October 21, 2010, 12:56 am
Aid Groups’ Advice in Afghanistan
By NICHOLAS KRISTOF
In connection with my Thursday column, I asked several NGO’s for their advice on how to work in insecure or Taliban areas. Their advice was remarkably consistent, all about consulting local people and getting buy-in from them. And of course that’s good advice whether it’s an aid organization in the South Bronx or in southern Afghanistan.
Here are excerpts of what they said. Susan Davis of BRAC wrote:
Deliver value — what people want and need.
Deliver what works cost-effectively.
Work in a culturally sensitive way (live in same community, pray in same mosque)
If possible, build institutions with staying power.
Care. Don’t be afraid. People one serves are one’s best protection.
Then Greg Mortenson offered these principles:
NO armed guards or weapons (with the exception that some rural militia ‘commandhans’ provide armed guards, but its a tribal thing on their own volition out of honor – called nenawatay in Pashto, which means ‘right of refuge’), so its:
1. Only local staff
2. No armed security
3. Elders (shura) consulted and in charge
4. Community based
Another aid worker with long experience in Afghanistan advised:
You touched on rather a number of very important points, one of the ones that seems to be least understood by USAID and the military is that if local Afghans are in charge, development can happen virtually anywhere in Afghanistan. It is extremely expensive and usually counterproductive to insist that foreigners supervise and in some measure take credit for development. A related issue is the silliness of the EC and USAID in wanting their logo on all of their development activities. The important thing is that solid development work is done. Giving foreign interests credit for that development does not help the sustainability of the projects.
Finally, Roger Hardister of Global Partnership of Afghanistan wrote:
I think the following strategies are key to GPFA’s success:
We provide services that deliver immediate results. Long-term development projects are of course important and critical to the future stability of the country, and GPFA has several longer-term initiatives. But short-term projects that immediately benefit individuals and communities financially can create an environment for longer-term planning and larger assistance efforts to take place. This is the only way to get buy-in from local people for projects where the pay-off is in the future.
Our projects engage individuals and communities, not just institutions. We recognize that working with local institutions is important, and we do, but many institutions are corrupt or, at best, ineffective. This means a dispiriting lack of progress on the ground and little incentive for people to participate, particularly in areas where insurgents are active and their participation makes locals a target. Locals will not risk a relationship with outsiders if they don’t perceive an immediate benefit. GPFA’s experience shows that if we deliver results, they involve themselves in spite of considerable risks. We have also learned that security is improved if individuals and communities are engaged in larger clusters. Insurgents are less likely to oppose projects in which large numbers of people are invested.
Sometimes, we have to work with less than ideal partners to reach the people in greatest need. As you know from your reporting, there are moderate Talibs (almost exclusively Afghans not Pakistanis) who are concerned about the welfare of their communities. We have been approached by their intermediaries and promised safety if we agree to help these communities in need. I think it is critical to consider these request; they allow us into conflict areas where poverty is more persistent and the need is greatest, and where many others can’t or won’t go. And rather than strengthen the image of the insurgents among the local villages, our experience shows that providing rural Afghans with the means to achieve greater financial stability serves as a bulwark against continuing dependence on insurgents. The US military recognizes this dynamic and often provides GPFA with support for this work.
Small is good. It is an open secret in Afghanistan that many large agencies with projects worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars are just not as flexible and able to respond to opportunities as smaller, more nimble groups. This is even more the case in unstable provinces. Often it is because large agency staff, who travel in attention-getting convoys with prominent security details, simply cannot go out in the field without attracting insurgents or criminals. GPFA staff, almost exclusively Afghan, are less dependent on high profile security precautions, and are therefore less conspicuous. They are also part of local social networks, which provides a measure of support and security. They know the people and communities and can get to the field and make things happen.
I would also underscore the importance of hiring and training Afghan nationals, which larger agencies, because of their complexity and size, often cannot do. Local Afghans, while increasingly capable, simply lack the experience of working in large bureaucracies and managing information and technical systems, so larger organizations must turn to expats. Coming from places such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines and even Tibet, these expats are often viewed with skepticism by rural people. They are also often less successful at negotiating with locals than their Afghan counterparts, missing the nuances and social cues that are critical to effective negotiations. And while I would not challenge their commitment and abilities, they often add little value to conditions on the ground. Smaller organizations can grow from within, gradually training Afghans to tackle progressively more challenging work and building systems that Afghans can manage as the work grows and develops.
One last point I’d like to make doesn’t really relate to areas of conflict but I think is important to development groups working in either unstable or relatively peaceful regions. As you know, great importance is given to elders in Afghan culture and many organizations tend to establish relationships exclusively with them. I think this misses a critical piece of the development puzzle. Young people, who are often better educated and have been exposed to a broader range of ideas than their elders, are full of drive and desperately want to help both themselves and their country. GPFA works to give opportunities to this next generation. We of course work closely with village elders in all aspects of our work, but I can’t imagine any sort of sustained success without the younger generation. After all, it is they and all the Afghan people, not we, who will decide the fate of the country.
October 23, 2010
What About Afghan Women?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
For those of us who favor a sharp reduction in American troops in Afghanistan and a peace deal with the Taliban, the most vexing question is: What about Afghan women?
Time magazine framed the issue in a wrenching way with a cover this summer of Aisha, an 18-year-old woman who ran away from an abusive husband. The article said that last year the Taliban had punished Aisha by having her nose and ears hacked off — a traditional punishment for women considered disobedient or promiscuous. Her husband did the cutting.
Time quoted Aisha as saying of the Taliban, as she was touching her disfigured face: “How can we reconcile with them?”
It’s a fair question, as is: Are those of us who favor a military pullback in Afghanistan sentencing more women to be brutalized? Those are questions that I came to Afghanistan to wrestle with.
Women are fearful, no question. Here in Kabul, far fewer women wear the burqa today than on my previous visits. But several women told me that they were keeping burqas at home — just in case. The gnawing fear is that even if the Taliban do not regain control in Kabul, fundamentalist values and laws will gain ground.
Still, it seems to me a historic mistake to justify our huge military presence in Afghanistan as a bulwark to protect the women. In fact, most women I interviewed favored making a deal with the Taliban — simply because it would bring peace. For them, the Taliban regime was awful, but a perpetual war may be worse.
Take Pari Gol, a woman from Helmand Province whom I met here in Kabul. She despises the Taliban and told me on this trip that back in 2001, “I prayed that the Taliban would be defeated, and God listened to my prayers.”
Yet in the fighting since then, she said, her home was destroyed and her husband and daughter were both killed by American airstrikes. She is now living in a mud hut here — fuming at the Taliban, the Americans and the Afghan government. “I hate all of them,” she told me.
Remember also that while women in Kabul benefit from new freedoms, that is not true of an Afghan woman in a village in the South. For such women there, life before 2001 was oppressive — and so is life today.
One man from Helmand Province, Wali Khan, told me that there would be no difference for women in his village, whether the Taliban rule or not, because in either case women would be locked up in the home. He approvingly cited an expression in Pashto that translates to: “a wife should be in the home — or in the grave.”
In other words, oppression is rooted not only in the Taliban but also in the culture. The severing of a woman’s nose and ears occurs not only in Taliban areas but also in secure parts of Pakistan. Indeed, I’ve come across such disfigurement more in Punjab, the most powerful and populous province of Pakistan, than in Afghanistan — yet I haven’t heard anybody say we should occupy Pakistan to transform it.
The best way to end oppression isn’t firepower but rather education and economic empowerment, for men and women alike, in ways that don’t create a backlash. As I wrote in my last column, schooling is possible even in Taliban-controlled areas, as long as implementation is undertaken in close consultation with elders and doesn’t involve Westerners on the ground.
Often the best place to hold girls’ literacy classes is in the mosque. And the insistence of Western donors that they get credit with signs on projects they finance is counterproductive. Buildings might as well have signs reading “burn me down.”
One impressive force for change is BPeace, which encourages female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Soora Stoda, one of the entrepreneurs I met, is building a potato chip factory. Another, Shahla Akbari, makes shoes. Her mother, Fatima Akbari, has 3,000 (mostly female) employees around Afghanistan, working in jam-making, furniture building, tailoring, knitting, jewelry and other lines.
Fatima Akbari is now expanding her women’s businesses and literacy classes in Taliban-controlled areas, always working closely with mullahs and elders to gain their support and protection. “When you go and win their hearts, you can do anything,” she said.
“I’m not threatened by negotiations with the Taliban,” she added. “In fact, it would be good for the Taliban to be involved in the country, to see that there’s nothing wrong with women leaving the house. And once there’s a deal with the Taliban, security will be better.”
So let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that we’re doing favors for Afghan women by investing American blood and treasure in an unsustainable war here. The road to emancipate Afghan women will be arduous, but it runs through schools and economic development — and, yes, a peace deal with the Taliban, if that’s possible.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
Afghanistan's military and police have become increasingly reliable and effective.
May 20, 2011
Finally, a Fighting Force
By MICHAEL E. O’HANLON
IN the last two weeks, an Afghan police officer killed two American Marines in Helmand Province, and another killed a British soldier after a dispute over a soccer match. Last month, an Afghan military pilot killed nine American military trainers after an argument at a meeting in Kabul.
None of the killers seem to have been Taliban infiltrators, but that alone is not terribly reassuring. The United States’ exit strategy for the war in Afghanistan depends largely on the performance, competence and trustworthiness of the Afghan security forces, and critics of the mission view such episodes as evidence that the Afghan forces are generally unreliable — ineffectual in combat and too often unmotivated, erratic or corrupt. The issue looms over President Obama’s decision about troop reductions in Afghanistan, which he is expected to announce by July.
But there is reason to be hopeful. I was in Helmand Province last week, traveling with Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and despite the recent setbacks and other problems, my impression of today’s Afghan security forces was encouraging.
Helmand Province, for years a Taliban stronghold, has in the past year or so seen remarkable progress. Almost all of the populated parts of the province are now under the control of the Afghan government and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
The region is not completely safe, to be sure. But most major roads are serviceable, and government officials now generally use them instead of NATO helicopters to get around. Markets are open; schools have increased almost 50 percent in number since late 2009; twice as many Afghan officials work in local governments as did a year ago; and poppy production is down.
The even better news is that Afghan forces deserve an increasingly large share of the credit. The message from the Marines and British soldiers I spoke to in the province was one of growing appreciation for the skills and fighting spirit of Afghan soldiers and police officers.
Last year in southern Afghanistan, Afghans made up about half of all the combined forces used to clear the region of most Taliban weapons caches and strongholds. According to the International Security Assistance Force, roughly two-thirds of all Afghan Army battalions nationwide now score at least a 3 on a military-readiness scale from 1 to 5, meaning that while they still require outside help, they are quite effective when conducting missions with NATO troops.
Police and army pay is now adequate by national standards, and local recruiting goals for the Afghan Army and police in Helmand Province have been largely met this spring for the first time since the war began. Desertion rates are still too high, and Afghan troops too often overstay their military leaves, but the trends point in the right direction.
During my travels, several Marine officers who also had experience in Iraq told me that Afghan police officers and soldiers were better fighters than their Iraqi counterparts. Routinely, in towns like Musa Qala that are still tense, Afghans provide half the personnel on most foot patrols — and I was told that they do not shrink from fighting when they run into trouble.
I heard many anecdotes that spoke to the growing effectiveness of the Afghan forces. Recently, for instance, in the town of Marja, intelligence indicated the presence of Taliban forces in the vicinity. An Afghan unit responsible for that sector leaped into action. A few hours later it returned with Taliban captives.
The unit’s American partners told me that they would have preferred more of a plan — the Afghan forces were somewhat reckless in their response. But the important point was that the Afghans did not avoid combat or expect NATO soldiers to do their fighting for them.
Does this mean the United States should prepare for an immediate drawdown of troops?
No. What I saw and heard in Helmand Province supports the exit strategy — but not for this summer or fall.
An American commander told me that in his estimation, after an area is first cleared of the Taliban, NATO can substantially draw down its forces there 24 to 30 months later. That gives NATO enough time to recruit and train Afghan Army and police units, allows Afghan citizens to gain confidence that the Taliban is not coming back and gives the civilian government a chance to get off the ground. The time frame implies significantly reduced NATO forces in southern Afghanistan by next year.
In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, many Americans have argued that the country should cut its losses in Afghanistan and bring our troops home. But while the United States does need a better political and diplomatic strategy for the mission (in particular, for dealing with Kabul and Islamabad), this is not the time to jettison a military strategy that has finally hit its stride.
Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
June 19, 2011
Afghanistan’s Last Locavores
By PATRICIA McARDLE
MANY urban Americans idealize “green living” and “slow food.” But few realize that one of the most promising models for sustainable living is not to be found on organic farms in the United States, but in Afghanistan. A majority of its 30 million citizens still grow and process most of the food they consume. They are the ultimate locavores.
During the 12 months I spent as a State Department political adviser in northern Afghanistan, I was dismayed to see that instead of building on Afghanistan’s traditional, labor-intensive agricultural and construction practices, the United States is using many of its aid dollars to transform this fragile agrarian society into a consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy.
In 2004, the Department of Energy carried out a study of Afghanistan. It revealed abundant renewable energy resources that could be used to build small-scale wind- and solar-powered systems to generate electricity and solar thermal devices for cooking and heating water.
Rather than focus on those resources, the United States government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build large diesel generators and exploit the country’s oil, gas and coal reserves. The drilling of new oil wells may provide unskilled, poorly paid jobs for some locals, but the bulk of the profits will likely flow overseas or into the pockets of a few warlords and government officials.
American taxpayers’ dollars are also being used for energy-inefficient construction projects. During my year in Afghanistan, I sat for hours in meetings with local officials in remote mountain and desert locations, sweating or freezing — depending upon the season — inside concrete and cinder-block schools and police stations built with American aid. These projects are required to adhere to international building codes, which do not permit the construction of traditional earthen structures.
These structures are typically built with cob — a mixture of mud, sand, clay and chopped straw molded to form durable, elegant, super-insulated, earthquake-resistant structures. With their thick walls, small windows and natural ventilation, traditional Afghan homes may not comply with international building codes, but they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter than cinder-block buildings. They also last a long time. Some of Afghanistan’s oldest structures, including sections of the defensive wall that once surrounded the 2,000-year-old Silk Road city of Balkh, are made of cob and rammed earth. In England, people are still living in cob houses built before Shakespeare was born.
Renewable energy and sustainability aren’t just development issues. They are security issues, too. Seventy percent of the Defense Department’s energy budget in Afghanistan is spent on transporting diesel fuel in armored convoys. In a welcome attempt to reduce this dangerous and expensive dependence on fossil fuel, the Marine Corps recently established two patrol bases in Afghanistan operating entirely on renewable energy.
Unfortunately, it is too little, too late. Had a renewable energy program been initiated a decade ago, when the United States entered Afghanistan to help overthrow the Taliban, Washington could have saved billions of dollars in fuel costs and, more important, hundreds of lives lost in transporting and guarding diesel fuel convoys.
Along with advocating the construction of a pipeline to carry natural gas from Central Asia, across Afghanistan and into Pakistan, the United States is also helping to fund a 20th-century-style power grid that will compel Afghanistan to purchase the bulk of its electricity from neighboring former Soviet republics for decades to come. Even if this grid survives future sabotage and political unrest in Central Asia, its power lines and transmission towers will be carrying this imported electricity right over the heads of rural Afghans and into Afghanistan’s major cities — despite the fact that the United States Central Command has identified the lack of access to electricity in rural areas as a major obstacle to sustaining the gains achieved by our counterinsurgency strategy.
Sustainable development in Afghanistan has taken a back seat to “quick wins” that can be reported to Congress as indicators of success: tractors that farmers can’t repair and that require diesel fuel they can’t afford; cheaply built schools; and smooth but wafer-thin asphalt, which will never stand up to Afghanistan’s punishing climate without costly annual maintenance.
If donor nations dismiss Afghans’ centuries of experience in sustainability and continue to support the exploitation of fossil fuels over renewable energy, future generations of rural Afghans will be forced to watch in frustrated silence as the construction of pipelines, oil rigs and enormous power grids further degrades their fragile and beautiful land while doing little to improve their lives.
And long after American forces have departed, it will be these rural farmers, not Afghanistan’s small urban population, who will decide whether to support or reject future insurgencies.
Patricia McArdle, a retired foreign service officer and Navy veteran, is the author of the novel “Farishta.” She serves on the board of directors of Solar Cookers International.
"View from a Grain of Sand,” a highly regarded film depicting the lives of three Afghan women — a doctor, a teacher, and a social activist — in Afghanistan's years of turbulence, will be presented on Tuesday, June 28, in the Assembly Room at the Belmont Public Library, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Discussion and questions, led by Rachel Williams of the Afghan Women's Mission and the Boston area Rotary Club, will follow the approximately one hour-long film.
Combining verité footage, interviews, and rare archival material, "View from a Grain of Sand" is a harrowing, thought-provoking, and intimate portrait of Afghan women's lives over the last 30 years---from the rule of the Shah in the 1960's to the current Hamid Karzai government. Told through the eyes and experiences of the three women, and including rarely seen archival footage, the documentary tells how war, international interference, and the rise of political Islam have stripped Afghan women of rights and freedom. Their powerful stories provide illuminating context for Afghanistan's current situation and the ongoing battle women face to gain even basic human rights.
With the Taliban's fall late in 2001, the U.S proclaimed a "new era" in Afghanistan that included peace, democracy, and liberation for women. Now, years after the "new era" was declared, cracks in this story have appeared. Once again Afghanistan is in the news, not because of successful reconstruction, but because of increasing violence and the highest rate of opium production in the world. And what about women? What are their lives like now? Have their circumstances really improved since the new government took power? Have they gained any real rights or do they still live in fear and repression?
"View from a Grain of Sand" examines these topics through the eyes of an Afghan woman doctor, a teacher, and a rights activist. Their personal stories lead us through the minefield of Afghanistan's complex history, and provide illuminating context for the current situation in that country. The documentary was shot over a four-year period in the sprawling refugee camps of north-western Pakistan and in the war-torn city of Kabul, and constructs a harrowing, thought-provoking, yet intimate portrait of the plight of Afghan women over the last 30 years. The women move the viewer powerfully as they demonstrate strength and resilience in the face of on-going struggle. The film provides a full and visceral picture of a still divided and brutalized nation, and directs our attention to the "real" Afghanistan, at a time when our leaders in Washington are re-defining American policy concerning that nation. The film was directed and produced by Meena Nanji, an award-winning American-Ismaili cinematographer, and has been aired on PBS.
Rachel Williams, discussant, has traveled to Pakistan and the Middle East several times since the 1990s. She is founder and CEO of Help Women Heal, a non-profit that aids Afghan women with health and education issues, a member of the Afghan Women's Mission (devoted to increasing women's literacy skills), and Co-ordinator of the Rotary Club's literacy efforts in the Boston district. She and her husband live in Groveland, Mass.
This event is sponsored by Massachusetts Peace Action (headquartered in Cambridge) and several Belmont citizens. For further information, contact email@example.com or 617-484-3181.
Copyright 2011 Belmont Citizen-Herald. Some rights reserved
August 27, 2011
Few Treatment Options for Afghans as Drug Use Rises
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
KABUL, Afghanistan — Once a river flowed under the low Pul-i-Sokhta bridge here, but now the thin stream is clotted with garbage, the banks are piled with refuse and crowds of heroin and opium addicts huddle in the shadows, some hanging like moths near the bridge’s supports, then slumping in the haze of narcotic smoke.
When outsiders venture in, dozens of the addicts — there are 200 or 300 here on any given day — drift over to see the newcomers. Most of the visitors are health care workers trying to persuade the addicts to visit their clinic for a shower and a medical screening.
“Are you taking names for treatment?” one man asks, his soiled salwar kameez hanging loosely around his thin body. “Put me down, my name is Zainullah.”
This is another of Afghanistan’s afflictions: a growing drug addiction problem and all the ills that come with that, not least H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, which can be transmitted when addicts share needles. There were about 900,000 drug users in Afghanistan in 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, a marked increase from previous years. That means about 7 percent of the adult population of 14 million is using narcotics.
A vast majority take opium-based drugs, which are extraordinarily pure here and very cheap — about $3.50 for enough to get high, addicts say. Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of opium poppy, and the opium produced and sold here and its derivatives, including heroin, are among the most potent on earth. About 150,000 of those using opium-based drugs are injecting heroin, according to the World Health Organization.
A measure of the problem is that surveys show that 12 to 41 percent of police recruits test positive for some form of narcotic — most are hashish smokers — according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. Another indicator of the problem is a recent report by the Ministry of Public Health in partnership with Johns Hopkins University that found H.I.V. present in about 7 percent of drug users, double the figure just three years ago, said Dr. Fahim Paigham, who until recently directed the Ministry of Public Health’s AIDS control program.
Afghan women go to school to cut baby deaths
Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent
8 Sep 2011
In one of the poorest parts of Afghanistan, the dramatic and beautiful mountain province of Bamyan, Farzana Jan, a mother of four, has a lot to be proud of.
This rugged corner, where 90 per cent of the people are from the Hazara ethnic minority, had one of the highest rates for infant mortality and mothers dying in childbirth.
Part of the problem is the sheer remoteness of the villages. Some are cut off from outside contact by heavy snowfalls from November to April, and there used to be no expert help for women giving birth at that time.
Then, from 1998 to 2001, the Hazaras of Bamyan suffered three rounds of slaughter by the Taliban - thousands were killed. Many more, such as Farzana, fled to Pakistan. In 2001 the Taliban blew up the great stone Buddhas, Bamyan's cultural symbols.
Returning in 2004, she was attracted to a midwifery course being offered by an aid donor. Eighteen months later, on graduation, she was soon helping to run the next course.
Farzana, 37, tells how Bamyan Midwifery School, of which she is founder and co-ordinator, started; before there was no trained midwife in Bamyan.
The school now has 56 students in training. So far, 86 have graduated to work in four hospitals and district clinics across the province.
The school, funded by the Aga Khan Foundation and US Aid, is light and airy, with neat classrooms and a crèche for mothers. The youngest child today is a girl just three-and-a-half weeks old, sleeping in her cot.
Students are selected carefully, Farzana explained. "Of course, they do an entrance test; they must be 18, and have at least 10th grade in school. We make sure the family approves, and we ask the shura - or council - of village elders to give their approval, too."
The course tackles pregnancy, including complications and family planning, social awareness, rights, pharmacology and sexually-transmitted disease.
The school is almost a victim of its own success, many students getting jobs in the capital, Kabul, and some going abroad. The course has now been extended to two years and includes English and computer studies.
Newest staff recruit is Deeba Yaqubi, 21 , who spent 15 years in exile in Pakistan after fleeing the first Taliban attack in the valley. She said: "I was only six and can't remember much except the bodies left lying outside our house."
She teaches computer use. "I like it very much, and I know my father, a driver, and my brother, who is an accountant, are very proud of me."
The class studying emergency childbirth admire and support Farzana. But she wants more. "I really need another 60 midwives to be sent to the clinics right across the province - we just don't have enough."
How does she cope with her own family and the clinic? "I can do it because of my husband, who is interested in what we are doing. In fact he is the guard at the gate," she said. And why did she chose midwifery?
My husband encouraged me to do it. Because he loves me."
September 27, 2011
This War Can Still Be Won
By FERNANDO M. LUJÁN
RETURNING home after 14 months in Afghanistan, I’ve sensed a growing gloom over the American war effort there. Many of the policy wonks, politicos and academics I encounter here seem resigned to failure.
While sipping their Starbucks, a few mutter the word “unwinnable.” They speak in grim sound bites: A gunfight on the United States Embassy’s doorstep. A helicopter shot out of the sky. But before people outside the Beltway accept this hardening conventional wisdom as fact, allow me to offer a different view.
I am an Army Special Forces officer by trade, and spent the past year leading a small team of Dari- and Pashto-speaking Americans whose mission was to embed with Afghan Army units. We went weeks wearing Afghan uniforms and sleeping at tiny outposts, eating local food and staying up late speaking with Afghan soldiers in their own languages. While I can’t pretend to know the intricacies of Afghan-Pakistani politics (nor can most “experts” on the evening news), I can describe the truth on the ground.
The southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were ground zero for the 2010 Afghan surge and the area where we devoted the full weight of our resources and resolve. The headlines hide deeper trends in places where the Taliban until recently enjoyed uncontested rule. Riding around with Afghan soldiers from dozens of different units, we heard one message everywhere: “Last year we couldn’t even move out of the front gate without being shot or blown up. Now we control as far as you can see.”
And the civilian population is starting to stir in these newly reclaimed districts. In little-known places like Arghandab, Panjwai and Nad Ali, Afghans are moving back into their long-abandoned homes. Weekly tribal shuras — like town hall meetings — are beginning to flourish in areas where not even a handful of elders would attend a year ago, for fear of being assassinated. The Taliban are not standing idly by. Pushed out of many of their strongholds, they have shifted tactics, focusing on high-profile attacks on softer (usually civilian) targets. But we fail to see the subtleties at home.
In May, after one such attack in Kandahar, I joined some Afghan officers watching the local news coverage, expecting looped footage of explosions and chaos. We were all surprised to see four small children, their faces blurred, in an impromptu news conference. They recounted how the Taliban had given them candy and persuaded them to don suicide bomber vests by promising that they wouldn’t die and that their impoverished families would be provided for.
Regardless of their political views, all Afghans regard children as off limits. That night, watching the children tell how they were recruited, the Afghan captain at my side, a tough Pashtun named Mahmoud, shrugged and said in Dari, “They’re getting desperate.”
But optimism in Afghanistan should not be mistaken for naïveté. We’ve paid a terrible price for the gains we’ve made, and Afghans know we’re leaving. Insurgents still control many areas and are certain to attempt a counteroffensive as foreign troops withdraw. My optimism is rooted instead in an intangible metric, gleaned from the thousand cups of tea we drank and the hundreds of patrols we walked: the Afghans have the will to win, with or without us.
There are still corrupt, lazy, incompetent senior officers in the ranks, clinging to positions they’ve bought or traded for. Yet for every one of them, I met five young, hungry soldiers eager to take up the fight. Men like Jawad, a brilliant 23-year-old intelligence officer, or Jamaluddin, a sergeant major who had revolutionized his entire battalion from within.
I watched them wake up early every morning to drive unarmored Ford Rangers down some of the most dangerous roads in the world. They unfurl huge Afghan flags and fly them from every truck. I watched them run toward the sound of gunfire, despite often having only a Vietnam-era flak vest or less to protect them. These men are Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks and, increasingly, Pashtuns — former rivals now working together. They are the beginnings of a nation.
“Winning” is a meaningless word in this type of war, but something is happening in the Afghan south that gives me hope. Rather than resignation, America should show resolve — not to maintain a large troop presence or extend timelines, but to be smarter about the way we use our tapering resources to empower those Afghans willing to lead and serve.
For all our technology and firepower, we will succeed or fail based on what happens after we bring our troops home. Young Afghans like Mahmoud, Jawad and Jamaluddin will be the ones to stay behind. Many of them lack education, training, equipment, even uniforms — and they serve for years in dangerous postings with only the rarest opportunity to visit their families. But the best of them keep doing their jobs in the face of hardships we can’t even imagine.
None of them accept failure as a foregone conclusion. Neither should we.
Fernando M. Luján is an Army Special Forces major and a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
October 7, 2011
Ten Years In, Afghan Myths Live On
By BENJAMIN D. HOPKINS and MAGNUS MARSDEN
TEN years after invading Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2001, the obvious question is whether or not the United States has won the war. Osama bin Laden’s death suggests the defeat of Al Qaeda. But even after the planned withdrawal of 30,000 American troops by late 2012, nearly 70,000 will remain on the ground.
Despite all the talk about counterterrorism, the war has never been so narrowly conceived or fought. The United States and its allies have consistently pursued a mission of state-building. The current American strategy of handing over “ownership” of the war rests on obtaining local “buy in” — both to the counterinsurgency as well as the larger state-building project — by winning Afghan “hearts and minds.”
But this approach has been tried, and failed, in the past. Indeed, the British Empire followed the same flawed strategy more than a century ago.
Nearly all elements of the current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, from “clear and hold” tactics to arming “tribal militias,” have their origins in the activities of British colonial administrators. The most important of these was Sir Robert Groves Sandeman, who in 1891 insisted that to control the people of the Afghan frontier, the British had to appeal to their “hearts and minds” (and pockets).
By “knowing the tribes,” Sir Robert believed he could rule them through their “traditions” — something both more legitimate in the eyes of the tribesmen and cheaper for the colonial state. However, many of the “traditions” he employed were at least partly colonial creations.
Sir Robert recruited locals into state-sponsored militias to police themselves. But rather than bolstering state authority, Sir Robert planted the seeds of discord. Arming local factions proved a poor instrument for establishing central control. The people of the frontier came to inhabit a nebulous no-man’s land where the state exercised little control over them. Today, this area is known as Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.
The United States and its allies have largely mimicked the policies of British India’s frontier administrators. They have made extensive use of what they understand to be “native traditions” to bolster their authority. American soldiers sit in tribal jirgas, or assemblies, to win the support of local elders; tribal militias called arbakai are recruited to police the populace. But rather than showing the sophistication of the military’s cultural knowledge, these efforts merely demonstrate to Afghans the coalition’s poor understanding of local cultures.
The arbakai, an institution foreign to northern Afghanistan, may in fact lead people there to consider the Taliban favorably. As one local from Kunduz told us, “Before, there were people who were with the government by day and Taliban by night. Now there are people who are arbakai in the day and thieves at night.” Even authority figures in regions where the arbakai is indigenous, like Paktia Province, told us that it “won’t work now: 30 years of war means that everybody acts independently, not according to tradition.”
Afghanistan is not a country of primitive tribes cut off from the modern world. The singular focus on tribes, the Taliban, and ethnicity as the keys to understanding and resolving the conflict misses the nuances of the region’s past and present. Rather than fanatical tribesmen or poor victims in need of aid, many of these people are active and capable participants in a globalized economy.
The international focus on “corruption” tends to paint Afghan merchants as venal and incapable. Afghan entrepreneurs are dismissed as immoral profiteers, cronies of warlords or international drug smugglers. Such views are dangerous: these are the people who will fill the void left when international subsidies to the Afghan government end.
In fact, Afghan merchants play important economic roles at home and abroad. They export used Japanese cars from Dubai to Central Asia and precious stones to Hong Kong and Sri Lanka. They sell medicinal plants to India and Germany and regularly cross the region seeking new economic opportunities, connecting Afghans with the world beyond. In spite of Afghanistan’s poverty, these traders are central to the economy and critically important to the stability of the Afghan state.
Like the fixation on tribal tradition, the West’s obsession with corruption obscures the intricate social and economic networks that define modern Afghanistan. As the British experience of the late 19th century shows, a simplistic and unceasing focus on “tradition” as an exit strategy will not establish a stable Afghan state.
If America and its allies hope to identify and partner with Afghans who are willing and able to build a stable political and economic future, they must set aside the stale caricatures about “tradition” that have long dominated thinking about the region.
Unless they do, 10 years of fighting, an investment of over $400 billion by American taxpayers, and the deaths of more than 2,700 allied military personnel, not to mention an unknown number of Afghans, will have been for naught.
Benjamin D. Hopkins, a historian at George Washington University, and Magnus Marsden, an anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, are the authors of “Fragments of the Afghan Frontier.”
January 1, 2012
In Afghanistan, Poppy Growing Proves Resilient
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
NAKILABAD KALAY, Afghanistan — This stretch of the Helmand River Valley, the heart of the nation’s poppy-growing area, stands as a showcase for one of NATO’s most ambitious offensives against the Taliban and the drug trade. But now, the area is also becoming an object lesson in the resilience of militants and opium producers alike.
Beginning four years ago, a huge military offensive, first by British troops and then by United States Marines, broke the Taliban’s hold on much of the valley. At the same time, there was an all-out effort to educate farmers and encourage them to grow other crops, with the aim of cutting poppy production. The provincial governor reinforced this initiative with a tough eradication program in the land along the river.
Today, most farmers in this district, Nad Ali, as well as in nearby Marja and other settlements along the river, grow wheat and cotton. The district governor just opened a school in this remote village, and there is a small bazaar with a handful of mud-walled shops doing a steady business in gum, candy and toiletries. Patrols by NATO troops, the Afghan Army and the police are frequent.
Beyond the fertile river lands, however, a more troubling pattern is emerging. According to interviews with farmers, elders and Afghan and Western officials, the poor sharecroppers who used to farm poppy here have moved to the outer reaches of the district, turning the desert into remarkably productive opium fields. The Taliban have moved as well, evading the NATO offensive and offering the poppy farmers protection.
Over just a couple of seasons, these relocated farmers, unhampered by any military presence, have undercut the offensive’s initial gains against poppy production for this district. This, in turn, has raised hard questions about what will happen in villages like this one once the International Security Assistance Forces begin withdrawing.
A Day Without Dignity: Positive Advocacy Examples from Afghanistan
April 16, 2012
Topics: A Day Without Dignity, Afghanistan
Today is A Day Without Dignity, the aid blogosphere’s answer to TOMS A Day Without Shoes. With so many discussions devoted to bad advocacy or “badvocacy” in aid and human rights activism recently, it’s important to highlight examples of good advocacy and NGO public relations productions. After all, it’s difficult to improve anything without positive examples.
The following videos from NGOs working in Afghanistan hit the right notes.
The road to a stable Afghanistan is through...the Pakistani countryside?
By Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed Friday, April 27, 2012 - 10:50 AM
Since NATO's Lisbon summit in November 2010, debate has raged over the decision to draw-down troops from Afghanistan by 2014. And in less than a month, NATO is to hold its 25th heads of state summit in Chicago on 20th May. Unsurprisingly, among the summit's major themes will be the seemingly intractable Afghan question, controversy over which has continued with increasingly ferocious attacks by militants - the synchronised 18-hour assault on Kabul on April 16 being an outstanding example - along with persistently strained U.S.-Pakistani relations since NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. But rather than endlessly debating troop numbers - whose link to stability is at the least exceedingly unclear - NATO allies would be better off focusing on how to maximise the impact of programs which pave the way for long-term stability by dramatically re-shifting the focus of aid funding from security to development.
The full transition of responsibility for Afghanistan's security from NATO to Afghan forces poses deep questions about the efficacy of international intervention and traditional military approaches. For some critics calling for a faster transition to Afghan control, NATO's presence is the problem. Two years ago, NATO Afghan war veteran Lt. Col. Thomas Brouns warned presciently that "the possibility of strategic defeat looms" as "violent incidents" increase in direct proportion to the troop surge. The war is "a losing battle in winning the hearts and minds of nearly 30 million Afghans."
Others argue that a quick NATO withdrawal could be a grave mistake, precipitating a downwards spiral into endless civil war - a view expounded last year by the German military, the RAF, and a British government review ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron. Even the Afghan defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak warned of the potentially catastrophic ramifications of a more abrupt withdrawal - no doubt fearing a Taliban come-back in the wake of the vacuum left behind by NATO's departure.
Amidst all the controversy about NATO in Afghanistan, the curious assumption is that the country's stability is somehow purely correlated with troop numbers, rather than underlying socio-economic conditions and political accountability. Indeed, commentators have overlooked the single component of international intervention which has had resounding success - development aid, through Afghanistan's National Solidarity Programme (NSP). Under the programme, the Afghan government disburses grants to village-level elected organisations, Community Development Councils (CDCs), which in turn identify local priorities and implement small-scale development projects.
The NSP has reached out to 24,000 villages, mobilising nearly 70 percent of rural communities across all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces - including enrolling over 100,000 women into new local CDCs. An independent evaluation by academics from Harvard, MIT and the New School found that the NSP had led to "significant improvement in villagers' economic wellbeing" and "their attitudes towards the government" - "reducing the number of people willing to join the insurgents" leading to "an improved security situation in the long run."
Yet the evaluation report also observes that development mitigates militancy only in regions facing "moderate violence" - but not where there are "high levels of initial violence." Here, the impact of the war is palpable - 2011 saw a record number of 3,021 Afghan civilian deaths. And a UN assessment for that year found the average monthly number of "security incidents" - such as gun battles and roadside bombings - was 39 per cent higher than the preceding year.
So if the exit strategy is the right one, it's still not enough. From June 2002 to September 2010, the United States - though the largest NSP donor - has given $528 million to the programme (as well as another $225 million from FY 2010 funds, with Congress appropriating a further $800 million or so). This is a tiny fraction in the total of about $18.8 billion in foreign assistance over the last decade, and much more needs to be done. Over two-thirds of Afghans still live in dire poverty; only 23 per cent have access to safe drinking water; and just 24 percent above the age of 15 can read and write, according to the UN High Commission for Human Rights. Thus, a recent report by the Center for a New American Security urges that the US government "not only continue its [NSP's] funding but should also help expand the program across Afghanistan. Only through steadfast support of the NSP and similarly structured enterprises can hard-won military gains be consolidated into an enduring, Afghan-led peace."
Yet the NSP is a virtual carbon copy of a longstanding development model being implemented just across the border in rural Pakistan, including the Taliban's strongholds in the northwest frontier province: the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN). As Pakistan's largest NGO, the RSPN has run quietly for nearly thirty years, with a staggering success rate - having mobilised over 4 million Pakistani households through local community organisations, provided skills training to nearly 3 million, and reached approximately 30 million people.
The RSPN's model - replicated so successfully in Afghanistan under the NSP - is distinguished by its unique participatory approach, based on partnership with communities. The programme began in the early 1980s through the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), in the Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan regions. Under the leadership of Nobel Prize nominee Shoaib Sultan Khan, the AKRSP model was replicated by establishing a further ten autonomous Rural Support Programmes (RSP) across three quarters of the country's districts - which together form the umbrella that is the RSPN.
The secret of the RSPN's success is deceptively simple. The poor are mobilised to establish local community organisations where citizens are involved in every aspect of decision-making - designing and selecting projects, managing them, and monitoring expenditures - in projects which have immediate, tangible impact. The programme thus empowers villagers to see themselves as citizens with the skills, tools and acumen to work together in managing disbursement of government funds to lift themselves out of poverty.
In the northwest province of Chitral, for instance, local micro-scale hydro-electricity projects now supply power to over half of the population. Elsewhere, RSPN has empowered locals to establish 1,449 community schools, whose pupils out-perform their peers from government schools, and enrolled 681,000 women in community activism - the largest outreach to poor rural women of any Pakistani organisation. That is why the RSPN's work is so critical to the future of the country - for a strong, representative Pakistani state to emerge, it must be grounded in strong local civil society institutions capable of holding it to account and engaging with it constructively.
But like the NSP, the RSPN receives only a fraction of the overall U.S.-U.K. aid budget to Pakistan. The ongoing debate about troop numbers and drone strikes - while important - has served to distract attention from the critical role of development aid in building resilience to radicalisation. Thus, across the region, the obsession with traditional security solutions has arguably been its own worst enemy. As the countdown to withdrawal continues, the international community must strengthen and expand these proven development models. Otherwise, the quagmire will become an abyss.
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD) in London, author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization (2010) among other books, and writer/presenter of the critically-acclaimed documentary film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011). His work on international terrorism has been used by the 9/11 Commission, the Coroner's Inquiry into 7/7, the US Army Air University, and the UK MoD's Joint Services Command & Staff College. He has also advised the British Foreign Office and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and consulted for projects funded by the US State Department, the UK Department for Communities & Local Government.
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