Afghan war: Who's in charge, again?

A check point delay on a reporting trip in Afghanistan raises questions for Monitor reporter Tom Peter as to whether the phrase 'Afghan-led' is more mantra than an actual practice.

It’s almost impossible to talk to the US military in Afghanistan without someone mentioning that the effort here is increasingly Afghan led. This is, after all, their country, say US soldiers, so it only makes sense that they take the wheel and the US slides into the backseat.

As a reporter working in Afghanistan, I’ve listened to the US military say this for years now. Despite Afghans being given much more authority recently, I’ve still often wondered just how much control Afghans have over their own country. While reporting in Kandahar recently, I received a reminder that “Afghan-led” is often more mantra than an actual practice.

For several years now, I’ve known the district governor of Kandahar’s Arghandab district. I first met him about two years ago, shortly after he took over when his predecessor was assassinated and security seemed to be at an all time low. Since then, whenever I travel to Kandahar I try to pay him a visit.

His office is situated on a compound that is divided between the Afghan district center and a US military base. To enter the district government office, you must first pass through a US checkpoint. After that, another checkpoint divides the US side from the Afghan side.

As I’ve known the district governor for some time, I called him directly to arrange the meeting. Given that he’s an independent politician who is supposed to take his directives from the Afghan government, not the Americans, I didn’t think to bother scheduling an appointment via the Americans he shares a base with. In all my visits this had never been a requirement. 

When I arrived at the main gate of the base, the American soldiers there told me that I’d need to check with their commander at the inner checkpoint before they could allow me to bring in my audio recorder. In a country where reporters often aren’t allowed to bring their own pens to press conferences, this didn’t strike me as unreasonable.

At the next checkpoint, however, I was ushered on to the US side of the base where a senior ranking sergeant asked why I needed the recorder. I explained that I was a journalist who’d come to interview the district governor in a meeting independent of anything to do with the US military. He then informed me that he’d have to verify with his unit’s top commanders before he could allow me to meet with the district governor.

Then began an almost 90 minute waiting period where I was asked to sit just inside the checkpoint.

At one point, the sergeant told me his commanders had denied me my meeting because I hadn’t arranged my meeting through them. When I asked why they were even involved with an independent meeting scheduled directly with the district governor, they told me that if I didn’t want them involved I shouldn’t have come to their side of the base. They ignored my protests when I said the guards forced me to come to their side of the base to get permission to bring my audio recorder to the district governor’s office.

At no point did anyone walk the short distance to the district governor’s office to ask if he was in fact expecting me, nor could I call him because the guards had taken my cellphone and my interpreter was already waiting in the district governor’s office.

After about 90 minutes, and without any real explanation as to the delay, I was eventually allowed to have my meeting with the governor.

Just why they held me for more than an hour and seemed to deny my meeting with the district governor remains unclear. The only reason I was offered is that I hadn’t scheduled the meeting through the US military.

While my experience was an isolated incident, with such a focus on making the NATO effort here "Afghan led," it's hard to imagine behavior from the US military that could undercut this idea more than what I experienced trying to meet with the district governor. What message are they sending to both Afghan politicians and a reporter when American soldiers control a local politician's schedule? Whatever they're trying to communicate, it certainly does not convey their confidence in an Afghan-led Afghanistan.

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