Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Afghan Surge

As I'm wrapping up my time here in Maiwand, I've been putting together what is essentially a pass-down book.  It contains a lot of stuff that people who work in the district, or whose work affects the district, need to know.  Things like a list of all the public schools, information on who's in the shuras, writeups on the key power players, data on community councils, project reports, all kinds of things.  Some of it's narrative, some tables, some lists, and a few pictures.  Not exactly the Great American Novel, but if you're interested in Maiwand, it's a good thing to have around for reference.

One of the areas that I've really learned a lot about while doing this project is the recent history of the district.  By "recent", I mean since the establishment of the communist regime back in the 1970's, through the Soviet invasion, to the civil war years, then the Taliban rule, and finally the "modern" period since 2001.  The elders of this district have lived through all of this.  Some of them were on opposite sides at various times.  Some of them were literally shooting at each other on occasion and will joke about it now.  "That was you in that field?  I was in the back of the pickup shooting at you!" "Really?  Well, you still can't aim your AK worth a hoot!"

After the 2001 invasion, this place got very little attention.  There were no US/NATO forces stationed out here for years.  The government was really corrupt and the Taliban was able to re-group.  Mullah Omar's original madrassa is about 20 miles down the road, so this area is the Taliban's home turf, and they took advantage of it.  By 2007 they had pretty much free rein here.  NATO forces (under Canadian leadership) came out on disruption operations, but they didn't have enough manpower to stay for any length of time, beyond manning checkpoints on the highway.

That began to change in 2008 when the 2-2 Infantry arrived.  They started building two bases, one at Sakari Karez (now closing) and the other here.  It looks like force levels stayed about the same through 2009 before sufficient forces arrived, through the surge, to begin to make a difference.  In early 2010, just 2 1/2 years ago, there was still no functioning government.  The District Governor and the shura members who were still active (and alive) all lived in Kandahar City.  The district office buildings were unusable.  ISAF controlled the district center, main highway, and not much else.  But the increase in ISAF (primarily US) presence allowed us to start changing things.  The governor and shura members started coming back.  Buildings were fixed up and occupied.  A model farm was built.  Kids went back to school.  The Afghan police and army units became more professional and effective.

I gripe about the slow pace of progress here, but when I look back on how this place was just a couple of years ago, it's a world of difference.  Our governor not only comes to work every day, but he brought his family to live here.  Our shuras are often lively and contentious affairs.  People come to the district center from all over the district.  The bazaar is lively and people can travel on the road with a reasonable expectation of getting where they want.  There are about 400 boys in the main school here on any given day and we're about to open up the first classes for girls in many years.

That is not to say that all is peaches and cream.  IED's are a daily occurrence around the district.  There is a lot of corruption in government.  This district grows more poppy than any other district in Kandahar Province because they can't really grow anything else.  As a result, the narcotics trafficking rings are very strong and tied in with the Taliban.  People like me can't go out in town.

But if you want to know if the surge made a difference, I can say yes, it did.  I see the difference every day.

Whether it will last is a different question.  Our forces are drawing down.  The Afghan security forces are pretty good and will fight like hell if the Afghan government gives them the support and supplies they need.  That's not a given.  The corruption level will have to drop to Afghan-normal levels in order to be at least acceptable to the natives.  And I don't think the outlying areas will come under government control for many years.

What my predecessors in the military, civilian, and Afghan worlds have built here in just a few years is quite amazing.  It still has a long way to go, and it's very fragile.  But the Afghan people have some hope for an alternative to the violent and repressive Taliban regime.

No comments: