of 2,800 soldiers and a police force of about 1,800 police and under 400 intelligence agents. Asadullah insisted these be multiethnic forces.
However, eyebrows have been raised as to how Asadullah, the governor of a province with no international borders and little internal income, can pay a security staff of almost 5,000.
"The central government pays for Ghazni's soldiers and police force," says Asadullah, adding that each person receives about $25 a month. "But many of them started working for me for nothing, as loyalty to their province."
Officials at Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior say the central government pays its governors about $950 a month for salary and expenses. "Paying 5,000 soldiers in Ghazni $25 a month comes out to $125,000 a month; the central government doesn't have that kind of money," says Anayatullah, assistant to the Interior Ministry's chief of staff.
Sources close to the governor say that he is a millionaire and was one of the first Northern Alliance commanders to be paid by the US government to assist in the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001. He is also said to have received a lot of money from Tajikistan, Russia, and other allies during 1990s.There is also speculation that Asadullah receives money from the CIA for providing intelligence regarding Taliban and Al Qaeda activity in Ghazni.
"I have not received one cent from the US government; my security staff's salary comes from transport taxes and commercial taxes," says Asadullah, who has traveled to the US several times on a diplomatic visa.
He has cultivated strong relations with the US military, which is currently scouting for a site in Ghazni for another provincial reconstruction team.
And Ghazni currently has almost 300 soldiers on the border of Pakistan and Zabul province, a battle zone between the US-led coalition forces and regrouped Taliban. Zabul's governor, Hafizullah Hashim, says via phone that he is grateful for the help. "Asadullah has had almost a dozen soldiers killed in Zabul in the last couple of months, but he is still committed to helping us stabilize," say Gov. Hashim.
Asadullah says he keeps in touch with each one of his district governors via satellite phones to keep tabs on local disputes or any signs of Taliban or Al Qaeda reemergence.
This hands-on style and his frequent Kabul visits have made him a darling of donors. "Asadullah is truly one of Afghanistan's better leaders," says Judy Benjamin, a former adviser for USAID.