Posts Tagged ‘Kandahar’

An interview with Kandahar’s Mayor, Ghulum Hamidi

Friday, December 31st, 2010

DISPATCH: The Mysterious Evolution of Kandahar—And Its Insurgency

* Ann Marlowe
* December 31, 2010 | 1:39 pm

“The Taliban have already taken over in Kandahar! Come out onto the streets and see. There is no government there!” Or so Rangina Hamidi, the American-educated daughter of Kandahar’s mayor, Ghulum Hamidi, warned me in Kabul last month. Her remarks echoed a recent survey of 1,000 men in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. It found that 51 percent would prefer justice to be administered by the Taliban and 59 percent think the Taliban would do a better job of running the economy than the current Afghan government.

Rangina gave me her father’s phone number, adding that he answers his own phone. “They killed the last two guys who did that and he can’t find another one to work for him.”

When I arrived at Kandahar Air Base on the way back from a U.S. Army embed, I suggested to the mayor that he send a car to take me to his office. “Why don’t you stay on the base?” he replied. “I will come to meet you at the civilian side of the airport.”

Two white SUVs pulled up, the first filled with bodyguards. Hamidi got out of the second. White-haired and bespectacled, he looked like the American accountant he happened to be. He even wore brown Calvin Klein loafers. But his traditional grey Afghan baggy trousers struck a different note.

“Until a half year ago I did not use bodyguards, he explained. “Everyone was telling me to take some. When they blew up my car killing two people, the Canadian Ambassador replaced it with the white one and I took some bodyguards.”

We walked to a small park in a traffic-free traffic circle. Hamidi spoke English fluently but too eagerly, convolution often being the result. He worked for 13 years in the Afghan Ministry of Finance before fleeing the country. He and his wife raised five daughters and two sons in Virginia; his daughter Rangina graduated from the University of Virginia.

Mr. Hamidi’s job now is not only dangerous, but also filled with mundane headaches. Afghan mayors handle the most thankless aspects of municipal administration—trash pickup, street cleaning, road maintenance, and parks. They have no jurisdiction over the police, or the supplies of power and water, or schools, all of which are controlled from Kabul by local line ministries, and all of which are failing in Kandahar.

Mr. Hamidi begins by telling me that his first priority is simply to keep the city clean. There’s no sewage system, so this amounts to a Sisyphean task. There’s power only every other day, and without it, households have no running water, either. Schools in the suburban districts have been taken over either by the Taliban or foreign forces as command posts.

“My daughter Rangina says the Karzais are using me,” Mr. Hamidi volunteers. “But I am here for Kandahar’s 800,000 citizens and not for [President Karzai’s Kandahar-based brothers] Ahmad Wali Karzai or Qayoum. I tell the truth to Mr. Karzai.”

Mr. Hamidi seems justifiably proud of his success in collecting unpaid taxes and making businesses register with the municipality. This has enabled him to boost the city’s funds significantly.

“When I came there was 3 million afghanis ($66,666) in the municipality bank account, now there is 270 million ($4.9 million). This is from tax and rents. It was hard to get people to pay their taxes but I was an employee of the Ministry of Finance and I know how to collect taxes.”

Mr. Hamidi’s precision with figures is refreshing in a country where a governor typically cannot tell you the most basic statistics about his province, or a general about his soldiers. “We asphalted four kilometers of roads last year and this year we will do around thirty-seven kilometers,” he continues. Hamidi explains why households in Kandahar only have power every other day. It’s a common syndrome in Afghanistan, where a rapidly growing population and movement of rural people into the cities strains power capacity.

“Kandahar needs seventy megawatts of electricity a day but we only have thirteen or fourteen from the Kajaki Dam and sometimes the Taliban are cutting the line for two to three days once or twice a month.”

Mr. Hamidi makes a worthy effort to stay on message, but when the conversation turns to land, the quicksand of Kandahari politics opens up. As elsewhere in Afghanistan, much of the local property belongs to the government, a legacy of the monarchy. Powerful men cut sweetheart deals for prime parcels, or simply take them. Mr. Hamidi proudly recounts his conflict with Hamid Karzai’s first cousin Hashmat Karzai, accused in a front-page New York Times article this year of murdering a relative.

“In front of this airport he occupied one hundred twenty jeribs of land, belonging to the municipality, illegally and I am fighting with this guy to return the public land to me.” (A jerib is about a half an acre.)

Then there is Hamid’s pride, joy, and pitfall. “All the Kandahari people are happy from Ay Nomina,” Mr. Hamidi says. “People are coming for picnic to see this area. Half of the city is that project.

Ay Nomina is the lush gated community built by Mahmoud Karzai (the president’s brother, presently under investigation by the U.S. Southern District) on land sold to him by Gul Agha Sherzai, governor at the time. Mr. Hamidi says Sherzai had no authority to sell the 25,000 jeribs for the fire-sale price of $300 per jerib ($7.5 million).

So Hamidi negotiated a revised price of $3,000 a jerib ($75 millon) and made Mahmoud’s company, AFCO, provide roads, mosques, clinics, schools, and services for the new suburb.

The Ay Nomina controversy brings us to the central conflict of Kandahari politics, where Durranis like the Karzais and Hamidis, ascendent since 1747, are contested bitterly by the original inhabitants, Ghilzai tribesman. Mr. Hamidi refers repeatedly to the power struggle between Durranis and “non-Durrannis.”

Among the former, Mr. Hamidi loathes Gul Agha Sherzai with a special ferocity. “Gul Agha is a drug dealer, he and his brother Razik Sherzai. Do you know what Gul Agha’s father’s occupation was? He was a middleman for arranging dogfights.“ (Anything to do with dogs is very low class in Afghanistan.)

“And now Gul Agha has $900 million and his brother Razik has hundreds of millions! He has purchased houses for cash in New York. He has ten or fifteen houses in Quetta. $2.5 million house in Kandahar. Razik Sherzai is an uneducated guy but he is a general in the Air Force—and we have not Air Force in Afghanistan!”

The sun falls, and Mr. Hamidi turns to the parlous state of Kandahar’s police. He says that local warlords bring their thugs to the Kandahar Provincial Training Center to be issued weapons, uniforms and trained (sort of) as police. Then they are turned loose on the population. He charges that General Nasrullah Zarifi, who runs the training center, is “a thief training thieves. … Nine years ago he was selling kebabs on the street! Now there is Zarifi Manor [a housing development] with forty-five houses!” (I met General Zarifi briefly on a visit to the KPTC in 2008; he was well thought of by his American mentors.)

Mr. Hamidi’s knowledge of Kandahar has no end. But as our interview draws to a close after three and a half hours, he hasn’t mentioned the Taliban once. The people who blew up his car, he says, aren’t the Taliban, but his Ahmadzai (Ghilzai Pashtun) opponents. I can’t test his daughter Rangina’s theory that the Taliban control the city, but her father talks only about intra-Pashtun rivalries.

Mr. Hamidi says suicide bombings are down—no major explosions in three months—but “handgun assassinations” are up. He admits that sometimes he has not been able to see Rangina for ten to fifteen days. “She tells me not to come to her house, because they will throw bombs there and kill thirty to forty women working there.”

The next day, I go to see Major General David Rodriguez, the IJF (ISAF Joint Command) chief in Afghanistan. He comments on the Kandahar insurgents, “They adjust their tactics from IEDs to assassination of government officials.” But this shift away from indiscriminate killing of the population to killing people with capacity can also indicate that the insurgents believe the population is now with them.

General Rodriguez acknowledges the American role in exacerbating some of the tribal enmities Mr. Hamidi mentioned. “It’s all about a balance of power. There’s a perceived imbalance that some of the tribes get everything and others don’t get anything. There is an effort to rebalance in the contracting arena. We are trying to spread the contracts the right way—include more people and broaden our engagement so we understand the full views of the population.” But Kandahari strongmen like Gul Afgha Sherzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai aren’t retreating quietly into their boxes just because we’ve suddenly decided that empowering them was a bad idea. It’s hard to say whether or not we’re turning the corner in Kandahar—or what the city will eventually look like, even if we are.

Incessant Opportunities: a war blog by Cy Kofant

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

October 31, 2011

Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan- Today General Robert W. Smith held his first press conference since being tapped as the chief American commander (C-TRAGICOM) in Afghanistan three days ago, after the abrupt departure of General David Petraeus. The behind-the-scenes luminary – the two-star commander of Fort Distant, Wyoming – showed the charisma that made him a natural pick for the top job when he answered tough, even carping questions from the reporters flown from Kabul to the press conference. The affable general – an impressive 7’ 2” tall –won most of his audience over by the conclusion of the q&a.

While it is now nearly six months since I have taken one of my helicopter tours of the Afghan battlespace with a top general – readers may recall my blog entry from June, when my trip was cancelled due to our handing over Kandahar Air Force Base to the Taliban –I have heard from acquaintances who have traveled around Afghanistan without our military that there are still areas – notably the city centers in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat – which remain safe from Taliban incursions. I have never actually been to any location in Afghanistan by myself, but my military sources corroborate these accounts.

Having known Bob since I wrote an 18000-word profile of the then-colonel in 2003, I believe no reasonable person could doubt his qualifications for the mission. I flew with Bob from Fort Distant as he prepared to take up his new job and can report that he only ate once, and used the bathroom facilities not at all, during the 36 hours we spent in the air.

Here are some nuggets from Bob’s press conference that I think readers will particularly enjoy.

Question: “There are now 276,000 American troops in Afghanistan yet almost none of the country remains secure. Can you please explain how you will use your vastly expanded manpower to achieve the results that your predecessor, General Petraeus, was unable to?

Answer: “We’ve just now got the inputs right in Afghanistan. Our new strategy, which we are unveiling today, is called, “A soldier in every home” – that’s “Askar dar har khana” in Dari – and we envision being able to place one American serviceman or woman in every Afghan home – that is approximately 2.5 million homes, because as you know Afghans live in large extended families – on a rotating basis over the coming year.

This will place security where it is needed. And as an additional benefit, our servicemen and women will get invaluable local language training at no cost whatsoever to American taxpayers. They will be fed by their Afghan hosts, again lowering our costs, and providing a gradual acclimatization to the wholesome Afghan diet and its numerous microorganisms.

Question: “Can you comment on the recent allegations in the American press that some family members of President Karzai recently bought the entire city of Geneva, Switzerland, with money stolen from the American people?”

Answer: “President Karzai – who I met with for the first time today, at his Presidential bunker at Bagram Air Force Base – understands very well that if he is to be an effective president for life – as the recent amendment he was able to get past the Afghan Parliament mandates – he has to show progress on corruption very soon. President Karzai shows every sign of understanding this and I am confident that we can work together effectively, especially since the unfortunate disappearance of Ambassador Eikenberry.”

Question: “There are rumors that Ambassador Eikenberry is actually in captivity in the hands of some members of President Karzai’s family –

Answer: “I think you said it yourself, sir: rumors. What we know for a fact is that the Ambassador, who was extremely frank in his evaluations of our Afghan partner family, the Karzais, wrote a cable, a very frank cable, on the 1st of July, shortly after the KAF handover. He has not been seen since then. But you can infer from the fact that he has not been replaced that we still hold out hopes for his safe return.”

Question: “As you know, the Army flew us reporters up to Bagram for this conference. As recently as fall of 2010 it was safe to travel in a civilian car to Bagram, but since the fall of Kandahar –

Answer: “If I may make a correction there, reporter – acting in concert with our Afghan partner family, we decided to take an opportunity presented to us by the Taliban to take over the very costly operations at Kandahar Air Force base or KAF as it was known. This was one of the more controversial moves undertaken by my predecessor, even though as you are aware, contrary to the initial reports, no aircraft were included in this transition. “

Question: “Would you care to comment on the attrition figures for the Afghan National Police?”

Answer: “Well, General Halting, who is in charge of the training command–– General Halting has told me that his team has developed a new model for force generation for the Afghan National Police. The newest estimate is, that if we run 1,743,000 Afghan males between the ages of 18 and 36 through our six-week training program, we will end up with about 1250 men who are still with the police six months later due to the attrition.

Now we can do better than that. So, we have decided to implement a new program, increasing the salary of the Afghan police to around $70,000 a year, starting this December 1. Given the effects on the economy at home of the various bailouts of the Afghan financial system, and the increase of troops to 276,000, this will provide an excellent employment opportunity to those servicemen and women who desire to continue serving in Afghanistan even after their deployment is finished.”

Question: “General, when the Central Bank of Afghanistan collapsed due to currency trading losses in January of this year, the U.S. Treasury stepped in to cover the $1. 5 billion loss. Shortly afterwards, a consortium controlled by President Karzai’s family purchased Citibank. Some have suggested, that–

Answer: “I think that the American people realize that you cannot have an effective counterinsurgency strategy without keeping your partner family happy. Thank you very much for your questions, ladies and gentlemen.”


Cy Kofant blogs for Blinkers Magazine. A long-time analyst of the American military and its counterinsurgency doctrine, he has made numerous trips to Afghanistan with successive American commanders. He is the author of the forthcoming three-volume biography, “General Bob Smith: a leader for all times”.

Destination: Afghanistan

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

Destination: Afghanistan

Unless you are one of those intrepid Japanese who turn up occasionally here as in the remotest of places, chances are that you’re not visiting Afghanistan as a tourist. There hasn’t been much of that since the early ’70s, when shaggy young Westerners made their way through Afghanistan en route to India, smoking hash and buying those bulky embroidered sheepskin coats that still lurk in vintage stores back home.

Today most foreign visitors either have a job to do or are visiting expat friends. And it may feel self-indulgent to travel for pleasure in Afghanistan now — why aren’t you helping the poor or starting a business and working six days a week like the other internationals? (more…)