By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the ’80s, the mujahedeen fought the Soviets on this plain, and throughout the late ’90s the Northern Alliance troops of Ahmed Shah Massoud battled the Taliban, advancing and retreating and advancing again. Many Shamalis fled, but many others joined Massoud. One September, Taliban forces spread out through the villages. They gave everyone 20 minutes to pack. Shamalis left with just the clothes on their backs, the grapes still hanging heavy on the vines. Some escaped. Most were herded onto trucks. The young men were brought to jail in Kabul, the women and children dumped in Jalalabad and the war-shattered suburbs of Kabul. The Taliban burned, bombed and bulldozed nearly every structure on the plain. They leveled the homes and the high brick compound walls surrounding the homes. They burned the vineyards and the orchards. They dynamited the wells. They destroyed even the mosques. The one in Galabanan survived only because the Taliban used it as a base.
In December of 2001, the valley was empty. Today there are people everywhere, living and farming among the ruins. Thousands of refugees have been returning from camps in Pakistan and Iran, Kabul and Panjshir. Boys herd sheep and whip donkeys laden with stones. Men crouch in the dirt along the main road, shoving fistfuls of mud into wooden molds to make bricks. Signs posted by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) everywhere announce reconstruction projects. Most of the vines have been replanted, the wells restored. Unplaned logs poke from the ruins like primitive antennae. Every day new walls climb higher, homes are slowly pieced together.
An older man squatting beside Sandar Agha tells a story. “Ten days ago one man returned from Pakistan. He had buried all his valuables before he left. He returned and saw the destruction, the ruins of his house burying the goods that he had buried. He just died. His heart was broken.”
We talk about the difficulties of surviving here now, about the continuing drought, about how rich this land once was. Sandar Agha points to a tree stump to signify all that has been lost. I ask him if he thinks he’ll ever be able to rebuild completely, to live as he once did.
“If the government is active, and the angels too, we will,” he says, and smiles.
If the Shamali Plain is the most dramatic example of the progress of reconstruction in Afghanistan (and an unstable one at that, still entirely dependent on the whims of angels and international donors), it is far from representative. The roads in Shamali are safe, the villages close to the capital, easily accessible to the dozens of foreign NGOs based there. More remote areas are not nearly so blessed, particularly in the south and east, where almost daily fighting between government and coalition forces and neo-Taliban militias, as well as not-infrequent shootings of foreign aid workers, has meant that aid groups have had to scale back if not abandon their work altogether. U.N. employees are now forbidden from traveling in much of the southeast.
On the record at least, American and Afghan officials alike do their best to minimize the importance of the violence, characterizing the anti-government forces as ragtag extremists capable only of making clumsy and desperate attacks before scurrying across the border to Pakistan. Recent battles involving as many as 1,000 organized opposition troops have made this image more difficult to sustain, and it remains an open secret that much of the southeast has effectively returned to Taliban control.
Beneath the fluorescent lights of the press room at the sprawling U.S. military base at Bagram, behind multiple layers of sandbagged and razor-wired machine gun emplacements, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Lefforge explains American military strategy in southern Afghanistan. He’s a tall, pale man with cold, still eyes, dressed in desert camouflage fatigues, a black nylon holster strapped to his chest. To find and identify the enemy, Lefforge says, coalition troops employ what he calls “a defensive offense,” which amounts, according to his description at least, to patrolling the countryside and waiting for someone to shoot at them. “If you point a weapon at me, you are the enemy. You’re a bad guy. I will shoot you, and I will kill you.”
After a brief, unproductive digression into the treatment of Afghans detained by the U.S. military (“I will not handle any questions pertaining to guests under control”), Lefforge gets back on point: “Our particular mission right now is to assist with the reconstruction,” he says. “Our primary goal is to go out and establish a relationship between the people and the government of Afghanistan, and we will do that either through nonlethal civil affairs operations, or through lethal methods.”
I ask him whether continuing U.S. cooperation with local militias loyal to commanders at odds with the central government doesn’t hurt the reconstruction effort. “Not my area,” he says. Lefforge dismisses neo-Taliban offensives as “an act of desperation . . . They’re like cockroaches. You turn the light on and cockroaches scatter. But we’re taking them out one by one. We’re patient.”
In the weeks after Lefforge and I speak, more than 300 people will be killed in fighting around Afghanistan. Police stations will be attacked by anti-government forces both in central Logar province (a few hours from Kabul and quite far from the Pakistani border) and in Paktika in the southeast — the latter by an organized group of 400 pro-Taliban fighters. In a single day, more than 60 people will be killed in separate incidents around the country — some by a car bomb, some by a bomb in a bus, some in factional fighting between regional militias, others in a skirmish between the Taliban and the Afghan army. Later, a full-scale battle involving repeated U.S. air assaults on as many as 1,000 insurgents will rage for over a week in the southeastern province of Zabul.