A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter is a pretty nice ride. Noisy, of course, but as military helicopters go, it's pretty smooth. A group of us rode in this Blackhawk up to the Arghandab district center today for meetings with the District Governor and with the commander of the US troops in the valley.
Some helicopters feel like they have to gather their strength to leap off the ground. Not Blackhawks. They'll be sitting there, whopping and vibrating, and then just lift up and away, with no fuss or bother. We cruised northwest over the Kandahar City suburbs (above) and then over a mountain range and into the Arghandab River Valley. It was really quite beautiful, a wide valley bounded with very steep, rugged ridges that faded into a white haze in the distance.
Just over a year ago, the Arghandab Valley was one of the most contested pieces of real estate in Afghanistan. It saw some of the most vicious fighting between US Army troops on the one hand and Taliban fighters on the other. An article in the Atlantic magazine last year, titled "The Last Patrol", brilliantly captures the ferocity of the battles here. (I consider this article a must-read).
A lot has changed in the year since the article was published. The Army soldiers who fought so hard were largely successful in pushing the Taliban fighters out of Arghandab. The few Taliban who are left can only mount an occasional raid or plant IEDs. They don't control the territory anymore and are seen by the locals as being the losing side. Now the challenge is in building Afghan capabilities to manage their own affairs without the Taliban. That means helping to establish local government, building police forces, re-establishing the informal shuras by which Afghans have managed themselves for centuries, and forging links between the local government, the provincial government in Kandahar City, and the national government in Kabul.
This is hard. Afghanistan has been in constant war for over 30 years. Few Afghans now have any memory of what peaceful life was like. First it was the Soviets, then the warlords, then the Taliban, and for the past ten years, we've been gradually rolling up the Taliban up. This has given Afghans a very short-sighted outlook. Why plan for the future when you probably won't be alive then? Grab everything you can now. This mindset permeates Afghan ministries, which results in corruption at all levels. Ordinary people see it. And if they don't see it, they invent it. Afghans are masters at conspiracy theories and apply them to everything. If some company gets a contract, it's not thought to be because they submitted the best bid; rather, they must have paid a bribe, or there are tribal connections, or it's a plot by (pick your villain of the day).
The low-level police, for example, are very corrupt everywhere in Afghanistan. And they have a reason: they are paid a pittance, not enough to live on, so they have to do something to make ends meet. They do this by setting up checkpoints and shaking people down. If you're transporting produce, gasoline, or some kind of merchandise, you hand a portion of it over; if not that, then pay a bribe. Or get the crap kicked out of you. Or maybe killed. This is the normal Afghan's daily experience with their government "services", so it's easy to understand why they're leery of supporting it. (The national police have a slightly better reputation, and the army is actually well respected. The army is much more selective and enlist better-qualified people, so it's not surprising).
Today we needed to talk with the District Governor of Arghandab. Shah Mohamad Ahmadi is an extremely capable Afghan leader. He's working hard to cross tribal and village boundaries, build a working government, provide services, and keep the Taliban out. He's not getting much help from the provincial and national levels, though. We talked for a long time about the difficulties that he is facing, as well as what the future holds with the transition to Afghan control coming down the pike. The Governor was quite candid and held nothing back.
Subsequently, we met with the American commander of Army forces in the valley. He is also extremely capable, as well as quite candid about the difficulties that he and his troops are facing now, as well as in the future.
So what did I take away from all this? Our troops fought hard, and many died, to free this valley from Taliban control. They succeeded. To keep the valley free requires a reasonably effective Afghan government. The Afghans, with our support, have only been at it for a bit over a year and have made a lot of progress. But it's very, very fragile. Now there's a deadline facing us. We (the Afghans and the US) have only a limited time to get their government functioning at some very basic level. If we pull out too soon, this valley will revert to either warlords or the Taliban. One is just as bad as the other, both for Afghans and for our own strategic interests.
In 1989, we declared victory when the Soviets left, and then we walked away. The subsequent turmoil led to the Taliban rule and Al Qaeda presence, which in turn led to 9/11. We can't let that happen again. Not after fighting so hard and paying so much in blood and money.