You probably don't know his name and even if you did, it would have been tough to pronounce.
That is the strange thing about opaque wars like Afghanistan. We in the West often listen enraptured to "big" names; the generals and leaders whose influence, while undoubtedly profound, can pale in comparison to individuals whose faces rarely bask in the luminescent glow of the camera. What was it someone once said? The fate of empires can rest upon uncertain shoulders.
Haji Sayed Fazluddin Agha was one of those people. His death, along with two young sons, as the victim of a suicide bombing last week could have more impact on U.S. efforts to keep a lid on Kandahar than just about anything else since the surge. He was the district governor in Panjwaii, the unforgiving, blistered farming belt that clings to a muddy, withered Arghandab River west of the provincial capital. It was the home of the Taliban throughout much of Canada's five bloody years in Kandahar.
That Fazluddin Agha was targeted is not necessarily a surprise. A day before his death, a teenage suicide bomber unsuccessfully tried to kill Kandahar's provincial police chief, the notorious General Abdul Raziq. The Taliban have throughout the years conducted a highly successful assassination campaign aimed at municipal and tribal leaders in the province. Since 2002, towns and villages throughout Kandahar have literally been littered with corpses.
The body count had surpassed 300 by late last year when Ahmed Wali Karzai and Ghulam Hayder Hamidi, the city's mayor, were murdered. Their killings were by far the most high-profile, but the sheer scale and savagery of what has unfolded in those dusty hamlets in recent years is breath-taking. The very fabric of society -- never mind just civil society -- has been shredded beyond belief. It was cultural scorched earth.
Imagine someone coming into your state or province and murdering not only the governor, but the mayors and councilors of most major municipalities and the clergy. At one point in the spring of 2009, the mayhem had reached such proportions that the entire provincial -- the governing body of all Kandahar -- fled the province. The assassinations of two deputy mayor inspired mass resignations among municipal workers in the provincial capital. Senior government officials use pseudonym -- essentially lie about who they are -- in order to avoid getting killed.
It is against such a backdrop over the last year that the U.S. military has claimed "progress" in the war against the Taliban. Naturally, Fazluddin Agha's murder was viewed in both American and British media coverage (there was little mention in the Canadian media) through the prism of being a setback against such pretense. What went largely overlooked was the fact that Fazluddin Agha had bankrolled Hamid Karzai's reconciliation program in Panjwaii, paying former local Taliban to stop fighting and even opened some of his own mud-walled compounds as shelter. Much of the American "progress" came from the governor's pocketbook.
His role as benefactor aside, Fazluddin Agha was someone whom Taliban and ex-Taliban alike respected for his years as a Mujahideen commander during the Soviet occupation. He was full of tales of killing Russians, whom he considered a brutal, unmerciful enemy. His reputation as a fierce warrior appealed to the Pashtun heart, regardless of the politics of the day. It was an image he cultivated.
Whenever he posed for pictures, he'd usually take off his hip reading glasses that looked as though they were ripped straight from the shelves of DKNY. He had a wide, crocodile smile; a barrel-chest; quick, cold eyes, and a jet black beard that contradicted his obvious age. The governor was coaxed into his job last year by the Canadians, who ran Kandahar at the time. They considered him a man of vision, a leader who could further stitch together the jumbled patchwork of villages, where the Taliban had found sanctuary for so many years, with plans to turn around the moribund rural economy.
Last week as Fazluddin Agha was blown up in Panjwaii, the Pentagon took issue with a classified, sobering intelligence assessment of the Afghan war, which said, despite the surge of 33,000 troops, the conflict was in stalemate.
The National Intelligence Estimate was delivered to the White House and represents the consensus view of the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies. It conceded U.S. forces and allies such as Canada managed to drive the Taliban out of some areas last year, but warned Karzai's incompetent government had weakened those gains. Further, it said the Taliban's will to fight had not been diminished. The Pentagon immediately argued that assumptions used by intelligence agencies were flawed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
It might be helpful to ask the governor's family whether the assumptions were flawed.