Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Southern Province Shows Signs of Upturn

Governor of Paktia says province is now safe and rebuilding is under way after a slow start.
By Abubaker Saddique

While Afghanistan's south remains the most volatile part of the country, one province, at least, appears to be slowly sorting itself out.

Despite continuing instability, Paktia's governor Asadullah Wafa has made progress in creating stability and encouraging reconstruction projects in the six months he has been in office. This month the national disarmament programme began there, with first batch of former soldiers handing in guns, rockets and even armoured vehicles before signing up to be retrained for more peaceful operations.

In recent months, Paktia and other southern areas have seen attacks on United States-led coalition forces by Taleban guerrillas, who can exploit inaccessible mountain areas near Pakistan to slip in and out of the country. On November 16, a United Nations vehicle had a lucky escape when it was targeted by a roadside bomb.

But UN officials have said that in Paktia the overall picture is of stabilisation, both in the administrative centre Gardez and in the rural districts.

This relative success is a combination of factors, but the catalyst appears to be governor Wafa, who has opened the way for Western-funded development while using traditional negotiating methods to soothe tensions.

Wafa, who previously served as an adviser on tribal affairs to President Hamed Karzai, was put in charge of Paktia at the end of May. At the same time, Kabul removed the provincial police chief - he is now in custody facing criminal charges - and replaced him with Hay Gul Sulaiman Khel, a police officer in the communist-era Eighties who has the advantage of being a local man. The appointments were part of a shake-up ordered by Karzai, the intention clearly being to root out officials linked with armed militias.

In an interview with IWPR in Gardez, Wafa said there had been marked improvements in security since the new team came in.

"As you can see for yourself, there are no major security problems," he said. "Before I assumed office, the government did not control many areas in the outlying districts. But with the help of our friends, the tribal elders and the ulema [Muslim clerics], the situation is now normal. We hold sway over the whole territory of the province and it's safe to travel on all major roads here."

Although Paktia continues to see sporadic violent incidents, Gardez was clearly regarded as sufficiently secure by the international community to be selected for the early stages of the pilot Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, DDR, programme.

Shortly after the interview took place, hundreds of former soldiers handed over their weapons to UN officials in Gardez. By November 17, nearly 600 out of a likely total of 1,000 had been disarmed. The DDR process here will follows the first such operation in the northern city of Kunduz, where another 1,000 ex-militiamen are already beginning retraining programmes.

Wafa was optimistic about the DDR process in his region, "In fact, all Afghans want a weapons-free society, and they are sick of the warlords. Fortunately, in Paktia we have an administration made up of professionals, and nobody in the government has a stake in instability.

"So I am optimistic that DDR will run smoothly."

Apart from Taleban attacks, Paktia also faces the longer-standing problem of conflict between the various Pashtun tribes who predominate in the province. Wafa told IWPR how he is tackling this with an inclusive strategy - engaging local leaders in a traditional consultative body to defuse the potential for conflict.

"Immediately after I assumed office we formed a shura [council] of Paktia comprising leaders from all tribes and districts, and with their cooperation we have noticeably improved the security situation," he said.

The governor has also taken a conciliatory rather than confrontational line with Badshah Khan Zadran, a tribal chieftain whose men were involved in violent clashes with pro-government forces last year and who has continued to claim the governorship of Paktia.

"We have worked very hard to reach some kind of reconciliatory arrangement with Zadran," said Wafa. "After I held negotiations with him, he agreed to go to Kabul, announcing an agreement with the government and thus ending his insurgency."

The governor stressed that despite their differences, Zadran was still seen as a "friend and ally" because of the years he had spent fighting Soviet rule and later the Taleban.

Wafa is upbeat about the potential for his province to take part in the national election expected next year, "I can say with certainty that security will not be a major challenge to the national elections next summer in the Greater Paktia region [including Khost and Paktika provinces as well as Paktia]."

He said the process of electing representatives to the Constitutional Loya Jirga scheduled for December this year was going well, but warned that the failure to issue identity papers to all Afghans only seven months before the planned election could pose "a daunting challenge for the government, and also affect the election as well".

Asked how much reconstruction work there had been in his impoverished region, the governor accepted the criticism of how slow the process has been, "I agree in part with such assertions, because all the promises that were made to the people have not been fulfilled, and the pace of reconstruction is does not meet popular expectations."

But he said that reconstruction work had accelerated in recent months, citing as examples the opening of 11 health clinics and the rebuilding of four mosques.

Paktia has received international pledges of help to rebuild three arterial roads, two leading south to Pakistan and one north to Kabul, as well as to refurbish Gardez. There are also plans in the pipeline for two major housing projects which will benefit 50,000 refugees returning to the province, and to build a university and a police academy in the regional centre, Wafa said.

He acknowledged that the United States-led Provincial Reconstruction Team was leading the way, rebuilding government buildings and schools. By contrast, he was sharply critical of non-government organisations which he said were doing little to help.

"The pace of assistance is slow, but most of the work done here is being done by the PRT.

"Meanhile, other organisations involved in the process here spend most of their budgets on cars and other administrative costs, and they mostly end up spending less than 10 per cent of their budgets on the welfare of the people. By current standards, they cannot contribute to reconstruction.

"I must add that we will guarantee the security of all aid workers, but they should deliver results on the ground."

Abubaker Saddique is an independent journalist specialising in South Central Asian affairs.

More IWPR's Global Voices