Issues & Analysis

Ali Pinschmidt joins CSFilm!

We are very lucky to have Ali Pinschmidt joining us as our new Program Coordinator.  Ali has a long history of interest in using video as a tool for social change.

Her Clark University Master’s Practitioner Report was on Avenues for Community Organizing & Social Change through Participatory Video, Community Screenings, and Video Activism Training. She will be teaching the course Video for Social Change at Clark University this fall.

From 2003-04 she worked in Mozambique as a teacher for Development Aid from People to People, and in 2009 she worked with Video Volunteers in India.  And it goes on… Needless to say we are very happy to have her with us.



The Trouble With The Transition


A 155mm round is fired from a Howitzer at insurgents at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar Province on July 8.

July 9, 2011, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Commentary by Muhammad Tahir

“We cannot assume security responsibility for this province.”

The man who said this is General Mohammad Qasim Jangalbagh, the security commander of the Panjshir province of northern Afghanistan. He went on to explain that “because our province is bordered by insecure provinces, we need a huge force.”

This alarming statement completely undercuts the premises of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the coming year.  ….

Kabul, Panjsher, and Mazar-e Sharif are the towns with the safest security records in Afghanistan. If things are this bad there, the situation in the rest of the country can only be described as frightening. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, suicide attacks, jail breaks, and militant attacks on security posts are regular occurrences. ….

When 10,000 U.S. troops and thousands of British and French forces start leaving Afghanistan this month, what will they be leaving behind?  [Read the full editorial]




Harvard University Talk


Creating an effective documentary is a decidedly difficult task; one must carefully consider both the story and its intended audience, and along the way, balance the variety of perspectives that comprise the finished product. In 2009, documentary filmmaker Michael Sheridan attempted this complex undertaking, and worked to capture on film the true conditions of war-stricken Afghanistan. To achieve a more realistic representation of the underdeveloped nation, Sheridan trained a group of Afghani students in the art of documentary filmmaking, so that their stories could be told in their own voices.

Sheridan visited Harvard to discuss this project in a talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE)

[Read Harvard Crimson Article]


Propaganda wars driving conversation around state of security in Afghansitan

Whether security is imporving or not in Afghanistan depends on whether you are asking those that want to get out or those that have to stay.

The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland

“A little more than a year after the transfer of additional U.S. troops was completed, violence increased across the country, hitting new peaks in May 2011 as the Taliban launched their spring offensive, which resulted in the highest recorded number of civilian casualties incurred in a single month since the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan began in 2001. It is unlikely that this trend will be reversed anytime soon. Following the announcement by President Barack Obama on 22 June 2011 of U.S. plans to withdraw 33,000 troops by September 2012, it appears likely that the insurgency will push forcefully to gain more ground before the military drawdown reaches its final phase by December 2014.”


Trainees win filmmaking contracts

Four of our ten trainees submitted story ideas in response to a request for proposals for TV content geared toward “countering extremist voices.” All four of them won contracts. This was an unanticipated, but very positive, outcome of the capacity-building originally carried out to support production of the film Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

It is an incredible achievement for emerging filmmakers who had not produced full-length, character driven documentaries or written proposals before. Their films will be part of a series, to be aired on Afghan Television, that will highlight the work that ordinary Afghans are doing to improve their economic, social and cultural situations.


Screening Tour – The Fruit of Our Labor

  • “Transformative”
  • “Eye-opening and Disturbing”
  • “The first time in ten years I’ve actually heard an Afghan’s voice”
  • “I’ve made a film in Afghanistan. I’ve seen the results of other trainings. Nothing compares to what your trainees have accomplished.”

Those are a few of the hundreds of viewer’s responses to The Fruit of Our Labor short-films produced by Afghans during CSFilm’s documentary production training last fall. It has been a very rewarding few months. The films have created the kind of response we hoped for. They have helped Americans see another side of Afghanistan beyond the relentless battlefront coverage of the western media. These films allow Americans to understand more about who Afghans are, the challenges they face and the efforts they aremaking to move their lives, communities and country beyond its terrible past.  Understanding what Afghan civilians face should play an important part in our considerations of what our role should be in Afghanistan. There are very real humanitarian concerns beyond our interests to get our own troops out.

Since December I am very thankful for all the effort individuals, organizations, and communities have put into organizing presentations and screenings. This commitment has allowed the films and work of Community Supported Film to be presented at dozens of venues during a 19 city tour, including: The Asia Society – NYC, The US Institute of Peace – DC, Harvard, Tufts, Boston and Carnegie Mellon Universities and a live event between Kabul and Pittsburgh at Conflict Kitchen – a take-out restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries that the US is in conflict with.

My tears at the end of the Conflict Kitchen event surprised me. A video connection between the audience in Pittsburgh and the filmmakers in Afghanistan allowed the two groups to virtually share a meal of Bolani while watching a selection of the films. The screening was followed by a wonderfully engaging conversation full of revelations, ideas and hopes. The bridge building between communities was direct. It brought together all my dreams for the work of Community Supported Film: the training in Afghanistan led to the making of revealing stories, which then provided a unique opportunity for public engagement and education.

Please help us make the most of these remarkable films and organize a screening in your community. We are planning now for our summer and fall screenings. We are especially interested in opportunities to create direct conversations between your community and the filmmakers and others in Afghanistan. Please email info[at]csfilm[dot]org with your ideas.


“Afghan Schools Short on Buildings and Books,” By Maiwand Safi, IWPR

• June 15, 2011: While officials hail progress on education, only half the country’s schools have the premises and teaching materials they need.


Since 2001, international donors have injected billions of dollars into the construction of schools for both boys and girls. The education ministry says that half the 14,100 schools in Afghanistan have buildings, laboratories, libraries and textbooks.

Afghans responded by sending their children to schools in droves, although male students still outnumber female by a 3-to-2 ratio.

Today, however, many parents feel let down by the continuing shortage of textbooks, trained and motivated teachers and basic classroom facilities.

Read more



“On the Mend? America Comes to Its Senses,” by Andrew J. Bacevich

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired career officer in the United States Army. His most recent book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.

“…..Nearly 10 years have passed since Washington set out to redeem the Greater Middle East.  The crusades have not gone especially well.  In fact, in the pursuit of its saving mission, the American messiah has pretty much worn itself out.

Today, the post-9/11 fever finally shows signs of abating.  The evidence is partial and preliminary.  The sickness has by no means passed.  Oddly, it lingers most strongly in the Obama White House, of all places, where a keenness to express American ideals by dropping bombs seems strangely undiminished.

Yet despite the urges of some in the Obama administration, after nearly a decade of self-destructive flailing about, American recovery has become a distinct possibility.  Here’s some of the evidence:

Read on


Water Ways film highlighted

The United States Institute of Peace’s PeaceMedia initiative has highlighted Majid Zarand’s short Water Ways.  You can see it and learn more about USIP and Peace Media at PeaceMedia.



So painfully obvious: best and worst solutions for Afghanistan

The Nation, by Greg Kaufmann, January 3, 2011

[An interview with Michael Shank, senior policy adviser for Congressman Michael Honda, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Afghanistan Taskforce]

Shank came to DC after ten years of development work in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, mostly in conflict zones. He has traveled and worked extensively throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. A doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Shank is also an original co-author of the Afghanistan Study Group report.

Greg Kaufmann: General Petraeus’s own COIN manual suggests that counterinsurgency strategy should focus about 80 percent of spending on political and economic development—or soft power—and 20 percent on military. But our expenditures in Afghanistan are more along the lines of 90 percent military and 10 percent development. What do you make of that?

Michael Shank: Much of our development work in Afghanistan now is political. Here’s why: it would be difficult to sell to the American public that we’re there to liberate the women of Afghanistan from Taliban control unless we had a development arm focusing, albeit insubstantially, on socioeconomic-political agendas.

But if we were serious about development, we would pursue best practices, none of which are being exhibited in Afghanistan. If we really cared about freedom and democracy in Afghanistan we would do it much differently.

GK: How would we do it differently?

MS: Compare the schools that are built by our government, versus the schools that are built locally by Afghans. Schools built by our government contractors are targets for Taliban attack because they have not built sufficient relations with the community. There’s no community support. So the Taliban sees that target and says, “The community doesn’t care about it so let’s hit it.”

Case after case in Afghanistan you hear stories about structures that are built, photographed, insurgents paid off until the project is completed, and then the insurgents can do whatever they want.

In contrast, look at more sustainable local models of development like Afghanistan’s Community Development Councils, which are run by the National Solidarity Program (NSP). The way the Community Development Councils work is that the community elects the council members. They get a $20,000 or $30,000 block grant [from the NSP—which is funded by the World Bank or other international institutions and Western countries] and the CDC gets to decide how it’s spent. They decide—do we want a road, a bridge, a school, whatever.

They build it and the Taliban does not touch these projects. The Taliban knows if they do, they’ll alienate the community. The only time CDC members have been killed—and some of them have—is when the US military started associating with them. [The military] was thinking about how to build out the CDCs beyond their development role. Could they be used for policing, election monitoring, a place to nominate candidates for political office?

They’re building out the CDCs’ roles because they work. Why do they work? Because they’re micro-financed in small, manageable projects and their success depends on community trust, confidence and oversight. There are stories of the CDCs giving money back to the government after a project was completed when they didn’t use it—like $7,000 here, $9,000 there—money unspent, given back to the government. Sadly, this model continues to remain underfunded.

Congress has gotten on board the CDC concept and now you see the Defense Department trying to replicate them, or associate with them, and that’s where the CDC council members have been killed.

GK: So Congress is interested in replicating it?

MS: Yes, but [in order for any US development efforts in Afghanistan to be successful] we need to let go of our ego associated with development.

There’s political motive to sell to the public that we’re liberating these people. We have to have that veneer of US-led democracy-building.

If we cared about socioeconomic-political development in Afghanistan—if we truly cared about it—we would have a 180-degree switch. We wouldn’t be using “Beltway bandits,” we’d be using local mechanisms, and we wouldn’t need to have “USA” stamped on everything. Local development organizations in Afghanistan, who receive US funds, operate this way. They demand that the US is not associated with the project in any way. The organizations know this the only way the project will be successful and free from insurgent attack.

GK: Talk about the current development model as it’s practiced by Defense and non-Afghan subcontractors.

MS: War profiteering in Afghanistan is pervasive because there is no monitoring and accountability. The stories of inefficiency or outright corruption are rampant. For example, a US contractor gets $25 million from the US government to spend in six months and they don’t have to report on how they spent that money. With everyone taking their cut along the way, by the time this grant reaches the ground in Afghanistan, you may have only 10 percent left for the actual project. This is quite common. A $5 million project [has] only $500,000 left for the actual road, bridge or damn.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs)–these civilian-military collaborations between the State and Defense Departments–are another source of inefficiency. Holed up in a compound with big walls and barbed wire, isolated from the local community, the PRTs mix together a few engineers with a couple hundred soldiers. The engineers are there to consult on the reconstruction projects, and the soldiers are there to securitize and do some of the building.

Now, imagine one of these PRT officials–an expert from State for example—wants to visit a reconstruction project outside the compound. For one official, you’re required to travel with two or three armored vehicles and four to eight armed personnel per person, for protection. On average, for one official to do one day’s worth of site visits, you’re looking at about $14,000 worth of security costs per day.

Local Afghans see this. They also see food and water shipped into these PRT compounds from abroad and wonder why, if we really care about building up Afghan capacity, we don’t use legitimate local alternatives.

If State and USAID were, instead, able to commingle with the community without the pomp and circumstance of defense protection—to the extent that we can do that—we’ll be more effective. But there is little serious effort at that whatsoever.

I’m ultimately supportive of US-Afghan partnerships if we are truly committed to building up their capacity. But if we want to pursue such a partnership, it has to be overwhelmingly guided, dictated and directed by Afghans. We’re not even remotely close to that.

GK: So most of the development resources are being used for security and non-Afghan contractors, leaving scarce resources for the Afghans themselves?

MS: That’s right. It just doesn’t work. The only things working in Afghanistan right now in terms of development are organizations like Aga Kahn Foundation, ICRC, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, etc.

Aga Kahn travels with no security whatsoever. Their development work has no security detail and the only way they go to the site is if the community supports them. This is how I travel too; I only travel if the community supports me. That’s my security.

It’s the exact same thing with the Community Development Councils. They are protected by community support, legitimacy and credibility. If we were committed to long-term investment and sustainable development, on a much smaller scale, it could work.

The scary thing is that Defense wants to take over development—to create a development wing within Defense. The militarization of development is increasingly common, but so too are the attacks on the troops who, having been tasked with the clearing and holding, are now building.

GK: If there are clear examples of a sustainable development model that works, why aren’t we moving in that direction?

MS: Private industry is shaping US foreign policy. The defense industry was already strong before our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lockheed, Raytheon, General Dynamics, BAE were already quite robust and developed. But they’ve gotten stronger because we’ve just dumped trillions of dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan and they’ve benefited mightily, and now the privatized development industry is growing stronger too.

My thinking is—and you’re already seeing this with Yemen—the defense and development industries have built up enough of an infrastructure that they have to sustain it. That’s the problem with progressives calling for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, because it implies that we’re going to bring all those resources home. We’re not. We’re going to take it to Yemen, we’re going to take it to Pakistan, and we’ll take it back to Somalia.

We’re in a whole different playing field now. It’s war—ongoing, enduring, forever. It’s eternal war-making, because the industries will guide us in that direction.

Ultimately, it will be ineffective in undermining the threat. If you’re going to bomb Al Qaeda, then you better be bombing urban centers in the West, because Al Qaeda is global and amorphous. They’re sophisticated. They’re not fighting in the hinterlands of Af-Pak. Our combat-heavy approach, our machine-heavy approach is totally ineffective on this front.

GK: So what is a more effective way to fight terrorists?

MS: When it comes to counter-terrorism strategy, Seth Jones’s RAND report—”How Terrorist Groups End”—found that three of the most effective strategies capable of ending or dismantling terrorist groups involved policing, intelligence and negotiations. Military was deemed much less effective here. These are not big investments and they do not require heavy military equipment.

The lesson here is that we should help governments globally—not just where oil resources are—train up on policing, intelligence and negotiations. This focus does not require $40 billion Joint Strike Fighter planes. However, we don’t cut those big ticket items because the private industry runs this town.

GK: Some Congressional hearings—and the Afghanistan Forums you were a part of—have highlighted the kinds of changes we need to make in order to build political and economic capacity. Do you see any of those changes on the horizon?

MS: No. In Afghanistan, we’re now doing what we did in Iraq. We’re arming and funding local communities, essentially pursuing the Anbar-style, localized and militarized approach. We’re choosing the Afghan villages and working with them directly, circumventing the central government entirely. We’re already doing this with sixty-eight villages or groups of villages throughout Afghanistan.

This frightens me because it’s pitting tribe against tribe, or in some cases, dividing tribes even further. It’s a subjective process, decided by the local commander, and it doesn’t help build up political-economic capacity because it undermines the Afghan state structure.

GK: For all the media coverage about the corruption in the Afghan government, we certainly have plenty of US contractor corruption there as well. But we don’t hear much about that. Why do you think that is?

MS: We certainly have plenty of contractor corruption; this war is awash with money.

But one of the key obstacles to accountability is access. Media can’t access locations unless they have US military or NATO escort. Auditors can only go where the US military will take them. [So] nobody here is able to ferret out the truth.

Another reason why accountability is so difficult: the Inspectors General and auditors are housed within State and USAID and Defense Departments. There is no third party, independent auditing.

I think there’s a third reason why all this corruption is allowed to continue. Not only is the war so far afield from our thinking here, nor do we really know what’s going on, but we buy wholeheartedly into the security narrative and the fear narrative [and] we give implicit oversight to the government. We trust the government to deal with this fear and security threat, so we hand over all oversight and accountability. We almost don’t want to know what’s going on in Afghanistan or Iraq.

We need more people on the ground, in these war zones, penetrating this bubble. It’s remarkable how effective the Defense Department has been in making these places seem mysterious and dark and dangerous. If we can create this culture of mystery, and only a few people have security clearance, it makes it very easy to create an impenetrable, impervious policy-making platform.

And as a result, we don’t go, we don’t look.

GK: Do you believe that Af-Pak development efforts—as we pursue them now—actually fuel the insurgency?

MS: The way in which we do development now in Afghanistan is fueling the insurgency. Development does not have to cause conflict, though. If done correctly, it can prevent conflict. I’m a big believer in the positive correlation between development and the reduction of violent conflict. Paul Collier’s work—World Bank economist, Oxford economist—studied over 1,000 civil wars globally and found that if you increase secondary enrollment of young males by 10 percent, you reduce the risk of violent conflict by 4 percent. He also found that if unemployment goes up 1 percent, homicides go up 6 percent.

There are unemployment rates as high as 80 percent in Helmand Province, with illiteracy rates as high as 75 percent. In the Af-Pak mountainous border regions, unemployment is between 50 to 75 percent. If a madrassah comes in with free schooling, free housing, free food, well, you know that argument—and in Pakistan that’s very evident, and in the Afghanistan border regions too.

If you want to reduce violent conflict, get people employed. Get them schooled. If you want to reduce violent conflict, that’s what you need to focus on. And we could do that for a lot less money.


Upcoming Events

April 14th, Thursday, 3-4pm
Kabul, Afghanistan
The World Bank
Afghanistan Country Office
House 19, Street 15
Wazir Akbar Khan
The Fruit of Our Labor: Afghan Perspectives in Film – A presentation and screening by the the Afghan filmmakers about their films and the ongoing work of Community Supported Film-Afghanistan

Please let us know if you can host a presentation and screening at your home, institution or in your community.


Corruption at home: the DoD’s $436 hammer

The Pentagon Continues to Overpay for Everything; Let’s Fix It

Wednesday 08 December 2010

by: Dina Rasor, t r u t h o u t | Solution

In the first “Solutions: Making Government Work” column, editor Dina Rasor outlines an essential first step toward regaining control over the notoriously corrupt Department of Defense contracting system. It’s not going to be easy, but if the political will can be summoned to take this step, voters may handsomely reward politicians who show bravery on this issue. To attack the problem, Rasor draws on her three decades in the trenches of the battle between the military-industrial complex and those who seek to cut waste and punish fraud. Believe it or not, this fight has not always been one-sided. The Pentagon can be beaten.

This is the debut of a new column for Truthout to look for realistic and achievable solutions to the problems in the federal government. For more on the background and goals for this column, click here.

Every part of Washington, DC, is scrambling to find some way to balance the budget and reduce the deficit. Even in tough times, it is rare for the powers in Washington to consider looking to any part of the Department of Defense (DOD) budget to cut, especially during wartime. But the DoD budget has risen dramatically since 2001, and some in Congress are looking for fraud, waste and abuse in the DoD budget to weed out.

The Pentagon finances are a mess and the DoD has not passed an independent audit in 20 years, one of the few departments in the federal government that has failed to do so. After investigating the DoD for 30 years and living through many attempts to try to get control of the DoD spending, it appears to be a task too big for any Congress or president to conquer. I am launching this new “Solutions” column to find small, achievable and realistic slices of government reform, therefore, fixing the Pentagon finances and costs seems like a strange way to start. However, I have a modest solution that could possibly be the first step to a many-mile journey of finally getting a handle on out-of-control costs.

To understand how weapons and other costs keep overrunning and growing exponentially with each new generation of weapons, you have to first understand how the DoD looks at costs – what they paid for in the past and how they calculate what is reasonable to spend in the future. For much of the past 40 years, the DoD has used historical cost pricing to see what is reasonable to pay for future systems. In other words, the DoD looks at how much it costs to produce planes, ships and tanks and uses that as a baseline to calculate what the new plane, ship and tank will cost, plus more money on top for new technology.

The problem with this system is that the DoD has tolerated so much fraud, waste and fat in each weapons program, with only a few of the contracts scrubbed for inflated costs. This has resulted in generations of fraud and fat, which have become part of the new baseline on historic costs. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), right now, major weapons programs are overrunning by $300 billion. What will happen with most of these programs is that the DoD will pay for these weapons with their overruns anyway, and then those overruns will become part of the new baseline for new programs for new weapons. Essentially, this process magnifies the waste and makes it grow exponentially with every new weapons system.

The best way to really understand the problem is to look at the costs of items that the public can understand. The DoD has the advantage of confusing the public and most of the members of Congress because it is hard for the public to decide what a tank or fighter plane should cost. But in the 1980s, I helped expose overpriced spare parts in the DOD. Many people still remember the $436 hammer, the $600 toilet seat and $7,622 coffee brewer. The public was so outraged over the high prices on parts that both chambers of Congress passed an unprecedented one-year defense budget freeze in the mid 1980s, in the middle of the cold war, and under President Ronald Reagan.

What we were able to show is that the overpriced hammers and coffee brewers were priced by the same bloated pricing formulas used for weapons. As Air Force whistleblower Ernest Fitzgerald said at the time, “Those Air Forces planes you see flying in the sky are actually overpriced spare parts flying in close formation.”

But as time went by and despite serious efforts by the Congress in the 1980s, the DoD kept marching along using historic costs, with all the waste, as the baseline for determining future purchase prices.

The $436 hammer was one of the best illustrative cases. After Congressman Berkley Bedell (D-Iowa) found this overpriced hammer in the Navy procurement system, he asked the Navy auditors to audit the costs and show where the fraud and waste were located. The Navy dutifully audited the hammer costs based on approved cost formulas and found that the costs on the hammer were “exorbitant but legal.” In other words, the markup on the hammer by the contractor was outrageous, but the Navy had approved the markups, thereby institutionally legalizing these ridiculously high prices for the baseline in the future.

The following chart, taken from Navy documents, demonstrates how a $7 hammer, purchased by Gould Corporation in the 1980s, grew to cost the Navy $436. Remember, these are markups and time billed for every hammer.

Gould, Simulated Systems Division
Purchased Item
Item – hammer, hand, sledge – Qty – 1 each
Direct Material – $ 7.00
Material Packaging – 1.00
Material Handling Overhead @ 19.8% – 2.00

Spares/Repair Dept. 1.0 hours
Program Support/Admin. 0.4 hours
Program Management 1.0 hours
Secretarial 0.2 hours

Subtotal: 2.6 hours Engr. Support $37.00
Engr. O/H [Overhead] @ 110% – 41.00

· Mechanical Sub-assembly 0.3 hours
· Quality Control 0.9 hours
· Operations Program Mgt. 1.5 hours
· Program Planning 4.0 hours
· Mfg. Project Engr. 1.0 hours
· Q.A. (quality assurance) 0.1 hours

Subtotal: 7.8 hrs Mfg. Support 93.00
Mfg O/H @ 110% – 102.00

$ 283.00
G & A [General & Administrative]@ 31.8% – 90.00

Fee [profit] 56.00
Facilities Capital Cost of Money – 7.00
TOTAL PRICE- $ 436.00

The Navy, after facing embarrassment and ridicule in the media and in the public, attempted to recover some of the costs, but declared a big victory when they were only able to recover 10 percent of the costs. That means that almost 90 percent was passed on to the historic costs of that program and became the new normal, the new baseline price for future hammer purchases.

The DoD has been using this historic pricing baseline for generations of weapons, which has led to fewer and fewer planes, ships and tanks at higher and higher prices. It has led to the classic case of “more bucks for less bang,” which can be crippling to our national defense. For more on this depressing problem, see a recent report on how historical pricing is jeopardizing our national defense. (For more on how overpricing is jeopardizing our national defense, see this report sent to the Deficit Commission in November 2010.)

Trying to tackle the historic cost-pricing system in all these weapons is a daunting task, especially since the DOD, in many cases, doesn’t know what they actually paid for many programs because the internal auditing is in such disarray. Without a decent accounting, any attempt to look at costs could be a fool’s errand because the input of defective costs is a “garbage in, garbage out” dilemma. So, we have a huge problem in DoD costs that would take a mind-boggling set of solutions with very little political will to do this in the Pentagon and in the Congress.

But we should not just throw up our hands and let these bloated costs continue to multiply year after year. There is an important new area where huge costs have not solidified and progress could be made to keep a realistic baseline of costs for future contracts – the contractor support costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

As it has been reported in the media and in my book, “Betraying Our Troops: the Destructive Results of Privatizing War,” these two wars have used more contractors near and in the battlefield to service the troops than any wars before them. Part of the reason that so many contractors came into the battlefield to replace logistics troops to feed, supply and house the soldiers was that in the beginning of the war, then Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put a troop cap on how many troops could be deployed to Iraq. This also included troops that supplied the logistics for the troops, so, in desperation, Gen. Paul Kern and others responsible for supplying the troops dusted off and expanded a troop support contract given to Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a branch of the Halliburton company at that time.

This contract, which was supposed to supply logistics to various bases around the world for $60 million dollars a year, was exploded and multiplied thousands of times over to handle the logistics of two complicated wars. There were other contractors which were also involved early in the war, but KBR was the 800-pound gorilla, and their contract, known as LOGCAP III, worth over $40 billion, and still growing, as they continue to supply the troops and other government functions in Iraq.

KBR and others realized that they would have little oversight during the beginning of the war, and used common contractor tricks and devices to run up the early costs, inflated numbers which would then be used constantly for the duration of the contract. KBR and other companies charged 12 hours a day, seven days a week in labor costs, regardless of how much work was accomplished, not just at the beginning of the war, but continuing on to the present. Since much of KBR’s work is not connected to the manufacturing of weapons, but more of a war-service industry, labor costs are the majority of the overall costs. Even adding overhead, General & Administrative (G&A), and other costs, it still boggles the mind that KBR could run up a contract to over $40 billion for driving trucks, maintaining barracks, doing laundry and slinging hash.

KBR has been protected from oversight because of their cozy relationship with the Army. Because they’ve been allowed to inflate costs since the beginning, they have laid down an enormously bloated, wasteful and fraudulent baseline for every contract of this type in the future.

This is especially true since KBR and other contractors have taken over large areas of support that the Army used to do for itself, and the Army has allowed the ability to support itself in some areas to atrophy. Future military missions will continue to be supplied by contractors. These costs will continue to soar because this baseline has been allowed to include so much fraud.

But there is still a chance to do something about these historical costs before they solidify into a permanent baseline. Many of these war contracts have not yet been definitized, i.e. been finalized as to actual costs and price. The Army has been unwilling to significantly audit and control these contractors’ costs for several reasons. The Army is not a good organization to discipline these contractors because the contractors have literally become their partners on the battlefield and they don’t want to have adversarial relationship while working with them in very dangerous conditions. Also, many former Army personnel have gone to work for these contractors once they retired from the Army, at much higher and inflated wages, thereby becoming part of the run-up of the costs, and many of the military brass want a post-retirement job with the contractor for themselves or their family. KBR was jokingly known as Kinfolk, Brothers and Relatives in Iraq.

So, What Is a Possible Solution?

I believe that getting control of and rolling back these contractor war costs before they become the new normal is so vital, the Secretary of Defense should set up a separate “Tiger Team,” a specialized team that the military has traditionally set up to tackle hard tasks. This team should report directly to the secretary and consist of the toughest current and retired DoD auditors and investigators. This team would go back to all the paperwork that exists since the beginning of the wars and scrub each contract for excessive costs, fraud and fat. They should then make sure that, before these contracts are completed and/or definitized, that the historic costs represent reasonable costs, not inflated labor costs with the unbelievable scenario of workers charging for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, year after year (even God rested on the seventh day.) It would be very unwise to use auditors from any of the private auditing firms, because they would not have the understanding of the service tasks or the political will to go after these influential companies. There are incredibly competent auditors and investigators in government service who are ready willing and able to do this job right – I know of a dozen myself who would jump at the chance to go after these contracts as long as the political will existed.

Unless the current and then the new secretary of defense and the White House commit to this concept of an independent Tiger Team to report directly to the top of the bureaucracy, this effort could easily sink into political infighting and bureaucratic territory battles – as so many such efforts have in the past. However, if this new audit team was able to successfully scrub the war costs and only pay reasonable prices, it could be a test case to try to tackle the larger and more entrenched parts of the DoD bureaucracy.

There is also another way to determine costs that could save billions of dollars, but it is a much more daunting reform that I may explore in a series of future columns.

There are some people in Congress and the DoD who might have the political will to make this happen. Secretary Gates has given many speeches in favor of trying to control costs. He could run this effort directly out of his office and set it up for his replacement to seriously follow through in order to get control of the war contractor costs. The Congress could also help guarantee that this is a serious effort by passing an amendment in the DoD budget legislation mandating that the audit is done. Since there is so much money at stake, Congress would also need to commit to oversight hearings while the auditing was taking place to make sure that outside and internal pressures were not at work to sabotage the effort. The Congressional committees could also put on more pressure by investigating KBR and other contractors to expose more waste and fraud. The secretary of defense would need the full and strong backing of the White House, so that parts of the entrenched and threatened bureaucracies would not try to slow down the effort and hope to wait it out for a new administration.

Despite the obstacles to this reform, the country must have the will to get control of the raging contractor war costs before they become another part of the historical pricing hell in the DoD that is hurting the defense of our country and draining our national treasury. The concern over the debt and deficits makes this a unique time to get serious about finally, step by step, regaining control of at least one part of DoD spending. All the so-called deficit hawks in Congress and in the administration have a chance to show that they are serious, and the public needs to push them into serious action. Whoever in Washington has the political will to tackle this problem bravely will see a great return of public popularity. In the 1980s, both then Congresswoman Barbara Boxer and Sen. Chuck Grassley became very popular politicians in their states by taking on defense fraud and waste problems, including the spare parts scandals. It will be interesting to see who is now willing to step up to the task. My solution is a first step on a long road to serious DoD cost reform and someone needs to take it.

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Saving Yemen

Is Counterterrorism Enough?
Foreign Affairs, by Marisa L. Porges, November 16, 2010

Yemen rose to the forefront of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in December 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was trained in Yemen by al Qaeda, attempted to bomb an airliner bound for Detroit. Since then, Washington has become concerned about the growing influence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its spokesman, the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. When two bombs were sent on cargo from Yemen to the United States last month, public attention again focused on U.S. strategies to combat AQAP.

So far, however, these efforts have been complicated by the current state of Yemen itself, which faces a multitude of internal problems that are pushing it to the brink of failure. Interconnected threats from the Houthi rebellion in the north, an increasingly active secessionist movement in the south, and a host of growing socioeconomic problems make Yemen a priority for experts in both counterterrorism and development. Yemen’s potential collapse concerns U.S. officials not just because of al Qaeda but also because such an event could threaten U.S. access to Bab el-Mandab (the narrow strait into the Red Sea through which millions of barrels of oil and countless military vessels pass each day), as well as create the prospect of a vast Yemeni humanitarian crisis that could send millions of refugees into oil-rich Saudi Arabia and beyond.

As months pass with little clear progress, and as anxiety about AQAP grows, Western governments and Yemenis themselves are increasingly asking: Is it too late to save the country? Fortunately, there remains a small but rapidly closing window of opportunity to rescue Yemen and, in the process, address pressing security concerns.

Yemen is the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest state and more closely resembles many sub-Saharan countries than any of its Gulf neighbors. The country faces recurring food security issues, and Sana’a is projected to be the first capital city in the world to run out of water by 2025. Of Yemen’s nearly 24 million citizens, 43 percent live on two dollars a day, while approximately 40 percent are unemployed. Half of adult Yemenis are uneducated. This precarious situation is further exacerbated by the fact that Yemen’s population is expected to double in the next 15 years. This swelling demographic of young, unemployed Yemenis represents a significant socioeconomic concern and a potential target for radicalization and recruitment by terrorist organizations. Moreover, the country’s oil reserves, sales from which account for more than 70 percent of the government’s budget, are expected to run out within ten years. Given Yemen’s undiversified economy, the country will run out of money alongside oil.

The West’s overriding interest in halting terrorism has largely allowed Yemen’s leadership to skirt responsibility for its own failures.
What makes this dire situation all the more tragic is that Yemen was lauded as a model emerging democracy only a few years ago. The country’s first competitive presidential race, in 2006, suggested slow but ongoing progress. After Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s chief rival received 22 percent of the vote, the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to democracy promotion, declared that the election was not a typical Middle Eastern “showpiece.” The group further praised Yemen as a leader in political reform compared with its neighbors and applauded the country for its tolerance of opposition parties, extension of voting rights to women, and attempts to decentralize power. Meanwhile, Yemeni citizens have created a patchwork of political parties, nongovernmental organizations, charities, and social movements. These groups, which numbered almost 7,000 in 2009, advocate for a wide range of issues, including anticorruption programs, election monitoring, and initiatives to empower women and youth. Recently, one organization trained banks to counter money laundering and terrorist financing — an initiative that U.S. officials consider a key tool for combating terrorism in the region.

Yet since 2007, political reform has effectively stalled. Facing significant security and socioeconomic pressures, the Yemeni government became less concerned with supporting long-term reform initiatives and began instead to focus on short-term efforts to consolidate control. The southern secessionist movement grew increasingly aggressive in its efforts to raise issues of southern political, economic, and social marginalization since unification. In the north, Houthi Shiites had waged an intermittent insurrection against the government since 2004 and again drew Saleh’s attention when a new round of fighting began in January 2007. Al Qaeda also became increasingly active, attacking tourists and Western interests in the country. With threats on all sides, the regime moved to curtail political freedoms and civil liberties and began relying more heavily on tribes and patronage to hold the country together, fueling growing resentment among Yemeni citizens.

However, given past reform efforts and a history of effective consensus building, Yemen’s future is not necessarily destined for failure. To “save” Yemen — and in the process, help it meet its own security objectives — Washington must balance near-term counterterrorism efforts with political reform and development initiatives, and make difficult decisions about how to prioritize and sequence response efforts.

Developing a coherent, coordinated, and most important, feasible strategy has been challenging. In the wake of the failed bombing attempt last December, U.S. policymakers publicly pledged to combine security assistance to Yemen with programs to enhance development, humanitarian aid, and economic and political reform. Similarly, the Friends of Yemen, a group of 22 countries formed after the attempted Christmas Day attack to develop a multilateral response to Yemen’s problems, includes committees responsible for assisting Yemen with its economy, governance, and rule of law. Public statements after its most recent meeting in September announced a laundry list of objectives, from reconstruction efforts in the northern region of Sa’dah to establishing yet another donors fund for Yemen.

Yet implementing these reform and development plans has proven difficult, and international efforts to date have largely been fragmented and inconsistent. Many Yemenis contend that efforts have had little impact thus far and doubt the ability of Western donors to help. To achieve measurable success, Washington and the international community must more directly address the Yemeni government’s falling legitimacy at home. The West’s overriding interest in halting terrorism has largely allowed Yemen’s leadership to skirt responsibility for its own failures — especially with regard to its pervasive corruption. Transparency International recently ranked Yemen 146 out of 178 countries on their 2010 corruption perception index, ahead of only Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan in the region. U.S officials have, for the most part, been willing to overlook such tremendous corruption and related misgovernance as long as Saleh met Washington’s demands for increased pressure on al Qaeda.

Although the U.S. Congress allocated nearly $50 million in development aid to Yemen this year, that amount hardly compares to the $170 million in military and security-related funds that Washington provided the country the same year — and if a recent request from the Department of Defense is approved, that number may soon rise to as much as $250 million. Washington’s prioritization of counterterrorism ultimately undermines its long-term objectives by convincing Yemenis that the United States is merely interested in propping up a regime that, in the words of Yemen expert April Alley, relies on “co-optation, divide-and-rule tactics, corruption, the distribution of patronage, and the manipulation of weak democratic institutions” to maintain political domination. As a result, many Yemeni citizens distrust both their own government and the U.S. officials supporting it. Many even doubt that AQAP was behind the recent plot to ship explosives to the United States, instead considering it another attempt by the Yemeni government to cement political power and use terrorism to increase international support.

To rebuild trust, the United States must encourage Saleh to advance the political reform agenda that Yemenis began after unification nearly 20 years ago to reconcile formerly separate political systems in the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Early achievements included the codification of freedom of expression and political association and the approval of a new constitution. The current program — which includes efforts to reform electoral laws, improve distribution of power, and increase political representation — has been under discussion between the regime and opposition parties for years and enjoys broad support. But the process has lost momentum due to the scale and complexity of current discussions and diminishing political will. Frustration with the lack of progress has reached a boiling point and threatens to undermine the country’s stability even further, especially in the south, where citizens have been fighting political, economic, and social marginalization since unification.

The United States and the international community must move quickly to place consistent, coordinated pressure on Saleh to advance the reform agenda and should consider making further assistance contingent on progress. It must insist that he fulfill promises to advance a broadly inclusive national dialogue that brings together the opposition party alliance, tribal sheikhs, the southern secessionist movement, and other relevant actors to resolve longstanding electoral and constitutional reform issues. Although Yemenis themselves must define the parameters of expanded political reform initiatives, central elements will likely include redefining the role of central state institutions to give more power to local authorities, increasing transparency and aggressively combating corruption, and reestablishing civil control over the country’s security and military institutions. In order to make concrete progress, the dialogue must advance to actual negotiation and may require a neutral Gulf neighbor to facilitate discussions. Qatar recently mediated talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthis; Oman may be able to play a similar role in conducting a national dialogue and to help hold its participants accountable for taking concrete steps forward. Furthermore, Western nations must train and empower civil society organizations that provide grassroots support for these reform efforts and encourage their more formal role in future discussions. Such assistance may help solidify these groups and provide a homegrown base for long-term development.

A focus on political reform does not imply that security-oriented support, development and humanitarian aid, and economic improvement are unimportant. All are elements of long-term plans for Yemen. Diversifying the country’s economy, addressing its unemployment crisis, and improving its vocational training are critical to its future. Yet Washington and the international community must place greater emphasis on sequencing efforts. Small but concrete progress on even a few political reform initiatives will most significantly address Yemeni concerns for the regime’s illegitimacy, a core problem for all response efforts in Yemen, including attempts to combat AQAP.

Some U.S. leaders are still reluctant to get heavily involved in Yemen — no doubt reflecting donor weariness toward the country and a reluctance to pour more money into the region. But Yemen is not Afghanistan or Iraq. U.S. support for Yemen will not, and should not, involve military intervention and state building on that scale. But a narrow counterterrorism approach will not defeat al Qaeda there and risks Yemen’s ultimate failure, a long-term strategic liability. Only by teaming counterterrorism with long-term development and more aggressive, near-term political reform can Washington and the international community ensure that Yemen avoids complete collapse and becomes a stable, reliable partner in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.


The Binds That Tie Us

Overcoming the Obstacles to Peace in Afghanistan
Foreign Affairs, by Greg Mills and David Richards, November 24, 2010

Following the 9/11 attacks, Washington opted for a troop-lite approach to removing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Over the next four years, the civilian and military components of the international presence in Afghanistan grew, even though the strategic focus of the United States and the United Kingdom shifted to Iraq. During this time, the remnants of the Taliban slowly regrouped and began preparations to launch a large-scale insurgency, which erupted in 2006. Since then, the number of international forces in Afghanistan has increased each year, as the 47-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has attempted to tame the Pashtun-dominated south, the Taliban’s heartland. The U.S. troop surge in 2010 heralded a further evolution in the West’s strategy.

Yet peace will remain elusive unless the international community can deal with the five binds that have proven difficult to escape in Afghanistan.

The first is the country’s overall strategic, political dilemma: Should ISAF focus its activities solely on countering terrorism and leave Afghans to run the economy and politics as they want? Or, as Mao would have it, should the international community attempt to transform the swamp in which the Taliban swim — that is, affect major political and socioeconomic change in the country? Inevitably, this will mean incorporating some of the Taliban and their mostly Pashtun supporters into the political fold. Although there is a danger of extrapolating too much from the Iraq experience, the manner in which the U.S. military brought the Sunni minority on board — through assiduous tribal cooptation and the harnessing of tribal antipathy toward foreign fighters — is instructive. But unlike Sunnis in Iraq, the Pashtun and the Taliban represent the majority of Afghans, at least in the south. They have to be converted en masse.

Progress will to an extent hinge on managing the second bind: finding a way for ISAF to work more productively with the Afghan government. Many Afghan warlords have transformed themselves into businessmen, and many of them are well connected in the political world. Curbing the excesses of these powerbrokers is essential. At the same time, however, the stability that they and their private militias offer can be utilized for the good of Afghanistan.

The international community’s first priority is to find the means to make aid more than just a feeding trough for local warlords. For example, the border town of Spin Boldak, located south of Kandahar, serves as the gateway to and from northern Pakistan. It is controlled by its own generalissimo, Abdul Razziq. The thirty-something de facto commander of the 3,500-strong border police is said to earn an estimated $5 million-$6 million per month from his various border businesses. But he also contributes to stability, not only in the border region but in Kandahar City itself, as his positive military contribution in the Afghan-led Malajat operation in August illustrated. Following the failure of an earlier operation hastily organized by the regional governor, Razziq’s forces quickly swooped down on the area, arresting Taliban and seizing explosives.

Whether Western leaders like it or not, powerbrokers such as Razziq have a positive role to play in developing Afghanistan. But that role can only be fulfilled if the government can stop them from perniciously distorting the country’s economy. To date, the government has been focused on ensuring security and distributing profits by concentrating on foreign diplomacy (for obtaining continued aid) and local patronage (to maintain control). Consequently, the economic system is characterized by widening inequality, fueling grievances and greed. Afghanistan is now the third-most unequal society in the world after Angola and Equatorial Guinea. The Asia Foundation’s 2010 public opinion survey shows that just under half of Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction. High levels of insecurity, corruption, poor government, and unemployment are cited as the main reasons for pessimism.

The third bind concerns the effectiveness of aid. By 2010, the international community was spending more than $100 billion annually on in-kind military and other assistance in Afghanistan. This includes over $10 billion in development aid annually, amounting to $333 per Afghan per year. Yet given the lack of development impact — as measured by the existence of an economy independent of donor money — it may have been better (and considerably more efficient) if the international community had simply airdropped bundles of money throughout the country.

Afghanistan has not one but three economies: the aid economy, the largest one; a second illicit economy centered on drugs and smuggling; and a tiny licit economy, both formal and informal. There is very little industry (a traditional route for export-led development in low-wage countries), virtually no mining (despite considerable potential), and only an embryonic service sector. The relatively glitzy world of Kabul contrasts starkly with the grinding poverty of the rural areas.

Aid not only disincentivizes normal entrepreneurial activity and distorts key economic factors, such as overvaluing the currency due to large donor inflows, but also offers local politicians convenient means to externalize their choices, problems, and failures. The Afghan state’s shortcomings when it comes to service delivery are commonly blamed on a lack of external aid or on Pakistan, and the solutions are generally expected to come from outside as well. If nothing else, recent revelations over Iranian “soft aid” (cash flowing directly to the Afghan government) illustrate the limits of the political influence that can be achieved simply by sending prodigious sums of Western aid.

The fourth bind is regional dependency; peace in Afghanistan depends on stability in neighboring Pakistan. Yet Pakistan needs its own state-building project and to address the dynamics of its relationship with India. And Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan is complicated by Kabul’s refusal to recognize the border that separates them and bisects the Pashtun; three million Afghans and 20 million of their largely Pashtun relatives live inside Pakistan. A regional solution also necessitates finding a formula in Pakistan and Afghanistan for two societies — one a centralized, Western-styled democracy; the other localized and tribal-based — to coexist, while ensuring sufficient economic growth.

The final bind is that of time. From Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the window in which foreigners can make a notable difference in peace-building missions is generally assumed to be approximately one decade, after which voters at home tend to grow weary as other priorities take over, and locals view foreign aid less as welcome assistance than undue outside interference. As the Taliban saying has it: they have the time, and the rest of the world has the watches.

The international community’s first priority is to find the means to make aid more than just a feeding trough for local warlords. It could be much more productively used to assist entrepreneurs in turning good ideas into businesses. One of the few available approaches to creating jobs is to add value to Afghan agriculture, especially in the conflict-ridden south. Kandahar, for example, produces more than 70 percent of the country’s annual 80,000-ton pomegranate crop, and the Arghandab region to the north of Kandahar City produces 80 percent of that figure. The return for pomegranate farmers exceeds $6,000 per hectare, compared to just $2,000 for poppy farmers. If the lower-grade pomegranates could be turned into juice for the burgeoning international market, even more value could be added. Establishing what is described in contemporary consultant-speak as a pomegranate “value chain” offers one of the few opportunities to spur job growth in Afghanistan.

Second, ISAF must play a role in setting the conditions for reconciliation between the Taliban and other Afghans, but it must also encourage the Karzai administration to focus on the affairs of the provinces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s executive style of governance has led Kabul to deal with the provinces primarily through proxy powerbrokers. This “representation deficit” is exacerbated by the current system of rotating governors and the appointment (rather than election) of district-level representatives. For all of the international community’s attempts to instill a structure of democratic governance, the one system that has endured Afghanistan’s political ebbs and flows is the one controlled by tribal elders. It must remain a force for stability.

Third, working with Kabul also means choosing when to get tough with local partners. It demands getting more out of aid programs, setting scorecards for evaluating their positive impact on job creation, improving policy, developing infrastructure, and encouraging more efficient and responsive government. It means simplifying governance procedures, identifying where local capacity exists, and working with local actors to prioritize resources and build their capacity to govern. The fact that there is no Afghan school of public administration eight years after the Karzai government took office speaks volumes about missed opportunities. Afghans themselves must make economic reform a priority.

Fourth, a regional solution will require working closely with the Pakistani government to keep it onside and assist it with its own fraught path to development and good governance. It will also entail addressing regional insecurities by enabling rapprochement between India and Pakistan — not least a resolution in Kashmir. It is no small order, but it is a crucial issue that is closely linked to the duration of international commitment to Afghanistan.

A culture of impunity gave rise to the Taliban in the 1990s and continues to feed the organization today.
Much has been achieved in improving Afghan-Pakistani trade, which has increased from $40 million to $1 billion in a decade, but much more can be done. Incentives for smuggling, notably the external tariff differential between Afghanistan and Pakistan — which encourages cheap entry of goods into Afghanistan and then smuggling back into Pakistan — must be reduced or eliminated. At the same time, there must be a greater focus on creating opportunities for trade through, for example, instituting regularized exchanges between chambers of commerce and curtailing transloading requirements, whereby goods are reloaded at the borders because Afghan and Pakistani trucks are not allowed to drive in each other’s territory.

In addition, the international community must tackle corruption within the Afghan government, or the counterinsurgency effort will be doomed. A culture of impunity gave rise to the Taliban in the 1990s and continues to feed the organization today.

Changing how ISAF contracts are granted could be a key means of demonstrating a different way of doing business while bringing about a modicum of power for the international community. It may not cut the powerbrokers out altogether — not least since they control the only companies capable of carrying out many essential tasks — but it could change their behavior. One mechanism for achieving this would be to establish a contractual scorecard for ISAF contracts to ensure that contractors are not only seen to be complying with governance requirements but are made to think about the need to spread their wealth around. Such a scorecard would include rankings on local ownership and procurement, female participation in management and ownership, records of tax payments, and employee equity.

Increasing the responsibility of the powerbrokers by elevating them from informal to official positions would check their authority by appealing to their reputations and transforming their concerns over image and honor into key ISAF weapons.

The final need is for the international community to express its commitment to long-term state reconstruction. Failing such a commitment, space will open for other actors, including Iran, to fill. Moreover, recent work by the World Bank shows that the probability of success for development projects (most notably in promoting the private sector) increases as peace becomes durable.

The principal obstacle to peace in Afghanistan is not a cultural phenomenon or the country’s martial traditions. Rather, Afghans have reacted in an entirely logical and rational way to a set of incentives and circumstances. Stability demands changing these conditions and ending the powerbrokers’ culture of impunity while moving Afghanistan off its addiction to foreign assistance and drug money.


First screenings and discussions in the States

The following is an excerpt from an email sent to the Community Supported Film team of filmmakers that has now been founded, post training, in Kabul:

Dear Team,

This week I am working on a revised proposal for funding from the US Embassy, preparing for screenings and speaking opportunities and catching up on many many things left unattended while away.

Monday, I made two presentations of the films followed by discussions.  In both cases I introduced the training, the filmmakers, the work of CSF and showed the excerpts of the films and took questions and comments.

In the morning I presented to students and faculty at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and in the evening to graduate students at the Massachusetts College of Art.  All were very impressed by the quality of the filmmaking, the amount learned and the issues of everyday Afghan life represented by the films.

To my surprise, a few of the art students in the evening didn’t believe the authenticity of the work – primarily because from their point of view the war is not mentioned or shown at all.  When I tried to explain that the film’s intention is to present outsiders a view of Afghanistan beyond the battlefront it became clear that the western media has created such a strong impression of Afghanistan being only about war, terror and extremism, that viewers can not trust a representation that does not include these things.  I am very interested to know what you and the others reaction to this is.  Have we created a false image of daily life in Afghanistan?  I don’t believe so but you should give some feedback.  It would be great if some of the filmmakers could be interviewed about this on tape.  I could include some of this then in the screenings.

Another response from a minority of the viewers was that these films do not represent an Afghan perspective because they feel too ‘western’ in style.  (And others felt they were too good in quality to actually have been made during the 5 week training!) This is very interesting because of course the intention of the training was to help professionalize Afghan documentary filmmaking – so that trainees can get work and make there own high quality films.

I am interested to know if for any of you, this ‘quality’ of filmmaking seems forced by a western stylistic approach?  To some art students in the US, if the films look to be made in the ‘western’ tradition of documentary filmmaking and do not include a unique Afghan documentary filmmaking style, then they can not represent an honest Afghan perspective.  This is a very interesting subject and one we should all think about and discuss further.  I would very much like to know if you all feel that an external style of filmmaking has been forced on you or that you have been taught ‘universal’ aspects of the art and craft of filmmaking and will move on to develop your own style as your careers develop?

I am missing you all very much,

Best wishes,


Job creation will weaken Taliban in Afghanistan, Pentagon official says

The Dallas Morning News, Jim Landers, 12:00 AM CST on Tuesday, November 16, 2010

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon’s point man for winning the economic war in Afghanistan is coming to Dallas to tell local business leaders that jobs in farming and mining are key to weakening the Taliban insurgency.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley, a 44-year-old Wylie native with two degrees from Texas A&M, is the scheduled speaker today for a Dallas luncheon of Business Executives for National Security.

Brinkley directs a Pentagon task force created in 2006 with the initial mission of finding jobs in Iraq. U.S. generals found many Iraqis were fighting Americans for a paycheck rather than an ideological or religious cause.

Brinkley has carried that mission to Afghanistan, but with a much broader mandate. The task force is trying to help the Afghan government create a sustainable economy out of what is now a charity-fueled weakling.

Afghanistan has a $14 billion economy where little more than $1 billion is generated through licit business ventures.

“Sixty percent of Afghan GDP is the result of donor activity,” Brinkley said. “Twenty-five to 30 percent is drugs. … If the international community withdraws, the economy will collapse.”

The current Afghan economy is so weak that the government can’t afford to pay an army and police force large enough to take over security responsibilities from U.S. forces. Brinkley’s teams of business volunteers and Defense Department employees are working to strengthen universities, help farmers find markets and encourage U.S. companies to invest.

Brinkley is also working with the Afghan government’s Ministry of Mines on a plan designed to create a self-sustaining economy over the next five to 10 years.

“Afghanistan is a treasure trove of extremely valuable mineral wealth,” Brinkley said. “This is the ticket to the future viability of Afghanistan.”

The U.S. Geological Survey has done extensive aerial mapping of Afghanistan that shows potential deposits of copper, iron ore, coal, gold, lithium and other resources. China is developing a copper deposit that could become the first of several large mining operations.

Having these resources does not automatically mean Afghanistan will make it. Brinkley said U.S. business experts could help the Afghan government counter corruption and write and execute resource development plans.

“If we do nothing, international actors with no concern for corruption or the environment will come in and turn Afghanistan into a mining colony,” he said.

Fruitful endeavor
Brinkley’s staff set up a visit to Afghanistan for Scott Fichter of Sweet Dried Fruit of Largo Vista, Texas, that’s led to an agreement to purchase Afghan raisins for the U.S. and European markets.

Fichter said Afghanistan was one of the top exporters of raisins in the world back in the 1970s, and many of the old grapevines are still bearing fruit.

“I’m not a big fan of the war one way or the other. I’d like to see it resolve itself,” Fichter said. “My company is set up to be able to help the situation. We’re the largest raisin handler in the world.”

Brinkley said his task force helped create hundreds of thousands of jobs in Iraq. The task force helped Iraqi contractors supply goods such as building materials to the U.S. military and then got the Iraqis to accept payment through banks. That helped dry up a corruption-prone way of doing business that relied on big wads of cash. It also helped Iraqi banks establish themselves.

The Pentagon-led economic efforts were resisted by some other federal officials. But a “Lessons Learned” report issued last year by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that no one else in government was prepared to do the work Brinkley’s task force has pursued.


Next steps and Expanding Goals

The completion of our October/November 2010 production training is only the beginning of our work.  From now on, selected trainees and more experienced members of the Afghan documentary filmmaking community will partner on the making of the film Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War (BTKW).  Their first task is to work on the complex and rigorous work required to identify the four villages that meet the criteria desired for the telling of the story.

From the perspective of Afghan villagers, the film will explore the benefits of bottom up versus the costs of top down development approaches and the impact of local versus foreign ownership of the process.  Specifically, international audiences will experience the three dominant methods of delivering aid: 1. Foreign soldiers taking a direct role in economic development through the “hearts and mind” strategy of the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine; 2. The reconstruction work of foreign aid-agencies and contractors, and 3. The work of the Afghan government’s highly acclaimed National Solidarity Program.

These parallel stories will allow the international community a unique insight into the effectiveness and sustainability of these different approaches as both external and internal forces struggle for peace in war-weary and self-determined Afghanistan.

Expanding Goals

After two years of developing Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War, one year of establishing Community Supported Film and now the completion of the training, we have decided that the work here should be ongoing and look beyond the making of the Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.  The repeated refrain we hear from funders and Afghan filmmakers is how will this work be sustained.

With your support we plan  to extend our work to focus on guiding and supporting our trainees and other afghan filmmakers as they seek to submit production proposals and earn work on commissioned films.  This is going to mean a lot more fundraising and infrastructure development but the work has taken on a life of its own that is presenting a clear directive that is exciting and doable.  We appreciate every bit of support you can offer this work.


Training Concludes with Kabul Screening

The final weeks of postproduction were packed with repeated reviews of 10 rough cuts. Four editors worked 10-12 hours a day with the directors at their side, transcribing, logging or out picking up additional footage.

Pari Gul and her son took great care of our stomachs and taste buds. (Wow, can these folks eat!)  Fakhria brought her baby daughter to keep us entertained. (Afghans absolutely adore children.  it was remarkable to see how that baby was passed from person to person – and how perfectly happy she was with it – no shyness or wining for mom here!).

We had to extract ourselves from our rented training center.  The last few days of endless translating and subtitling was completed at the offices of our co-producer, The Killid Group, and in my room/office. No great achievements can be accomplished it seems without the requisite all nighter – so we threw that in as well.

After 5 invigorating weeks of training plus one week of polishing and subtitling, the student’s presented their ten films at a public screening.  They have produced some incredible films – one would hardly know that most of them are first time documentary filmmakers.  It was a wonderful and celebratory completion to a very intense experience for all, at the end of which the student’s and team where presented with certificates of completion and appreciation.  A stimulating discussion between audience and filmmakers and then a dinner with most of the training team and students followed the screening.

It is extremely rewarding that we received emails the next morning from screening attendees asking if the filmmakers are available to work on projects and to submit proposals. And, the regional director from the World Bank came and was so impressed by the work that she invited all of  the students to present their films to staff at the World Bank’s Afghanistan Office.  (The WB is a major funder, overseer and protector of the National Solidarity Program).

We were not so successful at attracting the foreign community or the press.  That said Voice of America was in attendance to gather materials for a special report that they are producing for their youth program.  A big thanks goes to Jawed, who served as a trainer, for making that happen.  CNN may also be working on a story.

For now, rest is needed, but I’d be thrilled if we were starting another training next week.  There is no part of it from the outreach and interviewing through the hands on learning and the last great push that has not been very stimulating.  Of course the company has been fantastic.  We have made a great team and I look forward to the continued work together on the making of Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

Mehdi and Jamal were talking and one said to the other, “I can’t believe it, it’s magic – 10 films in 5 weeks – magic.”  The magic has been the great energy, smarts, high spirits and unwavering determination that everyone brought to the work.  Please make it all worthwhile and watch the films!


Two Notes to Self

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

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

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

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

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

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


BTKW: In Production

Click here to watch the trailer and learn more about the film ‘Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

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