Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, a semiliterate former warlord, has an autocratic style, a reputation for doling out government contracts to family and friends, and a personal fortune allegedly amassed via corruption and the opium trade…
As the head of one of the country’s most peaceful provinces, Mr. Shirzai has ensured that roads get built, opium poppies are plowed under, and the Taliban are held at bay.
That record in Nangarhar province in the country’s east has made him a serious presidential contender. It has also brought him praise from the U.S., along with a visit last summer from then-Sen. Barack Obama, who the governor likes to joke is a member of his Pashtun tribe, the Barakzais, because of his first name.
Holy. Crap. This is just… well, wrong, in so many ways. Let’s start with the bit about the behavior of opium in Nangarhar. It is, to put it mildly, erratic, and not actually “plowed under.” It’s probably worth noting that the fear he’s used to “discourage” poppy production has also resulted in extreme poverty and widespread reports of farmers selling their own children to pay off debts. This also ignores the curious artifact of declaring Nangarhar “poppy free” just because no one grows poppies there, while opium processing labs and smuggling activities are quite literally everywhere in the province.
As I noted when he was named “Person of the Year” last year, Nangarhar actually hadn’t had a noticeable drop in violence in 2007. A 17% reduction in violence in 2008? Great— at least judging by the constant string of assassinations and IEDs that puts it only a little bit worse off that it was in 2006—fully two years after Sherzai came into power there. The Long War Journal recently crunched the violence numbers, though, and they seem to say that Nangarhar was actually worse off in 2008 than in 2007. Which totally undermines that argument, if it’s true.
When the United States government went shopping last fall for someone to lead an army into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Gul Agha re-emerged as America’s go-to warlord. He had spent seven years in luxurious exile in Pakistan, waiting for a chance to get rid of the black-turbaned Taliban mullahs who’d gotten rid of him. In early November, he slipped into Afghanistan with a ragtag army of 1,500 Afghan fighters and joined up in the border village of Shinarai with a honed unit of a dozen or so American Special Forces soldiers who arrived in helicopters at night. In the days that followed, weapons arrived after dark, too, falling to earth in wood crates shoved from the bellies of American military aircraft. The crates, attached to parachutes, contained Kalashnikov assault rifles, serrated steel bayonets and rocket-propelled grenades, and they were collected outside Shinarai by the Special Forces troops who gave them to Gul Agha…
So in Kandahar, as in the rest of Afghanistan, the Taliban are gone and the warlords are back, and the last time they were in charge the country slipped into a horrid civil war to which the hand-chopping, head-chopping Taliban were the puritanical solution…
That night at the palace, after the tears and the crowd had subsided, I asked Gul Agha why anyone should believe that his new rule will be any less bloody and corrupt than it was the last time, between 1992 and 1994.
”It will never happen again,” he said. ”The people of Afghanistan need to reconstruct their country for the future. We will never do what we did in 1992. All my commanders have promised me on the Holy Koran that they will never do evil again. They will work together.”
It seems Sherzai is at least trying to convey the message that he has. That doesn’t make the weird obsession with him any more logical, however: there remains no indication he believes in the rule of law (something important for a President, especially given Karzai’s disrespect for it—the Journal casually mentions Sherzai enacts a pretty severe and illegal toll on cross-border traffic at Torkham), or anything aside from skimming money off development funds.
Anyway, who the hell knows what is going on. The U.S. is quite understandably desperate to find someone—anyone—who can put an appropriate Afghan face on our grand designs for the country. While the obsession with Sherzai reeks of the “find the right Pashtun” problem (reiterated in the latest ICG report), I could be wrong that trusting this man with the future of Afghanistan is, in fact, an absolutely terrible idea.