Building the Future: An Unlikely Coalition and a Road in Rural Afghanistan
By: MAJ MIKE HUTCHINSON, U.S. ARMY
A Special Forces operational detachment–alpha (ODA) comprises 12 soldiers with different specialties and roles: leadership, intelligence, weapons, engineering, communications, and medical. In that regard, ODA 3325 was not unlike any other team, but the team I had the good fortune to lead from 2009 to 2012 brought together a notable collection of oddly useful skills. Our intelligence sergeant possessed a degree in geology and a strong mathematical background. Our senior engineer held a degree in molecular biology and had been a local politician prior to joining the Army. Our senior communications sergeant was a professional motocross1 racer whose mechanical and technical skills surpassed those of even the contracted maintenance personnel we encountered. Seven members of the team had completed the Army Ranger School, three had previously served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, and all but I were graduates of the grueling Combat Diver Qualification Course. The team's personality, therefore, was highly aggressive, extroverted, and detail-oriented. Taken at face value, such a personality may seem illsuited to counterinsurgency operations; however, in one place, at one time, it was a perfect fit. Despite numerous mistakes and obstacles, the team persevered toward a grand dream: creating a new economic corridor in restive Paktika Province, Afghanistan.
In light of nine years of war, insurgency, and occupation, it is no wonder that events in Paktika unfolded as they did from 2010 to 2012; everything that happened during our time there was predictable, except perhaps the outcome. If the enemy of progress is isolation, then its best friend must be connection. That is why we were on the rugged southeastern border of Afghanistan trying to build a road.
Shkin: January 2010
Shkin is the evilest place in Afghanistan.
-Colonel Rodney Davis, 20032
As our helicopter swooped downward in ever-shrinking circles toward the landing zone, we surveyed the physical terrain that would frame our problem. Small adobe-and-stone houses punctuated a landscape of hard-scrabble farm plots in the valley. A shuttered bazaar sat visible on the Pakistani border, while a rutted dirt road snaked away westward into the snow-topped mountains of Paktika Province in southeastern Afghanistan. We saw neither pedestrian nor vehicle traffic; this was a land of isolation and deprivation, hardly worth a fight, and yet it had witnessed some of the nine-year conflict's most violent confrontations.
Upon arrival, we met the infamous Commander Aziz. His battlefield record in the region was long and distinguished—perhaps as long as the list of third-hand criminal accusations leveled at him by journalists in Kabul. He was stocky, with a thick, black beard, and sported a pressed set of modified fatigues in a black-and-green-tiger-stripe pattern. He wore a crisp, clean baseball cap with new Oakley sunglasses perched on the brim. To say that Aziz—called Karwan, or "Commander," by his soldiers and close allies—despised the Taliban is a gross understatement. He described in detail the predations of foreign fighters, his imprisonment in the 1990s, and his near assassination in 2006. He outlined the enemy disposition surrounding Shkin, from indirect-fire positions to infiltration routes. Aziz saw himself as the gatekeeper. He protected the only "good" tribes of Paktika—those immediately surrounding his base—with a laser focus commensurate with his responsibilities. In his eyes, however, those responsibilities ended at the borders of Barmal District, in which the informal district of Shkin was located. Through this limited perceptual lens, which essentially extended no further than the range of his aftermarket rifle optics, there was nothing beyond Shkin but the enemy, and his fellow Afghans were derelict in their duty to fight.
On the third day, we prepared to participate as partners in the first of what would eventually be several hundred shuras.3 Mohammad Azzam sat nervously in the briefing room with us. Azzam was the district governor of Shkin, and since Shkin was not recognized by the central government in Kabul, neither was he.4 Aziz outlined for us the talking points for the meeting: reporting procedures for the discovery of IEDs, theft of the Ahmadzai Waziri tribe's commercial trucks by the Kharoti tribesmen in the village cluster of Rabat, and a religious appeal for Afghan patriotism. Azzam's role, as usual, would be as the religious foil to Aziz's iron fist. When I finally was able to speak, I asked Aziz, "What should I say?" "Nothing," he replied. "Not this time. I will introduce you, but that is all. Until you see the area and hear how the people argue, and see how the Pakistanis keep the fire burning, you might say the wrong thing."
We walked through the main gate and over to the shura building, which was a simple plywood structure with a sand-filled blast wall on its east side to protect against rocket fragmentation. The wall had done its job; pockmarked from shrapnel and beginning to split at its seams, the barrier ensured that the building would collapse from extensive rot and a leaky roof rather than from explosions. The scene, in fact, provided a perfect allegory for Aziz's protection of eastern Paktika Province. Aziz entered first, followed by Azzam, with me and my best interpreter in trail. We were the last to arrive, as is customary in these meetings. On the border, he with the most guns and money is most honored, and the simple tribes of Shkin were no match for our firepower and deep pockets. Our thrones were therefore the most intact of the plastic lawn chairs arrayed around the room.
Following the mullah's opening prayer, the script began. Sher Nawaz stood first to speak, which was his right as the leader of the most powerful tribe, the Ahmadzai Waziri. He was followed by the Banzai Kharoti leader, Mir Afzal. Azzam punctuated the series of monologues with a tirade regarding the un-Islamic practices of the Taliban in a forceful, authoritative tone that seemed completely contradictory to his previously timid demeanor. It was as though he spent the course of each week hoarding his energy for a two-minute burst of emotion. I sat silently behind Aziz as my interpreter whispered the main points of this political theater. No debatable observations or inflammatory statements emerged. It was no wonder the previous Special Forces team had praised the functioning local governance of Shkin: despite its rustic trappings, the shura might have been televised on C-SPAN.5
Before Aziz could conclude the meeting, however, a younger man stood up, pointed his finger at the Kharoti elders, and began to shout. A disgruntled murmur passed through the assembly, as I turned to my interpreter with a quizzical look. "That is Daria Khan, a Langikhel Kharoti from the town of Rabat," he stated. "He used to work for Aziz, but now he is just a thief and a troublemaker. He is probably the one who stole the Waziri trucks."
"What's he saying?" I asked in a clear tone, as the roar of the argument began to rise. "He says the elders in Rabat are all Talibs that pay money to Chamtu, a very bad guy. He wants to raise a force to fight the Talibs and says Aziz and the other Kharoti leaders need to support him." Aziz deftly defused the tension, adjourned the meeting, and led our contingent out of the building. My curiosity was piqued; addressing Aziz by his title, I said, "Tell me about Rabat, Karwan."
"Money as a Weapon System": 17 March 2010
A large, laminated map of eastern Paktika hung from a piece of ¾-inch plywood in the briefing room. Aziz's military map-reading skills were adequate to visually depict for us Rabat's internal and external tribal conflicts, as well as its attractiveness as an insurgent facilitation hub and piracy mecca. Five clans were spread across a confluence of intermittent streams that together formed a small but permanent river. Over about the past decade, as the snowpack from the mountains melted in April, Rabat had been experiencing increasingly destructive annual flash floods that eroded the villagers' best plots of land. As the arable land shifted, so did the balance of power among the five tribes, and by 2010, things had reached a critical juncture. The Issakhel and Langikhel were now competing for the orchards, as the Abbaskhel slowly encroached on grazing land from the north. To the east, the neighboring Othmanzai Waziri tribe maintained a shaky truce with the Kharoti in Rabat; the slightest provocation could ignite a tribal war.6
Aziz traced the crumbling dirt road from the border at Shkin, northwest through Tora Tangay, on to Rabat, and then jabbed his finger forcefully on a narrow pass north of the town.
"This is Spedar. It is the worst of places. Many ambushes—one of the 7th Group engineers was killed there a few years ago. Every time I go there, it is a fight."
"Why is it so important?" I asked. "There are other routes around further in the mountains."
"Those routes are hard to drive. The trucks might break. If the trucks break, the Talibs will mine all the ways out, and it will cost us."
Having seen the incredible ability of an Afghan to drive a low-riding Honda Civic over the roughest of passes, I wondered aloud whether the road's condition similarly affected the large "jingle" trucks, which carried commercial supplies.
"It is possible, just like for us," Aziz acknowledged. "But if they break, it is expensive in time and money. That's why they pay the toll in Spedar."
This toll went not only to the Taliban and Chamtu, the local Taliban leader whose name had come up in the shura. As Chamtu's group left Rabat and moved on to other camps and ambush sites, the tribesmen of Rabat essentially took turns extorting any through-traffic. Aziz stated plainly that it was their best means of making money.
"When can we go to Rabat?" I asked him. "The team needs to see it firsthand."
Aziz quickly replied, "We can go tomorrow. We will summon the maliks, the leaders of each clan, when we arrive. You will see how they act."7
The drive to Rabat, though only 15 kilometers from Shkin, took more than two hours. To call the route at that time a "road" is an insult to civil engineers worldwide. As we emerged from the mountains and descended toward the cluster of clan villages that composed the town, the area appeared from a distance to be a dustbowl. Once we had dismounted our vehicles and proceeded on foot along the flanks of the convoy, however, we walked through the most lush greenery and orchards we had seen so far in the region. This land was indeed worth fighting over. We entered the Rabat bazaar, a shanty town of closed mud huts, by way of a circuitous path that revealed a defaced and abandoned elementary school. Numerous crumbling masonry culverts and dams dotted the route. Our interpreter noted our surprise at the engineering attempt and informed us, "CARE International put them here when the Taliban was in charge. But they are hollow like this place now."
We entered the lone teahouse situated beside the lone auto shop, which was adjacent to the lone pharmacy. Even the mosque seemed decrepit. The maliks of Rabat slowly arrived, and our interpreter provided me with a hushed biography of each as he entered. "That is Malik Asgrar. He is the biggest Talib supporter here. Malik Bengal is an okay guy, but he is afraid," and so on. When Malik Abdul entered the room, all rose, including Aziz. Apparently, Abdul was the man upon whom the sentiment of the town turned. He led the Langikhel clan, whose superior agricultural land provided them with a relative degree of power over their similar-sized neighbors. The Langikhel and Issakhel maintained a non-violent but increasingly tense dispute regarding ownership of the productive orchards on the southern side of Rabat's central stream. Both clans were similarly suspicious of the northern Abbaskhel clan's intentions vis-à-vis grazing rights. All clans agreed that their eastern neighbors, the Othmanzai Waziri, provided the primary threat to Rabat's land and water. Consequently, the clans viewed the local Taliban group as a necessary evil; it maintained the status quo by denying both Othmanzai encroachment and political power plays by any single clan in Rabat. The Taliban, for their part, adeptly manipulated each clan to aggrandize their own political power and ensure that their fighters had access to food, shelter, information, and protection. I shook Malik Abdul's hand in the ritual manner, and as he proceeded to his seat beside Aziz, the invocation by the mullah began.
We discussed Chamtu and his Taliban operatives, the theft of Waziri trucks, the extortion of commercial traffic—all the sins of Rabat's clans. Malik Asgrar countered each point as it was raised, and Aziz's patience began to falter.
"Security is my responsibility. If you do not side with the government and stop supporting the Talibs, I will be back, and it will not be for tea," Aziz warned the room. Asgrar sat silently this time, with a determined glare.
"What are we to do?" asked Malik Abdul. "It is fine to say the government supports us, but who will get here first? This matter is not about supporting the Taliban; it is about our survival. Even if we stand, we will be weakened, and when we are weakened, the Othmanzai will come. Perhaps they will come with the Ahmadzai as well. The Banzai are safe by your base, but there are no bases here."
As we left the teahouse and the elders dispersed toward their respective villages, I saw Daria Khan. "What can we do to change things here? What will convince the elders?" I asked him. Without hesitation, he responded, "Kill Chamtu."
In our operations center in Shkin, the team debated what was to be done. Spring had not yet arrived, and we had used the winter months to visit the majority of the region's communities, which spanned five districts and approximately 644 square kilometers. Every place we went, we witnessed the same passive acceptance of poverty and the psychological control that fear of the Taliban exerted. Abandoned bazaars, crumbling infrastructure, and failing crops throughout the valleys provided a visual context for this hopelessness. Most families reluctantly sent at least one son to join the Taliban ranks, while also sending a son to the government security forces; this was both to hedge their bets for the uncertain aftermath of the coalition forces' withdrawal and to glean what little income they could from all available sources.
When we'd arrived in-country in January, we had expected to continue the previous ODAs' strategy in Shkin: strengthen control of the border. This approach matched Aziz's perception of the security situation, the desire of the supportive Shkin tribes, and even the doctrine put forward by the Army's field manual on counterinsurgency. In 2010, however, a mission called Village Stability Operations (VSO), which was a grassroots effort to connect rural areas to the central government in Kabul through their respective district administrations, was en vogue. Under this construct, our team would need to find a strategically relevant community that actively desired to resist the Taliban. We would live in their village and mentor their security and local governance efforts, while delivering small-scale sustainable development projects to reward participation and slowly rebuild civil society. Given the political shift in our headquarters to support this nascent mission, and the debate in Kabul over the proposed Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, we knew we would soon receive a change of mission.
As we scribbled notes and graphics on a six-foot-square map of the region, and glanced at hydro-topographical maps and graphics of population density, a subliminal outline emerged from the optical illusion of our military map. I drew the boundaries of a corridor running from Karachi, Pakistan, to the Ring Road highway in Ghazni, explaining: "This is where the people are, and this is where the chance for profit is. From the port at Karachi, north by rail to South Waziristan, then by road to Kabul and Kandahar, and it all cuts right through here."
Greg, our intelligence sergeant, chimed in, feverishly drawing circles on the map. "There's a lot of potential, but we'll have hard sells in Rabat and Surobi just to reach the hub in Orgun. And even if we convince Rabat, we'll have to secure Spedar before we can do anything else." He continued by highlighting the points of political pressure we could use to sway Rabat. Rob, the team's engineer-cumresident politician, noted that political maneuvering could produce verbal and written commitment, but behavioral commitment was a step further. "They need to believe that the profit will come, and they need to believe it'll stay after we leave. We can't just secure the corridor; we need to pave it. At that point, they'll be so invested they'll have to fight for it." Other team members noted that in the Money as a Weapon System–Afghanistan (MAAWS–A) directive, as well as our discussions with development organizations and the Provincial Reconstruction Team, no appetite for road paving existed.8
Greg retorted, "ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and the Asian Development Bank already started paving the road from Sharana [the provincial capital] to Orgun, but had to stop when the Talibs took control of Sar Hawza. I know that a contract for the stretch from Orgun to Rabat was on the table before the development staffs decided to get out of the road-building business. A stretch from Rabat to Shkin would naturally tie into the road-paving project from Wana to Shkin that's already underway. If we secure the corridor and the Afghans clearly rise up against the Talibs, and in return all that the people want is the road, ISAF will have no choice but to finish the road paving they started in Sharana. If we build it, they will come."
I sat quietly for a moment, considering what the team had proposed, and then gave my assessment. "We'll never sell this to the tribes in our words. We need Afghans to sell it for us. To convince them, we'll need to inspire them. We'll tell them they're going to create a new Torkham Gate,9 without Kabul, without ISAF. They'll build it, and they'll own it. MAAWS–A is for dollars. This profit will be in rupees." In other words, if the locals secured the corridor, they would make money regardless of the pending U.S. withdrawal of troops—and contract dollars—from Afghanistan. The most aggressive member of the team (which is quite an honorific, given his peers in the circle) stated the final point of the strategy plainly. "I love your theory, but these people respect strength. That's why they respect the Talibs. Tell me where we get to fight someone to inspire the buy-in for the grand plan." All eyes turned to a tiny point on the map to the northwest: Spedar.
Picking a Fight: 29 April 2010
Aziz's assertions that every trip through the Spedar Pass resulted in a fight were not entirely accurate; when dismounted forces cleared the high ground that flanked the road prior to convoy arrival, the trip involved nothing beyond discovered IEDs. If we were to provoke an engagement, we needed to appear vulnerable. Our convoy therefore consisted of only six lightly armored Humvees carrying 40 personnel—12 Americans and 28 of Aziz's men—at the height of the midday sun, and we ceded the dominant high ground to the enemy. We also took pains to ensure that, shortly after our departure, the Taliban's information network confirmed that our final destination was Orgun, which would require traveling through the pass. This allowed the enemy enough time to gather forces, but not enough to prepare and emplace complex explosive devices. Our firepower on these six vehicles would still outmatch what the enemy could realistically muster, but by allowing the Taliban access to the best ground and secure withdrawal routes, we knew they would fight. To further ensure a clash, we publicly reiterated our standing rule—one that endured throughout our two years in Paktika: so long as IEDs and mines were not used against us, we would not use air power or artillery.
Aziz dispatched two of his most adept mine-spotters, dressed in full Taliban garb, through the pass on local motorcycles a half hour before our arrival. Our vehicles moved as quickly as the narrow, pitted road that climbed into the mountains north of Rabat would allow, with the result that intermittent bursts of speed were bracketed by slow crawls over eroded water crossings. The Taliban historically preferred to fight at the northern end of the pass, where the tall, craggy peaks provided a thick covering of cypress forest and commanding views of the road and the Orgun valley. Sure enough, as we rounded the final left turn into this traditional kill zone, the ambush we had been expecting began with a sustained burst of PKM machine gun fire. Only our first four vehicles could fit within the kill zone, and the rocky terrain prevented mounted off-road maneuver, so our two trail vehicles were effectively neutralized at the outset of the fight. Gunners in the lead vehicles returned fire with heavy weapons, while the remainder of the force dismounted and began a volley of rifle fire. Bullets pierced the thin turret armor of the Humvees as we emplaced our 60-millimeter mortar. The first round from this weapon, aimed directly at the enemy position less than 200 meters away, silenced the din. The trail vehicles' dismounted personnel had organized a squad to flank the western high ground and started up the hill; by the time they completed the tiring ascent, the Talibs had retreated toward their stronghold in Hybati, carrying their equipment and casualties. Chamtu, as we found out, was unharmed. We nevertheless did not immediately attempt to pursue the Talibs. Our ultimate goal, then and throughout our time in the province, was to cultivate the perception of government strength at the expense of the Taliban, and we had achieved this. Controlling perceptions is more decisive than controlling physical terrain, and infinitely more important than attempts to kill the enemy.
We continued to the large base at Orgun, approximately 32 kilometers north of the pass, and received the infantry battalion commander's blessing to focus our tribal engagement efforts in Rabat. Successfully convincing the clans to secure the mountainous stretch from the Bermel Valley in the east through the Spedar Pass to the north would facilitate ground resupply of the commander's isolated bases near the Pakistani border, as well as enable his holistic governance and development objectives for eastern Paktika. He welcomed the ODA's participation in the group's meetings, which provided an avenue to advance our concepts regarding the economic development that would follow security in the corridor. Once our scheme became a part of the Battlespace Owner's larger plan, it would be difficult for our headquarters to disapprove the concept. We drove south toward Rabat, proceeding cautiously through Spedar without incident. As I surveyed the high ground, I considered how many points would require fixed fortifications to hold the road; it would be a daunting task of construction, if the political gambit even worked.
We met again with the maliks, and Aziz pressured them for support. "Why are you afraid of Chamtu? We beat him easily, and you have hundreds more men," he demanded.
"You beat him this time, but he is still alive, and now he is surely angry," replied Malik Bengal. "If he thinks we support you, he will come at night to our houses, not fight us in the pass." Clearly, a comparison of available firepower would not sway them. I whispered in Aziz's ear, "Tell them about your plan."
Aziz nodded, continued with his normal line of discussion, and once clear of the perception that I had influenced his words, he channeled his inner Socrates:"Malik Abdul, how many Jingle trucks come through here each week?"
"Maybe a dozen, sometimes more."
"But a hundred reach the bazaar in Orgun each week, and this is the shortest route from Wana." "True, but the route from Gomal is smoother, so they can make up the time."
The series of questions continued until the seed was planted. If the route through Rabat were secure and free of tolls, and the road were in good condition, more trucks would come. The truckers would prefer to stop in Rabat rather than in Surobi. An influx of trucks and weary travelers required more shops, service stations, and even hotels. Malik Abdul's expression betrayed his agreement, although his words remained resolute: Rabat would not side against Chamtu.
We left the meeting, and as we approached the southeastern turn toward Shkin, Aziz's ICOM radio crackled. A Taliban assassination cell had attempted to reach the house of Sher Nawaz, but not to fear, Aziz reassured us: the Ahmadzai had trapped them and killed them all. The route through the Bermel wadi to the east was faster than the one we were on, although much less secure, and after we turned onto it, our vehicles raced through the tree-lined washout to meet the Ahmadzai tribesmen. When we arrived, a group of Aziz's men from Shkin, sporting the proper policeman's rubber gloves, was already there snapping photographs for evidence. The inventory of seized equipment suggested that this was a highly sophisticated team of killers. Their car's rear axle sagged under the weight of a variety of specialized breaching charges, anti-personnel mines, handheld GPS devices, and an amount of small arms and ammunition that would have made the Irish Republican Army proud. Aziz took the four bodies to the Barmal District center for repatriation or burial, after which we returned to Shkin. As I sat in the operations center that evening writing my daily report, I knew that a crystal ball was not necessary to see our future; in short order, we would be re-missioned as a VSO team. Our headquarters would expect us to ally with the Ahmadzai, but in our minds, the tribe was merely the foothold—we needed another shura in Shkin, and we needed Rabat's maliks to be there.
Rabat's Changing Allegiance: 5 May 2010
The preparation for the shura between Shkin and Rabat was intensive: we held several preliminary meetings with the Shkin elders, collectively and individually. Azzam jotted copious notes and eventually produced a draft agreement that codified Rabat's unequivocal support to the Afghan government. The maliks of Rabat would no doubt resist; so long as Chamtu lived, they would prefer the status quo to the risky venture of siding with the government. It was Aziz's idea to produce formal, written agreements signed and sealed with a thumbprint. He explained to us that through the pressure of cultural norms, these agreements would deny the signatories the ability to provide financial or material support to the insurgency. Signed documents would not change private attitudes, but their existence would provide a framework free of meddling from resistant elders, which would make it possible to recruit the young people into a local defense force. Pending approval of the ALP decree, these chalwesti—the Pashtun traditional defense force—could make the transition into a legitimate security force under the Ministry of the Interior.
Every Shkin elder memorized his role in the script and his key talking points in preparation for facing the maliks in the upcoming shura. Some elders would appear nervous concerning Rabat's intentions toward the Gol Kot watershed on the border with the Othmanzai and worry that if Rabat failed to give full support to the government, a tribal war was inevitable. The veiled threat of a tribal war with Ahmadzai support against Rabat was, after all, the maliks' worst-case scenario. Other elders would use self-fulfilling prophecies of Rabat's inevitable commitment to the government to show solidarity with their Banzai Kharoti kinsmen in Shkin. The most vocal group would use Islamic principles to denounce Chamtu and his group, suggesting that the Taliban-allied maliks were religiously flawed and therefore a legitimate target. Sher Nawaz, with his college-educated wisdom and eloquence, would mediate the discussion, providing a moderating force so as not to threaten the maliks too far. We were confident that, given enough collective pressure, the maliks' only remaining argument would be a lack of defensive fortifications in the community. We began coordinating for the materials and heavy equipment required to construct these defensive positions. We would build it, and they would come.
When the shura adjourned after less than two hours, the tribes' and team's combined preparations appeared to have worked: the maliks of Rabat emerged from Azzam's office looking stunned. The nervous group, under Aziz's escort, returned north to the village and sent word to Chamtu. It read simply, "You cannot come to Rabat. We have an agreement with the government. We have no choice." Several days later, we received word that a delegation from Chamtu had indeed arrived and sat with the elders, where the message was reiterated. That night, several rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) struck the wall of Malik Abdul's house. No one was hurt; Daria Khan arrived with a dozen heavily armed men to stand guard until dawn. Rabat was committed, lbeit reluctantly. The onus was now on my team to find Chamtu.
A Lucky Turn: 8 June 2010
For two weeks, we neglected our normal routines, shuras, and patrols. Chamtu was the only goal. Aziz and the ODA team repositioned to Orgun to shorten our response time to Rabat. We received additional resources from our chain of command to aid in the search, but after two weeks, we still had not found our "white whale."10 Chamtu's group attacked the Surobi district center with mortar fire, prompting another patrol. Aziz was clearly frustrated, as were the members of the team.
"I'm not feeling well today," Aziz told me as our patrol made ready to go out. "My deputy, Faqir, will lead the patrol."
This news further demoralized the team, because Faqir lacked Aziz's competence and leadership skills, and had a volatile personality. All I could answer was "Alright, Aziz, we'll tell you what we find." We intended to head south along the western edge of the Orgun valley with a convoy of eight Humvees and 45 personnel, along the foothills of the rugged mountains that divide east and west Paktika. At Zama, we would turn southeast toward the Surobi district center, meeting with locals in the bazaar and with the district governor to gain information regarding Chamtu's whereabouts. Faqir nodded absentmindedly as we briefed the route and talking points for each meeting. His clear lack of comprehension, coupled with his subsequent abrasive barking of commands, did not bode well for the patrol's prospects. We drove through the lush greenery lining Orgun's southern approach with little hope of a productive day.
In short order, Faqir took a wrong turn, and we found ourselves drifting aimlessly through ominous mountain passes in the Taliban stronghold of Charbaran. Our attempts to guide Faqir back to the valley were unavailing, but finally our interpreter passed him the message, "Turn east at the next pass and keep going." He obliged, and we found ourselves cresting the mountains through a dense alpine forest. As we descended, we were relieved that, if nothing else, we were heading in the right direction. The forest continued to thin; my Humvee was third in line as we reached the tree line. I heard an excited shout from my gunner. My eyes shifted to the left, tracing the turn of his turret, and widened as I met the return gaze of Chamtu's entire force, comfortably encamped perhaps 75 meters away. No orders were given; our convoy wheeled left and accelerated.
The rapid thump of heavy machine guns and the staccato racket of every light weapon was punctuated by intermittent explosions from our grenade launcher and enemy RPG-7s as our vehicles jostled over the uneven terrain. The shocked Talibs retreated in the only direction they could—into the open valley—and when the skirmish ended, 23 of them lay dead. With no additional enemy fire from the mountains, it seemed clear that none had escaped the assault. The fight was over almost before it began, and as we secured our final position, our intelligence sergeant frantically moved from body to body with a picture of Chamtu. "I think this is him, guys… I think we got him," he finally called out. We gathered in a circle to look upon the white whale—there was little doubt in our minds that this was indeed Chamtu. What doubt remained was cast aside as the reports confirming our assumption flowed in to Aziz from villagers across Surobi District: "Chamtu is dead. They're all dead."
Several days after the fight, we returned to Rabat with equipment and supplies to begin work on the town's fort, and were welcomed as heroes.11 The men of the future ALP unit, emboldened by the patrol's success, were standing in formation, ready to participate in the defense of their community. Working alongside Aziz and his soldiers, the once-contentious tribes erected their unified fort within three days. The maliks were overjoyed; freed from Chamtu's influence, they began to believe that an economic revival was possible. As one elder later stated after the Rabat defense force became a full-fledged ALP unit, "Before there were ALP on this road, there were thieves. Now we have ALP, the bad guys are gone, and there is security on the roads. They're solving a bigger problem, not just a small problem."12 As the team drove away again toward Shkin, we spied a newly raised Afghan flag fluttering in the breeze on the highest peak above the town.
Catastrophic Success: 5 August 2010
Word spread rapidly of Chamtu's death, as well as of Aziz's decisive victory two days later in an arranged fight against the Taliban stronghold of Pirkowti, about 32 kilometers north of Rabat.13 Seventeen tribes from Orgun to Surobi quickly signed agreements to support the Afghan government. My thoughts were initially preoccupied by self-satisfaction, but that was short-lived. Frankly, I was not prepared for the effort needed to expand our activities into these newly wonover areas so rapidly. Aziz's original zone of responsibility around Shkin had encompassed roughly 10 square kilometers. The addition of Rabat had extended his bubble to 50 square kilometers, and with the new tribal signatories, we now found ourselves duty-bound to defend over 600 square kilometers and over 100,000 people. We did not possess enough equipment and material to build any additional community fortifications, or to supply local defense forces with radio communication. I thought hopefully of the impending approval of the ALP decree, which promised to outfit our irregulars once they were properly trained and vetted by the Ministry of the Interior. Still, even if a signed decree materialized, no supplies had yet been procured; we had no means to supply, support, and mentor so many local police formations, especially over such distances.
The Taliban, though weakened and off-balance, responded. A shopkeeper in the Surobi bazaar found the severed head of the most prominent elder of the Adikhel Kharoti tribe, a new and staunch supporter of VSO, sitting in the road. The killing sent shock waves through the Shkin-to-Orgun corridor. I had failed to adequately plan for our best-case scenario, and it very nearly ended the expansion of the corridor at Rabat. To complicate matters, our deployment was drawing to a close, and most of our equipment had already been packed and sent to Bagram. At that point, we were capable of little more than shuras and token patrols. Luckily, Aziz's skill as a mediator held the fragile alliance together. Winter was coming, and our team was forecast to return in six months. The new team that arrived to replace us would later incorporate the Shkin and Rabat chalwesti into the nascent ALP program. I briefed our long-term plan, and left simple guidance: "Don't lose ground."
Entering the Next Phase: Spring 2011
ODA 3325 returned to Paktika Province in March 2011. This temporal and physical separation from the problem had allowed us to generate and validate creative solutions to solidify the gains of 2010. To fortify the corridor, we designed a relatively cheap but persistent program to furnish each district governor with a suite of rented heavy equipment, including flatbed trucks to move it. With this equipment, the governors were able to demonstrate a new level of responsiveness to local needs and grievances by digging culverts and trenches, grading pitted roads, and building earthen barriers to delimit land dispute resolutions. Just as importantly, when the equipment was not being used for these purposes, it was available to rapidly erect village fortifications. Our headquarters and supportive ISAF brethren provided a seemingly endless supply of reinforced barriers, plywood, and beams. By June 2011, over 400 ALP recruits defended 14 posts that secured the 60-kilometer stretch from Shkin to Orgun. The traffic began to flow, and as we predicted, the bazaars began to grow. Paving eventually resumed, connecting Orgun to Rabat with a ribbon of shimmering asphalt and stone bridges. Travel time diminished from two hours to 30 minutes. A later contract through the Asian Development Bank promised to pave the tortuous route from Rabat to Shkin as well.
Our political and administrative burdens mounted, however, as the effort to secure the corridor expanded. In the beginning, talk of the enemy dominated the shuras. Now, Aziz found himself mediating tribal disputes, assisting in the parking and sewage management of Orgun, and periodically answering summons to Kabul to speak with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. My team was stretched thin supporting the ALP against periodic attacks while still expanding the fortification of the corridor. Two additional communities located about 19 kilometers to the north of Orgun had petitioned to participate in the ALP, which brought our influence to the edge of the Zadran tribe in Zerok District. VSO had moved far beyond the village concept in eastern Paktika, and signs of stress began to appear. In some communities, elders exercised their authority under the VSO construct to replace ALP leadership, in direct defiance of Aziz. Taliban supporters forwarded fabricated tales of ALP extortion to Kabul. The ODA team was simply overworked, and I was oblivious to their concerns; the road was all I saw anymore. As they relayed the sorry state of our vehicles and infrastructure, I would begin talking about potential expansion in Gayan District or Zerok District. Naively, perhaps, I told myself that with a concerted effort, we could quickly secure the final district remaining to link the corridor to Ghazni and the Ring Road: Sar Hawza.
The Edge of Influence: July 2011
Sar Hawza District was affectionately referred to as "the Taliban headquarters" by the citizens of Orgun. Some commercial traffic braved the route to the provincial capital of Sharana, but the burnt-out hulks of dozens of vehicles that lined the road testified to the truth of its lawless reputation. In particular, a sharp bend in the road, which Americans referred to as "Gulruddin" due to the inaccurate label on our military maps, was notorious as a convenient location for the extortion and execution of civilians, as well as for pitched ambushes on military convoys. The Afghans had a different name for this final hurdle on the road: Shwaykamar.
Shwaykamar held a special form of psychological control over the population. Beaten dirt roads and several cuts led north to Marzak village, and then over the mountains to Naka District, the birthplace of the Haqqani family and the notorious Haqqani crime network.14 Marzak was the Taliban's rear area during Operation Anaconda in 2002 and had never truly been wrested from their control.15 From this base of operations, large groups of Taliban fighters projected at will a mere seven kilometers southeast into the Shwaykamar area. Few families in Orgun lacked a victim of beheading, and they all refused to drive west without military escort. As a result, no matter what progress our original corridor might make, without control of this terrain to the east, our stronghold of Paktika would remain, essentially, an island unto itself.
The Last Domino
The team's original plan had envisioned reaching this point after 36 months of slow and steady expansion. Now, after a mere 16 months, from our latest village fortification on the hill above Shatowray village in Sar Hawza District, we found ourselves surveying the next move—the last move to open the road to Kabul. This push, however, would be different: no village existed from which to recruit ALP, and both the Sulaimankhel tribes and Hassankhel Kharoti clans populating the area were decidedly hostile to VSO. We also found that Aziz's cult of personality had little sway across Sar Hawza. We had encountered obstacles from competing power brokers in the past; the Othmanzai of northern Bermel and the Pirkowti tribe had both successfully denied our political and military maneuvers. However, these tribal areas were easily isolated and bypassed as the corridor crept northwest. We could not bypass Shwaykamar, and so we could not bypass the influence of Mullah Yaquob.
Yaquob was short and unimposing, and was missing his right arm below the elbow. He, like most of his generation, had fought the Russians in the 1980s, and done so very effectively. The veteran mujahedeen commanders who led the siege of Orgun and the defense of the Khost-Gardez Highway through the Sata- Kandow Pass (1985–86) had returned home to the Sar Hawza and Zerok Districts following the conflict. Their fame and influence still eclipsed the rising star of Commander Aziz, and he did not like to be reminded of this fact. Each shura with Yaquob and his followers followed the same bad script: We exchanged greetings and pleasantries, extolled the value of the ALP program, and when that inevitably failed, reiterated the veiled threat of direct action against Marzak and Shwaykamar. The tribes were unimpressed; they knew, as we did, that without tribal support, we would have to convince the Afghan National Army (ANA) or Afghan National Police (ANP) from Sharana to come in and secure the point. We would probably have better luck convincing the Taliban's Mullah Omar to provide constables than these suspicious tribesmen.
We first approached the ANA brigade commander to discuss options. Provincial governor Mohibullah Samim, perhaps our greatest political supporter, went so far as to order the commander to man a post if we built it for them. The political and economic reality of his brigade's operations, however, would never allow such an action. The ANA units in Orgun and Sharana were adequate garrison troops and enjoyed a degree of popular respect. They also received some fringe financial benefits due to their proximity to the profitable businesses in the bazaars. Given the relative comfort and status of their routines, commanders were reluctant to risk open confrontations in the Taliban's territory, especially if failure meant loss of prestige and position. The Afghan chain of command understood the political balancing act required to maintain officer morale; as a result, a common response to an undesired request for support was to forward the request to a higher rung in the chain of command, where the proposal was inevitably denied. In this manner, the ANA brigade commander, skilled in the political tactics of delay, avoided committing troops to Shwaykamar. Governor Samim persisted in his efforts, but we were impatient, as well as uncertain that we could overcome the institutional top-cover of the Ministry of Defense. Aziz therefore turned to another strong supporter, in words if not in deeds, for help manning the outpost: Paktika provincial chief of police Daulat Khan.
Daulat Khan was a thin, jovial man, always dressed in a pressed uniform adorned with as many badges as the bazaar could provide. His office was littered with parting gifts from American military advisors, and the walls were covered with pictures of him speaking at the most fashionable gatherings. He was not, however, a particularly ambitious man. Daulat did not desire promotion, but rather coveted a strong reputation in the province of his birth. He had provided Aziz with an increasing amount of administrative and logistical support as our effort expanded, and was more than happy to claim his share of credit for its success as a result. Aziz would, through this self-interested patriot, find the forces required to seize Shwaykamar from the Talibs.
With the agreement to man the proposed outpost settled between Aziz and Khan, we began to consolidate a massive amount of construction material and the entirety of the region's leased heavy equipment. This operation would unfold during the month of Ramadan, which provided its own set of limitations and complications. Nonetheless, the effort proceeded. On 20 August 2011, the advance guard of this enormous column of trucks and equipment, spearheaded by a platoon of Aziz's men with ODA advisors, arrived in Shwaykamar and secured key terrain. Several hours later, a combat train of more than 50 vehicles began to arrive. Bulldozers and excavators slid down the ramps and set to work on the first task: cutting a road up the mountain. Within three days, the fortification was complete, and we prepared the defense in anticipation of Daulat Khan's arrival. Each night, the Talibs probed the position by firing inaccurate volleys of RPGs. We began to wonder whether Daulat Khan would honor the agreement, but on the fourth day, 40 ANP arrived to man their posts. The probing attacks quickly ceased.
Aziz watched the men arrive and take their places, then unexpectedly jumped on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and sped toward the town of Sharana, as my ATV and two Humvees raced to keep pace and ensure he arrived safely. When he reached the bustling Sharana bazaar, Aziz rode in a wide circle, announcing on his megaphone, "Shwaykamar is taken! The road is open!" Additional riders were dispatched to the Orgun bazaar to proclaim the news. With the final fortification manned and functioning, one third of the ODA remained to provide support while the rest of us returned to Orgun to refit the column and plan the next iteration of VSO expansion. We arrived in Orgun on 24 August, and on the morning of 26 August decided to purchase food from the bazaar to break the Ramadan fast with Aziz and his men. The scene that unfolded four days later was unimaginable.
Eid al-Fitr, the holiest of Islam's holy days, marks the end of Ramadan; in 2011, Eid fell on 30 August. Traditionally in Orgun, families reassemble from across the country, flooding the bazaar with revelers and music. The music had fallen silent in 2006, when the Taliban regained control of Shwaykamar and effectively isolated Orgun natives working in Kabul and beyond from their families. With the road now open for the first time in five years, we found that the bazaar, despite its significant expansion over the past several months, was woefully unprepared for the mass of the diaspora's return. The streets bulged with arriving Hilux trucks and taxicabs ferrying hundreds and thousands of the previously displaced back to their ancestral home. On the night of Eid, we broke the fast in Aziz's dining room, then drove toward the bazaar with our escorts. The music, cheering, and ceaseless snapping of celebratory rifle fire grew louder as we approached. The throng became too dense for our Land Cruiser to transit, so we paused and sat on the roof and the hood, watching the surreal scene in amazement. I turned to Paizullah, my perpetual bodyguard when I was walking among the people, and shook his hand as he smiled at the sight.
Paizullah was killed the following month as we expanded into Sar Hawza. I like to think that in that moment in the bazaar, his smile reflected the underlying lesson I carry from Paktika. Aziz and I had made so many mistakes in the last 17 months, and these mistakes were not without significant cost in resources and human suffering. The gains we had made remained fragile and reversible. But at least now, the villagers had seen what was possible; they saw for themselves that their hopelessness was unfounded, and that a motivated group of people can achieve what was previously accepted as impossible. Given enough motivation, there is no such thing as a no-win scenario.
About the Author(s): MAJ Michael Hutchinson is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer now studying at the Naval Postgraduate School.
1. Motocross is a type of motorcycle racing that typically takes place on dirt-track courses with obstacles such as jumps and berms.
2. Tim Mcgirk, "Battle in ‘the Evilest Place,'" Time, 27 October 2003: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,526466,00.html
3. Shuras are traditional meetings of the communal and religious leadership to make decisions for the community.
4. Shkin is a community that lies at the southern tip of Barmal District on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and is officially
recognized as a part of Barmal District. Due to intertribal feuds and an increasingly strong alliance with Aziz and his base at Shkin, however, the local tribes decided that Shkin should be its own district. These tribes first forwarded the proposal to the central government in Kabul in 2008, but to the author's best knowledge, it is still an unofficial district with an unofficial governor.
5. A television channel in the United States devoted to the live broadcasting of government hearings.
6. Rabat is composed of five Adikhel Kharoti clans with a total estimated population of 10,000. Each clan is roughly similar in
size, although the agricultural quality of their land and access to water determines the relative power structure between them. The Langikhel clan is most powerful, followed by the Abbaskhel, the Issakhel, the Ibrahimkhel, and the Adikhel (not to be confused with the Adikhel sub-tribe, to which each clan belongs). Each clan occupies roughly three square kilometers of land that is generally delta-shaped; one point of each triangle converges on the Rabat Lgad stream near the town's bazaar, while in the hills beyond the outer edge of each triangle is the clan's grazing area.
7. In Rabat, unlike the other communities of the region, the clan leader is called the malik (or "king," in Arabic). Without
the support of the maliks, it is difficult to achieve anything of substance in Afghanistan. And while it is possible to undercut the influence of one tribal leader in favor of another or a preferred a coalition of leaders we used this approach only as a last resort. We had to take such a tack, for example, in Sar Hawza.
8. United States Forces–Afghanistan, Money as a Weapon System—Afghanistan: Commander's Emergency Relief Program (CERP) SOP, USFOR–A Pub 1-06 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Forces– Afghanistan, December 2009): http://www.usma.edu/cnrcd/siteassets/sitepages/government%20publications/maaws-a,%20usfor-a%20cerp%20sop%20(dec%2009).pdf
9. The Torkham Gate is the primary entry point for commercial traffic into Nangarhar Province and eastern Afghanistan.
10. This is a reference to the white sperm whale that is hunted throughout the famous American novel Moby-Dick; or, The White
Whale, by Herman Melville (1851).
11. Yaroslav Trofimov, "U.S. Enlists New Afghan Village Forces," Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2010: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704103904575336933258787038
12. Lizette Hart, "Connecting Islands: ALP Brings Villages Together," DVIDS, 23 December 2011: http://www.dvidshub.net/
13. For a detailed account of this action, see Linda Robinson, One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).
14. See Lars W. Lilleby, "The Haqqani Network: Pursuing Feuds under the Guise of Jihad?," CTX 3, no. 4 (November 2013): https://globalecco.org/the-haqqani-network-pursuing-feuds-under-the-guise-of-jihad
15. For a detailed account of Operation Anaconda, see Imre Porkoláb, "When the Goldfish Meets the Anaconda: A Modern Fable on Unconventional Leadership," CTX 3, no. 3 (August 2013): https://globalecco.org/when-the-goldfish-meets-