Warlord for Afghanistan’s “Person of the Year”

by Joshua Foust on 3/20/2008 · 8 comments

Radio Free Afghanistan has named Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar province, “Person of the Year.” They did this why?

Listeners of RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA) voted for Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of the eastern Nangarhar Province, in the first-ever nationwide “Person Of The Year” contest.

The award is given for advancing the cause of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and reconstruction.

Sherzai, a former governor of the Kandahar Province and former adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was credited with establishing the rule of law in the province, keeping the peace, eradicating poppy fields, and building an important highway between the capital Jalalabad and Torkham, on the border with Pakistan.

Huh. That sounds all well and good until you acquaint yourself with the UNODC 2007 survey (pdf) of opium production in Afghanistan and see in the last year, after several years of a steady drop almost to zero, opium cultivation spiked by 285%. That is, Nangarhar went from one of the great success stories in the counternarcotics campaign to one of its most abysmal failures—quite specifically because promises of aid money and crop seed in exchange for “no poppy” went unfulfilled, and the farmers had to feed themselves somehow.

Deforestation in Afghanistan

The rule of law and reconstruction? Not from where we’re standing. Fans of the sadly defunct Afghanistanica will recognize the above satellite imagery from a 2002 UNEP report (pdf) detailing deforestation in Nangarhar, Nuristan, and Kunar since 1977. Not exactly a hotbed of law-following.

Over the past year, too, Nangarhar has seen a relatively high level of violence, with lots of civilians killed in U.S. raids—including the infamous “Marine massacre.” It was at the center of a region—which includes most of the eastern provinces—that saw a 73% increase in violence in 2007.

So I’m not really sure what AFA listeners saw in Sherzai—who used to govern that well-known hotbed of stability, Kandahar, where he actually had such a reputation for chaos, rape, theft, and drug smuggling that the Taliban seemed welcoming in comparison—except maybe that he was just the least bad of the lot. Except for those pesky women’s rights activists, of course. Oh, and that “warlord” in the title? Sherzai just happens to be one of the star players in Ghosts of Alexander’s exploration of the silliness of the term. Naturally, “Gul Agha Sherzai” isn’t even his real name… but who pays attention to that anymore?


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 8 comments }

bob burns March 20, 2008 at 7:20 pm

I been following this guys career for a long time, and I’m a big fan of him

mr.. March 23, 2008 at 1:25 am

lol i m from nangarhar n i have heard alot of bad staff abut gul agha sherzai but he did alot to the city like building roads, park n improvin the city…

overall he got lots of postivie staff n very few negative staffs…

at least his is better then those who don’t do nothin for the people n alwayz think for their pocket!!!

Mohammad March 23, 2008 at 2:08 pm

People must have seen something in him. thats why they voted him.
Lets not discourages those making a U turn from bad to good.

Askar-guraiz March 24, 2008 at 11:44 am

Take this popular story about Ningrahar under Gul Agha:
The former governor of Ningrahar, Haji Din Mohammad, (now the governor of Kabul) decided one day to drive up to Jalalabad. On the way he dozed. (Which you can with the paved road in Tangi) The driver wakes up Haji and tells him they have reached Jalalabad. The first reaction the former governor has is: bullshit, you took the wrong route and drove us to London!

Jalalabad is the new London. And Haji Din Mohammad is decent enough to curse ‘bullshit’ rather than sta-mor au khor-wo-gheyeem…True that’s all bullshit. But it also takes a shameless blind to not notice the change Ningrahar has seen since Gul Agha moved there. There are colorful road pavements in the city—and they mean a lot to Ningrahari’s at least. The palace has seen a significant refurbishing effort managed by Gul Agha’s own construction bulldozers. The road connecting Jalalabad to Torkham is paved, and nicely taken care of with rainbow petrol-pumps in every stone throw distance. Least of all, there is a bandaar (paartttyyy) at the palace every other night where the governor brags about his most gifted skill: writing lyrics for bollywood movies. Most notoriously for Devdas. Add this: Afghanistan’s clown-idol was won by a man from Gul Agha’s province. Ningrahar is a happy place—and believe me that many of those 34 provinces in Afghanistan have every reason to envy it… (Hamesha was there just recently and he is way more fluid in waxing praise at the progress there http://hamesha.wordpress.com/2008/03/03/laar-sha-ningrahar-ta/)

(I am not oblivious to all the is not fair and nice there…but not a time to write on that. And on the whole ‘bad guy’ doing ‘good stuff’ stuff.)

Joshua Foust March 24, 2008 at 1:31 pm

It’s interesting what has emerged in the comments. If this is true (and I freely admit I am crippled in my analysis by a lack of on-the-ground observations, both before and after Sherzai’s appointment), then it is an even bigger story: how a very very bad man has made good. It’s tough to deny Sherzai’s very nasty past—he was among the group of warlords that made Kandahar such a nightmare in 1994 that the Taliban were welcomed, and in the last year there has been a steady deterioration in security and counternarcotics efforts… But if so many of the people are happy with how he’s improved things, then it’s tough to argue otherwise.

Karim Khogyani April 8, 2008 at 3:06 pm

In regards to Gul Agha Sherzai’s success story i would like to say something also. Before Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar was Haji Din Mohammad. He was from a very prominent family unlike Gul Agha Sherzai (Son Of Dog Fighter). Din Mohammad was very successful in influencing the tribal leaders and farmers to stop growing poppy. He was very successful in 2005, poppy cultivation dropped in this eastern province by a stunning 96 percent, largely due to the efforts of a governor Haji Din Mohammad. He then involved the tribal elders — a critical move in ethnic Pashtun society. He asked them to draw up lists of what kind of development projects they would like to see — a ”carrot” to get each community to voluntarily decide not to grow poppies. A man who was that influential, who could carry such a hard campaign, wasn’t offered any assistance by international community, or the central government. What he got in reward was to be transferred to Kabul Province, where Tribal leaders or influential leaders like him get wasted. This was due to the Narco Mafia present in Afghanistan. Gul Agha Sherzai is collecting money from us when our trucks pass through the border, each truck he collects 5000 Afghanis. Imagine how much difference does it bring upon the market place. He collects that under the umbrella of reconstruction of Jalalabad using his nephews and other relatives for building roads. Us business people are not happy with him because it is done illegally. I am also from a Khogyani tribe in Nangarhar, I haven’t heard of this Governor Gul Agha Sherzai visiting our tribesman in our area, but Haji Din Mohammad was alway visiting and in touch with us. Mr. Sherzai is busy with musicians, dancing boys, handsome musician are all around him, parties, bribery, collecting money. Yes I admit he has brought change in the city, but by collecting money from us, and spending not even 1/4 of it back on the province.

Nazim Shenwarai April 8, 2008 at 3:21 pm

People in the city of Jalalabad are happy with him, because in the city the presence of Tribesman is very low in numbers. The people in the cities are usually more into visual work, they are more in to music, dancing, and they would like to adapt changes that are not acceptable to the tribesman. I agree with the gentleman who wrote about the relationship of Sherzai with tribesman. Tribal people are not happy with the current Governor. The former governor was in touch with the tribal elders, the religious scholars, and others. The society in the border areas are built from tribalism. Without their support there will be insecurity in the region. That’s why you see a lot of activity going on in Eastern Provinces, becuz Mr. Sherzai the governor is busy with musicians, dancers and filling his pockets. People need security, people need stability, people need their traditional values to be respected, people need communication between them and the government officials, and unfortunately things look bad in Nangarhar province too because the tribal people are not happy with Gul Agha Sherzai. If the traditional values are not considered, then there is not difference between the International forces right now or the former Soviet Union forces. Revolt will start if more people like Gul Agha kept in the government. ” Son of dog fighter” isn’t nice to label him that way, but I guess he’s.

Haider Khan April 8, 2008 at 6:24 pm

To the comment for Askar-Guraiz: Haji Din Mohammad doesn’t have that kind of character to say or use terms like “bullshit’ , sta-mor au khor-wo-gheyeem”. I have met him personally and I have done a translation for the PRT forces in Jalalabad. I think he’s more knowledgeable about the area than Gul Agha Sherzai. He understands the sensitivities of the area more than Mr. Sherzai because Din Mohammad is from Nangarhar. According to Mr. Askar-Guraiz, Torkhan-Jalalabad road project, it was done by the Pakistanis and it started during Haji Din Mohammad’s time, I dont know if you are trying to promote Gul Agha Sherzai because you might be one of his dancing boys…. Haji Din Mohammad is our elder of our province, and he’s the one of the only former Poltical players who didn’t take part in any civil wars, looting, raping or anything….. He doesn’t have any “Paatuks” check points where Sherzai collects money from drivers. He’s a wise, educated, and nationalist man, unlike Sherzai who is just in to music like you said.

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