November 15, 2009
Broaching Birth Control With Afghan Mullahs
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The mullahs stared silently at the screen. They shifted in their chairs and fiddled with pencils. Koranic verses flashed above them, but the topic was something that made everybody a little uncomfortable.
“A baby should be breast-fed for at least 21 months,” said the instructor. “Milk is safe inside the breast. Dust and germs can’t get inside.”
It was a seminar on birth control, a likely subject for a nation whose fertility rate of 6 children per woman is the highest in Asia. But the audience was unusual: 10 Islamic religious leaders from this city and its suburbs, wearing turbans and sipping tea.
The message was simple. Babies are good, but not too many; wait two years before having another to give your wife’s body a chance to recover. Nothing in Islam expressly forbids birth control. But it does emphasize procreation, and mullahs, like leaders of other faiths, consider children to be blessings from God, and are usually the most determined opponents of having fewer of them.
It is an attitude that Afghanistan can no longer afford, in the view of the employees of the nonprofit group that runs the seminars, Marie Stopes International. The high birthrate places a heavy weight on a society where average per capita earnings are about $700 a year. It is also a risk to mothers. Afghanistan is second only to Sierra Leone in maternal mortality rates, which run as high as 8 percent in some areas.
“If we work hard on this issue, we can rescue our country from misery,” said Rahmatuddin Bashardost, a doctor who helps lead the mullahs’ classes.
The mullahs were reluctant participants. Truth be told, they were paid to show up. But surprisingly, they seemed to emerge from the session invigorated.
“This was a useful and friendly discussion,” said Mullah Amruddin, a tall man in a dramatic turban. “If you have too many children and you can’t control them, that’s bad for Islam.”
Maybe they were so receptive because a mullah led the class, using their own language — scripture from the Koran. Or maybe it was because some attitudes are starting to change.
Syed Wasem Massoom, 29, a mullah and one of the trainers, said urban Afghans were looking for ways to have fewer children. Afghanistan was changing, he said, especially its cities, and mullahs had better be thinking about these issues.
“People kept asking us how to have less children,” he said.
Afghan women who work for Marie Stopes, distributing birth control door to door in the country’s capital, have also noticed an interest. An overwhelming majority of people are still skeptical of their motives. (Foreign spies! Christian missionaries who want to reduce the Muslim population!) But a growing number are open to the idea.
“Sometimes they are kind of surprised that this kind of thing exists,” said one of the workers, a woman named Aziza.
In 2009 alone, the sale of birth control pills nearly doubled to 11,000 in September from 6,000 packages in January, according to Marie Stopes figures.
One woman was so happy to have birth control pills that she hugged and kissed Aziza, ripped open a package and swallowed a pill with a gulp of water.
“She said she didn’t want to wait until evening,” Aziza said, laughing at the memory. The total number of the woman’s children: 17. Three dead, 14 living.
The most difficult families are ones headed by mullahs. Aziza and her colleagues tread carefully in those households. Mahmouda, another worker, recalled walking into one such house and finding the mullah’s wife washing clothes and trying to calm a baby. She signaled silently that Mahmouda should talk in a low voice.
“ ‘If my husband finds out, he’ll punish me,’ ” Mahmouda recalled the woman saying. “ ‘I’m pregnant now. I really need those pills.’ ”
Taking birth control in secret is not unusual, the women said. Even Aziza’s own husband opposes her using it.
“He said, ‘We are Muslims and God gives us babies,’ ” she said.
She lies to him, but with a clear conscience. “I talked to him in a good way,” she explained. “I told him about the benefits, but he didn’t listen to me.”
Those who oppose it sometimes get violent. Aziza recalled people running her out of a neighborhood in Kabul after she introduced birth control there. They accused her of being on the payroll of the Americans, taking dollars to weaken the country.
“ ‘They want to capture Afghanistan,’ ” she recalled that they said. “ ‘If the Muslims are many, they won’t be able to.’ ”
In Mazar-i-Sharif, it is one mullah at a time.
Mr. Massoom, the mullah trainer, put it most directly. “This is an Islamic country,” he said. “If the clerics support this, no one will oppose it.”
Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul.
Kandahar co-op gives Afghan women hope
Group opens first shop
By Matthew Fisher, Canwest News ServiceNovember 15, 2009
Until Zuhra Durani joined the Kandahar Treasure co-operative last year, the 32-year-old woman had never once left her family home.
Yet, on Saturday, in what was an extraordinary development in this deeply conservative corner of Afghanistan, Durani and five other women from the co-operative became the first Afghan women to set foot on the Boardwalk, which serves as the principal recreational and shopping area for the 20,000 westerners who live at the airbase that is the hub for NATO's war against the Taliban.
The occasion was the grand opening of Kandahar Treasure's first shop, where soldiers and civilians at the sprawling base will be able to buy silk scarves and shawls and linen furniture covers made by nearly 250 women who work for the co-operative.
"This is so important for us because we cannot go outside," said Durani, who now works as one of the co-op's supervisors. "We can only stay in our homes, but sewing and stitching is something that we can do inside.
"This venture is a small door to the world for us. Until now, nobody has been aware of our skill. The Pakistanis and Iranians do similar work, but the stitching we do in Kandahar is extremely small and quite specific. It makes me proud to think that others will have a chance to see what we have done."
As with everything in Afghanistan, there were risks associated with the venture. Even driving the relatively short distance from the city to the airfield had been a harrowing experience, said Durani, who lives with her parents.
"My mother, father and brothers are happy that I am working here, but every time I leave the house they worry that I may not come home," she said. "It's the 'situation.' Because of the war, I am afraid all the time. But we must try to do such things to improve our lives."
Kandahar Treasure was started six years ago. It was the brainchild of Rangina Hamidi, who was educated in the United States before returning to Afghanistan. Until Saturday, the co-op, which became profitable in its second year, had sold all its production to male-owned businesses in Kandahar or through the Internet. It also offers a home-based literacy program for women and girls.
"This is a dream come true," said Hamidi, whose father is the mayor of Kandahar city. "It was something that we had had in our hearts and minds for so long, but we never thought it could happen."
"We take great pride in this because we are self-sufficient. We are not begging anyone for assistance."
Aside from the difficulties that women have working anywhere in Afghanistan, setting up a local business at the British-run NATO base was complicated, too.
Capt. Darcy Heddon of Edmonton, helped Hamidi navigate the military's bureaucratic and security maze and convinced airport officials to donate a trailer, which became the business's modest first home.
"From small seeds, great things grow," Air Commodore Malcolm Brecht, told Afghans and NATO troops who attended the opening.
About 40 per cent of the businesses on the Boardwalk are now Afghan owned and run, the base commander said, adding about 1,500 Afghans now work on the base every day.
Such projects, "leading by example at the grassroots level," will encourage Afghans "to demand change," said Roch Lacroix of Ottawa, Canada's deputy commander in Kandahar.
December 6, 2009
May It All Come True
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
President Obama certainly showed leadership mettle in going against his own party’s base and ordering a troop surge into Afghanistan. He is going to have to be even more tough-minded, though, to make sure his policy is properly executed.
I’ve already explained why I oppose this escalation. But since the decision has been made — and I do not want my country to fail or the Obama presidency to sink in Afghanistan — here are some thoughts on how to reduce the chances that this ends badly. Let’s start by recalling an insight that President John F. Kennedy shared in a Sept. 2, 1963, interview with Walter Cronkite:
Cronkite: “Mr. President, the only hot war we’ve got running at the moment is, of course, the one in Vietnam, and we have our difficulties there.”
Kennedy: “I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the [Vietnamese] government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them; we can give them equipment; we can send our men out there as advisers. But they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists. We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don’t think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort and, in my opinion, in the last two months, the [Vietnamese] government has gotten out of touch with the people. ...”
Cronkite: “Do you think this government still has time to regain the support of the people?”
Kennedy: “I do. With changes in policy and perhaps with personnel I think it can. If it doesn’t make those changes, the chances of winning it would not be very good.”
What J.F.K. understood, what L.B.J. lost sight of, and what B.H.O. can’t afford to forget, is that in the end it’s not about how many troops we send or deadlines we set. It is all about our Afghan partners. Afghanistan has gone into a tailspin largely because President Hamid Karzai’s government became dysfunctional and massively corrupt — focused more on extracting revenues for private gain than on governing. That is why too many Afghans who cheered Karzai’s arrival in 2001 have now actually welcomed Taliban security and justice.
“In 2001, most Afghan people looked to the United States not only as a potential mentor but as a model for successful democracy,” Pashtoon Atif, a former aid worker from Kandahar, recently wrote in The Los Angeles Times. “What we got instead was a free-for-all in which our leaders profited outrageously and unapologetically from a wealth of foreign aid coupled with a dearth of regulations.”
Therefore, our primary goal has to be to build — with Karzai — an Afghan government that is “decent enough” to earn the loyalty of the Afghan people, so a critical mass of them will feel “ownership” of it and therefore be ready to fight to protect it. Because only then will there be a “self-sustaining” Afghan Army and state so we can begin to get out by the president’s July 2011 deadline — without leaving behind a bloodbath.
Focus on those key words: “decent enough,” “ownership” and “self-sustaining.” Without minimally decent government, Afghans will not take ownership. If they don’t take ownership, they won’t fight for it. And if they won’t fight for it on their own, whatever progress we make will not be self-sustaining. It will just collapse when we leave.
But here is what worries me: The president’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said flatly: “This can’t be nation-building.” And the president told a columnists’ lunch on Tuesday that he wants to avoid “mission creep” that takes on “nation-building in Afghanistan.”
I am sorry: This is only nation-building. You can’t train an Afghan Army and police force to replace our troops if you have no basic state they feel is worth fighting for. But that will require a transformation by Karzai, starting with the dismissal of his most corrupt aides and installing officials Afghans can trust.
This surge also depends, the president indicated, on Pakistan ending its obsession with India. That obsession has led Pakistan to support the Taliban to control Afghanistan as part of its “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India. Pakistan fights the Taliban who attack it, but nurtures the Taliban who want to control Afghanistan. So we now need this fragile Pakistan to stop looking for strategic depth against India in Afghanistan and to start building strategic depth at home, by reviving its economy and school system and preventing jihadists from taking over there.
That is why Mr. Obama is going to have to make sure, every day, that Karzai doesn’t weasel out of reform or Pakistan wiggle out of shutting down Taliban sanctuaries or the allies wimp out on helping us. To put it succinctly: This only has a chance to work if Karzai becomes a new man, if Pakistan becomes a new country and if we actually succeed at something the president says we won’t be doing at all: nation-building in Afghanistan. Yikes!
By Wazhma Frogh And Lauryn Oates, For The Calgary Herald
December 11, 2009
In October, the women's antiwar organization, Code Pink, went to Afghanistan. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the pink T-shirted women were surprised to learn the overwhelming majority of women do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops from their country. Expecting their counterparts -- Afghan activists fighting for peace and gender equality -- to support their demands, they were confronted with the problem that perhaps their position has been counterproductive to the Afghan women's movement, or even wrong.
We hope this means Code Pink will rethink what we see as a damaging position out of sync with the peace building and development priorities voiced by ordinary Afghans. But why did it take Code Pink so long to ask Afghan women what they think?
Code Pink has been around since 2002. The thrust of their agenda has been to see the departure of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. This policy has profound implications for those two countries.
Afghanistan is where the prospects of a Taliban government loom gloomily over a fledgling civil society movement, a population struggling for basic human rights, hoping to be lifted out of poverty. Afghans will ultimately contend with the fallout of abandonment by the international community. Their everyday lives are shaped by decisions made in boardrooms in Washington, Brussels and Ottawa, and by public pressure in those nations. For Afghans, these policies truly are matters of life and death.
It seems logical that a foundational step for Code Pink would be to consult the people who live in those countries, to find out what their actions might mean for those most affected by the position they espouse. Code Pink's modus operandi is symptomatic of a western feminism that is not rooted in values of global solidarity, but is self-interested, insular and shamefully relativist. It is based on tribalism and rejects internationalist values. In this feminism, emancipation is only for western women -- not for women in places like Afghanistan.
On Oct. 12, the New York Times reported that Code Pink would stick to its position of calling for troop withdrawal. Even when the shrillest "antiwar" pseudo-feminists are caught in a direct confrontation with facts exposing the moral bankruptcy of their demands, they recoil from the duty of solidarity with Afghan women in struggle.
If western feminists who have staked out a "troops out" position remembered to ask Afghan women their views, they would find that rather than bristling at "masculine militarization," "cultural imperialism," or any other in-vogue sin found on the placards waved at rallies, many Afghan women are haunted by the memory of the Taliban's public stoning to death of women. They recall what life was like when you couldn't leave your home alone, when you could not speak aloud in the streets because your voice was deemed inhuman, subservient, inherently impure. It was not the West's interference that led to their collective misery, but the lack of it.
Afghan women might also tell you about the intensely empowering experience of watching 1,500 women gathered in Kabul's Loya Jirga tent in the historic "5 Million Women Campaign" where they mobilized to go out and vote. They might tell you about the exhilaration of watching women take their seats in parliament in 2005. They might tell you about the courage of the hundreds of women who protested the discriminatory Shia Personal Status Law that a fundamentalist mullah sought to push through parliament.
Every day, Afghans give us signs of their desire for change and send us reminders that they are entitled to the same rights we enjoy in our privileged and free societies. You can see it in the activists who lobbied for the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in Afghanistan. You can find it in the schools opening on every corner of
Kabul, and in the journalists courageously calling election fraud and trying to build a free press. You can find it in the more than 100 democratic political parties registered since 2002. You can find it in the reemergence of artists, writers and musicians, whose work the Taliban had banned.
We need to read those signs, and respond to them with the empathy and commitment that we would to those resisting injustices in our own societies. We need to throw our weight behind the need to protect the breathing space Afghans need to lay the foundation for a future where the fascist, misogynist ideology of the Taliban is obliterated. When we pay heed to the progressive voices in Afghanistan, they will drown out the mantras of the Taliban.
Canadian women have an opportunity to stand behind their Afghan counterparts and play a part in a movement that could be the beginning of a lasting transformation. This requires ensuring that what we do at home links into the goals of fellow activists outside our borders. Organizations like Code Pink that profess to be feminist can magnify their impact, their global mindedness and their relevance if their actions mesh with the design Afghan women have for a future where the Taliban would never find a foothold.
For now, foreign intervention needs to be part of the picture. Western peace groups and women's organizations can play a role in structuring how that intervention plays out, criticizing it, contributing ideas, and calling for its maximum effectiveness for peace. But they need to acknowledge that Afghan women think Canadians and Americans should be there -- that we may owe them this much, and that it's time we listen as a habit, not exception. Then the real dialogue can start.
Wazhma Frogh is an Afghan human rights activist, gender and development specialist and recipient of the 2009 International Woman of Courage Award, as well as a Chevening Scholar in International Development Law and Human Rights at Warwick University. Lauryn Oates is a human-rights activist, gender and education specialist and board member of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. She has advocated for Afghan women's rights since 1996, often through Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
Afghan people abounding in hope
Poll shows NATO efforts are working and appreciated
January 17, 2010 8:40 AM
A lthough Afghanistan has been a fount of bad news for years, it should not come as a surprise to discover how optimistic Afghans are about their country's future. The vast amount of blood and toil NATO has expended in the war-torn South Asian nation over more than eight years was bound to bring some returns. It is heartening to see that these are now being not only realized but recognized by Afghans on the ground, even if the picture among citizens of contributing NATO members tends toward unrelenting gloom.
A poll released last week by ABC, the BBC and German public broadcaster ARD discovered that huge majorities of Afghans believe their country is on the right track, heartening news as Calgarians prepare to attend tomorrow's memorial service for Michelle Lang, our Calgary Herald colleague killed along with four Canadian soldiers, by a roadside bomb just outside Kandahar.
Seventy per cent of respondents said as much -- an increase of 40 per cent from last year. Support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has risen to 62 per cent and 71 per cent believed that the situation would be better in a year.
However, the most encouraging finding was in Afghans' attitudes toward the Taliban. Ninety per cent declared their support for the administration of President Hamid Karzai versus six per cent for the Taliban. Sixty-nine per cent of Afghans call the gun-toting militants the biggest threat to the country, while 66 per cent attribute Afghanistan's high levels of violence to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.
The Afghan view contrasts sharply with the views of Westerners. An EKOS poll conducted last summer found more than half of Canadians were opposed to the Afghan mission. More recent studies by Angus Reid have pegged support at 42 per cent, with more than two-thirds of Canadians against an extension of the Canadian Forces' presence in Afghanistan. American support for the endeavour is also in decline while solid majorities in Britain and Germany are staunchly opposed to national participation in ISAF.
A lot of this pessimism appears to be unwarranted, because NATO involvement is not the quagmire it is so often made out to be. Most Afghans appreciate the efforts NATO is making on their behalf and are keenly interested in seizing the opportunity to shrug off their bloody recent history. All the work put into confidence-and institution-building has not been wasted. Afghans have been brought to believe in ever greater numbers in their fledgling democracy and are investing in it their hopes for a brighter future, despite the widespread corruption and election irregularities which have dogged the Afghan government at all levels.
This Afghan poll only demonstrates the misperception which has dogged the ISAF mission for so long: the idea that success is decisively defeating the Taliban. Considering the unstable neighbourhood in which Afghanistan lies, that is probably impossible.
Rather, the goal is to impart to Afghans the strength to resist the Taliban on their own, both through force of arms and by setting up a stable nation-state which ordinary people can depend on and rally around. On this score, ISAF appears to be succeeding, at least according to the people it aims to help.
February 13, 2010
A Test for the Meaning of Victory in Afghanistan
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — Midway through the rancorous debate inside the Obama administration last fall over how to redefine America’s goals for the war in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told his colleagues that they did not need to kill off the Taliban in every city and town in the country.
“We need to eliminate Al Qaeda, but we only need to degrade the capability of the Taliban,” Mr. Gates said. He spoke with the authority of a man who had seen from the inside what happened when, by his own account, the Bush administration focused far too little thought and resources on the battle for Afghanistan.
In the end, he said, the Obama approach to Afghanistan would rise or fall on whether “the Afghans themselves can create conditions that would keep the Taliban from returning.” In other words, whether after eight years of corruption and unfulfilled promises, the Afghan military and government could provide security, turn on the lights, run the schools and pipe in the water.
Now, two and a half months after President Obama publicly embraced that strategy, it is to be tested in the previously little-known town of Marja, the heart of Taliban country. On Saturday morning the long-awaited battle for the walled town began. But as one of Mr. Obama’s own advisers conceded in December, when recounting the arguments that took place in the Situation Room last fall, “it’s not about the battle, it’s about the postlude.”
The problem is that in the long run, postlude is largely out of Mr. Obama’s hands. It depends almost entirely on the abilities of President Hamid Karzai — who was deeply reluctant to start the battle in Marja — and, at the same time, on those of tribal leaders who deeply distrust Mr. Karzai. To many in Washington, that tendentious combination is what makes Marja, and the larger strategy behind the surge of 30,000 more troops, such a huge risk.
In the Bush years, the rallying cry when operations like Marja began was “clear, build and hold.” Mr. Obama has added a fourth step, “transfer.” At the end of the three-month-long review of Afghan strategy, Mr. Obama vowed he would begin no military operation unless a plan was in place to transfer authority promptly to the Afghans.
That plan exists in Marja, at least on paper. Both the Americans and the Afghan military did everything to advertise the coming military strike short of posting billboards with the date and size of the operation. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the American commander who persuaded Mr. Gates, and ultimately Mr. Obama, to try his form of counterinsurgency, insisted last week that the “transfer” element of the strategy had been prepared and would kick in as soon as the Taliban fled or were defeated.
“We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” General McChrystal said.
The gamble here is that once Afghans see the semblance of a state taking hold in Marja, rank-and-file Taliban will begin to take more seriously the offers that Mr. Karzai and the West are dangling to buy them off. Enticed by the offer of some political role in Afghan society — and a regular paycheck — they will think twice about trying to recapture the town. “We think many of the foot soldiers are in it for the money, not the ideology,” one British official said recently. “We need to test the proposition that it’s cheaper to enrich them a little than to fight them every spring and summer.”
The problem, of course, is that governments-in-a-box that are ready to roll in can also be rolled out — or rolled over. And the most heated arguments that unfolded during the Afghanistan review pitted those who thought that Mr. Karzai’s government needed one more chance to show it could get it right against those who argued that they had been to this movie before, and it always ended the same way.
No one put the warning to Mr. Obama more succinctly — or more baldly — than Karl W. Eikenberry, the American ambassador. A scholarly former general who served twice in Afghanistan, Mr. Eikenberry was among the first to raise the alarm during the Bush years that the American approach in Afghanistan was failing. Recently he warned Mr. Obama against putting the success of American strategy in Mr. Karzai’s less-than-reliable hands.
“President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he wrote in one of several cables to the State Department that, predictably, later leaked. Counterinsurgency is a great strategy, Mr. Eikenberry argued, but only if it is executed systematically and energetically. That was what was missing, he said, from the strategic reassessment that General McChrystal submitted late last summer.
“The proposed counterinsurgency strategy assumes an Afghan political leadership that is both able to take responsibility and to exert sovereignty in the furtherance of our goal,” he wrote. “Yet Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further.” He is hardly alone in that assessment. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. gave voice to similar concerns. So did the leaders of India.
Mr. Eikenberry told Congress in December that his worries have since been largely allayed, and he is now perfectly satisfied with President Obama’s strategy. But he seemed to be speaking for a wing of the Obama administration that fears the Obama counterinsurgency strategy could crumble in Mr. Karzai’s hands.
March 6, 2010
Letting Women Reach Women in Afghan War
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The Marines in a recent “cultural awareness” class scribbled careful notes as the instructor coached them on do’s and don’ts when talking to villagers in Afghanistan: Don’t start by firing off questions, do break the ice by playing with the children, don’t let your interpreter hijack the conversation.
And one more thing: “If you have a pony tail,” said Marina Kielpinski, the instructor, “let it go out the back of your helmet so people can see you’re a woman.”
These are not your mother’s Marines here in the rugged California chaparral of Camp Pendleton, where 40 young women are preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in one of the more forward-leaning experiments of the American military.
Next month they will begin work as members of the first full-time “female engagement teams,” the military’s name for four- and five-member units that will accompany men on patrols in Helmand Province to try to win over the rural Afghan women who are culturally off limits to outside men. The teams, which are to meet with the Afghan women in their homes, assess their need for aid and gather intelligence, are part of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s campaign for Afghan hearts and minds. His officers say that you cannot gain the trust of the Afghan population if you only talk to half of it.
“We know we can make a difference,” said Capt. Emily Naslund, 26, the team’s executive officer and second in command. Like the other 39 women, Captain Naslund volunteered for the program and radiates exuberance, but she is not naïve about the frustrations and dangers ahead. Half of the women have been deployed before, most to Iraq.
“We all know that what you expect is not usually what it’s going to end up being,” said Sgt. Melissa Hernandez, 35, who signed on because she wanted something different from her office job at Camp Victory, the American military headquarters in Baghdad.
As envisioned, the teams will work like American politicians who campaign door to door and learn what voters care about. A team is to arrive in a village, get permission from the male elder to speak with the women, settle into a compound, hand out school supplies and medicine, drink tea, make conversation and, ideally, get information about the village, local grievances and the Taliban.
Whatever the outcome, the teams reflect how much the military has adapted over nine years of war, not only in the way it fights but to the shifting gender roles within its ranks. Women make up only 6 percent of the Marine Corps, which cultivates an image as the most testosterone-fueled service, and they are still officially barred from combat branches like the infantry.
But in a bureaucratic sleight of hand, used by both the Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan when women have been needed for critical jobs like bomb disposal or intelligence, the female engagement teams are to be “attached” to all-male infantry units within the First Marine Expeditionary Force — a source of pride and excitement for them.
“When I heard about this, I said, Oh, that’s it, let’s go,” said Cpl. Vanessa Jones, 25.
The idea for the teams grew out of the “Lioness” program in Iraq, which used female Marines to search Iraqi women at checkpoints. Over the past year in Afghanistan, the Army and Marines have assembled ad hoc female engagement teams, but the women were hastily pulled from work as cooks or engineers.
The women at Pendleton are among the first to be trained exclusively for the mission. “Every Marine wants to go outside the wire,” said Cpl. Michele Greco-Lucchina, 22, referring to assignments off the base. “We all join for different reasons, but that’s the basis for being a Marine.”
The women said they were not looking for combat and would work in areas largely cleared of militants. But in a war with no front lines, to be prepared for ambushes and snipers, they have taken an extended combat-training refresher course.
On patrols, the women will carry M-4 rifles, which are shorter and more maneuverable than the military’s standard M-16s, but once inside an Afghan compound, and with Marine guards posted outside, they have been instructed, assuming they feel safe, to remove their rifles and take off their intimidating “battle rattle” of helmets and body armor.
They have also been told to be sensitive to local custom and to wear head scarves under their helmets or, if that is too hot and unwieldy, to keep the scarves around their necks and use them to cover their heads once their helmets are off inside.
Marines who have worked with the ad hoc teams in Afghanistan said that rural Afghan women, rarely seen by outsiders, had more influence in their villages than male commanders might think, and that the Afghan women’s good will could make Afghans, both men and women, less suspicious of American troops.
Capt. Matt Pottinger, an intelligence officer based in the capital, Kabul, who helped create and train the first engagement team in Afghanistan, recently wrote that when one of the teams visited a village in southern Afghanistan, a gray-bearded man opened his home to the women by saying, “Your men come to fight, but we know the women are here to help.”
The man also sheepishly admitted, Captain Pottinger wrote in Small Wars Journal, an online publication, that the women were “good for my old eyes.”
Rural Afghan women, who meet at wells and pass news about the village, are often repositories of information about a district’s social fabric, power brokers and militants, all crucial data for American forces. On some occasions, Captain Pottinger said in an e-mail message, women have provided information about specific insurgents and the makers of bombs.
As part of their conversations with Afghan women, the Marines are to ask basic questions, including what is the most difficult problem facing the village. The answers will go into a database to guide the military and aid workers. As Ms. Kielpinski, the instructor, told the Marines, “If the population has told you that their biggest problem is irrigation and your unit does something about it, that’s a huge success.”
For now, the Marines remain apprehensive about the unknowns they will encounter. Capt. Claire Henry, 27, the top commander of the team, said she worried, like any officer, about her responsibilities to the women working under her. “You’re about to take Marines into harm’s way,” she said, “and at the end of the day you want to make sure you give them the right training and that they’re physically and mentally prepared for it.”
March 20, 2010
U.S. Turns a Blind Eye to Opium in Afghan Town
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — The effort to win over Afghans on former Taliban turf in Marja has put American and NATO commanders in the unusual position of arguing against opium eradication, pitting them against some Afghan officials who are pushing to destroy the harvest.
From Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on down, the military’s position is clear: “U.S. forces no longer eradicate,” as one NATO official put it. Opium is the main livelihood of 60 to 70 percent of the farmers in Marja, which was seized from Taliban rebels in a major offensive last month. American Marines occupying the area are under orders to leave the farmers’ fields alone.
“Marja is a special case right now,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Eggers, a member of the general’s Strategic Advisory Group, his top advisory body. “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over.”
United Nations drug officials agree with the Americans, though they acknowledge the conundrum. Pictures of NATO and other allied soldiers “walking next to the opium fields won’t go well with domestic audiences, but the approach of postponing eradicating in this particular case is a sensible one,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who is in charge of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime here.
Afghan officials, however, are divided. Though some support the American position, others, citing a constitutional ban on opium cultivation, want to plow the fields under before the harvest, which has already begun in parts of Helmand Province.
“How can we allow the world to see lawful forces in charge of Marja next to fields full of opium, which one way or another will be harvested and turned into a poison that kills people all over the world?” said Zulmai Afzali, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics.
“The Taliban are the ones who profit from opium, so you are letting your enemy get financed by this so he can turn around and kill you back,” he added, referring to how the Taliban squeeze farmers for money to run their operations.
The argument may strike some as a jarring reversal; in the years right after the 2001 invasion, tensions rose as some Afghan officials vehemently resisted all-out American pressure to stop opium production.
Though the United States government’s official position is still to support opium crop eradication in general, some American civilian officials say that the internal debate over Marja is far from over within parts of the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A spokesman for the United States Embassy in Kabul, Brendan J. O’Brien, said officials would decline to comment while the matter was under review.
At the heart of the debate with Afghan officials is an important question of cause-and-effect: is poor security in Marja the reason there is so much opium, or is so much opium the reason there has been poor security?
“Every province in Afghanistan where you find opium cultivation, you have insecurity as a result,” Mr. Afzali said.
American military officials and United Nations drug officials see it the other way around. Opium cultivation has been largely wiped out in 20 provinces where security has been improved, and in the seven most insecure provinces, poppy is still farmed.
“Nothing can compete with opium in an insecure environment,” Mr. Lemahieu said. “A secure environment is the precondition for governance and a long-term solution.”
Although the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO force that General McChrystal commands, no longer carries out eradication programs itself, its official position is that it supports the Afghan government’s efforts to eradicate, and lends backup and protection to the provincial officials, who are responsible for carrying out the eradication program.
The ardently anti-opium governor of Helmand Province, Gulab Mangal, has a record of success, cutting back cultivation by 33 percent last year. But he, too, is willing to make an exception for the current harvest in Marja — for the moment.
“In general I’ve been told by my higher-ups that this year you will not eradicate there, because people have suffered a lot of hardships because of the fighting,” Mr. Mangal said. “We may do it next year.”
Mr. Afzali, however, said the Counternarcotics Ministry still hoped to prevail in time to eradicate the current crop in Marja.
Mr. Mangal said, “If they order me, I will start the destruction of Marja’s opium the same day.”
The problem of Marja’s opium harvest is being discussed intensely by General McChrystal’s advisers, but none of the proposed solutions have proved satisfactory. One idea was to buy up and destroy the opium harvest, but opponents of that proposal feared that it would only encourage more opium cultivation — and might be illegal under United States law, turning American troops into de facto drug financiers.
Another idea was to give incentives to farmers to change to legal crops next year, while this year concentrating on interdiction of smugglers and the laboratories they use to make opium or heroin from the poppy paste. That would institute a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward the cultivators and would present a thorny question: where would troops interdict the opium — just outside the farm gate, on the lane leading from the farm, on the road to town?
“How do you support the rule of law while providing a proper penalty and disincentive so they switch crops next year?” Commander Eggers said. “We are in a real dilemma.”
There is little time left to find an answer: two-thirds of Marja’s fields are now blooming with tall red poppies, and the forthcoming harvest would provide work for thousands of Afghans from outside the area because it is so labor intensive.
Helmand produces more than half of Afghanistan’s opium harvest, with 22 percent of its arable land devoted to poppies, even after Governor Mangal’s forces eradicated a third of the crop last year. His province was awarded a $10 million Good Performer’s Initiative grant by the American Embassy for that effort.
Afghanistan now produces 90 percent of the world’s opium. And one way or another the opium trade supports an estimated 1.4 million households in the country, which has a population of 25 million to 30 million. It also provides enormous amounts of money to the Taliban, with a recent United Nations study estimating the insurgents had earned as much as $600 million in taxes from farmers and traffickers just from 2005 to 2008.
The farmers themselves do not get rich on the harvest.
Hajji Said Gul, a 51-year-old farmer with nine acres of poppies in Marja, said that after he paid back loans to buy seeds, and gave the Taliban their 10 percent of the profits, he earned $500 an acre with each harvest. He is not worried about eradication. “The Taliban have already promised us that they will keep fighting the government and foreign forces until we collect our harvest from the fields,” he said. “All my hopes are related to the poppy harvest.”
Muhammad Nabi, 52, a tribal elder, said: “It’s better if they don’t destroy the crops this year. Next year, if they provide better security, reconstruction and work programs, then we guarantee they will not grow poppy.”
Opium prices now are at historic lows, after years of over-production in Afghanistan. A few years ago, farmers could earn 37 times as much from opium as from wheat, the favored substitution crop recently; now it is more like two or three times as much, United Nations officials say.
Mr. Lemahieu said he thought that provided an opportunity to persuade the farmers that if they changed to legal crops, the government would provide them with services like schools and clinics, and then they might be willing to accept lower profits.
“Between yesterday’s opium income and tomorrow’s legal income, today requires an increase in quality of life for the farmer and his family,” he said. Destroy his crop this year, Western officials say, and he won’t see anything but red.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Marja, Afghanistan, and an Afghan employee of The New York Times from Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.
May 23, 2010
U.S. Tries to Reintegrate Taliban Soldiers
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
MIAN POSHTEH, Afghanistan — The young Taliban prisoner was led blindfolded to a sweltering military tent, seated among 17 village elders and then, eyes uncovered, faced a chief accuser brandishing a document with the elders’ signatures or thumbprints.
Capt. Scott A. Cuomo, a United States Marine commander who was acting as the prosecutor, told the prisoner: “This letter right here is a sworn pledge from all of your elders that they’re vouching for you and that you will never support the Taliban or fight for the Taliban ever again.”
After a half-hour “trial,” the captain rendered the group’s judgment on the silent prisoner, Juma Khan, 23, whom the Marines had seized after finding a bomb trigger device, ammunition and opium buried in his yard. Mr. Khan’s father and grandfather, who was one of the elders, were among the group. “So on behalf of peace, your family, your grandfather,” Captain Cuomo solemnly said, “we’re going to let you go.”
Thus was justice dispensed on a recent Saturday evening, deep in the Taliban heartland of the Helmand River Valley, where the theory behind the American effort to “reintegrate” the enemy meets the ambiguous reality of a nearly decade-old war.
Captain Cuomo, a 32-year-old Annapolis graduate from Long Island who is not related to the New York political family, acknowledged the hazards of the trial and others like it unfolding in Afghanistan. “Do I know that Juma Khan is not going to turn back around and be the Taliban?” he said. “No.” Nonetheless the effort is proceeding.
Even as Washington and Kabul debate their plans to reconcile with senior members of the Taliban, military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan are reintegrating insurgent foot soldiers on their own. The reason is simple, Captain Cuomo said: While Marines are “trained to fight, and we don’t mind fighting, the problem with fighting is that it doesn’t bring stability to your home.”
Six days after Mr. Khan’s May 1 release, another Marine commander, Capt. Jason C. Brezler, got pledges from 25 former insurgents to sign up as police recruits in the northern Helmand village of Soorkano. A week later in Marja, where clashes between the Marines and the Taliban continue in the wake of an American offensive there in February, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas released two young men who admitted to fighting for the Taliban, after the pair and two elders signed pledges promising the men would not fight again.
Acting under military guidelines aimed at persuading low-level fighters to lay down their arms, commanders repeat the mantra that the United States will never kill its way to victory in Afghanistan. They say that in a counterinsurgency war intended to win over the population, reintegration is crucial because the Taliban are woven so deeply into the social fabric of the country.
“I can understand why they’re Taliban,” Captain Cuomo said in an interview after Mr. Khan’s release. “Well of course they are, what do you want them to do? I want to do anything, I had to be part of the Taliban, man.”
Military officials describe reintegration so far as sporadic at best, an interim effort ahead of a more formal process that they hope the Afghan government will adopt at a political summit meeting in Kabul in coming weeks.
Last year, as part of an earlier Afghan push to give jobs to defecting Taliban, the Kabul government said that at least 9,000 insurgents had turned in their weapons. Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, a British Army commander in Kabul who has helped oversee the reconciliation effort, said the Afghan government now estimated that there were 40,000 fighters to be brought back into the fold, with the 1,000 at the top, including the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, as the most important. United States military officials say they do not have a clear idea of how many Taliban have reintegrated so far, including any who came into the fold during the early years of the war, but that the numbers are small.
Washington has so far endorsed Afghan plans for reconciliation with some Taliban, but has drawn the line at negotiating with Mullah Omar. (Washington and Kabul use the term reconciliation for the Taliban leadership and reintegration for the foot soldiers.) Either way, the plans echo the Awakening movement in Iraq, where tribal leaders from the country’s Sunni minority rebelled against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and joined forces with the Americans. But there are many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, not least Afghanistan’s long history of fighters changing sides, sometimes more than once.
The seeds of Mr. Khan’s “trial” were planted last summer, when the Marines pushed into the lush hamlet of Mian Poshteh, part of an initial escalation ordered in the spring of 2009 by President Obama. Surrounded by harvested poppy fields and a network of irrigation canals, members of Company E of the Second Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment met fierce Taliban resistance. (The episode was captured in “Obama’s War,” a PBS Frontline documentary broadcast last fall which opened with the shooting death last July of a 20-year-old corporal in the Mian Poshteh market.)
Captain Cuomo’s Company F of the Second Battalion, Second Marine Regiment arrived in October to continuing fighting and the deaths, by sniper and roadside bomb, of two more Marines. But by early this year, the Taliban had either been killed, chased away or given jobs. The Marines reopened the market, committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to work programs and began plans to build a school and clinic.
The 270 Marines of Company F spread out over a sliver of land, 11 miles long by 5 miles wide, encompassing a string of villages along the Helmand River. From spartan bases, some consisting of only a dozen Marines sleeping in the dirt alongside an armored truck, the Americans moved to build relationships among the Pashtun tribes in the area.
The same Marines patrolled in the same villages each day, getting to recognize the residents. They awarded the elders construction projects and over hours of tea drinking showed them photographs they had taken of virtually every grown male in their battle space.
“Is this guy Taliban?” the Marines asked repeatedly, then poured what they learned into a computer database. Captain Cuomo, who had spent a day with a Los Angeles Police Department countergang unit between two tours in Iraq and his deployment to Afghanistan, called the process “kind of like C.S.I.,” the CBS crime drama television series.
By April, a villager tipped the Marines off about Mr. Khan, who had recently come back to Mian Poshteh from Pakistan. The Marines raided his house, found the ammunition, trigger device and enough opium, Captain Cuomo said, to fill a large American garbage can. They took him to one of their bases, put him in a holding pen the size of a large dog cage, questioned him for two days, got four sworn statements from local residents that he was a member of the Taliban, then held the trial — the 11th such reintegration that Captain Cuomo has conducted since January.
When it was all over, as the elders and Marines crowded around, Mr. Khan said through a military interpreter that he was relieved to be let go. “I think it’s a very, very good thing,” he said. He said he joined the Taliban because “everybody was like with the Taliban, so it’s like the force of the Taliban, I was under pressure.” He claimed he had never made or placed a homemade bomb for the insurgents.
Two days later, Mr. Khan went on Captain Cuomo’s instructions to the nearby Garmsir District center, where he and some of the elders met with the district governor and Mr. Khan formally declared his loyalty to the Afghan government.
But what is preventing him from rejoining the Taliban? The Marines say the village elders who vouched for him will help keep him in check, as will a parole-like program. The Marines will meet with him regularly and pump him for information about his friends. They also expect him to be employed in a canal cleanup project this summer.
“If they realize at some point that the cause they think they’re fighting for is not a worthy one, and we’re here to bring stability to the area, then you have to make an overture,” Captain Cuomo said, then paused before asking: “Will it bite you in the butt?”
He did not directly answer.
C. J. Chivers contributed reporting from Marja, Afghanistan.
Afghan women swap veils for police pistols
Twenty recruits join force despite family disapproval
By Daphne Benoit, Agence France-Presse
June 13, 2010
A female member of the Afghan National Police aims a 9-mm pistol as she attends a training session.
Photograph by: Ed Jones, AFP-Getty Images, Agence France-Presse
In the heart of the violent birthplace of the Taliban movement, defying Afghan convention and family advice, mothers Magola and Faranaze decided to take up arms.
From the southern province of Kandahar, they are among a handful of women who have swapped the
full Islamic veils known as burkas for life in uniform as members of Afghanistan's under-strength police force.
"My parents don't like me to work for the police, but I am happy to serve my country," said Magola, proudly wearing her blue uniform at the camp where she has been trained by U.S.-led NATO forces.
Magola and Faranaze are not their real names. Afghanistan is a country where strict Islamic beliefs and conservative convention prohibit most women from working. Out of a thousand recruits, police in Kandahar have only 20 women.
Widowed during the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, Magola confided that she needed her police salary to feed her family. She has 12 children and six are still dependent on her.
Like most Kandahari women, female officers wear burkas off duty. But at work, wearing scarves or hoods with their uniforms, women perform essential roles in areas that remain off limits to men.
Female officers are responsible for knocking on doors, and ushering women away from homes before police swoop in for operations against suspects.
"When the police are searching a compound, they can't go first. We have to knock on doors, explain why we are here, take the women aside so they can go inside," said Faranaze.
"Once, I went to a compound, we were looking for a pistol. The man had asked the woman to hide it. I went to her and said: 'I am going to slap you if you don't tell me where it is.' She had put it in a cooking pot."
But they also encounter considerable risks in the wartorn country, where police are regularly targeted by insurgents.
In Kandahar, "the Taliban assassinate people, there are one or two murders every day," said Magola.
NATO forces are focused on training more police as part of one of their most ambitious counter-insurgency operations in the nine-year Afghan war.
Operations to beat back the Taliban in Kandahar, heartland of a bitter insurgency against the western-backed Afghan government, are due to escalate in coming months as thousands more troops deploy.
Afghan police and security forces are frequently on the front line. Three bombers attacked a police training centre in Kandahar this week, damaging the outer wall of the compound before they were killed.
Among several other women on the force, one survived a bombing at their headquarters in downtown Kandahar city. Another tells of having been followed several times in the street recently.
Besides the risks to their lives, Magola and Faranaze face disapproval from families who object that they work or simply fear for their safety.
"One of my brothers works at the Saraposa prison. He told me to stop working for the police. I shook his hand and told him I would work with him hand in hand until I die," Faranaze said.
During the Taliban regime, she said, "it was very hard, the Taliban didn't like women to leave the house. They were beating women with sticks."
"We want God to take them away from the province. But without God's will, we won't be able to do anything," Faranaze said.
For Magola, however, there can be no question of the Islamist insurgents returning to power.
"Every day I feel like I am going to die," Magola said.
" But I don't want to die until I kill a Taliban."
June 13, 2010
U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan
By JAMES RISEN
WASHINGTON — The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.
While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.
“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.
“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.
American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan. The American-led offensive in Marja in southern Afghanistan has achieved only limited gains. Meanwhile, charges of corruption and favoritism continue to plague the Karzai government, and Mr. Karzai seems increasingly embittered toward the White House.
So the Obama administration is hungry for some positive news to come out of Afghanistan. Yet the American officials also recognize that the mineral discoveries will almost certainly have a double-edged impact.
Instead of bringing peace, the newfound mineral wealth could lead the Taliban to battle even more fiercely to regain control of the country.
The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan’s minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.
Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts. Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge.
“No one has tested that law; no one knows how it will stand up in a fight between the central government and the provinces,” observed Paul A. Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of defense for business and leader of the Pentagon team that discovered the deposits.
At the same time, American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.
Another complication is that because Afghanistan has never had much heavy industry before, it has little or no history of environmental protection either. “The big question is, can this be developed in a responsible way, in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible?” Mr. Brinkley said. “No one knows how this will work.”
With virtually no mining industry or infrastructure in place today, it will take decades for Afghanistan to exploit its mineral wealth fully. “This is a country that has no mining culture,” said Jack Medlin, a geologist in the United States Geological Survey’s international affairs program. “They’ve had some small artisanal mines, but now there could be some very, very large mines that will require more than just a gold pan.”
The mineral deposits are scattered throughout the country, including in the southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan that have had some of the most intense combat in the American-led war against the Taliban insurgency.
The Pentagon task force has already started trying to help the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development. International accounting firms that have expertise in mining contracts have been hired to consult with the Afghan Ministry of Mines, and technical data is being prepared to turn over to multinational mining companies and other potential foreign investors. The Pentagon is helping Afghan officials arrange to start seeking bids on mineral rights by next fall, officials said.
“The Ministry of Mines is not ready to handle this,” Mr. Brinkley said. “We are trying to help them get ready.”
Like much of the recent history of the country, the story of the discovery of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is one of missed opportunities and the distractions of war.
In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
“There were maps, but the development did not take place, because you had 30 to 35 years of war,” said Ahmad Hujabre, an Afghan engineer who worked for the Ministry of Mines in the 1970s.
Armed with the old Russian charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 percent of the country.
The data from those flights was so promising that in 2007, the geologists returned for an even more sophisticated study, using an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface. It was the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.
The handful of American geologists who pored over the new data said the results were astonishing.
But the results gathered dust for two more years, ignored by officials in both the American and Afghan governments. In 2009, a Pentagon task force that had created business development programs in Iraq was transferred to Afghanistan, and came upon the geological data. Until then, no one besides the geologists had bothered to look at the information — and no one had sought to translate the technical data to measure the potential economic value of the mineral deposits.
Soon, the Pentagon business development task force brought in teams of American mining experts to validate the survey’s findings, and then briefed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Mr. Karzai.
So far, the biggest mineral deposits discovered are of iron and copper, and the quantities are large enough to make Afghanistan a major world producer of both, United States officials said. Other finds include large deposits of niobium, a soft metal used in producing superconducting steel, rare earth elements and large gold deposits in Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.
Just this month, American geologists working with the Pentagon team have been conducting ground surveys on dry salt lakes in western Afghanistan where they believe there are large deposits of lithium. Pentagon officials said that their initial analysis at one location in Ghazni Province showed the potential for lithium deposits as large of those of Bolivia, which now has the world’s largest known lithium reserves.
For the geologists who are now scouring some of the most remote stretches of Afghanistan to complete the technical studies necessary before the international bidding process is begun, there is a growing sense that they are in the midst of one of the great discoveries of their careers.
“On the ground, it’s very, very, promising,” Mr. Medlin said. “Actually, it’s pretty amazing.”
June 19, 2010
U.S. Hopes Afghan Councils Will Weaken Taliban
By CARLOTTA GALL
NADALI, Afghanistan — More than 600 men, most of them farmers with weathered faces and rough hands, sat on the ground under an awning, waiting all day to deposit their ballots in plastic boxes. They had braved Taliban threats and road mines to come here to select a district council, part of a plan to strengthen local government in the most unstable parts of Afghanistan.
“The important thing is we are trying to build trust between the people and the government,” said Qari Mukhtar Ahmad, a senior cleric attending the election last month. “This district was under fighting for a long time, but now there is peace and we have to listen to the people and bring them together.”
Peace is a relative term in Nadali, a district in the southern province of Helmand with one of highest levels of roadside bombs per square mile. Government officials still have to fly by helicopter from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, rather than risk the 20-minute drive.
The district encompasses Marja, a Taliban stronghold where United States Marines have been battling insurgents since February. Marja remains largely ungovernable, but the operation broke the hold of the Taliban in the rest of the district, making it stable enough to try to set up some local representation.
The essence of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is that you cannot defeat an insurgency by killing insurgents, because their ranks will continue to grow as long as the people from whom they draw recruits view their own government as illegitimate. The Army’s COIN manual, revised in 2006 as the growing insurgency in Iraq made a mockery of the Bush administration’s claims of “victory,” asserts that “the primary objective of any counterinsurgent is to foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government.” Because security is the precondition for sustained political change, military operations are indispensable. But kinetic operations can alienate the population. Among the paradoxes highlighted in the document: “The more force used, the less effective it is” and “The best weapons for COIN do not shoot.” The manual also acknowledges the obvious: “In many ways, the conduct of counterinsurgency is counterintuitive to the traditional American view of war.”
COIN strategy not only commits the military to civilian goals, but it also elevates civilians to a status equal to that of military personnel. The civilian “uplift” that President Obama mandated will triple the number of government officials in Afghanistan to more than 1,000 and, perhaps more important, disperse them into the countryside, where only a few have been working. Until recently, the work of distributing aid and fostering good government has been carried out largely by officials in “provincial-reconstruction teams.” Those teams continue to operate, but the new plan drives the effort to the local level, placing a district-support team in critical areas, especially in the contested south and east of the country.
July 10, 2010
Severed Trees in Orchards Mirror Afghan History
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
BATI KOT DISTRICT, Afghanistan — The main road into Afghanistan from the east traverses a flat, parched countryside, past flimsy roadside bazaars and squalid villages. Then, the terrain abruptly changes: arid land gives way to vast olive groves that spread for miles, as if a giant dropped a Mediterranean island into Central Asia.
Gul Abbas, 66, a white-bearded farmer, walked recently among the rows of olive trees, occasionally reaching up to pat a branch as if it were an old friend, and spoke like someone lost in a dream: “We used to have visitors; people came from India, from Pakistan, from Bangladesh, to see our farms.”
He grew up with the trees and spent his life nurturing them. The farm’s history is his history, and the country’s as well. The olive trees, he explained, were not only trees, but also a promise, not so long ago, that in this troubled and impoverished country anything could happen, even peace and plenty. Such hopes are almost, but not quite, gone.
Mr. Abbas started working on the farm nearly 50 years ago as a teenager, even before the trees were planted. “We were illiterate people,” he said. “Those who had a skill could work in the towns, but I studied these trees my whole life, and growing became my profession.”
At the time, Afghanistan was fast becoming a beacon in the region and the groves, like much of the country’s progress in that period, were the brainchild of a forward-looking king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. In search of employment for the citizens of his water-starved country, he turned to two great farming powers that had turned their deserts green: the Soviets and the Americans.
In a modern version of the 19th-century competition between Britain and Russia for dominance in Afghanistan, the two powers each started irrigation projects: the United States in Helmand Province in the now insurgent-afflicted area around Marja, and the Soviet Union here, near Jalalabad.
The Soviet goal was to reclaim about 224,000 acres of scrub, turning it into as many as six fertile farms, channeling the snowmelt from the Hindu Kush mountains and water from the Kabul River into irrigation canals, according to Nancy Dupree, an Afghan expert who wrote about the project when it was in its heyday. The farms today cover about 55,000 acres.
The original purpose was to grow olives and oranges, Mr. Abbas said, but the plan took off and the Soviets built a model farm cooperative — with housing for workers, schools and much more. It took 15 years to complete, enough time for the trees to produce fruit. Orange trees take 4 years to become productive in this soil, he said, and olive trees do not yield their harvest for at least 12.
Because there was no custom of eating olives among Afghans, almost the entire crop, 2,600 tons a year, was shipped to Russia in the late 1970s, along with 7,000 tons of oranges, according to an engineer named Hakim who now leads the Nangarhar Valley Development Authority, which has responsibility for the farms. There were so many olives that the Russians built a factory with Italian machinery to turn some of the harvest into oil.
Mr. Hakim, who is 51 and like many Afghans has only one name, witnessed the farms’ growth as a college student here and was inspired, but never imagined that he would have the chance to direct the farms. The orchards and modern farms seemed to him a kind of utopian dream that had come to life in the rocky Afghan soil.
“I went to visit a relative living on the farm; it had its own houses, schools, theater, cinema, hospital, it had well-organized parks and a bakery, and the dairy produced cream and yogurt,” he said. “It was one of the projects that changed people’s lives.”
Then, in the early 1980s, disaster struck. The mujahedeen movement to oust the Soviets, who by then were controlling the government, started in neighboring Kunar Province, and the regiment of Afghan troops guarding the farms was sent to fight the Afghan rebels.
Security deteriorated and vandals began to maraud at night, stealing farm equipment and even the steel rods used to stabilize the cooperatives’ concrete buildings, said Hajji Hanifullah Khan, the manager of one of the farms that is only now beginning to work again.
When mujahedeen and displaced people began to camp on the land, they chopped down the young orange trees and hacked at the olive groves. “The citrus are like children, they are very fragile, very thin and they need lots of attention and effort,” Mr. Khan said. “But the olive tree is a tough thing, it survives by its own strength.”
As the communist government of Mohammed Najibullah fell in 1992, the remaining farm workers fled to Pakistan. Mr. Abbas, the farmer, who had never been more than five miles from the farms he tended, fled as well.
Even before Western forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, Mr. Abbas, returned and found a ravaged land. Of the thousands of orange trees, not a single one was left. The olive trees had grown tall and wild and stopped producing fruit.
“It was like a forest,” he said, shaking his head.
Mr. Hakim, the head of the Nangarhar Valley Development Authority, longing to see the farms flourish again, turned to the American-run provincial reconstruction team in Jalalabad. He told it that rehabilitating the farms would put young men to work and keep them from turning to radical ways. The reconstruction team gave him $1.8 million to reconstruct the irrigation canals, as well as money to start replanting the olive and orange groves, he said.
Today, large stretches of the farms have yet to be reclaimed and some olive trees still grow with abandon. However, the reconstruction money has allowed the Afghans to begin to rehabilitate about 500 acres of olive groves, plant new citrus trees and employ at least 1,050 people full time, according to Mr. Hakim. While that was barely 10 percent of the work force when the farms were fully functioning in the 1970s, it is 10 times the number who were here under the Taliban.
Mr. Hakim estimates that he will need foreign support for at least five more years to get the farms on track to be fully productive again. The Agriculture Ministry has begun sending modest amounts of money, but is expected to increase the budget as millions of dollars in foreign donor funds become available.
As Mr. Abbas walked through the groves in the pale spring sun, he pointed to one tree infested with whitefly, another whose lower branches had been hacked off. A third tree had been uprooted; all that remained was a hole in the ground.
“Thieves,” he said shaking his fist at the invisible intruders. “I know each tree. I look at each branch. They dig up the new saplings and plant them on their own lands. We are here only during working hours; after that there is no government, there is only the word ‘government.’ ”
Mr. Hakim was more resigned: “In the past 30 years of war, people were isolated and became used to living in a lawless way.”
“People don’t understand how difficult it is to plant a tree, to make it grow and produce fruit. All they know is how to cut it down in five minutes and burn it for warmth.”
July 17, 2010
Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
WASHINGTON — In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.
“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.
The e-mail message was in response to a note of support from Mr. Mortenson. It reflected his broad and deepening relationship with the United States military, whose leaders have increasingly turned to Mr. Mortenson, once a shaggy mountaineer, to help translate the theory of counterinsurgency into tribal realities on the ground.
In the past year, Mr. Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute, responsible for the construction of more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly for girls, have set up some three dozen meetings between General McChrystal or his senior staff members and village elders across Afghanistan.
The collaboration, which grew in part out of the popularity of “Three Cups of Tea” among military wives who told their husbands to read it, extends to the office of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last summer, Admiral Mullen attended the opening of one of Mr. Mortenson’s schools in Pushghar, a remote village in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.
Mr. Mortenson — who for a time lived out of his car in Berkeley, Calif. — has also spoken at dozens of military bases, seen his book go on required reading lists for senior American military commanders and had lunch with Gen. David H. Petraeus, General McChrystal’s replacement. On Friday he was in Tampa to meet with Adm. Eric T. Olson, the officer in charge of the United States Special Operations Command.
Mr. Mortenson, 52, thinks there is no military solution in Afghanistan — he says the education of girls is the real long-term fix — so he has been startled by the Defense Department’s embrace.
“I never, ever expected it,” Mr. Mortenson, a former Army medic, said in a telephone interview last week from Florida, where he had paused between military briefings, book talks for a sequel, “Stones into Schools,” and fund-raising appearances for his institute.
Mr. Mortenson, who said he had accepted no money from the military and had no contractual relationship with the Defense Department, was initially critical of the armed forces in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as “laptop warriors” who appeared, he said, indifferent to the civilian casualties inflicted by the American bombardment of Afghanistan.
In its early days “Three Cups of Tea,” the story of Mr. Mortenson’s efforts to build schools in Pakistan, was largely ignored by the military, and for that matter by most everyone else. Written with a journalist, David Oliver Relin, and published in hardcover by Viking in March 2006, the book had only modest sales. Most major newspapers, including this one, did not review it.
But the book’s message of the importance of girls’ education caught on when women’s book clubs, church groups and high schools began snapping up the less expensive paperback published in January 2007.
Sales to date are at four million copies in 41 countries, and the book’s yarn is well known: disoriented after a 1993 failed attempt on Pakistan’s K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, Mr. Mortenson took a wrong turn into the village of Korphe, was nursed back to health by the villagers and, in gratitude, vowed to build them a school.
He returned to Pakistan a year later with a $12,000 donation from a Silicon Valley benefactor and spent most of it on school construction materials in the city of Rawalpindi — only to be told he could not get his cargo to Korphe without first building a bridge.
The story of that bridge, Mr. Mortenson’s relationships with Pakistanis, and the schools that followed appealed so much to one military spouse that in the fall of 2007 she sent the book to her husband, Christopher D. Kolenda, at that time a lieutenant colonel commanding 700 American soldiers on the Pakistan border.
Colonel Kolenda knew well the instructions about building relationships with elders that were in the Army and Marine Corps’ new counterinsurgency manual, which had been released in late 2006. But “Three Cups of Tea” brought the lessons to life.
“It was practical, and it told real stories of real people,” said Colonel Kolenda, now a top adviser at the Kabul headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force, in an interview at the Pentagon last week.
Colonel Kolenda was among the first in the military to reach out to Mr. Mortenson, and by June 2008 the Central Asia Institute had built a school near Colonel Kolenda’s base. By the summer of 2009, Mr. Mortenson was in meetings in Kabul with Colonel Kolenda, village elders and at times President Obama’s new commander, General McChrystal. (By then at least two more military wives — Deborah Mullen and Holly Petraeus — had told their husbands to read “Three Cups of Tea.”)
As Colonel Kolenda tells it, Mr. Mortenson and his Afghan partner on the ground, Wakil Karimi, were the American high command’s primary conduits for reaching out to elders outside the “Kabul bubble.”
As Mr. Mortenson tells it, the Afghan elders were often blunt with General McChrystal, as in a meeting last October when one of them said that he had traveled all the way from his province because he needed weapons, not conversation.
“He said, ‘Are you going to give them to me or am I going to sit here and listen to you talk?’ ” Mr. Mortenson recalled. The high command replied, Mr. Mortenson said, that they were making an assessment of what he needed. “And he said, ‘Well, you’ve already been here eight years, ” Mr. Mortenson recalled.
Despite the rough edges, Colonel Kolenda said the meetings helped the American high command settle on central parts of its strategy — the imperative to avoid civilian casualties, in particular, which the elders consistently and angrily denounced during the sessions — and also smoothed relations between the elders and commanders.
For Mr. Mortenson’s part, his growing relationship with the military convinced him that it had learned the importance of understanding Afghan culture and of developing ties with elders across the country, and was willing to admit past mistakes.
At the end of this month, Mr. Mortenson, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife, Tara Bishop, and two children, is going back for the rest of the summer to Afghanistan, where to maintain credibility he now has to make it clear to Afghans and a number of aid organizations that he has no formal connection to the American military.
Mr. Mortenson acknowledges that his solution in Afghanistan, girls’ education, will take a generation and more. “But Al Qaeda and the Taliban are looking at it long range over generations,” he said. “And we’re looking at it in terms of annual fiscal cycles and presidential elections.”
July 19, 2010
In Afghanistan, a Threat of Plunder
By PAUL COLLIER
THE news that Afghanistan has $1 trillion in unmined mineral deposits has been met with some pessimism. Now, it is said, the country will be transformed from its present condition into the next Congo, whose new wealth from gold, copper and other minerals has brought mainly corruption and violence.
Indeed, security in Afghanistan could easily deteriorate as a result of the discoveries, as it has not only in Congo but also in Nigeria (rich in oil) and Sierra Leone (diamonds). Afghanistan’s huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium and other metals could end up financing more tribal and ideological warfare. Greed might stoke violence among the combatants, and attract more Afghans to fight. Consider how in Sierra Leone diamonds enabled the Revolutionary United Front to evolve from a protest movement into a lethal diamonds racket.
In eastern Congo, $1 billion in gold is being extracted and exported annually, yet because the government lacks control over the territory the revenues for the national Treasury last year were a mere $37,000. If the Afghan government ends up with the same proportion, that treasure of natural resources would finance only a handful of helicopters.
How can Afghanistan ensure that its people benefit from its mineral wealth, and avoid resource-induced violence? There is a chain of decisions to get right, from managing the prospecting to investing the revenues. Many other countries have failed to make them wisely. Afghanistan can buck the trend by learning from their mistakes, and from the success of the few countries that have managed their riches well.
Most important, Afghanistan must see that its citizens who live near the mineral deposits benefit — with jobs and spending on public works. Nigeria is a prime example of what happens when the local population pays the price for extraction without reaping the rewards. Oil drilling in the Niger Delta has created few jobs for local people but caused hundreds of spills, ruining their ability to make their traditional living from fishing or agriculture. Politicians have pocketed most of the oil revenues. As the residents of the delta realized that outsiders were profiting from the destruction of their land, gangs formed to kidnap oil workers and sabotage pipelines.
To avoid such fallout, Afghanistan should follow the example of Botswana, which has used diamond revenues to build roads, power lines and schools, raising the economic standard of the country from very poor to upper-middle income. Malaysia, likewise, has used revenues from tin and oil to diversify its economy and create jobs — building, for example, a manufactured exports zone in the impoverished region of Penang.
Such government largess will be impossible, of course, if Afghanistan fails to reap its fair share of the profits from mineral extraction. Here a cautionary example is Zambia, where a copper boom has been a bonanza for Chinese companies, but copper exports of around $3 billion a year generate a mere $100 million in tax revenue for Zambians. This is largely because the Chinese work out their extraction deals directly with the Zambian president, and the public never learns the details. Even the country’s Finance Ministry is kept in the dark.
To build trust, the Afghan government must be open about any deals it makes with foreign companies. It has already shown it has room for improvement in this regard: the country’s first extraction deal, for copper, was won by the Chinese in murky circumstances — the minister of mines was accused of taking a $30 million bribe. But now Kabul has signed on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a set of disclosure standards created seven years ago by an international organization of governments, civil society and business.
Afghanistan should hold monitored auctions for extraction contracts and perhaps write some of them as Iraq has written its oil contracts: the government retains ownership and pays only a service fee for extraction.
If it can manage to reap all the potential revenues from mineral extraction, Afghanistan will need to spend the money in ways that genuinely benefit ordinary Afghans. Rather than funnel it all through the ministries — which have shown themselves to be corrupt and inefficient — some of the money should be sent directly to village councils. Afghanistan has already tried this approach with the National Solidarity Program, an effort to encourage local development that started in 2003; villages have spent the money on schools, health care or whatever they have considered most needed.
Afghanistan is part of the last frontier for resource discovery — one of the 60 most impoverished countries, which account for around a quarter of the earth’s land but which have barely been prospected. Over the next decade, given high world commodity prices, the last frontier will be explored, creating more opportunities like that in Afghanistan. All these countries will need to resist the kind of plunder that has characterized resource-rich countries with weak governance.
As America is learning in Afghanistan, it is difficult to effectively impose policies from outside, even if outsiders have troops on the ground. There is no substitute for local citizens who are involved in the decision-making, who can learn from other poor countries how to make the most of their own natural wealth.
Paul Collier, an economics professor at Oxford, is the author, most recently, of “The Plundered Planet: Why We Must — and How We Can — Manage Nature for Global Prosperity.”
October 16, 2010
In Afghan South, U.S. Faces Frustrated Residents
By CARLOTTA GALL
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — As American troops mount a critical operation this weekend in the campaign to regain control in Kandahar, they face not only the Taliban but also a frustrated and disillusioned population whose land has been devastated by five years of fighting.
While most villagers have fled the area, those who remain complain that they are trapped between insurgents and the foreign forces, often suffering damages for which they remain uncompensated.
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