PAKTIKA, November 2021
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the end of most fighting, the Taliban promised to rebuild Afghanistan. However, the results of such efforts vary greatly as a visit by the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) to the remote southeastern Afghan province of Paktika showed. While in some places roads and government buildings have been reconstructed, in others the new Taliban Emirate has taken steps that are a drop in the ocean and seem to be at most insufficiently thought-out.
A Talib gestures to a worker who rebuilds a wall around the district governor’s office in Sarhawzah district, Paktika province, Afghanistan (Franz J. Marty, 7th of November 2021)
Taliban Efforts to Rebuild Afghanistan
After the Taliban took over practically all of Afghanistan in a lighting offensive in the first half of August 2021, they declared the war to be over and began the difficult transition from an armed insurgency to a government. And this transition has so far been at best partly successful which is, amongst others, shown at the example of the new Taliban government’s attempts to reconstruct a country that has been ravaged by over four decades of war.
The focus of the Taliban in this regard are roads and government buildings. While the Taliban have advertised and conducted work on several roads, in other places road reconstructions that have started under the former government have come to a halt and remain stalled (see here). Furthermore, the reconstruction of certain roads has to also be seen in context. When visiting the southeastern province of Paktika, Taliban prided themselves of having repaired a bridge on the main road in the district of Sarhawzah. While this has indeed been the case, they glossed over the fact that it was also the Taliban who had destroyed the bridge in the first place with an improvised explosive device targeting armed forces of the Afghan Republic toppled in mid-August. And this is only one of many examples in which the Taliban repair what they themselves had destroyed.
A bridge on the main road in Sarhawzah district, Paktika province, that the Taliban have repaired — after having destroyed it themselves (Franz J. Marty, 7th of November 2021)
With respect to government buildings, Muhibullah Hamas, the deputy governor of Paktika province highlighted that work on district governor’s buildings in 9 out of Paktika’s 23 districts has started. «For other districts, we have submitted proposals to the Ministry of Interior Affairs but not yet received a reply», he told SIGA on 11th of November 2021.
In Sarhawzah, the already mentioned district which is located between Paktika’s capital Sharana and the province’s historical centre Urgun, reconstruction efforts of the Taliban have shown results. Mawlawi Mustafa Bahar, the Taliban governor of Sarhawzah, sits in a neat pastel-coloured district office. «We have renovated this building as well as the police station [right next to it] with money from the budget of the provincial government», Bahar told SIGA on 7th of November 2021. And this is not the end of reconstruction efforts in Sarhawzah. When SIGA visited the district governor’s office in early November, local workers were busy building an enclosing wall around it. «We sold the material from the old HESCO wall to finance a new stone wall,» Bahar explained. «The workers are all private citizens and get paid», he added.
Mawlawi Mustafa Bahar, the Taliban’s governor of Sarhawzah district, Paktika province, in his newly renovated office (Franz J. Marty, 7th of November 2021)
The workers who all live in nearby villages in Sarhawzah confirmed this. «Regular workers get around 400 Afghanis (approximately 4.40 U.S.$) per day and foremen around 700 to 800 Afghani (approximately 7.80 to 8.90 U.S.$)», one of them said. «Before, there was no construction work here, but the [Taliban] Emirate started this [since the takeover in mid-August]», another of the men told SIGA. «We do the work a bit cheaper than usual, as the Emirate does not have much money at the moment», the same man added, indicating that not everything is going smoothly.
District governor Bahar and the workers also assured that it is planned to build a row of bazaar stalls right between the district governor’s office and the main street which is intended to stimulate the local economy and create jobs. «This and other development projects are under review by the provincial government, which has so far not replied with a decision», Bahar said.
However, other districts display a starkly contrasting picture. In Paktika’s remote district of Gyan, the district governor’s office has been razed to the ground in heavy fighting in 2012, when the Taliban took over Gyan’s district centre. «We could not rebuild the district governor’s office in the past as we had to fear airstrikes and night raids and as the Emirate also did not have the means to do so», Mawlawi Rahmatullah Derwisht, the Taliban’s governor of Gyan explained to SIGA on 9th of November 2021. «Now we have sent a reconstruction proposal to the provincial government», he added. «In response, the provincial government has sent a truck load of bricks and promised to send more», Derwisht said. The SIGA fellow was later shown the pile of bricks on the open ground right next to where the district governor’s office used to be which would barely be enough to build a single room.
A pile of bricks sent by Paktika’s provincial government to Gyan district to support the reconstruction of a district governor’s office (Franz J. Marty, 10th of November 2021)
Similarly, Bahtullah, the principal of the school in Gyan’s district centre, told SIGA that the deputy director of Paktika’s education department had promised that repairing the school in Gyan is a priority. «The provincial government has already sent water tanks and solar panels and the school will, God willing, be rebuilt,» Bahtullah added. However, given that the school, which has around 650 students and 20 teachers, lacks a roof in almost all rooms and is also in general not much more than an empty, desolate shell, starting with sending water tanks and solar panels appears to be an odd choice.
In view of the above, sending a truck load of bricks for the district governor’s office and building material for the school might be well-intended gestures but they are hardly effective or thought-out plans. This is further reinforced by assertions of Derwisht that, as of 9th of November 2021, no representative of the provincial government had visited Gyan.
In general, and despite the mentioned example of Gyan’s school, the Taliban’s plan for schools and clinics is apparently not to fund and (re)build them themselves, but to let others take care of that. «To rebuild schools and clinics, we are in talks with NGOs and the United Nations who have promised to help», Hamas explained. That this amounts to an acknowledgement that the Taliban are neither prepared nor able to provide public health and education services themselves does not seem to bother Hamas or other Taliban.
Given the gargantuan task of rebuilding a country after over four decades of war, that the Taliban inherited a dysfunctional administration, and — last but certainly not least — that the Taliban created an array of new problems by taking Afghanistan over by force and appointing a government almost completely consisting of members of the group, many of whom are on international sanctions list, the Taliban could hardly be expected to rebuild every remote district within a few months. As such and given the likelihood that Afghanistan will even in the best case not receive the same amount of aid as during the past two decades, the most likely scenario is that Afghans in remote areas will have to help themselves and will not receive much, if any support from the Taliban government or aid organisations.
In Gyan, which has been under effective Taliban control since nine years, this has already been the case during the past years. In Galai, a remote village in Gyan district, residents told SIGA that, in absence of any governmental or non-governmental aid, they had to take care of things themselves and were building and repairing the bumpy dirt track through a large forest to their village themselves. Similarly, the school in Gyan’s centre organised some community aid, known as ‘janda’ in Afghanistan which includes donations of money and materials, but also providing men to do the actual work. This, however, did not manage to change the overall desolate state of the school.
One reason for the limited impact of ‘janda’ / self-help is that the locals themselves usually only have meagre means and often already struggle to sustain their own families. And this will, in view of the economic downturn caused by the Taliban takeover, arguably become only more precarious in the future.
However, to some extent there is also a questionable allocation of the limited available resources in ‘janda’. For example, while the teachers and some residents of Gyan’s district centre complain that their school does not even have a roof, the village sports a luxurious mosque whose dimensions and grandeur are outsized for the population. When asked about this peculiar contrast, one young resident of Gyan said that — with a few exceptions — local mullahs tell locals to contribute to ‘janda’ for mosques but not for schools. And locals apparently listen to the mullahs and the mullahs have, contrary to teachers, also connections to raise money from outside Gyan, as the young man explained. Accordingly, the notion to split self-help and donations more evenly between mosques and schools is not really in the cards said the young man; however, the residents then also have to face the consequences, if they do not change this.
The outsized mosque that overshadows everything else in Gyan’s district centre (Franz J. Marty, 10th of November 2021)
A class room in the desolate school of Gyan’s district centre (Franz J. Marty, 10th of November 2021)
In view of all the above, the reconstruction of Afghanistan will — barring a major change in Taliban attitude necessary for the influx of more international aid — be an enormously difficult undertaking. And efforts of a cash-starved Taliban and local population facing a retracting or rather crashing economy might be commendable but will be mere drops in the ocean.