The mission: Forge a strong government out of Zabul's reality
ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The great Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz is credited by some with the theory — loosely interpreted — that victory over an insurgency relies on linking the people, their army and the government.
Scholars still debate the ideas put forward in Clausewitz’s 19th Century master work, “On War,” but in Zabul province, Afghanistan, U.S. military commanders see ties among the Afghan government, security forces and the people as the key to success in a 12-year-old battle against the Taliban.
A triangle, representing the goal of bringing the three into harmony, was scrawled on a white-board at the Task Force Duke — 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division — headquarters in Zabul province last month.
Task force commander Col. Bill Ostlund rates Afghan security forces in Zabul — the third poorest of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces — as firmly on top in their battle against the Taliban.
It’s the Afghan government corner of the triangle that has him concerned.
“Probably, the greatest threat to security is the lack of development of government,” Ostlund said. “Therefore, in addition to our security responsibility, we put a lot of energy into all things government in Zabul.”
Fifteen months from the date set for the pullout of U.S. combat forces, only 15 to 20 percent — on average — of the officials responsible for things like education, health, justice and agriculture are in place in Zabul’s 11 districts, Ostlund estimates.
Ironically, in a reversal of the way U.S. forces departed Iraq, some of the first Americans to leave the province were members of the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team — U.S. diplomats, civilians and servicemembers whose job it was to advise, to mentor and to assist local government.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said PRTs — conduits for billions in foreign aid for projects such as roads and schools — undermine efforts to build state institutions.
ISAF reports that only two U.S. PRTs, one of which is a combined U.S.-Polish operation, remain in Afghanistan, although partner nation PRTs are still active in six other provinces.
The Zabul team went home shortly before Task Force Duke arrived in June. It had been devastated in April when suicide bombers killed diplomat Anne Smedinghoff and several soldiers and injured four other State Department employees who were on their way to a local school for a book hand-out.
“That just hastened the withdrawal,” Ostlund said. “The team was so damaged. It was already planned to be withdrawn in June, but they were gone before we showed up.”
Without civilians helping to mentor Afghan government officials, the task has fallen on the U.S. military. Ostlund has ordered Special Forces and civil affairs troops to take on the job and focus on three key terrain districts — Shajoy, Qalat and Tarnek Wa Jaldak — that are home to 80 percent of Zabul’s population and border a highway that links Kabul to the north with Kandahar to the south.
A veteran of multiple combat deployments, Ostlund knows better than most the value of gaining the trust of the Afghan people.
In 2008, when he commanded 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Nuristan province, an estimated 200 Taliban attacked one of his units — Chosen Company — in an action known as “The Battle of Wanat.”
The company sustained nine killed in action and 27 wounded in one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan war.
An investigation recommended Ostlund, along with others, be punished for having too few troops at the remote outpost, for not planning sufficiently and for not supervising the action closely enough. However, he was later exonerated by a follow-up investigation that found that his soldiers’ deaths, “did not occur as a result of deficient decisions, planning, and actions of the chain of command.”
A detailed account of the battle by a military historian at the Army Combat Studies Institute in Kansas states that there was a growing hostility toward the Americans in Wanat and a failure by higher-level commanders to recognize the tension when they ordered the unit to the village just a few weeks before the attack.
Back in country as a brigade commander, wiser after what happened in 2008, Ostlund said he’s focusing much of his time on getting justice, health, education and agriculture officials in place at district centers in Zabul.
Task Force Duke recently sent 150 soldiers, from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, to support a larger Afghan National Army drive into Naw Bahar District, a remote part of Zabul with a heavy Taliban presence.
Only about a quarter of government officials there were in place and security forces’ movement was limited by Taliban harassment before the operation, said 2nd Battalion commander Lt. Col. Eric Lopez, 39, of New Haven, Conn.
During the weeklong push, the U.S. and Afghan troops found 28 improvised explosive devices and detained 14 suspected insurgents. There were no friendly casualties, despite several IED strikes and small arms attacks, he said.
At the tail end of the operation, Lopez and his troops found themselves sleeping on the ground at what used to be an American outpost — Forward Operating Base Sweeney in Shinkay District.
Lopez referenced Clausewitz’s trinity — pointing to the Afghan National Army patch he wears on his shoulder to signal that he’s supporting an Afghan officer.
“Who is wearing that patch for the governor?” he said. “Who is helping them get the representatives of the line ministries out there — health, justice, education, agriculture?”
Lopez said he was in Iraq toward the end of the U.S. presence there.
“In Iraq, at this stage, we were totally focused on supporting the PRT and their efforts,” he said.
Col. Zadu Mohammud Doest, the Afghan National Army commander at Shinkay, said the Taliban attacks his men about twice a month these days, down sharply from the daily attacks that were happening when he arrived there five years ago.
Doest said he complains regularly to his superiors that there’s no government in his district.
“There is no education department guy, prosecutor or medical staff or public works people in this area,” he said. “If there are disputes between the tribes, there is no court to go to. They go to the Taliban for justice.”
Ostlund heard similar complaints from locals during a recent visit to another outlying district — Atghar — to attend a shura, a meeting, that brought together Afghan soldiers, police, village elders and political leaders.
Haji Abdullah, a grey-haired Atghar elder who resembles a wizard out of Lord of the Rings, told the politicians and soldiers about floods that had damaged fields and orchards in the area. He lamented the poor state of roads in the district with no improvement in the past 12 years.
The government is busy with security, but locals want classrooms and schools, Abdullah said, noting that the Taliban opposes education.
“When there is no education, the people will listen to anything,” he said. “Sometimes the Taliban are the only source of information.”
Deputy Zabul provincial governor Mohammad Jan Rassoulyar, on his first visit to Atghar, told the elders he was glad to see the local bazaar open and people in the streets.
“The government wants to help you,” he said. “The blood of the soldiers and government officials shed here shows we care.”
Rassoulyar asked the locals not to complain if he brought people from other parts of the country to Atghar to fill government jobs.
“This person will be literate and can help with the government,” he said.
The Atghar meeting took place in a mud-and-brick compound that resembled a medieval farm-yard.
Infrastructure is lacking in the more isolated areas of Zabul, despite billions invested in building projects by the international community.
Ostlund said he’d like to see multi-purpose facilities in district centers, some of which still lack schools.
“In our (America’s) small communities as we expanded west, we had a community hall that served as a school during the day, meeting hall at night, church on Sunday, and a place of refuge during natural disasters,” he said.
Ostlund said he hopes to have three-quarters of the province’s officials on the job in key terrain districts by the time Task Force Duke leaves next year.
However, he concedes that getting educated, literate Afghans to move to a dangerous and impoverished region of the country will be a challenge.
Some officials assigned to district centers don’t bother to visit them and spend much of their time in Kabul. They might be working hard to get funding for the regions they serve, but all locals see is a lack of government officials in their area, Ostlund said.
Task Force Duke is encouraging the Afghan government to offer the sort of incentives that U.S. soldiers receive to serve in hardship duty stations such as dislocation, housing and food allowances and hazardous duty pay.
It might be possible to donate portable buildings from U.S. bases that are closing to serve as free housing for college students who take government jobs in Zabul, Ostlund said.
Zabul has great potential, Ostlund said. The farmers there have access to State Highway 1, allowing them to move crops south to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, but it’s still not as easy to attract talent there as it is in other parts of the country, Ostlund said.
“When an educated person can get a pretty good job in Kandahar, why go to a district center in [Zabul] that may have power only six hours a day and is challenged with funding?”