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.

Marcel Mettelsiefen/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Turkish Dilemma

Once a reliable Western ally, Turkey is now going its own way in the Middle East. And nobody in Washington or Brussels knows what to do about it.

My son wants to study a non-European language that's going to matter in the future. He has been contemplating Arabic or Hindi. But after the last few weeks, I'm thinking -- Turkish. All of a sudden, everyone wants to know about Turkey -- and it turns out almost no one does. There's no real mystery in that: Americans tend to benignly neglect other countries until they become a problem. And until just the other day, Turkey was a fun tourist destination; now it's a problem.

Turkey has thrust itself into the American national consciousness by working with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, which the United States viewed as unhelpful, at best; by voting (along with Brazil) against Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran; and by assailing Israel in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla. Senior Obama administration officials have begun to worry that the West has "lost" Turkey; Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently fretted that Turkey is "moving eastward" and blamed the European Union for blocking Turkey's aspiration for membership. The Wall Street Journal editorial page goes a step or three further and accuses Ankara of throwing in its lot with the fundamentalists and the Israel-haters.

Turkey didn't set out to be a problem. Over the course of the last decade, the country's diplomats seem to have taken a leaf from China, whose doctrine of "peaceful rise" dictated harmonious relations along its borders and a relatively low profile in global diplomacy. Turkey's policy of "zero problems toward neighbors" smoothed away conflict with Middle Eastern partners, including both Israel and Iran. Through a series of bilateral agreements, Turkey has established a visa-free zone, and it hopes to establish a free trade zone in much of the area once occupied by the Ottoman Empire -- without, as a Turkish diplomat pointed out to me, seeking to re-create Ottoman hegemony.

But success breeds confidence and makes yesterday's modesty seem like undue timidity. Beijing, which once hid behind the skirts of the Non-Aligned Movement, now openly confronts Washington on both economic and military issues. And Turkey, no longer content to reduce friction along its borders, dreams of bringing a new order to the Middle East. "[T]he world expects great things from Turkey," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has written on this website.

He might be wrong there, but what's clear is that Turkey expects great things from itself. Turkey may well have overplayed its hand by forcing Barack Obama's administration to choose between its two closest allies in the Middle East -- Turkey and Israel -- but Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to have decided that they would rather overplay their hand than underplay it.

Perhaps all emerging powers reach this inflection point, where nationalistic pride almost compels overreaching. (See under: Brazil.) But Turkey is the only emerging power located in the Middle East, a region where supreme global conflicts play themselves out. A peaceful rise in East Asia is no great feat, but try living next to Iraq and Iran without antagonizing somebody. The Turks infuriated George W. Bush's administration by refusing to let U.S. troops invade Iraq through their territory. Had they acquiesced, they would have outraged their neighbors instead. Nor could Turkey's remarkably warm relations with Israel survive long at a time when the Israeli government is seen as utterly intransigent toward the Palestinians; the Gaza-bound flotilla was only the last straw. Turkey's aspirations for regional leadership virtually compelled the break with Israel. That had nothing to do with Ankara's rejection by the European Union.

Turkey is also a democracy in a region where the United States is incredibly unpopular. Ordinary Egyptians hate U.S. policy, but autocratic President Hosni Mubarak feels free to ignore popular opinion. The same is true of Saudi Arabia, the United States' other major regional ally. Indeed, the central paradox of President Bush's policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East is that it might have been a disaster for U.S. interests had it succeeded among America's allies -- which, of course, it didn't. In the latest survey by the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the United States. (The figure in Egypt was 27 percent.) Turkish leaders can no more afford to ignore antipathy toward the United States, or Israel, than American leaders can ignore popular anger at Iran. Instead, they have stoked that anger through increasingly fierce attacks on Israel, led by Erdogan himself. "The government in Turkey has decided that the policy of confrontation with Israel suits it both domestically and regionally," says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And history has propelled Turkey forward. The rise of new states has loosened the West's epochal grip on global economic, military, and political power. Additionally, the Middle East has been remade. Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, recently observed that in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire's collapse, Arab leaders reorganized the Middle East as the Arab world; owing to the weakness of Arab states and then to the toppling of the Iraqi regime, that system has come to an end. Setting aside Israel, the big Middle Eastern powers are now the once-marginalized non-Arab ones: Iran and Turkey. And unlike Iran or any of the Arab states, Turkey has a great story to tell: not the reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire, but the rise of a democratic, free market state in the Islamic world of the Middle East. Salem described Turkey as "the only country in the Middle East actually pointing toward the future." That is what is known as soft power.

So yes, young people: Do learn Turkish. Turkey has the world's 17th-largest economy and expects to be No. 10 before long. Some pundits and scholars would like to see the United States move toward Turkey rather than the other way around. In his new book, Reset, Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent, argues that the three non-Arab powers of the Middle East -- the United States, Iran, and Turkey -- constitute a "tantalizing 'power triangle.'" Kinzer would have Iran and Turkey replace Israel and Saudi Arabia as key U.S. allies in the region. Perhaps the Turks entertain the same dreams.

That's not going to happen. The White House is not going to leave Israel in the lurch, even if the right fears it and realists like Kinzer hope for it. But the real beef between the United States and Turkey is Iran: Barkey observes that Erdogan does not understand that for Obama, Iran's nuclear ambitions are a fundamental issue, not a matter of regional power. One administration official with whom I spoke said that the Turks "have a very high opinion of their role in the world" and seem blithely unaware that they are provoking a backlash on Capitol Hill.

What then? To say that Turkey doesn't want to be a problem is only to say that Erdogan wants to have his cake and eat it, too: to court public opinion in Turkey and the region by targeting Israel, to satisfy nationalist aspirations by making a separate peace with Iran -- but not to pay a price with the United States or Europe. The Turks profess bafflement at the harsh reception their diplomatic forays have received in the West. This is either naive or disingenuous. Still, what price will Turkey have to pay? Maybe the White House won't try to stop Congress from passing a resolution accusing Turkey of having perpetrated genocide against Armenia (though it probably will). More seriously, Erdogan and Davutoglu are playing into the hands of Europeans who oppose Turkey's aspirations for EU membership. Nevertheless, they might have more to gain than lose by playing to the Middle Eastern street -- especially if they have concluded that the European Union won't accept them anyway.

The problem for White House policymakers is different. This administration is prepared to take counsel from rising powers. This is a G-20, not a G-8, White House. "We're trying to give them their place in the sun," says the official with whom I spoke. But how can they accord Turkey its place in the sun without acceding to a view of the Middle East that Washington does not and will not accept? "When you come up with that," the official told me, "let me know."