Afghanistan Blog

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Hopes for Afghan Community Councils to Undermine Taliban

NYT, by CARLOTTA GALL, Published: June 19, 2010

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 election here, an exercise in nation-building from the ground up, is part of a pilot program to set up 100 district councils to provide representative government in places where government has largely been absent. But the councils, backed by the British and American governments, also represent a critical element of counterinsurgency strategy: if they succeed, the hope is they will convince people that there is a viable alternative to Taliban rule.

Since the beginning of the year, 35 such councils have begun work in nine provinces, and the American and British governments have pledged financing to establish 100 by July 2011, officials said. The ultimate goal is to have directly elected councils nationwide.

“It is a vital, basic element of administration,” said Christopher Demers, an adviser for theAgency for International Development in Kandahar. “Building a people’s body like this is important, it is giving people an opportunity to speak with the government.”

Military officials in the United States-led coalition have often expressed frustration at the inability of the Afghan government to move quickly into secured areas and start governing. Yet Afghan officials say that it is a lengthy task to build an administration from scratch and gain the trust of a population that has suffered at the hands of predatory officials and repeated military operations by foreign forces in recent years.

In many districts, like Nadali, there is little government presence, often only a district chief and a police chief, both appointed by the central government in Kabul. They have few resources or personnel. Most district chiefs have no official car and an official budget of only $12 a year, the United Nations said last year.

One of the successes of the Afghan government over the past eight years has been the National Solidarity Program, which set up small development councils across the country to undertake small reconstruction projects in every village. Yet it takes six months just to elect and train community councilors and two years to complete a village project, said Wais Ahmad Barmak, deputy minister in the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, who has 30 years experience in community development.

In the most insecure areas, like Helmand, the ministry has had to suspend its work, he said.

In Nadali it has taken a year of visiting villages and persuading people to cooperate with the government to get them to the point of electing the district council, said the district chief, Habibullah Shamlani, a former police academy instructor.

After several gatherings around the district, 600 representatives were selected to come and vote for 45 councilors, all of whom must live in the district, a change from the absentee landlords or tribal chiefs who have traditionally made the decisions.

“This district council should make all the decisions which affect the life of the district,” said Jelani Popal, who leads the local government directorate, an arm of the national government that is running the program. “We will use them for security reasons, like reintegration, they will be very active in deciding about development, but also governance, they can communicate or channel the grievances of the people to the governor and district governor.”

Those who took part in the selection said they were taking the risk because they needed representatives to intercede with the government and the foreign forces on a variety of problems from securing the release of detainees and compensation for war damage to resolving tribal and land disputes and winning development assistance for their areas.

“We hope the government will do something for us if we have this district council and we can share our problems with the higher authorities,” said Feda Muhammad Khan, an elected councilor. “We are fed up with the fighting, and there is a drought, and we are hoping peace will knock on our door.”

One of the main tasks of the council will be to persuade local insurgents to give up the fight and return to a peaceful life in the community, or if not to move away and stop destabilizing the area, Mr. Shamlani, the district chief, said. Already 40 people who were with the Taliban have been persuaded to quit fighting, he said.

“We are working step by step,” he said. “We cannot put too much pressure on the people to reject the Taliban. Gradually now, people have found some courage to point out who are Taliban. If things are sustained the same as now I am hoping by next year we will know who is behind it all.”

The key has been to deliver on promises of assistance and treat the people well, he said. “It takes time; you have to go and talk a lot and spend money,” he said.

But there is already evidence that the Taliban are fighting the councils much as they have resisted other government initiatives.

Some of the participants said they risked assassination if the Taliban in their area discovered that they were cooperating with the government. At least five councilors have been killed and one has been wounded since the four councils were formed in Helmand Province, officials said, presumably by the Taliban.

And the representatives choosing the council here included Taliban members, several participants said. They, too, wanted representation to help win the release of their people who have been detained.

Maj. Abdul Salam, who runs the police criminal department in Nadali, said the fact that 600 representatives showed up was itself a vote of confidence in the process.

“These people are here because they have some hope that the government is gaining strength and they are hoping they can defend themselves,” he said. “But you are right, they are in some danger.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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World Bank Provides Additional Support for National Solidarity Program

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2010 — The World Bank approved a $40 million grant to the Government of Afghanistan today to support the Third National Solidarity Program (NSP III). NSP III builds upon the achievements of the first two phases of the NSP, widely recognized as one the most successful development programs in Afghanistan.

Under NSP III, the roll out of elected Community Development Councils (CDCs) to every rural community in Afghanistan will be completed. These Councils, made up of both men and women, determine the use of small grants to build essential infrastructure depending on the particular needs of the village. By channeling resources to democratically-elected CDCs, the program not only increases the access of rural communities to basic services and infrastructure, but also fosters participatory involvement and accountability in village level development.

The NSP has empowered rural people including women, strengthened local governance at the community level, enhanced social cohesion and promoted conflict resolution,” said Nicholas J. Krafft, World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan and Bhutan. “With the grants provided to the Community Development Councils, investments in rural infrastructure will not only empower the rural poor but will have longer term positive impacts on their quality of life.”

In addition to World Bank financing, the National Solidarity Program has been supported by some 20 donors who contribute to the World Bank administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), to the Japanese Social Development Fund (JSDF) or support the program bi-laterally. NSP III is a $1.5 billion program which will be implemented over the next five years. Since the inception of the first NSP program in 2003, 17 million rural people in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces have benefitted from improved infrastructure such as access to water, electricity and roads through the NSP. 22,000 CDCs have been elected and over 40,000 village level projects have been completed. Another 10,000 sub-projects are nearing completion. From 2003 until June 2010, NSP has disbursed over $700 million directly to communities.

This program will reach out to every rural community in the country making NSP a truly national program,” said HE Jurullah Mansoori, Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. “It will consolidate, leverage and sustain gains made in social capital and community institutions by providing a second round of grants, ensuring quality of physical investments, continued good governance and the meaningful and active participation of women throughout the process. Communities will also be encouraged to federate and cluster to engage with other government programs.”

Under NSP III, a number of innovations have been introduced to support the Government of Afghanistan’s vision for the CDCs as the sustainable institutions of village level government. First, NSP III will support the completion of the roll out of initial block grants to the remaining 10,320 communities so that the program will cover all rural communities in Afghanistan. Second, in view of the immense developmental needs of the rural population, a second round of grants will be provided to 17,400 CDCs that have successfully used their initial grant. Third, and most importantly, NSP III will focus on improving the institutional quality, sustainability and governance of CDCs and enhance their ability to engage with other institutions.

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For more information on the National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan, please visit:

NSP Feature Story: http://go.worldbank.org/64KGW5EGR0

NSP Website: http://www.nspafghanistan.org/

For more information on the World Bank in Afghanistan, please visit: http://www.worldbank.org.af

For more information on the ARTF, please visit: http://www.worldbank.org/artf

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Return to Afghanistan

The photos below are from my flight from Dubai to Kabul.  In our recent video it is said that “for many Afghans you are a foreigner whether you are from 7 or 7000 miles away.”  Looking down at this extreme landscape it is much easier to understand how isolated many Afghans are and why the war is not against one ‘Taliban insurgency’ but against thousands of proud communities, traditional tribes, opportunist thugs and gangs as well as many fundamentalist religious groups.  Combine the divisions created by this landscape with cultural and religious traditions that are the most conservative anywhere and add 40 years of survival through wars and poverty is it any wonder that many Afghans – especially those in the 80% of the country that is rural – are suspicious, paranoid, xenophobic and easily moved by conspiracy theories? Here is a slice of the landscape that forms the foundation of the Afghan character.

The foreign forces are more visible at the airport and in the city then when I was last here in October 09.  For some years the strategy has been for foreign forces to maintain a low profile in and around Kabul.  The intent is to give the Afghan population the impression if not the belief that their capitol can be protected by the Afghan police and military.  The dramatically deteriorating security situation is making this more difficult.

In the evening a Takhari folk music recital organized by the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia. This evening’s concert was part of an ongoing program, supported by Norway and the United States, to invite musicians from the provinces to Kabul to rehearse, record and perform.

Ustad Rajab, 90 years old, sang a form of Takhari music called Goraghli.  Goraghli means “born in the grave” and comes from a Turkmen legend, telling of how Princess Mahilal, the sister of the King of Turkestan, becomes pregnant as a result of the gaze of a stranger.  Nearing the time of the birth of her child and ashamed of the stories that others tell defaming her character, she prays for death.  Before her child is born she dies and is buried by her family.  Her child is born in the grave, and a horse called Madian hears the child’s cries, digs the baby out and raises it. [from the Aga Khan program notes]

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Return from Afghanistan

Thank you for your support and concern during my recent trip to Afghanistan. Unlike the 24 US troops who died since the weekend and the many uncounted daily Afghan casualties of war and poverty, I returned safely to Boston on Sunday.

I return with the certainty that the only sustainable approach to stability in Afghanistan is one that involves less foreign military and is locally led.  Yes, this means I am asking you to do everything you can to pressure our government to reduce, but not eliminate, and redirect the mission of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Peace will only come with a decades long commitment to assist an Afghan led struggle to improve governance and economic conditions and to resist extremism. This approach accepts the continuance of the civil war that has been going on for 35 years – but, at least, the aggressive actions of our troops will not be fueling it.

Today I received this letter of resignation from a diplomat who was serving the US mission in Afghanistan.  It speaks for itself and mirrors with much greater depth of experience many of the understandings that I return with.  You can read the letter here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/hp/ssi/wpc/ResignationLetter.pdf and an article about it here:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603394.html

I will be posting more about my experiences and the next steps for the development of the film “Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.”  Thanks again for your letters, calls and encouragement.  Anu conveys her thanks too for all the support she received.  I hope all is well with you and yours.

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Earthquake

My chair starts to shake then the floor – bombs or earthquake? There have been a number of planes flying overhead. I got out of the room with a “shit” as I tussled with the door lock and stood near a supporting pillar. The knot in my stomach tightened.

The earthquake struck at 12:20am for about 10 seconds with longer pre and post tremors.  Electricity reported to be out in some parts of Kabul but all appears to be ok here in the Shar-e-Nau area. We are 165 miles from the epicenter in northeastern Afghanistan. Can only imagine the damage in that mountainous, extremely remote and very poor region.

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Wedding in Kabul

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Embed with US military Kapisa province Provincial Reconstruction Team

Photos of my time with the US military’s Kapisa province Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) are courtesy of Captain Darrick Lee, US Air Force Public Affairs Officer.  I apologize that many of these photos include me in the shot – but they should give you a sense of a PRT operation.  I will write more later.

These photos document:

  • Construction of Bolaghain, Malikar and Omar Shahid High Schools
  • Koh Band to Durnama Road and “9km” road construction
  • Failed attempt to hold women’s training at Al Baruni University
  • Kapisa Province governor, ministers, aids, contractors and farmer’s Community Development Council leaders gather for a monthly meeting with PRT commanders and US Department of State and US Agency for International Development representatives
  • Mission briefs and debriefs
  • Bagram Air Force Base drop off and pickup area, accommodations and bunkers
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Guns or development

Just back from three intense and interesting days in a village documenting the work of a Community Development Council setup through the National Solidarity Program of the Afghan government. The story is of a former commander turned Council leader – now finding his power through economic development incentives. I am only briefly in Kabul with internet access on my way to Bagram Air Force base for my embed with a Provincial Reconstruction Team made up of US Soldiers and civilian development specialists. If possible, I will try and write more about my recent experiences when I reach the base. For now, I will attach a few photos from the villages and from the journey to the district which is in the Kapisa province a 1-2 hour drive from Kabul.

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Eating dirt on the way to the office

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Walk it out

Day 1 afternoon

Couldn’t keep my eyes open on the drive home from meeting at the National Solidarity Program with Jamshed. Pushed my self through till 9. Awake and anxious – mind in turmoil at 2:30am. Up at 4 and busied myself fixing Kevlar helmet and cleaning XLR cables and wondering why I am in a little room in Afghanistan cleaning XLR cables and tearing up foam padding to fix to the inside of a soldier’s helmet. Why? Got myself back on track: what is the role of economic development in war and conflict resolution and who should be doing it. Got it to make sense again. But the how is so stressed at this point in a project like this that you want to explode.

IT is surprising how quickly – in a matter of hours – intense  isolation dominates. The hotel is isolating – a bizarre but needed oasis. The room so small and while two walls are windows with good light one looks at a wall and one the glass covered hallway which means the heavy dank curtains must often be kept closed for privacy. Inside I have to work very hard not to let the closeness, floresentness, the darkness close in on cloud my mental state.

I inisisted on a walk at 6:45. I dressed up in my local garb – Kameez and Salwar- and headed out into the cool air and bright crisply clear morning. It is Friday morning, day of rest in Muslim countries, so the streets were relatively quiet at this time of day. I challenged myself that even if I only felt comfortable walking one block that I had to break out of this safe place. The hotel is built around a central sitting area – completely closed in on itself with heavy gates (the first with a large peace dove on it) double rolling doors, sand bagged guard houses for an entrance on a dirt side road.

The roads are everything one already knows from any other developing world city– at least asian. I could have just as well been walking down a street in Ahmedabad, India or Bandung, Indonesia – except with more ease. The streets are paved, the side streets rubble and dirt – all is very dry and dusty. The air, especially if there is a breeze is full of dust and sand. This morning it was calm and the air clean of dust and pollution. I was blessed to have streets with few people, few open shops and little traffic. I could walk calmly in the warm sun. People might look trying to place me but no one stared or discussed. The bakers were open – with their pit or large circular ovens, rounds of dough thrown onto the sides. One man crouchs around the hole and others work behind and beside crouching on carpets. The front has a window displaying stacks of bread with patterns and different shapes. A few tool shops, kiosks and benzine stores were open but most had the steel gates closed or rolled down. The filthy and dilapidated mall like buildings looked closed up. The walk was uneventful. I got to an opening near one of the several police checkpoints –where a few poorly uniformed and even more poorly shoed scruffy men with automatic riffles stop cars intermittently for pat downs and trunk checks. I can imagine after yesterday’s bombing there is more urgency to the task but it didn’t look it. Behind, the stone and gravel hills rise steeply coated in square buildings that rise up the ridges with black holes for windows. The top is covered with antennas and a control center of some sort. On the way back men streamed into the street with shovels headed to a construction site. At another corner four men got into a heated argument and then a flailing hair pulling kicking and punching fight. No question that the south asian temper and tension must only be exasperated by the decades of war, the current state of crisis and the brutal poverty.

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Welcome!

Flight from Dubhai to Kabul: 176 turbaned, caped and hat’d Afghan traders, white guy with two Phillipino girls and me. Won $180 in the lottery on the flight! No food or drink but they do a lottery. First money earned on this project.

I arrived at the hotel sat down to breakfast and the windows blew open in front of me from the bomb blast at the Indian embassy.

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MLK clearing my head in Atlanta

In the Atlanta airport in a drab hallway above an escalator there is a shockingly minimal kiosk about the life and beliefs of MLK. It is literally in the shadows and hard to see in relation to the radiant glow that comes from the stores and eateries – ‘the court’ – further on. How lowly our life at court has become.

It feels as if Atlanta is embarrassed by its history and the change brought by its great son. The signs of segregation – “whites only,” “blacks to the back of the bus” – are placed on the backside of the kiosk facing a too close wall. And Andrew Young, pictured with MLK, is the mayor of Atlanta!?

Nonetheless, I am grateful that it was there at all. I read it all and will take a quote from it as a question to the warriors and peace searchers in Afghanistan: “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.”

What I find most interesting about the good and evil dichotomy here is that there are those in Afghanistan fighting foreign forces that believe they are good and the American’s to be the burners and bombers. Of course most on our side of the planet would read it and without question believe the Americans are on the side of good. What I get out of this, and what I treasure about this kiosk reminding me of the struggle for non-violence – is that it is the moderates in the middle that are the good, those on both sides of the planet who choose not to burn or bomb, who must find the way to stop the violence and build a sustainable path to peace.

I am going to Afghanistan to investigate whether an emphasis on economic opportunity and poverty alleviation is a viable path to peace. Would peace have been established if the $8000 spent per Afghan on US military activities in the last 9 years had been spent on a mission of economic stabilization? I go back to where I started: can a country that has been bombed repeatedly over thirty years be bombed into a peaceful state? Or, is a quieter long-term investment in the development of the economic and institutional capacity of the region the good person’s path to peace?

There it is – my mind working away in the plane trying to focus so as to be prepared for the onslaught of issues, views, subjects and situations that I am about to be confronted with.

Thank you very much for your card and wishes – “be safe and be calm” x10. I have placed the image pasted to it in my wallet. Did you know that there were postage stamps with Gandhi’s image in the little envelope and a flower?

I hope you are able to focus on your strengths and accomplishments. We must buoy ourselves with a positive determination and use that to propel us through the challenges. I am counting on you to show me the way as you have for all these years.

P.S. I am very happily listening to Rag Ahir Bhairav – slow gat in pupak tal fast gat in teental, Zakir Hussain & Hariprasad Chaurasia. Its fantastic depth and richness sooths the coldness of the airport world.

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