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Back to the Future in Zabul

Ann Marlowe

“The concept of servant leadership is absent here.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Erik Goepner, the Provincial Reconstruction Team commander of Zabul Province, was being tactful.

Since Goepner arrived five weeks ago, the sub governor of Zabul’s Shamalzai District was removed on suspicion of crimes ranging from theft of humanitarian supplies, misuse of police vehicles in drug smuggling, and assault. The sub governor of Naw Bahar District also sold humanitarian supplies in the bazaar. A police officer commanding a highway checkpoint was also removed this month on charges including assault and child rape. (He was spotted in the company of some young boys at the Zabul Provincial police headquarters a few days ago.)

The new Zabul police chief, the fleshy and pompous Asadullah Sherzad, was kicked out of neighboring Helmand Province at the insistence of the British troops there, as part of a clean up of government following the Marja offensive. The chief he replaced was himself removed for corruption. And Zabul’s governor, Mohammad Ashraf Naseri, a highly educated former Kabul University professor, is fighting corruption charges stemming from his previous stint as governor of Baghdis Province.

This sparsely inhabited province sits mostly above 6,000 feet; it’s arid and insecure. Officials struggle to find educated people to fill administrative slots here, never mind educated, honest people. Eight of the ten district governors are illiterate. The dignified Governor Naseri told me there are perhaps 300 educated people in the province of about 300,000 souls. “The Coalition killed two sons of one of our line ministers [for involvement with the insurgency]. But if I remove them, who will replace them? “ As it is, one of Zabul’s eleven districts has no government presence at all.

Recently the UNDP brought in 11 bright young Afghan university grads to advise Zabul’s governor; Goepner calls them the “whiz kids.” Three have already left. They could only travel from the office to their guesthouse and back, and had to request American help to travel by air to Kabul. Their government work would doom them if it were known locally that they were traveling by road.

There is a surreal quality to interviewing government officials who earnestly speak against corruption, even as one mentally reviews their dossiers. I think that trying to work within a system that is rotten all the way from the very top, the Karzai brothers, to the medieval reaches of Shamalzai and Naw Bahar Districts, has a corrosive effect on Americans here. I’ve noticed its symptoms in myself, too. You become cynical about every Afghan official you meet, and something dies inside you every time you smile and shake hands with someone who should be in jail, or, in some cases, dead. Many foreigners I know in Kabul drink too much, exercise too little, and gradually Afghanize into lethargy.

The Afghans, of course, have already Afghanized, and that’s the problem. It’s sauve qui peut here, and servant leadership is maybe a century or two in the future. The best we can hope for now are the kind of Afghan government officials who identify with the interests of the government as though it were another tribe. They will at least protect its property and interests, which roughly speaking means our investment here. And of course some few genuinely care about achieving something here.

In general, Afghans think and say worse of themselves than anything I’ve ever heard a foreigner say. Time and again, I’ve heard them say, “The people of this province/Afghanistan are not good people.” Many would be happy if we took over all the apparatus of the state, from issuing drivers’ licenses and passports to collecting taxes, because Americans don’t ask for bribes. Many others want to kill us – and in a way, for the same reason. When you have a sense of shame about your culture, it’s one way to restore self-respect. Even the presence of Afghans who care about their work and their country is a reproach to those with no pride left.

Lt. Col. Goepner asked me, “Do you know that twelve people have walked on the moon? And all of them are Americans?” His father was an East German who made a dramatic escape to America, and he is smart and earnest and full of confidence that what he calls the “irresistible” nature of Americans will gradually spread to the Afghans we work among here. “People may hate America but they always seem to love Americans.” I very much hope he’s right. But my guess is that among the Afghans who (1) know that men have landed on the moon, and (2) don’t think the moon landings were a hoax, many would think, “How unfair. Those Americans are a rich country and they get to go everywhere! And how cruel of them to remind us.”

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