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Revisiting Zabul Province, Afghanistan

Ann Marlowe

I’ve been following American efforts to clean up governance in Zabul Province ever since my first embed there last fall. Sparsely populated and dirt-poor, Zabul is thoroughly in the sphere of influence of Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the boss of Kandahar. It’s a good example of why no amount of tactical-level counterinsurgency will succeed in southern Afghanistan without much larger political changes.

On my embed there in the spring with the First Batallion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne, I followed the case of Mohammad Wazir, the district governor of Shamulzai District. In late April, he was finally ejected from his position for egregious corruption by Zabul Governor Mohammed Ashraf Naseri. This had taken great effort on the part of Zabul’s American maneuver commander, Lt. Col. David Oclander, who hoped that Wazir would be prosecuted for offenses including drug smuggling, selling humanitarian aid, and assault. By early June, I’d learned that President Karzai had re-instated Wazir, who is known as a confederate of Ahmad Wali. While I was back in Afghanistan in late August, I learned that Wazir was already governing another Zabul district, Shinkay.

When I e-mailed the news around, one of my officer friends from 1-508 simply e-mailed me, “I quit.” (Black humor only — he’s still in.)

Matthew Green of The Financial Times reported voting irregularities in Zabul — surprise! — quoting two Zabulis who claimed that more female votes were counted than women voted in two districts. In Zabul, I can’t imagine many women being allowed to go to the polls; they’re hardly allowed in the streets. Still, an American officer who was there for the elections e-mailed me on Sept. 22 that there was some good news as well:

The international observers relayed a success story from a Qalat polling station. There was a discrepancy over one ballot, so the election officer called Kabul and let the international observers and the candidates’ observers stay in the room to hear the conversation. Kabul gave its ruling, which everyone heard and then the election rep implemented it. The international observers seemed impressed by the process.

Of course, it’s possible that election officials did the right thing when confronted with what’s known as “retail” voting fraud, while conniving in the “wholesale” fraud that can materially affect results.

I’ll be heading back to Zabul at the end of November, for an embed with the provincial reconstruction team. The new commander, the agreeable, serious Air Force Lt. Col. Andy Veres, was also the commander when I was there last November; he’s part of a new program of area experts who commit to being deployed to Afghanistan over a five year period. This past spring, he learned Pashto in Arlington, Virginia (“very hard!”) and he was training until recently at Camp Atterbury. with another friend from Zabul, Major Derrick Hernandez of the 82nd Airborne.

I’m prepared to be depressed this November since I can’t imagine the political situation in the south will have improved; I just hope it isn’t worse. Andy Veres and his team are good people, but they can’t fight the whole Karzai government.

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