Local strongman is U.S. troops' most reliable friend in Kandahar province

Map of Kandahar, Afghanistan
Laris Karklis/The Washington Post
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 29, 2010

NOW RUZI, AFGHANISTAN -- Haji Ghani is an illiterate, hashish-growing former warlord who directs a semiofficial police force and is known to show his anger through beatings. In this Taliban nest west of Kandahar, he is also U.S. forces' main partner.

Never mind that the district governor says Ghani, 44, works against him, or that U.S. soldiers describe him as Godfather-like and his police as vaguely crooked. In an area rife with insurgents who stalk soldiers' every move, Ghani's militia has carved out a four-square-mile bubble of tranquillity. Farmers can safely collect U.S.-funded seeds, and children will soon attend a new American-backed school.

"What's his is ours. What's ours is his," Lt. John Paszterko, 29, said of Ghani, a onetime anti-Soviet commander who now rules his tribal forefathers' lands. "He's a good friend to have."

As coalition forces struggle to weaken the Taliban, they insist that the key to doing so lies in bolstering Afghan institutions. Yet with government rule confined to certain densely populated areas, U.S. officials rely on strongmen who can maintain order in the most treacherous locales, even if their commitment to formal governance is dubious.

That inconsistency is causing unease in Washington, where Congress is scrutinizing payments of U.S. tax dollars to warlords who protected NATO convoys, and in Kabul, where critics fear that a U.S.-backed plan for village defense groups could spawn rogue militias or undermine government authority.

"In that scenario, the Afghan government doesn't gain any strength or legitimacy," one U.S. official working in Kandahar province said of alliances with strongmen who operate independently of the state. But, the official said, "we're on such a short timetable that people are looking and going, 'Oh, well. That area's stable -- full stop.' "

Common mission

The dynamic is present across this long-embattled nation, where former warlords are a dime a dozen and power is typically won with guns or money. Against that backdrop, Ghani is a minor player. With an AK-47 slung over his bony shoulder, he lords over 3,000 acres of his ancestors' farmland.

But Ghani's area, which includes three villages along the fertile Arghandab River, has suddenly become the focus of U.S. forces' latest push to defeat the Taliban. It lies along a critical entry point into Kandahar city used by the Taliban as a supply route, and government leadership here has long been feeble.

So Ghani and his force of about 40 "soldiers" -- he has about 50 more in reserve -- are vital partners, according to U.S. troops, who said the force might eventually be incorporated into the new village defense plan.

American soldiers and the district governor say that only some of Ghani's men have law enforcement training but that the local police chief, an ally of Ghani, equips them all with uniforms and weapons anyway. On a recent day at Ghani's leafy compound, a few uniformed fighters cleaned tables and served lunch to guests.

They are the closest thing in this area to an Afghan security force. The Afghan army soldiers set to share the U.S. outpost near Now Ruzi had not been deployed by early July. So when the Taliban ambushed Pazsterko's soldiers in late June, Ghani's police helped fight them off. After a roadside bomb detonated near the village, Ghani called in elders and menacingly told them to make sure it did not happen again.

Ghani is "one of the few people who does feel that responsibility" to fight the Taliban, said Capt. Paul N. DeLeon, 29, commander of Combat Outpost Durkin.

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