Archive for June, 2010

How to Win in Afghanistan: The Karzais Must Go

Friday, June 25th, 2010

President Obama said Wednesday that he didn’t fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal over policy disagreements. Too bad.

Almost every metric measuring military progress in Afghanistan has gone downhill since McChrystal took command a year ago, as an April Pentagon report detailed. More recently, a UN report revealed that incidents involving improvised-explosive devices — the main killer of our troops — rose 94 percent in the first four months of 2010 over a year earlier.

It’s notable that one of the few strong statements of support for McChrystal came from Afghanistan’s most notorious crime boss — whom McChrystal had claimed as an indispensable US ally: Ahmed Wali Karzai. AWK, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told The New York Times: “We are asking the decision-makers to send him back to Afghanistan.”

US troops carrying a critically wounded fellow soldier to a waiting MEDEVAC copter outside Kandahar yesterday.

McChrystal put America’s eggs in the wrong basket. He had to postpone the much-touted “Kandahar offensive” when his “ally” AWK decided to withdraw his support for it.

But then, he has been using “a strategy of tactics,” as West Point history professor Col. Gian Gentile calls the fashionable new American way of war.

Yes: The counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) that’s been our guide in Afghanistan is a tactic, not a strategy — just as the Afghan “surge” McChrystal lobbied for was a tactic. Which raises the vital question: What is the US strategy in Afghanistan?

Under McChrystal, it seemed to amount to hoping that AWK would calm Kandahar for us — even if, as I detailed in a recent exposé, he also sold the very explosives that are used to kill American soldiers.

McChrystal fell into the trap of thinking that COIN tactics would add up to victory. But I’ve seen US Army units following these tactics in southern and eastern Afghanistan since the summer of 2007. We’ve stationed men in small outposts among the population, we’ve held endless shuras with Afghan elders, we’ve spent endless American dollars on “armed social work.” And southern and eastern Afghans still plant IEDs on the asphalt roads we provided, and burn down the schools we built them — and in many areas respect the Taliban’s (shadow) government more than President Karzai’s.

The Afghan war is winnable, but not the way we’re fighting it.

First, counterinsurgency has never worked unless a good percentage of the population supports the government — and that’s no longer so in Afghanistan. We botched a chance to gain a reliable Afghan partner, presidential challenger Dr. Abdullah, when we let Karzai steal the election last August. But the Karzais have to go, now.

Probably the best way is to prosecute AWK for his many crimes and hope that his brother will flee. (A US anti-corruption team is said to be closing in on another Karzai brother, businessman Mahmoud, even now.) The Karzai cartel is hollowing out the Afghan state for its personal gain. If some of his brothers are jailed, it’s likely Hamid will flee.

Second, Afghanistan is winnable only if the Afghan National Police and Army can take responsibility for security. Progress has been glacial.

Just one of Afghanistan’s 360 police districts can operate without US help, and just 14 more are rated at the top grade for those requiring oversight — the same as in 2009. Far too many officers quit — 16,000 last year. And in the last year, there has been no rise in the number of Afghan army battalions rated at the highest functional level.

Penny-pinching is certainly not the problem: The $11.6 billion appropriated for training the Afghan police and army isn’t far off Israel’s 2008 defense budget of $12 billion.

One factor eroding the Afghan police is poor local governance, something that our troops on the ground struggle with daily. Some of this can be corrected by replacing the crooks at the top of the Afghan state.

The answer isn’t more troops or money, it’s the moral courage to show the Afghan people that another way is possible, and that we believe in it. McChrystal seemed determined to show the Afghans that we believed only in the power of their mafias.

McChrystal’s replacement, his boss and mentor Gen. David Petraeus, must make it clear to Pakistan that our allies have to act like allies. McChrystal was an enabler of the two-faced Pakistanis, who both clamor for more American aid, yet funnel support to the Afghan insurgency.

In short, the replacement of McChrystal could be the best news to come out of Afghanistan for a while — if it provokes the administration to re-examine our Afghan war in time to start winning it again.

Alchemy in Afghanistan

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Bidding for the rights to explore more than $1 trillion of mineral reserves could begin this year. Ann Marlowe explains why the political truth is much more sordid than easy profits.

Something is rotten in Afghanistan, and unfortunately it’s us. Today’s announcement of “nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan” is a symptom of what’s wrong, not a cause for rejoicing.

Recent Afghan news has been resoundingly bad. The top U.S. commander on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, admitted that the Kandahar offensive will go slower than anticipated, basically because the locals don’t want us there. The Washington Post reported yesterday that the reason for the delay is the opposition of President Karzai’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, the Mafia boss of southern Afghanistan.

But let’s listen to Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus: “There is stunning potential here.” Really? Where would that be? Not in security or governance or anything else remotely under his responsibility. It’s the minerals offensive, stupid! And today’s breathless page one New York Times piece by James Risen even implies that the Pentagon, which perhaps should be engaged in trying to turn the war around, instead has been out prospecting. Risen writes that the mineral deposits were “discovered by a team of Pentagon officials and American geologists.”

Afghanistan definitely has mineral resources; the story isn’t false. American geologists were investigating remote areas of southern Afghanistan like Nimroz province even in the 1970s. But work slowly came to a halt during the decades of violence. And the story isn’t new. In fact, it’s instructive to look at the first iteration of the mineral resources news item more than a year ago to understand why all the minerals in the world won’t suddenly make Afghanistan a safe place.

In March 2009, Reuters reported that a U.S. Geological Survey study indicated vast mineral resources. The minister of mines and industry, Mohammed Ibrahim Adel, was quoted by Reuters on the topic of the development of Afghanistan’s Aynak Copper Mine by a state-run Chinese firm, China Metallurgical Group (now under way).

Adel, it turned out, had received a $30 million bribe from the Chinese company—not so uncommon in Afghanistan. It represents less than 1 percent of the expected value of the Chinese investment. What is uncommon is that Karzai actually replaced him earlier this year with a technocrat, Waheedullah Shahrani. (There were suggestions that Karzai himself might have profited from the Chinese deal.)

As this story shows, the “news” about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is not new at all. It is not news either that one of the major obstacles to using that wealth to better the lives of Afghans and stabilize the country is dysfunctional governance. The other obstacles are Afghanistan’s lack of infrastructure and security, which would add multiples to the cost of production.

Whether Afghanistan’s minerals can be brought to market economically is a whole other issue. Oddly enough, the Times story didn’t even mention this issue. At the rate things are going, the Taliban will be the ones to inherit the mines. Dr. John Whitney, president of Reno, Nevada-based Itronics, with 30 years’ experience in mine development in the Americas, says that “nothing in mining can be done quickly anywhere today,” due to United Nations standards that apply even in developing countries. He estimated that it would take a minimum of 10-20 years before Afghan mines could become operational.

The Times says, “An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerries. But Whitney observed that there are two American lithium producers and deposits in Argentina that have not been exploited because of lack of infrastructure. Why would anyone prefer to work in Afghanistan than Argentina?

And Mines and Industry Minister Shahrani was not even quoted in the Times piece—why would that be?

The bigger picture in Afghanistan is bleak and getting bleaker. The increasingly elusive victory we seek won’t be obtained by ignoring the deterioration of Afghanistan’s security and political situation. Yet that is the path that our higher command is embarked upon.

Reading H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty or Rufus Phillip’s Why Vietnam Matters or any number of other books dissecting the American military’s failures in Vietnam, it’s natural to wonder how so many smart, often brilliant, men in the Pentagon and State Department were so unwilling to acknowledge reality and adapt to it. And given the amount of discussion and analysis of this failure that has occurred in our military over the last decade or so, it’s amazing that our top brass doesn’t recognize that they are sleepwalking into the same drama.

General Stanley McChrystal is the son of a retired major general who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. But perhaps he didn’t hear the right stories at home. McChrystal is the man who approved a Silver Star citation for Pat Tillman—and the day after, wrote an internal memo warning that the football star might have been killed by friendly fire. Tillman’s family had to wait for the truth and were then attacked by top military officials for lacking religious faith.

I’d suggest that we ask why “Pentagon officials” have enough time to scout out mineral deposits, while our soldiers are being blown up by IEDs in increasingly higher numbers—some of them from components supplied by our “ally” Ahmad Wali Karzai. I’d suggest we ask why General McChrystal has made less progress with tens of thousands more troops than his predecessor, General McKiernan, did. And why on earth the Afghan people should trust him, or us, when we offer them the choice between the Taliban and the Karzai mafia.

If we take our minds off minerals for a moment, we will note that an increasingly unpredictable President Hamid Karzai has just fired the two most competent, and crucial, members of his cabinet because they opposed reconciliation with the Taliban. Then he called for the release of thousands of dangerous Taliban prisoners, some being held for planting the IEDs that are the leading killer of U.S. troops. Then he asked that the names of key insurgents be taken off the United Nations blacklist, and the craven U.N. kowtowed.

But let’s not dig any deeper into these stories, or ask why General McChrystal explicitly told high-ranking Americans, including corruption investigators, that it was time to move on from investigating Ahmad Wali Karzai. Let’s not ask why no one on McChrystal’s team wants to look into shocking allegations that an AWK-owned construction company, Kandahar Crush, sells an IED component chemical and fuses to the insurgency to kill U.S. troops. (

Let us, instead, behold Afghanistan’s minerals—and rejoice!

Recovering a Province: the rise and fall of Khost

Monday, June 7th, 2010

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.”