Analysis Military

The Counterinsurgency Fight in Zaranj, Afghanistan, 2010 – 2012

Nimroz Province is in the southwest corner of Afghanistan and arguably the most isolated province in the country. With the exception of the northern Khash Rod district, which was the only district with a significant Pashtun population, security incident rates were low. The majority of the population are Baloch, an ancient people with tribal lands located in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Balochistan is divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. It has always been my semi informed opinion that we should be advocating for a Baloch, Pashtun and Kurdish homeland because that cause our adversaries in the region fits. Giving your enemy fits without fighting them is called diplomacy but our diplomats don’t seen to understand the game well.

In 2009, the company I worked for, Central Asia Development Group (CADG), rented a compound in the capitol, Zaranj, installing offices for USAID programs and the commercial construction division. We were the only international company in the province and, because CADG had an air component, we were the only way for locals to fly in or out of Zaranj. When NATO was in Afghanistan, Nimroz was in the Area of Operations for the Marine Corps Task Force headquartered in the Helmand at Camp Leatherneck. The alternative to flying into Zaranj was driving down Route 606, a 135 mile ribbon of modern highway built by Indian contractors in 2009. The route was safe, with the exception of drifting sand dunes that moved fast and could cover a road quickly. Buses would hit these drifting dunes with depressing regularity. However, the real problem with taking Route 606 was that it ended in the town of Delaram (Taliban central and, back then, home to the Marine Corps 2nd Regimental Combat Team).

One of the students in our rug weaving classes in 2009. Note she is not wearing a Burqa – they were rare in Zaranj. Herat too, when I was there. All our women’s training programs ended in 2010 when the State Department switched to “sustainability” as a program metric. 

Zaranj is the main border crossing into Iran for southwestern Afghanistan. In certain parts of the city, cell phones automatically log onto Iranian cell networks and an SMS message welcoming you to Iran (in English) would appear on your cell. Iran provides 24/7 electricity to Zaranj as well as ice and potable water. Like Herat, the city has a Persian flavor. Women can drive and sortie out of the house without male relatives. It was a good place to run women empowerment projects, and we ran a bunch where the participants were given the tools required (sewing machines or beauty shop gear) for the skill they had been trained to do.

The traditional ways of making an income on an international border involve smuggling, poppy and people out of Afghanistan and petrol in. These boy are retrieving petrol from a truck that just cleared customs.
Just down the street from the customs port you can find petrol for sale in various quantities and for a very reasonable price (if you pay with Iranian Rials or US Dollars). Private petrol stations are a sign of stability and consistent commerce. Zaranj had the stability, but the economic capacity to fund private fuel stations evolved slowly. Local teens filled the market gap selling by the liter and half liter on the main thoroughfares.

The governor of Nimroz was Abdul Karim Brahui, formerly commander of the Jabha-e Nimruz (a Baluch Mujahideen militia who fought both the Soviets and Taliban). He was the appointed governor before the Taliban took over in 1995, and again between 2001-2005. Kabul seldom interfered with his activities. If the governor was using the office to enrich himself it was not obvious when dealing with him or his administration and,  in my experience, that was rare. Governor Brahui (that is a tribal name, not a family one) was a competent administrator who was popular with the local citizens. He managed to keep both electricity and water flowing from Iran while simultaneously draining the Helmand River above the Iranian water intakes with the Charborjak district irrigation intake system we had built in 2010. The river was low that summer, so the cut in water was unintentional, but that didn’t stop me from catching a ton of grief about my signature project for that year.

Explaining the US aid process to Governor Brahui in 2010

Nimroz province had the lowest insurgent incident rates in the country.  The problems they did have were confined to the northern district of Khash Rud which is more closely linked (historically, geographically, linguistically, and tribally) to the Helmand and Farah provinces. The remaining districts are sparsely populated and majority Baluch. From 2009-2011 the company I was working for, Central Asia Development Group (CADG), was the only international aid implementer working in Nimroz province. During those years we re-built the Kang as well as Charborjak district irrigation systems, and we did public work projects and job training programs in the capitol of Zaranj.  

Nimroz Province – Iran borders kang, Zaranj, and the western edge of Charborjak districts. Pakistan borders Charborjak to the south

One of our first projects in Zaranj was digging out and installing drainage culverts on the streets of downtown Zaranj. They were already scheduled to be paved with funds provided by the Marines in Camp Leatherneck, so we hired several thousand local men (it was a cash for work program) to dig and and install sewer pipes under every major road intersection. We cut all the north/south roads downtown one week and were planning to do all the east/west roads the next when the Taliban took a shot at Governor Brahui and the provincial council. You can find my post from Free Range International about that attack here.

This road project stopped the first car load of villains short of the governors compound which is to the right.

In 2011, the Taliban made another attempt on Governor Brahui when they set up an ambush for him on the route he was supposed to take to the opening ceremony for the Charborjak district irrigation system. The governor cancelled the ceremony the week prior, rescheduling it for the following Saturday, but the head of the Highway Patrol, Haji Mehedin, drove the route that day and was ambushed. The ambush team missed Haji Mehedin with their opening salvo, but they did hit and disable his Ford truck. The Patrol Chief, after shooting one of them, ran down the road to a border police checkpoint outside the old abandoned ghost fortress of Qala Fatah (the name means clear water and the water there is awesome) to rally his district Quick Reaction Force (QRF). The QRF (using radios to rally members far and wide) started a 90-mile running gunfight across the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death) with the Taliban ambushers.

Spot where Haji Mehedin’s Ford truck was ambushed the week prior to our trip to open the Charborjak irrigation system.
Qala Fatah fortress that dates from the Sistine era. A water distribution point and Border Police post is behind the fortress.

The ambush team dismounted and made several stands during the chase killing one of the Border Police officers who was closing in on them. That officer was from Charborjak district, and the governor stopped at his family compound to pay his respects during our trip the following week. In the end, the villains ran into the intake dam we had just finished building which prevented them from crossing the Helmand river and heading into the desert. At that intake dam was a new ANA post with a heavy machine-gun emplacement and that spelled the end of the road for the Taliban. You can find a detailed account of that story here

The Qalat of the border patrol officer killed the week prior. The governor spent an hour inside with the family while the rest of us waited outside the village.

When the Governor held the opening ceremony for the Charborjak irrigation system, we jumped the Helmand river and went into the badlands of the Dasht-e Margo — into the triangle area where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran touch. We (there were 60 or so trucks with us that day) dismounted and world class combat correspondent Michael Yon filmed the governor explaining to me what it would take to stop the Taliban infiltration of the area to protect Zaranj from attacks. What he described was a rifle company (Rein) with a detachment of helicopters and other enablers (radio recon, snipers, signal intelligence, etc.) that would pounce down on all traffic moving through the desert. Apparently the Soviets were able to do this to him during the few times they worked out of the Zaranj airport. 

Governor Brahui explaining how he operated against the Soviets back in the day and how he would like to operate against the Taliban today.

Zaranj was too close to the Iranian border for the Marines to consider stationing troops there, even on a temporarily basis. The Marines did try to help out as best they could funding some large infrastructure projects for the border police and city infrastructure. The Marines would make day trips to Zaranj and even overnighted at the governors compound. 

When the Marines made overnight visits they had to move in local ANP trucks.

During a visit to Zarnaj on 28 April, 2012 a group of Marines was targeted with an IED. A Wall Street Journal reporter was with the Marines and filed this report after the incident. The attack appeared (to me) to be hastily planned and poorly executed; the bomb was not powerful and the small arms fire after the bomb was not effective. One of the Marines in that convoy was killed and several were wounded in the first attack in Nimroz that did not target the governor. 

During the evening of 13 August, 2012, Zaranj-based ANP got into a stiff firefight when they stopped a white Toyota Corolla at a checkpoint outside the city. A running gun battle ensued that ended when the Corolla smashed into a wall and the two occupants jumped out guns blazing. Luke Mogelson, writing in The New York Times Magazine takes up the story.

Inside the car, police discovered explosives, remote controls, timers, grenades and a suicide vest. The passenger was identified as an Iranian who moved to Zaranj some months earlier and opened a small stand that sold snacks and soft drinks. He went by the name Mullah Satar. That night the police cordoned off the neighborhood where Satar seemed to have been heading, and in the morning they conducted a thorough search of it. In one house, three young Iranian men were found in possession of more suicide vests and remote-controlled explosives. According to the police, the men confessed that Satar was their leader and that they had been planning to carry out a massive, coordinated assault later that day. There were seven additional attackers still at large somewhere in the city, they said, though they didn’t know where”.

The next day the remaining suicide bombers struck around the main bazaar and hospital which was the topic of my last post. Massive attacks targeting locals shopping in a bazaar was and remains rare in Afghanistan — attacking civilians who are not in proximity to what insurgents consider a legitimate target rarer still.  

The people of Zaranj blame every large man-made catastrophe on Iran, just like the eastern Pashtun blame their misfortunes Pakistan. The NDS and several provincial council members identified the attackers as Iranians, so the word on the street was the Sepah-e Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) were behind the bombings. The Afghan government and UN pointed a finger at the Jundallah, a Baloch separatist movement, as the prime suspects based on a recent attack they had conducted in Zahedan, Iran.

At the time, I thought that perhaps a local nawsakht (newly established, or neo-Talilban) group was behind the attacks. Both Pashtun and Baluch villages in the remote areas of the province were arming themselves to prevent encroachment on their lands and to get into the booming cross border drug trade. That doesn’t explain the targeting of civilians, but then again those suicide attacks did not go as planned — so who knows who or what the intended targets were?

I don’t think putting Marines down on the border to run counter-smuggling operations would have worked because too much of the local economy was dependent on cross-border smuggling. The amount of drugs flowing through the borders was, and probably remains, astronomic. The border police made significant seizures on a routine basis, but all of them were out in the badlands away from the more traditional routes used by connected smugglers. Fabrizio Foschini, from the Afghan Analyst network, explains why: 

The reason for this apparently schizophrenic behaviour on the part of local policemen appears to be that, with a little bit of effort and organisation, seizing drugs can be more lucrative than simply shipping them beyond the border. Local smugglers themselves are reported to be passing on the tips to their uniformed accomplices, as to where and when to effect the search, and then a 10 percent of the confiscated drug is sacrificed on the pyre in front of the media – along with a 90 percent opium-like substance cheaply purchased in Iran to substitute for the missing ‘real stuff’. The opium thus saved is later sold directly by the local smugglers/policemen, who can justify the loss to the original owner back in Helmand as due to a police operation, and retain the full profit of the enterprise. Of course, framing a taxi or truck driver once in a while lends more credibility to the whole set up.

Part of a drug haul displayed by the ANP at a press conference in Zaranj in 2010

I wrote a popular post about the ANP in Zaranj (click on the link and you will see why) which can be found here.  If you sent Marines down to seal the border, they would probably have found a way to seal the border which would have caused significant disruptions in the local economy.

There are no easy answers in Afghanistan because the root of every problem is a complex fusion of history, time, religion, and the current realities on the ground. It appears that America will have troops in the country for years to come; I hope they are able to buy the time and space for the Afghan government to get its act together. But the next round of funding is in 2020 and the last round of funding came with anti-corruption targets attached that have not been achieved. Time is not on Kabul’s side.

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Yankee Papa
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Yankee Papa

Baba Tim,

The British ran an honest (by the standards of the day) Empire… but in that general part of the world, illicit trade, banditry, and fanatics always just below the surface. We lack both the patience and the (former) staying power of the late British Empire. Whatever “changes” we make, I fear will not long outlast our last plane out…

-Yankee Papa-

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Sadly you are right YP

susanh
Member
susanh

Thank you, Tim. I hope Maximus is still ruling the world!

Mason
Member
Mason

Tim, my understanding during this time frame, and in that province (Nimroz) and others nearby, about 1600 to 1800 tons of opium a year were making their way into the worlds supply chain, greater volume than any registered before. I think at one point Afghanistan and about 4 provinces literally injected about 70% of the worlds opium supply into the drug market. I have read sources who were confused by both US and ISAF, along with NATO troops being very light in those area’s in regards to destroying the poppy fields. However, your article highlights some of this, if you… Read more »

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Baba Tim,
Very much enjoy this background. It is disheartening to see steps going forward and backward and like YP states our lack of staying power will eliminate any accomplishments.

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