A Counterinsurgency Grows in Khost

An unheralded U.S. success in Afghanistan.
by Ann Marlowe
05/19/2008, Volume 013, Issue 34



While news reports like to speak of a “resurgent Taliban” in Afghanistan, in the 14 provinces that make up Regional Command East in Afghanistan they are a defeated military force. Not only do the Taliban refuse to engage American forces directly, they have not won an engagement with the Afghan National Army in a year. Even the unimpressive Afghan National Police have lately been winning battles with the insurgents.

RC-East is one of five regional commands in the NATO-led military and development mission in Afghanistan, and the only one under U.S. command. Colonel Marty Schweitzer of the 82nd Airborne Division has just finished a 15-month deployment commanding coalition forces in six provinces in eastern Afghanistan. Here on the eastern border and in the north of the country, the insurgency is largely a matter of IEDs and VBIEDs (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosion Devices), with the occasional suicide bomber. The counterinsurgency is what’s resurgent. The rugged terrain Schweitzer was responsible for shares a long border with Pakistan and is inhabited by 4.9 million Afghans, mostly poor and illiterate Pashtuns. But U.S. forces have made great progress in these six provinces. While only 22 of the 86 districts supported the government in early 2007 when Schweitzer took command and 58 at the end of 2007, 72 support it today. In the six eastern provinces, there were 3,400 Afghan National Security Forces in the beginning of 2007; there are now 12,450. And all of this has been at the cost of only 11 civilian casualties in Schweitzer’s six provinces.

The crown jewel in the American counterinsurgency is Khost province. Here Lieutenant Colonel Scottie D. Custer pioneered an innovative strategy that Schweitzer quickly copied in other provinces. Custer was Khost’s maneuver commander. Each province under American protection has a maneuver commander and a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) commander. Maneuver commanders are in charge of making war, while PRT commanders do development work–though the maneuver commanders have special funds for their own development projects.

Khost province is about the size of the Bay Area and has a similar population, around one million. The province was created when the Communist Afghan government tried to rationalize its territory. In 1979 Paktika was carved out of what had been parts of Ghazni and Paktia; six years later the easternmost section of Paktika became Khost. The new province’s borders followed the tribal boundaries, and there’s no sense that it’s an artificial entity.

Khost was in most ways unpromising terrain for developing a successful counterinsurgency. The province had never seen the benefits of what few government services Afghanistan offered before the civil war, and as many as 200,000 Khostis have voted with their feet, emigrating to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and other emirates. They send $6 to $12 million a year back to their families. This is the major source of income for the province, along with agriculture and the logging of the once-plentiful mountain forests. (Opium isn’t grown here.)

Khost has a backwoods, archaic flavor. There is no municipal power supply in the province. This isn’t unusual in Afghanistan, but while people in more prosperous areas have diesel generators, few Khostis do. Televisions are rare, and American soldiers have distributed thousands of hand-cranked radios in the province. Education was limited to the rote memorization of prayers in rural villages until the last year or so. A five-year plan that aims for 60 percent literacy in the province is very ambitious.

It’s hard to overestimate the isolation of the rural people here. Some Khostis living in remote upland villages are only now encountering Americans for the first time. I saw kids who had never learned to play catch, and heard of families of midgets, some of whom are police officers. So it is doubly impressive that Khost has made great civil and economic strides in the last couple of years.

“I am convinced that the cause of instability in Afghanistan is poor governance,” says Colonel Schweitzer. “Everything else is a symptom. A year ago, Khost was the most unstable of my six provinces. Today it is the most stable. Why? The governor, Arsala Jamal, and the 10 of the 12 subgovernors who get it.” But it also wouldn’t have been possible without Scottie Custer.


In early 2007, Custer, 43, developed a plan to meet the insurgency at the most local level. He decided to disperse his 187 paratroopers throughout the province, stationing 20 to 30 men in Force Protection Facilities (FPFs) in each of Khost’s district centers. Living next door to a subgovernor’s offices, they could protect him and his officials. (Subgovernors are like county executives in the United States. Appointed by the provincial governors, they are typically responsible for districts of 60,000-100,000 people.) U.S. soldiers could also play on-the-spot mentor to the Afghan National Police, who continue to be a byword for inefficiency and corruption. Khost’s Provincial Reconstruction Team–87 men and women from both the Army and State Department–would build schools and clinics near the FPFs, bringing the tangible benefits of government to Afghan citizens.Custer looks Old Army, with a buzz cut that must require daily maintenance. He played hockey at West Point–”I was the first person in my family to go there since George Armstrong Custer”–and entered the artillery. He is obsessively attentive to detail, and young artillerymen gush about his expertise. Yet Custer is all New Army in his approach. He learned the first names of all 619 of his paratroopers prior to deployment (last names are written on uniforms) and, when a disciplinary case is referred up to his level, will often spend an hour or two counseling the paratrooper.In July 2007, I attended the opening of the first FPF, in Tani District, and have carefully followed Custer’s counterinsurgency strategy since. I spent Thanksgiving with the paratroopers in Bak and visited the Sabari FPF as it approached completion. In March I stayed at the FPFs in Gurbuz, Mandozai, Sabari, Shamal, and Tani district centers, witnessing the gradual transition of command from Custer to his friend Lieutenant Colonel Dave Ell of the 101st Airborne. Ell’s paratroopers will be spending the next 12 to 15 months in Khost, continuing to realize Custer’s vision. “There’s no reason to change a plan that’s so successful,” says Ell. (Colonel Schweitzer has just been replaced by Colonel Pete Johnson of the 101st.)

Custer’s plan in all its messy, granular detail is an excellent example of how the Army is getting a handle on counterinsurgency. It is an archetype of how the United States is likely to find itself fighting in the decades to come. Not everything has worked as it’s supposed to–the Army, typically, is more than willing to admit its mistakes–but it’s amazing how so simple a plan has had so many synergistic effects. The progress in Khost is obvious.

Today, eight sturdy stone FPFs dot Khost–designed and built by Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Kohn, a brilliant reservist from Northern California. When I visited in March, only about 20 of Custer’s 619 paratroopers were still living on Forward Operating Base Salerno; the rest were dispersed at the FPFs, which are all built to the same plan. They have 18-inch thick stone walls and sleeping quarters for officers and enlisted personnel. There’s a rec room with a flat-panel television, sometimes a gym the residents built themselves, a kitchen, and spartan bathing facilities. (Each has its ups and downs: Sometimes the water pressure isn’t good, or the toilets weren’t installed correctly.) But FPFs are homier than the Salerno quarters, and six of the eight offer wi-fi, so paratroopers can more easily keep in touch with family. Morale is high, with the paratroopers referring to their FPF as “the house.”

From the FPFs, Afghans have received a sense of security that has fostered commerce and civil society. A thriving bazaar/truck stop has sprung up around the Shamal FPF as long-distance truckers plying the Kabul-Khost highway quickly made it a practice to spend the night near the safety of the U.S. troops. There’s a new gas station near the Tani FPF. The Mandozai FPF has a popular clinic attached. Hundreds of Afghans come each day to the district center to visit the offices of a subgovernor for help and to settle disputes: things that would once have been handled through tribal channels and bribes. All of this is helping to connect Afghans to their government–an important step in the fiercely independent, isolationist Pashtun belt.

The new roads also help. Just 15 miles of blacktop were laid here by U.S. troops between 2002 and 2007. In the last year, that number has reached 75 miles of road either completed or in the final stages of paving. For 2008, 85 miles of new asphalt are in the works–35 miles of local roads and 50 miles of a highway linking the province to Kabul. Discretionary funds in the hands of commanders like Custer have been committed to a 10-mile road that will link two towns, Zanbar and Yaqubi, in Khost’s most volatile district, Sabari. Another 18-mile road connecting the remote district of Spera with Shamal has been approved. The goal is to connect every district in Khost (and indeed in all six of the provinces in Schweitzer’s area) with the provincial capital, Khost City, by a main road.

USAID is also in the roadbuilding business in Khost. But while the Army’s projects are a success story, USAID’s constant delays and its insistence on gravel rather than asphalt have been a catastrophe. Custer says that he will write to the General Accounting Office about USAID and its contractors when he returns to the States. Governor Jamal, who is a huge proponent of asphalt roads, points out that Washington, D.C.-based Louis Berger Group, which has the USAID contract to build the Khost-Gardez Pass road in his territory, will use the same Afghan subcontractors the Army uses but at double the cost.

Fifty new schools were built in 2007; 25 are planned for 2008. While previous governors had focused on schools in the provincial capital, Khost City–a very common Afghan pattern–Governor Jamal, 43, has worked to put schools where there were none before. In 2002, there were 38,000 children in school in Khost; 210,000 attend today–including 44,000 girls. Female schooling is still a big issue in this deeply conservative province. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem: Many families won’t send girls to be taught by male teachers, but there are so few educated women in Khost that it is hard to find female teachers. This October the first 18 girls will graduate from high school in Khost; right now no women attend the local university, rated one of the five best in Afghanistan.

The biggest economic news is that a new commercial airport is being built–Khost’s former airport having been taken over by the U.S. military. With the 200,000 Khostis living just a couple of hours away by air in the Gulf States, an airport is a natural for attracting investment. An industrial park is in the works as well, though this, like the airport, depends on an electrical grid being put up. This is also on the development schedule for 2008, along with a water system for Khost City.

According to Jamal, 12,000 new jobs were created in 2007 as a result of improved roads and security. Some business infrastructure has already sprung up thanks to Afghans’ entrepreneurial instincts. The Kabul and Azizi banks opened Khost branches in the summer of 2006. Today the Azizi branch has $1.8 million in local deposits in 7,000 accounts, while Kabul has $4.2 million among 3,600 accounts. Local mullahs once condemned banking, even the sharia-compliant accounts both banks offer, but they have quieted down. “We bought clocks for the mosques,” Kabul’s manager Allah Nawaz Karwandgar explained, “and I am going to buy them some carpets.” The silver lining to the hidebound traditionalism of places like Khost is the way money trumps ideology.


The Army is also planning to turn two of the FPFs over to the Afghan National Army, who will in turn mentor the Afghan National Police until they can stand up on their own. As districts become firmly committed to the Afghan government, Afghan troops will replace Americans there, too. Custer refers to this as the “National Guard Plan,” in which the Afghan army will be responsible for the province’s security on an interim basis. Eventually, when the insurgent threat is sufficiently small, Afghan police will have full responsibility just as local police do in the United States. The big and growing base at Salerno will be turned over to the Afghan army, and, presumably, U.S. troops will go home. The Afghans have a ways to go, but that time is imaginable here.It’s a goal that U.S. officers are working towards with remarkable skill. As Colonel Schweitzer says, “My 47 company commanders have more experience than battalion commanders did before 2001.” Lieutenants and sergeants leading platoons often negotiate directly with Afghan officials and get to know shopkeepers and policemen in their patrol routes. They reel off statistics on public works projects and know which village elders are cooperative. They take an active role in mentoring subgovernors, and American officers have requested and received the replacement of subgovernors and police chiefs who proved incompetent or openly corrupt. (The police chief of Khost province is on the way out as a result of U.S. complaints.)I met outstanding officers in Khost–smart, patient, imaginative problem solvers who worked 17 hours a day. “You should be able to run for mayor of your district and win,” says Captain Derrick Hernandez, 31, a thoughtful Ohioan who just turned over command of five Khost districts to officers from the 101st Airborne. It helps to be a people person, with a great memory for faces and the ability to make small talk even through an interpreter. And you have to know when to use force, when to use persuasion, and when to be plain tricky.


“Here is the mullah. He will be joining us for lunch,” Mandozai subgovernor Haji Doulat said in booming, accented English to the American officers who had come to see him. Doulat, 63, wearing a shalwar kameez, a beige vest, and a turban in a locally popular pattern–gray with black stripes–explained, “Governor Jamal invited him.” The mullah, a small man of around 40, briefly looked up from running his fingers through his black prayer beads. Compared with the tall, charismatic Doulat and the powerfully built soldiers, he seemed insignificant in his dingy white shalwar kameez.Lieutenant Colonel Custer widened his slate blue eyes. He and Jamal have a very close relationship. It was unusual for Jamal to spring a surprise on Custer. Why would he invite a stray mullah to a lunch meant to introduce Haji Doulat to the soldiers replacing Custer’s men as they end their 15-month Afghan deployment? Custer asked Doulat the mullah’s name. “Liwan Gul,” he replied. Custer exchanged glances with Ell.Major Dave Pierce, Custer’s operations officer, quietly left Doulat’s office. Liwan Gul continued caressing his prayer beads, having no idea that Pierce was putting in a call to what American troops refer to as Other Coalition Forces (OCF)–generally Rangers or Special Forces–to tell them that the man they were looking for had walked right into the trap set for him by the governor. (Custer could have taken Gul in with his own men, but U.S. troops are allowed to hold a suspect only 96 hours without formally charging him; OCF aren’t bound by these restrictions.) Gul was wanted as an IED facilitator. In his public role as a mullah, Gul has also been a vocal opponent of girls’ schools.The Americans, Haji Doulat, and Liwan Gul sat down for a traditional lunch of rice, lamb, bread, salad, and fruit, augmented by takeout fried chicken and french fries from a fast food restaurant just five miles away in Khost City. Since the American presence in Khost has increased security and brought blacktop roads to the province, the provincial capital has experienced an economic boom, with six-story glass office buildings and more sophisticated stores opening–many financed with money from Khostis working overseas.

Midway through the meal, the mullah told Doulat that he wanted to leave to spend the rest of the day with his family. (Friday is the Afghan weekend.) Custer asked if he and Ell might have a word with the mullah outside. Everyone else adjourned to Doulat’s office, furnished with chairs and sofas upholstered in strident earth tones, potentially hazardous low glass coffee tables, and a substantial wooden desk. Just before lunch, Custer had said that he and Governor Jamal considered Doulat the strongest of the 12 subgovernors of Khost, and the one most likely to take Jamal’s place when, as expected, he moves on to a higher office in Kabul.

Mandozai had been prone to IEDs when Haji Doulat arrived in spring 2007, but has since improved greatly thanks to his forceful leadership and reputation for incorruptibility. His government salary is about $680 a month. This is quite a lot locally, four times a patrolman’s salary and eight times a teacher’s. But, as he points out, it doesn’t cover the expenses that come with his position, like traveling around the district on roads that destroy his cars. But because his brother and sons run a successful contracting business, he doesn’t need to take bribes.

The incoming American officers had already been briefed on the subgovernor; one point of the lunch was to massage Doulat’s not inconsiderable ego and reward him for his competence and honesty. (Doulat would in turn later present Custer with a cobra-headed sword and a turban in a bright pink box.)

Outside, Custer and Ell had stalled Liwan Gul until the OCF arrived. The mullah was calm even after he was asked to get into a Humvee. He would not have struck Custer as a dangerous man if he hadn’t known what he’d done. For Custer, though, the detention of Liwan Gul was an excellent example of the “soft power” that is the focus of American efforts in Khost.

Governor Jamal is five for five. He’s brought in five bad guys like this–not a shot fired. That’s why my men don’t do hard knocks in Khost. They are counter to the counterinsurgency strategy we use. My men have been here 15 months and we haven’t fired a shot in an organized firefight.

By working with Jamal, the subgovernors, and the police chiefs, Custer has secured Khost with fewer than 200 paratroopers. (He commands a total of 619 men, but these include his headquarters staff and 320 artillerymen and radar specialists dispersed throughout the six provinces.) The districts vary in their security. One good indicator, the tally of slain police officers, shows that 17 were murdered in Sabari during the 15 months of Custer’s team’s deployment. Eight were killed in neighboring Matun, which is on the Pakistani border, while one fell victim to insurgents in both Terezai and Gurbuz. IEDs and VBIEDs claimed all but three of these lives. But Schweitzer points out that you can’t really generalize: “You really have to assess security village by village,” he says.

Tani, chosen for the first FPF, is deemed the most secure district; the dominant local tribe is unified and, with a history of support for the Khalq Communist party in the 1980s, are progressive in the Afghan context. Communism in Afghanistan was often more a play for tribal or personal power than a matter of ideology, but in general former communists are more apt to support education.

Yet Tani was the site of a March 4 VBIED attack that took the life of an alert Afghan policeman who challenged the driver at the district center gate. The explosion was well planned, using a driver who had previously made legitimate supply deliveries to coalition forces. It also pointed to weaknesses in the American defenses, which depend on the Afghan police. The Americans failed to man the one guard tower that overlooked the main gate. Custer had pointed this out a couple of months before when he inspected the FPF, but blames himself for not following up with the NCO in charge. Just five Americans were at Tani at the time of the blast, and the highest rank was specialist.


The day before the Tani attack, two U.S. paratroopers were killed and seven wounded in a VBIED attack in Sabari. The two Afghan National Policemen guarding the district center gate had mysteriously walked away to get food in the bazaar. A local contractor working on the almost-finished district center was, perhaps coincidentally, called away to his office in the bazaar. And a Turkish-born German jihadi driving a large truck detonated 1,000 pounds of explosives in the district center. The explosion was so powerful it was heard eight miles away. Al Jazeera released a Taliban tape of the explosion that shows a huge cloud rising from the shattered buildings. Again the correct guard tower wasn’t manned–the penalty for stretching forces thin.Custer was determined to learn from the tragedy and not bow to it. Less than a day after the explosion, Custer got approval from the theater commander, General David Rodriguez, to release $200,000 so that rebuilding could begin immediately. The new district center was slated to open within two months and the FPF a little later. The distance between the FPF and the gate is being increased in the reconstruction.Captain Hernandez, soft-spoken but iron-willed, pooh poohs the mythology of what he calls “the dread Sabari.” “If you give me a platoon of [Afghan National Police], I could pacify it.” He notes that during Operation Matun–a joint U.S.-Afghan army mission that ran from Christmas Day to mid-January–they searched every house in Matun and Sabari on two separate occasions, and the people gradually warmed to the coalition forces. After the operation, 180 men from Matun volunteered to join the police. “They want security in their district too, they want to better their lives,” Hernandez says. “The problem is, they didn’t have any government there.”

The Mandozai subgovernor, Haji Doulat, is a native of Sabari. He criticizes Sabari’s subgovernor, Lotfullah Babaker Khel, and its police chief for failing to project authority in the district. The explosion was the last straw for the Americans. Subgovernor Lotfullah had been requesting a transfer when I met him in November. But on March 21, when I heard him complain to Custer that he was unable to be effective because he was a native of Sabari, Custer replied acidly, “People have to have the courage to come to the subgovernor with their problems–and the subgovernor has to have the courage to lead.” Lotfullah is not only not getting a new district, he will be replaced by a stout, blustery former mujahedeen commander, Gul Qasim Jihadyar, now the subgovernor of Nadir Shah Kot. “In 2008, 80 percent of our effort will be focused on Sabari,” says Custer. He’s optimistic, and Ell is aware of the need for patience. As Schweitzer says, “If you offer them the benefits of government, they will take it every time. But on their timetable, not ours.”


Army commanders fear that the remote district of Spera is used as an infiltration point from Pakistan, but Hernandez and Lieutenant Marc Laighton, 32, who patrols it weekly, view it as basically secure. There aren’t IED attacks there, though there also aren’t any roads to speak of in the mountain fastness. Hernandez hopes the incoming commander will be able to get to Spera twice a week, but the bone-jarring two-hour ride through the wadi each way is not a trip anyone relishes. The 18-mile road that Custer has received approval to build should help.Spera is rough terrain even by Afghan standards. Mud brick villages cling to the sides of a wadi that has too little water for the crops. A few pomegranate trees, pink blossomed, grow near the water. Some money trickles in from cutting the few trees remaining in the once thickly forested mountains. (Parts of Khost and neighboring Paktia are an ecological disaster in the making, with deforestation leading to erosion and a falling water table.)Every child I see in Spera seems to be wearing his or her only set of clothes, and the garments of everyone but the elders are filthy. Yet the people are friendly with the troops here, friendlier than in some more prosperous districts. The Provincial Reconstruction Team just built Spera’s first girls’ school, which only runs up to grade three. (This seems to be the age–8 or 9–when most Khosti families get skittish about having their girls taught by male teachers.) There are seven schools for boys. They, and the 30 policemen stationed around the district center, are the visible accomplishments of the government here.

Spera is secure because its terrain is so challenging. While most of Khost lies in a bowl of river-watered flatlands with a moderate climate rare in Afghanistan, the edges of the province are rugged. Districts like Spera, Qalandar, and Musa Khel are so difficult to get to the enemy doesn’t want them. Captain Hernandez, who is directly responsible for them, as well as four more accessible districts, says, “We go up there occasionally. You drag yourself in there, break three Humvees, and get airlifted out.”As Kael Weston, the State Department’s representative in Khost, notes, in Afghanistan, “the landscape has always won.”


Lieutenant Colonel Ell’s focus will be on coaching the Afghan National Police (ANP) and getting the Afghan army on board with “the National Guard concept.” The Afghan soldiers will shortly move into their first FPFs, in Tani and Bak.The ANP remain a sore point. Stories of its incompetence are rife among U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. While the Afghan army has made enormous progress in the last few years, the police are still a mixed bag. Some are courageous and professional, while others are thieves, extortionists, or rapists in uniform. An Afghan policeman was just shot dead by a woman in central Khost after he’d broken into her home and attempted to rape her.Custer is milder than many of his subordinates when he describes the typical policeman: “You lie on a cot all day, and you lie on a cot all night, and when there’s a boom you go out and see what it is. The concept of active patrolling is new to them.” Many policemen won’t patrol their assigned areas and certainly won’t take on night missions without U.S. troops accompanying them.

If the rank and file are lazy and ill-trained, their superiors in the eastern region are far worse. “General Ayub, the Khost provincial chief of police, doesn’t leave his office unless I get him a helicopter,” notes Custer. “He has no idea what’s going on out there. He has police uniforms stockpiled in his headquarters, but he’s got men who are lucky not to be getting shot [by coalition forces] because they’re not in uniform. When I got here, the ANP were getting fuel from the coalition. We put a stop to that–the Ministry of the Interior has a budget for them. They’ve got to get off the American teat.”

In theory, the private military contractor Dyncorp is in charge of training the Afghan police in Khost and has a half-dozen highly paid police trainers based at Salerno, but, as Custer says, “they can’t do any training if they won’t leave the base.” He likes to point to a line of armored SUVs sitting on a parking lot in Salerno–there to protect the Dyncorp trainers, should they ever muster the courage to leave the FOB. “They are zero value-added in my 15 months here. They report to the Department of State, they are not under the maneuver commander’s command, so what are they doing in my battlespace? We are going to take over training of the ANP. We need to get fingerprint and retinal systems in their hands.”


In the Gurbuz district, whose 66,000 people are served by two newly built clinics but no doctor, it’s like the Middle Ages. The village of Bowri Khel is home to an enormous madrassa with two 30-foot high towers, yet only a few men, and no women, know how to read. The madrassa teaches its students to memorize verses from a Koran they cannot read. None of the village’s families own a generator, and, until three years ago, when an aid organization piped water to a storage tank outside the village, the women had to walk long distances carrying water. Left to their own devices, people here would be living almost wholly as their ancestors did 2,000 years ago. Not surprisingly, this was termed the “most unfriendly” village in Gurbuz by U.S. troops.When I asked to meet a woman, the elders protested, “But the women here are uneducated. They cannot answer questions”–an odd answer, given that the men are uneducated, too. The only woman the elders of Bowri Khel presented for an interview was a 60-year old with shrewd eyes. A middle-aged male relative interrupted her whenever she attempted to speak. Still, she answered clearly that when the U.S.-built school opens, she expects no girls to attend. Her male relative responded to the follow-up question, “Because we are Pashtun people. We do not let our girls go to school. If a male teacher saw them, it would not be good for them.”In northern and western Afghanistan, half of the school population in the early grades is female; lines of little girls in uniforms making their way to or from school are a common sight. In poor, mountainous Ghazni, two provinces away, the Shiite Hazara people have almost universal school attendance. But Pashtuns have failed to embrace the new opportunities. This will doubtless have profound effects on political power in Afghanistan in the next generation. The Pashtuns will still constitute the largest ethnic group–40 percent is the usual estimate–but they will likely have far fewer prosperous, educated, influential leaders than their numbers warrant.

Though nearly every U.S. soldier here has come to develop warm feelings for the Afghans he’s worked with, it’s hard for most of the U.S. troops in Khost to see much good in Pashtun village culture. These young men, many of whom are already married with children, make a particular point of giving extra aid to the girls. Noting the one barefoot girl in a crowd of boys in cheap plastic sandals, Captain Hernandez, the father of two little girls, quietly says, “Every boy in this village will have shoes before she does.”

The Army has avoided clashing with this prejudice. They do not convene shuras of female elders as they do with males, even though women have the most direct connection with many of the areas of life the Army is trying to improve, like water supply, health care, and poultry raising. (By law there is a quota for women on the elected Provincial Councils, and they have proved effective members as I noted in an article in THE WEEKLY STANDARD of August 20, 2007.) In my view, this is the wrong message to send. If we are seen to set the value of women’s work and opinions at zero just as most Pashtun men here do, how can we expect the culture to change? Afghans may resist change, but our values have prestige for them. American taxpayers are funding much of Afghanistan’s development, and we have a right to tweak Afghan society in directions we consider beneficial.

Many educated Pashtuns agree. Daoud Sultanzoy, an Afghan-American member of parliament–and chairman of the powerful economic and rural development committee–is from Ghazni. (His great-grandfather was the feudal lord of much of central and eastern Afghanistan, including what is now Khost.) He has a sense of urgency about reforming his people’s culture.

At a gathering for the Persian New Year in the home of the outgoing subgovernor of Sabari, an old retainer sang a beautiful traditional song. Sultanzoy frowned.

Another song about how we Pashtuns are brave swordsmen! What about brave scientists? Brave doctors? Brave government officials? That is what this country needs. We can take a few years off from being brave swordsmen. When I drive around this area, I see places that could be beautiful parks, where people could relax and realize that life is a wonderful gift, and not think that they should blow themselves up to go to Paradise. Instead, I see mosques next to mosques next to other mosques.

Good governance is part of the picture, good ideas like the dispersal of troops in the districts is another. But culture is perhaps the largest factor, and the hardest to change.

Ann Marlowe is a New York-based writer who just finished her third embed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

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