Gardez makes true of its name – ‘dusty’. The capital of the South-eastern province of Paktia’s skyline, with the two characteristic cony hills and the Bala Hissar, the fort, on a third hill under which Buddhist remains are suspected are barely visible in the dust that is driven by the afternoon wind over the plateau 2300 meters above sea level. Particularly so the large compound close to the airfield that is still lined with the heavy weapons of militias and army units that were ‘cantoned’ at the start of the DDR program in 2003 – kilometres of artillery pieces, rocket launchers and armoured vehicles of Warsaw pact origin slowly rotting in the dry air.
The regional office of the Independent Election Commission shares it with the small team of the three remaining EU election observers (one just had to leave for medical reasons) and its support staff, as well as with the electoral component of UNDP. While the latter ones are accommodated in shacks, the observers live in bare containers almost made invisible behind large piles of sandbags – office and bedroom in one. Additionally, they have a big open tent through which the wind is blowing and providing the idea of a cool breeze. At least, they have the fastest internet connection in town.
Colourful Afghan trucks are coming in and unload election material. Tomorrow, says the local head of the IEC, the first loads will be brought to the districts. From there they are distributed to the 1097 (or so – figures oscillate a lot here) polling stations in the South-Eastern region with the four provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost – P2K in US Army English – and Ghazni.
But the region is dangerous. In many districts, the government just controls the central small town (or even the local police station only) and a connecting road to the Gardez. More than 20 (ten in Paktika, seven in Khost and at least five in Ghazni) are fully out of control. The same goes for – unofficially - 336 (a third) of the polling stations (PS). Officially, only 33 in Paktia (28 alone in Zurmat district), 21 in Paktika, 12 in Khost and 33 in Ghazni will remain closed on E-Day – for security and recruitment problems which are obviously linked to each other. But that figure will be significantly higher in reality. In Khost alone, 71 of 176 PS are probably affected. Mid-week, enough electoral staff was recruited for 33 of the 306 Paktika PS only; a day later, it had miraculously increased to 70. Only 35 per cent of the PS in that province could be verified by security forces (including the international ones). This adds a question mark behind the official Afghan government figure of only 11 to 14 ‘black’ districts country-wide that are fully insurgent-controlled.
There was a beheading carried out by insurgents in Janikhel district (Khost) a few days ago. In Terezai district (also Khost), insurgents were announcing over loudspeakers that they would cut off the fingers of voters – to be identified by the indelible ink (see AAN Election Blog No. 6). On Taleban nightletters, polling sites are called ‘siasi posts’ (political check-posts) and therefore declared legitimate targets. IEDs are abundant, even going off in Paktika’s centre Sharana. And there is a lot of criminal activity going on in not long ago peaceful districts like Ahmadabad, barely 40 minutes by car outside Gardez.
The only two provincial council candidates in Zurmat district have given up after threats. One was abducted by insurgents, later freed but forced to leave the country. The only Surikhel Dzadran provincial council candidate – the subtribe to which insurgency leader Jalaluddin Haqqani belongs – supports Dr Abdullah – but cannot go to his area. Woman candidates can campaign only very low key, i.e. through small meetings in private houses. Only one in Paktia dared to use the offer of the local TV station to be on air.
The running candidates, in particular the ones in rural areas, have to ‘fly with both hands’ as one Afghan put it - keeping up relations with both the government and the insurgents.
Many of the Afghan election personnel are too afraid even to tell their families where they work. Voter education and so-called outreach must remain virtually underground under these circumstances. The international personnel have no way to check whether posters meant to educate the voters about election procedures are really displayed in the villages and have to rely on hear-say. (Even in Kabul, many of them are torn and in the Gardez not many are visible.)
For that reason, some of the election material will be transferred airborne – ‘jingle trucks’ dangling from ISAF transport helicopters.
Election posters are only visible in the centre. They make the few signboards and traffic signs at junctions unreadable. A portrait of Ramazan Bashardost – who a while ago to the amazement of the Gardezis walked the town’s bazaar – is prominently displayed at the column at the central roundabout, beneath rows of Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah posters (I even saw a man with a bucket-full of glue putting them on walls), the ones of the incumbent and here and there of Amin Arsala. Also, local leftist (former PDPA) candidate Habib Mangal, back from years in Moscow, is prominently present – very chic with a silver-black turban of his tribe. Together with whole array of those of Provincial Council candidates this reflects a picture of pluralism that might be larger than in reality. Apparently, the party agents of the two major challengers of President Karzai have a difficult time to get a foot on the ground. Karzai, Abdullah, Ghani and Mangal seem to be the only ones who run local campaign offices.
In the setting sun, a caravan of cars carrying Afghan flags paces out of Gardez towards Kabul: a Karzai campaign dash team reportedly led by former Tribal Affairs Minister Amanullah Dzadran. Late in the evening – strange enough for this time of year – the wind carries a bit of rain. But the few drops will hardly rob Gardez of its name.
The road to perdition
September 26, 2009
After eight difficult years, Afghanistan has gone off the rails. America's top general says he needs thousands more troops to avoid defeat, and Barack Obama has added "cut and run" to America's list of options. The Herald's chief correspondent, Paul McGeough, and the SBS Dateline cameraman David Brill travelled to Afghanistan's south-east, where a Taliban warlord has declared war against a $US100 million road being built by the Americans. Their report, Highway to Hell, is on Dateline and repeated on SBS One today and Thursday at 2.30pm.
As ominous as the spot thunder storms electrifying the mountain air this time of year, Jalallulidin Haqqani's and Pacha Khan Zadran's shared history of victories and defeats rumbles menacingly across the craggy south-east. And just as theirs is no ordinary falling out, the $US100 million ($115 million) bid to link the remote, eastern border city of Khost to the hub-city of Gardez, south of Kabul, is no ordinary road project.
Standing between them, astride a ribbon of bitumen snaking its way towards one of Afghanistan's most treacherous mountain passes, is the unlikely figure of Robert Campbell - a lean, leathery US Army colonel who finds himself slipping between the sliding doors of time. On one side, ancient tribal enmity, big-man chest-thumping and insurgency diktats issued amid feuds, internecine ethnic loyalties and strange codes of honour and conduct; on the other side, a faltering, US-led bid to root democracy in the parched, rocky valleys of the Hindu Kush.
Inevitably, the tale of Haqqani and Pacha Khan entwines with that of a huge effort to build this new road, as a parable on the crisis gripping their homeland. Told in several parts, it is the story of Washington getting one up over Moscow. It's a tale of Afghan power-brokers milking the international donor community, hedging their bets while playing footsies with the Taliban and other insurgencies, because they're unconvinced Washington and its allies will not cut and run.
More than that, it reveals the dual dialogue that is a flaw in the glass of a chaotic effort to haul Afghanistan into the 21st century. Local leaders, from the President down, tell the world what it wants to hear, while tribal elders and local warlords kowtow to those above them in the power chain, as they carve up the country and its people on their own brutal, near-biblical terms.
Connecting Khost and Gardez, the K-G Road is part of a grand design to break five strategic centres from economic and social dependency on neighbouring Pakistan. By linking them together and to the national ring-road, they might be hooked back into Kabul's orbit.
In Paktia province, people worry about who will control the road. Will Jalallulidin Haqqani slap a tourniquet on it and hold the city of Khost to ransom - as he did so relentlessly in the past? Will Pacha Khan Zadran throw up checkpoints to extract tolls from all who pass - as he did so voraciously in the past?
For Americans stuck between them, the contest is as much about a showdown between two old tribal enemies as it is about the longevity and viability of the Kabul government.
Campbell, the American colonel, knows the stakes are high and that he dare not underestimate either opponent. "They have very different objectives," he tells the Herald while patrolling the K-G Road late last month. "Pacha Khan wants to control commerce on the road; Haqqani wants to control Khost."
Haqqani's whereabouts are a mystery. "The last I heard, he was in Pakistan - in Miram Shah," says a senior US officer, referring to a small town in the wilds of Waziristan, just over the border. When the Herald previously searched for Pacha Khan, the Pancho Villa lookalike was at home in the woodcutters' village of Wazi Zadran, lolling on a pile of floor cushions, his girt ample and the whiteness of his teeth visible below the black-dyed moustache. A belt of bullets stretched diagonally across his chest as he worked a great length of cotton into a classic Pashtun turban.
This time, he is in a private hospital in suburban Kabul. Lifting his hospital-greens, he reveals a flabby stomach and the bandaged wound of his hernia operation. Bare-headed, Pacha Khan is in an armchair. The warlord has not shaved in several days. A briefcase is on the floor and an AK-47 against the wall. Armed men guard the corridor and the street outside. Huddled in a corner beside a small primus stove and its bent teapot is an old woman. Almost cowering, she pulls a veil across her eyes because two male strangers have been ushered into the room.
Pacha Khan has a great sense of entitlement. "One-third of this country belongs to me," he says before revealing he views power more through the prism of past factional wars than the permanence of the nascent Afghan state. "I share equal rights with [President] Hamid Karzai and Abdul Haq [another former Mujahideen commander executed by the Taliban as he organised a 2001 uprising]. By rights, I should be Karzai's deputy or defence minister. He refuses me, but I could bring peace to this country in less than a year."
Pacha Khan has a problem, however. Within the local dynamic, Haqqani's bloody and brutal opposition to the Kabul government and its US-led backers, leaves him little room to manoeuvre on the anti-Kabul, anti-US side. Despite him being the first old-guard warlord to violently challenge the Karzai presidency, Pacha Khan is obliged, however reluctantly, to line up with Kabul and the Americans. Haqqani sucks all the oxygen of opposition.
"I don't oppose Karzai," Pacha Khan says. "The President is a good national figure. There is no alternative and I ordered my people to vote for him. We don't clash … I just demand my rights every now and again." He finished there, but might have added: "And Karzai ignores me."
He is at pains to deny that he and 59-year-old Haqqani were ever close. "I reject that we were friends," he insists. "He always had his own ideas - even in the time of Jihad [the 1990s]. Now he works for al-Qaeda and the [Pakistani intelligence service] ISI. He serves their agenda; I support the Afghan Government.
Pacha Khan and Haqqani come from opposing sub-tribes of the Zadran tribe, which sprawls across a dozen high-mountain districts in three eastern provinces. Pacha Khan is Supeer; Haqqani is Mizai. Haqqani has tried three times to kill Pacha Khan. That pales against US efforts to assassinate Haqqani - usually by dropping bombs on suspected hideouts on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Last year, Haqqani's bearded face emerged from a Taliban propaganda video to taunt the Americans: "Now as you see, I'm still alive."
In his Kabul hospital room, Pacha Khan's gold fillings flash the indignation. "Haqqani keeps launching these suicide-bomb attacks on me," he says. "Each time God saved me. Some of my men were injured in the attacks, but Haqqani will try again and again and again as long as I am alive. We are enemies."
Both men were Washington darlings when they fought side-by-side with huge supplies of American arms against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Pacha Khan was paid American millions to have his militia join the failed chase for Osama bin Laden after the Taliban fell in 2001.
The Americans see Pacha Khan almost as a cartoonish representation of the Afghan warlord trying to assert authority in the face of a significant Haqqani challenge. "Cuddly evil," says one. Others opted for the descriptive scumbag. "To describe this guy as pragmatic is a massive understatement," said another of the warlord's wild record of switching sides and lashing out in fury when he does not get his way.
In the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Pacha Khan was made to cough up 42 truckloads of heavy arms. He refuses to disarm entirely and is presumed capable of fielding 2000 to 3000 soldiers.
After the fall of the Taliban, the warlord was so impressed with American firepower he arranged for it to be turned on his enemies. He lied to the Americans that a convoy of elders bound for Kabul to attend Karzai's 2002 inauguration were Talibs. The Americans bombed, killing more than 60. "He knows how to eliminate his political rivals by whatever means," says a US military analyst.
The CIA assessed PKZ - its name for Pacha Khan - as "brutish, mercurial and unstable''. His eldest son was killed in an early 2003 clash with US forces. Last year, Haqqani's youngest son, Omar, died in a clash at the Satukandav Pass, the highest point on the K-G Road. Campbell, the American colonel, is clear about Haqqani: "His business is killing people and trying to delegitimise the Afghan Government."
For Afghans, the Haqqani myth is rooted in his fierce fighting against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s - and his 1991 capture of Khost from the Moscow-backed Kabul government. He allegedly introduced suicide bombs to the Afghan war.
Haqqani was Paktia governor under the Taliban; Pacha Khan under Karzai.
When Pacha Khan was sacked from the post, his men took to the streets, guns blazing, as he tried to bomb his way back into office. Angry US Special Forces were caught in the crossfire, but their plans to arrest the warlord were stymied by a decision in Washington that Pacha Khan was untouchable. When Pacha Khan was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, his militia attacked Afghan Government installations in the south-east for two years. Both men see Khost as a prize worth fighting for. A year after the Taliban fell, Pacha Khan forces were driven out by rivals who exploited confusion generated by a rumour that Americans had arrested Pacha Khan. On another occasion, Pacha Khan laid siege to Khost because the Americans spurned him.
These days, Campbell reckons he has Pacha Khan's measure. "He has a shady past, but now he is on the side of the Government. He wants this road to happen." Why? Because violently extorting tolls from truck drivers is profitable. As much as the Americans distrusted Pacha Khan, they worried he would bolster the respectability of the Taliban and al-Qaeda if he defected to them with his mujahideen warlord credentials.
"Haqqani wants to dominate the road so that he can hold Khost to ransome," says Campbell. "He wants to own the road to stop traffic getting through by closing it when he likes - and his use of foreign fighters makes him a force to reckon with.''
Of Pacha Khan, Campbell says locals ''will think about trying to shut down the road if they don't get what they want [from Kabul]. They are not fools - they feel left out and they know what's going on. Pacha Khan is a powerful force. He lives in Kabul and comes back here like an evangelist, making speeches and riling up the people. Then he leaves and the elders have to deal with the aftermath."
An analyst on Campbell's staff says Haqqani opposition to the road is rooted in denying ''people access to the outside world". ''He wants to keep the people as they are - prisoners of their ignorance and religion. Haqqani figures that if he makes the road as costly as he can, we'll be forced to pull out."
Poverty is deep in the Zadran Arc. Villagers eke out existence, farming crevices or narrow ledges in the mountains. Illiteracy is high and some American officers worry that children's growth is stunted. The only non-farm employment is driving jingle-trucks with their decorative chains dangling from the bodywork. So the Zadran staunchly defend the K-G Road, right?
Well, no. In the mountains, something doesn't add up. Zadran are swathed in warrior heritage. Haqqani and Pacha Khan are legends because, as mujahideen commanders in the 1980s, they sensationally defied all but one short-lived Soviet effort to break the mujahideen grip on the K-G Road.
Today, some locals risk their lives by working on US bases and last year there were loud demands for funding and authority for them to stand an arbaki force - a local militia to defend the road. But they shun service in the new Afghan security forces and their warrior instincts don't kick in unless a bag of money is on the table. "At times we tell the elders that they are an embarrassment to themselves," says US Sergeant Brent Koegler. "They got the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but they can't fight 20 Talibs who threaten their village? They're supposed to be awesome fighters."
This indifference by locals is staggering in the face of excoriating speeches by Pacha Khan and other senior figures at a community meeting last year at Combat Out Post Wilderness, as work began on the road.
Warning people their fence-sitting embarrassed him, Pacha Khan demanded they take sides. "Don't shame yourself into being stuck in the middle, by not picking a side and not fighting," he hectored. "It is shameful to be whining to the Government one minute that you can't fight the Taliban; and at the next moment, telling the Taliban when they come to your door that you are on their side."
General Said Gul, chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, told the people: "We let you keep your weapons in the name of your Pashtun culture, [but] things have to change. If my enemy continues to shoot at me from your doorsteps, I'm not going to respect your elders or your tradition.
"I keep hearing that Paktia is the land of respect; the land of the brave, the land of the proud. What pride? What bravery? What respect? I don't see any of it. I was sent here to protect your sisters, your wives and your kids. And if you are the enemy, how am I going to fight you and protect them?"
At the Kabul hospital, Pacha Khan sets out his solution. It was wrong, he says, to let a major contract to an Indian firm. "I warned them to give the contract to the Turks, not the Indians. The road will not be finished unless the Turks get the construction contract and I get the security contract - the budget should be split between us." He insists he does not have a particular Turkish contractor in mind, with an eye to a big fat kickback.
Seemingly oblivious to the loathing prompted by his extortionate toll collections on the road just a few years ago, he goes on: "I would have to set up checkpoints and patrol the road."
But would Pacha Khan do a better job than the South African firm managing the security cocoon around the road work? He feigns ignorance. "South Africans? I've not seen them on the road. All I hear about is IEDs [improvised explosive devices], kidnappings and terrorists running around. There'd be none of that if it was a proper Afghan security operation.
"I have an army of 3000 fighters. I would defeat Haqqani - he is a thief who comes in the dark. You should ask the Americans why they can't beat him. They have more than 60,000 troops and forces from 40 other countries and they still can't deal with him? And if he operates from Pakistan, why are the Americans not putting more pressure on Islamabad to shut him down?"
Kabul will not allow Pacha Khan a look-in. It fears the Zadran's fierce independence and seeks to weaken and undermine the tribe, lest there be an uprising in a region traditionally left to manage its own affairs. The Zadran claim as their right the Ministry of Tribal and Border Affairs but have been denied this influential post for nearly 20 years. No Zadran has been made a foreign ambassador. Efforts last year by elders to iron out differences between Zadran sub-tribes ignited American speculation that the Zadran were bent on resisting Kabul.
Says Pacha Khan, with a wagging finger: "We should not be forgotten, but we don't get what we deserve in terms of schools, clinics and economic development; we don't get the jobs we need. It concerns me that Paktia is seen as the forgotten province."
The Haqqani Network is the only significant element of the insurgency not based inside Afghanistan. His local support and training bases are supplemented by lethal long-range hit-and-run missions by mostly foreign fighters based in Pakistan. Influential as he is in Paktia, however, Haqqani must work with the reality that tribes do sit on the fence, play his game but also play America's. "They want to keep in touch with the Americans and Kabul," says Thomas Ruttig, a 25-year veteran of the region and a member of the Afghanistan Analysts' Network. "The Zadran are split, but the tribes are strong."
The Haqqani Network is judged by analysts to be the most unreconcilable of the Afghan insurgency units. Haqqani is believed by the US to be the Taliban figure most closely linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, to be in receipt of Arab funds and to get help of sympathetic elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services in cross-border movement and in hiding his operatives in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
American eavesdropping last year reportedly heard the Pakistani military chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, describe Haqqani as ''a strategic asset''. Colleagues of the general were overheard warning Haqqani of attacks against his forces. In the 1980s war against the Soviets, Haqqani was one of Washington's strategic assets, receiving significant funds and huge arms shipments.
"Today, Haqqani seems to enjoy a 'most-favoured' status among some Pakistani and Saudi authorities who repeatedly have suggested including him as a 'moderate' in attempts to start negotiations with insurgents," Ruttig writes in a paper published in July.