Afghanistan: Portrait of an Occupied Country
by Evan Hill
July 30, 2010
In the days since whistleblower website Wikileaks released
more than 90,000 military reportschronicling the war in
Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009, journalists and commentators
have written extensively about the deteriorating security
situation they describe.
The mass of classified communications has served to
highlight links between the Taliban and Pakistan, the
spreading danger of improvised explosive devices and the
woeful discipline of Afghan security forces.
The flip side of the war effort, the attempt to rebuild a
war torn country, has not caught the headlines.
But thousands of newly released reports on meetings between
NATO and Afghan officials, discussing everything from
village schools to irrigation retaining walls, describe in
day-to-day detail the breadth and depth of NATO's influence
in the country.
The documents show an Afghan decision-making system almost
entirely dependent on foreign reconstruction teams and
military units to set the way forward.
In December 2006, the governor of the northeastern Afghan
province of Parwan approached a NATO military official with
A taxation system viewed as corrupt by NATO that had filled
the coffers of 150 local villages and influential elders was
set to be uprooted, subsumed into a single flow of income
that would head straight to the governor's office and be
subject to only his oversight.
The new plan angered the elders. The governor, presumably
the highest authority in his own province, wanted it
reversed. The officer pointed out that elders and police
officers had been abusing the system to extort vendors to
pay for personal cars and mobile phones.
An Afghan man accompanying the governor warned that there
would be unrest and protests. Another military officer spoke
up: In that case, he said, there won't be a bazaar or money
to argue over at all.
The discussion was over, and more than 100 local power
brokers had lost a major source of income. The decision had
not come from a shura, or even the governor, but from NATO.
On most occasions, provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs)
appeared to defer to and reinforce the authority of local
governors when Afghans raised disputes or made requests.
But the reliability and talent of Afghan officials was
questioned just as often, occasionally prompting NATO
efforts to have them removed.
When a elder from a small farming village of 300 families
made an unannounced visit one December to the Nuristan PRT
to ask for help to prepare for the upcoming winter, the PRT
brushed him off.
They told the man to take his case to the district governor
and that they would give supplies to the governor for
The elder said he doubted that the governor would ever
deliver the goods to the neediest people.
But the report of the meeting downplayed the significance of
the man's request, while admitting ignorance about who in
the community really needed help preparing for winter.
"There has been a steady stream of individuals and groups
coming to the PRT over the last several weeks requesting
[humanitarian assistance]," it states.
"None of the groups or individuals appear to be in dire need
and it is difficult to verify specific needs."
On other occasions, foreign development officers appeared
ready and willing to contravene or work to remove Afghan
officials from power.
In October 2006, the director of economy in the province of
Paktika earned a particularly bad review.
"He has been in the position for one year and has no formal
background in economy, finance or business," one report
says. "He was not able to describe an economical development
plan or a tax plan that is in place and being implemented."
After another fruitless meeting a week later, during which
the PRT took over even the basic responsibility of drafting
a set of economic goals for the province, the Americans
decided on the director's removal.
"His lack of experience in his field continues to be a
problem which will make it nearly impossible for us to
facilitate him developing an economic plan for Paktika," the
report says. "The governor must appoint someone with
experience to head this department."
Sometimes, NATO's decision on how to deal with an Afghan
official could be based on as little as the word of an
In November 2006, the superintendent of prisons in the city
of Gardez, a man named Colonel Fatah, visited the local PRT,
complimented them on the training they were providing, and
then asked for beds, jackets, fuel and vehicles for his men.
"Colonel Fatah's main reason for building a good relation
with the PRT is to attain support," the report of his visit
"If the motive of his request is truly honest, then this
approach is fine. However, information from a PRT
interpreter is that Col Fatah is not to be trusted; they've
heard that he uses items for his own benefit. The PRT should
conduct a site assessment to identify if the requested items
are truly needed."
Even though NATO military and civilian officers may have
attempted to cede power to Afghan officials as often as
possible, Afghan civilians often seemed to treat the PRTs
and foreign military units as the true power in their
In 2005, men of the Nasir tribe then living in Pakistan came
to the Zabul PRT, not the Afghan government, to seek help
returning to land along the border they said had been
granted to them decades before by the Afghan king.
They had left after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in
1979 and had attempted to return after the Taliban fell in
2001, but found the land now occupied by another tribe, the
"They weren't too specific in what they wanted from me, but
they approached us it seemed because the PRT had a certain
level of respect among the people in Zabul," an army
reservist who served as a Zabul civil affairs officer at the
time wrote in an email.
"We kind of acted as honest brokers for a while making sure
that each side was talking to as many people as possible. We
also made it clear that the US army was not in the business
of taking sides in tribal disputes."
The Americans "generally" deferred to Afghan authorities, he
wrote, but the tribal land dispute, with its root in
decades-old Afghan history, was eventually addressed by a
multi-day shura that involved the local governor, the PRT
and a US infantry battalion.
By the time he left the PRT, the civil affairs officer
wrote, the problem had not been totally resolved, and US
forces would later take a more active role again, becoming
"very involved" in setting up the shura.
The only game in town
In the reports obtained by Wikileaks, NATO's power in
Afghanistan upsets the local power brokers as often as it
In December 2006, NATO forces awarded a bridge-building
contract in the village of Pitigal to the local shura. The
provincial governor overruled NATO and picked another man
for the project. He promised to inform the shura, but never
did. Unaware, the shura spent its own money to hire an
engineer to conduct an estimate, survey the site and begin
During a meeting the following January, after the shura
realised they had been shut out of the deal, they told NATO
officials they felt deceived. NATO made no apologies for the
governor's decision and refused to reimburse the shura for
the work it had done.
An attempt by the commanding American captain to "refocus"
the shura on other matters "was met with disinterest," the
For the time being, at least, the Americans had lost the
The shura told the Americans "they have everything that they
need and will not pursue future assistance".
The following January, in the Panjshir province, instead of
misleading the locals about a major project, the area PRT
turned out to be the only organisation capable of carrying
out a major plan to plant fruit tree seeds.
NATO had awarded Panjshir a $500,000 "good performers grant"
for eradicating poppy fields, but representatives from the
ministry of counter-narcotics told the PRT they did not have
vehicles to distribute the seeds, the most significant
aspect of the grant, before the planting season.
The provincial governor told the PRT that his own personal
credibility was on the line. It fell to NATO forces to carry
out a project the coalition itself had funded expressly to
promote the local government.
Strangers in a strange land
The Wikileaks reports also show the difficulties NATO faced
discerning who could be trusted to work with, who among the
local population was "good" or "bad," and whether a line
could even be drawn between the two.
Though officers often lacked a detailed grasp of local
politics, their decisions still shaped the course of events.
In 2006, a PRT in the Paktia province met Colonel Qadam Gul,
the chief of police.
Gul, according to a report of the meeting, had earlier told
contractors that he had signed a non-aggression pact with
the local Taliban.
During the meeting, Gul told the PRT that the Taliban were
laying low, waiting for coalition forces to leave. He
accused another man, a local shura member, of being a
Taliban commander and receiving support from Quetta,
Pakistan, the reputed headquarters of Taliban founder Mullah
"This is a decidedly unusual reference," the report states,
but it does not say whether NATO trusted Gul's information
or acted against the other man.
That same year, in the Nangarhar province, the local PRT met
with the chairman of the provincial shura to respond to
unrest after a man named Zabid Zahir had been arrested.
An officer told the shura chairman, Fazalhadi Muslimyar,
that NATO believed Zahir to be a "bad person".
He told Muslimyar that if the governor and the council
released Zahir, "we will lose all confidence in their claim
that the [Afghan government] can sufficiently take
responsibility for insurgents/criminals".
Muslimyar seemed convinced. He "drew a link" between Zahir
and Zahir's son, who had helped orchestrate a no-confidence
vote against Muslimyar in the shura.
"After the information we provided him about Zahir, he no
longer believes Zahir is a good person," the report states.
"As a result, he fully agreed with what was being done."
The following February, Muslimyar visited the PRT to discuss
a recent controversial nighttime raid by Afghan officers
that had left one man dead and five others arrested.
Muslimyar told the PRT that he would publicly support the
raid if a local Taliban leader was found to be among the
"I asked how they would determine the [Taliban leader's]
true identity and he said by talking to people," the report
states. "This could be an issue."
Working with them
James Foley, a freelance journalist embedded with a US
infantry company in Afghanistan, said that the policy of his
company and the US military seems to favor working with
former mujahidin who maintain connections and influence with
"It's better to work with them or try to co-opt them, than
to try to fight them and the Taliban," he wrote in an email.
In Wardak, the US military is currently trying to nudge a
former mujahidin named Nangali, a man deeply mistrusted by
local Afghan army and police, into a vacant district
governor position, Foley wrote.
The Afghan army suspects that Nangali might have been behind
an explosion in June that killed five soldiers.
At a Jagahtu district security meeting earlier this month
attended by Afghan army, police and US military
representatives, the willingness of NATO forces to back a
powerful fighter in the face of local opposition was on
"A lot of people support Nangali. He has a wide area of
influence and can even talk to those who work with the
Taliban," the company commander said, according to Foley.
"Even if he comes in, can you trust him?" asked an Afghan
"If he's willing to work with the government. It doesn't
mean we can trust him, it may mean he can make it peaceful,"
the commander responded.
Encouraging and bleak
The window on Afghanistan provided by the Wikileaks
documents is limited and reflects NATO's perspective on the
war. As other commentators have noted, the dry, succinct
military reports often do not do justice to the reality of
events on the ground.
Still, the day-to-day communiques provide a previously
unseen glimpse into the thinking of NATO officers thrown
into a hostile environment and given the task of helping
Afghans rebuild a country that has experienced more than 30
years of near- continuous conflict.
The picture is at once encouraging and bleak. Problems seem
intractable, yet many Afghans and NATO officers appear
energetically devoted to improving the situation.
"[Afghans] know that they lost an opportunity after the
Soviets left when reconstruction and development passed by
because of the civil war," the former army reservist and
civil affairs officer wrote.
"They know that if they miss this chance the world will not
be back to help them for at least a generation."
After serving on a PRT in Zabul from 2004 to 2005 and later
in the northeastern province of Kapisa, the former officer
said he is "very concerned" about what will happen when
foreign forces leave Afghanistan.
He believes that Afghans, though able to support themselves
if need be, have developed a "level of dependency" on
"Afghans have lost lots of knowledge over the years of
fighting and in many cases had very primitive agricultural
techniques even before the wars," he wrote. "Many villages
are operating at below subsistence levels in their
agricultural production because of climate change and
While corruption is "everywhere," and Afghans probably
"pulled the wool over my eyes several times," he found
during his time as a PRT officer that he could build trust
"with experience, verification and the establishment of
processes that limit opportunities for trickery".
"If we try to operate only under conditions where we are 100
per cent sure there is no corruption and with people we
[are] 100 per cent sure we can trust, we'll get nothing
done. You can't let the perfect become the enemy of the
Ultimately, the fragmentary Wikileaks reports might say more
about the caprice of living in a war zone, the arbitrary
loss of money, property and life, than about the merits of
counterinsurgency, who is winning or losing, or the grand
strategies of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, the reports seem to show, is a place where the
citizens themselves have lost much of the ability to shape
the events of their own lives.
During one meeting in 2006 between a PRT in the Laghman
province and the local director of refugees, the PRT members
complained that every time they visited a particular area,
the Dawlat Shah district, they were fired upon.
The director claimed the attackers were paid fighters from
"I explained to him that if the villagers continue to allow
the bad guys [to] live in their village we will continue to
rebuild Afghanistan," the report states. "But not not in
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