What do we have to do to stabilize Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt? After almost eight months as a commander in Zabul Province, Lt. Col. David Oclander of the 82nd Airborne Division has some interesting thoughts.
Oclander and his dedicated team of captains and lieutenants, who “partner” with the Afghan National Security Forces here, spend a disproportionate amount of time just trying to get the Afghan system to work on its own terms, making sure police and army stay honest and the guilty are removed and punished.
But looking beyond this to improving life in Zabul, Oclander sees the solution in the local economy. “We did not understand how to use money as a weapon,” he says of initial American efforts in Afghanistan. In recent months, Oclander has been pushing the Afghan power structure on the idea that the center of gravity in Zabul is the bazaar—not the tribes.
In some of the southern and eastern Afghan provinces, where the insurgency is strong, tribes and elders hold local power. Each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces comprises about 10–12 districts, and these often correspond to tribal territories. But in some provinces, the population is more fragmented. And in some districts, particularly the more urban ones, tribes yield to powerful bazaar merchants.
The two biggest towns in Zabul—the capital city, Qalat, with a population of 20,000, and Shajoy, with twice as many residents—are home to as many as 10 tribes. In Shajoy, there are also said to be seven political parties, aka patronage networks. When security deteriorates, it’s hard for Coalition commanders to know who to hold accountable and who to cut a deal with.
The province’s 300,000-odd people are spread among 1,500 villages, most very small and widely dispersed. But sooner or later almost everyone—well, every male—makes their way to the bazaar. That’s where men come to connect with their fellows, to do the little business that most Zabulis are able to do, and to see some signs of government presence, like the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA).
Oclander’s theory is corroborated by none other than the Taliban, who recently sent night letters forbidding the villagers of Suri District from visiting the bazaar.
Oclander has two plans for strengthening the bazaars. One depends on getting Zabul’s governor, Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, on board. At a mid-April meeting in the district governor’s offices in Shajoy, Oclander announced a plan called the Commerce Support Program, which would pay locals $250 a month to guard bazaars and roads. This is the same starting salary offered to enlisted men by the ANA and ANP. After a year on the job, these locals will receive a $1200 bonus if they either join the ANA or ANP—or start a business.
The Shajoy merchants took to the idea enthusiastically, though it’s more likely that they or their sons would use the bonus for entrepreneurship rather than enlistment. Capt. Jacob White, who commands three platoons of Task Force Fury’s paratroopers at Shajoy, says at the meeting that not one man from Shajoy has joined the ANA or ANP.
Shajoy was in bad shape when I first visited in November. American troops had locked down the bazaar after a series of IEDs and VBIEDs, the last of which killed two American paratroopers. Sand-filled HESCO barriers still ensure that every car passing through is monitored by ANA, ANP, or American troops, and on a few occasions irate locals have tried to burn half-filled HESCOs. But the mood has lightened from the fall, when local shopkeepers complained about the loss of business and the predations of the ANP. At that time, they closed at 4:30 because there were so few customers.
Now most shops are open past dark, some to 8:30 or 9:30 p.m. (The last prayer, at 9 p.m., usually marks the end of the day in rural Afghanistan.) According to Capt. Michael Tumlin, the only businesses in Shajoy that are still experiencing diminished trade are two associated with the insurgency: gas stations and motorcycle repair shops.
Oclander began another financial initiative in January that expands on his paratroopers’ mission of working with the ANA and ANP. This plan ties the police and army to the local population (in Zabul, 90 percent of the police and near 100 percent of the army are from outside the province).
Oclander is using maneuver commanders’ ability to draw Commander’s Emergency Response Project (CERP) funds for local projects:
I can draw up to $50k of CERP funds at a time. I’ve allocated $30k a month to the ANA’s five kandaks [battalions] here and the Qalat police—we just started doing this with the police. Each of the six units gets $5k monthly. Initially the kandaks just chose to use the funds to buy HA—blankets, sandals, rice, beans. They spend it locally, in the bazaars. And the kandak commander engages with elders to see who needs help. Lately we’ve been seeing kandak commanders start to talk about using the money for projects like wells. Some are including the district sub governor in their consultations, which can be dubious because they are very corrupt.
In Afghanistan, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. American commanders like the metaphor of trying to build the airplane while flying it, to which I’d add, “while most of the crew is trying to bring it down.” But Oclander’s idea of using the bazaar as a power base against the insurgency is worth a try, and commanders in other provinces might want to explore similar solutions. Reality in Afghanistan is so granular that we need as many different approaches as we can find.