The insurgent strategy of targeting rural government officials like woluswals (district governors) is not a new one, and it is gaining importance as the battle for contested areas becomes more acute. District governors cut a sometimes misunderstood figure in this war, as they are often portrayed as either old-times commanders or uninfluential pawns in somebody else’s hands. This is not always the case, of course. While mourning the death of one of them whom he had the honour to know, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini recollects his impression of the hardships and the risks that his working environment involved, and which eventually led him to an untimely death.
Spending most of your time at a desk in Kabul seems to be the best way to monitor what’s happening in the country security-wise, and still being protected from the reality of war. It’s an illusion, though. Suddenly, one of the many pieces of news that flash on your screen during the day gives you a shiver. It’s a place you have been to, where ‘Afghans’ are more than numbers when they become casualties of this or that attack, incident or military operation. You look avidly beyond the headline, check the scanty data available. District governor killed in Mehtarlam – ok, you have the time to think, everybody must pass through Mehtarlam, there’s half a dozen possible candidates for this death. Then you read more details.
This time, sadly, it was the person I feared for. Faridullah, the woluswal (district governor) of Alisheng, was killed on Sunday shortly before noon when his car was hit by a powerful, apparently remote-controlled, IED at the gates of Mehtarlam, the provincial capital of Laghman province. Along with him three policemen lost their lives in the explosion, which completely destroyed their vehicle, a Toyota Corolla. (read a Pajhwok article here).
They were killed almost in view of the city, paradoxically in the very area that still hosts the US PRT complex and should arguably be the safest around. Much to the contrary, recently Mehtarlam seems to be easily infiltrated by insurgent networks in fact, and this is not the first time that the targeted assassination of government officials happens in the very centre of it. On 13 July last the head of the Women Affairs’ Department was killed along with her husband, an IED exploding under their car in a parking lot in the city.
Faridullah was a young man of 28 years of age when I met him exactly one year ago. We had driven our car up to the Alisheng district administrative centre, a small, isolated hilltop building lying a little upstream from the namesake bazaar. Inside the haveli-shaped compound lingered a dozen policemen and civil servants, sheltering in the shade of the trees in the inner courtyard to escape the midday heat. The district governor was sitting at his place, in his office replete with all the paraphernalia that an Afghan government official of his rank is endowed with: a wall map of the country with outdated administrative divisions, a small Afghan flag on his desk, a portrait of President Karzai hanging on the wall, and a jarful of red plastic flowers. Faridullah had been there since 11 months, he told us, appointed soon after coming out of the university in Jalalabad, where he had studied Political Sciences. His fate – until then – had been shared by two of his former fellow classmates from Laghman at Nangrahar University. After graduating together with him, they had become respectively woluswals of Dawlat Shah and of Alingar, and the unusualness of these three young, educated hamsenfi (class mates) having taken over half of the province’s districts was marvelled at in Laghman. He himself hailed from neighbouring Alingar district, where his family lived, and would everyday travel from there to Alisheng and back.
What would have been a longish but normal trip for a commuter in another country – a 50 kilometres drive twice a day – became something of an ordeal in this part of Afghanistan. Not that Alisheng fared so bad compared to other districts of the Eastern region. As Faridullah would have it: ‘my district, Alingar, is more dangerous than here. At least here the insurgents don’t set up illegal checkpoints, and don’t attack the government forces in broad daylight. They mainly come down the mountains at night, to put mines on the road.’ A huge crater in the asphalt a few bends before reaching Alisheng bore testimony to his words. An IED had exploded there a couple of weeks before, and the road had not been repaired yet.
Faridullah lamented the lack of cooperation with the Afghan army (ANA) unit based upstream, near the village of Jamshirabad (where, at least then, was also a US Forward Operating Base). The fact that the ANA never informed him of their operations in time meant that he was not able to assist them with his police forces. Not that he could have worked miracles with those: he had only 52 policemen with him, for a population of several dozens thousands spread over a mountainous area full of rugged and forested side valleys.
The Alisheng valley looked indeed incredibly lush and green even in the middle of the summer. The landscape must have had some positive effect on its inhabitants, or anyway – notwithstanding the harshness of a summer Ramazan day – they did not belie the cheerful and smart character attributed to Laghmanis. All this contributed to direct our conversation, after a while, on topics linked with fun more than politics. It seemed only natural, being of the same age, to talk about favourite swimming spots in the river and future picnics in the forest, and not to remind him of the troubles and the risks he was facing daily, for the modest earnings of a district governor without the means or the will to pocket money illegally.
Then mid-afternoon came, and with it the time to go, for all of us. Farid got up, casually collected his AK-47 hung at the wall beside his desk, quite like a school kid who takes along his umbrella in case of rain, and jumped into our car. As he explained, ‘they know I am about to leave around this time, so it’s good that there is your car today. They don’t know it.’ And so we drove down to Mehtarlam, he sitting with the rifle in his lap, and the police pick-up with his escort following some hundred meters behind as if they didn’t know us. And then, their escort lasted only until the bend in the road before the big village called Islamabad, where they signalled to us and quickly turned back to Alisheng.
Everyday, Faridullah would drive his car from Alingar down to the provincial capital, Mehtarlam. From there, he would sometimes proceed directly to his destination, sometimes leave it there and carry on with another vehicle. Some evenings, in case he could not leave before dark, he would stay in Alisheng. The district police commander, who had merrily joined the meeting believing us Nuristani guests of Faridullah, had told us that on such a night, few weeks before, the insurgents had attacked the woluswali building, but luckily with ‘utterly imprecise aim’. He added laughing: ‘The morning after that old chap, Zabihullah Mujahed, announced to everybody that they had overtaken the district centre and torn the district governor into pieces (tikka-tikka), when here not even a mouse was hurt by their fire!’
That same evening, long after we had left, the woluswali was again pounded with heavy and light arms’ fire from the neighbouring hills.
Since then, the situation has got worse in Laghman, Alisheng included. The somewhat promising start of the transition process in Mehtarlam (see our previous blog here), which in June 2012 extended to all three districts of western Laghman (Alisheng, Dawlat Shah and Badpakh) has turned into a mess, with the insurgents able to expand and entrench their presence in the mountainous areas linking the low-lying Eastern region with the Kabul plateau. In doing this, they have also been able to exploit the departure of the French troops from Kapisa and Sarobi. The only recent government effort seems aimed at establishing – or supporting when they are already there – pro-government, or at least, anti-Taleban militias mainly drawn from among the Hezb-e Islami members once dominant in the province. Alisheng, with a newly established Afghan Local Police unit, was among the areas affected by these developments.
But this has not proved enough yet to stem the rising tide of the insurgents’ operations, or, on the contrary, it has increased their efforts at targeting potential links between the government and the locals. In Alingar, insurgents have been able to man checkpoints on the main road long before dark at least a couple of times since the beginning of August, stalking government officials and employees. Only four days ago, they abducted six ANA soldiers who were travelling to Mehtarlam; two of them escaped but the rest were summarily executed. Governors of isolated or understaffed districts like Faridullah must have had a hard time remaining committed to their jobs in face of the onslaught. Whatever his or his family’s level of commitment to a political group, his position as woluswal of Alisheng was not the best a young and educated man like him could have aspired for.
There are sometimes misconceptions about the identity of individuals inside the Afghan institutions at the district level. The perception of them, especially among foreigners, ranges from that of petty warlords who got in their position and rule by way of sheer military power or political patronage, and that of poor, de-motivated and reluctant figureheads, made paranoid about their movements by the Taleban threats. Such examples may exist, but Faridullah was obviously neither. Ambitious in the rightful sense that he wanted to make something of himself and do something for his country, he was also direct, respectful and handsome in the way we foreigners too often idealise ‘old school’ Afghans, without caring to see what the young are or could become. Afterwards, we stayed occasionally in touch, but never picked up his invitation to go enjoy the charms of his home district, Alingar, though we should have known it’s not good to postpone things in Afghanistan. The relative security of a district can easily be destroyed in a matter of few weeks, the sort of life that a man has negotiated for himself, in the span of few seconds.
When, after we had parted with him in Mehtarlam, I expressed my concerns about his daily ride and the very evident flaws in the security of his routine requirements, our driver, a close friend of him, reassured me: ‘He’s a very brave man. Once, when he was at the university, there was a protest by a thousand students against the lack of services and facilities in the Nangrahar University. The policemen faced the demonstrators with guns in their hands, ordering them to melt away. Then, Farid snatched a gun from the hands of a cop and brandishing it started yelling threats at the rest – his shouts alone had 50 agents running for cover!’
Today, after playing cat and mouse for two years with those unseen faces hovering at the edge of the wooded slopes of the district he was in charge of, Faridullah Niazi met the end of his short, defiant life.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020