Issues & Analysis
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Afghanistan’s Growing Number of Child Drug Addicts

By Joris Fioriti
February 11, 2013
Jalalabad, Afghanistan
AFP

They play badminton, kick a ball around and huddle over computer games just like normal children. Except that they are recovering drug addicts aged around three to 12, representing a growing proportion of drug users in war-torn Afghanistan. In response, increasing numbers of rehabilitation centres are weaning such children off their addiction and giving them a new appetite for life in a country that produces 90 percent of the world’s opium used to make heroin. While there are no statistics for kids, the rate of relapse is high for their parents, experts say.

For now two young girls, dressed in a blue uniform and playing badminton, and a group of boys playing football are all active and healthy — the total opposite of when they arrived.”When I see them for the first time, the kids are depressed, unhappy. They don’t play actively, they don’t care about hygiene,” said care assistant Massouma Khatima. “They’re like ghosts,” added one of her colleagues.

The centre, run by Afghan charity Wadan, which is partly funded by the United Nations, offers 25 children and 35 women the chance to get clean. Those who suffer from diarrhea, constipation or headaches as a side effect from addiction are given medical treatment. More hardened addicts among the adults are treated with hydrotherapy — in this case mostly cold showers.

Marwa, 10, is one of the girls who has recently recovered. Now she dares to dream of becoming an engineer, a fairly remote prospect for a girl from a poor community where few women are educated. “I’ve been taking sleeping pills since I was a baby… I was drowsy and feeling asleep. I always had headaches. I couldn’t learn. My friends were learning faster. They were also laughing at me, calling me ‘sleepy’,” she says. “Now, I feel better, but not completely OK. I feel I can learn to play,” she adds. Fazalwahid Tahiri, the centre’s administrator, says that in the eastern province of Nangarhar, sleeping pills can be mixed with milk for kids. But children are more commonly given a highly addictive broth made from opium, doled out as a remedy for flu and stomach aches. “Since opium is easily available, some don’t even think of it as drug addiction. They use it as a pain killer,” he said.

In Afghanistan, most children become addicts as a result of their parents — passively inhaling their fathers’ opium smoke in the house, says Zarbadshah Jabarkhail, a doctor with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Or they are deliberately fed opium, for example by mothers who keep their children sedated while weaving carpets or harvesting opium crops, he says. The root cause is poverty. “It’s very usual. The majority of the families don’t know about the side-effects of opium. They don’t understand that if they give drugs to their children, they are also killing them at the same time,” he said. “The proportion of children addicted has increased because we have more drug users and they are certainly affecting their children,” said Jabarkhail.

The latest US State Department survey on drug use in Afghanistan says the number of adult drug users could exceed 1.3 million, out of an estimated population of up to 30 million, with nearly 300,000 children affected. According to the UNODC, the number of drug users in Afghanistan grew by 53 percent from 2005 to 2010. UN officials say there are just over 90 drug treatment centres across the country, treating 16,000 individuals, up from 40 centres in 2009, and that just over a third of the centres are for women and children.

Around 60 percent of the Afghan population are under 25 and 52 percent of the population is under 18 years old. “We are ignoring these people if we don’t take care of them. These children are the future of their country. If they use drugs, they won’t be useful to their country,” said Jabarkhail. Baspari, 28, and her five children aged from 10 months to 10 years old, are addicts. She and her husband grow opium on their land, and she talks about the effect it can have: “Sometimes they dance, sometimes they sleep for three days in a row. “I was given the same drugs when I was little. But when you’re running out of money, and your kids need medicine, you don’t have the choice,” she said. But from now on, she says, things will be different. “The doctors told me not to do it, so I won’t use it again.”

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Three Lousy Options: Pick One

Ann Jones, Kabul, Afghanistan — Compromise, conflict, or collapse: ask an Afghan what to expect in 2014 and you’re likely to get a scenario that falls under one of those three headings. 2014, of course, is the year of the double whammy in Afghanistan: the next presidential election coupled with the departure of most American and other foreign forces. Many Afghans fear a turn for the worse, while others are no less afraid that everything will stay the same.  Some even think things will get better when the occupying forces leave.  Most predict a more conservative climate, but everyone is quick to say that it’s anybody’s guess.

Only one thing is certain in 2014: it will be a year of American military defeat.  For more than a decade, U.S. forces have fought many types of wars in Afghanistan, from a low-footprint invasion, to multiple surges, to a flirtation with Vietnam-style counterinsurgency, to a ramped-up, gloves-off air war.  And yet, despite all the experiments in styles of war-making, the American military and its coalition partners have ended up in the same place: stalemate, which in a battle with guerrillas means defeat.  For years, a modest-sized, generally unpopular, ragtag set of insurgents has fought the planet’s most heavily armed, technologically advanced military to a standstill, leaving the country shaken and its citizens anxiously imagining the outcome of unpalatable scenarios.

The first, compromise, suggests the possibility of reaching some sort of almost inconceivable power-sharing agreement with multiple insurgent militias.  While Washington presses for negotiations with its designated enemy, “the Taliban,” representatives of President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, which includes 12 members of the former Taliban government and many sympathizers, are making the rounds to talk disarmament and reconciliation with all the armed insurgent groups that the Afghan intelligence service has identified across the country. There are 1,500 of them.

One member of the Council told me, “It will take a long time before we get to Mullah Omar [the Taliban’s titular leader].  Some of these militias can’t even remember what they’ve been fighting about.”

The second scenario, open conflict, would mean another dreaded round of civil war like the one in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat — the one that destroyed the Afghan capital, Kabul, devastated parts of the country, and gave rise to the Taliban.

The third scenario, collapse, sounds so apocalyptic that it’s seldom brought up by Afghans, but it’s implied in the exodus already underway of those citizens who can afford to leave the country.  The departures aren’t dramatic.  There are no helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy with desperate Afghans clamoring to get on board; just a record number of asylum applications in 2011, a year in which, according to official figures, almost 36,000 Afghans were openly looking for a safe place to land, preferably in Europe.  That figure is likely to be at least matched, if not exceeded, when the U.N. releases the complete data for 2012.

In January, I went to Kabul to learn what old friends and current officials are thinking about the critical months ahead.  At the same time, Afghan President Karzai flew to Washington to confer with President Obama.  Their talks seem to have differed radically from the conversations I had with ordinary Afghans. In Kabul, where strange rumors fly, an official reassured me that the future looked bright for the country because Karzai was expected to return from Washington with the promise of American radar systems, presumably for the Afghan Air Force, which is not yet “operational.” (He actually returned with the promise of helicopters, cargo planes, fighter jets, and drones.) Who knew that the fate of the nation and its suffering citizens hinged on that?  In my conversations with ordinary Afghans, one thing that never came up was radar.

Another term that never seems to enter ordinary Afghan conversation, much as it obsesses Americans, is “al-Qaeda.” President Obama, for instance, announced at a joint press conference with President Karzai: “Our core objective — the reason we went to war in the first place — is now within reach: ensuring that al-Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against America.”  An Afghan journalist asked me, “Why does he worry so much about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Doesn’t he know they are everywhere else?”

At the same Washington press conference, Obama said, “The nation we need to rebuild is our own.” Afghans long ago gave up waiting for the U.S. to make good on its promises to rebuild theirs. What’s now striking, however, is the vast gulf between the pronouncements of American officialdom and the hopes of ordinary Afghans.  It’s a gap so wide you would hardly think — as Afghans once did — that we are fighting for them.

To take just one example: the official American view of events in Afghanistan is wonderfully black and white.  The president, for instance, speaks of the way U.S. forces heroically “pushed the Taliban out of their strongholds.” Like other top U.S. officials over the years, he forgets whom we pushed into the Afghan government, our “stronghold” in the years after the 2001 invasion: ex-Taliban and Taliban-like fundamentalists, the most brutal civil warriors, and serial human rights violators.

Afghans, however, haven’t forgotten just whom the U.S. put in place to govern them — exactly the men they feared and hated most in exactly the place where few Afghans wanted them to be.  Early on, between 2002 and 2004, 90% of Afghans surveyed nationwide told the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that such men should not be allowed to hold public office; 76% wanted them tried as war criminals.

In my recent conversations, many Afghans still cited the first loya jirga, an assembly convened in 2003 to ratify the newly drafted constitution, or the first presidential election in 2004, or the parliamentary election of 2005, all held under international auspices, as the moments when the aspirations of Afghans and the “international community” parted company. In that first parliament, as in the earlier gatherings, most of the men were affiliated with armed militias; every other member was a former jihadi, and nearly half were affiliated with fundamentalist Islamist parties, including the Taliban.

In this way, Afghans were consigned to live under a government of bloodstained warlords and fundamentalists, who turned out to be Washington’s guys.  Many had once battled the Soviets using American money and weapons, and quite a few, like the former warlord, druglord, minister of defense, and current vice-president Muhammad Qasim Fahim, had been very chummy with the CIA.

In the U.S., such details of our Afghan War, now in its 12th year, are long forgotten, but to Afghans who live under the rule of the same old suspects, the memory remains painfully raw.  Worse, Afghans know that it is these very men, rearmed and ready, who will once again compete for power in 2014.

How to Vote Early in Afghanistan

President Karzai is barred by term limits from standing for reelection in 2014, but many Kabulis believe he reached a private agreement with the usual suspects at a meeting late last year. In early January, he seemed to seal the deal by announcing that, for the sake of frugality, the voter cards issued for past elections will be reused in 2014.  Far too many of those cards were issued for the 2004 election, suspiciously more than the number of eligible voters.  During the 2009 campaign, anyone could buy fistfuls of them at bargain basement prices.  So this decision seemed to kill off the last faint hope of an election in which Afghans might actually have a say about the leadership of the country.

Fewer than 35% of voters cast ballots in the last presidential contest, when Karzai’s men were caught on video stuffing ballot boxes.  (Afterward, President Obama phoned to congratulate Karzai on his “victory.”) Only dedicated or paid henchmen are likely to show up for the next “good enough for Afghans” exercise in democracy. Once again, an “election” may be just the elaborate stage set for announcing to a disillusioned public the names of those who will run the show in Kabul for the next few years.

Kabulis might live with that, as they’ve lived with Karzai all these years, but they fear power-hungry Afghan politicians could “compromise” as well with insurgent leaders like that old American favorite from the war against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who recently told a TV audience that he intends to claim his rightful place in government. Such compromises could stick the Afghan people with a shaky power-sharing deal among the most ultra-conservative, self-interested, sociopathic, and corrupt men in the country.  If that deal, in turn, were to fall apart, as most power-sharing agreements worldwide do within a year or two, the big men might well plunge the country back into a 1990s-style civil war, with no regard for the civilians caught in their path.

These worst-case scenarios are everyday Kabuli nightmares.  After all, during decades of war, the savvy citizens of the capital have learned to expect the worst from the men currently characterized in a popular local graffiti this way: “Mujahideen=Criminals. Taliban=Dumbheads.”

Ordinary Kabulis express reasonable fears for the future of the country, but impatient free-marketeering businessmen are voting with their feet right now, or laying plans to leave soon. They’ve made Kabul hum (often with foreign aid funds, which are equivalent to about 90% of the country’s economic activity), but they aren’t about to wait around for the results of election 2014.  Carpe diem has become their version of financial advice.  As a result, they are snatching what they can and packing their bags.

Millions of dollars reportedly take flight from Kabul International Airport every day: officially about $4.6 billion in 2011, or just about the size of Afghanistan’s annual budget. Hordes of businessmen and bankers (like those who, in 2004, set up the Ponzi scheme called the Kabul Bank, from which about a billion dollars went missing) are heading for cushy spots like Dubai, where they have already established residence on prime real estate.

As they take their investments elsewhere and the American effort winds down, the Afghan economy contracts ever more grimly, opportunities dwindle, and jobs disappear.  Housing prices in Kabul are falling for the first time since the start of the occupation as rich Afghans and profiteering private American contractors, who guzzled the money that Washington and the “international community” poured into the country, move on.

At the same time, a money-laundering building boom in Kabul appears to have stalled, leaving tall, half-built office blocks like so many skeletons amid the scalloped Pakistani palaces, vertical malls, and grand madrassas erected in the past four or five years by political and business insiders and well-connected conservative clerics.

Most of the Afghan tycoons seeking asylum elsewhere don’t fear for their lives, just their pocketbooks: they’re not political refugees, but free-market rats abandoning the sinking ship of state.  Joining in the exodus (but not included in the statistics) are countless illegal émigrés seeking jobs or fleeing for their lives, paying human smugglers money they can’t afford as they head for Europe by circuitous and dangerous routes.

Threatened Afghans have fled from every abrupt change of government in the last century, making them the largest population of refugees from a single country on the planet.  Once again, those who can are voting with their feet (or their pocketbooks) — and voting early.

Afghanistan’s historic tragedy is that its violent political shifts — from king to communists to warlords to religious fundamentalists to the Americans — have meant the flight of the very people most capable of rebuilding the country along peaceful and prosperous lines.  And their departure only contributes to the economic and political collapse they themselves seek to avoid.  Left behind are ordinary Afghans — the illiterate and unskilled, but also a tough core of educated, ambitious citizens, including women’s rights activists, unwilling to surrender their dream of living once again in a free and peaceful Afghanistan.

The Military Monster

These days Kabul resounds with the blasts of suicide bombers, IEDs, and sporadic gunfire.  Armed men are everywhere in anonymous uniforms that defy identification.  Any man with money can buy a squad of bodyguards, clad in classy camouflage and wraparound shades, and armed with assault weapons.  Yet Kabulis, trying to carry on normal lives in the relative safety of the capital, seem to maintain a distance from the war going on in the provinces.

Asked that crucial question — do you think American forces should stay or go? — the Kabulis I talked with tended to answer in a theoretical way, very unlike the visceral response one gets in the countryside, where villages are bombed and civilians killed, or in the makeshift camps for internally displaced people that now crowd the outer fringes of Kabul. (By the time U.S. Marines surged into Taliban-controlled Helmand Province in the south in 2010 to bring counterinsurgency-style protection to the residents there, tens of thousands of them had already moved to those camps in Kabul.)  Afghans in the countryside want to be rid of armed men.  All of them.  Kabulis just want to be secure, and if that means keeping some U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base near the capital, as Afghan and American officials are currently discussing, well, it’s nothing to them.

In fact, most Kabulis I spoke to think that’s what’s going to happen.  After all, American officials have been talking for years about keeping permanent bases in Afghanistan (though they avoid the term “permanent” when speaking to the American press), and American military officers now regularly appear on Afghan TV to say, “The United States will never abandon Afghanistan.”  Afghans reason: Americans would not have spent nearly 12 years fighting in this country if it were not the most strategic place on the planet and absolutely essential to their plans to “push on” Iran and China next.  Everybody knows that pushing on other countries is an American specialty.

Besides, Afghans can see with their own eyes that U.S. command centers, including multiple bases in Kabul, and Bagram Air Base, only 30 miles away, are still being expanded and upgraded.  Beyond the high walls of the American Embassy compound, they can also see the tall new apartment blocks going up for an expanding staff, even if Washington now claims that staff will be reduced in the years to come.

Why, then, would President Obama announce the drawdown of U.S. troops to perhaps a few thousand special operations forces and advisors, if Washington didn’t mean to leave?  Afghans have a theory about that, too.  It’s a ruse, many claim, to encourage all other foreign forces to depart so that the Americans can have everything to themselves.  Afghanistan, as they imagine it, is so important that the U.S., which has fought the longest war in its history there, will be satisfied with nothing less.

I was there to listen, but at times I did mention to Afghans that America’s post-9/11 wars and occupations were threatening to break the country.  “We just can’t afford this war anymore,” I said.

Afghans only laugh at that.  They’ve seen the way Americans throw money around.  They’ve seen the way American money corrupted the Afghan government, and many reminded me that American politicians like Afghan ones are bought and sold, and its elections won by money. Americans, they know, are as rich as Croesus and very friendly, though on the whole not very well-mannered or honest or smart.

Operation Enduring Presence      

More than 11 years later, the tragedy of the American war in Afghanistan is simple enough: it has proven remarkably irrelevant to the lives of the Afghan people — and to American troops as well.  Washington has long appeared to be fighting its own war in defense of a form of government and a set of long-discredited government officials that ordinary Afghans would never have chosen for themselves and have no power to replace.

In the early years of the war (2001-2005), George W. Bush’s administration was far too distracted planning and launching another war in Iraq to maintain anything but a minimal military presence in Afghanistan — and that mainly outside the capital.  Many journalists (including me) criticized Bush for not finishing the war he started there when he had the chance, but today Kabulis look back on that soldierless period of peace and hope with a certain nostalgia.  In some quarters, the Bush years have even acquired something like the sheen of a lost Golden Age — compared, that is, to the thoroughgoing militarization of American policy that followed.

So commanding did the U.S. military become in Kabul and Washington that, over the years, it ate the State Department, gobbled up the incompetent bureaucracy of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and established Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the countryside to carry out maniacal “development” projects and throw bales of cash at all the wrong “leaders.”

Of course, the military also killed a great many people, both “enemies” and civilians.  As in Vietnam, it won the battles, but lost the war.  When I asked Afghans from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north how they accounted for the relative peacefulness and stability of their area, the answer seemed self-evident: “Americans didn’t come here.”

Other consequences, all deleterious, flowed from the militarization of foreign policy.  In Afghanistan and the United States, so intimately ensnarled over all these years, the income gap between the rich and everyone else has grown exponentially, in large part because in both countries the rich have made money off war-making, while ordinary citizens have slipped into poverty for lack of jobs and basic services.

Relying on the military, the U.S. neglected the crucial elements of civil life in Afghanistan that make things bearable — like education and health care.  Yes, I’ve heard the repeated claims that, thanks to us, millions of children are now attending school.  But for how long?   According to UNICEF, in the years 2005-2010, in the whole of Afghanistan only 18% of boys attended high school, and 6% of girls.  What kind of report card is that?  After 11 years of underfunded work on health care in a country the size of Texas, infant mortality still remains the highest in the world.

By 2014, the defense of Afghanistan will have been handed over to the woeful Afghan National Security Force, also known in military-speak as the “Enduring Presence Force.”  In that year, for Washington, the American war will be officially over, whether it’s actually at an end or not, and it will be up to Afghans to do the enduring.

Here’s where that final scenario — collapse — haunts the Kabuli imagination.  Economic collapse means joblessness, poverty, hunger, and a great swelling of the ranks of children cadging a living in the streets.  Already street children are said to number a million strong in Kabul, and 4 million across the country.  Only blocks from the Presidential Palace, they are there in startling numbers selling newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, or simply begging for small change. Are they the county’s future?

And if the state collapses, too?  Afghans of a certain age remember well the last time the country was left on its own, after the Soviets departed in 1989, and the U.S. also terminated its covert aid.  The mujahideen parties — Islamists all — agreed to take turns ruling the country, but things soon fell apart and they took turns instead lobbing rockets into Kabul, killing tens of thousands of civilians, reducing entire districts to rubble, raiding and raping — until the Taliban came up from the south and put a stop to everything.

Afghan civilians who remember that era hope that this time Karzai will step down as he promises, and that the usual suspects will find ways to maintain traditional power balances, however undemocratic, in something that passes for peace.  Afghan civilians are, however, betting that if a collision comes, one-third of those Afghan Security Forces trained at fabulous expense to protect them will fight for the government (whoever that may be), one-third will fight for the opposition, and one-third will simply desert and go home.  That sounds almost like a plan.

Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan 2006) and more recently War Is Not Over When It’s Over (Metropolitan 2010).  She wants to acknowledge the courage and determination of all her friends in Afghanistan, especially the women, and the men who stand beside them.

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Afghanistan: Where actresses risk their lives for their art

By Thanh Truong, Correspondent, NBC News

KABUL, Afghanistan – When she returned to the country of her birth last year, 33-year-old Fereshta Kazemi was shocked to discover that fellow actresses in Afghanistan are often considered prostitutes.

“It’s true that that’s what many think, but are the actresses prostitutes? Absolutely not,” the Afghan-American said. “They’re taking a risk for art to represent our culture.”

In a country where many see stepping onto a stage or in front of a camera as “un-Islamic,” being an actor in the slowly evolving television and movie industry is less about fame and more about trailblazing.

And being a trailblazer comes with risks.

In August, an Afghan television actress was stabbed to death in the capital Kabul. Two surviving fellow actresses were also stabbed but then subjected to the ultimate indignity — virginity tests at a local police station and prostitution charges.

Soon after, the country’s most famous actress, Sahar Parniyan, went into hiding following a slew of death threats.

It isn’t just women in the performing arts who have a difficult time. Twelve years after U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan remains one of the most difficult countries in the world to be a woman or a girl.

There have been improvements. In 2004, the government signed into law a new constitution granting equality for all its citizens and ensuring women’s rights. And in 2009, the country passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, intended to protect women from abuse, rape, and forced marriages.

‘Failure of imagination’
Despite the pledges to help improve women’s lives, the country has one of the highest levels of maternal mortality and, according to U.N. estimates, around 90 percent of women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse.

Lawlessness is central to the problems facing Afghanistan’s women, according to John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for the international organization Human Rights Watch.

“In the grand scheme of things, sure it has been a huge improvement (for women in Afghanistan) since the late 1990s, but it remains very, very difficult for women to go about activities that they are able to in neighboring Pakistan and even neighboring Iran … including acting,” he said.

He called it an “enormous failure of imagination” to have laws that enshrine women’s rights but largely exclude women from being involved in the legal and law enforcement system.

It is within these constraints that a tiny group of brave women decided to become actresses.

The profession has thus taken on an altruistic quality in Afghanistan, where the entertainment scene is reemerging in fits and starts after decades of violence and suppression by the Taliban.

“Most of the time (actors) haven’t had the opportunity to express this love for the arts,” said Mina Sharif, an Afghan-Canadian TV and film producer in Kabul. “As soon as things were different here in the last 10 years or so, the boom in the art industry shows you that this was here all along, there just wasn’t the opportunity to express it.”

Sharif is currently producing a new series of Sesame Street for Tolo TV, the self-proclaimed most popular channel in Afghanistan.

The word “tolo” itself means sunrise or dawn in the native Pashto and Dari languages. It’s a fitting name, since producing shows and movies is new in the country. Resources are limited, as are the talent and money pools.

But perhaps the more significant hurdle is the attitude toward acting, and especially toward actresses.

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Get the troops out?

While Obama announces troop reductions from Afghanistan and opponents in the west call for either a faster withdrawal or for staying the course, most Afghans are divided on the issue but fear the removal of international soldiers and bases. In the house where I stay I recently asked a group of Afghans (engineers, college students, and construction workers) what should happen to the US bases here; I was told that they should be “maintained like they were in Saudi Arabia.” A surprising response – especially considering that it is argued that the root of Al Qaeda stems from resistance to US bases in Saudi Arabia. Most in that group agreed that the dominantly northern ethnic groups – Hazard, Uzbek, Tajik, etc. – want American troops here for the foreseeable future and that the Pashto, mostly from the south, are split. I’m not sure how one can really know what people here think. Opinions can be bought and opinions can get you hurt.

Regardless, since Obama announced his plan for troop reductions, the increased nervousness among Afghans around me is obvious. When I ask what they expect will happen, the universal answer is renewed civil war. When I ask what that means for them personally, they explain their contingency plans – such as escape to Pakistan, Iran or Turkey.

It is tough to know how to respond as an outsider and as someone who came to Afghanistan concerned about the amount of money the US spends on its military operations here, attempting to ‘burn’ a lot of money fast to ‘flip and fix’ Afghanistan. Here are the numbers:

From 2001-11 the US has spent $445 billion on military, diplomatic and aid activities in Afghanistan. That is equivalent to paying each Afghan $1,590 per year for the last 10 years. This investment has not contributed to making Afghans more secure. Armed opposition attacks have increased by about 50% annually since 2006 (Read ANSO report, starting on page 8 and Brookings Afghanistan Index). Ten years after the ouster of the Taliban’s regime, Afghanistan is on the verge of financial and political collapse and suffers extreme poverty and hunger. The economy is 95% dependent on foreign aid. Much of what one can buy at the market comes from Pakistan.

No outsider can fix Afghanistan. However, outsiders can, and I think must, help Afghanistan extricate itself from being a pawn in the regional geopolitical conflict between countries such as Pakistan, India, [read analysis] Iran, Russia and China [read report]. Until this is accomplished, outsiders must – on humanitarian grounds – protect Afghans from a regional war that is being fought in their country and that fuels and plays off of internal tensions. To this end the international community, and the war protesters, should have a plan beyond getting troops out and bringing the money home. Leaving the mess behind is not a humane solution.

We are weeks away from ‘10-years-after’ commemorations, debates and protests regarding 9/11 and the United State’s response in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I hope we do not respond to our frustration about the last 10 years by promoting the creation of a vacuum in Afghanistan that will likely lead to a blood bath. I hope that whatever our ideological bend is, we make it our priority to work for an Afghanistan that is not abandoned and left to survive another humanitarian crisis. Let’s not create another situation that in 10 years we wish we had handled differently.

Support peace for Afghans, and thereby regional stability and security at home.   This requires slowly removing US-led offensive military forces, replacing them with a large international peacekeeping force (with a ‘right to kill’ mandate), increasing diplomatic pressure to resolve regional conflicts and funding long-term (30-50 year) Afghan led and implemented economic, social, political and security development programs [For further insight read the United States Institute of Peace’s: The Future of Afghanistan].

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What Should Obama and Karzai Talk About on Friday?

By Matt Southworth on 01/08/2013Matt Southworth of FCNL

This Friday, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are set to meet at the White House to discuss the future of U.S.-Afghan relations. According to Press Secretary Jay Carney, the meeting will focus on the “vision of Afghanistan post-2014.”

While non-military U.S. engagement in Afghanistan will be important post 2014, the next two years are most critical if there is to be any meaningful transition in Afghanistan by then. President’s Obama and Karzai should discuss issues that must be addressed before a successful transition is ever possible—and even before they discuss U.S.-Afghan relations beyond 2014.

Too much of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has centered on the military strategy, rather than a political or economic strategy, over the last twelve years. Many of the recommendations below are mere first steps in a very long process to undo some of the damage that a near purely military orientation has created. It is imperative to start immediately, as there is literally no time to lose. Congress will have a role in funding and authorizing many of the above mentioned efforts, but real leadership must come from the Obama administration. This New Year is a year of many new things—new Congress, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, CIA director and, potentially, new policies.

The administration must step up, starting with this meeting on Friday, in order to lay the groundwork for a better outcome in Afghanistan post-2014.

Here are five things that should be on the agenda:

Political Transition
True political transition is very difficult to imagine in Afghanistan after over four decades of conflict. In the near term, primary effort should be toward a free and fair presidential election, which is set to take place in the mid-2014. The U.S. and international partners should begin to fund election watch dog groups now so when 2014 comes, the infrastructure, relationships and trust exist for these groups to do the job of election monitoring. An election Afghans can believe in may do a lot to bring political stability to the country. This, of course, is only one of many steps in a viable political transition. Two other imperatives are fostering the growth and legitimacy of existing, inclusive civilian institutions and a strong civil society.

Civilian and Civil Society Dialogue
The importance of the nascent Afghan civil society and ordinary Afghan civilians in this political transition cannot be overstated. Afghan civil society groups should play a central role in creating the foundation for a viable, peaceful political transition. It will be crucial for the international community—including the U.S.—to work for Afghan civil society in order to empower these groups in the future.

In the last three years, the emphasis on fighting the Taliban has given this fringe, fundamental group more legitimacy than it could ever earn on its own. The best way to marginalize the Taliban isn’t to kill its commanders, but rather it is to empower ordinary Afghans—an idea whose time has come.

Shoring up human rights, health care and education gains
There have been undeniable setbacks to peace and stability in Afghanistan at various times over the last decade. There have also been real gains in other areas, such as medical care, for example. Even though many metrics could greatly improve, life expectancy is up, infant mortality is down and the availability of medical care is on the rise. More young girls are in school than were in 2001 and in 2010 a record number of women served in the Afghan parliament.

This is not to say that the conflict has improved the lives of Afghans—it has not. The U.S. war in Afghanistan has gravely harmed many civilians and communities. Smart development assistance and international development have, ever so slowly, helped improved some conditions despite the war. Could things be better? Absolutely. One way to ensure that is to ensure a long term international commitment—even if at greatly reduced levels—to humanitarian aid and development needs.

Genuine conflict resolution
Few places have been as racked by violence as Afghanistan has since the 1980’s. Foreign invasions, regional politics, local rivalries and scarce resources have all been drivers of conflict in Afghanistan over the decades. Ethnic and cultural differences have been exacerbated in recent years, pitting Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups against one another. These conditions cannot be easily reversed. Efforts toward genuine conflict resolution—a long term process—has been successfully tried in other post-conflict zones and perhaps some cases contain lessons for Afghanistan. A good place to start in Afghanistan is between the north (the Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks) and the south (predominantly Pashtun). A genuine effort at conflict resolution may help begin the healing and foster greater Afghan national unity.

The Afghan National Security Forces, Pakistan and the long term
Few U.S. policies have been more controversial than those related to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Pakistan. The ANSF is fraught with corruption, desertion and ineffective Afghan Army brigades. Many credible experts believe it is impossible for the ANSF to stand alone by 2014. Yet this does not ease the burden of responsibility on the U.S., which will continue to be fund the ANSF for at least the next ten years—even if they’re not funded another dime during that time period. The Afghans Security Forces (army and police) currently hold about $20 billion in unobligated U.S. dollars. In short, the U.S. owns the problem.

The U.S. must strike a balance between training a legitimate police force for the purpose of maintaining law and order, but not building too large a force that Afghanistan becomes overly militarized or a regional military power—something that would undoubtedly invite more foreign interference than is already taking place.

Some Afghanistan-Pakistan experts say the only way to signal to proxies fighting in Afghanistan (primarily Pakistan) that the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan is to keep troops there to train the ANSF for the foreseeable future. That is not the only path. Pakistan central interest is not Afghanistan, but rather Indian influence in Afghanistan— and weather those fears are legitimate or not is almost irrelevant.

It seems the best way to reduce Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan, which is needed to open up avenues for a true peace process, is to start bi-lateral or multi-lateral talks with between Pakistan and India that get to the heart of each country’s grievances. The U.S. can help foster those talks, but must first cease some polices in Pakistan –such as drone attacks and assassinations in the FATA. This good faith measure may give the U.S. better credibility as a real partner, improve the U.S. image among Pakistanis and improve U.S.-Pakistan relations. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.

Republished from the FCNL staff blog, by Matt Southworth.

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AFGHANISTAN: Power shortages hamper development

Photo: Ayub Farhat/IRIN
A market in Nangarhar province where electricity is rare

JALALABAD, 20 December 2012 (IRIN) – A lack of regular electricity in Nangahar Province in eastern Afghanistan is undermining reconstruction efforts and pushing families back into poverty, say business leaders in the provincial capital, Jalalabad.

The city stands on a vital trade route with neighbouring Pakistan and until a few years ago had factories and workshops producing soap, plastic household goods, marble stones, salt, cloth, pots and a variety of other goods.

A recent survey by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Afghan Chamber of Commerce revealed 30 factories and workshops in the city have closed in the past few years because of a lack of power.

“There were 115 factories in 2011 but today there are 85 and if there is no electricity it could be reduced more,” Mohammed Qasam Yusufy, the local representative of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce, told IRIN.

“About 600 people have been left jobless by factories shutting down only this year,” he added citing electricity problems as the major cause.

Almost half the country’s external trade passes through the province, according to the Chamber of Commerce – including 70 percent of NATO supplies.

But provincial government officials say insecurity has delayed a planned power connection to Kabul’s Naghlo hydroelectric plant, which was due to provide 32 megawatts (MW) to the city, six of which to the Shikh Misry Industrial Park.

The proposed link has been undermined by insecurity in Uzbin District, Kabul Province, according to Muheburahman Mohmand, the provincial representative of Da Afghanistan Breshna Shirakat (DABS), the national power company.

“Only a few days ago, the enemy of our people destroyed an electricity pylon in Spir Kondy area of Uzbin District. We have shared our worries with the Afghan ministries of interior and defence but never received any positive answer,” he said.

“All the work is done, only a 1,000-metre-long power line has to be connected to the water dam to have power here in this province.”

The UN has identified energy as a major cross-cutting issue: “Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity, and an environment that allows the world to thrive. Development is not possible without energy, and sustainable development is not possible without sustainable energy,” says the UN 2011 Sustainable Energy for All initiative.

Sardar Khan owns a factory in Jalalabad making plastic pipes, which cost him US$200,000 to set up. He employed 50 people but after two years of operation he has been forced to close: “The biggest challenge is power.” Using diesel generators makes his pipes far too expensive.

The lack of power has stalled an industrial sector with the potential to lift thousands of Afghans out of poverty. Shikh Misry Industrial Park was part of Jalalabad’s vision to launch its economy, but since being set up in 2006 it has yet to welcome a functioning factory.

Corruption

Jalalabad currently gets all its electricity from the Nangarhar 14 MW hydroelectric dam built by Russian and Afghan engineers in 1965. But civil wars and conflict have affected the maintenance of the facility, leaving only two of the three turbines to some extent operational.

If they were bringing this power on a donkey it would have arrived here Ali Ahmad, security guard

The electricity is used to provide power to government offices and 4,000 houses, but can only supply a limited number of factories.

“It has been three years officials say power from Naghlo is coming. If they were bringing this power on a donkey it would have arrived here,” said Ali Ahmad, a resident of Majbor Abad village, who works as a security guard.

Last year he got his electricity from a fuel-powered generator which was used for 10 hours a day to power two fans and two light-bulbs. It cost US$40 a month – nearly half his salary.

“I do not know whether I pay for food, clothes and other household goods or pay for power. People who know officials or bribe officials have 24-hour power in their houses while my children got sick because of extreme heat.”

An official responsible for power distribution in Nangarhar Province said in one case power supplied to a government office was being delivered to 60 other buildings illegally. He estimated around 30 percent of electricity is lost in this way.

Meanwhile, off-grid solutions may help families in remote parts of the province that would have to wait decades for any possibility of a connection to the national grid. Eleven micro-hydro plants with a combined capacity of 125 kilowatts are being built in the province by the Energy for Rural Development in Afghanistan project at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation. It is hoped they will provide a power supply to 1,845 families at a cost of around US$600,000.

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Afghans turn to AK-47, fearing Taliban return or civil war

Tue, 18 Dec 2012 00:13 GMT, REUTERS, By Martin Petty

KABUL, Dec 18 (Reuters) – Afghan father-of-four Mohammad Nasir has a secret he’s been keeping from his family.

The aid worker pulls a television bench out from the living-room wall of his Kabul home. Behind it is a carved out shelf, hiding what he hopes will keep loved ones safe when Western troops withdraw by the end of 2014 — an AK-47 assault rifle.

Arms purchases are soaring in Afghanistan, along with the price of weapons, a sign that many Afghans fear a return of the Taliban, civil war or rising lawlessness.

An assault rifle cost $400 a year ago. Today, some arms dealers are selling them for triple the price.

And it’s not just ordinary Afghans who are buying. Warlords who control militias, and former anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters are also boosting the trade.

“Whenever you turn on the TV or radio, the discussion is 2014. I’m not feeling safe now, it’s become like doomsday for Afghans,” said Nasir, 48, storing the polished second-hand rifle and slamming the TV unit back against the wall.

“People are saying security will collapse, or soldiers will join warlords or the Taliban, so we need something to protect our families when there’s a crisis.”

The brisk arms business is complicating the government’s efforts to pacify a country where the Taliban can strike virtually anywhere, ethnic tensions can easily ignite violence, and warlords are constantly jockeying for influence.

Afghanistan wants to project an image of stability ahead of 2014, a critical year when presidential elections will be held and the 350,000 Afghan security force will take over security.

Any upheaval could also encourage regional powers like Iran and Pakistan to try and gain influence before the Afghan endgame, a widespread fear among officials and ordinary Afghans.

President Hamid Karzai calls the talk of chaos, Western media “propaganda”, and says Afghan security forces have made great progress.

But for many Afghans, the threat of a descent into chaos is real so a growing number are investing in weapons, despite exorbitant costs. The average Afghan family earns only about $200 a month.

FEAR OF 2014 BATTLEFIELDS

Reuters spoke to buyers and sellers of illegal arms in five provinces and each cited the foreign troop withdrawal as the main driver of the underground trade.

“More people are buying weapons now, some to protect themselves from kidnappers and robbers and others in anticipation of things getting worse,” said a Kabul resident in his fruit shop, where a verse from the Koran on the wall calls for God to guide Muslims on a straight path.

He bought a handgun illegally for $500, a model his dealer says now fetches $1,000.

“If the situation changes in 2014 this area will once again become a battlefield between former warlords who are still powerful,” he said.

The government has highlighted 2014 as a year to invest in Afghanistan, which has relied on foreign aid for its economic lifeline, and take advantage of its cheap labour and land leases. Last month it held a televised conference promoting the country’s natural resources and its industrial potential.

In the 10 years following 2014, the government hopes revenues from oil, natural gas, iron, copper and other mining ventures will generate $4 billion in annual revenue.

But in the north, which is home to untapped oil and gas resources, warlords and their supporters are now re-arming for fear militants may seize power again, say residents.

Afghanistan’s largest foreign investment project, the Aynak copper deposit in Logar province, lies in one of the country’s most dangerous regions just south of the capital, Kabul.

Rocket attacks this year saw its Chinese workers temporarily flee the project, which is run by China Metallurgical Group (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper.

AK-47: A LEGACY OF WAR

Afghanistan has seen little peace in three decades. The American-backed mujahideen drove out the Russians in 1989 after 10 years of occupation, but American interest faded quickly.

Much of Kabul was later destroyed in a civil war and more than 50,000 civilians killed. The Taliban rose from the ashes of that conflict and imposed their austere brand of Islam.

Afghans fear they will be abandoned by the United States once again. Most don’t want the Taliban to return, so they are determined to protect themselves.

And there are plenty of weapons; arms left over from the war against the Soviets, guns smuggled over the porous border with Pakistan and those sold by former mujahideen commanders.

Russian or Pakistani-made AK-47 assault rifles are the biggest sellers, followed by light machineguns. In some areas, the militias go for rocket-propelled grenades.

To avoid arrest, arms dealers and sellers operate by word of mouth, avoiding cellphones which may be tapped by authorities. Deals are sealed in restaurants, homes or busy street markets.

Afghan authorities say they’ve had success in seizures of illegal firearms but concede that in a country with a turbulent history, their efforts may have little impact.

The government was deeply embarrassed when Energy and Water Minister Ismail Khan, an influential former warlord, recently called on militias to rearm to protect Afghanistan after 2014.

General Mohammed Najib Aman, a deputy of the anti-terrorism department at the Interior Ministry, denies the illegal gun trade is flourishing.

“Buying and selling of weapon, without being authorized, is…illegal and they will be arrested,” Aman told Reuters.

The government is encouraging people to seek licenses for weapons so the authorities can track guns. Aman estimates between 30,000 and 40,000 gun licenses have been issued.

But the positive message from the government and NATO-led force runs counter to the unease on the streets, where the Afghan security force has gained little public confidence.

“In my area there are lots of kidnappings, robbery and other criminal activities and also lots of fear of 2014,” said Shir Ali, speaking in his pharmacy in northern Kunduz Province. “I bought this very expensive Kalashnikov to protest my family.”

‘GUN CULTURE’ ENTRENCHED

At least 57 foreign troops have been killed by rogue Afghan security personnel this year. That figure represents about 13 percent of ISAF deaths in Afghanistan in 2012.

Lieutenant General James Terry, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the country’s “gun culture” was partly to blame.

“This is a society that’s really been traumatized by 30-plus years of war,” Terry said. “We also understand that a lot of grievances and dispute resolutions are done, frankly, at the barrel of a gun.”

Former mujahideen commanders in particular are cashing-in on the insecurity, using their wartime connections to acquire handguns and rifles and sell at inflated prices.

Islamuddin laid down his weapons after the Taliban was ousted in 2001, and became a used car salesman. These days that’s a front for his real money-making business.

He now sells light machine guns for 150,000 Afghanis ($2,900), double the value a year ago, and AK-47s for 60,000 Afghanis ($1,150), triple that of last year.

“People are worried, so they’re buying guns now because they might not be able to buy one when they most need it,” he said sitting in a hotel restaurant.

Militias also look to be heeding Ismail Khan’s call to arms.

“The number of sales and the price of guns has gone up and former mujahideen commanders who served warlords are buying more and more from us every day,” said one seller. “They’re anticipating civil war once the foreign troops leave.”

Not all Afghans expect a war. Waheed Mujhda, a politics expert at the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Centre, said even warlords realised renewed civil conflict would not help anyone.

“Having so many people owning guns is a big problem for the government, but it’s not a political problem,” he said. “There may be small conflicts after 2014, but civil war is unlikely. The last time, it was a failure that no one wants to see again.”

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Kabul in Winter – Training and Production Goes On

Kabul in DecemberDespite the winter weather, the trainees – 6 National Solidarity Program production staff – have completed preproduction research and story development and are heading to Jalalabad and Kapisa Provinces for production of three stories. Working in teams of two, teams will cover men’s Community Development Council (CDC) stories in in Jalalabad, and women’s CDC and election process stories in Kapisa.training in Kabul December 2012

CSFilm director Michael Sheridan is currently in Afghanistan conducting an intensive documentary filmmaking training for staff from the Public Communications Office at the National Solidarity Program (NSP). The training will culminate in the creation of a short documentary that illustrates the successes of this nation-wide, Afghan-led program that has empowered local communities to implement small development projects to respond directly to local needs.

Nangahar Production Day

Organized through 22,000 district level councils, NSP initiatives have resulted in over 55,000 development projects across the country – including power and irrigation projects, and the buidling of schools and clinics. These locally-run projects tend to cost a fraction of what is spent by International contractors and the US military, and are noted for their acceptance by locals and for their ability to create jobs for Afghans.

Kabul in Winter

The finished film will be shown as part of a US tour by NSP to encourage Congress to pledge ongoing funding and support. This is a fantastic opportunity to have Afghans tell their own development stories directly to decisionmakers, advocating for Afghan-run social and economic development initiatives.

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Watch the Video Conference: Afghan Civil Society in Conversation

The Way Forward: An Afghan Conversation

Watch a recorded video conversation with Afghan Civil Society Activists here.

Afghanistan is like a cancer patient that accidentally survived, with too many doctors giving everything they can rather than listening to what this patient wants, and allowing it to walk on its own. – Hassina Sherjan

We are living in a new era… If you look at the number of youth – the ambitions and the progressive spirit that not only the youth, but a bigger proportion of society has – it’s incredible. – Najib Sharifi

Click here to check out the Twitter Summary for December 06, 2012

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Watch the live conference call with Afghan Civil Society activists (see bios below) to learn more about the current situation in Afghanistan.  With upcoming milestones such as the removal of NATO/US forces and presidential elections to replace Hamid Karzai after 10 years of rule, it is an opportune time to have a discussion about the positive role U.S. civil society can play at this crucial junction in history.

The way the war in Afghanistan ends for the United States may be very different than the way it ends – or doesn’t end – for the people of Afghanistan.  In the US, the discussion is often framed through military strategy, and rarely includes Afghan perspectives.  How will Afghans cope with the upcoming transitions, such as the removal of NATO forces and the Afghan Presidential elections in 2014, and what is an appropriate and responsible role for the US?

Organized by:

Community Supported FilmAmerican Friends Service Committee

Bios of Participants in Kabul, Afghanistan:

Sayed Ikram Afzali is the co-founder and president of Youth in Action Association – a non-profit youth-led organization dedicated to enhancing peace and sustainable development in Afghanistan. He has been a youth advocate and development professional for the past decade focusing on peace building and anti-corruption issues. With an aim to help rebuild Afghanistan, Afzali returned to Afghanistan after 20 years of refugee life in Pakistan. Affected by years of conflict in the region, he has been a strong believer in bringing about peace through youth using non-violent approaches – such as using sport as a vehicle for peacebuilding. Sayed has also worked with the United Nations and other national organizations for more than seven years in the area of democratic governance with a focus on civil society and anti-corruption. He is currently Head of Advocacy and Communication at Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA)

Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) was established as an independent civil society organization in 2006. IWA’s mission is to put corruption under the spotlight by increasing transparency, integrity, and accountability in Afghanistan through the provision of policy-oriented research, the development of training tools, and through facilitation of policy dialogue.

Hassina Serjan is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Aid Afghanistan for Education and the owner and Chief Executive Officer of Boumi Company – an internationally recognized women-owned home accessory business. Hassina co-authored the book Toughing It Out in Afghanistan, and has published numerous op-eds in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, USA Today, and more. She received a Master’s of Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School and has an Honorary Doctorate of Law degree from Queen’s University in Canada.

Aid Afghanistan for Education (AAE) is dedicated to empowering Afghans and rehabilitating the education system in Afghanistan, and provides primary and secondary education for marginalized Afghans. Boumi – Farsi for “indigenous” – manufactures Afghan-made products with raw materials produced in Afghanistan, supplying high-end products to the global marketplace.


Najib SharifiNajib Sharifi 
is the Founder and Director of Afghanistan New Generation Organization.  Najib is a medical doctor by training, but over the past ten years he has worked for some of the leading news organizations around the world including the New York Times, BBC, CNN, National Public Radio and the Washington Post.  He has researched for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and Human Rights Watch.  In addition, he served as senior political officer for the Office of the Special Representative of the EU for Afghanistan.  In 2009, Najib won a Humphrey/Fulbright scholarship and studied public policy and leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park.  Najib’s analysis and opinion pieces have appeared on various Western media outlets including South Asia Global Affairs and the foreign policy magazine.  He is a frequent commentator of issues of domestic Afghan politics and foreign policy of the Western countries towards Afghanistan on Afghan and international media.

Afghanistan New Generation Organization is a non-profit youth empowerment organization with aims to empower the youth to become competent community advocates by providing training in such areas as public speaking, media literacy, and use of information technology among others.

Michael SheridanMichael Sheridan, Director and Founder of Community Supported Film, is a filmmaker, educator and activist. For nearly 20 years Michael has engaged the public in stories from Asia, Africa and the Americas about people in poor and developing communities challenging the status quo and struggling to improve their lives. Michael co-founded Oxfam America’s documentary production unit and has sought to break new ground in the effective use of media to educate and change policy. He has taught documentary filmmaking for 15 years at the community and university level, extensively in the United States and Afghanistan, and as a Fulbright Scholar in Indonesia.

Community Supported Film strengthens the documentary filmmaking capacity in crisis and post-crisis communities where the dissemination of objective and accurate information is essential. Local women and men are trained to produce stories on their community’s socioeconomic issues, and the resulting films are screened in audience engagement campaigns. Michael founded Community Supported Film in 2010 with a pilot program in Afghanistan that resulted in the production of 10 Afghan-made films, The Fruit or Our Labor. Michael also runs his filmmaking company SheridanWorks.

Moderated by:

Peter Lems

Peter Lems is the Program Director of education and advocacy for Iraq and Afghanistan at the American Friends Service Committee. He is also the co-coordinator of the Wage Peace campaign, a program initiative that seeks to wage peace with the same determination and energy that nations wage war.

The American Friends Service Committee carries out service, development, social justice, and peace programs throughout the world. Founded by Quakers in 1917 to provide conscientious objectors with an opportunity to aid civilian war victims, AFSC’s work attracts the support and partnership of people of many races, religions, and cultures.

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The Jakarta Post Interviews Michael Sheridan

Set upThis November CSFilm director Michael Sheridan was interviewed by the Jakarta Post about his intensive training sessions in Indonesia.

Michael Sheridan: Making Room for Local Perspectives

by Iman Mahditama, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Tue, November 27 2012

As a documentary filmmaker, Michael Sheridan believes in the power of film to change the world and make it a better place for all.

In 2009, he went to Afghanistan to make a documentary film that aimed to present an intimate look at the daily lives of local Afghan villagers from their own, often-unheard perspectives, several years after the US-led invasion of the war-torn country.

Through the planned film, titled Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War, Sheridan hoped to capture the successes and the challenges facing Afghans in rebuilding their villages and developing their communities.

Naturally, Sheridan would need to get total and personal access to Afghan villagers — the families, the women, all the activities of daily life — to be able to grasp their real day-to-day experiences, and that was where he encountered his first major roadblock.

The filmmaker had been able to negotiate that kind of access in other conservative countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, but Afghanistan proved to be a far greater challenge.

So, he opted for another route. He decided to create a program to train local Afghan storytellers in documentary filmmaking and let them shoot their own documentaries based on the socioeconomic issues they wanted to pursue.

In the process of developing the project, Sheridan established Community Supported (CS) Film, which has since maintained a continuous partnership with local Afghan storytellers and filmmakers who are able to share their stories through films with others around the world.

In the fall of 2010, CS Film conducted an intensive five-week training of 10 Afghans — four women and six men from three different ethnic groups — in documentary production. The resulting short documentaries were then gathered together in the omnibus The Fruit of Our Labor: Afghan Perspectives in Films.

The 10 films have been screened at more than 50 venues around the world, including the US Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, the Asia Society in New York and the World Bank in Kabul.

The Fruit of Our Labor recently became the centerpiece of a congressional briefing at the US Congress that included the live participation of the Afghan trainees via the web.

One of the short documentaries, Death to the Camera, won the Best Documentary award at the Autumn Human Rights Film Festival in Kabul and was an official selection for the 2012 Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

Two years later, Sheridan can still recall the training days in Afghanistan as if they were yesterday. “It was fascinating that one of the most dominant issues that the trainees talked about was what an incredibly multicultural experience it was for them, to be in that room, working in groups with women and people from other ethnic groups.

“The act [of training] itself was so transformational for them because they don’t normally have opportunities to actually mix with each other, communicate, and just sit around and eat together.”

The experience ultimately reaffirmed Sheridan’s belief that films and filmmaking can act as a peaceful medium to resolve conflict and defuse tension between ethnic groups in conflict areas.

“It is really essential that we use the media to allow people to see what they usually don’t get to see in the different ethnic groups and to allow people to break open and break into each other’s world that normally can get so isolated and so divided,” he said.

However, it is rather unusual for a person with such a strong belief in the power of film to have grown up with the exact opposite opinion. “In a funny way, in a kind of an ironic twist, I grew up very anti-film,”
Sheridan said, laughing heartily.

Born on May 19, 1962, Sheridan spent his childhood in Boston, Massachusetts. His first break in the world of creative arts was in the theater. He started as a child actor before climbing his way through the ranks in stage design and stage construction.

“During my high school and college years I was thinking, ‘You have to go to theaters and live the stories’, while believing that fiction films are cheap and easy. It was biased, for sure, and ridiculously extreme,” he said, smiling.

Sheridan spent his early 20s in Europe, where he got involved in campaigns related to human rights and poverty and volunteered at organizations like Oxfam. After seven years he decided to return to the US to follow his childhood passion.

He said, “I was about to leave Oxfam and work with a friend’s theater company when another friend talked me into working with her in a documentary that she was doing about the indigenous community in Guatemala.

“So I started working with her as an editor, learning how to edit her film. It was from that process that I got into documentary filmmaking.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Sheridan traveled through Indonesia in October and November of this year to conduct trainings similar to the Afghan ones in three cities: Jakarta, Bandung and Denpasar.

In each of the cities, he met with 50 trainees from various backgrounds in a series of sessions spread over four days. “Frankly, it’s an extremely stressed and limited opportunity to only have four days to work with 50 people with limited equipment on these trainings. But, in any case, surprisingly, in just four days we got a lot done,” he said.

During these classes, the trainees were introduced to various cooperatives, economic activities or individuals just starting out with their own businesses. Sheridan then asked the trainees to tell character-driven and situation-based stories in just one to three minutes.

The trick, according to Sheridan, is to really focus the storytelling on the visuals instead of the talk.

The result of the trainings were 12 “pretty decent” short stories about themes ranging from the challenges with traditional transportation in the modern world to the challenges of local gay, lesbian and transsexual communities in their daily lives.

So, after Afghanistan and Indonesia, where is Sheridan planning to bring his Community Supported Film to next?

Surprisingly, the answer is back home in Boston.

He said he planned to conduct trainings like the ones in Afghanistan and Indonesia in Boston’s Chelsea neighborhood, which has numerous communities of immigrants and refugees from regions like Central and Latin America, as well as
Somalia and Iraq.

“You can imagine the tension set up between, for example, the Latino culture and very conservative Iraqis or between Somalis and Iraqis over religious issues. Even the Iraqis almost have no interaction with each other because of the fears between different ethnic groups in Iraq, which they bring to Chelsea,” he said.

Here, filmmaking can play a fantastic role by allowing these communities to tell their own stories and to constantly start opening up conversations.

The most important thing, though, is to invite the right people to watch the films so that real change can occur.

“I believe there are many amazing people doing interesting things in every neighborhood. We just have to get out there, find those stories, share them and show what is being done that works,” Sheridan said.

“The next step is to force people at political levels to look at those stories by utilizing public engagement and screening events so that the right people are seeing the right stories and the right changes happen.”

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more updates!

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Exclusive online broadcast of “Death to the Camera” – Nov. 26 – Dec. 2, at GoodMenProject.com

The Good men ProjectThe Good Men Project exclusively presents “Death to the Camera,” one of the ten documentary films in the collection The Fruit of Our Labor – Afghan Perspectives in Film. For one week only, the full 20 minute film will be available to watch on their website!

The Good Men Project writes, “Stylistically, the documentary reminded me of 12 Angry Men in that the narrative thrust is carried not by scene changes but by what can result from a lack of them: a laser-like focus into a situation and the jagged edges of multiple minds trying to resolve something together. In this case, Death to the Camera shows Afghan women on a work site…” Read the rest of the article and watch the film here.

The Good Men Project is a diverse, multi-faceted media company and an idea-based social platform, fostering a national discussion centered around modern manhood. They write about fatherhood, family, sex, ethics, war, gender, politics, sports, pornography, and aging. Their content reflects the multidimensionality of men, searching far and wide for new stories and new voices from “the front lines of modern manhood,” without moralizing and without caricaturizing their audience.

 

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CSFilm at Northeastern University B.I.G. Venture Fair Nov. 13

Ali and RakanOn Nov. 13 CSFilm attended Northeastern University’s B.I.G. Venture Fair, a pilot program sponsored by Northeastern’s Career Services and the Center for Research Innovation for the university’s Global Entrepreneurship Week. CSFilm joined other start-up and growth oriented companies, both for and non-profit, at the B.I.G. (Business, Innovation, Growth) Fair to talk to members of the Northeastern community and to discuss opportunities for potential internships and co-op positions for the spring and summer semesters.

It was a great event for CSFilm, where we met people not only interested in working with us, but who were genuinely interested in our mission and spreading social change through documentary filmmaking.

 

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A Letter to My Harasser

Hello sir,

I do not know your name, but you passed by me a week after Eid-ul-Fetr in the Bazaar in Kabul. You might remember me. I was the young woman wearing a white scarf and a long red embroidered tunic with dark pants. I was standing by a vegetable stand and bargaining the price of fresh mint when you passed me and nonchalantly pinched my bottom. I turned red. The old man who was selling vegetables noticed but didn’t say anything. He probably sees this every day. This had happened to me more than once, but this time I felt more embarrassed because the old man noticed.

I ran after you and grasped your wrist. Scared and sweating I started yelling. “Why did you do that? How dare you? Do you do this at home to your family members too?” and you started yelling back louder, “you crazy woman! I haven’t done anything. You are not worth doing anything to.”

 I was still ashamed to tell people what you had done. You probably remember how everyone was watching us. Other women advised me to keep calm that this would only ruin my reputation, but I wasn’t going to give up now. I started yelling. Soon the police arrived and took us both to the station.

A tall man in uniform asked me what had happened. I told him. You opened your mouth and the police officer yelled, “You, shut up!” Next thing I knew he was beating you. You were on the floor and he was kicking you with his gigantic shoes. Sweat was dripping off his thick eyebrows. He must have been as angry as I was.

I didn’t see you again, but the friend who was walking with you followed me all the way home. He told me, “what is the big deal?! It is not like he f***ked you.” But I was too tired for a second fight that day.

You and your friend probably both claim to be Muslims. You probably even pray at the mosque every Friday or more often. You probably tell your wives that they should not get out of the house because the world out there is filled with horrible men who will disgrace them. You probably even believe that you had a right to touching my bottom because you think a “good” woman would never be out on the streets without a man. Your sisters are “good.” They stay at home when you pressure them to. If I were a “good woman” I would do the same. These streets belong to men.

I am writing this letter to tell you that I never intended for you to get beaten and humiliated, but I am not sorry for speaking out. I am writing to tell you that I know what you are up to. You want to threaten me, scare me, and keep me shut at home where I will learn to tend to many children and cook food for your kind and be submissive to a man that might someday marry me. You want me to be terrified of the world outside and not find my way and my place in it. You want me to believe that the only safe and “decent” place for me is in the kitchen and the bedroom. But I am writing you to tell you that I am not buying that ever again. Not you, not the Taliban, not this government, not my brother or mother, nor anybody else can convince me that I am less than a man, that I cannot protect myself, that I cannot be what I want to, and that the best life for me is in a “safe” kitchen where a man or a mother-in-law has control over my every move. I am not buying that. Not ever again.

I will come out of the home every day and walk bravely down the streets of my city, not because I need to, but because I can and neither your harassment or sexual assault nor an oppressive government will ever be able to take that ability from me again.

With Defiance,

A Woman You Harassed

http://www.asafeworldforwomen.org/about/safe-world-blogs/noorjahan-akbar/3319-kabul-harasser.html

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Ten Things I Love about Kabul, by Noorjahan Akbar

Ten Things I Love about Kabul
October 08, 2012by Noorjahan Akbar


Anxiety about security, especially among the educated youth and women, increases inAfghanistan as 2014 approaches. This anxiety became more apparent to me, when I was preparing to return to my college in the United States of America and many of my friends and relatives urged me not to return to Afghanistan. Each time I faced the suggestion, I would respond with one or two positive things about Afghanistan that gave me enough reason to come back and work for my country. Here are some of my reasons for loving Kabul and wanting to go back. Kabul nights are beautiful. Standing on a roof top and watching the Kabul sky shinning with stars and the hillsides shinning with light from the thousands of houses located on their skirts during the summer is one of the most peaceful activities in the world. Driving through 80m street of Taimani at night wasanother highlight of my time at home. The street has solar lights on both sides. The chilly wind, the occasional cars, the bright moon, the sounds oflittle shops closing down for the day all fill one with the deepest appreciation for life. Baaghe Shaahi is a symbol of women’s empowerment and progress. Baaghe Shaahi, is a garden and restaurant owned by a woman, located passed Qargha Lake. All the cooks are women. The space is for families-only to avoid men from harassing women. Upon entering the garden, especially in the evenings, you will see many families sitting in circles, talking, eating or playing cards and their children playing in the pool. Young couples immersed in love usually sit under flowering trees. There is a cutelittle pool for children right by the entrance. Apple, apricot, and pear trees, red, pink and white rose bushes, orchards, and a lot of greenery cover the garden giving it a fresh smell. The service is very friendly and the owner of the restaurant, a middle-aged woman with a great smile, visits tables to greet guests. Green tea tastes better at sunset in Kabul. Sitting on a bench in the yard right before sunset reading Mawlana or Frogh Farokhzaad, drinking hot green tea and listening to the local radios play music from around the world is spiritual healing at its best. No matter how hard or terrible the day has been, as the red light of sunset shines mercifully through the tall proud hills of Kabul to finish off the day, the whole city is filled with the hope for a tomorrow better than today.   Traffic gives me hope. I know many people who hate the traffic in Kabul and that is understandable. Afterall, one can spend anytime between 15 minutes to three hours stuck in traffic. But, I remember the Kabul my family returned to in 2001 every time there istraffic. The city was deserted. There was no sign of life. There were so few women and even fewer women out of the Burqa. Now, Kabul is booming! Seeing so many people rush to work or towards shopping centers, gives me hope that we, Afghans, will not give up on our country. When stuck in traffic, I look around to find female drivers, I count the number of women on the streets, I watch for the smile of children who are selling books or magazines and I feel so grateful that my city has life! Fruit stands of Kabul. When I returned to school this year several people commented on how healthy I looked after spending time at home. I owe it to the fruit stands of Kabul. The nice shopkeepers bargain endearingly and market their fruit as the best in the city. Most of the fruits are produced in Afghanistan. They are fresh and tasteful, unlike the fruit in USA that taste mostly like plastic and paper.Afghan National Army and the National Police standing on the streets filled me with pride this summer. I noticed that they are much friendlier to women, much more respectful and professional and dressed and equipped better than previous years. Every time I passed them I would salute them and smile and they would smile back.  That nice kid who washes cars in Shahr-e-Naw. This summer I met one of the nicest kids ever. He would usually be wearing a baseball cap, clean clothes, positive energy and a genuine laughter. He smiled every time he saw me driving towards him. He would run up to me with immense energy and ask “khala, should I wash your car?”   The waiter at Baba Amir Kababi. Baba Amir Kababi, traditional Kabab restaurant, is on the main Shar-e-Naw Street and it was the first Kababi I went to after years in Kabul. I was greeted by a very pleasant middle-aged man in a dark-red uniform. Usually, families and women are asked to sit in a separate part of the restaurant, but every time I came in to the restaurant, he would seat me at the general area without even asking me to be taken to the “special segregated room.” His open-mindedness would make my day every time I visited. Love. Every once in a while, I would see a couple holding hands in a shopping center, sitting under a tree in Baaghe Babur, drinking chai at a restaurant or walking around in Shahr –e-Naw. Traditionally, love is considered a crime and showing affection is uncommon among Afghan families. Seeing these public acts of love made me hopeful that some men now see their wives or fiancés as equals or as companions and that is progress. Youth are standing up. I met many articulate, progressive and smart youth this summer and attended many of their events. From Hadia cleaning the city and distributing Iftaari to police men and women, to a group of youth gathering to advocate against Taliban and brutalcrimes against civilians or distribute food to refugees and the emergence of a youth book-club are all examples of youth organizing. Youth leading protests or painting graffiti on the walls of Balkh Province to me all are signs of change and reasons to have hope and believe in Afghanistan. 

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Radio Afghanistan – Update November 21, 2012

Sound checkFollow along with Michael Sheridan’s second journal entry from the radio documentary training in Kabul, Afghanistan for the Afghan staff of America Abroad Media (AAM).  (The first journal entry can be read here.)

Saturday’s training reviewed principles of storytelling and structure, treatments and interest statements. Three teams of two went off to research stories they could turn into character driven, lived-reality radio pieces. Each team is to produce a narrative description of the story to be produced.

Making the shot

Sunday the teams pitched their stories to each other, followed by a peer-review based on the interest statements and story structure potential. Two of the three were determined very good and one was determined to be an issue without a story vehicle. The team agreed to find a new story or a way to address the issue they were raising through a viable character and series of scenes.
On Monday, the three teams of two started production. One story is about a litigator at the attorney general’s who makes 80% of his income from raising pigeons on his roof.  The second centers on a car mechanic who is designing and building an original model of luxury car from spare parts and ingenuity. Finally, the third story is about a butcher who is raising rams for fighting even though it is prohibited by Islam and his Mullah.  Interestingly enough, his Mosque looks out on the area used for the competitions.

Pigeon story

With production now complete, the teams spent a sleepless night, transcribing and logging their material. This morning we reviewed their material and worked together on a draft story structure – of scenes and interview material – for them to construct into a paper edit. Time is very tight but if we burn some more midnight oil we hope to have the edits finished by tomorrow (Nov. 22) evening.

Scripting

 

On a more practical note, this past Monday I woke up to no water in the guesthouse and electricity was not on at the AAM offices, which meant we were cold as well as powerless. No one was sure whether there was a problem because of the near-by construction or because of the rolling blackouts announced by the Central Power Authority, deemed necessary to control overloads as winter approaches. Despite the lack of power and the daunting threat of cold, some new and exciting developments might lead to an extended stay here in Afghanistan. Updates to follow or, I’ll continue with my plan to spend two more weeks here on CSFilm production work, followed by a visit to family in India before returning to the States on Dec. 15th.

 

In addition to working on the training program this last week, I made some time to see Carol Dysinger’s Camp Victory, Afghanistan. The film follows, over three years, NATO’s efforts to train Afghan soldiers and to help build a viable Afghan military. The film was shown at The Venue – an artsy, restaurant café with what is I believe, but don’t quote me, Kabul’s only recording studio. A young American woman – a former New England Conservatory cello student – opened it with her Afghan partner after coming to Afghanistan to teach at the music school. The Venue allows the couple to do something more than host Afghan musicians in their living room!

Set upThe Venue puts on concerts, events and screenings and stands out as an expat hangout that is also open to Afghans – giving local bands the unusual opportunity to play for Afghans (follow The Venue on Facebook and/or Twitter).

Please check back, and follow along on Facebook or Twitter for more updates soon!

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Radio Documentary Training in Kabul, Afghanistan – November, 2012

TextilesCommunity Supported Film founder and director Michael Sheridan is currently in Kabul, Afghanistan conducting an intensive 10-day radio documentary training for 6 Afghans, sponsored and organized by America Abroad Media.  Follow along with Michael’s journal entry updates, below.

 November 13, 2012 – Update from Afghanistan

I’m now in Kabul to conduct a radio documentary training for the Afghan staff of America Abroad Media, and yesterday was a tough roller coaster ride of a day.  The first day of training went surprisingly well – considering I had had my computer stolen, seemingly from my room at the guest house, the day before.  I had to start my plans all over, figuring everything out at the last minute.  It was a lesson in staying very focused and not freaking out as I tried to piece together one thing after another: one breath, one thought, one element of a task, one stumble at a time…and such exhaustion.  It is incredible that almost everything, except some specific radio oriented training prep and research I had done recently, seems to be saved in Dropbox online or on my backup drives…Continue reading here.

 

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Radio Documentary Training in Kabul, Afghanistan – November, 2012

November 13, 2012 – Update from Afghanistan

Gathering for lunch

I’m now in Kabul to conduct a radio documentary training for the Afghan staff of America Abroad Media, and yesterday was a tough roller coaster ride of a day.  The first day of training went surprisingly well – considering I had had my computer stolen, seemingly from my room at the guest house, the day before.  I had to recreate syllabus and plans.  It was a lesson in staying very focused as I pieced together one thing after another: one breath, one thought, one element of a task, one stumble at a time…and such exhaustion. It is incredible that almost everything, except some specific radio oriented training prep and research I had done recently, seems to be saved in Dropbox online or on my backup drives.

Textile Factory

Fortunately I was maintaining backups while in Indonesia to my externalhard drives and very fortunately had brought all my software backups. This great fortune allowed me, without too much difficulty, to setup my Avid editing software on the Mac at the office for my editing demonstrations. I had to really dig into my years of ‘figuring it out’ and got lucky overcoming some barriers that could have gotten me stuck for days, or maybe made it unworkable.

I’m using a PC laptop that Fareedoone, local director for America Abroad Media, very generously and immediately lent me. I am, however, finding it incredibly difficult figuring out how to accomplish simple tasks; it really makes me slow down and breath! It was amazing how Fareedoone immediatly sent over a laptop for me when I called to tell him mine had been lost. There was markedly no commiseration over the lost computer – just immediate response and assistance;  loss  is  very relative here and people protect themselves by not dwelling on it. The depth of the emotional scars and the stability of the mental state never ceases to boggle.

InterviewsThe training is all men, 6-8 people depending on who shows up, a mixture of Pashtuns, Tajiks and Turkmen.  After decades of ethnic conflict, it is very hard for people here to trust each other and most people only work with people they know from within their family and long established circles – and this often divides sharply on geographic and ethnic lines. America Abroad Media, like so many other organizations, strives for diversification and to break the practice of relationships trumping performance.  It is always a challenge in  country where, after decades of slaughter, fear of the other creates very strong resistance and never-ending divisions.

There are very ambitious expectations for the training. The contract is for radio, but the trainees would like several days to be spent on video production as well. There are some big misunderstandings about what makes a documentary successful and about the business of documentary filmmaking abroad.  It is not believable to them that filmmakers aren’t hired and paid consistently and substantially in the west. Some are completely baffled when I tell them that many people make films without any ‘return on investment;’ they wonder why a filmmaker would bother.

A little downtime

The second day of training was really good. The electricity goes off and on so maintaining a flow around the editing and sound work today was a bit hard. But it still went well, and it is such a pleasure to be working with people who are so eager to learn and improve.  I went with the trainees on a shoot, separate from the training work. (On principle during trainings I don’t go out with the students on assignments – they have to dive in and learn by doing without becoming dependent on a guiding hand). The shoot was for a series they do called “When There is No War.” It profiles people’s hobbies and pleasures in life. Today’s story was on a man with homing pigeons.

In terms of the ‘state of affairs” here, the general mood seems to be ‘prepare for war and hope for peace’. As one colleague described to me, many Afghans are looking for ‘fellowships’ abroad, or figuring out where and how they will get their families out — all while standing tall and patriotic for peace (or war) at the same time. He did emphasize that there are real efforts, particularly by some younger activists and NGO/government people, to move towards a more viable peace process. While fearing the worst, most really can’t believe that it is Déjà vu 1989.

Read Michael’s second journal entry here.

 

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Obama should now adjust foreign policy – away from military solutions

Sunday, November 18, 2012
Commentary by Sarah Chayes

http://www.timesleader.com/stories/Obama-should-now-adjust-foreign-policy-Commentary-Sarah-Chayes,231029

THE SCANDAL enveloping members of America’s adulated top brass is the deepest crisis to hit the military in decades. It is a crisis President Obama did not need – shaming the country and increasing his burden during a major transition on his national security team. And yet, crisis can be a great corrective. Obama should use this one to reverse one of the most dysfunctional elements of U.S. foreign policy over the last decade: an infatuation with military solutions to problems that are fundamentally political.

The resignation of former Central Intelligence Agency Director David H. Petraeus after an extramarital affair came to light, together with expected high-level personnel changes at the State Department and other agencies, creates a singular opportunity to embark on the complex process of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy in favor of non-military approaches.

When he first came to office, Obama seemed suspicious of Petraeus, who made his reputation under President George W. Bush as the general who transformed the military’s approach to the Iraq war. The suspicion was reflected in the fraught National Security Council debate over Afghanistan strategy in 2009. Yet since then, Obama, like so many others, seems to have been seduced by Petraeus. Not by the man but by what the man could offer him.

Petraeus’ unique political genius over the last decade has been to provide each of two contrasting presidents a military solution to his key national security problems that was tailored to his character. For Bush, obsessed with Iraq and with leaving a mark on the Middle East, Petraeus helped design a grandiose, troop-heavy approach.

With the change of administrations, Petraeus soon saw that Obama and his team were different – concerned about the costs of the inherited wars and about the risks of a runaway military. So while Petraeus continued to pay lip-service to counterinsurgency doctrine, he veered away from it in practice. His focus as commander of the troops in Afghanistan – and even more so at the CIA – was on a type of warfare better suited to this president: targeted, technologically advanced, secretive killing over which the president could exert control.

But such an approach, though cheaper in resources and American lives, is still flawed. It is still a military answer to problems that are deeply political in nature and rooted in a complex mix of history, regional and cultural particularism, and the effects of a protracted abuse of power by elites. By shifting to drones and special ops as the instruments of choice to combat militant extremism, the U.S. government remains consumed by the same old questions: How many men and women in uniform, equipped with what kind of hardware, need to employ which tactics to defeat the enemy?

The first way Obama can constructively harness Petraeus’ downfall is to reorient the CIA toward its core function: intelligence-gathering. Of late, a body-count culture has prevailed at the CIA, exemplified by the secretive drone campaign. If 60 intelligence professionals are assigned to planning and monitoring each drone in the air, as has been reported, that’s 60 who are not on the ground in country, interacting with locals, gaining an intuitive feel for the dynamics. Obama should resist the temptation to put another target-focused operator at the helm of the CIA.

Another main civilian component of U.S. power is its diplomacy. Obama should also use this moment of transition to think through what kind of State Department he really needs. Perhaps the most important foreign policy challenge Obama faces in his second term is how to expand, restructure and reinforce the range of civilian instruments of U.S. power. That is a generational task, but one the current crisis has provided an unparalleled opportunity to tackle.

Sarah Chayes, former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment and a contributing writer to Opinion. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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Mental health issues plague Afghanistan residents

Relentless Afghan conflict leaves traumatised generation

Watch Reuters Video

CREDIT: REUTERS, PUBLISHED DATE: 11/16/2012

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U.S., Afghanistan to begin talks on post-withdrawal security

The negotiations, expected to be heated, will attempt to balance the U.S. goal of denying terrorists a base of operations and Afghanistan’s demands for sovereignty.

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

November 15, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan — In talks that are likely to be confrontational, the United States and Afghanistan are scheduled to begin negotiations Thursday on a new security arrangement after U.S. combat troops withdraw from the war-torn country by the end of 2014.

The talks, which could last up to a year, will attempt to reach agreement on a new joint arrangement to satisfy the U.S. goal of denying terrorists a base of operations and Afghanistan’s demands for sovereignty. They’ll start amid a climate of suspicion and mistrust between the two countries.

The Afghan government has long complained about the conduct of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, particularly night raids by Special Operations troops and airstrikes and other attacks that kill civilians.

U.S. commanders and troops are incensed over so-called insider attacks, also known as green-on-blue killings. Afghan soldiers and police — or insurgents wearing Afghan security force uniforms — have killed 58 NATO troops this year, including 35 Americans, in at least 42 attacks.

The most divisive issue is immunity from Afghan prosecution for U.S. soldiers accused of crimes, a jurisdictional dispute that wrecked similar talks between the U.S. and Iraq last year. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded that U.S. troops answer to Afghan law. The U.S. has insisted that troops accused of crimes in Afghanistan be tried in the American legal system.

Because of disagreements over legal jurisdiction, U.S. and Iraqi negotiators were unable to reach a formal agreement for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after combat forces withdrew in December. In Afghanistan, the issue has taken on renewed urgency after the killing in March of 16 civilians in Kandahar province, in which U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged with murder.

Negotiations in Kabul over legal jurisdiction are expected to be pushed back to later in the talks, after less incendiary issues have been discussed.

In public statements, Afghan government officials have insisted that the U.S. guarantee that it will respond to any cross-border incursion or artillery attack on their territory. Afghanistan has long complained about infiltration by insurgents from Pakistan and about cross-border shelling by its eastern neighbor.

The talks will play out against the backdrop of stalled attempts to forge a peace deal with the Taliban, which enjoys a haven in Pakistan’s border tribal areas.

The U.S. has made it clear to Afghanistan that the talks are intended to achieve a status-of-forces framework that includes defining the legal position of U.S. forces, not a defense treaty pledging military intervention against aggressors.

“We are not negotiating a security guarantee,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Afghan officials have also expressed concern that the U.S. might use Afghanistan territory to launch a strike against Iran.

The talks, formally known as negotiations for a bilateral security agreement, will attempt to set conditions for U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 as part of a “train, advise and assist” mission. President Obama and his national security team will determine the number of troops to be proposed.

The talks are aimed at building a security framework, not a detailed agreement.

Negotiators will attempt to set broad outlines for air rights over Afghanistan and the use and disposition of hundreds of U.S.-built bases — especially the huge air bases in Bagram and Kandahar. They may also discuss potential roles for U.S. Special Operations troops and unmanned drone aircraft, as well as the future of existing U.S. drone ground control stations in Afghanistan — subject to a final White House position on these issues.

The details of these and other issues will be hammered out in “implementing documents” to be negotiated after any security agreement is signed.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the U.S. negotiating team last month, she said the talks could well become contentious. “We know that difficult days lie ahead,” she said.

Waheed Muzhda, a security analyst in Kabul, said he does not expect Karzai to back down and agree to U.S. jurisdiction for American soldiers accused of crimes, particularly in incidents involving Afghan civilian deaths.

“That is something not acceptable to Afghans,” Muzhda said. He added that Karzai remains suspicious of U.S. motives in Afghanistan.

Under a strategic partnership agreement signed by the U.S. and Afghanistan in May, the talks have a deadline of one year. The first session is expected to last just one day. Most, if not all, of the sessions are expected to take place in Kabul.

The U.S. delegation is headed by James B. Warlick, the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, leads the Afghan team.

“We hope the [final] document itself, including the negotiations, will provide some reassurance to the people of Afghanistan,” the senior U.S. official said.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.

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