A pair of Afghan helicopters swoop down onto a farmer’s field in Mahageer, outside the city of Bagram, and disgorge squads of Afghan commandos carrying free radios and school supplies for local residents. It’s only a training event, with a small humanitarian component, but its narrow scope belies the mission’s importance—it is one of the first times that Afghan soldiers and pilots have worked together on an operation planned by Afghan officers, with no NATO input.
In Salang, the capital of Parwan Province just north of Bagram, a US Army patrol, part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force, arrives for a visit with Gov. Abdul Basir Salangi. In February, Salang suffered a devastating series of avalanches that killed nearly 200 people. NATO helped Afghan forces rescue thousands of people from the snow. Now the Americans want to know what Salangi is doing to prevent such huge death tolls in future disasters. What they learn is perhaps both unsurprising, and deeply discouraging.
And at a village just a few hundred yards from the NATO airfield in Bagram, another US patrol is looking for a man with a plan. Col. Marion Peterson, an Army agricultural expert, has come to put the finishing touches on a plan to build an irrigation system for the village’s parched vineyards. He sits down with a man named Wali, a medical doctor and farmer who also serves as the village’s chief engineer. Peterson is pleasantly surprised when Dr. Wali presents him with a fat stack of paperwork—everything the Army will need to secure foreign funding and local contractors for the irrigation project. It’s a rare display of what the Americans call ‘ownership.’
The three events, all of which took place in the span of ten days in mid-March, illustrate a profound problem in Afghanistan, as well as the best solutions for it. They’re also indicative of a wider issue that arises whenever foreign powers attempt to boost developing or war-torn societies—broadly, how do wealthy nations assist poor or war-torn countries without turning them into permanent dependants? And in Afghanistan’s case, this means the question is how can NATO help prepare Afghan society to look after itself, so that NATO can declare victory and leave?
There were just two Americans aboard the Afghan helicopters for their air assault into Mahageer. US Maj. Todd Harrell was there to escort an American reporter covering the mission. Harrell, normally a media-relations specialist for US Special Forces, had volunteered to help out with news coverage of the commando training because, he said, it was an important story. Fully Afghan from beginning to end, the commando event underscores the real progress the Afghan army is making towards full self-sufficiency. That’s a clear prerequisite for the departure of foreign forces.
After the March mission, Harrell follows some commandos into a Bagram chow hall for lunch where he describes the pride the commandos take in their designation. To demonstrate, Harrell addresses a trooper. ‘Hey, commando,’ he says. The Afghan smiles widely, still flush with confidence from the day’s training.
This confidence hasn’t come easy. NATO has devoted billions of dollars and countless man-hours in training and equipping Afghan Security Forces for results that haven’t been what could be described as consistent. Indeed, there were many missteps. An attempt in 2007 to recruit southern tribal militias as government paramilitaries faltered when NATO began to suspect the militiamen might abandon the government and return to their warlords. Two years later, NATO tried again to enlist militiamen, this time in the country’s mountainous, isolationist east. That effort is ongoing, and reviews have been mixed.
In fact, ‘mixed’ is also the best adjective to describe Afghan forces. Eight years into this, the latest Afghan war, Afghan forces break down into three tiers, according to US Army Maj. Bill Hampton. Hampton rates the Afghan army, which includes the commandos, as ‘good.’ Paramilitary forces, including Afghan border cops and others, are ‘okay.’ But the national police force is simply ‘corrupt.’ Indeed, in March, NATO Gen. Stan McChrystal said he wanted to disband the roughly 100,000-strong police force and just start over.
For all of NATO’s reservations about the Afghan police, the coalition has reason to be hopeful for the Afghan army. As the commando mission demonstrated, the army is making big strides towards full independence. US Army Col. Don Galli, an aviation commander at Bagram, says he plans to place some of his troops under Afghan command in coming months. There’s good reason to believe that, however poor the police and other Afghan forces might be, the country’s army will continue to fight the Taliban even after foreign forces depart.
The Rescue Governor
In contrast to the commando mission, the meeting with Gov. Salangi does not go well. The governor recounts his own exploits in the mountain pass the day of the avalanches, describing how he went into the pass with his security guards to personally rescue people trapped in the snow. He also explains how he thought the Karzai government, and the Taliban before that, were to blame for under-funding the region’s rescue workers. Salangi’s focus is clearly on himself—and on the past.
More than an hour into the meeting, Ethan Glick, a US State Department official working for the Army, cuts off the governor and asks if he has come up with a plan to better deal with future avalanches. Yes, the governor says—and he proceeds to list millions of dollars in equipment and facilities he wants NATO to pay for. But he has not written anything down. His scheme is only in his head, yet he apparently hopes that Glick and the US Army will be prepared to plan and pay for it.
Glick has had enough and tells Salangi that if he wants help with an avalanche rescue plan, he needs to put his requests into writing. Salangi says he will get right on it. In the meantime, Salang remains vulnerable to natural disasters. In late March, fatal avalanches farther to the north remind Salang residents of the potential cost of poor governance.
Part of the problem is that many Afghans, even those in leadership positions, have grown comfortable allowing NATO to essentially govern in their stead. NATO shares some of the blame for providing services without always demanding Afghan involvement. ‘When I got here [a year ago], the coalition tended to do every step of the process for the populace,’ says Lt. Col. Chris Eubank, whose patrol area includes Salang. ‘We’d ask what they needed then find a person to do that job—whether it was a wall or a well—then set the contract in place, do the bidding, hire the person, pay the person and check his work. We were doing all that.’
As a result, ‘all too often in the past, Afghans looked to a coalition uniform—whether American or Canadian, pick your country…[and] they used to think, that’s my problem-solver,’ says Navy Cmdr. Kyle Higgins, commander of a NATO reconstruction team in Parwan. ‘What we’re trying to get at here, what I think success is going to be, is for Afghans to stop looking at us and start looking at their own government for solutions.’
But that hinges on there being an Afghan government that’s willing and able to assume ownership. Officials like Salangi seem to expect NATO to continue doing all the work.
With their government failing them, and NATO making every effort to step back from a leadership role, many Afghans are taking matters into their own hands. This bottom-up approach might be the best way to address Afghanistan’s problems—and the most viable solution to the broader problem of developed nations turning developing nations into permanent clients. It isn’t sexy and it’s not easy to codify into policy or law, but it works. Individuals must take responsibility.
At the village outside the air base, agricultural expert Peterson finds Dr. Wali outside the man’s mud-walled home. Wali invites Peterson and the other soldiers inside and shows them the documentation he has voluntarily prepared in order to speed the installation of an 18-inch irrigation pipe. The pipe would finally bring water to the village’s vineyards, which have grown increasingly parched owing to nearby construction that has blocked the flow of water across the area.
‘This is good,’ Peterson says, examining the documents. On his own initiative, Wali had prepared a written appeal for NATO funding and had even begun coordinating with a local contractor who could do the work. The doctor’s initiative made it easy for Peterson to get the project funded and underway. The perfect solution would see Afghan financiers underwriting the work, but until that’s possible, linking foreign money with Afghan planning is the next best thing.
‘We’ve involved locals in the process.’ Eubank says. ‘The end-state is literally we go from: we did everything, to we do nothing but provide oversight. That’s where we’re headed, but it takes a team effort.’
In places like Salang, the team effort between NATO and the Afghan government is faltering. Elsewhere, individual Afghans and Afghan soldiers understand and embrace the need to take on an increasing measure of ownership. With men like Salangi in key leadership roles, Afghanistan is still far from being self-sufficient. But with Afghans like the commandos and Dr. Wali taking responsibility for security and development at the grass-roots level, there’s also some reason to be hopeful.