Sounds of war are not a backdrop. Rockets flew in from Iran but the explosions were too distant for me to hear. No helicopters, no jets, no booms up close or even in the distance. Not a single gunshot this trip, though there have been impressive suicide attacks in recent times. The provincial police chief told me in his office Saturday that he lost (KIA) roughly 80 officers, about 5% of his force, over the past year. That does not include wounded. The chief said the more senior the person the more they are tortured. Younger officers may only be decapitated, but more senior people might be dragged behind a truck through the desert. Despite all that, the people have been welcoming and very friendly. The meager aid programs have returned much gratitude and goodwill.
The question has come up repeatedly here, as it does in other more peaceful areas: “Why does the Coalition spend so much in the dangerous places like Kandahar and Helmand, when you are welcome here?” The Kurdish used to ask this question in northern Iraq. We spent billions on people who blew us up, and mostly ignored those who offered tea.
The answer is more one of strategy than of resources. A paradigm shift might have us investing in the peaceful areas—but with far less bloodshed and a relatively enormous return—and abandoning or scaling back in the dangerous areas. Case in point: After a decade of war, we are still wrestling over what amounts to a handful of troublesome villages near Kandahar City. The untamed Zhari District is thirteen minutes by helicopter from Kandahar Airfield, an international airport that includes a T.G.I.-Friday’s. A line of helium-filled, white observation balloons dots the airscape. At the anchor of every tether is a military base. The white balloons are worth their empty weight in pearls, yet our billions of dollars have so far lifted this area no more than those balloons have lifted the land. It’s not as if Zhari were tucked away along an enemy ratline deep in the forbidden areas of the Hindu Kush. Zhari and neighboring districts are not hidden under triple canopy jungle. The land is flat. Open. Accessible by car, foot, or a pogo stick if you care to hop out there under enemy fire.
We expend huge effort to tame the wild villages while investing scant attention elsewhere. The message is clear. While attending a funeral service for a killed policeman, the governor of Nimruz Province said to me over tea, “Do you want that we should fight you, too?” By contrast, neighboring Helmand Province absorbed substantial Coalition aid and blood. The idea of investing more into our allies and expending less on our enemies is not new. We can strengthen allies with small investments instead of taming the bleeding ulcers with our own blood and hundreds of billions of dollars, which go more into military operations than into nation building.
Recently, I spent ten weeks with the excellent 4-4 Cav squadron (battalion) in Zhari District of Kandahar Province. 4-4 Cav has already taken about 90 casualties. A single one of their armored vehicles, which are regularly destroyed, costs millions of dollars. The squadron clearly is making progress in their area. There is no doubt about it. But a million dollars spent in Zhari will probably bleed $990,000 dollars’ worth of military expense to achieve $10,000 worth of progress, and we will need to spend enormous numbers of millions per year to achieve anything at all. We will need body bags. Meanwhile, a single million spent in Nimruz will return no military expense, no mangled US and Afghan bodies, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in progress, but only if the implementers are working low profile and not tooling around with their own overhead-guzzling security apparatus.
Low-profile, low-cost projects can make a big difference. During 2010 in Nimruz, more than a hundred women were employed as instructors, supervisors and support staff in a program that targeted females. Mr. Bashir Sediqi (Nimruz Provincial Manager for Central Asia Development Group) told me that more than 750 housewives and girls were in a program focused on adult literacy and vocational training, including beautification (hair/face/nails), tailoring, and carpet weaving, which I witnessed in 2010.
The project was funded by USAID and implemented by Central Asia Development Group (CADG). The cost of the project was $139,948 from January to September 2010. If all costs are included, bets are on that a single trip by Marines in their Ospreys to Zaranj will cost multiples of that amount, and little will have been achieved other than some tea time. Using the military for this sort of nation-building is like outfitting the US Postal service with helicopters to deliver postcards. Stamps would cost a thousand dollars and moms would quickly tire of having helicopter hurricanes blowing the kids off their bikes. Likewise, we would not deploy the postal service to hunt Taliban. The military can actually succeed in nation-building, but at tremendous expense while obligating the military for years on end.
The war has reached its military apogee. We are looking for a way to land that doesn’t include crashing. We must face the reality that building Afghanistan to any level of modernity will require a century. The hand that rocks the cradle is illiterate yet thirsty for knowledge. Recently, as Bashir and I drove deep into the Dasht-e-Margo (Desert of Death), we passed through a village on the Helmand River. Two small girls looked at us driving through, and Bashir said, “They are future housewives.” In village after village the people waved and smiled. The children of Nimruz Province need schools. The girls and women desperately need education. The governor, police chief, and many others have welcomed our presence. As we reduce our footprint in Afghanistan, we should consider shifting away from expending efforts in dangerous areas in order to invest in the permissive districts.
When I visited the women’s project last year, a woman pleaded that the effort continue. She sounded as if she had been released from a prison and didn’t want to go back. Now sits a pile of fabric, and the sewing machines were covered with so much dust that you couldn’t see the paint. And there was a basket of dusty scissors. I dumped the scissors in the sun for a photograph, and asked Bashir what became of the women’s program. Was it cut? “Yes, it was cut,” Bashir answered. “It was very sad. It was a great program and the women loved it.”