Recovering a Province: the rise and fall of Khost

Khost Province, Afghanistan

“Few people in Khost support the government because the government are thieves!” Tall, gaunt Haji Doulat, 65, was fighting a headache and perhaps depression as he sat with the men of his family in his shabby, red-carpeted mejlis. Doulat lives with his brother, wife, sons, and many nieces and nephews in a modest family compound in a village between two big American bases, Salerno and Chapman.

I was used to staying at Salerno—less than a mile away—as an embedded reporter with the American military. But this time, I’d taken Doulat up on an invitation to visit his home. I’d come to admire him on four trips between the summer of 2007 and the fall of 2008, when I wrote about the progress of the American counterinsurgency here (see “A Counterinsurgency Grows in Khost,” May 19, 2008, and “Policing Afghanistan,” December 22, 2008).

At the time, Doulat was the subgovernor of Mandozai district, in the center of Khost Province, which borders on the mountainous, lawless Waziristan region of Pakistan. Rated as the best of the 12 subgovernors by the American military here, Doulat was considered to have an inside track on becoming governor himself. (Subgovernors and governors in Afghanistan are appointed by the president.) A graduate of the German high school in Kabul, he was one of the more educated officials in the province. Before the years of civil war, he’d worked for the Ministry of Power and Light in Kabul, where several of his children were born. Doulat was fascinated by irrigation and would, at the drop of a hat, sketch maps of where dams should be built in Khost. I thought of him as the technocrat in a turban.

Haji Doulat pushed a dozen or more major Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) projects to completion in Mandozai: several bridges, $1.4 million in irrigation canals and dams, nine school buildings including a girls’ high school, one medical clinic, the district’s administrative office, and a big mosque. (There’s apparently no limit to the number of mosques Khostis covet; there seems to be one every hundred yards, and in 2008 an American officer told me the ideal would be a mosque next to every house.)

In 2007-08 Khost seemed on an upward course, guided by good American counterinsurgency strategy. It was blessed by the combination of Navy Commander Dave Adams, an unusually active PRT commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Scottie D. Custer, the maneuver commander from the 82nd Airborne Division, who oversaw Khost between the beginning of 2007 and March 2008. The Afghan governor, Arsala Jamal, was educated and competent, and the American commanders designed systems to make sure he didn’t dip his hands in the till of the numerous development contracts funded by American tax dollars.

In 2007, Adams’s team completed 68 miles of road—there were only 9 when they arrived. An additional 11 miles, a road from the highway to Spera District, has been built since, bringing the total to 88. Adams’s PRT also built 9 schools, 300 wells, and 35 irrigation dams. Fifty new schools were built in 2007 and 25 in 2008.

Custer, now retired, had secured Khost by dispersing about 200 paratroopers to live around the province in district centers. This is classic counterinsurgency strategy: Secure the population so they will trust their government. (Doulat reads it differently: He thinks it worked because it made the enemy disperse their forces to oppose the Americans.) When Custer turned over command in March 2008, the province was in pretty good shape with the exception of the Sabari district. Custer’s successor Lieutenant Colonel David Ell was to focus on pacifying Sabari, beset by a tribal feud and a favored infiltration route from Pakistan used by insurgents.

The Afghan government had big plans for Khost, which the U.S. Army agreed to finance: a modern municipal hospital, a commercial airport connecting the province to the Gulf States where many Khostis work, an industrial park, an electrical grid and water system for Khost City. A USAID project, asphalting the unpaved section of Highway One, the Afghan ringroad that links Kabul to Khost, was to be finished by November 2009. Paving or repaving the 62-mile stretch between Khost and Gardez, known as the K-G Pass Road, would cut the travel time from Kabul to Khost from six to four hours and boost commerce.

But Afghanistan is not rich in happy endings. The airport was canceled in September 2009 as the Army took stock of increasingly out of control projects. The industrial park, electrical grid, and water system exist only on the drawing board. The PRT-financed $8.5 million municipal hospital building has just been declared structurally unsound by PRT and Afghan engineers, according to new governor Abdul Jabbar Naeemi. Work on the K-G Pass Road continues today at a desultory pace and the trip from Kabul is no faster.

More ominously, school attendence seems to be down. In 2002, 38,000 children went to school in Khost; in March 2008 the number had climbed to 210,000, including 44,000 girls. But as of June 2009, the number had fallen to 175,052, including 43,111 girls. In a country with one of the world’s highest population growth rates, even with no expansion of education to new areas or families, there should be a substantial growth in school attendance. One reason for the decline might be periodic school burnings; another might be growing Taliban influence.

Haji Doulat says that Khost is more dangerous today than it was in 2008, though 700 American maneuver troops are here rather than Custer’s 200, there are thousands more Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police here, and Khost is full of asphalt roads, schools, clinics, and irrigation projects paid for by American tax dollars.

Many Khostis have died trying to improve their province. One good subgovernor I met in 2007-8, Badi Zaman, was assassinated in 2009 by the Haqqani network. According to Adams, they feared Zaman would obtain American backing for a plan to raise a 200-man militia to pacify Sabari. Another good subgovernor, Mirza Jan Mimgarai, was slain in broad daylight in June 2008.

A valiant, 50ish police chief I’d interviewed twice, Bismallah, was blown up by an IED in the early part of 2010 in front of the Gorbuz district center he’d defended for years. (A sadly prescient photo of Bismallah in front of a police car destroyed by an IED was published in the December 22, 2008, issue of this magazine.)

Haji Doulat is still a subgovernor. Since August 2009, he’s governed Tani district, his birthplace. It is one of only two districts in Khost he and the Afghans deem secure, and even here in his tribal homeland he must stay one step ahead of potential assassins.

“When I am going to the east, I leave the district center by the road that goes to the west,” he says. Doulat always had me drive with his son Khandan, a cheerful, fleshy 28-year-old, rather than with him. Khandan told me that his devout father doesn’t always attend prayers at the local mosque for fear of giving insurgents a regular schedule to anticipate. While Doulat lives in Tani during the work week, he returns on Thursday afternoon to spend the one-and-a-half day Afghan weekend at the house near Salerno. Though his neighbors are heavily involved with the Taliban, they are also members of his Tani tribe so he feels safe.

Doulat’s view of the security situation surprised me. His son Khandan drove me around Matoon, Khost City, and Mandozai and seemed unconcerned with the possibility of hitting an IED—an ever-present danger in 2007-8. We drove around Khost City on all four days of my stay, and except on Friday, a holiday, the bazaar and business district were packed with pedestrians. On my earlier visits, the business district was a ghost town, stilled by fear of suicide bombings.

A high-ranking American official later told me that both my perception and Doulat’s were correct. He said the nature of the enemy in Khost had changed from 2008. Then there were four enemies in Khost: the Haqqani network, the Taliban, foreign fighters using it as an infiltration route from Pakistan, and, in the north of the province, fighters from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group. Now the Haqqani network has largely been neutralized both through Predator strikes on its leadership and elimination of rank and file fighters on the ground. The Taliban are less interested in placing IEDs to kill Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and American troops—and more interested in assassinating government officials like Doulat.

“People with guns were the threat to the old enemy,” the official summarized. “People with capacity are the threat to the new enemy.” Colonel Viet Luong, the maneuver commander of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces, had a different view. He says that while the Haqqani network has been “severely disrupted,” its foot soldiers continue to operate against both local officials, ANSF, and coalition forces. Another American who formerly commanded in Khost said, “The reason the enemy doesn’t plant as many IEDs anymore is that the people are no longer on the side of the government.”

Doulat survived a five-month stint in late 2008 and early 2009 as subgovernor of Khost’s most dangerous district, Sabari. On Doulat’s first day at Sabari, insurgents rocketed his office, and he saw an IED on the road about five yards before hitting it.

Doulat was given the booby prize of running Sabari because he opposed a group of people at Mandozai who attempted to block Khost’s biggest project, the proposed American-sponsored airport (they wanted to build on the land themselves). People in Khost will lie, steal, and even kill for small amounts of land; seizing government land for private uses is a popular gambit. Many American-built roads have no shoulders, because neighboring landowners have encroached on them, in a classic tragedy of the commons. The unbuilt airport is Khost’s biggest loss, though; it could have had an enormous economic effect.

Doulat often says “I am alone.” He says he’s the only subgovernor who does not take bribes, though he could have easily earned enough to never have to work again in just a few months. “Without my brother and son, I would be corrupt,” he likes to say. His brother Haji Bakht Khan is a contractor, as is Khandan, and they have subsidized Haji Doulat’s government service—in Afghanistan, usually the source of illegal benefits. Khandan tells me that he too could be a Khost subgovernor if he had $30,000 to pay for the position. Obviously no one pays that unless they can make more back. (Some American officials have told me privately that while they think Doulat is much better than average, he is not spotless.)

When I arrived at Haji Doulat’s house on a Thursday afternoon, I saw that Khandan was accurate in saying, “We live very simply.” There is no running water, just a hand pump in the packed dirt courtyard, where nearly naked small children play. Sanitation is iffy; I never see anyone use soap to wash their hands, and the family’s six dairy cows graze just a few yards from the kitchen. They never get to go outside the compound, because there is nowhere to pasture them.

Khandan’s white dog—kept on a 12-foot chain for the last three months—fares better while his master is home. Khandan seems to genuinely care for the animal, whom he has never named, and brought him a collar from Kabul. But he rarely lets him out even during my visit. If his dog were killed, he would be obliged to kill the man who killed him under the custom of the Pashtuns.

The family’s women fare only a bit better than the dog. They are allowed to attend school till the third or fourth grade. As adults, they can leave the compound to visit relatives or a doctor. But none have been to Khost City 12 minutes away. The men would lose honor, Khandan explains, if the women were to shop in the bazaar, even in burqas, even with a male relative present. If they want a new dress, their menfolk bring them samples of material to choose from. Pashtun culture again. This is a far cry from the situation with non-Pashtuns in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, or Kabul, where women in burqas or headscarves routinely trawl the bazaar in small groups, without a male relative.

The guest room I’m given is remarkably clean, given the squalor of the family’s living quarters. The men’s mejlis, next door, has an inexpensive 20-inch TV set—a contrast with the 40-inch flat screen sets now standard in the barracks of the Afghan National Army. Bizarrely enough, my BlackBerry works here—the Afghan wireless phone carriers rolled out service to the big American bases, and Khost is small enough that coverage is almost complete.

At night in Haji Doulat’s mejlis, talk regularly turns to the deterioration of Khost. Doulat and his family revere Scottie Custer and Dave Adams as great men; one wall of my room is adorned with two ancient guns captured on a mission Doulat undertook with Custer’s paratroopers. A large photo of Doulat with Custer, signed by Custer, holds pride of place along with two photos of Doulat’s father, a man revered on both sides of the border for his intelligence and goodness. As far as I can tell, Doulat’s family are analogous to impoverished gentry in, say, 17th-century England; Khandan even uses the phrase “a gentle family” to describe them.

The explanations for the deterioration in Khost are complex. First, the security situation was beginning to worsen in early 2008, when insurgent suicide bombers destroyed the district center in Sabari on March 3 and damaged the gate at Tani the next day. In October 2008 a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Terzayi district center gate, and in November, an IED destroyed the district center at Dowmanda.

Second, the maneuver troops from the 101st Airborne that took over from Custer spent too much time chasing insurgents in the mountains and too little securing the population. A different unit of the 101st is now in Khost, though a case could be made that they undid much of the work of the 82nd Airborne the first time they were there (March 2008-March 2009). Notably more aggressive than the 82nd, the 101st killed four Khost civilians on April 21, just after my visit, in an apparent case of mistaken identity. (During Custer’s command of 15 months, the 82nd killed just one Afghan civilian.)

Offering fewer carrots and more sticks, among other factors, Americans lost the support of some of the influential Khost tribes. The two PRT commanders following Dave Adams were ineffective. They didn’t monitor the Army-funded projects with the eagle eye necessary here; unless contractors are inspected daily, quality suffers. Finally, Governor Jamal quit in late December 2008 and moved back to Canada, though he later returned to Afghanistan and is now minister of borders and tribal affairs.

Jamal’s position was vacant for five or six months, and Deputy Governor Hamidullah Qalandari, who became acting governor, is said to have made more than $4 million in bribes during this time, building a luxurious home in Kabul. Former Governor Jamal says that this is an impossibly large amount as the PRT was hardly doing projects at the time.

“Qalandari belongs to a gentle family and is my father’s friend,” Khandan says. “But when my father was in Sabari District Center more than half of the [earmarked government] money was taken by him.” Doulat’s family also accuses Qalandari of taking a substantial bribe to permit villagers to steal the airport land.

Corruption in Khost has been abetted by lax PRT oversight in recent years. How could an American PRT allow work on the $8.5 million hospital to progress nearly to completion without noticing that the building was structurally unsound? Haji Bakht Khan, a younger brother of Haji Doulat and the financial mainstay of the extended family, explains, “In the time of Adams, they announced projects on [Khost] TV and every company could bid. Now they are given to the favorite contractors.”

At an interview on April 10 at his compound, Governor Naeemi told me that he will reinstate the practice of Adams’s command. Calm, gentle, and down to earth, Naeemi may help to rescue Khost; he won the esteem of American commanders in his past position as governor of Wardak Province. And some of the province’s new ministers, who oversee departments like health, education, irrigation, and so on, are capable, and not yet tarred with corruption.

The long travel time between Khost and Kabul remains an obstacle to economic growth. It throws the province back upon Pakistan, just an hour away from Khost City. You can hardly use Afghan currency in the city’s bazaars; Pakistani rupees, though technically illegal, are the currency of choice.

On my trip to Khost, Highway One seemed secure and well-traveled—more so than on my last road trip in March 2008. But three and a half hours into the journey, leaving Paktia’s capital Gardez, the asphalt road abruptly shifted to potholed dirt.

Men and machines were working almost everywhere along the way, sometimes grading, sometimes relocating the road to a different spot. I’d remembered the surface changing to asphalt soon after the border of Khost, but I began to wonder if my memory was playing tricks on me—it was unpaved here too.

In March 2008, then-governor Jamal criticized the USAID road building plan, telling me that the Washington, D.C.-based Louis Berger Group, which won the contract, would use the same Afghan subcontractors the U.S. Army uses but at double the cost.

They’ve done worse than that. The May 2007 $100 million cost-plus contract held by the privately held Berger group, the subject of scathing exposés for its poor-quality, high cost school and clinic construction in Afghanistan, was subcontracted in May 2008 for $80 million to a joint venture of two Indian companies, BSC and CMC, the latter of which is actually doing more of the work. They in turn hired several Afghan companies. (Berger does planning and design; the Indian joint venture build.)

On my trip back up to Kabul, men were working on the road, but without machinery. I was later told by USAID civil engineer Robert Helmerick that the reason was that a day after my trip down, on April 10, 19 pieces of machinery, 15 of which were locally owned, were destroyed by insurgents. “This is the project with the highest rate of violence of all USAID projects,” he explained. Four ANA soldiers were killed by IEDs along the unpaved stretch on April 21st, where Helmerick says IEDs are routinely found.

Because of the nature of cost-plus contracting, security costs for the KG-Pass Road, originally estimated at $20 million, have topped $40 million, all eaten by the American taxpayer. When the November 2009 completion date came and went, Berger was stripped of any potential incentive fees, but it is not responsible for the additional $20 million.

As to the previously paved surface having become unpaved, I wasn’t losing my mind. The section from bridges 14-20, in Khost, had been paved by the Russians in the seventies. The contractors deemed it unsalvageable so removed the old asphalt for reconstruction. The scheduled completion date is October 31, 2010.

The really bad news is that there is no scheduled completion date for the middle 22 miles of the road, plagued by attacks supported by the local Zadran tribe. The locals seem to be on to a good scam (as long as they don’t give a damn about the road or its effect on other Afghans). They supply old, worn out machines to the road builders, their relatives destroy them, and then, as Helmerick detailed, they have the nerve to organize a protest asking for compensation.

The American officer I quoted earlier explained that Afghans know there are limits to their capacity, and don’t complain when we begin with local Afghan contractors and later bring in foreign companies to do work they can’t. But they are furious when we hire foreign companies at a much higher than local price—then use Afghan labor paid local rates ($8-10 a day, a good wage) to complete them. He added that one of the reasons Governor Jamal quit was his inability to do anything about the state of the road, even as popular anger grew. Former Governor Jamal says that he had warned Louis Berger at the start that hiring an Indian company was a bad idea, since Pakistan will disrupt any project near the border run by Indians. He also notes that locals think the road is an Afghan government project, though it is not, and point to the delays as another example of government corruption.

There may be a bigger problem in Khost, and the whole Pashtun belt, than corruption or the insurgency. It’s Pashtun culture, which places strikingly little value on education, even for boys. Superstition, magic, rumor, and paranoia supplant rational thought at a certain point in almost every Khosti’s mental universe. Haji Doulat is the most rational in his family. About the only evidence of superstition I can find is his crediting two gemstone rings he wears with preservative powers. (One of his nephews assures me that turquoise will crack if you do something bad or are in danger; his own ring cracked on a trip up to Sabari but later became whole again!)

The nonsense I hear from the rest of the men is less innocuous. Haji Doulat’s brother says that the French Army is working with the Taliban against the Americans. He thinks that the Pakistani military maneuvers he sees on TV are staged for the camera. There is a general feeling—which I’ve heard from many Afghans—that if the United States (“the world superpower”) wanted to defeat the insurgency, it would. So if the insurgency is gathering strength, it must be because the United States supports it.

And Haji Doulat isn’t right about everything in Khost. Like many Afghans of his generation, he favors a degree of government control of the economy that has been discredited most everywhere else. The men of his family were angry that there were “ten different prices for rice” in Khost; they thought it should be regulated. When private builders encroach on government land, their first thought is to tear the houses down, rather than fining them. It’s as though government officials like Doulat belong to a tribe​—the government tribe—which must guard its prerogatives as jealously as any other.

Khost’s problems aren’t rocket science. While education and rationality are generational issues, common sense, courage, and diligence can go far in reducing corruption, systematizing administration, and organizing local support for the government. Afghans are unusually forgiving, and Khost is recoverable. But there have been too few men like Haji Doulat here, and too little American and Afghan support for those few. “Corruption is Afghanistan’s number one problem,” the American official stated. And then he quickly added, “And we are the number two problem, when we mess up.”

Leave a Reply