Frank “Gus” Biggio arrived in Nawa, a district in Afghanistan’s embattled Helmand province, in the summer of 2009. Then, he recalled, it was "a violent, lawless, ungoverned place", like an "apocalyptic scene out of a movie".
The battle to secure the district was tough - four Marines were killed during Biggio’s deployment as a Marine Reservist, including his friend, Bill Cahir. "We had worked hard, I had lost my team chief, a good friend," he said.
But by the time his battalion had left seven months later, Biggio says the Taliban were gone and normal life seemed to be resuming for its residents. Nawa quickly became one of the most celebrated successes in the US counterinsurgency campaign.
In the following years, Biggio watched as district after district fell to the Taliban. He hoped fervently that Nawa would buck the trend. But as the Taliban's advance strengthened, with the US troop withdrawal in 2014, its downfall seemed on the cards. In October 2016, Taliban fighters overran Nawa.
Why it happened has been the subject of a Bureau investigation. We have uncovered systemic corruption that demonstrates that the Afghan forces holding the front line were significantly undermanned, their numbers falsely inflated with so-called "ghost soldiers" or security force personnel that existed only on paper.
The Taliban were finally dislodged in July 2017 after a major offensive by Afghan forces, backed by US air strikes, but Nawa remains vulnerable.
“I would like to see places like Nawa thriving economically and politically today”, says Biggio sadly. “Asking whether the sacrifice was worth it or not would be easier to answer then.”
The rise and fall of Nawa is, however, not a standalone case. Across Afghanistan, the Taliban has profited from the endemic corruption and mismanagement that plagues the Afghan forces. President Donald Trump has signalled that yet more troops will be sent to Afghanistan to prop up places like Nawa. But without addressing these issues, any gains made by sending additional US troops will likely be fragile.
“This was the Achilles heel of the 2009-2011 surge and continues to undermine efforts for a successful outcome,” says Christopher Kolenda, former US military commander in Afghanistan turned analyst.
“140,000 international troops could not solve that problem. 3,500 more American troops now cannot do so, either. Only the Afghan government can solve it, and they have yet to demonstrate the willingness to do so,” Kolenda adds.
Fading hopes for Nawa
When the US Marines took over from the British in 2009, Nawa was in a bad way. Heavy fighting and a sustained Taliban presence had left the once-bustling district centre an empty wasteland.
Within a few months of the Marine mission, however, American troops could walk around the centre without body armour. Many shops had reopened and the open-air Friday bazaar resumed trading.
Soon experts from the State Department and the US government’s aid agency were turning up in the district with plans for long-term reconstruction and development projects. Money was being pumped into Nawa, in part to lure low-level insurgents away from the Taliban.
The turnaround in Nawa caught the attention of General David H Petraeus, the then top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan. He featured Nawa in a PowerPoint presentation to senior members of President Obama's national security team participating in evaluating the war at the time. It was proof the counter-insurgency strategy was working and he wanted them to know about it. As another Marine put it, “Nawa city was an example of what could be.”
For Marines serving in Nawa, this was a source of pride. “We worked hard on being Nawa’s Marine battalion,” says Matt Baker, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, back in 2009. He recalls an incident where rumours had surfaced Marines had desecrated a Qur’an in the neighbouring district. Fearing tensions would reach Nawa, he arranged a meeting with the elders. However, he said, they already knew and had assured their neighbours that “their” Marines would not do such a thing. “It was a wonderful compliment,” says Baker.
The gains, however, were fragile. Crime reportedly rose after the Taliban left. “The Marines feel safe, but the ordinary people in Nawa do not," Khawanin, the headmaster of the main school in the district, told the Washington Post in 2010. Security deteriorated further when the US troop presence began to gradually decrease.
In 2015, Haji Abdul Manaf, the district governor, the lynchpin of stability in Nawa, was gunned down on his way to Kandahar.
“His death was the beginning of the end for Nawa”, says Biggio.
When the Taliban offensive started in earnest in late 2016, it was brief. Insurgents had been inching closer and Helmand's districts were falling like dominoes.
It is hard to say what would have happened to Nawa if it had had proper defences. But it had been left with a large gap. According to local council members and a source within the Afghan administration, the district had only half the roughly 700 policemen it was supposed to have.
“Nawa was deliberately left to be overrun by the Taliban”, said one furious Nawa elder.
Another critic of what happened in Nawa, Atuallah Afghan, a member of Helmand’s Provincial Council, explained the problem to the Bureau. The Afghan government allocates a set number of police to defend each area. The number of police allocated to each district in Helmand is held in the police headquarters in Lashkar Gah, Atuallah said. Nawa was supposed to have 700 officers.
All districts receive central government budget to cover salaries of front-line forces. In many areas in Afghanistan, some of this budget disappears and the actual number of officers tasked with holding back the Taliban is much lower than the number actually allotted. This issue, known as ghost soldiers, was particularly extreme in Nawa.
Atuallah and others concerned about the problem last year would ring up local officials to ask them how many men they had at their nearby checkpoints. In this way they were able to estimate the number of police actually deployed in Nawa; they put the figure at around 300 men. The salaries of the other 400 were ending up somewhere else.
Three other well-placed sources also told the Bureau that Nawa only had between 300-400 police officers on the eve of its fall. Atuallah said he complained about the ghost soldier problem in Helmand to government officials before the Taliban push on Nawa began. “No one did anything about it", he said.
This is hardly surprising, given how deep-seated the problem of corruption is. Local elders described a network of connections to the Bureau, which they explained protected those siphoning off the salaries at the time.
These kind of problems are not unique to Nawa - ghost soldiers are a problem throughout Afghanistan. This is in part facilitated by the high rate of casualties in the the Afghan security forces - they were being killed at a rate of 130 a week at the beginning of 2017. Often the names of the dead, as well as defectors, are not taken off lists of personnel, allowing for their pay cheques to continue to be remitted.
However, in Helmand, which has an unfortunate combination of high US military spending and powerful tribal networks, the problem of corruption has been particularly acute historically.
Abdul Jabar Qahraman was appointed operational commander for all of Helmand in January 2016, and resigned in spring 2017. He described to the Bureau what the ghost soldier phenomenon looked like on the ground. In one district, he said, there were ten checkpoints, and 25 people had been allocated to each one, meaning there should have been 250 men in total. When he paid a visit, he only saw 96 men. “Out of them 54 had AK47s and the rest were unarmed.” Most of the others, he said, were unfit to work.
He told the Bureau that he went to the very top with the problem, speaking to the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. “I put this on the President’s table and told him if there are 50 opponents attacking this checkpoint, how can you defend it?” Qahraman said, explaining his frustration with the general mismanagement. “You know why I resigned from my post in Helmand? I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
In a statement last year, Helmand’s then police chief confirmed Qahraman’s estimate of the scale of the problem. He offered up some startling figures – around half of the 26,000 personnel assigned to the province did not exist physically. Their salaries, he said, were ending up in personal accounts.
There have been efforts to tackle the issue in a wide-reaching manner. President Ashraf Ghani established an anti-corruption court to hold those once believed to be above the law to account. In Helmand, the US military put in over $100m last year to rebuild the Afghan army’s 215th Corps, bogged down by mismanagement and corruption.
These initiatives have seen some success, especially in Helmand. But the roadblocks they have encountered illustrate the depth of the problem they are tackling. The general appointed to rebuild and reform the 215th Corps was himself arrested in March 2017, accused of misusing food money meant to supply his soldiers, among other things. A previous police chief of Helmand, who had also been appointed as a reformer, was reported at the same time to be under investigation after allegedly being fired for selling the positions of district chiefs of police in the province.
Complex payment processing systems involving biometrics are being rolled out in an effort to tackle the issue of ghost personnel. However, even the people implementing them admit they will not eradicate the problem.
Keeping Nawa out of Taliban hands
Nine months after it fell, Afghan security forces launched a massive offensive, Operation Maiwand Four, to win Nawa back. They were supported by coalition drones, air strikes from F-16s and attacks by Apache AH-64 helicopter gunships. After two days, they had recaptured the district centre.
Insurgents then launched a counter-attack, meaning that a large-scale military operation was necessary to secure the district.
But how long Nawa will stay out of Taliban hands is an open question. Even if the operation is successful, some worry the ongoing corruption, and in particular the stubborn problem of ghost forces will leave Nawa vulnerable yet again. “The cause of most of our problems in Nawa is this issue and we fear that because of this issue once again our district might fall into Taliban hands,” a district tribal council member told the Bureau.
However, the former Marine Commander, Matt Baker, is frustrated at what he sees as a tendency to see corruption in simplistic terms, arguing that in a country like Afghanistan, the opportunity to make money is part of what can incentivise people to commit to the military.
And, Baker adds, the reasons behind it are not always negative. He points to instances where commanders used money collected in this way for their troops, including to provide some funds or gifts to wounded soldiers.
Perhaps, he said, if a better system of incentives was put in place, things might have turned out differently.
“It might be true that Nawa was lost years and years ago because no-one fixed the system which incentivises people to do this,” he muses.
Biggio now works for a law firm in the United Arab Emirates, but still follows the news on Afghanistan. Speaking from his home in Dubai, he says that he accepts the necessity of US troops going back in to Nawa. However, he stresses that there must be an end-point.
He says: "I don’t want us to be there forever.”
Main image, of US Marines patrolling in the Nawa district, by Frank "Gus" Biggio