By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 30, 2006
TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan -- When the United States sent tons of wheat seed here this winter to be given to farmers as an alternative to growing poppies, local officials sold the seeds and pocketed the money. When the U.S. ambassador came for a visit Jan. 5, a suicide bomber detonated himself several hundred yards away, killing 10 people.
And every time U.S. troops have managed to seize a portion of Uruzgan province, this remote, ruggedly beautiful region of south-central Afghanistan, enemy fighters have simply slipped away and found new hiding places among its endless craggy hills and hollows.
As one senior U.S. military official describes it, Uruzgan is "the last frontier" -- a place that exemplifies why the international mission to secure Afghanistan still has a long way to go, why well-intentioned foreign assistance often ends up in the wrong hands, and why -- more than four years since the defeat of Islamic Taliban rule -- the insurgency has proved so difficult to defeat.
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, where shopping malls and cell phone stores are proliferating, the modern bustle creates a sense of progress and security. But here, about 230 miles southwest, the hardtop highway shifts to deeply rutted tracks, nightfall brings pitch darkness, and residents face a stark, daily choice between helping U.S. and Afghan authorities or aiding the Islamic fighters, drug runners and criminals who call Uruzgan home.
"If you made a list of provinces from one to 34, where is Uruzgan in terms of progress in the security environment? It would certainly be toward the bottom," said Army Lt. Gen Karl W. Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, following a recent visit here. "But I don't see a province out there that we can't transform. It's just going to take time."
In many ways, Uruzgan is stuck in a vicious circle of danger and neglect. While many other provinces forge ahead with reconstruction, work cannot begin in earnest here until the security situation improves, because most aid organizations and contractors are too fearful to set up shop. But the security situation, officials said, is not likely to improve until Uruzgan gets more schools, hospitals, roads and jobs. Right now, all are in short supply.
Uruzgan was once home to Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, and his organization continues to enjoy some support here, especially among fellow ethnic Pashtuns. Officials say they believe groups of Taliban fighters are permanently based in the province and find opportunities to recruit young members at local religious schools.
Over the past four years, the insurgents have repeatedly resisted U.S. military attempts to drive them out, instead moving among havens within the province. Last year, despite aggressive tactics by U.S. forces, military leaders say they lost ground in many areas. The insurgents, meanwhile, continued massing in Uruzgan and stepped up their attacks, contributing to the nearly 100 U.S. military deaths nationwide.
Recent interviews with residents and officials suggested that most people here are sympathetic to the United States and to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. They are not sure, however, if Karzai and his Western backers can be counted on to keep them safe over the long term.
A few months from now, U.S. soldiers are scheduled to relinquish control over southern Afghanistan and be replaced by NATO forces. In Uruzgan, soldiers from the Netherlands are supposed to take over. But the Dutch have wavered over whether they will make the commitment, raising concerns that the Taliban and its allies may take advantage of the uncertainty.
"The majority of the population of Uruzgan wants to live in peace. They don't want war," said Talatbek Masadykov, who heads the U.N. mission for southern Afghanistan. "But there is talk in the air that the Americans are leaving." Local residents, he said, ask: Who will be there to protect us?
Sgt. Mehrab Gul, an Afghan National Army soldier who patrols Uruzgan with the U.S. military, was more blunt: "If U.S. forces leave today, there will be a huge war tomorrow," he predicted.
U.S. officials say they believe that over the long term, the Afghan army is the solution: a permanent security force that will remain after international troops are gone. Training that force has been a priority for the U.S. military, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cited the Afghan army's progress when he announced that the Pentagon would reduce total U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan from 19,000 to 16,500 during 2006.
In 2005, U.S. and Afghan troops together pushed into some of the most remote parts of Uruzgan, battling insurgents and conducting aid projects as they went. The landscape is marked by treacherously steep, barren mountains occasionally broken by wide, sandy valleys. Nomads guide herds of sheep and camels along ancient routes; farmers tend small fields and orchards beside rivers fed in spring by melting mountain snow.
At one base set up by U.S. Special Forces and Afghan troops -- a nine-hour drive over backbreaking roads from Tirin Kot, the provincial capital-- the soldiers patrol with horses as well as Humvees. Recently, Afghan National Army forces have begun carrying out more missions on their own.
"We want the ANA to step up and do things instead of us stepping up for them. And they've gotten a lot better at that," said Sgt. Jason Welk, 28, a member of the Texas National Guard who has been stationed in Uruzgan since last May.
Nonetheless, the Afghan army remains in its infancy, heavily dependent on the United States for training and equipment while lacking sufficient numbers to secure the province. Moreover, the two other regional sources of protection -- the national police and the provincial governor's militia -- have their own flaws and limits.
The national police, deployed to each province to keep peace and order, are widely perceived as corrupt.
The civilian governor, Jan Mohammed Khan, is a tough former anti-Taliban fighter who uses his own militia and own prison to exert his will. But vast areas of Uruzgan are beyond his reach and infested by insurgents. Critics also complain that he is a poor administrator whose office is riddled with cronyism and generates few development projects.
"The governor and the other elders here, they own all the jobs," said Akhtar Mohammed, an man of about 18 who earns a few dollars a day helping the United States with reconstruction projects. "They give them to their relatives and their friends. So there are no jobs for us."
The report card on provincial anti-drug efforts is also mixed. According to the national counternarcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, the governor carried out a strong poppy eradication program last year, cutting the number of acres harvested by more than half. On the other hand, a U.S.-led program to promote alternative crops by giving wheat seed and fertilizer to poor local farmers went awry when some of the shipments were sold off for profit by local officials, according to U.S. and Afghan sources.
"You need a platform on which to build. And part of that platform is a reasonable degree of governance," Eikenberry said. "That's a challenge that we've got here."
One member of the new national parliament, Sona Neilofer, said the governor is doing the best he can but receives little cooperation from Kabul.
Neilofer, a former health clinic aide, said one of her priorities is to get better medical care for her constituents. The closest modern hospital facility is a four-hour drive from Tirin Kot, in Kandahar. The drive was shortened from six hours after the United States built a blacktop highway, but for many it is still too far. "On the way there," Neilofer said, "our patients die."
During Eikenberry's visit here, he strolled through Tirin Kot's dusty bazaar and ducked into a dark concrete stall to chat with a man selling shoes. He asked the man, Satar Khan, if he felt safe.
"Inside the city, the security is very good," Khan, 35, said politely. And what about outside, the general probed. "I lost some of my family outside the city," Khan replied gravely. "They were murdered."