~~~ Beautiful mosque in Herat
by Kathy Gilsinan
World Politics Review
January 15, 2014
Historically a crossroads of commerce and culture linking Persia and Central Asia, the ethnically mixed western region of Afghanistan has more recently been notable for the stability and wealth of its most important province, Herat, and its capital city of the same name. The province of Herat, which borders Iran and Tajikistan, owes much of its prosperity to customs revenue, which in turn is one of the two main domestic sources of revenue for the central government in Kabul. Herat’s growth and integration with the rest of Afghanistan, however, are threatened by instability and poor infrastructure in the surrounding provinces.
Since 2005, Italy has served as the lead nation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Regional Command West, which includes Herat and the surrounding provinces of Ghor, Badghis and Farah. There are currently about 5,000 ISAF troops in the region, from a peak of about 8,000 in late 2011, and under the draft U.S.-Afghanistan bilateral security agreement currently pending signature, the military base south of the city of Herat would be one of nine across the country the U.S. would retain access to after 2014.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) began to assume lead responsibility for security in Herat in late 2011, and have gradually taken over in the rest of the western region since then. Herat itself has remained secure in the transition period, according to Aziz Hazim of the Herat Government and Media Information Center. “Given the relative stability” of the provincial government, he says, after the handover to Afghan forces, “there was not much change in the security situation in Herat province.” Col. Stefano Cianfrocca of the Italian air force, deputy chief of staff for stability in Regional Command West, says the ANSF passed the crucial early test of securing the voter registration process ahead of the presidential election set for this April. “There have been elections before, but they have been closely supervised and supported by ISAF and international organizations,” Cianfrocca says. “This time the Afghans have taken the lead on the elections.”
Working in the ANSF’s favor in western Afghanistan is the absence of conditions faced by Afghan forces in other parts of the country. “Western Afghanistan has not had a history, like that of the east and south, of intertribal fighting over the decades,” says Karl Eikenberry, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. (Disclosure: I worked for Eikenberry as a graduate research assistant at Stanford University from 2011 to 2012.) “There were sources of violence and instability in the west, but not to the degree we found in Regional Commands East, South and Southwest,” he adds.
It also helps that western Afghanistan does not share a border with Pakistan. Iran has demonstrated a keen interest in western Afghanistan’s development, and though there have been reports of Iran arming and training militants there, its alleged support for the insurgency has not been nearly so widespread and well-funded as Pakistan’s. Iran has meanwhile provided some $500 million in aid to Afghanistan, most of it concentrated in the western region; it has granted Afghanistan access to its Chabahar port, freeing Afghan businesses from nearly exclusive reliance on Pakistan’s port at Karachi; and it is constructing a railway link between eastern Iran and Herat, which could further cement Herat’s role as a regional trade hub.
But if geography has given western Afghanistan, and Herat in particular, some advantages, it also presents dangers. Iran has deported thousands of Afghan refugees, exacerbating a potentially destabilizing flow of migration along Afghanistan’s western border. Meanwhile, rising instability in Herat’s neighboring provinces could suffocate Herat’s growth or damage its links to the rest of Afghanistan. A recent Pentagon report noted rising violence in Farah, which borders Herat to the south, attributing it to militants pushed out of neighboring Helmand province by the 2009 U.S. military surge.
But the conditions for Farah’s instability predated the surge. Farah is a large province with poor infrastructure, making it difficult and expensive for Afghan security forces to control; they rely instead on local militias known as the Afghan Local Police, which are controversial for their history of abusing residents. “Just keeping the road infrastructure safe must be . . . a nightmare,” says Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, who has documented “a serious deterioration in security” as the province transitioned to Afghan security lead. Farah is also the only province in western Afghanistan heavily affected by the opium economy. “We’ll see it again in a couple of months come harvest time—you have Taliban and communities fighting side by side against the government,” Foschini says. “The situation can become problematic in the next few years in what lies around this sort of security oasis” in Herat.
Even Herat’s wealth has attracted its own kind of violence, more opportunistic than ideological. While the province rarely makes headlines for spectacular attacks—though a suicide attack on the U.S. consulate last September, claimed by the Taliban, showed the city was not immune—insurgents and criminals more often resort to kidnapping for ransom. “Herat has long been the kidnapping capital of Afghanistan,” Foschini says. Criminal networks that may not be formally allied with the Taliban have a freer hand to extort locals given that the police are, in Foschini’s words, “fighting basically a war”—in turn, the unsafe environment they create may scare off the businesses Herat depends on, creating opportunities for the Taliban through rising instability.
The Taliban’s fall, and international investment in infrastructure and development, have allowed western Afghanistan to capitalize on some of its geographical advantages. Through expanding trade links and improved customs collection, Herat’s growth in particular is less dependent on international aid than that of other pockets of relative wealth in Afghanistan, making it more likely that most of Herat’s gains over the past 12 years will outlast the international presence there. Whether and to what extent those gains can benefit the rest of the country, given the belt of instability that surrounds Herat, is unclear, though, and protecting western Afghanistan’s “security oasis” will test ANSF for many years to come.