Some progress on the women’s front but the security situation spiraling further downwards and a population that cannot find anything good in the Americans anymore – these are impressions from a short visit to Gardez this week that was undertaken by AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig, two and a half months after his last trip there over Election-Day.
The good news first: 46 local girls have participated two days ago in the entrance examination for Paktia University, says Dr Nazdana. She is one of the few female doctors in the province’s capital Gardez and, until recently, she was employed by the local Ministry of Public Health (MoPH). But now she is jobless since she resigned in order to run for the elections. As expected, including by herself, she lost. But she is the first losing candidate I meet that is not angry. Well, kind of. ‘I told you so – these were no elections’, she said. ‘The people with the money won.’ And Paktia’s single seat reserved for women was taken by a candidate that has a lot of it, being a partner of various construction companies and having just returned from the US west coast.
Another success Nazdana is proud about is the Community Midwife Education Programme that is held in Gardez’ central hospital. More than 100 young women have passed it since 2004. ‘Do you still remember?’ she beams, ‘a few years ago I was the only woman here that would leave the house.’ A bit of overstatement is part of Paktia’s oral culture – there were at least two more who did so to my knowledge.
According to Nazdana, a local midwife is even working in the clinic of Kulalgo village which is considered the stronghold of the Zurmat Taleban. This district, Zurmat, does not have much of a government, just a combined US/ANA base. But it is said to have a relatively educated population from which a number of important ulema emerged. Also, the Taleban were strong there during their reign which in Paktia lasted from January 1995 and 2001: Zurmat sent a number of ministers into the Emirate’s government and was called ‘Little Kandahar’ then.(*)
During the elections of 2009, the Taleban closed down the district for any election-related activity, and during this year’s nothing much was happening, too, this time without much intimidation by the insurgents. Ballot boxes sent to Zurmat did never reach the polling stations which were open at least in the district centre and some other places. Nevertheless, they were returned full to Gardez; the local ANA and ANP had voted and, maybe, added illicit ones. That caused the people from the Zurmati village of Surkai (see our Election blog 14 ‘Voices from Paktia’ here) to call in Afghan radios stations and start a little protest wave against the fraud. I heard their furious reports on the radio the next day and even the district governor confirmed what they were saying – although he was accused of having been part of the fraud. Finally, much of Zurmat’s vote was cancelled(**).
Back to the Kulalgo Taleban. A year ago, they sent a phone message to the provincial head of the MoPH, asking him to send a midwife to the clinic in their area. (Even the Taleban have women and do not want them to die in labour.) But the request came with strings attached. The Kulalgo Taleban sent 13 conditions: The midwife must be accompanied by a mahram, a male companion from her family; the clinics personnel was not allowed to contact the local US soldiers and the soldiers were not allowed to enter the clinic; women were to be treated at home so that they did not have to leave the house. And, very social of them, medicine should be handed out from the clinic for free. The MoPH agreed.
In Gardez itself, the security situation turned out to be everything but fine. I got a taste of it already on my first half day there, last Sunday. When I drove into town from the airfield, armed and masked NDS soldiers with bullet-proof vests and helmets were deployed every hundred meters in the bazaar and further on along the street to their HQ, next to the Unama compound. There were threat warnings about suicide bombers looking out for worthwile targets.
In the afternoon, one of them hit. Clad in an explosive vest, he blew himself up in the small bazaar in front of the Special Forces base in town, next to the ANA Southeastern Army Corps, where the US boys buy over-priced Afghan kitsch as souvenirs for the dear ones at home. The toll: six dead (two US soldiers and two uniformed and civilian Afghans each) plus 16 injured.
Around midnight, I was awoken by choppers hovering over the Unama compound. Next morning in the not very busy local mujahedin shura’s office, I heared what that meant: The Special Forces had conducted another of their night-raids, or chapá (snatch), as the Pashtuns call it, just a few hundred meters away and took away one of the shura’s members from his house. While this was confirmed, from here the story related started to differ from meeting to meeting. Only the elder was arrested, said the mujahedin council member. Two Taleban were also caught with him who had spent the night in the house, is another version. One was his son, the other one a visitor, an ordinary man, is the third one. NATO – quoted by the Press Trust of India – claimed that ‘Afghan and coalition forces captured a Haqqani facilitator who is believed to be linked to yesterday’s suicide attack [… and that] the man and two associates were detained at a compound outside Gardez, where an automatic weapon was impounded’ (read the full news item here).
The mujahedin shura member says this was rubbish and that the nightly ballyhoo was unnecessary: The incriminated elder runs a shop in the bazaar downtown and could have been ‘picked up there during day time’ (this was confirmed later by other local observers) instead of dramatically blowing up his compounds door at midnight. Then followed the usual stories about frightened children and barely covered women surprised by the uninvited visitors, of trunks broken open including those with the women’s cloths (which is considered to make the house owner be-izzat, i.e. dishonoured), of stolen money and jewelry. ‘Stolen by the Americans?’ I ask perplexed. ‘Maybe, these were campaign soldiers’, is the reply, referring to the notorious irregular Afghan fighters attached to the Special Forces. But it does not sound very convincing; maybe, Haji Saheb was looking for an answer that would not disappoint me too much.
In the same night, the Special Forces conducted two more raids with altogether nine arrested further west. All three operations happened not outside Gardez, as the NATOI bulletin claimed, but in the capital of the province which is considered to be relatively safe. In fact, local elders and observers confirm that the Taleban indeed are walking around town during the night. The same in Khost, centre of the neighbouring province, where, according to rumours, they even meet in the so-called Haqqani mosque in the centre of town, erected with money by the leader of the Taleban-related network and named after him.
Incidents in the province in general have climbed steeply, up between 50 and 80 per cent from last year. Since summer, their number is higher than in the South. But who knows. Maybe, there is some underreporting involved from the South. Different ‘outlets’ count different kinds of incidents, the US Army, for example, mainly those were its own people are affected and ‘Afghan only’ incidents only sporadically. Incidents involving PSCs are apparently counted by no one – simply because those companies do not report them. Since there are probably more ‘security contractors’ active in the country than all Western forces together, this might mean that the real incident rate could roughly be double than reported. (There are, ‘of course’, no publicly available statistics on this. Already this fact indicates that someone must have a pretty bad conscience and that the data would probably destroy the latest spin about ‘fewer areas under Taliban control’, as distributed during President Obama’s recent visit to Bagram.)
Also the general atmosphere in Gardez and its surrounding districts has become tenser. Long-standing interlocutors are still friendly but do not really want to discuss the insurgency. They are more concerned with how the Americans behave. Everyone I talk to agrees: They are despised by everyone. ‘If you bother a Pashtun’, says one interlocutor who has spent some time in Bagram with a defiant tone, ‘they will not become softer but only harder.’ And a tribal elder who is said to be pro-government adds (in a separate meeting) that ‘they continue like this for thousand years but they will not succeed’.
In Zurmat district, this has to do with the re-arrest of Dr Haji Naim Faruq in May this year. He is a former Harakat (Mansur) and Taleban commander, worked in the Emirate’s Ministry of Defence and was appointed district police chief of Zurmat by interim president Karzai in late 2001. Three months later, he was arrested for alleged Taleban links and sent to Guantanamo where he spent 22 months before being released home (the relatively quick release might indicate that the Americans didn’t have much against him).
Immediately before the latest arrest on 18 May (28 Saur on the Afghan calendar), Dr Faruq, other tribal elders and members of the provincial council had been invited for a meeting with the governor, ironically on reconciliation. On the way back he was picked up by US (or NDS) forces. Whatever, he ended up in Bagram where he still is. His family is in contact with him, after the arrest was initially denied for 25 days according to them. When it was finally confirmed, Zurmat’s population reacted with a three-day strike that closed down the whole bazaar and the schools. Even the governor protested, calling the timing of the arrest – after the reconciliation meeting – unfortunate. Whatever the truth, the gulf between the two main sides involved is overwhelming: While the US forces apparently consider Dr. Faruq as a Taleban facilitator or commander, members of his family and Zurmat elders claim he is innocent. Mutual trust: nil.
The fight for the hearts and minds of Loya Paktia’s people, it seems, has been lost for good. And, maybe, the Americans know that – and have dropped their ‘population-centric’ counter-insurgency strategy because of that…
(*) See more details about Zurmat in my: ‘Loya Paktia’s Insurgency: The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity in the Taliban Universe’, in: Antonio Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, Hurst 2009.
(**) For example, four of the originally ten Zurmat polling centres do not figure on the IEC website’s final result (one each in Batur village and Kotikhel and two out of three PCs in Arma, in the insurgency-ridden Shahikot mountains, an area settled by the Haqqanis’ Dzadran tribe). The votes from all three PCs from Surkai, however, were counted despite the protests of its population. Also, Kulalgo returned (highly improbable) votes. Altogether, 2,982 votes from all over Zurmat were counted, from an estimated population of 93,600 (Afghan Central Statistics Office, 2003) or, if you ask the local tribal elders, 100-150,000.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020