NOW RUZI, Afghanistan — There's only one functioning school in all of Zhari district in insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan, and it's named for an anti-Taliban local strongman who uses his own private militia to protect it.
Many in the district consider landowner Hajji Ghani a warlord. The U.S. considers him as an ally.
The case of Ghani, an affable, gun-toting landowner, illustrates the tough choices that face U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Ghani appears to have the full backing of the American military, which confer with him from Combat Outpost Durkin, a couple of miles away.
He's managed to create a rare security bubble around his village of east Now Ruzi, in Kandahar province, and he donated land for a new school building that's expected to open in the next month.
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His writ runs only so far, however. Just two hundred yards away, west Now Ruzi is under Taliban influence, and beyond it, the farmland just across a dried-up riverbed is insurgent territory.
"He (Ghani) is not legitimate government, but he works for the area," said Capt. Paul DeLeon, 29, of Pasadena, Calif., the commander of outpost Durkin, where a company from the 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky., is based. "It's not the best situation but it works."
McClatchy accompanied DeLeon on a recent afternoon visit to Ghani. The militia leader was in a chipper mood, appearing with a submachine gun hung over his shoulder and a Russian-made pistol tucked in a holster under his arm, a wide smile, wild mop of hair and a bushy beard. Ghani occasionally pulled out a wad of 1,000 Afghani bills (worth $20 each) from his waistcoat pocket and counted out some cash to one of his hangers-on for a task.
Sitting in his garden, surrounded by flowers, vines and an orchard, he suggested that the wall around the playground should be made at least three bricks thick, to withstand a rocket-propelled grenade.
Clasping hands with DeLeon, Ghani told him: "The people who are against the Taliban are my brothers. That why you're my brother."
The "Hajji Ghani School" currently operates out of a temporary home in tents on the lush lawn of Ghani's mansion, the only functioning school for the 116 square miles of Zhari.
By contrast, the Pir Mohammed school, a few miles north at Sengaray, the main town in the sparsely populated district, is the target for near-daily insurgent assaults, and there are doubts that it will ever reopen. The Taliban oppose Western-style education.
Canadians built Pir Mohammad in 2005, but Taliban attacks have kept it closed since 2007, and there's no date to reopen it despite a recent U.S.-funded refurbishment. A major U.S.-led military operation is expected in Zhari, a Taliban hotbed just west of the city of Kandahar, the provincial capital, involving more than three battalions from the 101st Airborne.
Ghani, who made his name as a guerilla fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, has a force of 40 to 50 policemen who are on the government payroll, as well as his own. He pays them about as much as the government does, making them loyal to him, and U.S. forces have drawn on those officers for missions.
The new building, now nearing completion, is a solid-looking structure at the eastern end of Zhari. It's set in a yard, surrounded by a 10-foot high wall and has seven serviceable classrooms. Ghani provided the land and plans to donate more land to make a playground. The school was built with $100,000 of U.S. military funds, under the Commanders Emergency Relief Program. USAID, the aid arm of the State Department, is considering funding the playground and classroom furniture.
Ghani's 19-year-old son is one of the teachers at the school, and other relatives are also said to be on the payroll. Some U.S. contracts for the area have gone to him — though not to build the school. The school, which has government-financed teachers and books already in place, will provide an education to 200 children of all ages.
On a visit to the school building Wednesday, Fazlur Ahmed, in charge of the police post there, said: "This is Hajji Ghani's area. Taliban don't dare come here. The Taliban are north and east of here."
Ahmed was severely injured Thursday when he was on a mission with a platoon from Durkin, under DeLeon's command, against a known Taliban position a few miles away. He sustained bullet wounds in both arms and chest.
"He (Ghani) is an Afghan who got the power and stood up and took ownership for security in his area. Other people are passive about Taliban presence in their area," DeLeon said.
The U.S. is desperately looking for allies in Zhari. The tribal chief for the district, Hajji Lala, based in Senjaray, is ambivalent toward the American presence in the area — while the newly-appointed district governor, Karim Jan, is still trying to establish a following, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. An attempt to assassinate Jan by ambushing his convoy failed this week. Ghani and Jan, the official representative for Zhari, don't get along.
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