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On Sunday, gunmen assassinated Mohammad Ismael Wafa, the governor of Chak district, Maidan Wardak province. This follows a month of heavy fighting in Wardak, much of it in the Jalrez valley. Clearly the war there has heated up.

Wardak districts
  • On Tuesday July 3, in Sayedabad district, an Afghan soldier opened fire on American soldiers manning a roadside checkpoint, wounding five.
  • On Sunday July 8, in Jalrez district, a large roadside bomb penetrated an armored vehicle and killed six US MPs.
  • On Sunday July 22, in Jalrez district, insurgents killed five Afghan security guards who worked for a NATO base.
  • On Tuesday July 24, heavy fighting was reported in Jalrez district. The Wardak governor reported 15 militants killed.
  • On Wednesday August 1, in Jalrez district, insurgents killed four Afghan security guards who worked for a NATO base.

Other major war events in Wardak, from within the last year, include:

  • Last August, in Chak district, insurgents shot down a helicopter carrying a SEAL Team 6 troop, killing all on board.
  • Last September, in Sayedabad, insurgents used a large truck bomb against the U.S. base there, killing 5 Afghans and wounding 77 Americans.
  • Last October, in Chak district, joint U.S./Afghan forces conducted a night raid on the house of extended family members of a former senator for Wardak. The Senator's nephew was killed in the raid, along with two adult daughters.
  • Last February, in Jalrez district, the U.S. handed over one of our two bases to Afghan forces.

The media portrays Wardak as involved in a two-sided affair, a war between the Taliban and U.S./Afghan security forces. But there's something about Wardak. Things there are often not as they seem.

Meet the Governor of Wardak

Wardak governor Mohammad Halim Fidai Wardak governor Mohammad Halim Fidai
Wardak governor Mohammad Halim Fidai Wardak governor Mohammad Halim Fidai
Wardak governor Mohammad Halim Fidai Wardak governor Mohammad Halim Fidai

Mohammad Halim Fidai is the youngest governor in Afghanistan. He is a civil society proponent. Our military, fond of nicknames for Afghan men, calls him "Rock Star".

ISAF publicity photos frequently show the governor cutting the ribbon at a development project, meeting with a local council, reviewing the troops at a security force graduation, or playing soccer with the kids, to demonstrate how well the war is progressing.

Critical media portray him as somewhat hapless, smoothly talking about progress while rockets rain down on the interview.

Creative Associates

The governor was groomed for power by a fellowship at a major U.S. military and development contractor called Creative Associates International.

His previous professional experience with Creative Associates led to the creation of a nation-wide network of hundreds of local civil society organizations in Afghanistan.

Halim Fidai – Governor of Wardak Province, Afghanistan, Creative Associates International, 2010

Creative Associates got its start back in the 1980s, creatively skirting congressional restrictions by calling aid to the Contras "education".

They are now best known for having been temporarily kicked out of Pakistan in 2009. The director at their safehouse in Peshawar had been meeting, together with Blackwater Security, with Pakistan tribal area militants.

At Creative Associates, Fidai worked and was trained in public relations:

According to M. Halim Fidai, I-PACS media and communications program coordinator, discussions have helped dispel assumptions and provide basic information.

Afghanistan: Media and Civil Society Working Toward Common Good, Creative Associates International

Here is the governor, dispelling assumptions and providing basic information, about how things work in his province:
"I can tell you that there's no permanent base for insurgents in this province," Fidai says. "They could come and show [themselves] in front of TV and media [and say], 'Oh hey, I'm here, it's controlled by me.' But if you leave and come back suddenly, you won't see anyone there."

Fidai castigates journalists, local and Western, for painting a skewed picture of his province from a distance.

Wardak, Where Nothing Is What It Seems, Radio Free Europe, January 16, 2009

And here is ISAF, providing some unskewed perspective about the Bagram Koran burnings to Americans:
"This is a total lie and didn't happen,” Fidai said.

Wardak PGOV: Insurgents spread propaganda to encourage hundreds to stage protest, ISAF East, May 26, 2012

On the Other Hand

The insurgent group Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin is our enemy in Afghanistan. And Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin is also a major political power within the Afghanistan government:

"The HIG already have members in Karzai's government, and it could evolve into a political party, even though Hekmatyar may be providing al Qaeda leaders refuge in Kunar," Major General Michael Flynn, the top military intelligence official in Afghanistan, told The Atlantic in April 2010.

Man Versus Afghanistan, The Atlantic, April 2010.

Highly prominent among Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin loyalists in Ahmed Karzai's government, is the governor of Wardak, our Rock Star, the creatively-associated Mohammad Halim Fidai.

There's Something About Wardak

There are a wide range of political actors operating in Wardak province, though the three key parties seem to be; Hizb-i Islami (HiG); one faction of the former Hizb-i Whadat; Hizb-i Whadat-i Islami-i Mardom-i Afghanistan, and the Taliban. Government appointments were contested after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001 (see above), but seem to have settled into a practice where Hizb-i Islami actors have been given significant positions in the police and governor's office

Chak and Sayedabad Districts, Wardak Province, CPAU, 2009

In Wardak, Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin is a major anti-government insurgency. And also in Wardak, Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin is the government.

Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin political power in Wardak is centered in the governor's office and the national police. Wardak was selected for a big expensive training center for national police forces:

Institutions like the National Police Training Center are seen by coalition forces as a key element to the lasting success of an independent Afghanistan.

Progress continues with ANP facility in Wardak Province, National Training Mission Public Affairs, December 26, 2010

A similar pattern of the U.S. granting the local police for a province to Hezb-i-Islami has happened in Baghlan:
In Baghlan province, security has deteriorated in recent years as a result of increased insurgent presence, criminal activity, and abusive government-backed militias. Former Hezb-i-Islami fighters, including local strongman Nur-ul Haq, were among the first recruits of the ALP. Haq and his men were working with US troops prior to being officially approved as ALP members. Haq and his forces were quickly implicated in numerous abuses.

"Just Don't Call It a Militia", Impunity, Militias, and the "Afghan Local Police", Human Right Watch, 2011

In Wardak, Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin has the Afghan National Police. Local police alliances are complex:
Empowering a Notorious Commander

Efforts to create an ethnically mixed force were stymied by problems recruiting sufficient Pashtuns in several districts. This was addressed in December 2009 when a well-known Pashtun commander from Jalrez district, Haji Ghulam Mohammad, was made commander of AP3. Lt. Col. Matthew McFarlane, the 1-503rd Battalion commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, said in a US forces news release:

Recruiting slowed for a short time before Haji Ghulam Mohammad
volunteered to serve as the program commander. He influenced many more recruits to join the program in winter and spring 2010, filling the program to
almost 1,200 guardians.

Ghulam Mohammad and his brother Haji Musa Hotak are significant local figures with
strong Jihadi credentials, having previously been involved with the Taliban and the
Islamist party Harakat-i-Inqilab-iIslami. Ghulam Mohammad was detained by US Forces in 2004 and spent two years in the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Haji Musa Hotak was a commander of Harakat-i-Inqilab-iIslami, a deputy minister in the Taliban government, and a member of parliament for Wardak province from 2005-2010. Hotak was delisted from the UN’s sanction list in January 2010.

"Just Don't Call It a Militia" (cites omitted)

Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin political power comes not merely from Afghan warlordism, or from the high importance and respect that can come from anti-Soviet era activity, or from the patronage system where security force jobs are controlled by faction, or from the similar factional assignment of contracts. And not just from Ahmed Karzai having doled out the province to the group. The United States groomed and selected the Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin governor for his position.

Musical Chairs

Hezb-i Islami seems to be assigned five provincial governorships.

The provinces change around. A governor will be caught in a corruption scandal, or a security lapse. Ahmed Karzai will sack the governor for this. But around they go.

Here are some other Hezb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin-affiliated governors in Afghanistan:

  • Khuwaja Ghulam Ghaws Abubaker is governor of Kapisa. Before that he was governor of Takhar.
  • Delbar Jan Arman is governor of Badghis. Before that, he was governor of Zabul.
  • Munshi Abdul Majid is governor of Baghlan. Before that, he was governor of Badakhshan.
  • Juma Khan Hamdard was governor of Paktika. Before that, he was governor of Jowzjan. Before that, he was governor of Baghlan. Aside from all the rotating governor stuff, a wikileaks cable tells us, Hamdard runs Hezb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin in Balkh.

A Triangular Fight

We are at war with Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin. And in Wardak, Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin is our friend.

The Taliban and Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin are friends. And in Wardak, the Taliban and Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin are at war.

Amid mutual accusations of being someone else’s puppets or spies, Taliban and Hezb-e Islami supporters are now busy killing each other in Wardak Province, notably in its Nerkh District.

It’s the same picture of longstanding rivalries escalating that has been observed in other provinces like Baghlan, Logar and Ghazni, highlighting mistaken perceptions in western media in particular that Afghan and international forces face a unified insurgency.

In August, Taliban in Wardak shot down a helicopter and killed 38 elite US and Afghan troops. But they say the fight against foreign troops has recently taken a back seat in the struggle with Hezb-e Islami supporters loyal to former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

“The Emirate [Taliban] has decided to fight Hezb-e Islami because they are pro-government and get provoked into action [against us] by the government,” said Mullah Bashir, the Taliban’s third-highest representative in the mainly Pashtun-populated Nerkh district. “We give priority to killing Hezb people over Americans because they are obstructing us and preventing us from waging jihad.”

A Triangular Fight, Afghanistan Today, August 25, 2011

Alert the Authorities?

After the helicopter shootdown last year, Major General Daniel Allyn called up the Long War Journal to explain the complexities of the area:

LWJ: And with HIG, which is notoriously fickle as far as their allegiances go, you think there is more potential, or ....

MG Allyn: I think they would be more willing to dialogue with the government if they saw that, no kidding, the government was going to stand. I'm not saying it's a good solution, I'm not saying it's not very complicated. But from what I see, from what I read, from the [Afghan] partners I dialogue with, HIG is more desirous of being a part of whatever government winds up here, whereas Haqqani wants to bring about the downfall of any form of representative government and restore the Taliban to rule.

Haqqani Network is 'enemy number one' in Afghan east: General Allyn, Long War Journal, August 9, 2011

The General, to an American audience, speaks of Hezb-i Islami involvement in the Afghan government as merely a future tense possibility. The same day, Captain Kirstin Massey had called up the New York Times with the same talking points as the General.
The Wardak provincial governor, Halim Fidai, said his forces and American troops had been fighting the Taliban in the most rugged areas. In response, he said, the insurgents were striking back. While that appears to be true, there is no tipping point in sight when the government and the Americans can claim they have the upper hand.

Wardak and Logar share a border and a similar insurgent profile. Both have an unsavory brew of Taliban, Haqqani network operatives, criminals and, in Wardak, Hizb-e-Islami fighters, said Capt. Kirstin Massey, the assistant intelligence officer of the Fourth Infantry Combat Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which has responsibility for the two provinces.

Attack Adds to Signs of an Unstable Afghan Region, New York Times, August 8, 2011

The Times places the Wardak governor in a separate paragraph from the unsavory brew. The intelligence officer, about this, seems not to fully know how Wardak works. At least when the intelligence officer is speaking about the war to America via the New York Times.

The Comprehensive Approach

The United States now speaks of a "comprehensive approach" and "whole of government" capabilities. Old lines between military, intelligence, Department of State, law enforcement, NGOs, mercenary forces, foreign local militias, etc. are intentionally blurred as a matter of military doctrine and government policy.

Many of our authorities and structures assume a neat divide between defense, diplomacy, and development that simply does not exist.

2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report

The blurring of lines is of particular concern to traditional NGOs. The U.S. doctrine that military needs are primary, and that NGOs fall under this, taints and endangers NGO development workers, especially in remote and insecure areas. NGOs are subordinate to the U.S. military, even at a level of admission.

Here is some advocacy for the U.S. doctrine of making military needs primary in development aid. The advocacy comes, not surprisingly, from a for-profit NGO tightly tied to U.S. military and intelligence:

This means that foreign aid should be first used to strengthen civil and military institutions, technically, financially and institutionally so that they are able to deliver services in a sustainable way.

Halim Fidai – Governor of Wardak Province, Afghanistan, Creative Associates International, 2010

Mohammad Halim Fidai has roots in NGO work, including shadowy organizations. He exists on a very blurred line between HIG the government power and HIG the anti-government insurgency.

The comprehensive approach blurs lines, and the governor of Wardak blurs most every line imaginable. He even speaks an American political-faction talking point about importing business competition thought into development or government work:

I even saw many of the Afghan NGOs begin competing with the international NGOs. Such competition creates increased efficiency.
He is the very model of a modern comprehensive governor.

The Latest Dispatch from the War

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on the current state of the Jalrez base we had handed over in February:

JALREZ VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN — After U.S. soldiers left Combat Outpost Conlon in February — packing up weapons, generators and portable toilets — their Afghan successors rushed to the American barracks and command center, eager to inspect their inheritance.

The Afghans renamed Conlon in Dari and scrawled Koran verses on the walls. The base was now theirs, and they were proud.

Months later, it’s a dismal scene. The 240 Afghan soldiers are down to three hours of electricity a day. Almost all of their vehicles have broken down. They don’t have the night-vision goggles needed to guard their base after sunset.

As the Taliban ramped up its attacks in eastern Afghanistan’s Wardak province this spring, the Afghan soldiers here came to a painful conclusion: They were not ready to take on the fight alone. But it was too late — the Americans were not coming back.

Months after Americans leave, an Afghan base in disrepair, Washington Post, August 2, 2012

The article is a harshly critical portrait of the war. But there's something about Wardak. The Taliban and Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin have been hotly at war in Jalrez for a month. And yet, in the Washington Post article about the war, Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin is nowhere to be seen.
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