Issues & Analysis
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What About Afghan Women?

NYT OP-ED COLUMNIST, By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Published: October 23, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan
Pari Gol, an illiterate woman from Helmand Province, prayed for the fall of the Taliban back in 2001. But since then fighting has cost the lives of her husband and daughter, and she has been driven from her home. She lives in a camp for displaced people in Kabul.

For those of us who favor a sharp reduction in American troops in Afghanistan and a peace deal with the Taliban, the most vexing question is: What about Afghan women?

Time magazine framed the issue in a wrenching way with a cover this summer of Aisha, an 18-year-old woman who ran away from an abusive husband. The article said that last year the Taliban had punished Aisha by having her nose and ears hacked off — a traditional punishment for women considered disobedient or promiscuous. Her husband did the cutting.

Time quoted Aisha as saying of the Taliban, as she was touching her disfigured face: “How can we reconcile with them?”

It’s a fair question, as is: Are those of us who favor a military pullback in Afghanistan sentencing more women to be brutalized? Those are questions that I came to Afghanistan to wrestle with.

Women are fearful, no question. Here in Kabul, far fewer women wear the burqa today than on my previous visits. But several women told me that they were keeping burqas at home — just in case. The gnawing fear is that even if the Taliban do not regain control in Kabul, fundamentalist values and laws will gain ground.

Still, it seems to me a historic mistake to justify our huge military presence in Afghanistan as a bulwark to protect the women. In fact, most women I interviewed favored making a deal with the Taliban — simply because it would bring peace. For them, the Taliban regime was awful, but a perpetual war may be worse.

Take Pari Gol, a woman from Helmand Province whom I met here in Kabul. She despises the Taliban and told me on this trip that back in 2001, “I prayed that the Taliban would be defeated, and God listened to my prayers.”

Yet in the fighting since then, she said, her home was destroyed and her husband and daughter were both killed by American airstrikes. She is now living in a mud hut here — fuming at the Taliban, the Americans and the Afghan government. “I hate all of them,” she told me.

Remember also that while women in Kabul benefit from new freedoms, that is not true of an Afghan woman in a village in the South. For such women there, life before 2001 was oppressive — and so is life today.

One man from Helmand Province, Wali Khan, told me that there would be no difference for women in his village, whether the Taliban rule or not, because in either case women would be locked up in the home. He approvingly cited an expression in Pashto that translates to: “a wife should be in the home — or in the grave.”

In other words, oppression is rooted not only in the Taliban but also in the culture. The severing of a woman’s nose and ears occurs not only in Taliban areas but also in secure parts of Pakistan. Indeed, I’ve come across such disfigurement more in Punjab, the most powerful and populous province of Pakistan, than in Afghanistan — yet I haven’t heard anybody say we should occupy Pakistan to transform it.

The best way to end oppression isn’t firepower but rather education and economic empowerment, for men and women alike, in ways that don’t create a backlash. As I wrote in my last column, schooling is possible even in Taliban-controlled areas, as long as implementation is undertaken in close consultation with elders and doesn’t involve Westerners on the ground.

Often the best place to hold girls’ literacy classes is in the mosque. And the insistence of Western donors that they get credit with signs on projects they finance is counterproductive. Buildings might as well have signs reading “burn me down.”

One impressive force for change is BPeace, which encourages female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Soora Stoda, one of the entrepreneurs I met, is building a potato chip factory. Another, Shahla Akbari, makes shoes. Her mother, Fatima Akbari, has 3,000 (mostly female) employees around Afghanistan, working in jam-making, furniture building, tailoring, knitting, jewelry and other lines.

Fatima Akbari is now expanding her women’s businesses and literacy classes in Taliban-controlled areas, always working closely with mullahs and elders to gain their support and protection. “When you go and win their hearts, you can do anything,” she said.

“I’m not threatened by negotiations with the Taliban,” she added. “In fact, it would be good for the Taliban to be involved in the country, to see that there’s nothing wrong with women leaving the house. And once there’s a deal with the Taliban, security will be better.”

So let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that we’re doing favors for Afghan women by investing American blood and treasure in an unsustainable war here. The road to emancipate Afghan women will be arduous, but it runs through schools and economic development — and, yes, a peace deal with the Taliban, if that’s possible.

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Rogue security companies threaten US gains in Afghanistan war

The Pentagon is dependent upon contractors in the Afghanistan war. But many of the security companies are undermining – or even working against the US war effort.

On the job: A US contractor turned away as a helicopter departed a combat outpost in Kandahar, Afghanistan, July 19. The US seeks new guidelines for the Defense Department’s private employees. Rodrigo Abd/ AP/ FILE

By Anna Mulrine, Staff writer / October 21, 2010
Washington

Since its Revolutionary days, the American military has been no stranger to the use of paid help – from carpenters to ditch diggers – to wage war. By 1965 in Vietnam, the practice of relying on private defense companies became widespread enough within the Pentagon that Business Week dubbed it a “war by contract.”

In Afghanistan, the use of private contractors has reached record levels. A 2010 Congressional Research Service report found that they now make up 60 percent of the Defense Department’s workforce. With fewer US soldiers than contractors throughout the war-torn country, the Pentagon is more dependent on private defense contractors than ever in its history.

Contractors bring in fuel and food for American soldiers in Afghanistan along what many consider to be one of the most complex and treacherous supply chains in the history of modern warfare. They keep installations running, guard key NATO bases, and train Afghan police.

Yet there is a growing chorus of warnings from both within the US military and on Capitol Hill that the Pentagon’s dependence on contractors is undermining its own war efforts. A Senate Armed Services Committee investigation this month further concluded that the widespread use of contractors puts at risk the US exit strategy of training Afghan security forces – Afghan soldiers and police routinely leave the service to take more lucrative jobs with private defense companies.

The Senate investigation also turned up mounting evidence to suggest that largely unmonitored Pentagon contracts with private security companies – half of which are Afghan-owned – may also be lining the pockets of Taliban insurgents who agree not to attack convoys in exchange for cash.

“If you want to know the driving force of corruption in Afghanistan, it’s not Afghan culture,” warns Anthony Cordesman, a security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s American contracting.”

The Pentagon is beginning to grapple with the complexity of fixing what many now recognize as a deeply broken system. Though reforms are difficult to implement and come with their own risks, a failure to act now, say some US officials, may risk the entire US mission in Afghanistan.

Some contracting problems have long been apparent to US officials. One of them is that some Defense Department contract money goes to warlords who run classic pay-for-protection rackets with their own private militias. What is also clear is that the attrition rate for legitimate Afghan security forces remains as high as 130 percent in some units.

“We get them trained up and certified, and the contractors hire them for more money,” says T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Iraq and is now a fellow with the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.

The delay in addressing a lack of oversight surrounding contractors who may also have ties to the Taliban has had consequences, Mr. Cordesman argues. The recent Senate Armed Services Committee report, for example, reflects concerns “that are seven or eight years old.” Efforts to address them have been “extraordinarily slow” to take hold, he adds. “Time and again you have created risk to American soldiers. You have almost certainly caused Americans to be killed or wounded – and you have essentially strengthened the enemy.”

Without greater controls on contracting dollars, “you have created a threat that is almost as great as the insurgency,” he says. “And that is a government that has so many forces corrupting it that it can’t win the support of the people.”

The Pentagon is increasingly aware of this point and has begun to take a particularly hard look at its reliance on private security firms, which account for roughly 16 percent of all contractors, totaling more than 26,000 personnel operating in Afghanistan.

“We have absolutely no quality control of the people we’re putting in these jobs,” says Mr. Hammes, who recently completed a study on the strategic impact of contractors in war zones. “And we’re authorizing them to use deadly force in the name of the United States.”

Citing precisely this point, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in August that he wants many private security companies – including Blackwater – out of the country by year’s end. But the enforcement of this decree remains unclear.

US officials, who continue to negotiate the matter behind the scenes, publicly say that while they agree with the spirit of the decree, the time line is unrealistic. Critics charge that it is an effort by Mr. Karzai tap into the profits of these lucrative companies by consolidating government control over them – a charge Karzai denies.

For his part, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has recently issued a set of guidelines in an effort to improve the contracting process, recommending that the US military use its intelligence resources to investigate Afghan companies vying for Defense Department contracts.

US military officials have also increased pay for Afghan security force trainees in an effort to compete with private security companies. Now they are wrestling with how to more effectively distribute troops to improve security along the highways. “You wouldn’t spend the money to hire security along some of these roads if you didn’t have to,” says one senior US military official in Kabul who is not authorized to speak to the press. “That’s one of the things we’re looking at.”

The Pentagon has also begun relaxing “double dipping” prohibitions – in which Pentagon officials earning pensions after 20 years of service must give the pensions up in order to return to work – in hopes of deploying more contracting specialists to Afghanistan.

“At a time when there’s a real deficit of these guys in the theater, it could induce them to come to work,” says Richard Fontaine, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s eminently sensible.”

More difficult will be making tough choices about which paid contractors pose long-term threats to the US mission. “I mean, paying the Taliban is a really bad idea, but if you stop paying them tomorrow, you put convoys at greater risk,” says Mr. Fontaine.

One widespread suggestion is to have senior US military officials making the decisions about which private security companies should be hired to do the jobs, rather than junior troops in charge of contracting. “It’s one thing to say we shouldn’t pay these guys protection money,” Fontaine adds, “but the implications are something only someone at a high level can determine.”

“Let’s not be childish about this – it’s impossible to eliminate corruption,” adds Cordesman. “But it is possible to put more pressure on warlords to be more effective and less corrupt.” This might involve “shifting money to rivals to put pressure on them,” he says. “Money is a tremendous tool as well as a corrupting force if you use it properly.”

Ultimately cutting off warlords may actually be feasible, given time. For now, that might mean having more patience with less-connected contractors. “You may not get the same speed of reaction you do if you contract with the enemy,” says Cordesman, “but the lasting impact is to build up exactly the capabilities we want at the local level.”

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Training Week 3, Final project research and pitch reel production

It was a typically challenging mid-training third week.  Students had to face the realities that the actual shooting of films, as Werner Herzog famously said, is “athletic not aesthetic.”

The trainees are in the throws of final project pre-production, research, planning and aesthetic decision making.  And, depending on how things are going, they are realizing the strengths and weaknesses of their story intentions.  Their final project is a story determined by them but we have established economic development as the theme.  A few have had to have the perseverance required by documentary filmmaking to start over with their research and character search as story ideas failed to materialize as hoped.

This week we talked further about story structure, watched more segments of exemplary films and reviewed their shooting on additional construction and interior low light assignments. There was a lot more time spent independently researching story ideas and preparing treatments.  Each student worked one on one with me and the other trainers, Mehdi and Jawed, discussing and debating their story ideas.

There were many long days, as they were asked by the end of the week to shoot material for a pitch reel on their desired final project story and to work on editing it with our team of Afghan editors.   For a few there were days of typically exhausting production in villages outside Kabul, at the end of which, as for experienced filmmakers, they felt like their story was untellable, their production work weak and their plans a mess.  With a night’s sleep and morning review and encouragement, each and everyone have done an incredible job of pushing their skills and stories forward.

On Thursday, the last day of the six day work week here, cold air arrived bringing strong winds and the resulting dust storm that obliterated visibility in Kabul. After a demanding week a dinner out was well deserved. Starting tomorrow students will work in pairs on their final projects – each with two days to shoot their own stories.

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Dr. Greg and Afghanistan

NYT, OP-ED COLUMNIST, By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, October 20, 2010
KABUL, Afghanistan

A visitor to Afghanistan who ventures outside the American security bubble sees pretty quickly that President Obama’s decision to triple the number of troops in Afghanistan has resulted, with some exceptions, mostly in more dead Americans and Afghans alike.

So what can we do instead? Some useful guidance comes from the man whom Afghans refer to as “Dr. Greg” — Greg Mortenson, an American who runs around in Afghan clothing building schools, as chronicled in the best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea.”

The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.

An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.”

“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”

In volatile Kunar Province, which borders Pakistan, the Taliban recently ordered a halt to a school being built by Mr. Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute. But the villagers rushed to the school’s defense. The Taliban, which have been mounting a campaign for hearts and minds, dropped the issue, according to Wakil Karimi, who leads Mr. Mortenson’s team in Afghanistan.

In another part of Kunar Province, the Central Asia Institute is running a girls’ primary school and middle school in the heart of a Taliban-controlled area. Some of the girls are 17 or 18, which is particularly problematic for fundamentalists (who don’t always mind girls getting an education as long as they drop out by puberty). Yet this school is expanding, and now has 320 girls, Mr. Karimi said.

It survives because it is run by the imam of the mosque, and he overcomes Taliban protests by framing it as a madrassa, not a school. That seems less alien to fundamentalists and gives them a face-saving excuse to look the other way.

In Uruzgan Province, Mr. Mortenson and Mr. Karimi are beginning to pay imams to hold classes for girls in their mosques. That puts a divine stamp on girls’ education.

Each month, Mr. Mortenson’s team gets another 50 requests from villages seeking their own schools. And for the cost of a single American soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, it’s possible to build 20 schools.

Education is only part of the puzzle. My vote would be to scale back our military footprint: use a smaller troop presence to secure Kabul and a few other cities, step up training of the Afghan National Army, and worry less about the Taliban and more about Al Qaeda. We also should push aggressively for a peace deal between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, backed by Pakistan. (Would all this harm Afghan women? That’s the topic of my next column.)

Some of these initiatives are already in the works, but what is neglected is education and development, especially in Taliban areas. It’s true that this is tough, uncertain and sometimes dangerous going, with much depending on the particular Taliban commander. But, in most areas, it is possible, provided the work is done without Westerners and in close consultation with local people.

Government schools regularly get burned down, but villagers tell me that that’s because they’re seen as alien institutions built by outside construction crews. In contrast, CARE runs 300 schools in Afghanistan and not one has been burned down, the aid organization says. The Afghan Institute of Learning, run by a redoubtable Afghan woman named Sakena Yacoobi, has supported more than 300 schools and none have been burned, the institute says. Another great aid organization, BRAC, runs schools, clinics and microfinance programs — and operates in every single province in Afghanistan.

Then there’s the Global Partnership for Afghanistan, which is based in New York and helps Afghan villagers improve agricultural yields in the most unstable parts of the country. Some Taliban commanders have even sent word inviting the group into their areas.

Mr. Mortenson says that $243 million is needed to fund all higher education in Afghanistan this year. He suggests that America hold a press conference here in Kabul and put just 243 of our 100,000 soldiers (each costing $1 million per year) on planes home. Then the U.S. could take the savings and hand over a check to pay for Afghanistan’s universities.

Is this talk of schools and development naïve? Military power is essential, but it’s limited in what it can achieve. There’s abundant evidence that while bombs harden hearts, schooling, over time, can transform them. That’s just being pragmatic.

For advice from aid organizations about how to operate in Taliban areas, please visit my blog. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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Tea in Kabul

NYT, OP-ED COLUMNIST, By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, October 16, 2010
A few vignettes to explain why I believe America’s strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working:

Scene 1: A home in Kabul where I’m having tea with a remarkable woman, Soora Stoda, who runs a logistics company serving the American military.

Ms. Stoda despises the Taliban and shudders as she remembers her terror as a seventh grader when the Taliban stormed her secret school for girls. She said Taliban thugs beat the girls and murdered the teacher, who was Ms. Stoda’s aunt.

Yet Ms. Stoda, like all contractors, has to pay off the Taliban directly or indirectly to work in insecure areas. She estimates that for every $1,000 her company is paid for work in such places, some $600 often ends up in the hands of the Taliban. “Sometimes, it’s even more,” she added.

Last year, she had a $200,000 contract to transport laptop computers to the American military in Kandahar. The Taliban seized the shipment, and she says she had to pay $150,000 to get it released.

It’s the same with all contractors, and the upshot is that the American taxpayer has become a significant source of financing for the Taliban, along with drugs and donations from Gulf Arabs. With the money they milk from the United States, the Taliban hire more fighters.

“In one way, it hurts the Taliban,” Ms. Stoda said of the American presence. “In another way, it helps the Taliban.”

One security expert here did the math for me. A single American soldier in Helmand Province, he estimated, causes enough money to leak to the Taliban to recruit another 10 fighters trying to kill that American.

Scene 2: A dusty shantytown in Kabul, where I’m with a group of hundreds of disgruntled men from war-torn Helmand Province.

The men say that they will probably end up joining the Taliban. My driver is nervous, and my interpreter says that he thinks that the men are already Taliban.

What intrigues me is that the men don’t seem particularly ideological. They admire the Taliban’s piety and ability to impose law and order, but they regard many Taliban commanders as overzealous and brutal. They said they were sickened when one commander recently beheaded seven of their fellow villagers.

These men say that their preference would be to get regular jobs and live in peace. But there are no jobs, and now they are being told that they will be kicked out of their camp. They say the threatened expulsion is the result of a corrupt land deal by tycoons tied to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

“If the government forces us out, then we’ll have to go and join the Taliban and fight,” says Muhammad Ibrahim, a mullah.

Another man, Abdul Muhammad, says he thought about joining the Taliban four years ago when his wife, three sons and two daughters were killed in an American air attack (he acknowledges that Taliban were shooting at Americans from the area). Instead, he came to Kabul because: “I go to whomever is strongest.” He added: “If they force me to leave here, I will join the Taliban.”

Several men say that they were recruited by the Taliban with a pitch that was partly ideological — “we must fight the infidels who have invaded our land!” — but also partly capitalist, promising hundreds of dollars a month and fringe benefits of free food, tea and sugar.

But our counterinsurgency doesn’t include enough counterrecruitment. Coalition forces go to any expense to kill the Taliban and need to be equally assiduous about providing jobs and outreach to prevent Afghans from joining the enemy.

Scene 3: A group of distinguished Afghans sit on a carpet with me in an office, telling stories.

They break my heart by wondering aloud whether the Russians or the Americans were worse for the Afghan people.

“America does development projects,” acknowledged Hajji Gulamullah, a brigadier general in the police force in Kabul. “But not as many as the Russians did.”

Amin Shah Mungal, a retired brigadier general in the army from Khost, added: “If you go to the villages and ask people who was better, the Russians or the Americans, they’ll say the Russians.”

Grrr! The Soviet invasion helped destroy Afghanistan, while American troops these days try hard to be respectful and avoid civilian casualties — and most Afghans acknowledge the difference when they’re in a reasonable mood. But after nine years, many Afghans are sick of us. Some actually suggest that America is in league with Osama bin Laden to keep Afghanistan weak and divided.

My latest visit to Afghanistan leaves me with 100 such vignettes suggesting to me that our strategy in Afghanistan is unsustainable. We’re inadvertently financing our adversaries. We’re backing a corrupt government that drives people to the Taliban. And we’re more eager to rescue the Afghans than the Afghans are to be rescued.

Stay tuned: In a future column, I’ll suggest what we might do instead.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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Kabul pins hopes on vast iron deposits

By Matthew Green in Hajigak, Published: October 11 2010 19:39

On a boulder-strewn ridge in the Hindu Kush, Atiq Sediqi is deep in conversation with a rock. His means of communication: a tiny magnet dangling from a thread. As if performing a conjurer’s trick, the Afghan geologist lowers the pendulum until it swings, revolves then sticks to the stone with a barely audible click.

A similar phenomenon was first observed in 1890 when a British explorer noticed his compass needle spinning listlessly in the cathedral-like range – a sign of the vast iron ore deposits buried beneath. As the new century unfolds, Afghanistan’s government is hoping the trove will shape the country’s future.

“It will provide jobs, opportunity,” said Mr Sediqi, who worked as a geologist in the US before returning to Afghanistan in 2007. “Once people have some bread on the table, they want to defend their income instead of turning to violence.”

Kabul wants investors to pledge billions of dollars to develop Hajigak, billed as one of the world’s biggest iron ore finds. At a time of growing doubts over the durability of the west’s commitment to Afghanistan, the tender will test the reach of eastern economic forces.

The US has laid down more lives here since 2001 than any other power, but the most likely bidders are Chinese or Indian companies seeking resources to fuel burgeoning economies.

Beijing and New Delhi are both deepening commercial ties with Kabul as part of a broader rivalry.

“If you want to see long-term geo-political considerations, watch these deals,” said Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank.

Afghanistan boasts reserves of gold, cobalt and lithium, as well as gemstones. The government is also seeking investors for oil and gas blocks that have drawn interest from France’s Total and Swiss-based Addax Petroleum.

However, the obstacles to mineral exploitation are as forbidding as Afghanistan’s peaks. Uncertainty over what may happen when the US starts to withdraw its forces next year weighs on investment decisions. Growing insurgent violence, entrenched corruption and a lack of infrastructure have raised questions over whether exporting Hajigak’s iron ore will be viable.

The hurdles may deter the biggest western miners, but state-owned Chinese competitors may be more inclined to subordinate commercial calculations to strategic imperatives.

China has ventured into risky countries in west Africa in search of iron ore, and is investing in extracting oil from Iraq. It plunged into Afghanistan in 2008 when the Metallurgical Corp of China and Jiangxi Copper Group bid $3.4bn to secure the Aynak copper deposit south-east of Kabul.

Munificent pledges to build smelters and railways left US and European competitors standing.

MCC and Indian companies including JSW Steel, Vedanta Group’s Sesa Goa and Essar Minerals took part in a tender for Hajigak.

The bid was cancelled amid reports that Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, former mining minister, accepted a $30m bribe to award Aynak to the Chinese. Mr Adel denied the allegations.

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, appointed Wahidullah Shahrani, a respected technocrat, to take over the portfolio. He is working with international advisers to try to stage a credible auction. “At some point next year – in the summer – we’re expecting to award the contract,” Mr Shahrani said.

He reminds potential bidders that Soviet scientists concluded in the 1960s that Hajigak held at least 1.8bn tonnes of iron ore, enough for decades of extraction.

Security at the site is better than in many places, though not assured. “We will fully back the project,” said Mohammed Sadiq, a wheat farmer. “But I can’t speak for any insurgents in other parts of the country.”

Although state-backed finance gives Chinese companies deep pockets, they are not indifferent to safety.

Exporting the ore may be an even bigger challenge. MCC committed to building a $6bn railway to transport copper ore when it bid for Aynak, though production is not expected to start for years.

Zou Jianhui, MCC’s president, warned on a visit to Kabul in September that investors might even have to reconsider the railway if security worsened.

For all its magnetism, Hajigak’s promise may yet turn out to be a mirage.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.

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What Oman Can Teach Us

OP-ED COLUMN, By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
NYT, Published: October 13, 2010

MUSCAT, Oman
As the United States relies on firepower to try to crush extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, it might instead consider the lesson of the remarkable Arab country of Oman.

Just 40 years ago, Oman was one of the most hidebound societies in the world. There was no television, and radios were banned as the work of the devil. There were no Omani diplomats abroad, and the sultan kept his country in almost complete isolation.

Oman, a country about the size of Kansas, had just six miles of paved road, and the majority of the population was illiterate and fiercely tribal. The country had a measly three schools serving 909 pupils — all boys in primary grades. Not one girl in Oman was in school.

Oman’s capital city, Muscat, nestled among rocky hills in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, was surrounded by a traditional wall. At dusk, the authorities would fire a cannon and then close the city’s gates for the night. Anyone seen walking outside without a torch at night was subject to being shot.

Oman was historically similar to its neighbor, Yemen, which now has become an incubator for Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. But, in 1970, Oman left that fundamentalist track: the sultan’s son deposed his father and started a stunning modernization built around education for boys and girls alike.

Visit Oman today, and it is a contemporary country with highways, sleek new airports, satellite TV dishes and a range of public and private universities. Children start studying English and computers in the first grade. Boys and girls alike are expected to finish high school at least.

It’s peaceful and pro-Western, without the widespread fundamentalism and terrorism that afflict Yemen. Granted, Yemen may be the most beautiful country in the Arab world, but my hunch is that many of the young Westerners who study Arabic there will end up relocating to Oman because of the tranquility here.

It’s particularly striking how the role of women has been transformed. One 18-year-old university student I spoke to, Rihab Ahmed al-Rhabi, told me (in fluent English) of her interest in entrepreneurship. She also told me, affectionately, about her grandmother who is illiterate, was married at age 9 and bore 10 children.

As for Ms. Rhabi, she mentioned that she doesn’t want to bog herself down with a husband anytime soon. Otherwise, what if her husband didn’t want her to study abroad? And when she does eventually marry, she mused, one child would be about right.

Ms. Rhabi was a member of the Omani all-girls team that won the gold medal in an entrepreneurship competition across the Arab world last year. The contest was organized by Injaz, a superb organization that goes into schools around the Arab world to train young people in starting and running small businesses.

The stand-out young entrepreneurs in Oman today are mostly female: 9 of the 11 finalists in this year’s Oman entrepreneurship contest were all-girl teams. The winning team bowled me over. The members started as high school juniors by forming a company to publish children’s picture books in Arabic. They raised capital, conducted market research, designed and wrote the books and oversaw marketing and distribution.

“We’re now looking at publishing e-books,” explained Ameera Tariq, a high school senior and a member of the board of directors of the team’s book company. Maybe one of the customers for a future electronic picture book will be her grandmother, who was married at the age of 12 and has never learned to read.

In short, one of the lessons of Oman is that one of the best and most cost-effective ways to tame extremism is to promote education for all.

Many researchers have found links between rising education and reduced conflict. One study published in 2006, for example, suggested that a doubling of primary school enrollment in a poor country was associated with halving the risk of civil war. Another found that raising the average educational attainment in a country by a single grade could significantly reduce the risk of conflict.

Sorry if this emphasis on education sounds like a cliché. It’s widely acknowledged in theory, and President Obama pledged as a candidate that he would start a $2 billion global education fund. But nothing has come of it. Instead, he’s spending 50 times as much this year alone on American troops in Afghanistan — even though military solutions don’t have as good a record in trouble spots as education does.

The pattern seems widespread: Everybody gives lip service to education, but nobody funds it.

For me, the lesson of Oman has to do with my next stops on this trip: Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we want to see them recast as peaceful societies, then let’s try investing less in bombs and more in schools.

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Training finishes 2nd week

The training has successfully finished its second week – with students editing their first interviews and group conversations. This second week has been about sound and story.  The first week we  introduced the camera, composition and coverage and students did a series of exercises and a assignment in which they documented a craft or small manufacturing process.  The students were asked to do an evaluation of the training up to this point.  Here are a few of the responses:

“I have lived one of the most fantastic weeks of my life.  This training is equipping me to make a difference in the future.”
— Abdul Majid Zharand

“Documentary filmmaking is my medium of choice for communicating the realities in Afghanistan.  This training is giving me the knowledge I need to pursue this work.”
— Reza Sahel

“This training, besides teaching documentary cinema, encourages coexistence. People from different backgrounds and ethnicities are sitting around the same table.  It’s amazing.”
— Sayed Qasim

“This training is teaching me to discover my true potential.”
— Mona Haidary

“Reavealing the realities of Afghanistan has been a dream of mine.  Now I have a chance to realize this dream.”
— Aqeela Rezai

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Kite flying in Kabul

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

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Win by adopting a bottom-up strategy and not suddenly withdawing

October 3rd, 2010 by Jake Chapnick

One of the reasons the West fails to comprehensively understand Afghanistan and its people is because there has been limited access to its rural areas. According to the United Nations, there are over 10,000 settlements in that country of 100 or fewer homes and 1000 with 100-250 homes (Mahmood 222). Seth Jones, a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation argues this point in his article “It Takes the Villages” in Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010. He explains that most rural Afghans, who are diverse ethnically and politically, govern themselves according to traditional laws and codes of conduct that have remote connection to policies made by the central government in Kabul. They trust their community’s council more than outside entities like Kabul’s politicians or American and Afghan policy makers.

To be effective, Jones argues that we must adopt a “bottom up” strategy rather than the conventional “top-down”  approach that has worked in most Western countries. It is necessary for there be a mixture of strong central leadership and community based organizing, Jones argues. Jones explains that the Taliban used “bottom up”  strategy to gain control over so much of Afghanistan (2)

An editorial written July 29, 2010 in the New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof, a regular columnist for the Times, argues that the war can be won at a microscopic fraction of the cost that has been and will continue to be spent. The U.S. has spent more in Afghanistan than “on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War combined” (A23).

The essay notes that the cost of one soldier could build twenty schools in Afghanistan and cites Greg Mortenson, the central figure in “Three Cups of Tea,” a book that chronicles his mission to build schools for girls in rural Pakistan. Today, Mortenson has overseen 145 schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly with private dononations to his Central Asia Institute. He claims for the cost of only 246 soldiers, the U.S. could fund a higher education plan for all of Afghanistan.

A growing understanding that force will not change Afghanistan is slowly entering the mainstream thanks to people like Mortenson, who is now advising the U.S. army on its counter-insurgency strategy. “Three Cups of Tea” is now required reading for all military personnel. (Bumiller A1). Mortenson says his strategy will take generations, however he says, “Al Queda and the Taliban are looking at it long range over generations…And we’re looking at it in terms of annual fiscal cycles and presidential elections” (Burmiller A1).

An article called, “Afghanistan: What Could Work” by Rory Stewart in the New York Review of Books, January 14, 2010, presents a proposal for a strategy that would reduce troops, but require a longer stay in Afghanistan. Stewart is a former British Foreign Service Officer member who served in Iraq and has extensive knowledge on Central and South East Asia. In 2002, he walked across Afghanistan to witness for himself how Afghanistan had endured the Taliban and chronicled his journey in the “The Places In Between,” published in 2006. Stewart says that the U.S. and its allies should follow through with their call to reduce troops, but in order to maintain a basic level of peace, there must be a permanent military presence. Stewart writes:

The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to restore trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government (63).

Stewart says the type of surge that worked in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan because in Iraq, the insurgents were Sunni Muslims, a minority religiously and politically whose supporters had mostly been driven out of the capital. Plus, Iraq had a central government that was powerful, credible, and largely supported by the masses with its own militias (62). Afghanistan, contrarily, has an insurgency that is far-flung and diverse, spread out across a population of nearly 30 million people, who mainly live in remote areas.

The bottom line is that to prevent terrorists from organizing in any country, there must be a stable and credible government, which provides security and opportunities to its citizens. Education is the key to a prosperous future as well as communication networks. …

Afghanistan still does not have a law that guarantees journalists access to information and most government sources are not willing to co-operate with the media. Journalists face threats, bribery attempts, interrogation and even death from government and insurgents Ketchkenni writes. Over the last four years, ten journalists have been murdered in Afghanistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (Auletta 46). Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, said that few years ago his station was offered $100 thousand not to air a certain story, which they ran. “If someone is powerful enough to offer a substantial bribe, ‘what stops him from killing someone?’” Mohseni asks (Auletta 46).

Here is how we can help: Let us start with the lessons learned by Mortenson in “Three Cups of Tea.” He describes how he wandered into a village in the high mountains of Pakistan and developed a bond with its people. He promised to build a school for its children and went back to America to raise funds. When he returned, he had $12 thousand, enough to buy the raw materials, transport them to the village, and pay the workers to build the school, he thought. He soon realized that there were more immediate problems. Before he could build a school, the village needed a bridge to transport everything in. What they had been using for decades was a pulley system to bring in people and other commodities across the raging river in the high mountains. Here is where Mortenson learned one his most valuable lessons, that the needs of the community are not always the same as the ideal visions of philanthropists. He realized that the people were not being selfish, but that they needed other important things before they could build a school.

Another thing Mortenson learned, was a piece of advice given him by the chief of the village, Haji Ali. “Why don’t you leave it to us,” Ali told him. “I’ll call a meeting of all the elders…and see what village is ready to donate free land and labor for a school. That way you don’t have to flap all over Baltistan like a crow again, eating here and there” (177).

“Ever since then,” Mortenson writes, “with all the schools I’ve built, I’ve remembered Haji Ali’s advice and expanded slowly, from village to village and valley to valley, going where we’d already build relationships, instead of trying to hopscotch to places I had no contacts” (177).

The Christian Science Monitor, August 2 issue reported that U.S.A.I.D. has botched a number of jobs that were meant to help rural communities in Afghanistan, but left the people feeling resentful toward the U.S. for not finishing the jobs. One example was a canal dug to bring water to a turbine to create more electricity for the village. The canal cost $1 million, but it was found that the incomplete concrete walls and drainage created landslides blocking the water from reaching the turbine (Arnoldy 26). On the other hand, in some projects where the villagers were able to choose exactly where the foreign aid went, the results made a happy ending. In once case, a small village was given nearly $50 thousand on condition that they would vote on how to use the money and provide as of their own laborers as possible. The village installed micro-hydro turbine that provides reliable electricity to all 78 households. The money was given directly by the Afghan government, part of the National Solidarity Program (NSP) that is funded by international donors including the U.S. government. According to the article, 30,000 villages (nearly 70 percent) of rural Afghanistan have done an NSP project (Arnoldy 32). …

… Reverting to Stewart, if the United States wants to see enduring peace, it must stay the course in Afghanistan and not withdraw suddenly. Obama has said his strategy is to keep troops there long term, but to withdraw large numbers in the near future. It appears that they agree on the premise that Afghanistan needs the U.S. to hold out and not leave if the Taliban are to be truly repelled. But there is disagreement on how long this engagement should last.

Sources Cited

Arnoldy, Ben. “Losing Hearts and Minds.” The Christian Science Monitor 102, Issue 36 (2010): 26-32.
Bowman, Tom. “In Kandahar, It Will Take A Village To Oust The Taliban.” Jun. 24, 2010 NPR.org.
Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice.” New York Times 17 Aug. 2010: A1.
Grabowski, Christopher. “Warlords Killed My Friend.” Christopher Grabowski: Photography, Documentary, Photojournalism. 2007 http://www.mediumlight.com/solh.html.
Jones, Seth G. “It Takes the Villages.” Foreign Affairs May/Jun 2010 http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66350/seth-g-jones/it-takes-the-villages
Mortenson, Greg and Relin, David Oliver. Three Cups of Tea. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Lasar, Matthew. Personal interview. 5 Jul. 2010.
Stewart, Rory. “Afghanistan: What Could Work.” The New York Review of Books LV11, Number 1 (2010): 60-63.
Ketchkenni , Zia. “Journalism in Afghanistan: Getting better but still a long way to go”
The Canadian Journalism Project. Mar. 8 2010. http://www.j- source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=4883
President Obama’s Speech at West Point, Dec. 1, 2009. http://www.denverpost.com/ci_13902394?source=rss (full text of president’s speech)

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The Long War: Year Ten – Lost in the Desert with the GPS on the Fritz

The Long War: Year Ten
Lost in the Desert with the GPS on the Fritz

By Andrew J. Bacevich

In January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s charge to a newly-appointed commanding general was simplicity itself: “give us victories.”  President Barack Obama’s tacit charge to his generals amounts to this: give us conditions permitting a dignified withdrawal.  A pithy quote in Bob Woodward’s new book captures the essence of an emerging Obama Doctrine: “hand it off and get out.”

Getting into a war is generally a piece of cake.  Getting out tends to be another matter altogether — especially when the commander-in-chief and his commanders in the field disagree on the advisability of doing so.

Happy Anniversary, America.  Nine years ago today — on October 7, 2001 — a series of U.S. air strikes against targets across Afghanistan launched the opening campaign of what has since become the nation’s longest war.  Three thousand two hundred and eighty five days later the fight to determine Afghanistan’s future continues.  At least in part, “Operation Enduring Freedom” has lived up to its name:  it has certainly proven to be enduring.

As the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terror enters its tenth year, Americans are entitled to pose this question: When, where, and how will the war end?  Bluntly, are we almost there yet?

Of course, with the passage of time, where “there” is has become increasingly difficult to discern.  Baghdad turned out not to be Berlin and Kandahar is surely not Tokyo.  Don’t look for CNN to be televising a surrender ceremony anytime soon.

This much we know: an enterprise that began in Afghanistan but soon after focused on Iraq has now shifted back — again — to Afghanistan.  Whether the swings of this pendulum signify progress toward some final objective is anyone’s guess.

To measure progress during wartime, Americans once employed pins and maps.  Plotting the conflict triggered by 9/11 will no doubt improve your knowledge of world geography, but it won’t tell you anything about where this war is headed.

Where, then, have nine years of fighting left us?  Chastened, but not necessarily enlightened.

Just over a decade ago, the now-forgotten Kosovo campaign seemingly offered a template for a new American way of war.  It was a decision gained without suffering a single American fatality.  Kosovo turned out, however, to be a one-off event.  No doubt the United States military was then (and remains today) unbeatable in traditional terms.  Yet, after 9/11, Washington committed that military to an endeavor that it manifestly cannot win.

Rather than probing the implications of this fact — relying on the force of arms to eliminate terrorism is a fool’s errand — two administrations have doggedly prolonged the war even as they quietly ratcheted down expectations of what it might accomplish.

In officially ending the U.S. combat role in Iraq earlier this year — a happy day if there ever was one — President Obama refrained from proclaiming “mission accomplished.”  As well he might: as U.S. troops depart Iraq, insurgents remain active and in the field.  Instead of declaring victory, the president simply urged Americans to turn the page.  With remarkable alacrity, most of us seem to have complied.

Perhaps more surprisingly, today’s military leaders have themselves abandoned the notion that winning battles wins wars, once the very foundation of their profession.  Warriors of an earlier day insisted: “There is no substitute for victory.”  Warriors in the Age of David Petraeus embrace an altogether different motto: “There is no military solution.”

Here is Brigadier General H. R. McMaster, one of the Army’s rising stars, summarizing the latest in advanced military thinking:  “Simply fighting and winning a series of interconnected battles in a well developed campaign does not automatically deliver the achievement of war aims.”  Winning as such is out.  Persevering is in.

So an officer corps once intent above all on avoiding protracted wars now specializes in quagmires.  Campaigns don’t really end.  At best, they peter out.

Formerly trained to kill people and break things, American soldiers now attend to winning hearts and minds, while moonlighting in assassination.  The politically correct term for this is “counterinsurgency.”

Now, assigning combat soldiers the task of nation-building in, say, Mesopotamia is akin to hiring a crew of lumberjacks to build a house in suburbia.  What astonishes is not that the result falls short of perfection, but that any part of the job gets done at all.

Yet by simultaneously adopting the practice of “targeted killing,” the home builders do double-duty as home wreckers. For American assassins, the weapon of choice is not the sniper rifle or the shiv, but missile-carrying pilotless aircraft controlled from bases in Nevada and elsewhere thousands of miles from the battlefield — the ultimate expression of an American desire to wage war without getting our hands dirty.

In practice, however, killing the guilty from afar not infrequently entails killing innocents as well.  So actions undertaken to deplete the ranks of jihadists as far afield as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia unwittingly ensure the recruitment of replacements, guaranteeing a never-ending supply of hardened hearts to soften.

No wonder the campaigns launched since 9/11 drag on and on.  General Petraeus himself has spelled out the implications: “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”  Obama may want to “get out.”  His generals are inclined to stay the course.

Taking longer to achieve less than we initially intended is also costing far more than anyone ever imagined.  Back in 2003, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey suggested that invading Iraq might run up a tab of as much as $200 billion — a seemingly astronomical sum.  Although Lindsey soon found himself out of a job as a result, he turned out to be a piker.  The bill for our post-9/11 wars already exceeds a trillion dollars, all of it piled atop our mushrooming national debt.  Helped in no small measure by Obama’s war policies, the meter is still running.

So are we almost there yet?  Not even.  The truth is we’re lost in the desert, careening down an unmarked road, odometer busted, GPS on the fritz, and fuel gauge hovering just above E.  Washington can only hope that the American people, napping in the backseat, won’t notice.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  His bestselling new book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.  To catch Bacevich discussing how the U.S. military became specialists in quagmires in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Andrew J. Bacevich

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United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan – Allies in War, but the Goals Clash

By HELENE COOPER, NYT, October 9, 2010

IN the panoply of national security conundrums facing the Obama administration, there is one that stands central.

Can the United States ever succeed in the Afghanistan war if its two principal allies mistrust each other? Indeed, can the war succeed if one of those two principal allies is in cahoots with the enemy?

The enemy, of course, is the Taliban. And the allies are the Pakistani and Afghan governments. Troops from both countries, as well as American forces, have been fighting elements of the Taliban on their respective soils.

But Pakistan has also been accused of pulling its punches in that fight, because it fears the day when a strong Afghanistan might align with India. It would be convenient for Pakistan if the Taliban remained a force to prevent that.

That explains why suspicions of such double-dealing were the talk of Washington last week, spurred by the multiple attacks on NATO convoys that just about every diplomat, foreign policy official and Beltway taxi driver laid at the feet of the Pakistani government.

In retaliation for American helicopter strikes that killed three Pakistani border soldiers on Sept. 30, the Pakistani government had shut down a border crossing used to supply the Afghan war effort. That offered Taliban and Qaeda insurgents a golden opportunity to blow up the NATO convoys, and within a week, three major attacks destroyed dozens of trucks.

Although the United States responded by blanketing Islamabad with mea culpas for the helicopter strikes, the incident has laid bare the fundamental challenge of the American-Pakistan alliance: When it comes to Afghanistan, America and Pakistan have very different national security interests.

President Obama defines American national security interests in South Asia as revolving around the need to prevent the region from becoming a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the United States and American allies.

That’s why, Mr. Obama says, American troops are in Afghanistan, and that’s why the United States is pushing the Pakistani government to act on its soil against militants like the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network. That’s also why American troops were engaged in cross-border strikes.

But Pakistan, for its part, defines its national security interests as revolving around India, its nemesis in a tangle of disputes that have proven intractable for six decades. Every step that the Pakistani government takes is seen through that prism.

What Pakistan wants most in Afghanistan is an assurance that India cannot use it to threaten Pakistan. For that, a radical Islamic movement like the Taliban, with strong ties to kin in Pakistan, fits the bill. That is why the Pakistani government’s intelligence agencies helped the Taliban in its initial rise to power in the 1990s.

Now, Pakistan wants to ensure against the possibility of an Afghan national government with a strong army emerging on its border and aligning with India. So supporting the Afghan Taliban is again a hedge, as it was in the 1990s.

What’s more, the Pakistanis don’t believe that the United States will stay in Afghanistan, and Mr. Obama’s announcement that he will begin a pullout starting in July 2011 has exacerbated that belief. And if the United States leaves, the Pakistanis believe, it is only a matter of time before the Afghan Taliban return to power. When they do, Islamabad wants to make sure that it has kept in the Taliban’s good graces.

Finally — again because of India — the Pakistani government wants to make sure that its historic allies, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, will be deeply entrenched in any efforts to reach a political settlement that would involve power-sharing in Afghanistan.

“The Haqqanis represent a powerful element of the Pashtuns,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. “Those are the tribes that straddle the border.” The Pakistani government, Mr. Nawaz said, “feels that if the Pashtuns are in power, Indians are less likely to have a strong hold, because the Indian relationship has been very overtly with the Northern Alliance.” He was referring to the group of largely non-Pashtun Afghan militias that ousted the Taliban in 2001 with American assistance.

Moeed W. Yusuf, a South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, adds: “Pakistan sees that any political settlement in Afghanistan that does not include groups that are friendly to Pakistan, like the Haqqani network, will mean that Pakistan will have gotten the rough end of the deal. It will not be able to ensure an Afghanistan which does not allow inroads to India.”

Why not give the Pakistanis the strategic hedge that they want? For anyone who hasn’t read the latest policy brief on the Haqqani network, here’s a quick summary: From its base in the frontier region near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani is suspected of running much of the insurgency around Kabul, and across eastern Afghanistan; that insurgency has carried out car bombings and kidnappings, including spectacular attacks on American military installations. It is allied with Al Qaeda and with leaders of the Afghan Taliban branch that answers to Mullah Muhammad Omar. Though he is now based in Quetta, Pakistan, Mullah Omar was in charge when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan and sheltered Al Qaeda there, notably on Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, Western officials have blamed the Haqqani network for a string of attacks, including the 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the kidnappings of the British journalist Sean Langan and the New York Times reporter David Rohde, and hundreds of attacks on American forces in Afghanistan. Sirajuddin Haqqani is believed to be in the top tier of the allied forces’ “kill or capture” list.

In short, the Haqqani network has a lot of American blood on its hands.

“The aims of the U.S. and Pakistan in Afghanistan,” says Mr. Nawaz, of the Atlantic Council, “are not congruent.”

So given all this, the logical thing to do might be to focus on the Pakistan-India problem. After all, if you remove Pakistan’s fears of India as a threat, maybe the Pakistanis will stop working against American interests in Afghanistan?

Not so fast.

“It’s unfixable,” said C. Christine Fair, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “That’s why we’ll be working on this for the next 50 years.”

Professor Fair argues that because India is on the ascent, and will be even stronger militarily and economically in 10 years than it is now, the Indian government has no reason to negotiate seriously with Pakistan over the host of issues that bedevil the two adversaries now, when it can throw its weight around much easier later.

“If there was an easy way out of this, someone would have figured it out,” Professor Fair said. “But I don’t think it’s possible to untie this Gordian knot.”

Of course, Alexander the Great managed to conquer the Gordian knot. But we shall leave musings of how well he did in Afghanistan for a later article.

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Daily Affairs in Sunny Kabul

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

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

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

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

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

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Meet our trainees

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

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Interviewing candidates for the training

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

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

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

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The Work Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It Takes a Village to Raise a School

New York Times, OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR, DANA BURDE, September 16, 2010

Americans are right to be alarmed by the rising numbers of roadside bombs and suicide attacks in Afghanistan, we can’t overlook a more subtle campaign that has been a key element of the Taliban’s strategy for years: disrupting access to schools.

Close to 1,000 schools have been bombed or burned since 2006, and hundreds of teachers and students have been killed. The Taliban, who when they were in power banned education for women, attack girls’ schools disproportionately, and in some southern provinces the proportion of girls attending middle school has dropped to less than 1 percent.

These attacks are made easier when there is a physical school to take aim at. But education is not about four walls and a roof. Many nongovernmental organizations have been promoting schooling without school buildings as the best strategy to increase enrollment quickly in the poorest rural areas of the country.

Thousands of these community-based education programs, housed in existing community structures, are bringing education to girls and boys across the country. According to a report released by CARE last fall, there has been only one recorded physical attack on such a community-based school.

Yet these schools have received little attention. Most attention and money has gone to the “Three Cups of Tea” strategy of constructing schools. While shiny new schools make for great photo ops, they are very expensive and some provide the Taliban with easy targets. In the short term, we should de-emphasize that approach in favor of more flexible, cost-effective approaches in community-based education.

It works like this: Villagers provide a space for the school, usually in a large house or mosque, and choose teachers from the community. An aid organization delivers government-approved textbooks and stationery, and provides training for the teachers and parents who help oversee the schools. The Afghan government integrates the community-based schools into the larger educational system, certifying teachers and, eventually, paying their salaries.

Each community-based school serves only the village in which it is situated; schools are widely dispersed, making attendance more practical for children spread across remote regions. Many aid workers have long favored such schools since they are quick and inexpensive to set up, and because communities develop a sense of ownership. Parents visit classes regularly, checking attendance and observing lessons.

With aid from Washington, nongovernmental groups have started approximately 3,000 community-based schools in roughly 1,400 communities in more than a dozen provinces in Afghanistan. In a study I carried out with Leigh Linden of Columbia from 2007 to 2009, we found that children in rural Afghanistan are almost 50 percent more likely to attend classes if there’s a community-based school available. Most important, when a community-based school is an option, the rate of girls’ attendance in most communities goes up by 15 percentage points more than that of their male counterparts, virtually eliminating gender disparities in primary education.

Community-based education is not a panacea: rural teachers may not have much in the way of training, and most schools offer only the early grades. Still, it is a practical medium-term solution to the lack of conventional schools in Afghanistan.

Despite impressive increases in enrollment since in 2001, some 60 percent of young Afghans are not in school; two-thirds of them are girls. Conventional schools are scarce, expensive and likely to remain under threat of attack. To best help Afghanistan, we need to support safer, cheaper and more effective ways to educate all its children.

Dana Burde is a professor of education at New York University.

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A New Way Forward, Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan

At almost nine years, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is the longest in our history, surpassing even the Vietnam War, and it will shortly surpass the Soviet Union’s own extended military campaign there. With the surge, it will cost the U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year, a sum roughly seven times larger than Afghanistan’s annual gross national product (GNP) of $14 billion and greater than the total annual cost of the new U.S. health insurance program. Thousands of American and allied personnel have been killed or gravely wounded.

The United States should by no means abandon Afghanistan, but it is time to abandon the current strategy that is not working. Trying to pacify Afghanistan by force of arms will not work, and a costly military campaign there is more likely to jeopardize America’s vital security interests than to protect them. The Study Group believes that the United States should pursue more modest goals that are both consistent with America’s true interests and far more likely to succeed.

THE WAY FORWARD: A FIVE POINT APPROACH
Emphasize Power-Sharing and Political Reconciliation
Scale Back and Eventually Suspend Combat Operations in the South and Reduce the U.S. Military Footprint
Keep the Focus on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security
Promote Economic Development
Engage Global and Regional Stakeholders.

Read the Full Report

Report from The Afghanistan Study Group:

Matthew P. Hoh
Director, Afghanistan Study Group
703-999-8075 phone
mphoh@afghanistanstudygroup.com

Steve Clemons
Director, American Strategy Program
New America Foundation
202-986-0342 phone
202-986-3696 fax
clemons@newamerica.net

William Goodfellow
Executive Director
Center for International Policy
202-232-3317 phone
202-232-3440 fax
wcg@ciponline.org

0

UNICEF to boost aid efficiency by targeting poorest

By Louis Charbonneau, Source: Reuters, 07 Sep 2010 15:17:41 GMT

* Focusing on neediest is more cost-effective – UNICEF

* Changing aid distribution could save millions of lives

The U.N. children’s foundation UNICEF plans to make the poorest and most remote regions of needy nations top priority for aid, an approach it said on Tuesday is not only morally but economically sound.

“It’s not often that the right thing to do is also the most cost-effective thing,” UNICEF chief Anthony Lake told Reuters in an interview.

Lake, who was former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, said a new study on aid distribution undertaken by UNICEF showed aid agencies could save millions of lives by going first to the most disadvantaged mothers and children and their communities.

Traditionally aid programs have focused first on a country’s capital and major cities, where underprivileged populations are relatively accessible, only later moving to difficult-to-reach pockets of poverty and disease.

But the new study, Lake said, found that the economic and developmental impact of going straight to the neediest and hardest to reach communities, and then working back to the central cities, was significantly greater than the traditional approach.

One reason for that approach is that remote poverty-stricken areas lack infrastructure and personnel. But Lake said it was possible to work with a minimum of infrastructure and provide locals with sufficient expertise to supply routine medical services.

UNICEF, he said, would be focusing its future humanitarian and developmental aid in line with the results of the study.

NOT WITHOUT RISKS

A report on the UNICEF study released on Tuesday said it showed that by comparing the effectiveness of different strategies for aid delivery, targeting the poorest and neediest children could save more lives per $1 million spent than the current path.

Among the advantages of what UNICEF describes as an “equity-based approach” to aid delivery would be the ability to avert many more child and maternal deaths and episodes of stunted growth than the current approach.

A $1 million investment in reducing the deaths of children younger than five years in a low-income high-mortality country would avert an estimated 60 percent more deaths than the current approach, UNICEF said.

Because disease, ill health and illiteracy are concentrated in the most impoverished child populations, focusing on such areas could also improve poor nations’ progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals aimed at slashing poverty by 2015 and reduce disparities within countries.

The approach is not without risks, Lake said. Sometimes the remotest and poorest communities are in areas where the central government has little authority and insurgents are in control, making the distribution a very risky business.

This is the case in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan or Somalia. But Lake said UNICEF has proven capable of getting into and operating in unstable regions because it is apolitical and focuses on children.

“If you’re a local militant, you wouldn’t want the mothers saying that you weren’t letting in UNICEF,” he said. (Editing by Jerry Norton)

For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit www.alertnet.org

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U.S. to temper stance on Afghan corruption

By Greg Jaffe

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 1:32 PM

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN – U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan are adopting a strategy that increasingly places the priority on fighting the Taliban even if that means tolerating some corruption.

Military officials in the region have concluded that the Taliban’s insurgency is the most pressing threat to stability in some areas and that a sweeping effort to drive out corruption could create chaos and a governance vacuum that the Taliban could exploit.

“There are areas where you need strong leadership, and some of those leaders are not entirely pure,” said a senior defense official. “But they can help us be more effective in going after the primary threat, which is the Taliban.”

The issue of corruption in Afghanistan has taken on renewed urgency in recent weeks with the arrest of a senior aide to President Hamid Karzai and new questions about Kabul’s commitment to fighting graft. Senior Obama administration officials have repeatedly emphasized the need to root out graft in Afghanistan and have deployed teams of FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents to assemble corruption cases. The United States has spent about $50 billion to promote reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001.

It was not immediately clear whether the White House, the State Department and law enforcement agencies share the military’s views, which come at a critical time for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. After an eight-month buildup, the 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines that President Obama ordered to this country are almost entirely in place, allowing U.S. and Afghan forces to conduct sweeps of Taliban strongholds and detain insurgent leaders at the highest levels of the nearly nine-year-long war, military officials said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited two U.S. Army units on Friday that had been hit with tough losses in recent days as they cleared insurgents from areas in and around this southern Afghanistan city, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the site of some of the heaviest fighting for U.S. and Afghan forces.

“It has been a tough week for you,” Gates told soldiers from an Army battalion that had lost seven soldiers this week. “Unfortunately, there are going to be more tough weeks ahead.”

The Kandahar campaign reflects the breadth of the problems that the United States faces throughout Afghanistan and explains why some U.S. officials are reluctant to take too hard a line on Afghan corruption. “Kandahar is not just a Taliban problem; it is a mafia, criminal syndicate problem,” the senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “That is why it is so complicated. But clearly the most pressing threat is the Taliban.”

Some military and civilian advisers to the U.S.-led command in Kabul argue for a comprehensive effort to root out graft and other official abuses, contending that government corruption and ineffectiveness have prompted many Afghans to support the insurgency. “You can’t separate the fight against corruption from the fight against the Taliban,” one of the advisers said. “They are intimately linked.”

But U.S. officials and defense analysts say that challenging local power brokers and criminal syndicates, many of which depend on U.S. reconstruction contracts and ties to the Afghan government for support, would likely add to the unrest in southern Afghanistan and produce a higher U.S. casualty rate. “Putting an end to these patronage networks would not come cheaply,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan.

By contrast, allowing some graft among Afghan power brokers on the condition that they agree to limit their take and moderate predatory activities, such as their use of illegal police checkpoints, could promote near-term improvements, Biddle said. “We spend a lot more money in Afghanistan than the narcotics trade,” he said. “A lot of money that funds these networks comes from us. So we can essentially de-fund these networks, taking away their contracts.”

The military’s strategy on corruption appears to more broadly apply conclusions reached earlier this year by top military officers in Kandahar. Some diplomats and military officers had recommended the removal of Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as the chairman of the Kandahar province council, but Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, eventually concluded that there was no clear evidence of wrongdoing and that ousting him could leave a power vacuum in the area.

Instead, the military has sought to limit the amount of money flowing to Ahmed Wali Karzai by awarding lucrative contracts for supplies and services to firms that he and his relatives do not control.

Recently, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, asked a group of senior officers to study more closely how U.S. reconstruction and logistics contracts are awarded. He also said he planned to publish contracting rules that would help ensure that U.S. spending practices weren’t fueling discontent by excluding influential groups and driving them to support the Taliban insurgency. Such a move would be welcomed by President Karzai, who has argued that foreign money is fueling corruption.

Gates also has said that the United States must do more to ensure that its contracting practices aren’t fueling corruption.

The growing understanding that military commanders will have to work with some corrupt officials and warlords hasn’t led them to abandon time-consuming efforts to build local government capacity. In areas where U.S. and Afghan forces have driven out the Taliban, they are working with locals to assemble councils made up of elders that will help decide how reconstruction money is spent and serve as a check on government abuses.

“That representative council is important because that is really the link between the people and the district leadership,” said Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Even building effective local councils will take time in areas where U.S. forces have little to no knowledge of the key players and power relationships.

U.S. forces are only now beginning to push into areas that have had little or no American presence in recent years and to develop an intimate knowledge of the players and power relationships.

“We have never had the granular understanding of local circumstances in Afghanistan that we achieved over time in Iraq,” Petraeus said this week. “One of the key elements in our ability to be fairly agile in our activities in Iraq during the surge was a pretty good understanding of who the power brokers were in local areas and how the systems were supposed to work and how they really worked. . . . That enabled us enormously.”

jaffeg@washpost.com Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Washington contributed to this report.

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