Tension was running high in this farming area in late June after a number of locals were arrested by Canadian and Afghan troops for suspected insurgent activity. So the Canadians were relying on Haji Baran, governor of this district in the heart of Kandahar Province, to help them quiet villagers' concerns.
Crisply robed and rotund, with the air of authority of Afghan khans of centuries past, Mr. Baran swept from an Afghan Army vehicle through the 115-degree F. heat and into the shade of a patio crowded with village men anxiously chattering about sons and brothers detained. Though illiterate, Baran had in his head the carefully crafted NATO talking points about the necessity of the recent military operation.
But he didn't have the specifics that his constituents wanted so soon after the operation: Where were their loved ones? So, adjourning the meeting and rising to leave, he invited anyone with questions to come to his office in a few days when he would know more. But as he was exiting, a crescendo of questions followed, the crowd tugging at his sleeves.
Without warning, Baran firmly lashed out with a beefy palm and slapped one of the more persistent villagers across the face. The stunned questioner was silenced, but the crowd continued the clamor all the way to the ramp of a Canadian armored troop carrier that would seal him off from the crowd.
For Baran, the slap was business as usual.
For the Canadian soldiers and US civilians advising him, trying to put a positive face on the local government, the slap was a minor disaster. Officers filed disapproving reports. A Monitor reporter, the only journalist in attendance, received numerous briefings about the International Security Assistance Force's emphatic condemnation of such conduct.
But in a brutal war zone, where Baran himself has survived five assassination attempts, what's a slap, really?
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International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officials postponed their major summer offensive in Kandahar in large part to strengthen the local government. Leaders like Baran are desperately needed on board with NATO. In order to maintain any security gains achieved by the offensive, military officials say a civic bulwark must be firmly in place. And the Panjwayi district of 80,000 people spread over a barren desert with farmland sprouting along waterways is symbolically important as a place to tame: It's the birthplace of the Taliban and in the middle of one of the most violent provinces of Afghanistan.
So a governor who addresses constituent concerns with the back of his hand (or in Baran's case, the palm) raises serious questions about not only the readiness of the Afghan government, but also about whether the international security operations can achieve positive long-term effects.
Amid the disapproval, however, a number of soldiers wrestle with the cultural relativism they're faced with daily – and, in this case, the meaning of a Western slap versus an Afghan slap. They wonder if the Western judgment of the slap is unfair.
"We're trying to figure out the cultural ramifications of that," says a genuinely puzzled Canadian Army Lt. Aaron Lesarge, an information operations officer here. "In some [Afghan] circles it's sort of a normal response, so I'm not too sure what the negative impacts of that are. Obviously if someone gets hit it's not good, but how bad is it? I'm not too sure."
Most ISAF soldiers are well aware that the Afghans rarely "spare the rod," but a slap in this setting is another mystery of the local culture just as confusing as men holding hands and the segregation of women. No one's quite sure what's normal.
For Canada and its international partners working to strengthen the government, Baran – who wasn't chosen by them, but by the government of President Hamid Karzai – is the man they have to work with for better or worse.
"Local governors are, for most Afghans who never travel beyond their district, the face of the distant Karzai government. If they are corrupt and ineffective, the Karzai government is seen as such," says Brian Glyn Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who often travels to Afghanistan. "An effective governor by contrast can … win over a province for the central government. Local governors are, in essence, a linchpin in the overall strategy of defeating the Taliban insurgency."
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Baran is one of Nearly 400 district governors across Afghanistan. He was a likely candidate, thanks in part to his affiliation with the Noorzai tribe – a group the government wants to keep from shifting toward the Taliban – and his background as a mujahideen leader. During the war with the Soviets, rather than fighting, he acted as a village leader and helped construct a road, several schools, and a clinic. He later served as a colonel in the Afghan Army and a village elder in his community.
The governor is uncertain of his age, but he's probably 50 to 55 years old. Despite suffering two heart attacks, he still carries an air of power and the expectation of deference in the face of a most intimidating setting. Amid the ISAF push to develop the government, Baran and other district governors have become targets of insurgents trying to destroy central authority.
Just two weeks before his patio meeting with constituents, Baran's close friend and fellow district governor of nearby Arghandab, Haji Abdul Jabbar, was killed by a Taliban bomb. A few days after that, the Taliban kidnapped and killed the deputy governor of Atiquillah, in the province of Wardak. And on July 10, the district governor of Qala-e-Zal in the province of Kunduz was killed by the Taliban with a remotely controlled bomb.
Baran has received a number of threatening letters. And he has dodged bullets and bombs meant for him that instead killed several of his friends.
"I'm not scared of the insurgents. As long as I'm alive I will continue working," says Baran in a level tone. After surviving three decades of war, he's not easily impressed by threats. "I want to help my people. They are tired of the fighting."
Aside from these dangers, Baran faces other daunting challenges. For one, a blizzard of government paperwork. Having never attended school, he is among the 57 percent of illiterate adult males in Afghanistan and must rely on part-time subordinates to deal with required reading or writing.
Still, literacy isn't viewed as a qualification for many Afghan officials. A number of national parliament members are illiterate. And local governors are most commonly called on to settle disputes and act as a liaison between their community and higher levels of government.
Attracting highly educated Afghans to government service remains a difficult task given the relatively low salaries and the danger. Professional translators or other qualified individuals can make more than $1,000 a month in the private sector. Baran makes less than $500 a month.
"It is irrational for well-trained individuals to work for the government if they can get far more working [elsewhere]," says Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh who is writing a book on local governance and public administration here.
In addition to Baran, there are two people who work in the district government office one day a week to help with administrative matters. A government office serving an area the size of Panjwayi – roughly the equivalent of an American county – should have a full-time staff of nine to 11 people, says to Ron Melvin, a senior adviser for the US State Department in Panjwayi.
Baran's government is limited by a budget of $600 per month, enough to pay everyone's salaries. District governments can't collect taxes, so there's no revenue. ISAF or other international donors must fund any project the district government undertakes. Without foreign assistance, Baran can do little more than settle disputes and help citizens get basic government documents.
Though Mr. Karzai has discussed increasing the budget of district governments, it won't be possible anytime soon. At the national level, Afghanistan raises $1 billion a year in tax revenue, but just maintaining its military costs $6 billion a year.
"We have to realize that the commitment from the international community is a long-term commitment," says Mr. Melvin. Addressing all the issues facing Baran and the local government here, he adds, "The provincial and national government recognize the problem and are working to fix it."
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Meanwhile, in just a few quick weeks, Baran's slap has become something of a legend among ISAF soldiers working locally who know him and embellish the tale. Some exaggerated retellings even have the governor arrest his questioners after smacking them. Debate over whether it was right or wrong has taken its place in myriad questions that fill the cultural divide as the war goes on.
And just a week after the slap, the Canadian Army supplied the office of the district governor of Panjwayi with a new SUV and a personal driver – the official photo of the presentation shows Baran with a subdued smile on his face.