KABUL, Afghanistan — When a 13-year-old boy asked for admittance to Abdullah’s wedding feast, the groom thought it only hospitable to let him in.
He did, however, think it strange for this young, uninvited guest to be swathed in a blanket-like shawl, or “patu,” given the sweltering summer heat.
Rather than extending felicitations, the young boy darted into the center of a courtyard where the male guests were eating dinner, according to eyewitnesses of the attack.
Seconds later, a massive explosion rocked the night. Dead bodies lay on the carpets spread under the pomegranate trees. Cries and moans could be heard from the injured. Blood soaked into the ground in this remote village in the Arghandab Valley in Kandahar Province.
At least 50 people died in the June 9 attack, according to official estimates; local residents say the total was over 80, with more than 90 injured, including the groom. The June 9 attack in Nagahan was, by any measure, one of the worst of Afghanistan’s brutal suicide attacks, and certainly among the cruelest.
It is a famous axiom of military strategy that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." This GlobalPost special report looks at how economic aid in Afghanistan has become "war by other means." It reveals how the "civilian surge" is struggling to succeed and in some places actually creating instability and inadvertently benefiting the Taliban.
Part 1: Aid as a weapon
Part 2: Arming the militias
Part 3: Guardians of Wardak
The groom, Abdullah, who like many Afghans goes only by his first name, and at least 12 of the men who were killed in the attack were members of a local tribal militia that sought to protect the village against the Taliban. The militia was also part of a little-known U.S. initiative known as the Local Defense Initiative (LDI) to arm local tribes in the fight against the Taliban in exchange for generous reconstruction projects.
Afghan leaders, U.S. military officials and tribal elders believe the boy was a suicide bomber sent to target the members of this U.S.-backed militia and the families who benefit from development projects attached to the militia’s service.
The attack seems to underscore what many aid and development experts believe is the peril of imposing military strategy into the realm of aid and development. The approach can often serve to create divisions and increase hostilities, these critics say, as it appears to have done in the horrific incident Nagahan.
The dramatic resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as top commander of forces in Afghanistan last week occurred in the context of a deep division in the U.S. war effort between the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon over how best to straddle this line between the civilian side of aid and development and the military strategy of effective counterinsurgency. Those divisions between the civilian side and the military and the high stakes for Afghans and Americans and their allies alike in getting the balance right are perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing Gen. David Petraeus as he heads to Afghanistan to replace McChrystal at this pivotal moment in the war in Afghanistan.
Nagahan was the village chosen by U.S. Special Forces in 2009 for a pilot project of the “Local Defense Initiative,” known by its military acronym LDI. It is part of a focused counterinsurgency strategy in areas surrounding Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban, aimed at winning hearts and minds. The Kandahar region is the center of the escalating war effort against the Taliban and a military offensive that is set to get underway in the coming weeks.
The notoriously secretive Special Operations Forces in charge of the program were reluctant to comment on the Nagahan incident, or, in general, on LDI. They were certainly not ready to link the wedding bombing to their initiative; instead, they sought to highlight the incident as a further justification for the program, which they now seem to be calling “village stability platforms” (VSP).
“There is no conclusive evidence to determine why the bomber decided to take so many innocent lives,” said an unidentified Special Forces spokesman, responding in writing through the press office of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
“However, the wedding bombing typifies why more and more Afghans are rejecting Taliban ideology; they appear tired of the senseless violence and ready to risk their lives to bring peace and stability to their villages. The concept of village stability platforms is gaining acceptance and momentum among Afghan citizens and we don't think the wedding bombing will alter that course.”
LDI is one of several efforts in Kandahar to protect local villages and thereby persuade the population that they are better off with the Afghan government backed by U.S. and NATO forces than they are with the Taliban insurgency, which has deep roots and wide support in the area.
That idea will almost certainly become a much harder sell in Nagahan following the wedding bombing.
This village, which was hailed as a model of success for LDI and the militias it supports, has suddenly become the embodiment of the risks involved for locals who participate in the U.S. military’s initiative.
It is still unclear exactly who was behind the Nagahan attack; but whether it was the Taliban, despite their vociferous denials, or whether it was due to local rivalries stirred up by the largesse that Nagahan was receiving from the U.S. forces, few are in doubt that the deaths of dozens of local residents are a direct, if unintended, consequence of the U.S. attempts to use local tribes against the Taliban.
The LDI project has provoked numerous protests from Afghan officials, from worried experts, and from dozens of ordinary Afghans who remember the civil war years, when local militias preyed on the population almost at will.
At first, Nagahan seemed the perfect place for an LDI project. The village, in the lush green Arghandab district, was chosen because the community was united in its opposition to the Taliban, and had a strong local administration, say researchers familiar with Kandahar. It was also largely homogenous — most of Nagahan is from the Alikozai tribe.
Neighboring Khakrez also wanted an LDI project, according to Mathieu Lefevre, who produced a study of the LDI for the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network, a research institute based in Kabul.
The local elders in Khakrez, from the Popalzai tribe, were envious of the benefits heaped on Nagahan, he says. But Khakrez lacked the social cohesion and strong local government of Nagahan, and the U.S. forces were reluctant to get involved. This, writes Lefevre, was a significant source of tension in the area.
An alternative to the marginally successful Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3) in Wardak, LDI relies on local hostility to the insurgents, often based on personal or tribal enmity, and encourages certain groups to form armed militias to repel the Taliban, in return for monetary incentives.
“Village stability platforms (VSP) focus on protecting the populace, supporting development, and enhancing governance using a localized approach,” according to the Special Forces statement. “The objective of VSPs is to connect national, provincial and district government initiatives with traditional village governance, development, and security.”
In Nagahan, development took the form of Cash-for-Work projects paid for by the U.S. military, which virtually wiped out unemployment in the economically depressed area. More than 9,000 men were employed, at roughly $5 per day, in manual labor that put money in their pockets and strengthened their resolve not to let the insurgents into their community.
“A large number of the residents of Nagahan were busy building bridges, cleaning irrigation canals and ditches, and constructing roads,” said Zalmay Ayubi, press officer for the provincial governor. “They were taking responsibility for their own security, and would not let anti-government elements into their area.”
Lefevre calls the Nagahan initiative the “least bad” of the LDI projects – at least it was until the June 9 attack.
“The locals and the Special Forces are keen to point out that security has improved, though this is difficult to measure independently,” wrote Lefevre in his report, published in late May. “Abdul Jabbar Khan, the Arghandab district governor, optimistically says that ‘90 percent of the district is secure now.’”
Jabbar Khan’s optimism was misplaced: he was assassinated on June 15, less than a week after the wedding bombing.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Special Forces are now quietly but persistently unrolling LDI in various trouble spots around the country.
So far, in addition to the Nagahan bombing, LDI has prompted intra-tribal conflict in eastern Afghanistan, transformed a local clash in the western part of the country into major violence, and empowered a criminal network in one of the central provinces.
The program began last year, when U.S. forces began to work with local tribes who declared their readiness to fight the Taliban.
One such group were the Shinwari, a 400,000-strong Pashtun tribe in Nangarhar, a province on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. According to numerous reports stretching back over a decade, the Shinwari are heavily involved in the narcotics trade — Nangarhar is a major smuggling route for Afghanistan’s major crop, opium poppy. Local information suggests that the Shinwari and the Taliban were clashing over the distribution of the profits and the Shinwari were ready to fight.
There was also personal enmity between some of the Shinwari and the local Taliban; according to Haji Malek Niaz, a local leader, the Taliban had kidnapped his grandson for ransom.
“Our tribe was fed up with these actions of the Taliban and finally decided to make a tribal force against them,” he said.
The U.S. military saw this as an excellent opportunity to mobilize a major resource against the insurgency, and offered the Shinwari more than $1 million in development assistance for their help in identifying and battling the Taliban.
Malek Usman, from the Shadal area of Achin district in Nangarhar, one of the organizers of the tribal militia, told GlobalPost:
“The internationals promised us a lot of things We made an accord within our tribe that if anyone gave shelter to the Taliban or helped them, or if anyone cultivated poppy, he would be fined 500,000 afghani ($10,000) and we would burn down his house.”
But before any major inroads were made against the Taliban, fighting erupted between two braches of the Shinwari – the Alisherkhel and the Shublai. The ostensible reason for the conflict was an ancient land dispute, but locals say that jealousy over the deal with the foreigners fanned the flames. The money had been given to the Shublai, and the Alisherkhel were not happy. More than 20 people died in the conflict.
The powerful provincial governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, was also incensed by the initiative.
“The provincial administration opposes any direct financing of the tribes by the American forces,” said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, spokesman for the Nangarhar governor. “The reason for this is that it causes enmities among the tribes. For balanced development, all assistance should be channeled through the provincial administration.”
Any informal armed structures, moreover ones that had their own international funding sources, were a danger to stability, he added.
The clash has been settled, at least temporarily. But the bitterness remains – not only between the various branches of the Shinwari, but between the tribe and the U.S. forces. The Shinwari feel that they have been betrayed by the Americans, and are reconsidering their commitment.
“The international promised us a lot of things, but they never delivered,” said Malek Usman. “They will see, we can also break our promises.”
The Nangarhar dispute is an almost textbook case of the problems described by Andrew Wilder in his study of assistance to Afghanistan to be published this summer by the Feinstein Center at Tufts University.
“Aid in insecure areas leads to tribal and ethnic polarization,” he said in an interview with GlobalPost. “It is a zero sum game, where one group’s gain is another one’s loss. You get goodwill in one village, but you make 10 others very unhappy.”
As the case of the Shinwari illustrates, the rivalry can occur even within a single tribe.
In Dai Kundi, a tiny province in the central part of the country, the Special Forces teamed up with a particularly corrupt local strongman, according to Lefevre:
“In early 2010, several people from Dai Kundi reported that the U.S. military had recruited a jihadi commander named Sedaqat, originally from Khideer district, to assemble a group of up to 500 men to assist with security in the province,” wrote Lefevre in his report.
“Sedaqat is a well-known troublemaker … and provincial officials say he remains involved in criminal activity. The local population greeted Sedaqat’s recruitment to LDI with surprise and dismay. (According to one local official) when he was asked to go to the American base, at first the people thought he would be arrested and they were happy about this. Instead, they seem to be empowering him.”
One security analyst had a similar reaction: “In Dai Kundi it was much more like dealing with the bad old militias,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They were handing out jobs and patronage to criminals.”
In Shindand, a region of Herat province, on the border with Iran, LDI has also run into problems.
The LDI militias, according to a local official, were recruited from former Taliban fighters, making clashes virtually inevitable.
“A number of these militias used to fight within the Taliban lines,” said Lal Mohammad Omarzai, district governor of Shindand. “Their presence will jeopardize security and increase the influence of the Taliban.”
Omarzai was upset that his opinion was not sought before the formation of the LDI in Shindand. “All the decisions are with the foreign troops,” he said bitterly.
Arbab Abdul Ghafor, 57, an elder in the Zerko area of Shndand district, was directly involved in the formation of the LDI militias.
“The foreign forces train (the militias) for two hours every day,” he said. “The foreigners have promised us reconstruction programs and cash-for-work projects in our area.”
But the Noorzai and Barakzai, the main tribes from which the militias have been recruited, are major enemies of the traditional power structure in the province, he added.
“They are against Ismail Khan,” he said, referring to the former Heraat governor, who still holds considerable sway in the region.
It did not take long for LDI to stimulate conflict. On May 8 of this year, a clash in Shindand resulted in the deaths of six of the militia members.
“The Taliban do not want security in the district, said Abdul Ghafor. “They want the militias to cut their relations with the foreign forces and to join them.”
But Ahmad Behzad, a parliamentarian from Herat, is not so sure that the fight was between the Taliban and the militias. “During the time when Ismail Khan was governor, there was some tension between him and the central government,” he said. “The president assisted in the formation of some armed groups in Shindand. After he was removed, these groups began fighting each other. This (LDI) initiative is exploiting those tensions between the tribes in Shindand, which is causing conflict."
LDI is being tried in at least five other districts, although information about these programs is still scarce. Lawmakers argue that that the creation of armed groups that are not within the formal military structure of the government are counter to the principles that the international community says it is fighting for in Afghanistan.
“The creation of (these armed groups) brings into question the commitment on the part of the Afghan government and the international community to genuine democracy,” said parliamentarian Noorulhaq Ulumi, a former general from Kandahar.
“The Constitution was based on this commitment,” he said. “ The only armed groups provided for under the Constitution are the Afghan National Security Forces. For the past nine years they have made the effort to train the army and the police. Now they are bringing back the rule of the gun.”
Ulumi also cast a dark reminder back to the civil war days, when groups trained and armed by the international community tore the country apart.
“This is a victory for tribalism and the warlords,” he said.
“Tribal forces cannot be brought under a system. Look at the mujaheddin, who were trained the same as these militias. Who remained loyal to the international community who were so in love with them?”
It is still unclear how LDI fits with the increasing calls for outreach to the Taliban and a negotiated settlement.
But for now, the Afghan people feel caught in a game they do not understand and feel that they cannot control.
In the Nagahan bombing, despite overwhelming evidence that the explosion came from a suicide bomber, many of the villagers are convinced that the destruction came to them from the sky.
“There were four foreign planes patrolling the sky above us,” said wedding guest Sayed Mohammad. “We were making a lot of noise, and there were a lot of lights. At dinner time one of the planes dropped a bomb on us.
”His conviction may fly in the face of the facts, but it is going to be bad news for the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy put in place by former Afghanistan commander McChrystal last fall.
Winning hearts and minds, the centerpiece of the strategy, may be a losing battle in Nagahan following the wedding bombing.
“We are the victims of this conflict between the armed opposition and the foreigners,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, a resident of Kandahar province, where the wedding bombing took place. This has been going on for more than eight years now. We have been taken hostage by both sides.”
Additional reporting from freelance journalists Abaceen Nasimi in Kabul; Bashir Ahmad Nadem from Kandahar; Mustafa Saber from Herat and Mohammad Asef Shinwari from Nangarhar.
War by other means: a series