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Against the Clock in Afghanistan

Against the Clock in Afghanistan

By David Ignatius - July 1, 2011

KHOST, Afghanistan -- A Taliban prisoner named Mohammed Nazir is brought into the warden's office here in ankle cuffs and seated on the couch next to me. He is wary but articulate about what ails his country. "The major problem is our justice system. It is corrupt," he says. And he's right.

The Taliban's greatest asset has been its ability to provide quick justice in a country shattered by war and corruption. It was the recruiting card for Afghans such as Nazir, a 31-year-old mullah with a long black beard and incongruously sparkling white teeth, who was convicted of helping plant roadside bombs.

Here lies the biggest challenge for America as it begins to reduce forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. must help the Afghan government provide justice and other basics of governance in the Pashtun areas where the Taliban took root. An old Pashtun proverb says that "a country without law is a jungle," and if the jungle remains, the Taliban wins.

I had a glimpse this week of some new U.S. efforts to fill the vacuum, in visits to Khost near the eastern border and Baghlan province in the far north. I came away impressed by these projects, but wishing they had begun years ago, at the beginning of the 10-year war in Afghanistan. Now, with American patience exhausted and U.S. combat power on the decline starting this month, there may not be enough time.

The trip to Khost was arranged by Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, who heads a new Rule of Law Field Force. He's one of the Army's stars -- West Point, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law and part of Gen. David Petraeus' inner circle in Iraq and Afghanistan. To visualize the justice problem, Martins displayed the 88 Afghan districts without government prosecutors and the 117 without judges. The map is very similar to that of the Taliban's strongholds.

It's clear in Khost that the U.S. has some worthy Afghan allies, as well as antagonists such as Nazir. The most impressive colleague was Lt. Mohammed Zareem, a local police commander who was the hero of a May 22 assault. Four Taliban wearing suicide vests had seized a police building and captured four cops. Zareem and a five-man Afghan police team, partnered with three U.S. soldiers, rescued the hostages, killed the suicide bombers and defused a car bomb outside. Zareem carried a wounded American sergeant away from the building under fire and was shot twice. "That was my job," he says.

You often hear stories about poor performance by Afghan soldiers and police, but Zareem's tale made me think again. Working closely with U.S. mentors, such as Col. Chris Toner, the commander of U.S. forces in Khost, the Afghans are performing better.

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davidignatius@washpost.com

Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius

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