Afghanistan Blog

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“Ten Years and Counting” Interviews Michael Sheridan on the Afghan Project

Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War: An Interview with Michael SheridanTricia Khutoretsky. 

I know more about Afghanistan from talking to Michael Sheridan than I’ve known in the 10 years since we have been at war…

Read on

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CSFilm interviewed in The Independent film magazine

Afghan Life According to Afghan Filmmakers

With limited access to stories from the Afghan point of view, filmmaker Michael Sheridan set up a workshop to give Afghan people the tools to make their own documentaries.

The Independent, September 11th, 2011 | Erin Trahan

In the days approaching the 10th anniversary of September 11th, whose stories have you heard? Have they represented the full spectrum of experiences on that date and what has unfolded since? What was the language of their telling?
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Michael Sheridan interviewed on America Abroad Media

America Abroad Media talks with Michael Sheridan about his creation of Community Supported Film, experiences in Afghanistan, the training of Afghans in documentary filmmaking and video journalism and the revealing stories that they are telling. Watch Interview

 

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Bumpy uphill roads in Afghanistan

I was back in Afghanistan for the month of April, when spring was rapidly coming to Kabul and the arid climate quickly shifts from below freezing into the 70sF. I worked with some of the trainees on the making of their commissioned films (see: Trainees win filmmaking contracts).

I am again now in Afghanistan for June and July, working on making the film that got this all started, Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War. It seems so long ago since my first pre-production trip to Afghanistan in ‘09. It was then that I realized that – as a foreigner and male – I could not make the film alone. Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War had to convey the inner perspectives of Afghan villagers and families – and therefore had to be made by Afghans with access to those communities. From this idea, we developed the documentary filmmaking trainings. After concluding the training in November, already with a beautiful set of short videos, the team has been scouting for the best stories to continue on with their filmmaking.

The conflicted and conservative condition of Afghanistan will not make these stories easy to tell – even by Afghans. But the team knows that these stories will help to reveal what works and what doesn’t when it comes to trying to improve economic and social conditions in Afghanistan – a place culturally and politically complex, and dogged by radical insurgents, poverty, illiteracy, unforgiving natural forces, and so much more.

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Two Notes to Self

Note to self: Don’t use the dry cleaner next to the butcher.  I was very excited to see my button down shirts coming back so clean and nicely pressed.  This is particularly pleasing after the cloths cleaner at the house tore the collar off one of my favorite shirts and rubbed the color out of another.  They scrub the cloths until neither stain nor cloth remains.  Most of my undies, not the newest items I admit, are now holey rags.  My black jeans have turned gray.  And I look this morning again like a monkey as I am constantly scratching.  When I put on fresh undies and t-shirts I itch and itch as the soap, not fully rinsed, abrades my skin.

The dry cleaner did a wonderful job. And what a price.  5 shirts for $5.50.  I hung my shirts up in the closet, took a bucket bath, came back and noticed a strange odor in the closet corner.  I thought, it being near the window, that the smell must be coming from the street.  Today, the first of the Eid festival, it is a tradition to slaughter sheep and cows.  The stench must be filling the air and permeating my room.  Then, I pulled a shirt out of the closet and noticed that the smell emanated from there.  Stuck my face in a shirt for a sniff and had a real laugh.  The smell of raw meet hanging in the sun, sheep’s wool and smoky street side barbequing all mixed together.  I now bring a meat shop with me where ever I go.

Second note to self:  In the winter in Kabul, make sure you have a room facing south.  On the north side of the house the coldness cuts through to the bone.  There seems no way to escape its chill.   In my room however, I have to open and close curtains through the day, as the sun moves from east to west, to mitigate the flood of light and warmth.  The temperature outdoors shifts from below freezing at night to the seventies in the midday sun.

During the day the warmth of the sun makes the curtains feel like they cover a furnace.  And, now that they have covered all the windows with large sheets of dirty plastic – nailing them to the outside of the window frames with beautiful strips of decorated wood, the ‘oven’ effect is even more intense.  Can’t open the windows for fresh air or to clear the stench of bodies from the room.  Can’t see outside except to identify the fuzzy forms of trees, houses and hills that I know from before.  But as winter sets in this south side room is a real blessing.  I haven’t turned my room heater on yet.  At night I have a real smile when I crawl under my two thick blankets.  That always brings a chuckle and a childhood memory of having stacks of blankets piled on me and my cats – all curled up underneath.

My Afghan crew, when they are working here, always want to turn the heater on.  I open the door to cool the room off they slide over and close it.  They don’t seem to dress for winter, still in short sleeves or a single button down shirt with a jacket or wool shawl on top.  I, like when I am at home, have my long undies on, thick socks and, when needed, my hat.  I love love, love that sensation of not burning fuel.

In the summer however, I wouldn’t be such an fuel saint.  This same room would be an unbearable stove as the temperatures outside quickly rise from the 60s at night to 105.  There’s no AC here, if there was I’d have it on. Without it, I’d be begging to move to the ever so nice and cool north side of the house.

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Press Conference

The Killid Group and Community Supported Film hosted a press conference to present the documentary production training and film.   There was a very strong turn out and extensive coverage in print and broadcast media across Afghanistan.

The dominant question asked of the trainees, beyond what they learned, was what should the government do to improve conditions and opportunities for filmmakers in Afghanistan.

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Kite flying in Kabul

On many days the sky in Kabul is full of small kites.  The children here love flying kites.  The reality here is that most children don’t have very many toys and there are only very rarely any playgrounds.  So for many kids flying a kite is something that is inexpensive, can be done anywhere and is a lot of fun.  Kite flying is also competitive.  The kids are very very good at controlling their kites.  They try to fly their kite so it’s string crosses another’s.  Then the pull quickly and thereby try to cut the other kite’s string.  The kite string is coated with fine glass particles that makes it easier to cut with.  And yes it also makes it quite easy to cut your fingers.  Therefore the kids put tape, cloth or plastic bags around their hands to protect themselves.  Below are several not very good pictures of kids flying kites in Kabul.  In the first the boy is flying his kite from the roof of his home, in the second you (hopefully) can see a boy right in the middle launching his orange, blue and white kite and in the third, if you look closely, you should see many boys on their roofs and up on the rocks flying kites.

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Daily Affairs in Sunny Kabul

Kabul is sunny and clear blue, except that is for the dense haze of dust and smog.  Incredible that people’s lungs can take it.  No wonder the average life span is 44.   At night it is like driving through a fog on the Maine coast. And then every once in long while it pours.

Driving through the city you can quite easily forget that there is a war on.  One soon stops noticing the men with guns at every door and street corner.  Once in a while you feel that something odd must be going on somewhere when nervous hyper vigilant foreign or Afghan armies pass in heavily armed convoys.

The majority of my time I feel like I am in any typically out of control South Asian city. The streets are a chaos of every day survival activities. Of course surviving is a rough business here and not only because of the decades of instability.  This is just another part of the world where there are too few jobs and too few opportunities, packed mostly with people only able to think about making it from one day and one meal to the next.

At night it is different from most places I’ve experienced – but typical for insecure places.  From 4-8 the city is stuck in one large traffic jam.  Once the knots are untied and the vehicles released there is little to nothing downtown.  Shuttered shops stand in long rows.  A few pedestrians quietly move around in streets that were hours before impassable.  There is nothing to do in the city at night – no music, no movies, no tea shops (of course alcohol is banned, so no bars – for locals anyway) and precautionary measures stifle what little social life one tries to find.  The other night I was waiting outside the French Cultural center to meet some colleagues.  The wide main street was controlled by a pack of dogs and once in a while a car passed at great speed – the faster they go the more likely they are inhabited by government officials or foreigners.  But otherwise nothing else.  I didn’t get into the French compound.  My colleagues didn’t realize that after 8:30 no one is allowed in – known guest or otherwise.  They finally came out and we followed their official French car as it sped, in classic form, to the French embassy guest house.  There our car was not allowed to wait outside for fear it contained a bomb. It waited elsewhere and returned when we called it – still intact.

So, so it goes.  Wake at 6 (well, I’m first woken at 4:30 by the myriad of calls to prayer), picked up at 7.  Bump along scarred roads and sit in traffic and haze until 8.  Arrive at the center where we are holding the training and madly work with the 10 students and my great team until 5 or 6.  Wait and work until 7, hoping for less traffic, and get back in a taxi or provided car, and either creep or careen through the dark fog back to my room.  A fairly normal day considering.

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Meet our trainees

Afghans selected to participate in the production training, October 2 – November 4, 2010

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Interviewing candidates for the training

Four days and 37 interviews later and I have a fresh understanding of the Afghan experience.  These candidates were selected from over 60 applicants from throughout the country.  We are looking for people with a passion for storytelling, sensitivity to village life and a demonstrated interest in social and economic development. The candidates do not have to have experience with filmmaking. They can be working for example, as print or radio journalists, novelists, poets, photographers or in the theater.

Asking candidates where they are from and where they grew up typically illicit two different answers.  Repeated stories of displacement either during the Taliban reign (96-01) for the younger candidates and/or during the civil war (78-96) for the older candidates.  Many have returned since 2002 from Pakistan or Iran, and one from Tajikistan, where they were refugees and not allowed to fully integrate into society or attend university.  Most have family in their province of origin but may now be living in Kabul either for work, school or due to insecurity in their home community.

Those from the provinces are rooted in their communities.  From the south and east, where the insurgents dominate, they constantly negotiate their security by keeping channels of communication open with those family members who are members of the Taliban.   Those from the provinces typically come to the interview in traditional dress while the city folk come in suits or shirts and trousers bearing all sorts of western logos.   All are looking for quality education – which is from their experience all too rare in Afghanistan.  The Kabul University students repeatedly stated that their time would be better spent skipping school and attending the training.  And apparently no one would notice their absence.    We are not encouraging this and in general are looking for older candidates with a bit more life experience.

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The Work Begins

The work in Afghanistan has begun.  On Wednesday I arrived in Kabul at sunrise with 6 suitcases containing five video production kits and everything else necessary for a five week training course in documentary camerawork and five weeks of production work on Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.  Flying in over Afghanistan from Dubai to Kabul the morning skies were hazy – an indication that the cooler temperatures of fall are arriving. Temperatures in this arid environment, at 6000 feet, fluctuate dramatically.  By midday it will be in the upper 80s to low 90s and then drop to the 40s at night.  Soon the temperatures will plummet all together as winter sets in.

But before then we will carry out our five week intensive documentary videography training with 10 Afghans.  After the training, four trainees will be selected to work on the production work for Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War. During the next month, I will be finalizing the selection of stories to be told from the perspective of Afghan families and villages.  The trained camera people working with me and other Afghan filmmakers will follow their stories for one year.  The film’s premise is that economic development can contribute to peacemaking.  We will investigate whether this is true or not and what approaches to economic development work best.   We will begin this production work in November and work until the snow limits our access to the provinces.  It is remarkable – and indicative of the isolation that permeates much of the country – that many communities throughout the mountains of Afghanistan become inaccessible for four or five months of winter.  Many families spend much of their winter ‘hibernating’ under blankets that cover whole rooms.

We have received over 50 training applicants, male and female, from across the country.  Twenty four will be interviewed starting tomorrow.   I feel extremely lucky to be assisted by a dedicated and talented Afghan crew of trainers, translators, editors and assistants, in addition to the amazing organizational support of the staff at the Killid Group – our Afghan co-producer.  It never ceases to amaze and shock to learn of the challenged histories that each of these Afghans – often in there 20s or 30s – have already gone through.  Decades of war and displacement and survival as refugees in the not too welcoming towns and cities of Pakistan, Iran and beyond is only a part of their stories.  Their bios will be added to the crew section of the website over the next days.  But for a compelling start please read Mehdi’s story .

Mehdi is an experienced Afghan documentary filmmaker and educator with an inspiring dedication to both.  Within minutes of first meeting him last June, I knew that I would be lucky to have him bring his knowledge for the art and craft of documentary filmmaking and his dedication to sharing it and expanding the capacity of other Afghans in filmmaking and video-journalism.   Mehdi has taken primary responsibility – with the assistance and experience of the Killid staff – to prepare the logistics for the training and the outreach for training candidates.  The location has been rented at the foundation of Culture and Civil Society in Kabul.  Like many organizations in Afghanistan their buildings are in a poor state after years of war and Taliban era neglect.

Our first task was to do some cleaning, setup and repairs. I will keep the website updated about our work and news of economic development and stability issues in Afghanistan and beyond.  If you’d like to receive a weekly notification about new postings via email please sign up by adding your email to the subscribe option in the right column.

Thank you for your wonderful support.  We have a long way to go to raise the necessary funds but we remain cautiously optimistic about reaching our goal.

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It’s all coming together! Applications for documentary training are piling up!

In less than one month our five-week intensive training in documentary filmmaking begins in Afghanistan.  Production equipment, donated and purchased, is rolling in the door.  The passport is stamped, shots are taken and ticket bought for departure on September 13th. A staff of co-trainers, assistants, translator and editors is coming together.

Our project is particularly lucky to have Medhi Zafari taking the lead in Kabul. Mehdi is an Afghan filmmaker and educator who has worked for some years with Ateliers Varan, a French film training organization working in the observational documentary style of the legendary filmmaker Jean Rouch.  Mehdi and colleagues at The Killid Group, our Afghan co-producers, are helping to pull all the logistics together on the ground.  And, applications for the training are piling up!  It is a very exciting time after 18 months of development and planning.

Thanks to your support this project will help strengthen the Afghan news and documentary sectors, which are both seriously lacking and critically important to the dissemination of objective and accurate information in the country’s intensifying fight against extremism.

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Tremendous News! Thanks for your continued support!

We have tremendous news to share with you!

We are thrilled to let you know that this week the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Danish International Development Agency are following your lead and contributing substantially to the first phase of Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War (BTKW).

In addition, your generous outpouring of support raised an incredible $17,000 dollars that our challenge donor has kindly agreed to match.

We are very grateful to you and our international funders.  With this support, Michael will return to Afghanistan in September to train Afghan filmmakers and begin production.

Since the inception of Community Supported Film last December, your support has allowed Michael to travel to Afghanistan; establish a partnership with The Killid Group – Afghanistan’s largest community media organization; travel to Washington to speak with government officials about effective aid in Afghanistan; and to meet the Afghan journalists, who will now become the heart and soul of this project.  Equally important, your support enabled us to spend the necessary time and energy presenting this project to institutional funders such as the Swiss and Danish development agencies in Afghanistan and the United States.

When Michael returns to the US in November we would like to share our work with you, your friends and colleagues.  Please let us know if you can organize a presentation in your community to raise awareness and additional funds for BTKW.  This could be a gathering of 10 people or 100 people, in a church basement, a classroom or in the living room – whatever works for you. At these events, we will share our understanding and experiences of economic development from the perspective of Afghan villagers.  And, we will be encouraging our government officials to pursue policies that prioritize sustainable security and development that is owned and implemented by the affected people – whether they be in Afghanistan today or Somalia tomorrow.

In the months ahead, we will be working hard to raise awareness about alternative approaches to creating peace and stability in this troubled region. In this endeavor, your continued generosity is a real blessing.

Please let us know if you have any questions, comments or suggestions. Sign up to receive project updates by adding your email address to the subscribe section in the right column of this web page.

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Only 13.5% of US aid goes through Afghan Government

Only 13.5% of US aid goes through Afghan Government – Call to clean up contracting system
Lalit K Jha – May 21, 2010, Pajhwok News Agency, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (PAN):  The Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stressed on Friday the need for cleaning up the contracting system by strengthening oversight accountability.

In general, it is a good system, Major General Arnold Fields (Retired), told Pajhwok Afghan News in an exclusive interview. One would be hard pressed to find other folks in the federal work community to provide the resources the contractors were offering, he said.
At the same time, the system needed to be improved so as to increase its efficiency, the SIGAR chief explained. This is an act that really needs to be cleaned up. I think the way to do that is to bring the contracting community just as we need to bring upon the federal community more on oversight and more on accountability on how this money is being spent.

Fields said the United States had decided to substantially increase routing its aid through the government of Afghanistan, meeting one of Kabuls major demands.

Right now 13.5 percent of the US aid is channeled through the Afghan government. Between now and the end of this fiscal year, the government of the United States plans to increase that figure from 13.5 percent to 40 percent.

So we are doing our share to move this in the right direction, because allowing more funds to be channeled through the Government of Afghanistan, it helps to build confidence and helps to build capacity within the government of Afghanistan, Fields said.

Fields had no idea if the Afghan government had the capacity to handle huge amounts of money, saying there was a process underway to certify some institutions to determine their ability to use the increased flow of money.

Earlier appearing before the House Subcommittee on International Organisations, Human Rights and Oversight, Fields acknowledged corruption was a major problem in Afghanistan. When we look at corruption, we are looking at the whole enchilada.  We’re looking at sides, the American side as well as the Afghan side.

Fields agreed with a recent statement from General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, that there is too much dependence on contractors.   But there’s a liability to this.  We either build the resources that are now being provided by the contracting community within the defence mechanism and structure, or we continue to depend upon contractors.

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The Left’s Silence On Afghanistan

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by MICHAEL A. COHEN, June 11, 2010

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a 152-page report outlining the increasingly grim situation in Afghanistan. The paper highlighted the Afghan government (and its security services) lack of capability; the enduring challenge of endemic corruption and poor governance; and the Taliban insurgency’s ability to maintain influence — often via intimidation — across broad swaths of the country. These challenges have already undermined U.S. military operations in Marjah, and could threaten the upcoming summer offensive planned for Kandahar, the heart of the Taliban insurgency.

The entire U.S. mission in Afghanistan, which is predicated on extending the legitimacy of a flawed Afghan government, bringing good governance to the country’s most insecure regions, and degrading the Taliban insurgency militarily to smooth the path for political negotiations is eerily reminiscent of the flawed American strategy in Vietnam four decades ago.

While no one can be sure how escalation in Afghanistan will turn out, the warning signs are blinking red. Yet the reaction from many of the president’s liberal and left-of-center supporters has been acquiescence and even silence. The Pentagon report — like much of the recent bad news out of Afghanistan — caused barely a ripple on the left. It’s a familiar pattern. The American Prospect, along with Salon, has devoted enormous and laudable energy to covering civil liberties issues related to the U.S. war on terror, but has run only one major article on Afghanistan since Obama’s December speech at West Point.

The Center for American Progress’s Wonk Room blog has not run a headlined story about the war since January. At Talking Points Memo, which is perhaps the most prominent liberal blog, Afghanistan rarely rates a mention. Paul Krugman, a frequent critic of the Iraq War (and President Obama), has not written a column on Afghanistan since the president took office. And The New Republic itself has largely avoided critical consideration of the war. (The Nation and Mother Joneshave been exceptions to this relative silence.)

So why are so many liberal voices muted? Why after so many liberals aggressively asserted themselves in criticizing the foreign policy conduct of the Bush administration — and in particular the war in Iraq — have they ignored the war in Afghanistan? Over the past several weeks I asked a number of prominent progressives why liberals have been so silent about the war in Afghanistan. Several themes emerged.

First, is the obvious information gap. There are fewer reporters in Afghanistan than in Iraq — and little in the way of TV coverage. As a result, it is difficult to get a clear sense of what is happening on the ground and what is working and not working. It is for many liberal publications simply easier to write about the debate over health care reform or other domestic issues. Mark Schmitt, executive editor of The American Prospect told me that it is “tough to produce something well-informed on Afghanistan” because of financial constraints and the challenge in finding knowledgeable writers on the ground to do actual reporting.

Second, in contrast to the war in Iraq, liberals generally support the objectives of the war in Afghanistan — and for a good part of the past seven years have been calling on the U.S. to devote more attention to the war there, rather than Iraq. They recall Afghanistan’s role in the planning of September 11 and are aware of the continued presence of al Qaeda in the region. And many fear that a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would subject Afghans, and in particular Afghan women, to a return of the human rights abuses that defined previous Taliban rule. That makes even those with serious misgivings about the Obama administration’s strategy more willing to give it the benefit of a doubt.

Third, is the hangover from Iraq. According to Michael W. Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, progressives “have yet to come to grips with the dominant surge narrative, which suggests that it was largely responsible for turning the tide in Iraq.” Hanna noted the factors that brought stability to Iraq were largely indigenous to Iraqi society and were only partially the result of President Bush’s decision to increase troop levels. But the misunderstood “success” of the surge has led many progressives to now “feel chastened about speaking out against Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan.” Many seem to feel that if they were wrong about escalation in Iraq then, perhaps they are wrong about escalation in Afghanistan today.

Behind all these factors, however, are the familiar (and very tricky) questions that have bedeviled progressive foreign policy thinkers for years — namely, how do you balance humanitarian aspirations with actual U.S. capabilities and interests, and how and when should the United States utilize military force? Liberals are discovering that it was relatively easy to criticize an unpopular, incompetent war in Iraq and a foreign policy agenda that promiscuously squandered U.S. power and goodwill. But finding a solution for Afghanistan or a national security strategy that moves the country away from the post 9/11 “war on terror” narrative is far more difficult.

In fact, the lack of good alternatives for Afghanistan seems to be a major stumbling block for progressives. Many told me that it was difficult to criticize the president’s strategy without a clear sense of what should be done differently. But for the left to argue that there are still no good alternatives on Afghanistan is an implicit indictment of their own failure to come up with one.

Members of left-leaning, DC-based think tanks and and advocacy organizations like have either tacitly supported the Afghanistan strategy or offered tactical suggestions to improve a policy that some privately believe is irredeemable. These are the groups that should be providing the policy ammunition for liberals to speak more authoritatively on Afghanistan.

The absence of critical discussion among these policy groups was painfully evident when the president convened his first review of Afghanistan in Spring 2009. His civilian national security advisers went along with the military’s single-minded call for a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy as did almost all of Obama’s liberal supporters. But both groups — not well versed in what a fully resourced counter-insurgency would entail — clearly underestimated the implications of a significant U.S. commitment to a COIN strategy.

“They were caught flat-footed in the face of the COIN public relations campaign, which came from the military, some civilians, and an echo chamber of think tank analysts and bloggers who played a cheerleading role rather than critically examining U.S. interests and policy options in Afghanistan,” said Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

According to Lorelei Kelly, who runs the Afghanistan Congressional Communications Hub, many on the left fear that “they don’t have the credibility to engage in this conversation.” Instead, the progressive national security community has tended to focus on issues like arms control, human rights, economic development, and the environment. Moreover, there is a sense that liberals can’t compete on military issues — either from a reputational standpoint or intellectually. Among those who have not served in the military the reluctance is even more profound.

The liberals’ reluctance to address national security issues more authoritatively could prove costly to both the Obama administration and the country. Politicians must rely, in some measure, on the policy ideas that their own backers can muster, as Republicans were able to do when they took back the White House in 1981 and 2001. But when he took office, President Obama wasn’t able to look to the liberal media and think tanks either for help in figuring out what to do in Afghanistan or for political support in exploring approaches different from what the military was proposing. If the strategy he adopted for Afghanistan falters, Obama may once again find himself with limited options from his base of supporters on how to salvage the conflict. That’s a dangerous prospect and it could affect more than just the war in Afghanistan: it could do real damage to Obama’s presidency and the aspirations of his progressive supporters.

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New plan to woo Afghan Taliban could harm villages

Kabul is proposing to reward villages whose Afghan Taliban fighters surrender by disbursing cash through councils that already oversee aid money. Critics say that would make the councils Taliban targets.

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Afghan policemen stand guard at a check point of the Peace Jirga tent, near a billboard advertising the three-day conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 1. President Hamid Karzai rolled out his program to lure Taliban fighters off the battlefield, when he attended the conference last week. (Musadeq Sadeq/AP)

By Ben Arnoldy, Staff writer
posted June 10, 2010 at 11:47 am EDT

Kabul, Afghanistan —A plan drawn up by the Afghan government and NATO to disarm Taliban fighters is raising concerns that it could imperil one of Afghanistan’s most successful development programs.

The draft document, circulating in Kabul as the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, envisions delivering aid to home villages of former Taliban fighters. The money would be spent by elected village councils set up under the National Solidarity Program (NSP) – widely seen as one of the few bright spots in Afghan reconstruction.

On Tuesday, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke pressed the Afghan government to finalize a draft plan and get it up and running before a Kabul conference on July 20.

But international aid groups involved in the NSP say that the current draft plan would militarize the civilian program, making themselves and the village councils a target for the Taliban. They warn the plan would diminish participation in the NSP just as it begins to show success boosting Afghan attitudes about their government.

The disarmament plan “might be perceived by the opposition as a hostile measure for recruitment of combatants. Every organization associated with that project will be considered an enemy,” says Laurent Saillard, head of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a consortium for nongovernmental organizations.

“It would affect one of the few successful programs in the country and reduce further the access to the population,” he adds.

An aid program that delivers

The NSP works by making small grants of around $30,000 to villages across the country and allowing them to choose which projects to pursue. The program, which has reached 70 percent of the country’s villages, is run by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) and funded by international donors including the United States and the World Bank.

Each village is teamed up with an NGO, known as a facilitating partner, that helps run a local election for the council and develop the village’s list of project priorities. It also provides engineering assistance.

In the village of Sakha in northeastern Afghanistan, all 118 families now have electricity for the first time after residents decided to spend their NSP funds on a micro-hydro turbine. The project was finished six months ago for less than $50,000 with the help of Afghan Aid, an international NGO.

Before the election of Sakha’s council, called a shura, the villagers had no leaders. Now the shura has become a point of contact between the Afghan government, NGOs working on development projects, and the villagers. It’s even become a local court of sorts.

“Whenever there is a dispute or a conflict between two or three among the community, first we try to solve that issue in our shura,” says Baz Mohammad, the shura chief. “After NSP, we learned to send applications and requests to organizations and the government … we know where to go to get help.”

Seeking synergy
The Taliban reintegration program envisions giving these councils another task: taking reward money for local Taliban fighters who surrender and spending it to benefit the entire village – including the ex-combatants and their victims. The former fighters might also stand for election to the shuras.

The Karzai government developed the draft plan with the help of NATO specialists under Gen. Phil Jones, the director of the Force Reintegration Cell in Kabul.

Jones says one of the goals was to avoid creating “additional or parallel” government structures. The councils are already trained to take government money and spending it on a prioritized list of projects.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel “where they have already developed a sensible list of projects,” he argues. “One of the red lines for us is not to create existing things.”

The councils would not be asked to “tackle the higher level political questions” involved in reintegrating insurgents, according to the draft document.

Not a done deal
Still, all this sounds worrisome to Mohammad Tariq Ismati, the government’s executive director for the NSP program.

“The NSP is already loaded with a lot of concerns,” including local development and community conflict resolution, he says. “We cannot risk it by adding such a sensitive and politicized process.”

The plan, he says, is trying to turn the NSP into a tool of counterinsurgency by helping stabilize villages and win the residents over to the side of the government. While that’s never been the reason for the NSP, new data suggest it is achieving some of those results.

A donor-funded study led by Harvard University researcher Andrew Beath looked at a random sample of 500 villages, half with NSP and half without. Villages with an NSP project gave slightly higher marks to the Afghan president, provincial and district leaders, and the US military. NSP villages did not see security improve, but the perception of safety went up by four percentage points.

“The process of mobilizing the community and widening the participation of villages is itself contributing to stability and security in localities,” says Mr. Ismati. But “using the NSP as a model for counterinsurgency will put the model at risk.”

He is confident that the draft plan can be changed before it’s finalized. But he is unhappy that the proposal has already created unrest among NGOs such as Afghan Aid that work on NSP projects.

Representatives from the World Bank, which oversees the funding of the NSP, say that using the NSP councils will likely be edited out because of the harm it would do to the program.

“If the facilitating partners [NGOs] are not keen on doing this – and many have ideological problems with it – it’s not going to work,” says Qazi Azmat Isa, a senior rural development specialist with the World Bank in Kabul.

But General Jones gave no indication that the pushback on the idea was likely to sink it. The decision will have to come from the Afghan government.

Plan B?
Few alternatives exist beyond the NSP village councils to receive the reintegration money. Giving it directly to the ex-combatants would give people incentives to join and quit the insurgency for the rewards. At the village level, few other credible leaders exist, and district-level government in Afghanistan is famously corrupt and ineffective.

The plan includes other money to provide jobs around the country through various Afghan government ministries, including new engineering and construction corps and an agricultural conservation corps.

“Young men from the community of fighting age can be given preference to deny recruits for the insurgency,” reads the draft plan. Recruits for the conservation corps would, instead of picking up a gun, be planting trees.

Related stories:

1

National Public Radio, Morning Edition: Afghan Civilian Programs

National Public Radio, Morning edition, Report on National Solidarity Program

Transcript:

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I’m Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I’m Renee Montagne.

When General David Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this last weekend, he stressed that the strategy there needs to be executed by one team, military and civilian.

This week, we’re looking at the civilian side of things. And this morning, we turn to Michael Semple, who spoke to us from Islamabad. He’s worked on civilian projects in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, most recently for the European Union and the U.N. Beyond Afghanistan, those civilian efforts are often overshadowed by news of combat and deadly attacks by militants.

I asked Michael Semple if assistance programs were visible to ordinary Afghans.

Mr. MICHAEL SEMPLE (Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard): It’s certainly visible inside Afghanistan. The Afghans are very much aware. However, I should say the aspirations that the Afghans had at the start of this process, you know, back down in 2001, were sky high. So it’s not so much that it’s invisible. It’s just that however much is thrown in, there’s always a sense, oh, well. It’s not quite what we expected.

MONTAGNE: Let’s talk about one project in particular that seems to be quite effective. It’s called the National Solidarity Program. It involves small reconstruction projects which seem to be really right for many of the areas of Afghanistan.

Mr. SEMPLE: The National Solidarity Program is a very interesting example of the kind of work which has been going on in Afghanistan for the past few years. It is run under the aegis of the Rural Development Ministry here, with participation of a range of international NGO’s. And the way they work is that they go into villages, encourage people to form committees in their villages to try and identify the kind of small-scale reconstruction project that they would like. And then through the project structure, they supply some more seed capital to enable them to get on with implementing their approach. And this is a very, you know, small-scale infrastructure work, for example, tapping hydroelectric power to provide electricity in the villages.

MONTAGNE: And this works because it gets local people involved in doing the actual work and making decisions?

Mr. SEMPLE: Yes. One of the fascinating things about the project is that when you ask people – the Afghans in the villages why they think these are successful, they often say ah-ha, because it’s not a government project -whereas, actually, it is a government project, but it’s a government project which is implemented with a high degree of community participation.

MONTAGNE: To the degree that they’re successful or visible, would the average Afghan distinguish the civilian projects as separate from the U.S. and NATO military campaign? Part of the military’s effort is to do things like build wells and even schools and whatnot.

Mr. SEMPLE: They certainly do overlap. One of the most interesting distinctions that I find is that even some of those people who were engaged in the insurgency, people with the Taliban movement basically say our chief demand is to see the end of the international troops in Afghanistan. But we hope in the future to be benefiting from and participating in international assistance programs. So even some of the people who are involved in the insurgency make this kind of distinction.

MONTAGNE: Both Americans and Afghans can identify General Petraeus as the face of the U.S. military campaign. I’m wondering if there, in Afghanistan, there is a face for the civilian effort. And I’m thinking here of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who mostly travels with the Afghan press – the local press. He’s not even that interested in the international press. Has he succeeded in being the face of the civilian effort?

Mr. SEMPLE: At the moment it’s clear that the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, is indeed the face of the civilian effort. And the reason that he is focusing on traveling with the Afghan press is because he’s said it is a strategic priority that the Afghan population should understand the good things that are happening and not entirely focus on the ongoing conflict.

And his thinking there is that if the Afghans have a stake in peace, then there’s a chance that peace might actually work. And I think he’s decided to leave the business of persuading the American public that the intervention of Afghanistan is worthwhile to others. He’s focusing on trying to ensure that they, the Afghans themselves, have a stake in success.

MONTAGNE: Michael Semple spent 20 years working on civilian projects in Afghanistan. He’s now a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

0

Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War – Pitch Reel

Community Supported Film’s Afghan team soon will be making the film Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War (BTKW). BTKW will from the Afghan villager’s perspective look at the impact of outsiders coming into their communities trying to help them.

0

US Marines – Creating more insurgents or space for development?

What Marja Tells Us of Battles Yet to Come
By C. J. CHIVERS
New York Times, June, 10, 2010


Tyler Hicks/The New York Times. Afghans passed through a Marine checkpoint last month in Marja, where fighting has continued since a highly publicized assault on insurgents in February.

MARJA, Afghanistan — Each day, American foot patrols move through farmers’ fields and irrigated villages. And each day some are ambushed or encounter hidden bombs. The patrols turn into gunfights in withering heat, or efforts to dismantle the bombs or treat the wounded. Casualties accumulate with the passing weeks, for Americans and Afghans alike.

A few months ago, Marja was the focus of a highly publicized assaultto push the Taliban from a stronghold and bring Afghanistan’s densest area of opium production under government control. The fighting remains raw.

What does it mean?

Is the violence a predictable summer fight for an area the Taliban and those who profit from the drug economy do not want to lose; in other words, an unsurprising flare-up that can be turned around? Or will Marja remain bloody for a long time, allowing insurgents to inflict sustained losses on American units and win merely by keeping the fight alive?

As NATO and Afghan forces flow into neighboring Kandahar Province, where for the next many months the latest high-profile effort to undo the Taliban’s hold will unroll, the continuing fighting in Marja can be read as a sign of problems in the American-led surge. It can also be read as something less worrisome: a difficult period in a campaign always expected to be hard.

A prevailing assessment among officers on the ground is this: The outcome is too soon to call.

“Right now it’s gray,” said Maj. Lawrence Lohman, the operations officer for Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, which operates outposts in northern Marja.

Those who deem the Marja offensive a disappointment, or even a failure, point to the daily violence and to the signs that Afghans have been leaving the area, at least temporarily, to avoid the fighting. They also point to Taliban intimidation of residents, a still limited government presence, and the continued reliance of Afghan police officers and soldiers on American supervision and logistics. These, they say, are ill-boding signs.

But the signals are contradictory.

Most of Marja’s civilians returned after moving away ahead of the initial assault. Most of them remain. Compounds that were empty in February are inhabited. Roads once quiet are busy. Fields are thick with crops. Shops in some bazaars have reopened. Afghan units participate visibly in dangerous missions.

Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the battalion’s commander, noted that some of Marja’s residents had begun providing information on the Taliban, including sharing the names and locations of fighters. Many civilians have been seeking aid and a few have sought contracts for small scale development projects, the early steps in engagement.

“I’ve seen good growth and good progress,” the colonel said. He added: “There is still a lot to be done.”

The Marines point to what they clearly hope is a Helmand pattern, apparent in other districts, including Nawa, where the Taliban were strong and fighting was initially intense. The pattern, they said, is this: With time and resources, the insurgents’ position erodes, villages become secure, and engagement and the Afghan government presence expand.

Pursuing this goal, Marine companies have been sending out constant small patrols. Their presence keeps the Taliban occupied and inflicts losses, the Marines say, and creates the space to allow for development or programs to gain traction. In the short term, it is also a recipe for small-unit violence — fierce and frequent.

“It goes back to the very basics of what we do: gain and maintain contact,” said Col. Randall P. Newman, who commands Marine ground forces in central Helmand Province.

Colonel Newman said he expected skirmishes to decline in frequency in the months ahead. “I don’t think the guys who are shooting now are committed enough to keep doing this a long time,” he said.

More Western troops have died in Helmand Province than in any other, and the sight of medevac helicopters over Marja each day is a reminder that the area has become a center of the province’s bloodshed.

But Helmand is not uniformly violent. There are areas where fighting is regular — Marja, Sangin, Nahr-e-Saraj — and areas where the Taliban had fought hard before being marginalized as a combat force.

Moreover, the rising casualties have complicated causes. Some are related to the combined effects of Taliban resistance and the Marines’ grinding patrol tempo. Others can reasonably be attributed to a shift made last year to rules of engagement that guide American forces.

The shift de-emphasized airstrikes, artillery and mortars. This transferred some of the risk in skirmishes from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. In the past, American patrols in contact often quickly called for and received fire support. Not anymore. Many firefights these days are strictly rifle and machine gun fights.

Understanding the shift is important. It has made engagement times noticeably longer, driving up the troops’ risks and amplifying a perception that Marja, fought with less fire support than what was available to American units in other hotly contested areas, is mired in blood.

That perception has obscured a wider view. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British officer commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan’s south, urged patience. “The challenge with this campaign is that it takes time, because it’s in the minds of people, and its people take time to be convinced,” he said.

He also cautioned against drawing conclusions by extrapolating from Marja alone. The operation, he said, opened provincial roads. Six months ago, the provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, could barely travel; now he covers much of the province.

“You’ve got a central Helmand that is linked together, and in economic terms can develop,” General Carter said. “So I think people tend to make the mistake of just thinking about Marja.”

Meanwhile, Marines are wounded by bombs or shot each week. The violence in itself does not mean that the campaign is lost. Fighting is normal to war, a concept sometimes played down in discussions about the United States’ counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes developing relationships with the population and helping government agencies gain credibility and provide services.

Those directly involved caution that a few months of fighting is not necessarily a basis for grim forecasts, especially during the first summer in a former Taliban enclave. American commanders have been voicing frustration nonetheless, as was evident last month in Gen.Stanley A. McChrystal’s description of Marja as “a bleeding ulcer.”

The remark underscores perhaps the clearest conclusion that can be drawn thus far. Even before the last troops of the Obama administration’s surge arrive in Afghanistan, high-level American commanders appear pressed for time, no matter the complexities faced by troops on the ground.

1

In Afghan region, U.S. spreads the cash to fight the Taliban

washingtonpost.com

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

NAWA, AFGHANISTAN — In this patch of southern Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy to keep the Taliban at bay involves an economic stimulus.

Thousands of men, wielding hoes and standing in knee-deep muck, are getting paid to clean reed-infested irrigation canals. Farmers are receiving seeds and fertilizer for a fraction of their retail cost, and many are riding around on shiny new red tractors. Over the summer, dozens of gravel roads and grain-storage facilities will be constructed — all of it funded by the U.S. government.

Pumping reconstruction dollars into war zones has long been part of the U.S. counterinsurgency playbook, but the carpet bombing of Nawa with cash has resulted in far more money getting into local hands, far more quickly, than in any other part of Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s agriculture program aims to spend upward of $30 million within nine months in this rural district of mud-walled homes and small farms. Other U.S. initiatives aim to bring millions more dollars to the area over the next year.

Because aid is so plentiful in Nawa — seemingly everyone who wants a job has one — many young men have opted to stop serving as the Taliban’s guns for hire. Unlike neighboring Marja, where insurgent attacks remain a daily occurrence, the central parts of Nawa have been largely violence-free the past six months.

But the cash surge has also unleashed unintended and potentially troubling consequences. It is sparking new tension and rivalries within the community, and it is prompting concern that the nearly free seeds and gushing canals will result in more crops than farmers will be able to sell. It is also raising public expectations for handouts that the Afghan government will not be able to sustain once U.S. contributions ebb.

“We’ve blasted Nawa with a phenomenal amount of money in the name of counterinsurgency without fully thinking through the second- and third-order effects,” said Ian Purves, a British development expert who recently completed a year-long assignment as the NATO stabilization adviser in Nawa.

U.S. officials responsible for Afghanistan policy contend that the initiative in Nawa, which is part of a $250 million effort to increase agricultural production across southern Afghanistan, was designed as a short-term jolt to resuscitate the economy and generate lasting employment. They say concerns about overspending are misplaced: After years of shortchanging Afghans on development aid, the officials maintain that they would rather do too much than too little.

“Our goal is to return Nawa to normalcy, to get folks back to their daily lives of farming, and that requires a large effort,” said Rory Donohoe, USAID’s agriculture program manager in Helmand province.

Of particular concern to some development specialists is USAID’s decision to spend the entire $250 million over one year in parts of just two provinces, Helmand and Kandahar. In Nawa, which has a population of about 75,000, that works out to about $400 for every man, woman and child. The country’s per-capita income, by comparison, is about $300 a year.

“This is a massive effort to buy people off so they won’t fight us,” said a U.S. development officer in southern Afghanistan.

The spending here is a preview of what the Obama administration wants to accomplish on a larger scale. USAID’s “burn rate” in Afghanistan — the amount it spends — is about $300 million a month and will probably stay at that level for at least a year.

The White House recently asked Congress for an additional $4.4 billion for reconstruction and development programs in Afghanistan, with the aim of increasing employment and promoting economic growth in areas beset by the insurgency.

Although some of that money will be directed through Afghan government ministries and local aid organizations to fund projects designed and run by Afghans, most of it will go to large, U.S.-based development firms with the ability to hire lots of people and spend lots of money quickly.

Among the programs in the pipeline is a $600 million effort to improve municipal governments across the country and to increase the provision of basic services to urban dwellers. The program is supposed to include extensive day-labor projects to pick up trash and plant trees, and it calls for the contractor to implement “performance-based” budgeting systems within two years, something that most U.S. cities do not have.

USAID also envisions spending $140 million to help settle property disputes. One of the agency’s hoped-for achievements is to train Afghans to appraise and value land.

Some development specialists question whether Afghanistan can absorb the flood of money, or whether a large portion will be lost to corruption, inefficiency and dubious ventures funded to meet Washington-imposed deadlines.

“We’ve turned a fire hose on these guys — and they can’t absorb it,” said a development specialist who has worked as a USAID contractor in Afghanistan for three years. “We’re setting ourselves up for a huge amount of waste and fraud.”

Improving farming
The $250 million agriculture program is the Obama administration’s principal effort to create jobs and improve livelihoods in the two provinces where U.S. troops are concentrating their counterinsurgency mission this year. It was designed to address what senior administration officials, particularly presidential envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, deemed to be scattershot and underfunded initiatives over the first eight years of the war to assist farmers, who make up most of the country’s workforce.

The program aims to make farms more productive, thereby increasing employment and living standards. It would do so by cleaning canals so more water gets to crops, offering subsidized seeds so farmers would be encouraged to switch from growing opium-producing poppies, establishing cooperatives to share tractors and constructing a network of gravel roads so they can take their goods to market.

To forge links between residents and their government, a 42-member community council decides which canals to clean and which roads to improve.

USAID selected International Relief and Development (IRD), an Arlington-based nonprofit development firm, to run the program. To get the work started quickly, the agency gave the company the $250 million as a grant last summer, instead of hiring it under contract to do the work, which would have taken longer.

Grants also involve fewer auditing requirements for USAID, but once awarded they limit the government’s ability to make changes.

The program has been a hit with Nawa residents since the day it began in December, largely because of the plentiful cash-for-work opportunities. Once the day labor began, unemployment disappeared almost overnight.

The initiative has put money in the pocket of almost every working-age male in the district. More than 7,000 residents have been hired for $5 a day to clean the canals, and a similar number of farmers have received vouchers for heavily discounted seeds and fertilizer. Thousands of others have benefited from additional forms of assistance through the program.

“We had nothing here before — only bullets,” said Gul Mohammed, a lanky tenant farmer, as he scooped mud from a narrow canal. He said the day labor is essential to feeding his family because he decided last fall, after a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Nawa, not to plant poppies on his 6.5-acre plot.

Now he is growing wheat, which fetches only about a quarter of what he would have made from poppies.

“We are so thankful for this work,” he said. “Without it, we would be going hungry.”

Local infighting
USAID’s decision to involve the community council in the disbursement was intended to help build local governance. It has done that, but it has also generated new frictions in the district.

When the council was formed last fall, the seven principal tribal leaders in the area decided not to participate. They did not want to risk the Taliban’s wrath by siding with the United States and the Afghan government. But now that the council has the ability to influence millions of dollars worth of projects, the leaders want a piece of the action.

The senior elder, Hayatullah Helmandi of the Barakzai tribe, has launched a campaign to discredit the council members, calling them opportunists and drug users. “The Marines should be working with us,” he said.

The infighting has prompted concern among some U.S. officials in the area. “These tensions probably wouldn’t be so severe if there wasn’t as much money involved,” one of them said.

Then there is the question of what to do with all the additional crops grown this year. Purves estimates that the program will increase agricultural production by tens of thousands of tons across central Helmand province.

“What on Earth will happen to that?” he said. “There’s no way all of that can be gotten to market, and even if it could, there simply isn’t a market for that much more food.”

Holbrooke and USAID agriculture experts want to construct cold-storage facilities so the produce can be trucked to markets in other parts of Afghanistan or exported to nearby countries. But that effort will not be completed in time to help farmers with this year’s crop.

The effort to spend the program funds as fast as possible has resulted in some items going to waste, according to people familiar with the effort.

Plastic tunnels to allow farmers to grow crops over the winter were not distributed until February — well after the winter planting season — so many of them simply used the plastic as window sheeting for their mud huts. The metal rods were turned into fences.

The cash-for-work programs are so plentiful and lucrative that some teachers and policemen sought to enroll before U.S. and Afghan officials barred their participation.

Among Nawa residents, the biggest worry is what will happen when the program ends Aug. 31. U.S. officials hope this effort will result in new farm jobs, but nobody thinks it will be enough to employ all of those participating in the day-labor projects. Although USAID is considering a follow-on agriculture program, it is not clear whether the labor component will be as large as it is now.

If not, Afghan officials said their government does not have the resources to make up the difference.

“Those cash-for-work men — half of them used to be Taliban,” said the district governor, Abdul Manaf. “If the Americans stop paying for them to work, they’ll go back to the Taliban.”

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