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Afghanistan the road to Khost

How the wild eastern border region reflects the nation’s struggle

by Executive Editors

The efforts of united states-led coalition forces to secure the wild frontier of afghanistan’s eastern border while winning the hearts and minds of the local population epitomize a larger war that shows little sign of ending. EXECUTIVE traveled to the region and, embedded with u.s. marines, documented the struggle for this rugged land and its people. 

Khost Province is, in many ways, a microcosm of Afghanistan. An active insurgency, fuelled by one of the major infiltration routes from Pakistan,  faces up to a strong coalition and Afghan security presences amid tribal tensions and rivalries, feudal warlords, assassinations and widespread corruption, all set within an inhospitable landscape largely carved from vast and forbidding mountains. It is close to the very roots of Afghanistan’s current war, with some of those who hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001 having been trained in Al Qaeda’s former camps in the province. Of the major issues that plague Afghanistan, the only one not overly prevalent in Khost is the production of opium.

Against this backdrop of conflicting interests and an often-fierce insurgency, the United States and other actors are attempting to drag the backward province somewhere closer to the 21st century. Currently the major effort is to reconstruct the Khost-Gardez (K-G) Pass, which links the capitals of Khost and Paktia Provinces. Low-lying portions of the road had been paved before the Russian invasion in the early 1980s but needed resurfacing, most of which has been accomplished. Sections still awaiting repair run through the treacherous mountain passes that are home to some of Afghanistan’s most wanted and notorious warlords. Although not as famous as the Khyber Pass, the Khost-Gardez, known locally as the Seti Kandow Pass, is nonetheless just as ancient; together they have formed the main routes connecting Kabul to the Indian sub-continent since antiquity. As such, its strategic control has been of importance in countless military campaigns over the course of millennia, a tradition that has carried on into modernity.

The renovation of the pass is due to be completed in October 2011, but the project, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and being built by private contractor Louis Berger, has run into severe logistical difficulties, as well as controversies. Not the least of these have been allegations of massive fraud against the Washington, DC-based contractor, who runs projects throughout Afghanistan and have been accused of systematically over charging the US Government.

The K-G Pass was at one time one of many projects planned in Khost. If these had gone ahead, there would be a new international airport to whisk some 200,000 Khostis back and forth to the United Arab Emirates, where they have found work in the absence of sufficient jobs in the province — this, however, never materialized. In the event of an accident on the pass, you might also have hoped to be taken to the brand new hospital, built with USAID funds, only to be later condemned as structurally unsound by both Afghan and international engineers. New water and electricity grids for Khost city still exist only in blueprint, among other canceled projects, leaving the K-G Pass as the major remaining endeavor of the reconstruction efforts in Khost.

Bringing Khost to commerce and country

The pass is a key project that could help to accomplish several goals. Most obviously there are the commercial gains of improved transport, linking Khost not only to the hub trade city of Gardez, but also by extension to Highway One all the way to Kabul. Once the pass is completed, travel times for the 101 kilometer trip from Khost to Gardez should be cut from somewhere over six hours to well under four, not to mention the immeasurable gains in comfort and safety that the hard paved road should bring.

During the winter it was not unknown for people to freeze to death, caught in their cars under avalanches or in conditions that had become too difficult to navigate. The new road should vastly reduce such incidents and accidents in general. Once the road is paved it will also be harder to place improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are often buried in the existing dirt road.

Beyond these practical benefits, though, is the more subtle and intangible goal of connecting Khost with Kabul and the central government, and thus making it an Afghan city not only in name’s sake but also in identity. Khost city sits only 25 kilometers from the Pakistan border and is linked to its neighbor by roads that are far more navigable than the currently torturous K-G Pass. The currency of trade in Khost is the Pakistani rupee, and since there aren’t sufficient storage facilities in the city there are stories of goods being trucked across the border in the summer and then sold back to Khostis at twice the price during the winter.

“Because of the mountain range just south of Gardez, Khost has traditionally been somewhat more closely tied politically and economically to North Waziristan in Pakistan than to the rest of Afghanistan,” said Richard Broadhead, USAID’s contracting officer’s technical representative on the project. He explained to Executive that the K-G Pass “can be perceived as an umbilical cord to the government, finally making [Khostis] part of the family.”

Currently, many Khostis identify themselves as Waziristanis, feeling more closely connected to Pakistan’s semiautonomous North-Western frontier provinces, than they do to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Irrespective of which side of the border they are on, the Waziri identity is one of strong tribal loyalty rather than national affiliation, which is also true of other tribes in the west of the province.

Paving the way

The fact that both President Hamid Karzai and the American Ambassador William Wood were present at the signing of the contract between USAID and contractor Louis Berger gives some idea of the importance of the project. A total of $145 million has already been spent on the first two sections of the reconstruction through the low-lying lands to either side of the mountain pass itself, and a further $29 million has been requested to complete the remaining work on the 38 km section through the mountains.

Early indications are that the reconstructed K-G Pass is indeed resulting in considerably greater traffic flows. Surveys taken near the Khost and Gardez ends of the route saw traffic increase from an average of 1,500 vehicles per day in October 2007 to 2,250 by May 2010 at the Khost end, and from 1,500 to 1,950 during the same period at the Gardez end. The road had only been paved about 20 km out of each of the cities in May so further increases are expected when the pass has been completely finished. The road will also help to bring harvest to market, an important boon to Khost’s economy with 45 percent of rural households reporting that they derive income from arable agriculture and 36 percent from livestock, according to the United Nation’s World Food Program. Interviews with the road engineers, conducted by USAID, indicate an increase in the number of markets and food stalls along the road, particularly near Khost, and over time USAID expects a significant increase in the number and frequency of farmers using the road to bring their surplus goods to market. Transfer points for local crops to be taken to major market areas once the road is completed will have an even greater impact.

The Haqqani insurgency

The project has entailed USAID’s most challenging road construction to date. On top of the logistical challenges presented by flooding and by having to cut into the mountains to widen the road from one to two lanes, the largest obstacles have been insurgency related. A total of 19 construction workers have been killed and 35 seriously injured from insurgent attacks and a further four are missing after having been kidnapped. In addition, 30 major items of construction equipment and three contractor vehicles have been destroyed. These circumstances contributed directly to the previous Indian-owned sub-contracting company’s resignation and refusal to work the remaining section, which has now been sub-contracted to two Afghan companies.

In spite of these difficulties, Broadhead is confident the project will be finished by October 2011. “There have been delays and cost increases but we have completed 63 beautiful kilometers of highway to international standards and intend to complete the remaining 38 kilometers.” Some locals, however, are more skeptical. Shopkeeper Hamid Ahmadzai, who keeps a stall by the road, said, “If they work like this they won’t finish it in another five years.”

The reason there have been so many deaths among the construction workers is that Khost is a stronghold of the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-allied organization that retains its own identity and command structures while operating from its power base in Miram Shah over the border in Pakistan. As Broadhead explained, “the insurgents do not want the increased government of Afghanistan influence in the province that this road will allow.”

Although “Taliban” is often used as a blanket term for insurgents in Afghanistan, the situation in most areas of the country is more complicated, with a network of shifting allegiances between traditional warlords, crime organizations and the “Taliban with a capital T,” said Lieutenant Doggette, a US army intelligence officer based at Solerno, Khost’s largest military base. “You could say we have a Haqqani Network problem here — not a Taliban problem.”

Haqqani or Taliban, the net result is much the same: a steady stream of IEDs placed along the K-G Pass, regular mortar attacks on the military bases and the occasional direct exchange of fire from assaults along the road. The fighting has been fierce enough that Sergeant First Class James Jones of Bravo troop 1-33 cavalry of the 101st Airborne Division received three Purple Hearts in a two month span, for having sustained injuries in combat.

The view from one of the mountain tops which the US forces regularly patrol helps to explain the magnitude of the K-G Pass task from two perspectives.

Firstly, the engineering feat of repairing, repaving and, in some places, re-routing the pass can be properly appreciated in beholding the sheer scale of the mountains, with the road winding its way round hair-pin bends to its highest point at over 10,000 feet.

On the other side of the mountain is a visible reminder of the very different difficulty of ridding the K-G Pass of insurgent influence. At the top of the valley running parallel to that of the K-G Pass lays the village of Haki Kalay, the birthplace of Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network. It is thought that the insurgents, launching mortar attacks on the aptly named Combat Outpost (COP) Wilderness, simply drive the short distance down the valley to fire their rounds and then return to the safety of Haki Kalay. Haqqani himself wields considerable influence both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he is still said to participate in the Taliban’s shuras (council of leaders) in Quetta, Pakistan. Recently, General Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the Pakistani army, described him as an “asset,” angering both Coalition and Afghan authorities.

Haqqani is more than adept at walking the thin line between enemy and ally. As a Mujahedeen warlord he fought against the Russians before forming an alliance with the Taliban with whom his organization took on other Mujahedin from the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. He was appointed Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs in the Taliban Government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan before becoming governor of Paktia Province as well as the Taliban’s Military Commander from 2001 onwards.

When the Taliban fell, he was courted by Karzai to join the new government under Coalition patronage: an offer he declined. His organization is more power-oriented than ideologically driven, and while the Taliban might seek to re-impose strictly interpreted Sharia Law, the Haqqani network would likely settle for control of Khost and other areas that they view as their territory.

The Haqqani Network’s methods can be brutal. They are believed to have introduced suicide bombings to Afghanistan and are the major suspects of several prominent attacks in recent years in Kabul. With links to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and supposedly to Osama Bin Laden, Haqqani is still an extremely high profile character who could play a significant role in Afghanistan’s future — especially given the overtones of reconciliation between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, which may yet see Haqqani find his way to the “moderates’ table” once the coalition leaves. It is hardly surprising then, with Haqqani’s ancestral home only a stone’s throw from the route of the K-G Pass, that US efforts to exert soft power and win the hearts and minds of the people in nearby villages is a struggle all on its own.

“Hearts and Minds”

One of the main mechanisms through which the coalition attempts to win support for themselves and the central Afghan administration is empowering local government to spread services and protection to the people.

The K-G Pass traverses three local government districts, two of which are long standing. The third, Gerda Seray, was newly created and is of dubious status. It is nominally supported by the provincial governor, who encourages the appointment of district sub-governors to it with the promise of pay from the provincial budget, but has a habit of then leaving them languishing without even a personal salary until they throw in the towel. According to a US military source, the current hopeful, Atiquollah Batori, is the fifth sub-governor to be appointed to the district by Paktia province’s governor without pay since the district was created in 2005. For several weeks nobody has turned up to what should be the regular shura (or meetings of village elders and advisors) at Gerda Seray District Center.

At the latest failed meeting, Batori suggested the elders were too scared to be seen near the district center, but an Afghan Army officer quickly retorted that he’d seen them in the local markets only a few hundred meters away. In response, the Commanding Officer at COP Wilderness, Captain Jarrad Glasenapp, together with his Afghan counterparts, decided that if the elders wouldn’t represent their villages then they would find somebody else who was willing.

Batori’s chief concern, however, was his salary and he issued an ultimatum that if he wasn’t paid soon he would resign. Often, however, local officials actually pay the provincial governors for their positions rather than being paid for their services. The officials then set about recouping this cost by taking a slice of whatever the district has to offer. The more lucrative the potential earnings from the area, the more expensive the position is in the first place.

This practice is just one of the many mechanisms of corruption that are widespread in Afghanistan, as Glasenapp acknowledged: “There’s always at least some skimming from the top and we just have to live with that.”

Although nobody was pointing a finger in this instance, everyone was aware that if the sub-governor can garner some support from the local villages and stay alive, he stands to make substantial profits on the road.

Staying alive, though, may not be so easy. There is a bounty of some $15,000 on Batori’s head, a figure that annoys him, not so much because the insurgents want to kill him, which is a given, but rather because his counterparts in the adjacent districts have been valued at $35,000. The insurgents are hardly playing a game of bluff; the sub-governor of the adjacent Schwak District, Ali Abad, was assassinated in November 2010 in an IED explosion targeting him while en route to his district center.

Later in the day of the non-attended shura, Batori joined a US patrol through one of the villages in his district in an attempt to find somebody who might represent the villagers. The effort was hampered by the fact that so many of the men have left to find work elsewhere and those that remain are too skeptical or scared to come forward, leaving this particular village appearing all but deserted. The patrol eventually found a man who they could talk to, and when asked why none of the men from his village will go to the sub-governor with their problems, he explained that he had heard that Taliban beat up the last villagers who visited the district center.

Transfer of power

Colonel Luong, the US Officer in charge of the battle space in Khost, is a man who spans the gap between American wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam — the former having recently replaced the latter as America’s longest.

His father had been a South Vietnamese Marine who fought the Viet Cong and the young Luong was himself among the last evacuees from the roofs of the US embassy in Vietnam as that war came to its famous end. His speech at a graduation ceremony for newly trained Afghan under-cover police and army agents was everything that you might have expected from a man of his position; encouragement and bombast mixed with patriotic overtones and denigrations of the “cowardly Taliban leaders.” Some 36 graduates took part in the ceremony; they will need every bit of continued training, together with substantial reinforcements and support from traditional Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in order to cope when the US military leaves.

The US and other coalition forces are certainly serious about the training they deliver to the Afghan National Army and the National Police, but it is a hefty task to bring those forces up to scratch before they withdraw. Ultimately, if the ANSF cannot stand up to the threat from insurgents, the temptations of corruption and the bribes of criminals, or worse still should the ethnically diverse army be divided by civil war, then the K-G Pass may only be completed in time to facilitate extortion for criminals and infiltration for insurgents.

“As long as I’m here I’m going to kill as many of these [insurgents] as possible,” said Luong. He concluded his speech to the freshly trained recruits with the words: “Today is an important day for Khost. Today the people of Khost know there is a force in the shadows protecting them; you are that force protecting Khost and the K-G Pass.” As coalition forces know all too well, this will be no small task.

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors represents the voice of the magazine.

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