Terms of Engagement
The Tragic Death of Haji Abdul Jabar
What Afghanistan just lost.
The Taliban scored another minor victory June 15 when Haji Abdul Jabar, the governor of Arghandab district, just north of Kandahar, was killed, along with his son, Kaduz, and a bodyguard, when his car was hit by a remote-controlled improvised explosive device. Jabar would appear to be just the latest of the dozens of local officials the Taliban has murdered — but not to me. Two months ago, I spent a week in the district, much of that time in the company of the DG, as he is known. My article on Arghandab will appear this Sunday in the New York Times Magazine. What the article cannot reflect is the devastating effect the DG’s death will have on Arghandab’s people and on the rickety structure of local government painstakingly built by Afghan and U.S. officials there.
Lt. Col. Guy Jones, the commander of the battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to the base at Arghandab, has a theory that the Afghan people look to "shepherds" for leadership and protection. Jones’s job was to identify, empower, and protect those shepherds. And the DG was Arghandab’s shepherd. Jones and Jabar respected one another and were genuinely fond of one another. Jones sometimes played the court jester to amuse the DG, and sometimes the younger son. He had devoted much of his time in Arghandab to ensuring the district governor’s success. But the corollary to Jones’s theory was that the Taliban knew they could terrorize the people by targeting the shepherds. They had already killed several village leaders. And this week they pulled off their greatest coup.
Jabar was not an especially noble character. He was an imperious figure, an ex-mujahideen commander who tended to browbeat everybody he saw as his inferior, including Christopher Harich, a State Department official who tried, with very little success, to advise him on good government. He conducted audiences rather than meetings. Petitioners would crowd around him waving crumpled pieces of paper and pouring out their grievances, and the DG would either send them packing or fix his approval with his ever-present stamp. Harich once said to him, "You can’t just hear complaint after complaint and solve them as they come up." But that was precisely how the DG understood the act of governing.
The DG, who was 68, tended to lose focus by the middle of the day, thanks to low blood sugar and possibly the first stirrings of dementia. He was not much more honest than the next man; once he was caught using the local police to shut down a contractor who hadn’t gone through him, or presumably paid him a cut. That was, as he saw it, part of the compensation system for governing. But unlike the warlords whose massive theft and double-dealing have discredited the very idea of good government in Afghanistan, Haji Abdul Jabar did not subordinate Arghandab’s interests to his own. Another of the American civilians there, Kevin Melton of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told me that the DG had warned him against dishonest local contractors; he turned out to be right in every case.
The DG may have tried the patience of his handlers, but they understood very well that he was the face of government in Arghandab. If the weather-beaten men who harvested the grapes, pomegranates, and wheat that grew on either side of the Arghandab River were to believe in this entity called "government," then they had to believe in Haji Abdul Jabar. They had to believe that he would settle grievances fairly — more fairly than the Taliban, in any case — and that he would bring jobs and open schools and health clinics. This process involved a great deal of skill by the Americans, who cleared out dangerous areas and then sent the DG to take the credit. But it was a necessary imposture: People had to believe that local government could deliver if they were going to engage in risky acts of loyalty — for example, by reporting Taliban activity.
It wasn’t easy to say how far the process had advanced. The other members of the district shura, or council, had begun to treat the DG with ever-greater deference, kissing his hand when they arrived for the weekly meeting. But the villagers who gathered in the shade of the District Center, the building inside the U.S. base from which Jabar presided, were full of complaints about corruption and fearful tidings of the Taliban. Accompanying a patrol one day in a nearby village, Harich ran through his usual list of questions: "What do you think of the government? What do you like best? What would you like to change?" The local elder looked at him blankly and said, "We haven’t seen anything like this." Knitting together a social contract among people isolated by ignorance and fear was going to be a slow and frustrating endeavor in the best of circumstances.
And now the Taliban had kicked out a strut from this terribly fragile structure. Melton, the USAID official, sent me an email saying that though Jabar’s loss was tragic, "the leadership of the district is already planning on how to move forward." But I wonder how. Who, save a rank opportunist, will agree to replace Haji Abdul Jabar? Will the people of Arghandab continue to take the risks required to make local government work? Who will they look to as their shepherd — the Afghan government and its American helpers, or the Taliban?
When I relayed the news of the DG’s death to my photographer, Christoph Bangert, he wrote back to say, "I’m more shocked and saddened by this news than I thought possible." I know what he means. I grieved for Kaduz, a sweet and deferential 19-year-old youth who ran errands for his father. And I recalled the DG at his imperial ease. When I persisted in asking him about local affairs at lunch one day, he ignored me, and then, with an amused smile, told a long story about a student who peppers his master with questions so that he can steal the old man’s food while he’s distracted. Touché.
Mostly, however, I grieved for Arghandab, a fertile valley that has enjoyed a measure of peace in recent months, thanks chiefly to the U.S. military. Arghandab has not been sucked into the vortex of violence that plagues Kandahar, now the epicenter of U.S. military plans in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency doctrine of fighting for the people rather than against the enemy, of using force to establish government legitimacy, has worked, if ever so tentatively. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the senior commander in Afghanistan and the chief architect of the counterinsurgency strategy there, thinks that the same process can take hold in Kandahar, a city of 500,000 where the Taliban has sunk deep roots. That has never seemed likely. Now it feels like a desperate hope.