A Slice of Life at FOB Kalagush

by Joshua Foust on 11/10/2008 · 2 comments

Parun, Nuristan
Parun, the “capital” of Nuristan province, courtesy flickr user Saleem Nuristani.

Not your typical embed: Andrew Klavan spent a few days with FOB Kalagush. It’s quite well-written: despite the requisite Kipling shout outs (though they make much more sense here, this being the literal setting of a famous Kipling novel and actual biography), he explains well the challenges we face:

This so-called provincial capital was largely a figment of the Afghan government’s imagination. As we carried our packs along the lone mud road, we came upon the “town”: a collection of half-finished ramshackle buildings and wooden huts with idling native workers staring balefully from the porches. Rory, who had a habit of echoing my unspoken showbiz thoughts aloud, muttered to me, “Deadwood,” just as I was thinking, “Tombstone.” …

The main mission was to break ground on a new FOB site. Moving the PRT close to the provincial government would make overseeing new projects much easier. The trouble was, the chosen site was owned by a little nearby village called Pashki. Four months ago, the Pashki elders had agreed to sell the land to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Now, though, they were worried that the U.S. presence would attract attacks from the Taliban.

It’s worth reading in full, even if you have to skip past all the references to how he wants to make it into a screenplay just to give it to those America-hating Hollywood liberals. The point about moving the PRT makes sense in one way: PRT Kalagush is practically in Laghman (see, for example, this BABEAA post), and many of the locals there view themselves as in Laghman. The PRT itself has to airlift itself to Parun to do business with the provincial government, or else suffer through an agonizingly slow two-day trip hundreds of miles out of the way thanks to the steep valleys.

But in another way, moving the PRT doesn’t make a jot of sense.

FOB Kalagush, Afghanistan
FOB Kalagush, courtesy flickr user Hayat Nooristani.

As Klavan so ably put it, calling Parun the capital of anything is more of a wish than a statement of fact. It’s not just true of soldiers, either: in his lecture at Boston University, David Katz, a senior foreign service office attached to FOB Kalagush, mentioned that Parun is not only basically inaccessible from Kalagush it is for all intents and purposes inaccessible to the rest of Nuristan as well. Moving FOB Kalagush from an accessible, if possibly disputed, area to one that is basically inaccessible doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Regardless, Klavan’s article is a wonderful snapshot of the sorts of challenged we face as we push into isolated communities in Afghanistan. And of the many policy challenges facing the government—well, both governments—as they try to build lasting institutions that can eventually contribute to peace.

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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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David November 10, 2008 at 3:03 pm

Klavan’s article prompts me to offer up one of my evergreen Afghanistan rants:

Referring to the administrative centers of Afghanistan’s provinces as ‘capitals’ is misleading and, in its small way both reflects and contributes to confusion about how our efforts aimed at strengthening sub-national governance should proceed.

Afghans never refer to provincial centers as a capital or ‘pai-takht,’ the location of the throne. Only Kabul is the pai-takht. Provincial centers are simply, ‘markaz,’ a generic term for ‘center’ without having any political or sovereignty connotation.

In the U.S., we refer to the seats of governments of our states as capitals but never use that term for centers of administrative units of lesser scale, such as counties or parishes. That’s because in the U.S. federal system the 50 states are semi-sovereign.

The provinces in Afghanistan’s unitary system are only administrative units which have, by and large, been delineated for the administrative convenience and considerations of the central government. And over time the number of provinces has changed with the current number of 34 being of recent vintage.

As we seek in our counter-insurgency strategy to bring the Afghan government closer to the people, one of the main efforts is to build sub-national administrations at the provincial and district levels. We too often regard the walis, governors, at the province and uluswals, district administrators, at the district as officials who have executive power rather than simply being administrators. And we often look to them to do what they lack the legal authority to do.

That’s not to say that there aren’t strong governors and even strong district administrators, but their strength is more often based on the resources they personally bring to the position. Such resources may be the wealth they are able to extract through connections or through having the power to wrest resources illegitimately and also through their personal connections to powerful individuals at the center.

Too often the Coalition expects that walis and uluswals can exercise control over the police or the line ministries when they have no statutory authority to do so. We expect these officials to wield executive control and when they don’t do it then they are charged with being weak or incompetent.

Some steps have been taken (in large measure driven by donors who are confident that they know what is best for the Afghans) to pass to the provinces and to the provincial administration greater power including putting together a budget. For example, in preparation for the presentation of the Afghan National Development Strategy last spring, an exercise was undertaken for each province to devise a provincial development plan (PDP) which would reflect the will of the province to some degree.

The entire PDP exercise, which was touted as a demonstration of bringing the government closer to the people, was carefully stage-managed by Kabul bureaucrats who came to the provinces and in many if not most cases organized and directed the efforts.

While some may quibble the common use by foreigners of the word “capital” instead of “center” is trivial, it is important that outsiders who come in intent on “reconstructing” Afghanistan, have a careful understanding of the nature of the administrative and governance structure with which they are dealing and that they avoid projecting onto the Afghan sub-national administrative units concepts that reflect their understandings and expectations based on living in a federal system where the senior officials of their states or provinces do exert some executive control over their units.

For the Afghans, the desirability of devolving power and executive control away from the center is anything but universally agreed. Some Afghans argue vehemently for devolution, others fear that such devolution will make Afghanistan even more ungovernable. This is a matter that touches on many sensitivities and will ultimately be for the Afghan people to determine, not outsiders.

Joshua Foust November 10, 2008 at 4:10 pm

I think your last point is key, though I also think there’s a danger is spending so much time recognizing the centrality of Afghanistan’s government that we forget to assign appropriate responsibility on the provincial governors and district sub-governors. But I agree that right now it is badly unbalanced.

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