Vetting Haji Zahir

by Joshua Foust on 3/6/2010 · 18 comments

I’ve been on something of a tear lately about Haji Zahir, the man handpicked by General McChrystal and Governor Mangal (but not Hamid Karzai!) to run the newly liberated area of Marjeh now defined by General Nicholson as anywhere between 200 and 400 square kilometers. The reasoning behind this is pretty straightforward: without a firm idea of what you’re trying to govern, you can’t really put into place a realistic plan for how to govern it. I’ve also wondered just how they expect a man who hasn’t seen Helmand for the last fifteen years—surely a period of massive, disruptive change if there ever was one—much less this area of Helmand, could command respect and influence. It seems these concerns were warranted:

But Zahir, who goes by Haji Zahir, arrived at this position after a tumultuous personal history that American and Afghan officials have not publicly disclosed. During more than a decade living in Germany, Zahir, 60, served four years in prison for attempted murder after stabbing his stepson, according to U.S. officials.

Three top U.S. officials in Afghanistan and one senior administration official in Washington confirmed his German conviction, though none would speak on the record. They did not say if the Afghan or U.S. government had known of his criminal conviction before Afghan officials appointed him to his post.

U.S. officials in Afghanistan said Zahir’s criminal conviction did not undermine their confidence in his ability to govern.

Okay… that’s kind of true. He stabbed his stepson after his stepson criticized him for beating his wife. That’s not exactly a disqualifying past for an Afghan elder. What worries me more is how the U.S. apparently knew of this, but chose not to emphasize it, as the Washington Post put it. I’d call it what it is: lying. There’s more:

His criminal record casts a different light on Zahir than the one American officials have chosen to emphasize: that of a respected elder from the Alozai tribe, a landowner who lived in Marja in his youth and who hopes to re-create those peaceful days in areas recently wrested from Taliban control. U.S. Marines and civilian advisers in Marja have given him money and protection in an attempt to persuade a wary population to follow him.

“We want to ensure that Haji Zahir’s face is on everything we do,” said one official who works with him in Marja.

See, that’s the problem. Whenever you bring in an outsider, swaddle him with money and weapons, then he’s going to command power—he’d have to, there’d be no other way for the village/area to operate. But this brings back the problem of Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief: he’s pissed he’s not in charge. Brutal or no, the man has local influence, ties to the local community, and commands a lot of manpower. What we’ve done by installing Haji Zahir is create a power struggle in the area when there wasn’t one before—surely a less-than-optimal solution for restoring “those peaceful days” of Zahir’s youth.

Which brings up one last issue: just how old is Haji Zahir? I guess if he’s in his 40s then he does have an idyllic youth to remember… but Helmand was really bad off during the Soviet War. The years of Taliban rule during the 1990s were actually known for their relative calm—Helmand was sparsely populated enough to where there wasn’t a chance for them to impose the über-harsh police state they did in places like Kabul. The Taliban even invited in aid workers to begin some halting development projects in the area. It only got bad again once the Taliban fell and the area fell back into chaos.

So the pattern here is one where the Taliban have brought relative stability and order (again, however brutal) to this place, and we’ve destroyed that in an effort to build something new. Breaking that pattern is of vital importance, but to do that you need to have a proper plan—simply nominating some expat pet Afghan to roll in and throw benjamins isn’t exactly a solid plan, nor is the current strategy of drawing dots on a map. This doesn’t look especially good.


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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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{ 18 comments }

zmv March 6, 2010 at 10:51 am

just how old is Haji Zahir?
He was 47 years old in 1998, when he was sent to prison, so he is 59—60 y.o. now. He was ~28 y.o. in 1979…

BruceR March 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Um, your first blockquote says the guy’s 60.

Joshua Foust March 7, 2010 at 11:21 am

Ugh. I completely missed that.

Toryalay Shirzay March 6, 2010 at 8:24 pm

We need to wait a year or two to see how Hagi Zahir behaves.It is possible he may have learned a few positive things from his years in Germany;he may not take bribes,he may be less corrupt,may not abuse children,may stop others from taking bribes,all these are possible.Entrenched Afghan officials are always corrupt and immoral like the police chief,Abdul Rahman. The more connections they have ,the more corrupt and hopeless they are.Thus the Afghans need new faces and new ideas and new doings bad,real bad!May be a more benign new faces could help to bury the ugly,dark,abusive,and vicious Afghan culture,maybe.

Schmedlap March 6, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Is there any attempt to utilize the Community Development Councils in the National Solidarity Program as a local governing body – either in Helmand or in other locales?

Julia M March 7, 2010 at 1:44 am

Yes and no: there’s one school of thought that says this is exactly what should be done just about everywhere where the CDCs function, and an opposing school of thought that says doing so would undermine central government authority (ha! what authority! I guess i’ve just betrayed that i’m firmly in the former camp). But i have not heard serious talk of further empowering the CDCs in Helmand, and perhaps i’ve misread the Nad-e Ali Stabilization Plan but it seems the CDCs are not even enablers in the post-Op Moshtarak reconstruction of the area (admittedly this plan is supposed to be IN ADDITION to regular development projects, not a substitute for them, so perhaps that is why the CDCs don’t feature in the Stabilization Plan because they should continue to function normally).

Schmedlap March 7, 2010 at 2:12 am

Does the central government perceive CDC’s as undermining their authority? My impression was that the central government wanted to use the program as a carrot to draw communities into a nationwide system of governance.

Joshua Foust March 7, 2010 at 11:23 am

Despite Julia’s endorsement, there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of CDCs, and whether they are an appropriate choice for building local institutions in contested zones. Even in calm areas, they have a pretty mixed record of success.

They’re no panacea, in other words. They’re also very similar to several other failed or stalling local governance programs – ASOP, for example, so before advocating their use it would probably be good to means-test what we’re advocating.

We need to be careful about the panacea trap. It’s defined our efforts so far.

Schmedlap March 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm

They haven’t been means tested by now? Hasn’t NSP been going on since 2003? I don’t know whether CDC’s are good or bad because I’m not operating in A’Stan, but it seems that the folks on the ground should know by now.

On a side note, does anyone know of any critical reviews of the effectiveness of NSP, in general, or the CDC’s in particular? All that I can find online is glowing, positive reviews. Oddly enough, most of those reviews are written by folks who stand to get more money if the NSP continues to be funded.

Joshua Foust March 7, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I’m not sure where to find it (I can email you a copy if need be), but Jennifer Brick wrote a mild critique of the NSP/CDC programs as a part of her dissertation and it was enough for AREU and some Japanese Development Agency to try to quash it.

Your observation that the people signing its praises are the ones most likely to profit from its expansion is both insightful, and should be hinting that more skepticism of it is needed.

And it’s cute you think programs are means-tested there, even by “people on the ground” (which, by design in the case of CDCs, aren’t western).

Bobby March 8, 2010 at 2:06 pm

In terms of mild critiques of NSP, I think one would look at the marketing of the program. Proponents sell it as being implemented by the Government of Afghanistan (specifically, the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development)– in fact, the process on the ground is led by an “implementing partner” (an international NGO, albeit generally staffed exclusively by Afghans). It is true that an MRRD community organizer attends- and may even lead- the meetings with the CDCs (which, in practice, are themselves usually all or a fragment of an existing shura), but the implementing partner (not MRRD) will be the ones to develop the scope of work, execute the project, disburse the payments, etc.. GIROA is involved, to be sure, and it’s almost certainly building the capacity of the MRRD to independently implement such a program at some point in the future, but they’re not doing it right now, during the current form, which is what the World Bank and the various international NGOs who execute the program would have you believe.

Other issues have been identified with the cost-sharing that the local communities are supposed to be committing to the cause (i.e., that a lot of the in-kind contributions are being inflated) and no one believes that the projects, once completed, have been as sustainable as officials claim– in fact, there are many projects that fail within 3 to 9 months after the project has been completed, chiefly because of operations and maintenance shortcomings.

Of course, it’s all relative and NSP has generally been more successful than the vast majority of USAID or UNDP projects that I see. But it has it’s flaws, as we should expect. Nothing is perfect.

Schmedlap March 15, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Thanks for the tip on the Brick paper. Very well done, in my opinion. I posted it (a link to it) on a bulletin board at SWJ to see if anyone is willing to give any constructive criticism.

Regarding attempts by AREU to quash it – was this in the form of some written rebuttal that I could find online, or was it just a whisper campaign?

Colin Cookman March 15, 2010 at 7:52 pm

I’ll also be giving that one a read, thanks for the tip. Presumbaly those better versed on the CDCs than I have already read this, but I thought this report from AREU (pdf, Feb 2008) was pretty good for describing some of the variations in their implementation across the country and as a general overview of the program, although it doesn’t get as deep into the issues of MRRD/GIRoA versus contractor partners’ roles as the implementers.

Farhad March 7, 2010 at 1:12 am

I agree with Toryalay in that Afghanistan needs fresh faces that haven’t been tainted by corruption.

We have to wait for a few weeks to see if Zahir proves himself as a capable leader.

But he isn’t alone. There is supposed to be a team of mentors/advisers from the US and UK. Who are these people? And what is their background and experience?

No doubt this is an uphill battle in turning around a drug infested farm town into a model community.

I would recommend to gather a small number of talented, smart young men, send them to Kabul give them quality training in the ANA and/or ANP, bring in new crops to farm and finally, you may think it is not necessary, create a town logo/mark that symbolizes the town’s image and gives pride to folks of Marjeh.

M Shannon March 7, 2010 at 8:51 am

“assess their need for aid and gather intelligence…”. this btw is completely improper. ISAF actually isn’t supposed to do “aid”. It does “development” because telling a starving person that you’ll give them a meal if they dime out the Taliban is immoral and puts civilian aid agencies in danger as they would be assumed to be gathering intel.

DE Teodoru March 7, 2010 at 12:23 pm

It is hard to believe tat an exsanguinating America is spewing blood over this guy. What were his family ties with the Russians, for I heard something that I can’t confirm?

Hekmat Sadat March 8, 2010 at 8:25 am

Killing of spouses is a crime that very few Afghan men have been brought to account for since the jihadi days in Afghanistan or Pakistan. There are stories that other Western-trained ministers in Karzai’s cabinet did too. I can discuss this offline if anyone is interested. As far as Hajji Abdul Zahir, let’s hope he does not become like the Hajji Abdul Zahir who was the former Takhar Border Police commander suspected of running a large narco-trafficking ring into Tajikistan.

John March 16, 2010 at 9:06 am

i want to discuss this with you

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