Laying down the law in Herat
February 22, 2010
PASHTUN ZARGHUN, Afghanistan - The muddy, flood-prone roads through tiny villages in this district of Herat province tell the Afghan story of remote poverty.
But something unusual is happening in this small slice of a nation ravaged by war.
A police commander bent on fighting corruption leads a local force that is winning the trust of the people. Peace holds such sway here that there have been no significant attacks against Afghan or U.S. security forces in months.
And village elders, typically susceptible to insurgent threats, readily shake the hands of security forces in Pashtun Zarghun.
In short, NATO’s counterinsurgency strategy of bolstering Afghan forces to win the trust of the population and undermine the insurgent base might be a dream in most of Afghanistan, but it seems to be working in Pashtun Zarghun.
The only question is whether this fusion of leadership and peace is achievable elsewhere.
"It’s kind of like the ‘City on the Hill’ for Afghanistan," said Capt. Dennis Williams, Troop A commander of the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, whose forces became the first permanent American presence into Pashtun Zarghun in November.
"They have a very organized central government in Herat. Government presence is definitely felt by the people and is recognized as an authority," he said. "Economic development has a lot to do with it. There is a significant amount of trade. The downtown Herat market is bustling."
Under the leadership of powerful former governor Ishmail Khan, whose appointment as minister of power and water is pending in parliament, Herat province has been spared the worst brutality of an insurgency that has devoured the east and south of the country in the last eight years.
But criminal gangs still roam the roads and from a security perspective, are often interchangeable with anti-government forces.
Indeed, the arrival of Troop A’s 1st Platoon followed on the heels of a key development in securing the area. Marine special operations forces led a team into the village of Siahvashan and killed a man named Gulum Yahya, who U.S. forces say ran a network of militants that terrorized the main road from Herat City in neighboring Gozareh district through Pashtun Zarghun.
Since his death, dozens of his men have turned in their weapons and reconciled with the government, and while there have been reports that leaders were sent in to take his place, Williams said his forces have seen no evidence of that.
At the same time that the U.S. team was building up its new Camp X-Ray, the Afghan police got a new commander eager to shake things up. A veteran police officer with a reputation for taking his job as an enforcer seriously, Fajil Ahmad Regiwal says he has little regard for rank or power of the criminals he targets or the risks to himself and his career.
He’d been transferred repeatedly — first from Nimruz province, where he said he filed a report charging the provincial governor with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of customs money, and then from Farah, where he arrested three police officers who’d kidnapped and raped a teenage girl. When he learned that the prosecutor had released the three after they had each paid a $15,000 bribe, Regiwal said he beat the prosecutor. Stars and Stripes could not independently verify these claims.
In Pashtun Zarghun, Regiwal dismissed several officers found to be neglecting their duties or breaking the law, tackled bribery in the ranks and got his men out on the ground, cracking down on crime in a show of solidarity with the general population.
"When I came here, I told everybody I want to get rid of corruption in my department," said Regiwal, 51, a 25-year veteran of Afghan policing who in his spare time writes books including two crime novels based on real cases, and a book about honesty. "I am not afraid of the enemy or of higher-ranking government officials because I am not doing anything wrong. If somebody is honest and not doing anything wrong, why should they be afraid?"
In a place governed as much by corruption and thievery as the threat of insurgency, Regiwal’s leadership is having an impact.
"It’s been working here," said Sgt. William Fox, 24, of Mobile, Ky. "We’ve been able to separate the enemy from the population because the population here is ready to come to the police with information. We get calls all the time from the population about strangers in villages."
Within weeks of the arrival of the 82nd and new police chief, another criminal leader known as Suleiman also put down his weapons. U.S. officials say Suleiman was a disgruntled politician who took up arms and led a band of about 50 thugs and thieves. His "reconciliation" with the government was celebrated in a ceremony at the Provincial Police Headquarters in downtown Herat, where Suleiman was promised a government position. Many of his men surrendered, too.
He’s yet to be installed, and has recently begun plotting to take hostages again, Regiwal said.
"The government made a mistake with Suleiman," said Regiwal. "This guy was a thief until he came in. Now the government is rewarding him."
The reconciliations are part of the latest government offensive out of Kabul to dismantle the insurgency wracking the countryside. The controversial approach has won the support of NATO leaders who acknowledge that this war cannot be won militarily.
It raises questions, though, about who is taking advantage of the immunity and whether U.S. and NATO forces aren’t simply trading in today’s enemy for the enemies of tomorrow by giving them a government shield.
"It’s a delicate situation," Williams acknowledged. "You certainly can’t arrest every criminal in Afghanistan. You’ve got to convince them to be on the right side."
Just three months in, it’s too soon to determine long-term success, and the Americans readily admit that a true test will come when spring arrives.
As reconnaissance scouts who served in the embattled east of the country during a 15-month deployment in 2007-2008, the American soldiers were skeptical about their current role as mentors. Here, they had to take a step back and let the Afghan police take the lead.
Fox said they soon found it rewarding to watch the police improve, while others saw added benefits.
"Before, everybody used to hate us," said Staff Sgt. Darvin Cosby, 29, from Chicago. "Imagine us kicking your doors down at 2 a.m. We used to do that once a week. [Now] some of the elders come up and shake our hands, telling us we are doing good."