This article was submitted by a consultant in working Afghanistan.
Remnants of war — mines, unexploded ordinance, discarded machinery — blight Afghanistan. Soviet, American and NATO/ISAF hardware, not to mention the motley military flotsam of the Afghan civil war, dot the landscape. But in at least one part of the country Afghans have put the detritus of war to good work.
Throughout the Panjshir Valley, two hours drive northeast of Kabul, shells of Soviet tanks have been deployed to reinforce irrigation channels and the banks of the Panjshir river. These rusting memorials to decades old battles now serve time holding loose rocks in place and regulating the rapid waters on which the green valley's towns and orchards depend. A few shells bear Dari graffiti, the Cyrillic text faint beneath. Most, their turrets destroyed and crews long vanquished, have since been left, quietly unmolested, to spend the next decades in penance for the destruction they wrought years ago.
Panjshiris are proud of their resistance to the Soviet occupation, and for being the home region of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban war hero assassinated 9 years ago on September 9, 2011. Residents are equally proud of their small province's stable security since the Taliban's overthrow; the good security situation in a country of war is raised unsolicited as a point of pride in almost every conversation. Resident ISAF forces — predominantly a small US contingent — are limited in number and are mainly engaged in training security forces and reconstruction. There are no combat operations here.
Afghanistan's only civilian-led provincial reconstruction team (PRT) is based in Panjshir. Like the mountain streams and slopes of the valley, Panjshir is a “green” (i.e. safe) province on the security planning map (green, orange, red, black), far removed from the “red” and “black” provinces of the south — Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan — where heavy fighting continues to claim the lives of Afghans and coalition forces. Yet Panjshir borders the once highly secure province of Badakshan, where a criminal vehicle ambush claimed the lives of 10 humanitarian workers just a few weeks ago. Panjshir is in the same region as Takhar province, site of an air strike on September 2 that killed 10 Afghans. ISAF claimed those targeted were linked to the Taliban insurgency, a claim which the province's governor rejected, stating that those killed were elections campaign workers. President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack. The US promised an investigation.
The stability of Panjshir province, its insularity and self-sufficiency (only in recent years has a paved road connected the region to the rest of the country) have so far protected it from the violence and volatility of other regions.
Can Panjshir remain a mountain oasis of calm in a country where security is deteriorating in every region? All Panjshiris hope so, but within the national context, Panshir's small population, already disproportionately influential through the legacy of Massoud and other leaders hailing from the region, has only so much control over its own destiny.
In Panjshir and elsewhere, imminent security attention has now turned to preparations for the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament) elections on September 18. Electoral commission officials at both the national and local level claim that security is the biggest challenge in delivering successful elections, a remarkable claim in a country continually challenged by poor transport and communication links, a high level of illiteracy, and an unfortunate track record of electoral fraud, particularly in last year's presidential contest. On September 9, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Staffan de Mistura confirmed that in the UN's view, violence was the biggest threat to the elections.
Unlike 2005 and 2009, Afghan authorities are deliberately the lead actors in administering the elections, including for the maintenance of elections security. The Independent Electoral Commission is the lead elections administrator — UN and IFES assistance is intentionally more low profile this year. This year's Electoral Complaints Commission (the 2009 version was led by Canadian Grant Kippen) has a majority of Afghan, rather than international, members. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) face major challenges in a huge mobilization of police and soldiers required nationwide. ISAF hopes its forces will not be required to substantively intervene to safeguard the electoral process, and undermine their public claims about the great progress made in strengthening indigenous Afghan security agencies.
Pulling off a successful elections day will be a success for Afghan security forces and the billions that has been invested in their creation. Protecting polling stations for the hours of voting and counting will be an achievement.
However, this modest achievement will be tempered by the speedy return to the reality of insecurity that daily confronts most of Afghanistan's provinces. For Panjshiris, the fervent hope is that post-election, the volatility and insecurity faced by other parts of Afghanistan does not seek to enter or return to their green valley of peace and potential prosperity.
The author is working as a consultant in Afghanistan.