What To Do
Haji Zalmay, District Chief for Kus Kunar, showed up at our Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) the morning I happened upon Internet reports that insurgents burned a girls school in his district, leaving it in ruins. He had gone to see the Governor about it.
There'd been an attack, Zalmay conceded, but it wasn't as reported. He lamented that a provincial spokesman briefed the press before having all the facts. His constituents felt isolated. Nobody from Jalalabad ever went there.
The sergeant cleared his throat.
"Except you, of course," Zalmay said with a laugh. This was the first we'd met, and already I could see he enjoyed people, foreigners included. His stout build suggested pleasure in other things as well. The PRT had developed relationships with the Governor, the military commander, and other officials at the provincial level. We couldn't say that about the districts.
I asked if he'd like some tea. We were sitting on a rope bed under trees in the interpreters and guards' compound across the alley from ours, and they always had a pot on the fire.
Zalmay made a wiping motion. It meant no thank you. "I drink tea all day," he explained. That got him laughing, and he flashed us a conniving look that had us laughing, too. It was as though we shared a secret that wasn't acknowledged, or even known. Some of what we shared—time, place, and interests—was so obvious it went without saying. Less obviously, each party had limited powers, he by dint of his office, we only in the resources we could call on. If there was more, I couldn't put my finger on it.
The sergeant extracted a couple of bottles from his trouser pockets and set them on the dirt. Mine made three. Potable water, direct from Dubai. "How the wells going?" he asked.
Zalmay helped himself to a bottle. "Almost there," he replied.
The sergeant nodded. "What does that mean?"
"They're finished." The smile never left Zalmay's face.
"How finished?" The sergeant's work in civil affairs had taken him and his team to Kus Kunar last month. Civil affairs had a thing for wells, discrete projects within local contractors' purported abilities. In practice, the contractors completed very few. Lacking drills, they resorted to gasoline-powered contraptions that worked like post-hole diggers. Unscooped dirt got tamped into the previously clean water below.
"You can pay me now," Zalmay joshed, tapping the sergeant on the shoulder. The District Chief moonlighted as a contractor.
The sergeant allowed a smile of his own. "You know I have to see them."
Something else we had in common – the thrill of being here, on the cusp – was secret only in the sense that none of us ever mentioned it or even thought about it.
"We could pass by the school," I noted. The province in which we were based encompassed twenty-one districts, and it was one of four in our area of responsibility. With just two civil affairs teams, some twenty Americans altogether, there weren't enough of us to go around. Had it not been for civil affairs, I wouldn't have gotten around at all.
"Don't want to go there for nothing." The sergeant often sounded serious but in a non-threatening way. He was a Reservist, and others in his unit—his captain, for example—spoke in a similar manner. It was regional. Twangy. But muted.
"You'll see plenty," Zalmay assured him.
"Two birds with one stone," I remarked. Education let girls contribute more fully to their country's future. It opened eyes. No wonder the Taliban kept them at home. Washington liked to point to progress on that score—from almost no female students to more than a million in two years.
Zalmay understood a little English, but neither he nor our interpreter knew two birds and a stone. Once we clarified it, he grabbed my hands in appreciation. "When?" he asked.
"Soon," the sergeant said. He would have to clear it with the captain, who'd have to check with the PRT commander. The commander would check with the Special Forces next door, though they almost never operated north of the Kabul River. He'd also have to run it by headquarters in Bagram. Deconflicting, the military called it.
Zalmay asked if he could take a bottle for the road. He was of the country but from town. Or vice-versa. Either way, he showed the swerve and verve of a man in the middle. Whether coming or going was relevant but unaskable, or rather unanswerable in a way you could bank on. Words here served as snapshots, moments in time and subject to change. Context mattered, as did incentives, disincentives, and connections, the sum being both more and less than the parts. Next time, he promised, he'd stay for tea.
As a provisional PRT and the only one east of Kabul, we were testing the hypothesis that our country could do post-war on the cheap. There'd been studies, of course, but each case was unique and institutional memory was short. As the State Department representative, the PRT's one foreign civilian, I had no defined role. The commander would prefer I continue making the rounds in Jalalabad, capital of Nangrahar Province and largest city in the East. A veritable boomtown. Workshops were turning into factories, shopkeepers into entrepreneurs. The sector growing fastest was the government. That's where we foreigners – including UN and non-profit employees – concentrated our efforts. Jalalabad was seen as an engine of growth, a herald of change. That in itself would be a change. New thinking, or resistance to it, traditionally revealed itself first in the countryside, last in the cities.
The four-man team and I departed in two leased pickups, two Afghan guards in the back of each. Our mini-convoy crossed the bridge over the river north of town. Our interpreter, Hedayat, recommended taking the back road from there. He had come to know Nangrahar in the way he learned English – as a deminer for a British non-profit. When undetected ordnance killed a coworker, Hedayat found another line of work. The hard surface let us drive faster, washboarding like an air-hockey puck over shale and pebbles, than we'd ever gone in this country. Gunmen who might have spotted us wouldn't have time to appreciate the opportunity let alone put an ambush together. We didn't see a soul until we rejoined the main road as it approached Shewa, capital of Kus Kunar. A mound of gravel on the outskirts foreshadowed a UN bulldozer. It was grading the main street, northern terminus of the only active roadwork in the province. The village matched my memory of it – adobe walls, tattered eaves, more flies than customers for the shops.
Granted, many an Afghan village fit that description. What made it stand out, in the old days, was the woodwork. I'd brought a photo of a man holding a red, black, and yellow pot much like one now in my study at home. He used a foot-powered lathe to shape the wood, which he coated with layers of colored waxes he'd scrape to produce a design. A newlywed couple from my Peace Corps group had been assigned to Shewa. That would have been the summer of 1970. They visited the same weekend my future housemates and I checked out Jalalabad, where we'd spend our first year. Hot as blazes and no air conditioning. Not even electricity in Shewa. The couple came back shaking their heads. No way, the husband said; we'd go nuts. I thought he could have handled it; he had an edge. We played on the same flag football team in Kabul, and I was hoping for a companion on the three-hour trip to the games. To the best of my knowledge no volunteer lived north of Jalalabad until I did the last few months of my tour. We didn't bring peace, of course. Afghanistan already had it, in the geopolitical sense, and the Peace Corps pursued less ambitious objectives. Just as the peace did not hold, the wars also ended. The PRT came, in 2003, to hasten the transition.
We headed straight for the district office, a low, unimpressive structure near the Kunar River, and pulled into a sandy, partially-graveled lot with a pickup, SUV, and battered Toyota Corolla parked at random angles and distances from the door. A motorbike and bicycle added to the mix. Two groggy guards came to life. Half life. We identified ourselves, and one of them sauntered inside. An elderly clerk beckoned us to the VIP alcove at the far end of the waiting room. VIP meant overstuffed chairs with a low, wooden table in the center.
The clerk stood with his head cocked as though waiting for an explanation.
For security reasons we never made appointments outside Jalalabad. The sergeant repeated what he said to the guards: "Haji Zalmay."
The clerk dangled his hand as though ringing a bell.
The District Chief soon appeared with his arms out before him. He walked with a broad stride, too energetic for a waddle, and he was far from obese. He just took up space. After hugging each of us, his russet-flecked beard scouring our cheeks, he said he'd take us to the school and the wells if we did him the honor of having lunch with him first.
He left to arrange it, the clerk at his heels.
A less imposing man stepped out of Zalmay's office. Unlike the others, all in Afghan dress, he wore the sport coat and slacks of a bureaucrat. Admin assistant, I guessed. With Hedayat translating, he introduced himself as bodyguard for the governor of Kunar Province. He did seem more agile than your typical aide. Not that he was big. Or conspicuous. To the contrary, you might not notice him in a crowd. After a while you might think: who is this guy? He looked, as the military would say, kinetic. He asked if we were going to Kunar.
He meant the province. You had to go through Kus Kunar to get to it.
"Not this time," I said. Kunar was the only one of the four eastern provinces besides Nangrahar to have foreigners—a U.S. infantry company and a couple of Special Forces teams. So the need was less. Plus our commander didn't want us going north of here. The road attracted trouble, and the hills that kept it near the river left no room for alternates. Even if we caught a helicopter, no telling when we'd get one for the return.
"It's crazy," the bodyguard conceded. He had gone to Jalalabad to see an old mujahideen buddy, now the commanding general of the so-called Eastern Corps, while Kunar's governor was on home leave in San Francisco.
"Is the General involved?" I asked. He was such a Nangrahar guy. "In Kunar?"
"He tried," the bodyguard said with a smile. The man had a gentle voice, like a government mullah. He said the General recently sent Nangrahar's deputy security director to be the new security director for Kunar. The bodyguard had just escorted him back to Jalalabad.
"The man he was going to replace beat him up on arrival."
Few officials began so frankly. "He gets away with that?"
"He hates the Taliban."
"The new guy was Taliban?"
The bodyguard's smile suggested you had to have been there. "The old director wanted to finish the job." He let that sink in. "The good news is there's almost no Taliban left."
"You're joking." I couldn't tell with this guy.
"It's all HIG," he replied. "And al-Qaeda." HIG, rhymes with pig, stood for Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin, a terrorist organization.
"Don't forget the bandits."
"How could I?"
He, the district security chief, the budget director, the clerk, and a passing trader joined us for lunch in the VIP room. Zalmay had arranged for fried fish from the river. It was bony but worth the effort, and it prompted me to describe how in the Pech Valley, in Kunar some thirty years earlier, farmers lured fish with torches and then stunned them with grenades. Still do, all agreed.
The bodyguard said everybody in Kunar hated the Taliban. They hated them as much as they hated the Russians. "Unfortunately," he cracked, "they also hated each other." The previous governor was now in charge of the Frontier Forces. His son was the intelligence chief. His rival was the military commander. The Governor was a nice businessman who had been away too long.
Boys carried in fresh-baked bread, river-cooled Pepsi in large, plastic bottles, and a plate of green onions and radishes. That was followed by melon – sweet, green, and juicy. In the relative silence of our mastication we heard the river's rush.
The meal put us in an expansive mood, and I talked about a family I stayed with in the Pech. The host's son took our team—three Afghans and me—to look at potential projects. Everywhere we went people greeted him wildly, with hugs and cries, as though he were a long-lost traveler. Turned out he had just returned from three years in prison. He had shot his wife and the man he found her with then fled to the border region where neither the Afghan nor Pak governments ventured. So Afghan soldiers arrested his father, saying he would have to serve his son's sentence. When the son heard, he turned himself in and his father was released. The son carried a shotgun, and he insisted on standing guard even when I went to the bathroom in the field. "I have enemies," he explained; "they might shoot you to embarrass me."
That also hasn't changed, everybody agreed.
"Except the border region," Zalmay said. "You can't go by yourself anymore."
"Frontier Forces?" I asked. Once you left the river, started climbing toward Pakistan, it was another world.
He shook his head, smiling.
Another shake of the head.
"Taliban," the captain guessed.
"HIG," Zalmay answered. He said he ought to know. He used to be one.
Kunar the province made Kus Kunar the district seem safe, almost bourgeois, by comparison. The school lay in a pleasant valley, away from the river, hills, and highway. Built of stone, it wasn't exactly in ruins. The fire had been limited to a night watchman's cot and a pile of straw that singed the front door. Armed vandals had broken windows in a few classrooms. I asked about the Governor's response.
"He said what can I do?" Zalmay's eyebrows pressed down in a way that made him squint. "That was the right answer," he insisted. There had been no other incidents.
He knew who led the attack. A local farmer in his mid-twenties had been complaining about male teachers in the school. The watchman identified him as one of three assailants. Married with children, son of the former provincial director of education, the man had not been seen since the attack. Zalmay characterized him as a crank with no connection to terrorism. The government would track down his accomplices—"don't ask how," he warned with a smile and a finger prod—once it had the ringleader in custody.
A few teachers were men, Zalmay acknowledged, because they couldn't recruit enough female teachers. Grades ran from one to ten. Classes had finished for the day by the time we arrived. The headmistress, a female teacher, and elders came to assure us they would continue undeterred. They seemed frail, vulnerable. I think they had never seen an American, let alone a GI.
Foreign non-profits had rehabilitated the school the previous fall, and by its clean condition you could tell that everybody in attendance took pride in it. Participants at a village council convened the day after the attack had to be talked out of burning the suspect's house.
Out of Zalmay's hearing the district security director told me the suspect had ties to the HIG. Its leader was still scheming and plotting from his hideout in Pakistan. Even when we armed him to fight the Russians, we knew he was a problem, but the Paks liked him, and we found it easier to let them do our dirty work.
The captain presented school supplies an American Rotary club had sent—pencils, paper, rulers, notebooks, picture books—and I gave a brief speech about Afghanistan's future resting as much with girls as with boys, noting that the captain, Haji Zalmay, Hedayat, and I all had school-age daughters.
Heads nodded, but the assemblage didn't offer up much more than thanks. Afghans didn't discuss daughters with strangers. And daughters aside, what would they say? Big to start with and in body armor to boot, we might as well have dropped from the moon.
A small, quick-disbursing fund could have paid for the repairs. I kept asking for one, and the military and civilian bureaucracy kept making positive noises. Nothing happened, however. I think the concept was too minor to gain traction.
The cash in my wallet would have covered it. But I told myself principles were at stake: we were doing the government's work; the government should pay for it. And—perhaps like Zalmay, who also could have afforded it—I considered precedent. I mean, where do you stop?
That's where judgment comes in. I wish I had it in real time.
I'd been a teacher, my first year in the Peace Corps, at a school in a village the other side of Jalalabad. Boys only, tenth through twelth grades. Some 250 of them, mid-teens to mid-twenties. It took a while to learn their names.
Teaching could be hard. Progress if any was incremental and, when seen from day to day, infinitesimal. My second year I moved into irrigation. There'd been a drought. Starvation threatened.
With a hole in the ground, at least a person could see what used to be.
* * *
Zalmay's wells ranged from not yet started to almost done. At the first, finished except for a cover, he shrugged and looked to see if we'd relent. The sergeant cited the terms of the contract. Language that rarely varied had made him into what the military called a subject-matter expert.
Zalmay grimaced. He had been in this business before the Governor appointed him District Chief. Every well had its challenges. But he'd do it our way, he said, slapping the sergeant on the shoulder and forcing a grin.
Boys and men who tromped in from the fields stood in awe of his ease with the Americans. He was equally at ease with these sons of the soil, making sure he got credit for corraling us.
I showed him the photograph I'd brought. He'd never seen nor heard of the craft. He passed it to the farmers. They shook their heads. Suddenly his eyes widened; it was a eureka moment. "Two birds and one stone!" he exclaimed. "Hah!" Leaning back for dramatic effect, he pointed at me. "Hah!"
We drove to Shewa's main street, and he circulated the photo until we came across a shopkeeper who said the man in it was his cousin. They had the same narrow eyes and long, thin head. We inspected a wooden mortar and pestle he made a few years back and a candleholder from long ago – all that was left.
Every volunteer I accompanied here bought at least one. Even the couple who said they'd go nuts had a few.
The shopkeeper said his cousin had grown old, and what with the violence and devastation the customers stopped coming. After some discussion I bought the mortar and pestle. The captain paid first price for the candleholder. The shopkeeper said he could make more. He remembered the techniques his cousin had taught him; he still had the tools. Hoping to resurrect a lost art, I invited him to the PRT. The soldiers might want a souvenir or two.
We returned by the main road, smoothed south of Shewa by UN graders but still ungravelled. Dust from a logging truck we caught up with slowed us until it pulled into a lot near a blockhouse in a high, barren valley. The lot was filled with logging trucks, each loaded to capacity. We cruised through for a tally. Fifty going on sixty. A few were idling. Most cabs were empty. Men, some with AKs, stood around smiling. Deal with it, their expressions said. Had we run into this on the way up, we would have raised it with Haji Zalmay.
Not a tree in sight. These logs weren't local. The truckers would have come down the road deemed too dangerous for foreigners, through Shewa, with a cargo whose value far exceeded our meager budget. You had to wonder who was behind this, groups like the HIG or the authorities we aligned ourselves with? Whether Haji Zalmay was outgunned, outmanned, outflanked, bought off, unconcerned, jockeying for position, ordered to butt out, or up to his eyeballs in it, we had no idea.
I'd heard that a hundred trucks made the trip each day, all bound for Pakistan, and that the absentee Governor complained he sent two million dollars in timber taxes to Kabul but got nothing in return. His complaint didn't mention the many million more never reported or that the two million Kabul did collect was for an activity it had ostensibly banned.
The trucks must have kept to the back roads north of the Kabul River because we'd have known if they passed through Jalalabad. Others probably crossed the bridge over the Kunar at the northern end of that province. I remembered, from the Peace Corps, massive logs lining the approach. Felled trees torpedoed down the slopes, shedding branches and bark but solid to the core. I was surprised there were any left to harvest. Nobody replanted.
Farther along we came to a compound the size of a small industrial park. Workers were slapping mud on its high walls to make them higher. Built in the old style, a blue metal gate the only external concession to modernity, it was still under construction. Soon to be the new home, Hedayat said, for Nangrahar's director of security. The man's salary was a pittance, as it was for all officials. Rumors implicated him in the opium trade. Power led to money, money to power, and Nangrahar alone accounted for over one-fourth of the world's opium production. Compared to logs, it was easily concealed except when the poppies bloomed.
The captain asked what I thought about wells.
Small projects like that brought us into competition with the non-profits. A greater problem was the effect new wells had on the water table. You were robbing Peter to pay Paul. The soldiers didn't like to think about that. It seemed no more imminent than global warming. They would be gone by then, and maybe the rains would return.
"Long ways to go for very little show."
He was thinking the same thing.
"Wells don't change the fundamentals," I added.
The captain looked over. "Double down on schools?"
The bulk of PRT funds were already going that way. You could make a case for it. But UNICEF and the non-profits were heavily invested in education. Soldiers had no comparative advantage, especially since buildings and furniture weren't the main impediment. Same with clinics. We could build them, but who would staff them? You could also make a case for agriculture. The economy rested on it. USAID was paying non-profits to clean the irrigation canals. The Afghans didn't need us for that. They had the know-how, and most of the effort was manual. They just had to work together, one village with another.
Okay, easier said than done.
"Roads," I asserted.
"You want to help these guys?" The captain meant the loggers.
"They're already using it. What about everybody else?"
A road was the least likely project to foster dependency and me-too demands for assistance, as the benefits extended beyond any one village. By lowering transport costs—time on trip and wear and tear on the vehicles—it cut costs for anyone taking produce to market or bringing inputs or consumer goods from the other direction. Better roads facilitated commuting to jobs. Parents would be more willing to send their kids, especially girls, to school when the trip was faster, cheaper, and safer. Ditto for a trip to a clinic. A surfaced road made it harder to lay mines. It would reduce our response time and susceptibility to ambush. The donors could cover more ground. Officials would more likely visit. Roads would bring the country together. They were high visibility—available to all and used by many—the "megaprojects" people were clamoring for.
A sign that even Washington thought about these things came in the surprise appearance that evening of the man who headed Peace Corps language training when I was a volunteer. He made it to the States soon after the Soviets invaded, and now he and a colleague had a contract to assess our military's support for reconstruction. The PRT knew none of this until those two—tired, bedraggled, angry, and apprehensive—knocked on our door after dinner. They'd flown to Jalalabad in the mistaken assumption arrangements had been made for the PRT to meet them at the airfield. It took them all day to find us.
He didn't remember me but then we never had much interaction and hundreds of volunteers passed through the program. Besides, the Peace Corps wasn't his only gig. With a Ph.D from the States, he had been a rising star at Kabul University.
Gruff and bitter, he would not be sending in a positive assessment. Not that anything ever came of those reports. In a few months a new one would be commissioned.
Roads had drawbacks, certainly—high cost, maintenance, equipment shortages, time to completion, and illegal loggers. But the PRT soldiers and I were soon in agreement. We got the Governor and his cabinet on board. The UN raised no objections.
Bagram promised money but couldn't say when.
USAID had been touting its Quick Impact Program. Almost there, they assured us. Only a few more boxes to check.
In the meantime we needed to show the Afghans that the new, post-9/11 America wasn't just another superpower. Wells served as a stopgap, earnest for better days ahead. Zalmay's digs made for a good story, as he and the PRT entered into a suspension of disbelief. That, I realize now, was our deepest secret, the one that kept us going.
A few days later the Shewa craftsman pounded on our door, and we let him display his wares on the picnic table inside. The workmanship was poor, prices high, the man unwilling to bargain. Worse, a compoundmate brought in a young trader with pirated DVDs for sale. That got the soldiers' attention. The competition annoyed the craftsman. Still, the captain and one or two others bought a few keepsakes. On alert for presents to take back, I did too. Plus I felt an obligation. But it wasn't true, as the man claimed, that I promised to buy everything. I showed him how the work could be improved and mentioned the UN and non-profit crowd as prospective customers. I offered to put him in touch. Muttering that roadwork had made his trip long, arduous, and expensive, he wrapped the unsold artifacts into a shawl he slung over his shoulder and left in a huff.
The captain looked at me, the old man of the PRT.
"What's the lesson in that?" I countered.
"Raised expectations?" We had been discussing how to get the Afghans to do more.
"Never give up."
He liked that. "For him or for us?"
In college, my introspective period, I decided there were two kinds of fools: those who knew it and those who didn't. Later I perceived two other kinds: those who didn't care and those who did but did nothing about it. My country was above that, Iraq being case in point. As its representatives, we were somewhere in-between. Haji Zalmay, too, as far as that went.
"Everybody," I answered. "Don't you think?"
Lost and Found in the Shewa Bazaar (photo probably by Sgt. W, taken on the author's camera)
A version of this essay appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Consequence Magazine