In preparing for a temporary assignment to Afghanistan in 2003, Frank Light rediscovered a journal he had kept for a few weeks as a Peace Corps volunteer in that country more than thirty years earlier. Later he fleshed out the journal, starting a process that led to a draft memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. Fourteen literary reviews and anthologies have published excerpts from it. Further to Afghanistan, he met his wife on the cliffside Buddha in Bamiyan that the Taliban would later blow up, and in 2005/2006 he worked on Afghanistan policy while detailed to the Pentagon. Now retired from government service, he has resumed interests stoked years ago in the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine. A few of his poems and other essays have also recently been published.
(Photo: Kerry Greene)
Disclaimer: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."
OCTOBER SURPRISE by Frank Light
Beyond Kandahar to the north loomed a Planet of the Apes landscape of strangely shaped buttes and mesas, sweeping up from a bright yellow desert that appeared to have little depth, on account of the thin atmosphere and stagy plateau light.
- Robert Kaplan, Imperial Grunts
The first sight a traveler with a view to the front caught of Uruzgan would be the low mountains that encircled Tarin Kot valley, their color dependent on angle, hour, and season. As he drew closer, the traveler might also notice a wan ribbon of green coursing that valley perpendicular to his line of approach. I can report this with some confidence because I later went through a similar progression from a slightly lower perspective, coming in on the road out of Nesh in northern Kandahar. Many a day in-between I observed those mountains from the valley floor, and I crossed the river just north of Tarin Kot town as well as to the east and west of the valley. But at the time under discussion – summer of 2004 – no foreigner ventured that way except by air, and so most of us sat sideways, facing in. The portholes were small and opaque, not conducive to sightseeing. We could only see, through the open cargo door in the tail, where we'd been.
The flights, one or two a week on the average, originated in Kandahar. The few Americans there who knew anything about the land to the north said the river at its core had run dry. Not so. Although well into the summer and five, six years of drought, the thin, brown stream within that greenbelt meandered on, irrigating fields below the level of the ditches it fed, not really exhausting itself until just before it got to the Helmand on the other side of the western rim. Without it, there would have been no Tarin Kot town.
That town was the capital of Uruzgan, a province with the lowest literacy rate in all Afghanistan. Very Pashtun, very conservative. Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, spent his formative years in Uruzgan, and the man we installed in his place – Hamid Karzai – established a foothold there in 2001, with help from our Special Forces. Little of concern to Kabul – or Washington – happened in the province since.
As I knew from a layover in Kabul, Embassy staff had their hands full keeping up with Washington, the Ambassador, military headquarters at Bagram, high-level visits, the UN, other embassies, the provisional Afghan government, and the upcoming presidential elections. The voter registration deadline had recently come and gone. Someone in the Embassy's political section thought it’d been extended for Uruzgan; no one was sure. Uruzgan could have been the dark side of the moon. Nobody I talked to had been there or expressed any desire to visit.
So the Embassy directed me to the UN mission, where I was told Uruzgan had no institutions, rule of law, or freedom of expression. Governance was a one-man show. Tribalism reigned. The Governor’s militia killed 137 persons the previous year, and there had been no investigations. The Governor insisted all 137 were Taliban. Those who complained were, like the dead, labeled Taliban. Opium dominated the economy, involving every government official. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors stayed away. As did the UN. A disillusioned populace was asking what Karzai – and, by extension, the U.S. and UN – had ever done for them. The UN arrived at this analysis by interviewing Afghans who passed through or lived in Kandahar. It gave me something to go on, though over the years I’d learned that every time I thought I understood a situation, somebody would present a new way to look at it. What I previously knew wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t the whole story.
The prior year I did a similar tour at another start-up Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, in Jalalabad east of Kabul. An organization chart, had one existed, would have shown my position at the end of a dotted, horizontal line. Guidance from above was understood but largely unexpressed. The job was what you made it. Accomplishments were nebulous for the most part and in all cases depended on others. Satisfying, frustrating work. Just my being there, trying to contribute, wrapped up some loose ends. Were it not for family responsibilities, I would have stayed longer. The State Department wanted a year, which made sense. They took me for 90 days – their minimum, my maximum – because they couldn't get anybody else.
That wasn't my first acquaintance with Jalalabad. I'd lived there in the Peace Corps, most likely before anybody else on the helicopter had been born. But I'd never been to Uruzgan. Now sixty, with thick glasses, bad back, and a hoary mustache that would grow into an expeditionary beard, I was coming off leave without pay in Copenhagen, where my wife was Deputy Chief of Mission. My leave status dispensed with nepotism concerns and allowed us to have a parent in the house when our daughter came home from school. Except when I was in Afghanistan.
As the Chinook circled downward, it gave us passengers a chance to look around. Lacking monument or distinguishing color, or much size for that matter, the town was hard to spot from afar, or from above. Not that we looked that way for long. Our vision soon fixed on the southwest end of town, to a topographical bowl where Forward Operating Base Ripley went about its business. The base housed the 2/5 Battalion of the U.S Army's 25th Infantry Division and a 80-man PRT, to which I'd been assigned. PRTs were supposed to promote development and extend the writ of the national government. Though touted as interagency, they were mostly military. Tarin Kot's was still in the formative stage. It wouldn't become official until after I left. Its first USAID representative arrived a few days ahead of me, and I would be the first from State.
Scattered and close to the ground, the base, like the town, didn’t call attention to itself. What caught my eye was the dust, bright as butterscotch, that covered the bowl and the few structures rising out of it. At first glance Ripley hardly seemed a base at all. Its horizontal reach and vertical modesty brought to mind long-abandoned irrigation works found in other parts of the country; it seemed a place where sooner or later, probably sooner, the elements would prevail. Inside, as out, there was far more dust than signs of occupation. To stake out the high ground, the perimeter extended well beyond the space its inhabitants could occupy. I never discerned the dirt airstrip that ran inside the western berm until weeks later when a UN-chartered C-130 Hercules landed, churning up massive clouds of dust that drifted north and east toward the new PRT site under construction. The gray rocks that formed the helicopter landing zone, in contrast, made it difficult to miss, and they cut down on the dust. Those rocks were big and uneven, however, with large gaps in-between. You had to watch your step.
Uruzgan on the Map *
At At the High School in Tarin Kot
* In the spring of 2004, some eight years after this mural was painted, the government in Kabul created a separate province – Daikundi – out of northern Uruzgan. That left Uruzgan with five districts: Tarin Kot in the center, Deh Rawud and Charchina to the west, Chora and Khas Uruzgan to the east.
Part I. The Big Three
A. The Coordinator
The Governor had been gone for weeks when I arrived, and he had no deputy. A number of other key officials had also departed, including the Governor's main rival, the police chief. An absent official could have been fired; he could have found something better. He could be sick, dead, arrested, kidnapped, laying low in Pakistan, or living the life in Dubai. The Embassy hadn’t a clue, nor did anybody in Tarin Kot. Apparently its elites would rather be nobody somewhere else than somebody here in the heat of summer.
Their absence wasn't critical. For a while, it may have actually helped. Neither the Governor nor the police chief had shown much interest in the election, the one issue that could attract our embassy's attention to a place like Uruzgan. In the meantime my USAID colleague Kerry and I traveled under military protection to the outlying districts, where we found governance to be even more minimalist than in the capital. Not a single woman had registered to vote in Deh Rawud or Chora, and in Khas Uruzgan the election coordinator seemed afraid of his own shadow. Officials were waiting on guidance, or further prodding, from Tarin Kot.
There was reason for hope. Apart from the absent Governor and police chief, a third official cut a wide swath through the province. And he was, very much, on the scene. Atiqullah Khan, election coordinator for Uruzgan and the two southernmost districts in Daikundi – Kijran and Gizab – was a survivor with ambitions. A political chameleon, he had served as a colonel for the communists in the Soviet era, defected to the muj, returned to the communist fold under Najibullah when the Soviets left, holed out in Pakistan after Najibullah fell, repatriated to the family farm in Tarin Kot district during the Taliban reign, stayed in contact with some in the insurgency, and managed foreigners better than any other powerbroker in the province. It was just the competition he didn’t get along with. It didn’t help that each of the three rivals were seen as standard-bearers for the three main tribes in the basin – the Governor for the Populzai, the police chief for the Barakzai, and Atiqullah the Achakzai.
Those leaders who adapted best to the changes, shaping them where they could, would have first dibs on the perks, power, and funding that came with the new order. That order called for comity. The standard-bearers’ stated opposition to the Taliban, who came mostly from other tribes, did not lead to mutual cooperation. It was the old prisoners’ dilemma. Cooperation required trust. Too much was at stake; too much water had passed over the dam. The three had as little to do with each other as possible.
Fine by Atiqullah. Kabul provided a title; the UN, resources; and the Americans, military backup. Forget that the title came without authority, the resources had to be accounted for, and the backup was under external command; he parlayed his connections into an organization that spread across and in some places beyond the province. In the run-up to the voting more people reported to him than to the Governor. From the election compound in downtown Tarin Kot he oversaw 27 field coordinators, each with his own staff and up to 24 guards. All told, 1155 people supposedly worked for him, more if you counted unpaid volunteers, compound guards, and two Global Risk contractors who helped handle finances and Americans. Technically, they all worked for the Joint Election Monitoring Board, the JEMB.
The American point of contact was the 2/5 battalion's fire-support officer, not a fulltime job in a counterinsurgency of such low – compared to, say, Iraq – intensity. The officer, a young, round-faced captain known as Rob, also had responsibilities for base construction. As Atiqullah was not about to come to Ripley, Rob drove to the JEMB compound with ever greater frequency as the election drew near. The first time I hitched a ride with him we got in a pickup truck with only his interpreter Asim.
Knowing the PRT required three up-armored Humvees for every trip into town, Rob asked if I had a problem traveling so light. Staff officers commanded no troops, so he’d have to ask for escorts at the battalion operations center. Sometimes that took a while, he explained. He liked to get to the compound quickly. One issue or another was always coming up. That morning, for example. Bagram passed a rumor that Atiqullah had been arrested – pucked was the term, deriving from the acronym for Persons Under Control. Afghans might arrest or they might kidnap, but only Americans – a special few at that – pucked. We knew it was crazy, but our Special Forces in Deh Rawud and Kandahar didn't always coordinate with Ripley, Rob couldn’t get through on the radio, and the battalion commander, call sign Bobcat 6, wanted eyes-on confirmation that Atiqullah was still on the job.
Escorts wouldn’t have protected us from improvised explosive devices, IEDs in the vernacular, the most likely form of attack. But not that likely. Rob hadn’t been doing this for long, the town had been quiet, he didn’t go at a set time or on a fixed route, and no other foreigner drove around in such a manner. If we found ourselves in a fix, Asim carried a radio, an AK-47 too as I recall, I mean he kept one in the vehicle, and I had my Thuraya satellite phone. For what it was worth, in Deh Rawud the week before I’d practiced on the M-4. Rob's sat propped between the seats. Anything happens, he said, noticing my glance, take the wheel.
First sight of town on leaving the base was even less impressive than it was from the air. A few meters lower than our gate, Tarin Kot began almost as soon as we passed the last strand of wire. The exit channeled us into a long, straight shot of a road lined with adobe compounds, vacant lots, sheds, tire shops, broken vehicles, glass shards, scrap metal, goats, distressed trees, sand, stone, and gawking boys. There were no obviously nice parts of town, no neighborhoods for new money or old. If people had it, they weren't showing it. This shared aesthetic led to a uniformity in appearance, everything brown or gray and behind walls where walls still stood. Fifteen years after the Soviets left, when the factions turned on each other and the fighting really got nasty, whole blocks still lay in rubble. Buildings were abandoned or squatted in. None rose above two stories. Not a street was paved, at least not anymore.
With one exception all of them intersected at right angles, meaning the town must have been planned. The optimism such planning assumes disappeared with the resources needed to carry it out. Tarin Kot had no scenic attractions or hotels apart from a rudimentary tea house or two. Unlike most provincial capitals, it boasted no government guest house, and there was no easy way out (or way in for consumer goods). Its most notable feature marked the center of town, at the one intersection lacking right angles – a traffic circle with a police gazebo in the middle.
The people along the way looked the part – thin, scruffy, and poor. This was the only road from Ripley into town, and the 2/5 traveled it as often as the PRT did, maybe two or three times a week. Still, everybody stared. Under the unbridled sun the buildings themselves seemed to glare. Same with the streets, the wares, the trash, everything. Neither park, pool, nor fountain graced the town. The climate did not allow such luxuries. Even the river lay on the outskirts near the fields it irrigated (or flooded should that ever happen again). The little water than flowed into the province came from unseen mountains to the north and east. The ridges that framed the valley didn’t rise to a level that would capture moisture in the summer or hold snow from the winter. They merely reinforced the sense of isolation.
Indeed, Tarin Kot existed precisely because it was in the middle of nowhere. The track from Kandahar terminated just south of town. To the northeast a road ran to Chora and onward, depending upon the fork you took, to Daikundi or to Khas Uruzgan. To the southeast a road led to Chenartu in the southern part of Chora and up to Khas Uruzgan town, the provincial seat under the Taliban. To the west a road led over a pass to Deh Rawud and north from there to Charchina. None were surfaced, not even with gravel. You could drive for hours without seeing another vehicle.
The advantage of location produced another – Tarin Kot’s re-designation as provincial capital. What few official resources went Uruzgan’s way went to the new capital. They rarely went farther. Now a third advantage derived from the second – FOB Ripley. Apart from opium, the only serious money that could be made came from the Americans. Failing that, the UN.
The JEMB compound had two gates, and at different times we used them both. The Taliban built it, on the far side of the government quarter, as a religious school. Consistent with their predilection for irony, Special Forces transformed it into their operations base before moving to Deh Rawud. Thick, high walls, guard posts with armed sentries, barbed wire, and serpentine, vehicular entrances gave it a formidable appearance. But because the guards were local, the UN wouldn’t let expatriate staff spend the night there. It entertained no such qualms about contractors. The Global Risk twosome were ex-military, one Australian, the other South African. Neither were armed.
Sometimes Atiqullah would receive us in his office, sometimes on the veranda in front of it, our conversations frequently interrupted by incoming calls on his Thuraya and aides popping in with questions. I give him credit: he kept a lot of balls in the air. He made decisions without micromanaging. Like many a decision-maker, he was not into details, and he could be stubborn. He liked attention and pretended otherwise. Thin, with the eyes and beard of a man who had been to the mountain, he evinced a been-there, done-that weariness. He spoke in a voice so quiet that Asim had to lean forward to hear him, and I could pick up almost none of his Pashtu. At such times he might switch to a quirky English that tended to confuse more than clarify. The fellows from Global Risk usually sat in and sometimes offered comments or explanations. Atiqullah was nobody’s puppet, however. He liked pulling the strings even when, as often happened, there was nothing at the other end.
His statistics never quite jived from one day to the next, nor did his descriptions of voting procedures. At our first meeting he told me each voter would write his registration number on his ballot and put it in the box marked with a photo of his candidate. He mentioned 435 voting stations. There were 18 candidates, none from Uruzgan.
Calculating in my head, I said that’d make 8000 ballot boxes. Roughly. Was JEMB supplying that many? How big were the boxes? And how could you have a secret ballot when voters dropped their ballots in one of 18 marked boxes?
Atiqullah almost smiled; he almost sighed. If he didn’t have so many things on his mind, he might have welcomed my questions. They kept him on his toes. He explained that a candidate would have a ballot box at a site only if a proponent appeared with an authorizing letter from Kabul.
No letters will get here from Kabul, I noted; certainly not before the election.
He said he could authorize any proponent who stepped forward, letter or no. His staff had Thurayas for just that purpose.
At a subsequent meeting Global Risk reported 804 armed guards on the payroll. I think they counted toward the 1135 total. Atiqullah said he’d like to post 24 at each site but might get only 8-12 per site.
Apparently a site was the same as a station. I said it’d be a lot fewer than that if he had 435 sites.
He took a sip from a water bottle, one of the benefits of having foreigners on the compound, looked briefly in my direction, and then longer at Asim. Maybe the translation hadn’t been clear. Speaking slowly, he said he wanted 24 at each center.
Asim rolled his eyes as he translated. In the States, a guy his age and moxie would have been in law school. Or a Congressional aide.
How many centers? I asked. This was the first I’d heard of them. Gaps often perforated our conversations. Translation had something to do with it. As did culture. Habit. Intent.
And how many sites?
325. Every one within a kilometer of a center, Atiqullah declared. He said he’d had to eliminate a few sites that couldn’t be secured. When he tilted his head back, as he then did, it lifted his chin, and his beard rose with it, halfway to horizontal.
He knew ambition got you nowhere unless you had the cojones to back it. And if you didn’t persist in spite of the naysayers, handwringers, and beancounters, you’d never get anything done. Not on time, anyway. In August, just before my arrival, he was involved in – created, some said – an incident that exemplified his positive as well as negative attributes. Rob advised him to wait for armed escort before sending a JEMB convoy from Deh Rawud to Kijran District, north of Charchina. Impatient to complete registration, he disregarded the advice and personally led the convoy. Late in the afternoon of the first day they were ambushed going into Charchina. A JEMB trainer and driver were killed. Four vehicles were destroyed. Atiqullah led the defense, repelling the attackers. Nobody doubted his valor, just as nobody believed there were 150 Taliban, as he asserted. In telling me the story, he did not mention calling for help on his Thuraya or the American response – two A-10 Warthogs swooped low over the attackers just before they withdrew. A 2/5 convoy from Deh Rawud drove up a couple days later, on the date originally planned, to escort him to Kijran.
With the election fast approaching and logistics lagging, he needed to focus on administrative matters. Each station – Rob put the number at 384 – had 3 to 12 voting booths. JEMB’s job was to distribute to each station training materials, ballot boxes, polling kits, curtains, poles, and tables for the booths, and finally the ballots themselves. JEMB also needed to protect the stations, secure the ballot boxes as well as the unused ballots, and return them for counting. To that end field staff were supposed to coordinate with local officials, police, mullahs, elders, and militias. Atiqullah left it to others – Global Risk, Karzai, the Minister of Interior, or interested Americans – to make arrangements with the provincial authorities.
All that unfinished business could not take away from the growing excitement. Three years after 9/11, this famously failed state and its newfound friends had come to the verge. The world would be watching. Uruzgan was in the weeds, admittedly, but a part of the picture nonetheless. The renewed attention to Afghanistan had our civilian and military commands on high alert. The drumbeat of bad news from Iraq made progress in our other Islamic intervention even more essential to America’s – and, to get crass, our political leadership’s – standing. Those feeling the heat from that leadership needed to hear about potential problems, especially if word might spill out, but mostly they wanted good news, something to share. No whining.
Bad news makes good stories, so that’s what the media sought. But their motivation wasn't as strong as it was in Iraq since virtually everyone in the West endorsed an American presence in Afghanistan. Yes, some criticized the size and nature of our intervention. The NGO community kept calling for more aid, pay no mind (for the moment) how it was spent, and more American soldiers while complaining that those we did send either mucked around in humanitarian efforts that were none of their affair or were in cahoots with drug-dealing warlords who intimidated the voting public. The same crowd that bemoaned delays in scheduling the election now insisted it was taking place too soon – before the people understood it, before parliamentary elections, and before security prevailed in the countryside.
After pulling out battered and bloodied from Iraq, the UN had a major stake in the election it managed together with the Afghan government. Although the J stood for Joint, everybody knew JEMB’s senior partner provided the money, experience, and international credibility. For all its resources, and the U.S. was the main contributor, the UN couldn't easily get Atiqullah the cash he needed to pay his staff. Apart from the “bank” on the Governor’s compound, a shuttered shack the size and solidity of a melon shop and which I had never seen open, Uruzgan had no financial institutions. The UN would send a helicopter from Kandahar. The White Elephant, as it was called, would land at Ripley, and then the payroll had to be driven to the JEMB compound. That hadn’t happened for a while, so the field coordinators camped at the compound – on strike, in effect. Knowing how much easier it was to promise than deliver, they threatened to quit altogether if their back pay didn’t come soon.
Meanwhile the intelligence community was predicting an all-out Taliban effort to disrupt the election. Certainly that’s what the analysts would have done had they been Taliban. You didn’t need a security clearance to arrive at this analysis; it became a media staple. Even our own ambassador warned of a "Tet-like" offensive, proof that the Vietnam War had transitioned, in the American mind, from ideology to mythology. Feeding those fears, Taliban spokesmen in Pakistan threatened any and all who participated.
A lot could get lost between Pakistan and Uruzgan, but not all of it, not all the time. One of eleven voters the Taliban took off a bus and executed in Khas Uruzgan that summer was a JEMB team leader. They did it with a knife. Another of the eleven also worked for JEMB. A month after that, a second team leader in Khas Uruzgan was killed, this one by gunshot, while driving a motorbike. The backseat rider was also killed. An IED that hit a JEMB vehicle in Chora injured several employees. Nearby villagers detained the three perpetrators, who were now enjoying such hospitality as the Bagram Detention Center had to offer. They had come from Pakistan with satellite phones and new radios. A JEMB guard was killed and three of their vehicles damaged in the attack on the District Chief's office in Deh Rawud. JEMB lost another vehicle when a coordinator was attacked at his home in Kijran. He came out of it scared but unscathed, claiming he had exchanged fire with his assailants for 30 minutes.
In Khas Uruzgan five villagers were kidnapped by presumed Taliban for having voter registration cards in their possession. In Chenartu, gunmen executed two of four militiamen they abducted. No election tie-in. Just tribesmen making like Taliban. Villagers killed two suspected kidnappers in revenge. The situation there was getting out of hand, the Governor told Bobcat 6 soon after his return. He said he'd been in Kabul, meeting with Karzai, and in Kandahar, with our Special Forces. He had already ordered the police to round up the troublemakers. The acting head of police, brother of the absent chief, refused, saying it wasn’t police work. The Governor extended both hands toward Bobcat 6, offering him another chance to man up. Maybe after the election, the lieutenant colonel replied. Not before. The Governor had expected as much. In that case, he said, he’d send his militia without any Coalition support.
On the way back from a meeting a few days after that, I noticed a crowd around the gazebo in the traffic circle. I asked the driver to pull over. I hoped to see the first evidence of electioneering in the province. The Embassy would be pleased.
At the center of the commotion lay two dust- and blood-covered men dead from gunshot wounds. Taliban, a policeman said. From Chenartu, of course. He wanted me to take their picture. They needed a shave. A shower and a shave and a lot more than that.
Other incidents reminded us we were in a combat zone. After months of quiet, a total of three rockets were fired at Ripley on two separate occasions. All hit outside the wire, about a kilometer from the PRT, in the wee hours of the morning. Because some of us worked and all of us slept in tents, we were supposed to take shelter from indirect fire in a bunker dug into the dirt on the other side of our picnic tables. The air conditioners ran so loudly that none of us noticed, and nobody sounded the alarm unless you counted the first occasion, when the American guard nearest the explosion radioed he was under attack. The 2/5 was able to trace the rockets’ path over the town from the hills to the east, between Chora and Chenartu. Morning-after patrols even found the launch site. Same place both launchings. More a cry for attention than anything, stray rockets came with the territory.
Down at the JEMB compound, security guards refused to escort a truckload of polling furniture to Khas Uruzgan unless at least a hundred of them went. The road ran through Chenartu, they argued, an ungoverned place where Taliban and bandits preyed on the weak. The guards insisted on $6 per man-day like they got during registration, plus per diem and expenses for their pickups. The JEMB limit, set in Kabul, was $4 a day. In the early summer when the Marines were around they quietly plussed it up to $6. Global Risk held the line at $4. They saw the Governor’s hand in the guards’ demands, as most were doubledipping from his militia's roster. Atiqullah smiled, silent as a Sufi. He knew when to let the foreigners deal with these things. The furniture remained in his compound along with several JEMB staff also awaiting escort to Khas Uruzgan. Having found the compound in Tarin Kot far cozier than the streets of Uruzgan town, they didn’t push it. Must be Allah’s will.
B. The Governor
Like it or not, you couldn’t get much done without the Governor. Atiqullah had parleyed with him earlier in the summer but showed no desire to repeat the experience. Nor did the Governor. When I asked an interpreter to set up a meeting to introduce the new PRT command to the Governor, he came back with an invitation to an election shura, or council. The Governor knew we’d find that irresistible. Rob went, too. Even Bobcat 6.
An immobilized Soviet tank oversaw the entrance, its cannon facing visitors and the street behind them that ran straight to Dead Man’s Circle. Approved visitors parked in the outer compound, which contained a colonnaded office building and, off to the side, the padlocked shed that passed for Uruzgan's only bank. A second guarded gate led to the inner compound where the Governor worked.
We passed through that interior gate into a scene out of time immemorial: the Governor rallying the tribes. He stood tall, his arm out to make a point. He turned toward us knowingly, as though he’d predicted our advent. Men and boys milled about, or squatted and watched. Some but not all bore arms. The oldest sat on carpets and cushions laid across two pavilions, one on each side of the pathway. The Stars and Stripes flew from the left pavilion roof, compliments of the departed Marines. None of the elders were armed; like a white beard, that signaled sagacity. They stirred as we stepped forward. All foreigners but me were armed, and I had my vest. They knew we carried big guns. They hoped we also brought big money.
The Governor had been talking about security, a topic of greater local interest than the election. His voice carried without trying. It was rough and boisterous, a trait especially noticeable when he laughed. Built like a brawler, he called out to men he knew. Some were heavier, some taller, none larger. Even his gestures were larger. He wasn’t dressed differently, everyone in salwar kamiz, the traditional tunic with matching, baggy trousers. Black, brown, gray, and smudge green, one color per person. A few in sandals, most barefoot. All had beards. All wore turbans. The Governor had lost some teeth, and one eye was white, a common affliction. Dark streaks that ran through his beard joined in the middle to form a mustache the color of charcoal. Combined with his unpaired eyes and hanging brows, it gave him the look of an ex-con trying to go straight. He could do it. He could do anything, his manner suggested. Do it and get away with it. A hearty host, guffawing at an elder’s remark, he seemed genuinely happy to see us, happier still for us to see him with the shura and for the shura to see us with him.
With his good eye on us, knowing all others were on him, he declared it every man’s duty to vote. He held up a supersized ballot, courtesy of JEMB, with photos of the candidates. You didn’t have to be able to read. He himself couldn't. You simply put your mark by the picture and party symbol. Here, for example – he pointed to the ballot – was someone they all knew. The elders nodded and smiled as though being treated to a parlor trick. The image was Karzai’s. The Governor didn’t say his name. No need for advocacy, intimidation, or bribery.
Everyone knew, or thought he knew, how the Governor got his job. His father and Karzai’s father had been together, outside a mosque in Pakistan, summer of 1999, when two men on a motorbike shot and killed Karzai’s father. There was more to it than that, of course, for the Governor showed no sign of having been born to the throne. This man of the people, who reputedly started his working life as a janitor at Tarin Kot High, rose to the top of the provincial heap by resisting communist efforts to tear down the old order. You couldn't do that unless you were smart, tough, relentless, lucky, and/or – doubtful in his case – had God on your side.
His appointment as Governor allowed Karzai to settle tribal and family obligations in a place that had no bearing on the capital. What happened in Uruzgan stayed in Uruzgan, and Karzai counted on the Americans to keep it that way. For all the Governor's faults, no official was more pro-Karzai. None was more anti-Taliban. He hated them like a team hates its archrival.
The shura were probably all going to vote for Karzai, their fellow Pashtun with face and name recognition and ties to the area. To be fair, the Governor noted they could vote for any of the 18.
He paused to shake our hands, and I asked if he was going to cast his for the one female candidate. Ha ha; he had to laugh. A begrudging laugh.
Over 40% of the country’s registered voters were women, a sign of progress the Embassy frequently pointed to. The percentage was down to single digits in Uruzgan, however, weighed down by zeroes in Deh Rawud and Chora. The women don't like to go out, officials explained. Surprisingly, the most retrograde of all districts – Charchina – had 48 female voters. It once had 78. The high number made Atiqullah suspicious. He looked into it while waiting for the 2/5 escort the time he’d been ambushed. Thirty of them turned out to be “thieves,” he told me. A team leader confessed to filling out their registration cards.
The Governor turned back to the elders. Any questions?
An elder asked how and where the votes would be counted. The Governor turned our way. He had invited Atiqullah, the subject-matter expert. No Atiqullah. Not even Global Risk. The Governor remarked on that. Bobcat 6 spoke up. Uruzgan’s votes would be counted in Kandahar. By the JEMB. International representatives would observe.
The elders mulled that over. It wasn’t every day a foreigner addressed them.
Hands on his chest, the Governor followed up in Pashtu. Some in the audience murmured assent. Others nodded.
In contradiction to Bobcat 6’s response, Atiqullah had told us he would supervise vote counting at the compound in Tarin Kot. I caught Rob’s eye. A change, he muttered. JEMB would have a soccer stadium to do it in. Not just for Uruzgan. The whole south.
The Governor wrapped up his remarks, and his right hand opened toward us foreigners.
Asim translated: the Americans came to help. We were asked to elaborate.
Bobcat 6, a wiry, bespectacled hard-charger, spoke briefly about security, and the new PRT commander, the tallest person in the province, said a few words about development. Both talked about partnerships, how we were here to support the government and work with the people.
Putting it in terms the elders would understand, the Governor said we would build schools and roads. He invited me to speak. An old bugaboo bit me: failure to prepare. Neither the passion burning inside nor cool, crisp one-liners meant to disguise it came out. Governance, security, development – all were important, I think I said. Each enabled the other. The people provided what they had – labor and know-how. We provided the capital. They should tell us their needs, their priorities. The government would organize the response. Something like that. I know I didn’t say much. The lieutenant colonels had covered the bases. We understood that Americans shouldn’t speak at length. Not today. This was the Governor’s affair. He supplied the passion.
The Taliban didn’t come from Pakistan, he thundered. They were neighbors and relatives. Stop sheltering them. Kill them instead. Cut off their hands. That’s what his soldiers had just done to Mullah Ghafor, the scourge of Charchina. The Americans took him to Guantanamo and then – he paused for effect – brought him to Kabul and released him. The Governor had to shake his head at that. Ghafor returned to Uruzgan and his Taliban ways, attacking the JEMB and anybody with a voter’s card. No more. The Governor could report one less Taliban.
His voice shifted from exultation to exhortation: his soldiers couldn’t chase down every last Taliban. Not even the Americans could do that. He gestured in our direction. Elders and mullahs had a special responsibility. The Taliban listened to them. The elders should tell them he Jan Mohammed Khan – he smacked his chest twice – would pay every Taliban who turned himself in. He smiled at the thought. The elders smiled back. For all his faults, the man knew how to hold an audience.
He changed the subject, and the smiles disappeared. People should stop growing opium. Karzai had talked to him about it. They would have to weigh poverty against religious and patriotic duty.
The previous afternoon the PRT's military-police advisors returned from the police station with a Humvee trunk full of freshly cut marijuana. The chief's brother finally let them cut the cannabis garden by the front entrance. What’s the Governor done about drugs? he pointedly asked.
Providing his answer one day later, the Governor passed out copies of a fatwa from Kabul denouncing opium cultivation. You heard the Americans, he concluded. They’ll help you find a new way to make a living. Tell them your problems, your needs.
Two actions in two days, that was the counternarcotics campaign for the three months I spent in Uruzgan.
The new PRT leadership, the 2/5's civil affairs team, and I proceeded to the "palace," as governors’ quarters were called throughout the country. Impressive for Tarin Kot, the structure had two stories. Governors often resided where they worked, especially if they came from another province. This one was a native; he lived outside of town on the road to Deh Rawud. That allowed the civil affairs team and Asim to bunk in a room on the palace’s unfinished upper floor. Through them, his human hotline, Bobcat 6 kept tabs on developments. The Governor worked from a large office on the ground floor, chairs and sofas around the sides, and he was usually in early. His cabinet was there waiting for us, for the first time in Western trousers and suit jackets. The Governor had insisted on it upon his return from Kabul. That’s how the national cabinet dresses, he told them. It shows respect for the foreigners.
The civil affairs sergeant likened the atmosphere to a VFW hall, the management style to a mafia clan, with the Governor as godfather. His all-male cabinet were mostly war buddies from the resistance. They had no operating budgets, as their facilities made clear. Some offices lacked roofs; at others the walls had collapsed. Floors were dirt. Any furniture was scavenged.
A UNICEF project from the Taliban era brought a trickle of water a few hours a day to the palace and a few nearby pumps. In another vestige of bygone intentions, concrete gutters lined the streets in the government quarter. You wouldn't notice driving by. You had to get out on foot, as dust, dirt, dried mud, and weeds covered them. In that part of town power lines ran from a vacant lot where USAID had dropped off a large diesel generator. There was no fuel or fuel tank for it, nor were the lines linked to the generator or any consumer. In the evening small generators lit select compounds – the Governor’s, the police, the hospital, JEMB, and the one NGO (Afghan staff, European money).
Uruzgan had no cell phone service, and the landline connected a total of five phones to each other, all within a hundred meters of the Governor’s palace. He, the intelligence chief, and the NGO had the three TVs in the province. Reception came via satellite dish. Neither AM nor FM radio made it over the mountains. No newspapers. No computers. The bazaar stocked only the basics. Business was slow.
Over barbecued goat, fresh-baked flatbread, fried potatoes, watermelon, green tea, and hard candy, we discussed projects and priorities. Each cabinet member wanted security walls for his office. As in the past, we urged them to consider the outlying districts and the people they were supposed to serve.
Altogether, we stayed six hours, though we said nothing more about the election. The 2/5 had the lead on that, and Bobcat 6 had slipped away with his civil-affairs team to take possession of a prisoner the Governor's militia brought in. On our way out the Governor confirmed he would host a meeting the next morning to review election security. Global Risk had been pushing it, especially when Atiqullah wasn’t in earshot, and Rob had obtained Atiqullah’s sighing acquiescence. Earlier I had invited the police and the intelligence service.
The meeting didn’t start with the election. The Governor was too agitated. He had just gotten a call from the District Chief in Charchina. He said it concerned Mullah Ghafor, the Guatanamo graduate killed in the ambush he had reported to the shura. Two days ago his militia drove the body to Deh Rawud. No doubt about the mad mullah’s intentions – we had intercepts to confirm them, and the militia that bagged him captured rifles, grenades, vehicles, and a radio. On the day of the shura 400 relatives and sympathizers came to claim the body and take it to Charchina for burial.
The chief of the mullah’s subdistrict and Charchina’s District Chief made the trip to Deh Rawud and back the day after the funeral procession. On the return leg their vehicles separated as they approached the district line, each heading for his respective home. Coalition Forces had accompanied them for part of the trip and were in the vicinity when the District Chief called the Governor on his Thuraya to report the subchief called him, only a few minutes after turning off from the main convoy, to say a rocket-propelled grenade had struck his vehicle; tell the Americans not to shoot. The Chief couldn’t get through to the Americans, and he had since heard the subchief died of his wounds. Please tell the Americans he the District Chief had nothing to do with it, he implored the Governor. Please don’t bomb his compound.
It was all very confusing, and Bobcat 6 was at a disadvantage. The Americans were Special Forces, and they shared what they wanted to share. He said everything was quiet now, as far he knew. The Chief ought to visit the 2/5’s Charlie Company at their new outpost in Charchina.
The Governor nodded, and his emotions subsided. Nothing could be done about it for the moment. The Director of Health, the one outsider in the cabinet, asked if yesterday's prisoner had provided any useful information.
Bobcat 6 demurred. The prisoner had been flown to Kandahar.
He talked to us, the Governor noted. He didn’t talk to you?
We’re infantry, Bobcat 6 explained. Kandahar can do it better.
He switched topics, moving to the election.
Where's Atiqullah? the Governor interrupted. For show, he peered around the room.
At least Global Risk was present. The South African put his fist by his ear with thumb and little finger extended in the sign of the phone. Ambushed by the Thuraya, he explained. But he and the Aussie seemed to have Atiqullah's proxy, and thanks to their boss's network, they were often more clued in than either the Governor or us Americans. Too much information was their problem. They were better at collecting than at sorting and analyzing.
They confirmed JEMB would be responsible for security at the polling stations. They expected provincial authorities and Coalition Forces to secure the outer perimeter and respond to major incidents at the sites themselves. In an effort to bolster its own capabilities, JEMB was organizing a 50-man reaction force. Atiqullah was pressing Kabul for authorization to mount on two of their undersized Russian jeeps the machine guns necessary for a credible response. He was also still trying to clarify site locations. That’s why he couldn’t come to the meeting. His representatives declined the Governor’s offer to staff the reaction force, noting that his militia would be needed in other ways.
The South African did most of their talking, a wise approach since he was the more diplomatic of the two and took the lead on security. He had exchanged the cargo shorts, tee shirt, and flipflops he wore around the JEMB compound for cargo pants, long-sleeve shirt with sleeves rolled, and sandals. His older and stockier colleague, the Australian, came to Tarin Kot a couple weeks after him, and already he had the air of a man who’d seen enough. The South African said the Governor could help by getting the polling furniture to Khas Uruzgan.
Having seen his offer to staff the reaction force turned down and having gotten very little from Bobcat 6 on Charchina, the Governor noted the 2/5 had a base in Khas Uruzgan. Alpha Company. They should provide the escort.
Bobcat 6 smiled, a cup of the Governor’s tea in his hand. His guidance was clear, he said. The Afghans should handle these matters. It was in their capacity.
In a louder voice the Governor noted his militia lacked the protective gear and firepower the Americans enjoyed. Anyway, he added, aiming for a softer target, security was a police responsibility, not his. He glanced fiercely at Rozi’s brother, who sat silently on a sofa, arms folded, smiling and looking out the window as though he had not a care in this world. He had come in native dress, nothing fancy.
Unable to get a rise out of him, the Governor shifted his attention to the intelligence director, whose forces – fewer than 30 men in Tarin Kot plus a handful of agents in the districts – were not on the scale of the Governor's militia or even the police. The Director’s influence came from circumspection, independence, and connections to Kabul made evident by his well-turned, sharkskin jacket and the fact that he shaved. Ideally, he served as an honest broker. If he actually performed that function, he did it very subtly or out of my hearing. He said only that everybody needed to work together. The police had a role.
Bobcat 6 asked Asim to address Rozi's brother and then repeated the Governor’s assertion about security being a police responsibility.
The Governor nodded. That was what he liked to hear.
Maintaining his smile, the brother said he’d know more after Rozi talked with Jalali, the Minister of Interior, later that day in Kabul. It would be their second meeting, he noted. Maybe we can do more, he added, leaving it at that.
Bobcat 6 expressed confidence the Governor would do what was best for the province.
For once the Governor held his tongue. He was thinking.
Bobcat 6 asked him to consider what Karzai would want him to do.
Upon further reflection the Governor said he’d send his militia if they could train with the Americans and retrieve the cache of weapons Bravo Company had recently confiscated. That way they could hit the Taliban before and after the election. He had recently talked to Karzai – twice, as a matter of fact – the American Ambassador, and – with another pointed glance at Rozi's brother – Minister Jalali. He conceded heavy weapons were no longer necessary. The Taliban weren’t that tough. But his men had to be able to return fire.
Bobcat 6, in turn, reported his new guidance. He could release the captured AKs, grenades, launchers, and light machine guns as soon as he got a complete roster and weapons inventory.
The Governor looked at his militia commmander, who had been feigning indifference to cover what I took to be disdain. Name Matiollah, cousin to the Governor, rangy of build, and a man much feared in the province, he said it would be ready tomorrow.
The Governor liked that enough to repeat it.
The roster, Matiollah explained. He crossed his arms as he struggled to overcome a tendency, suggested by his body language, to sulk and bear grudges. Maybe it was his beard, not full like the others. A bushy version might have slowed him down. His had a week’s growth, like the Palestinians you saw on TV. He said the inventory would take longer. Weapons were all over the place.
We need locations, Bobcat 6 said. For weapons and militia.
The Governor responded. If the 2/5 covered traveling expenses, as the Marines had done, he would send his best troops. He glanced back at Matiollah, who gave the slightest of nods.
They had families to feed, the Governor continued. A man in his position had to look out for their welfare. The 2/5 should give him the per diem. He’d see the men got it. He didn't mention that many of the JEMB guards were moonlighting from his militia.
Bobcat 6 said the 2/5 would stand up its own reaction force. Two Chinook transports, two smaller Blackhawks, two Apache gunships, and medevac helicopters would base at Ripley for the election as components of Operation Bobcat Resolve. Our outposts in the districts would also be on alert. And consistent with new guidance from Bagram, the PRT commander placed his force-protection unit under the 2/5’s operational control for the election. With the 2/5’s three maneuver companies out in the far districts, the PRT unit would cover Tarin Kot and possibly Chora. It was already doing “route recon” to the polling sites. They discovered, as the 2/5 had in other districts, that coordinates didn’t always align with the sites. By asking around, they could usually track down the listed site. Not every time, and not at first. Sometimes the people just looked at them like what are you doing here?
TO BE CONTINUED