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Afghanistan’s Forgotten Province

photo by Karlos Zurutuza

Nine years after the first post-Taliban UN talks on Afghanistan were concluded in Bonn, one border province is still left oddly isolated.

by Karlos Zurutuza

‘You said “Nimroz”? Let me check.’

The International Security Assistance Force officer in Kabul fumbles around with a map before confirming that there are no Coalition or Afghan troops monitoring the country’s 400 kilometre border with Iran and Pakistan. In fact, he has to check first where exactly in Afghanistan Nimroz is.*

‘You're right, no troops based there,’ he says. ‘And I’m realizing now that there’s not a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in the area, either.’ I ask him why none are stationed there, but he doesn’t have an answer. Neither do the experts.

In fact, there is the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team in Delaram, a small town that lies on the furthermost spot from the border and the province´s capital, Zaranj. But Afghanistan´s south-western, porous border remains unguarded.

‘Nimroz is a major smuggling hub in Afghanistan: heroin goes out and weapons get in across the Afghan-Iranian border,’ says best-selling writer and renowned Afghanistan commentator Ahmed Rashid. He says he has no explanation for the ‘military abandonment’ of this remote, but potentially key, southern province.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there aren’t any direct flights from Kabul to Nimroz. To reach the provincial capital of Zaranj, you first have to fly to Herat, in the west. From there, an obsolete Antonov flies three times a week (if you’re lucky enough to catch it on a day when it hasn’t been grounded for mechanical reasons or one of the frequent sandstorms). A couple of wrecked aircraft at the end of the runway at Zaranj Airport are an uncomfortable reminder of how unpredictable the conditions can be in this part of the world.

Nimroz is unique in many ways. For a start, it’s the only province in Afghanistan to have sent two women to serve in Kabul’s parliament following September’s parliamentary elections. It’s also the only part of the country where the minority Baloch make up a majority of the population. Indeed, the province’s governor, Karim Brahui, is a member of this stateless ‘nation,’ which is now divided up between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

‘There aren’t any foreign troops deployed in Nimroz because there’s no need for any. This is a peaceful province,’ Brahui says. Certainly, he’s someone who knows first-hand the difference between war and peace. The governor was the founder and a former commander of the ‘Nimroz Front,’ which was established in 1979 and fought both the Russians and the Taliban.

While much has been written about Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik Northern Alliance commander who is given most of the credit for the defeat of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, little is said about the efforts of a ‘Southern Alliance’ battling at the opposite end of the country.

‘We had no contact with the movements in the north, but we all pursued the same goals: to fight against anyone who would invade the country,’ Brahui says. The former weapons mechanic and now central government minister for refugees says that far from disappearing, the Nimroz Front is still active.

Abdul Jabar Purdely, another Baloch who’s now head of the local police (the only ‘official’ armed group in Nimroz) explains from his office how power is currently divided in the region. ‘The Taliban control the areas of Delaram, Khash Rod and the border region with Pakistan,’ he says. ‘But Zaranj is under Kabul’s control.’

The deadly presence of these militants in the region has been felt on several occasions this year. In July, for example, 25 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb that was detonated under the bus they were travelling in; nine more people (eight of them children) were killed in a similar incident in October.

Purdely adds that a few days after the most recent attack, his men intercepted a shipment of 19 tons of explosives and weapons coming in from Iran. With all this going on, it’s perhaps not surprising that only a handful of locals other than the Baloch nomads dare to leave Nimroz’s capital by road and face the dangerous and unpredictable obstacle course of Taliban checkpoints and sandstorms.

Leaving the fortified local government compound to wander the streets of Zaranj, it’s easy to see close neighbour Iran’s influence.

‘I love how women dress in Nimroz,’ says Aziz, who adds that compared with the blue burkhas worn in his native village, the Iranian black chador confers on local women ‘a touch of distinction and nobility.’

The Persian dress code may be the most visible evidence of Iran’s proximity, but it’s far from the only one. In Zaranj’s only internet café, for example, it’s impossible to access any of the foreign web pages that have been blocked by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Persian products dominate the motley stalls of the bazaar, all of which conduct transactions in Iranian tomans, not in Afghanis.

Arguably more noticeable than the dress code, though, is the seemingly ubiquitous object necessary for so many residents to make a living in this city—the plastic jerry can. The cans, typically offloaded from Japanese pickup trucks and rickshaws, can be seen lined up in their thousands along Zaranj’s main road. Trade in the smuggled petrol carried in the cans can be so frantic that hidden tanks on the trucks are often emptied in the middle of the street and in full view of everyone—including the police.

‘There are two ways to make a living here: either you smuggle petrol or heroin across the border, or you take water from the Helmand River and sell it to one of the two treatment plants in the city’, says Zaranj resident Sattar. The 40 year-old says he typically makes between seven and ten trips a day to the plant to sell water, although he admits his aging tractor slows him down.

Traders like Sattar are able to eke out a living because unlike the constant flow of petrol on the streets of Zaranj, water is a relatively rare commodity. The extended droughts that have afflicted the region have prompted the exodus of thousands of local families in recent years.

‘Everybody here’s in the business, including the Taliban,’ says Ashraf, a local truck driver heading for the border.

The shortage of water has in fact been noted by ISAF, which issued a press release in October saying that Afghan and coalition force leaders had met in Zaranj to discuss a number of issues, including potable water.

The aim of the meeting was ‘to start a long and lasting friendship that will be mutually beneficial to both our strong and friendly countries,’ US Marine Col. Kevin Frederick, is reported to have said at the time, following a meeting involving Brahui.

Still, locals noting the absence of foreign or domestic military personnel have their own ideas about what’s going on in the province.

‘You’re still wondering why there are no Coalition troops or an Afghan Army presence in Nimroz?’ asks the driver. ‘We all think there’s a secret pact between Kabul and Tehran…A Helmand Province-style display of foreign troops on the border with Iran would just be too explosive for the whole country.’

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance journalist covering off-the-radar conflict regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. He was awarded the Nawab Bugti Reporting Award 2009 for his reporting on the Baloch areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

*This is an amended version of the original article, providing clarification over the status of forces in and around Nimroz Province.


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