Zabul province seeks U.S. troops, but is caught in Afghan numbers game

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; A01

QALAT, AFGHANISTAN -- To work in Zabul province these days is to feel forsaken.

The Americans pulled a battalion out in December. The Afghan government promises help but sends little. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters continue to pour in.

"I am alone," said Abdul Qayoom Khan, who has watched it all from his lonely perch as a district governor.

This sparsely populated swath of desert and scrub brush does not feature prominently in the plans of Afghanistan or NATO to combat the insurgency, despite its 40-mile border with Pakistan and historical importance for the Taliban. U.S. commanders acknowledge the troubles here, but the math is simple: The cost of consolidating tens of thousands of troops for major operations in neighboring Helmand and Kandahar is that other volatile parts of Afghanistan must do without.

"You can't spread yourself completely thin everywhere," said Air Force Lt. Col. Andy Veres, commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul. "This operation requires some really difficult decisions be made."

Though an additional 30,000 U.S. troops are to arrive in Afghanistan this year, their geographic focus is narrow. By the end of the buildup, there will be 40,000 coalition and Afghan troops just in one 60-mile stretch of the Helmand River valley, according to a senior U.S. military planner in Kabul.

Of the 364 districts in the country, NATO considers 80 of them a priority, he said. They form a patchwork that roughly corresponds to the circle formed by the "ring road," or Highway 1, which hits the country's biggest cities, including Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat.

The road also bisects the province of Zabul, but for the most part U.S. troops have shifted their attention elsewhere. Late last year, commanders transferred a battalion of U.S. soldiers with the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Zabul to Helmand to patrol key roads and prepare to help in the offensive on Marja. That reduced the U.S. presence in Zabul from approximately 1,800 troops to 1,000, in a province that is home to 300,000 people, U.S. military officials say.

With Zabul's population sprinkled in about 2,500 remote villages, U.S. military officials argue that protecting the people is not only exceedingly difficult but also peripheral to a new American strategy in Afghanistan, which focuses on protecting more densely populated areas. But the move to pull out the Stryker battalion has left the weak and underfunded provincial government increasingly concerned about battling the Taliban.

The provincial governor, Alhaj M. Ashraf Naseri, said that about 2,000 Taliban fighters, operating in more than 100 groups, use motorbikes to crisscross his province at will. One of the 11 districts, Khak-e-Afghan, has been abandoned to the Taliban by both NATO and Afghan troops.

"This is the main gateway for the Taliban," Naseri said. "Why are they neglecting Zabul?"

Naseri helped lead the effort to persuade NATO commanders to revise plans that had called for an even more dramatic retreat -- consolidating the remaining troops in a tighter knot in towns and abandoning some districts. He and others threatened to withdraw the Afghan police, army and local governments from the outlying districts if NATO went through with its initial plan. According to a senior U.S. military official, Naseri called President Hamid Karzai, who passed along his concerns to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

This debate, as well as the tension it created even between U.S. units with differing goals in Zabul, rose to the level that the secretary of the Army visited Zabul to help hash it out. "It got pretty heavy," said a senior U.S. military official in Zabul.

In response to the protest, NATO commanders in southern Afghanistan agreed to leave small groups of U.S. troops in the districts, which "allayed the local leaders' concern," said one U.S. official. Brig. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, director of operations for southern Afghanistan, said the battalion's rapid withdrawal, to beat the winter snows, should have been better explained.

"I personally failed to fully appreciate the psychological impact in moving forces away from there over toward Helmand," he said. "But if you ever want to concentrate somewhere, you have to take from somewhere else."

Hodges said additional Special Forces were sent to Zabul to shore up Afghan police and army outposts near the Pakistani border. In addition to the U.S. troops that remain, there are about 800 Romanian soldiers, who patrol Highway 1, and a Jordanian special operations unit in the province.

Zabul has long been one of Afghanistan's poorest and most underdeveloped corners -- the Afghan equivalent of "central Nevada," Veres said.

There is one paved road. No sewer system. The only electricity apart from generators comes from a USAID-funded power plant that serves about 60 percent of the residents in the provincial capital of Qalat for a quarter of the day. Of more than 100 schools on the books, no more than about 25 offer classes.

Before Naseri became governor last year, he held the same post in Badghis province, in northwestern Afghanistan, and taught geography at Kabul University. The United Nations recently hired 10 advisers to augment his five-man office, although two of them left. Eighty percent of the slated jobs in his office remain unfilled.

Naseri has survived two close calls with bombings, and much of his work takes place in an office adjoined to a U.S. base. But some U.S. officials think Naseri is not as popular as a Taliban leader who calls himself the shadow governor.

The people of Zabul still come to Naseri in waves. When 16 bearded and turbaned men from the outskirts of Qalat sat down at his lacquered conference table last week, he assured them that "you will never be disappointed."

Soon, though, the conversation deteriorated into a dispute over Naseri's promise to build a new school in the village. The villagers said they wanted an Islamic school because the Taliban would not take kindly to anything else. "Just be a man and help me build the school," the governor pleaded to one villager.

"If you insist on coming with that idea," said Mohammad Kareem, "the village may still be there, but all the people will be gone."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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