A Familiar Struggle: Connecting Rural Afghans with Their Government

December 20, 2017

Douglas Grindle, How We Won and Lost the War in Afghanistan: Two Years in the Pashtun Homeland (Potomac Books, 2017)

When I joined the United States Air Force, I never thought I’d be advising a homeless, illiterate Afghan district governor in one of the most isolated districts in southern Afghanistan. However, with tours on an Iraq and Afghanistan Provincial Reconstruction Team under my belt, in 2011 that became precisely my job. I was responsible for the governance effort in Ghorak, Kandahar, under Special Operation Task Force-South’s Village Stability Operations. These operations, led by United States special operations forces, were designed to provide security, governance, and development to rural districts in Afghanistan. Special operations forces elements were responsible for raising and training Afghan Local Police to defend the village, while other enablers and civilians focused on governance and development. In theory, I was supposed to work alongside a State Department/USAID. But in reality, I was a one-man operation. I became responsible for connecting the Ghorak district (county) government with the Kandahar provincial (state) government and, ultimately, the national government in Kabul.

Ghorak was poor even by Afghan standards. It had no schools, medical clinics, or any other district line ministers (country government officials). There wasn’t even a district center where the government was supposed to work. The Taliban had destroyed the old one. It was approximately fifty meters from our small base, a reminder to all of the government’s historical impotence. Our district governor didn’t even have a place to live, so we rented a small compound for him to work in. There was nothing: no roads, no cell phone tower, no bazaar (shopping center), and hardly any work other than growing poppy. The Taliban had also essentially sealed off the district by shutting down the two main roads.

I began the herculean task of helping the illiterate district governor stand up a government overnight with minimal resources. In less than three months, I knew more about district-level governance in Afghanistan than I knew about the U.S. government. Unfortunately, since Ghorak was not a “key terrain district,” we didn’t qualify for much of the largesse that had spurred some economic growth in other areas. While my brothers-in-arms focused on training the Afghan Local Police, I tried to convince Afghans that their government was worth supporting. We had some moderate successes: the police flourished, a small medical clinic opened, the provincial government hired some locals to be in charge of education and agriculture, and some small open-air schools even opened. However, it was not enough. Neither the Afghan government nor its security forces were ever capable of expanding their hold on the district. Once coalition forces withdrew, the Taliban and Afghan Security Forces traded control over Ghorak. Neither a school nor a health clinic can convince people to support the government when insurgents are holding a gun to their head. The Afghan government proved incapable of keeping terrain that was far from its logistical hubs.

My story is not unique. Most every Afghan and Iraq veteran who spent time in the field can provide similar anecdotes. Douglas Grindle’s memoir, How We Won & Lost The War in Afghanistan: Two Years in the Pashtun Heartland, vividly recounts this familiar story of hope and, ultimately, failure. The book is an excellent addition to a growing historiography of civilians’ memoirs in southern Afghanistan. Grindle, who spent six years as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and also worked for USAID and the Defense Department, is one of the first civilians to focus primarily on the struggles of district-level governance there. He completed two tours as a USAID civilian on a District Support Team in the Kandahar districts of Dand and Maiwand. While other memoirs have certainly touched on the problems at the district level, nearly all of them shared the stage with the drama of combat. Grindle, however, does a masterful job of not being sidetracked from his own story and focuses on the many challenges that governance and development advisers faced in trying to connect the Afghans with their government. It’s not often that an author can make the bureaucratic machinations of implementing a chicken farm an interesting read, but Grindle weaves a powerful tale. He aptly chronicles the frustration and heartache advisors faced in trying to link rural Afghans with a national-level government that was often at the mercy of multiple non-governmental organizations, the coalition, and the international aid community.

Grindle focuses most of his book on his first assignment in Dand district, which is home to the provincial capital of Kandahar City and Kandahar Air Field. By 2011, the U.S. Army had largely pacified the district. Grindle and his teammates lived and worked in a small base that also housed the Dand district center, allowing him to work intimately with the district governor and his line ministers—a luxury many District Support Teams did not get. Moreover, Grindle was fortunate to have a competent, well-connected governor, who was not corrupt and earnestly wanted to set the district up for success. Despite these advantages, the Dand district government atrophied. Ultimately, the governor, who cannot generate revenue through direct taxes and thus is at the mercy of the Kandahar provincial government for funds, was incapable of sustaining the economic boom the district received through USAID-funded development projects. In short, the Afghan government was incapable of operating at elevated levels without the largesse that international community injected.

In Maiwand district, however, security was porous and the district government dysfunctional. Grindle does not place the blame solely on the local Afghans or on the state security forces. Instead, he shows how prior U.S. policies and inept U.S. advisers had soured the district governor on development projects. Moreover, Grindle had the unfortunate duty of trying to extend the government’s reach in 2012, when U.S. forces were largely withdrawing. This is a struggle that rings true. I found it nearly impossible to pitch the staying power of the United States to historically-minded Afghans as they watched other bases in Kandahar close down. Grindle and his comrades did a commendable job of trying to plan an off-ramp for the eventual decrease in aid and security assistance. However, even the best-laid plans are often tossed aside when large organizations reverse course and head for the exits.

Grindle’s book is at its best in describing these struggles. Nearly all wartime memoirs scoff at the ineptitude of higher headquarters, whose plans inevitably fail because they are so removed from the action on the ground. This author, however, expertly shows how even well-intentioned plans and development projects conjured up by seasoned USAID veterans in Kabul and Kandahar City fell flat. I was forced to dole out a water filtration system for Afghan residents in Ghorak, despite the fact that nobody had ever complained about the water’s purity. Regardless, I put on a demonstration during a shura, or council, of how the system worked and tracked which villages received these devices. Approximately two weeks later I saw them in use: Afghan children in multiple villages were using the device’s parts as target practice for their slingshots.

Although Grindle does a good job of explaining why the coalition struggled in Afghanistan, despite the book’s title, he never presents a convincing argument that it was ever winning, or indeed that the war was ever winnable. There was certainly progress in Dand, but the district government struggled to control its own territory. Grindle is correct that the international community, especially the United States, did not properly train district governments with the tools necessary to consolidate any gains. However, Grindle fails to examine whether this goal was even attainable. As Thomas Barfield argues, the Afghan government has historically struggled to control its periphery and thus has tended to accommodate local powerbrokers who control the countryside like fiefdoms.

The United States, trapped by its own liberal democratic narrative, tried to build a government in its own image. The coalition attempted to construct a government that promoted women’s right and freedom of religion, and one that could provide baseline services to its citizens. Restructuring Afghan society, however, proved to be a bridge too far. There are certainly areas in Afghanistan where some of these ideas are feasible. However, these Western values are largely anathema to many rural, conservative Pashtuns. For example, we offered to provide midwife training for any woman in Ghorak. However, none of the Pashtun tribal elders, who were all male, were even remotely interested in educating women for this practical skill. On the economic side, the U.S. government’s efforts to revitalize development ironically contributed to the growth of corruption that fueled legitimate grievances against Kabul. The United States even struggled to prevent its aid from being siphoned off by the Taliban.

Grindle is correct that districts were never going to be able to maintain projects that essentially sought to create peace through subsidies. Perhaps he is also right that there should have been more focus on the district level. However, even if rural Afghan districts were easily able to receive critical funds, would the Afghan government ever be able to generate enough revenue to keep these projects afloat? As Grindle accurately chronicles, the Afghan government could not generate enough money to give the districts the meager funds needed for fuel or small-scale renovations. How could it ever afford larger projects that needed to be sustained for years?

Extending the reach of a historically weak and fragmented government to the hinterlands needed unity of effort and continuity to have a chance of success. Instead, there has been constant changeover at all levels of the coalition. Grindle hints at this repeatedly throughout the book but never gives it the attention it deserves. The high turnover rate of troops, civilians, and NGOs robbed the coalition of not only cultural acumen, but also of institutional knowledge and strategic coherence. Since February 2007, when General David McNiel took command of the International Security Assistance Force, eight different American generals have led the coalition – not to mention the innumerable European generals who rotated quickly through command due to shorter tours. During nearly three years in Afghanistan, I was never in a unit that had a vast reservoir of institutional knowledge.

Even if the United States and its coalition allies had gotten all the fundamentals correct, it is highly likely they would have stumbled into the same problems that beset America’s efforts in Vietnam. Historian Gregory Daddis wisely concludes in his most recent book that the United States could not build a national narrative that convinced rural South Vietnamese to “voluntarily bestow their political loyalties to a government of questionable legitimacy.” Substitute Afghanistan for Vietnam and this problem still holds true. The U.S. military’s power is unquestionably strong. However, it is not strong enough to create a “government in a box” that is ahistorical in design for a war-torn society. Why? Because we’re not Afghans. I speak Pashto, have a library full of Afghan history books, and can quote the tenets of population-centric counterinsurgency. However, I was incapable of convincing Afghans to engage with a government whose legitimacy they understandably doubted.

Grindle’s book is an excellent memoir that should be a cautionary tale as the United States once again increases its military commitment to Afghanistan. It excels in chronicling the struggles of nation-building at the local level. It is easily approachable and digestible for all, experts and laymen alike. Grindle’s efforts are to be lauded and will be used by future historians when analyzing governance efforts in rural Afghanistan. However, his book never grapples with the possibility that Western governance efforts were inherently futile – the unfortunate conclusion I came to as a result of my own experience.


Major Will Selber is a USAF CENTCOM FAO. He has deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: U.S. Army/Jennifer Frazer

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