Conflict & Justice

An Afghan government offensive

Karim Jahn is the get-tough governor of one of Kandahar Province's most violent districts, called Zhari. He's taken a no-tolerance approach toward those he thinks support the Taliban.

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A dozen Afghan men sat in the gravel outside the district governor's office on a recent night, their hands zip-tied behind their back. The Afghan police detained them as part of Karim Jahn's weekly �roundups� in the governor's hometown, called Sanjaray.

Often, the roundups come after a security incident � like grenades being tossed at US troops. Karim Jahn's been known to personally drag men away by their clothes, or their beards.

Most are innocent but he said the mass arrests are necessary, �We don't know who the good guys are and who are the bad guys. So we are just arresting all of them and taking them to the district center. There, we investigate them. The guys who are good, we release them, but the bad guys, we keep them and send them to Kandahar or Kabul.�

Asked if this tactic risks alienating some of the very people he's trying to win over, Karim Jahn said he has a simple way of telling the good from the bad.

�The innocent people support the government,� Jahn said. �The guys who get angry with us when we arrest them, we know that they are Taliban, and supporting Taliban.�

With an influx of additional US troops into the area, security has improved in Sanjaray. But it is an exception in the district. Until last month, the Taliban governed a lot more territory in Zhari than Karim Jahn did.

This October, American troops pushed into the Taliban strongholds in the area. The US military now occupies large parts of Zhari the Taliban once dominated.

�It took a lot of effort to secure the area,� said Major Jerry Nunziato.

Nunziato is the civil-military operations officer for the American combat brigade in Zhari.

�Now that we have it, it's that transition of getting the governance, and getting the governor, the physical representation of it, into these areas to let the people know, it's just not about fighting. That's done. We've pushed out. we're now securing you. and here's the deliverance of the stability, the governance. Here's the way ahead; let's come to table and start talking.�

The US military is flying and driving District Governor Karim Jahn all over the district so he can do the talking. He's holding meetings with important local leaders � called �shuras� in villages controlled by the Taliban until just a few weeks ago.

Karim Jahn recently traveled by helicopter to a tiny US Army outpost near one such village, called Sapah Hay, for a Shura.

Around sixty elders, young men and boys were there to greet him. The group sat on olive US army cots, under the shade of a camouflage net.
One of the elders said a brief prayer, and then Karim Jahn launched into a half hour speech:

�May god make our country better. As much as we want. After that we pray to god that there's no more fighting between us. We pray for peace in our country � first with the help of God, and second, by the help of you, the people.�

Again and again, Karim Jahn asked the local villagers for help. He said it was up to them to stop the Taliban attacks. He said they would be compensated for any damages caused by fighting.

And he said he could bring more money � for schools, roads, development projects; but only if the villagers provided security.

For a long time, the group of men was silent, listening.

Then, one man rose and asked, �how can I help you? if the Taliban plants a bomb in my field, and I tell them to not put it there, they will kill me,� he said. �Or they will kill my children and family. Tell me what to do and I will do it!�

A young man in the audience answered him: �if the Taliban is coming and firing from your compound, if you can stop him, stop him. If you can't stop him, then share the information with the government.�

The meeting lasted an hour. The US deputy brigade commander for the area, Lt. Colonel Joe Krebs says the last young man was important.

�For a man of 28 to say that in a public forum � that's pretty large. That's core audience of the guys who make up the Taliban � fighting age males. That's pretty neat thing.�

Krebs said it was �significant� that so many young men showed up � not just village elders. He also said the fact that the Americans hadn't said anything was key � the whole point is to empower the Afghans to solve these problems on their own.

Still, didn't' he think that flying the Kareem Jahn down here might make the district governor look like an American stooge?

Krebs said no. �These people been living through 30 years of war.. they understand the Americans are enabling the district governor to do his job, but in long term do they see increased Afghan national army and afghan national police and lessening of coalition forces present? Certainly that is the goal � that's how we win � increasingly, they're in charge.�

But there's still a long way to go.

Karim Jahn is still the only real official in his office. The district isn't safe enough for the education, health and other ministry officials to come to work. The people don't even feel safe coming to these shuras.

As the elders shuffled out of the US-controlled base after the shura, one man, named Haji Layla, said the area is still not safe.

�Really, I'm afraid of the Taliban when I come to this meeting. Maybe they sent some spies? They are watching us, and maybe they will tell the Taliban.�

Haji Layla, like many farmers here, said he feels trapped between the Taliban on one side, and the US and Afghan forces on the other.

With the new American and Afghan base here, he seemed optimistic that security could improve. But there aren't enough troops to secure every town, and the Americans say the Afghan villagers here need to help secure themselves. It's a tough request to make in an area where it's hard enough for the Afghan forces and Americans to protect themselves.

A day after the shura, a Taliban suicide bomber killed two US soldiers at the entrance to their heavily fortified base located in Sanjaray, Kareem Jahn's hometown.

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