Afghanistan's most peaceful province is now a test case for the security handoff
KIWI BASE, Afghanistan — The soldiers stood on the old Russian gun platform high in the mountains and tried to imagine the other war. They were Americans and New Zealanders, all of them young, all of them dressed casually for soldiers. No body armor or helmets, no gloves, goggles or grenades. Their rifles slung easily across their backs. It was Bamiyan, after all, the most peaceful province in Afghanistan.
“How the hell did they get it up here?” an American soldier asked, spinning on the gun mount as though it were playground equipment. “You think they carried it up?”
“Helicopter, must have been,” said a New Zealander.
The men looked around, admiring the artifacts of the vanished Soviet army, the Cyrillic graffiti soldiers like them had carved decades before. They laughed, a little uneasily, at history. A few miles west and nearly eight centuries before, Genghis Khan’s army slaughtered thousands during a siege. A decade ago, near the same spot, the Taliban killed up to 500.
“Can you imagine sitting up here, shooting at stuff?” a soldier asked.
Another man picked up an empty, rusting shell casing that once held a round almost thick as a fist.
“Can you imagine getting shot with this?”
The soldiers quieted and looked down over the valley where the big rounds once fell. To the east lay Kabul, to the west, Iran. The Soviets built the outpost on a promontory atop the ruins of an ancient citadel called Shar-i-Zohak that had watched over paths linked to the Silk Road. Back then, Bamiyan was a crossroads, its fortunes rising and falling with the goods and religions, the armies and ideas moving through.
In July, Bamiyan was officially set in the middle again, this time as a way point between the violent past and a hopeful future. In an unannounced, heavily guarded ceremony, the province became one of two to begin the so-called transition process, in which Afghan forces gradually assume security responsibilities from NATO troops.
For Bamiyan and Panjshir — the other province safe enough to begin it — the transition process will occur slowly, over more than two years. It will end in 2014 when most coalition forces depart the country. If the transfer can run smoothly anywhere, it is here. Bamiyan’s transition offers a test case and a view of one possible future. It also asks whether Afghan forces can do what has never been done here before — keep violence out.
Standing at the apex of several centuries of military ruins, the Americans and the New Zealanders didn’t plumb the big questions; they admired the view.
“Man, it’s so quiet up here,” a soldier said.
The men began taking photos. From their perch, somewhere near 10,000 feet, the war, and the future, seemed very far away.
Since 2003, Bamiyan’s security and development have been led by the New Zealand Defense Force from Kiwi Base, a small outpost on the edge of the provincial capital that includes soldiers and civilians from Malaysia, the U.S. and the European Union. Together, they have presided over a period of stability unheard of in most other parts of Afghanistan.
Several elements have helped keep the province peaceful, including its remoteness and its lack of resources. But one of the most important details is Bamiyan’s ethnic mix, dominated by Shiite Hazaras and spread with Tajiks, Tatars and other groups that have generally never supported the Sunni Taliban or fought much with each other.
Richard Prendergast, civilian director of New Zealand’s Provincial Reconstruction Team, said Kiwi efforts were eased by the relative lack of deep ethnic and tribal tensions.
“I don’t want to oversell it,” he said. “The security is pretty good here, so we can move on to other things, like development.”
This means Bamiyan is, in some ways, ahead of the curve.
Its governor, Habibi Sarabi, is the only female governor in Afghanistan. The central bazaar in the capital town, also called Bamiyan, is considered so safe that NATO soldiers can travel there in teams of two, without body armor. Shopkeepers on the busy main street eagerly tell visitors that business is good.
Foreign tourists are also occasionally spotted here, lured by an oversized share of Afghanistan’s cultural and natural riches — ancient Buddhist sites, crumbling fortresses like Shahr-e-Zohak and rugged landscapes of the Hindu Kush — and the provincial government hopes to make them a mainstay of its economy, with outsized plans for a commercial airport and a burgeoning annual festival celebrating the legacy of the Silk Road.
And to the east and west of the capital, road crews appear constantly at work, slowly stretching ribbons of pavement into areas where, only a few years ago, there was none.
“It’s like an island here, and oasis, compared to the rest of the country,” said Major Richard Ojeda, an American stationed alongside the Kiwis who has also deployed to other parts of Afghanistan. “In the year we’ve been here, the changes have been amazing.”
By other measures, Bamiyan’s problems still glare through the thin skin of progress.
Ten years after the war began, it remains one of the nation’s poorest regions. The capital is without electricity, and few households in the province have access to clean drinking water. Literacy rates hover around 29 percent, near the national average; harsh winters and summer droughts threaten the agricultural economy.
And, while anti-coalition attacks remain extremely infrequent (two Kiwi soldiers have died here since 2003, one in an IED attack, another in a vehicle rollover), violence looms in neighboring provinces, where NATO commanders say Taliban influence is growing.
A month before the transition ceremony, in Parwan province, the much-loved leader of the Bamiyan provincial council, Jawad Zuuhak, was dragged from his car by the Taliban as he drove home from Kabul. His body was found by the roadside; he had apparently been tortured.
Province officials took the murder as an omen, the whisper of another possible future, one resembling the period after the Taliban took power years ago, when they massacred up to 4,000 people, most of them Hazara, in Mazar-i-Sharif.
“They have photographs of us,” said Muhammad Rezaei, a judge in central Bamiyan, who explained he would not travel roads out of the province. “They know who we are. They are waiting.”
A tipping point
Kiwi and American officials say all of this illustrates Bamiyan’s vulnerability. Increased aid and sustained peace could push the province toward a solid footing by 2014. Maintaining the status quo, however, would more likely knock it in the opposite direction, they said.
Afghan and coalition officials said that in a war of counterinsurgency, the tide doesn’t flow in their favor. More violent regions attract more attention and resources, and in Afghanistan that means aid and troops are pressed like bandages into the bloody south and east. Bamiyan, with its quiet reputation, isn’t seen as a priority, officials said.
In a 2009 visit to Bamiyan, Kai Eide, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan, became one of the most high-profile officials to discuss the problem.
“We focus too much on conflict provinces and we spend enormous amounts of money there and it does not have much impact because of the conflict,” he told IRIN, a UN news agency.
“It should be a warning signal to us all [and] teach us a lesson [to] direct money to the stable provinces.”
Eide was essentially condemning coalition strategy. Instead of the classic “inkblot” approach favored by NATO commanders, where troops clear a troubled region of insurgents then rebuild it with the hope that stability will seep into surrounding areas, Eide was proposing the opposite: build first in peaceful provinces, like Bamiyan, and let stability spread from them.
Privately, Kiwi officials agreed the province needed more attention from NATO and Kabul in order to sustain peace and progress. They were less willing to criticize the coalition habit of sending resources to hotter spots.
Afghan officials were more forthright.
“We need more help from Kabul,” said Col. Hafizallah Payman, director of the Afghan National Police Recruit Training Center next door to Kiwi Base. “They must not ignore us.”
In his small, damply air-conditioned office Payman sat back and enumerated the challenges like a man reading a script. His facility is responsible for basic training for recruits from Bamiyan and four other provinces. It offered more advanced classes, too — for detectives and crime scene investigators, the men and women who, according to NATO plans, will plant law and order in Afghanistan.
Despite Western emphasis on police, Payman said his facility couldn’t fulfill the need. There wasn’t enough room or equipment to train more recruits, he said, though demand for them is high. Students were sleeping on floors, instructors sometimes had to live off-base.
“There are about 30 female candidates waiting to start training, too, but we can’t accommodate them now,” Payman said. “I keep mentioning these things to Kabul, but nobody is listening. They think, ‘The transition has begun, Bamiyan doesn’t need any of this.’ ”
Yet Bamiyan might need it most of all.
New face of security
Walk through the capital’s bazaar, and something quickly becomes apparent to any visitor who has traveled elsewhere in Afghanistan. There are no Afghan National Army soldiers, no beige pickups jolting past packed with armed and mostly uniformed men.
Only a handful of ANA soldiers work in Bamiyan. Kiwi officials explained this is partly because old ethnic tensions had surfaced between the Pashtun-dominated military and local Hazara police. But another reason is that soldiers, like development money, don’t pool here.
“There has never been an ANA presence here because the Province has always been relatively secure by Afghan standards,” Lt. Col. Hugh McAslan, commander of the New Zealand Defense forces in Bamiyan wrote in an email. “And a greater need for ANA forces exists in the more kinetic Provinces in the South and East of the country.”
The result, McAslan said, is that the ANP is the main security force. And, when the Kiwis leave in 2014, Bamiyan’s stability will become their responsibility.
The role will not come easily. Almost nowhere in Afghanistan do police forces — plagued with problems from illiteracy and drug use to corruption and high casualty rates — inspire great confidence, at least from Western observers. While pockets of competence exist, and some specific units and commanders perform well, many experts agree the national police program is nascent.
In April, a Pentagon report underscored the point, concluding that no ANP units could yet operate independently. The Pentagon also warned that sustaining the country’s army and police forces would be a major burden in years ahead because the cost of training and equipping them was more than twice Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. In other words, Afghanistan’s first lines of defense will require deep, regular injections of foreign cash.
In Bamiyan, where the police will play an especially prominent role and resources already feel spare, these challenges intensify.
Kiwi forces have been working hard against these trends to ensure the police are ready by 2014. Kiwi infantry units regularly partner with the ANP, standing with them at wind-blown checkpoints, mentoring their commanders, helping them acquire necessary equipment.
A small detachment of European Union police trainers also works in Bamiyan, led by Kiwi police officers. The Europeans advise police leaders and work with judges, prosecutors and detectives, attempting to strengthen basic law and order. Step by step, European and Kiwi trainers said, they see progress, especially among a key group of police commanders.
Fortunately, insurgent groups never had much interest in the mountain-bounded province or its Hazara population. The Taliban came in the past to kill, and they also arrived a decade ago to destroy two of Bamiyan’s most famous treasures — ancient, enormous statues of Buddha, which they considered affronts to Islam. Then — like Genghis Khan, like the Soviets — they left.
But ethnicity and remoteness also create pitfalls. Hazaras have long been trapped in an Afghan underclass, routinely relegated to menial jobs, suffering discrimination at the hands of politically powerful groups, such as the Pashtuns. Many NATO officials described the Pashtun-dominated government as, at best, indifferent to Bamiyan. Local officials said they worried about the future, when coalition forces no longer buffer against old prejudices.
McAslan said the Kiwi’s next large project would boost Bamiyan’s ability to defend itself. Over the next 18 months, he said, his forces would help create a Provincial Quick Reaction Force composed of police who would act like a large SWAT team, capable of answering threats acrossthe province — specifically those spilling in from neighboring regions.
“The PQRF will have a paramilitary skill set and address the types of threats that might normally be dealt with by the ANA,” McAslan said.
In a recent meeting McAslan discussed details of the PQRF with Provincial Police Chief Jumagildi, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. The chief seemed wary, almost reluctant. He was concerned about committing the number of officers — about 40 — McAslan wanted. The men fell into the kind of negotiations common between Afghan and NATO officers, a rhythmic back-and-forth that often sounds like market bartering. They reached a deal when McAslan agreed to provide lunch for the police during their training.
“Yeah, sometimes it comes down to that,” McAslan said later, grinning tightly. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Model for the future
With transition begun, that direction is set. McAslan and Prendergast said coalition forces would increasingly ask Afghan police and the local government to take charge. They would slowly remove themselves from the works, they said, emphasizing the word “slowly.”
The Kiwis have needed to clarify the speed of transition many times. Prendergast and others described how, as the official start of the process neared in July, many Bamiyan residents believed it meant coalition forces would immediately withdraw — allowing the Taliban to sweep back in.
Kiwi soldiers and civilians were forced to do emergency PR, explaining they would not abandon Bamiyan. In August, they were still repeating it to visitors.
“Transition is a process,” Prendergast said. “I think the challenge [and the fear] is more around lack of confidence, lack of experience. It’s about reassuring them and making sure they will stand up.”
Prendergast said New Zealand forces were firmly committed to their mission. But he was also firm about limits, echoing the sentiment of nearly every other coalition nation.
“New Zealand is not looking to be here for generations,” he said. “We’re looking to improve Afghan lives in the time we have.”
Asked if the province, with its peace, its police and its place at the heart of nation, could be a model for the rest of Afghanistan, Prendergast was cautiously optimistic. First, remember this isn’t like most other provinces, he said, pointing up its Hazara ethnic fabric.
“Bamiyan is a model for transition,” he said. “Not for state-building. If it was state-building, we would be here till 2030, not 2014.”
Facing the same question, Provincial Police Chief Jumagildi glanced out his office window toward the mountains, as though scanning for bad weather.
“Bamiyan is in the center of the country, and we’re surrounded by eight other provinces,” he said. “The problems are in those provinces.”
He was describing the limits of any oasis, the danger at any crossroads. Places the future blows through from somewhere else.
“Bamiyan will be a model,” Jumagildi said. “If we are not forgotten.”