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Afghans Talk Security Troubles

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/afghanistan2.jpg

COMBAT OUTPOST ZORMAT, Afghanistan – Gauging the perceptions of Afghans isn’t just for the professionals of the Human Terrain Teams. On a trip through the Zormat bazaar and the nearby farm villages of Salehkhil and Meshwal, opinions varied, but two basic themes emerged: security is poor and the Afghan government is untrustworthy.

Two vendors — one a fruit-and-veg guy, the other a meat man — at the squalid, dusty Zormat bazaar had divergent perspectives on business. The greengrocer said things were going pretty well, but the Afghan National Police weren’t letting prospective customers get to the market.

I didn’t exactly understand, but he was reluctant to elaborate, possibly because the ANP were walking through the market. The Hooligans, however, bought a bunch of produce, especially cilantro — “gashneech” in Pashto — so First Sgt. Antonio Leija Jr. could make his patented pico de gallo, which proved top-notch later that evening. The butcher, who hung up carcasses of goats and cows despite the lack of business, said he had barely sold anything in five or six months. People are too afraid of IEDs and suicide bombers to come to his market, he said.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Salehkhil is a barely-mapped village outside the city of Zormat. Ostensibly fertile, the ground alternated between cracked and arid dirt, with the occasional prickly brush crunching beneath the Hooligans’ boots. Spread far out across the flat ground –- the mountains of Paktia Province were so far in the distance they owed Salekhil postcards -– were a few large clay homes, called kalats, that looked like decaying castles.

One was the home of an older man who gave his name as Zareen. Did he have access to the government if he found himself in danger or needed to resolve a dispute? “We’ve had no problem up to now, but have no access to call ANP or ANA,” Zareen said through translation. Asked if his life had improved in the seven years since the U.S. arrived, he replied, “When the coalition forces came, they wanted to help Afghanistan, but some people don’t want to help Afghanistan or develop Afghanistan.” He wouldn’t elaborate. “You know better than us,” he said.

His brother, a craggy-faced man with trim brown hair and a long sandy beard, said he was disillusioned with the Kabul government and his local shura council, which didn’t bother to meet today despite a scheduled session.

“All of them are people of the area,” he said through translation, “and they just promise, they don’t implement. When the government says it will help, it just steals stuff. There are steps of corruption: [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, then senior people, then the governor, then the [district commissioner] — they all steal. There is nothing left for the people.”

In neighboring Meshwal, a greener and seemingly more prosperous village, Amerdin, a stout, middle-aged man in a white cap, invited the N. Blaine Cooper, the Holligan lieutenant, to sit in the shade of his garden while he listed his grievances and reminisced about the Taliban.

“During the Taliban, security was very good and there was no corruption,” he said. “Now, security gets worse day by day, there are lots of bribes and corruption. We wish the coalition forces came to Afghanistan to build security and road projects, but nothing happened.”

He grew impatient when Cooper told him that the government needed to deliver public-works projects: “The coalition forces in Afghanistan must give projects to people in this area — schools, clinics, water wells, you must do this.” He continued, “You must do like the Taliban government — and keep security.”

When I asked if he would support additional U.S. troops to provide security, Amerdin looked as if he bit into a lemon. “We don’t need coalition forces for security; we need ANA and ANP to keep security,” he said. “If they put military posts in the area, we’d help them, the ANA and ANP. But we don’t want a military checkpoint here because there is security.”

Amerdin’s neighbor, a thin man with a grey and black beard who wouldn’t give his name, invited the platoon to sit in the garden of his massive kalat while his brothers, sons and friends joined in the conversation. He reacted with equanimity when asked his major concerns. “We don’t have any concerns, from the Taliban or from the government,” he said.

His big issue was the need to repair his karez, a sort of underground irrigation system that carries run-off water from the mountains to nourish the land. If the government could fix his karez, he said, he’d consider himself well served.

“During the past seven years, the security of the area, from the pump station to Zormat, is getting better,” he said. “Other areas that we hear about on the radio are bad — but not here.”

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