Issues & Analysis

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.


Afghanistan Documentary Film Training 2012

Click here to learn more about the Afghanistan documentary training process.



Afghanistan: Change You Can’t Sit and Talk About

The First Battalion, 87th Infantry travels with Eric Imerman, left, who is teaching agriculture in Afghanistan’s northern province of Kunduz.
NYT, By JAMES DAO, November 12, 2010
Damon Winter/The New York Times

The First Battalion, 87th Infantry travels with Eric Imerman, left, who is teaching agriculture in Afghanistan’s northern province of Kunduz.
CHAHAR DARA, Afghanistan — When President Obama gave his major speech on Afghanistan a year ago, he called not only for sending an additional 30,000 American troops to the war, but also for expanding the role of civilian experts in rebuilding the nation’s shattered government and economy. A new policy was born: “the civilian surge.”

Some 30,000 American soldiers are taking part in the Afghanistan surge. Here are the stories of the men and women of First Battalion, 87th Infantry.

Scores of experts in farming, banking, judicial issues and small-business creation were recruited and sent to a civilian boot camp in Indiana intended to simulate a war-scarred Afghan city.

The New York Times

A handful wound up in the northern province of Kunduz, a lush region of wheat, rice and cotton farms that is also a strategic gateway to Central Asia. One of them was Eric Imerman, a former Peace Corps volunteer and agriculture expert, whose experiences in Kunduz say much about the uphill struggle facing the surge.

Mr. Imerman, 55, arrived in Kunduz in February. Though the province was considered less violent than the south, one of his first trips off the base ended in a firefight where he was called upon to feed ammunition to a machine gunner.

Over the coming months, he began meeting with farmers and provincial agriculture officials, trying to start demonstration projects intended to improve farming techniques as well as show residents that the government of President Hamid Karzai was trying to improve their lives.

The First Battalion, 87th Infantry is stationed in Afghanistan’s northern province of Kunduz, a lush region of wheat, rice and cotton farms, is also a strategic gateway to Central Asia.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
The First Battalion, 87th Infantry is stationed in Afghanistan’s northern province of Kunduz, a lush region of wheat, rice and cotton farms that is also a strategic gateway to Central Asia.

Fear of the Taliban

He arrived at one of his first meetings with a convoy of 5 trucks and about 15 American soldiers, because it was too dangerous for him to travel unprotected. A group of farmers listened patiently to his pitch, but afterward, one of them approached Mr. Imerman and told him not to bring any soldiers the next time.

“If they see you coming with all these soldiers, the Taliban will mark this field as a target, and then we all are going to suffer,” the farmer told him. Since he could not travel without security, the project was scrapped.

I met Mr. Imerman under similar circumstances when he visited Chahar Dara, possibly the most restive district of Kunduz province, in September.

He had come to talk to farmers about planting winter wheat along the main road. The meeting started amicably enough. But within minutes, the local representative for the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture became anxious. Couldn’t the farmers take photographs and measure the fields themselves, then meet with Mr. Imerman somewhere else? The soldiers were making the farmers nervous.

The ministry officials — but not the farmers — agreed to meet with Mr. Imerman at the local police compound, where the American soldiers were based, on the following day. Then Mr. Imerman packed up and left.

While serving in the Peace Corps in the Philippines in the 1980s, he said, “some of the best meetings I ever had with farmers was when you sit down under a shade tree and just talk with them. No agenda, just sit and talk. And you can’t do that here.”

Illiterate and Innumerate

Later that same day, Mr. Imerman ventured into the fields directly adjacent to the heavily fortified police headquarters, considered the only secure neighborhood in the district. And there, another obstacle to improving farm production became apparent: the rudimentary nature of local farming techniques.

On one plot, a sharecropper was harvesting mung beans from government-owned land. The farmer and about five of his children were trying to dislodge beans from their stems using brooms, and they seemed to be missing many of them. A few hundred yards away, farmers in another plot chopped at plants using handmade sickles.

Few farmers here use machines, and many do not use fertilizer or pesticides. When they do, they often apply the wrong amounts because they lack the ability to accurately measure their fields. When they guess, Mr. Imerman said, they often apply too much fertilizer, which burns the plants, or too little, which achieves nothing.

Mr. Imerman, a child of Iowa farm country, said he had grappled with premodern farming techniques before while in the Peace Corps. But Afghanistan is particularly frustrating, he said, because so few farmers are literate. Many do not know how to add. And to make matters worse, some farming skills seems to have been lost during 30 years of war.

For instance, he said, local farmers don’t use trestles for their grapes, though he believes that they once did. As a result, the grapes are more susceptible to fungus. A community irrigation system also seems to have been destroyed over the course of constant conflict.

Local farmers also seem baffled by the emergence of melon flies, which have destroyed as much as 80 percent of their crop. This region was once the melon capital of Afghanistan, he said, yet farmers seemed clueless about how to use pesticides that might kill the larvae.

The 24-Hour Syndrome

Crisis, he said, has bred what he calls “the 24-hour syndrome.” All they can think about, he said, is: “What is my problem today. It doesn’t matter that I’ve got something that I know is a problem coming down the road. It’s my problem today that I want solved.”

But perhaps the biggest problem he said he faced was a culture of dependency among Afghan farmers. Many farmers expect to be given something — machinery, fertilizer, feed or pesticides. But they do not want to learn better farming techniques, he said.

“As far as development goes, just giving something to someone is, to me, failed development,” Mr. Imerman said.

When he met again with agricultural officials and farmers in Chahar Dara, they agreed to do a demonstration project next to the police headquarters. It was a start. But to see real progress, Mr. Imerman said, he will have to stay beyond his one-year contract. He increasingly expects to do just that.

Divorced and with a daughter in college, Mr. Imerman signed up for this adventure after losing his job to state budget cuts in Ohio, where he worked for Ohio State University doing development projects in rural areas.

His goal is to achieve in Kunduz what he did in the Philippines, where he helped a rice farmer build a simple thresher that increased production by 20 percent. Within a few years, every farmer in the area had one of the devices and all were living better.

But doing that requires developing the trust of at least one farmer. “If we can show that ‘if you do this, this and this, we can increase your production from 300 kilos to 1,000 kilos,’ then hopefully everybody will adopt it,” he said.

“I’m hoping that works here. But we’ll see.”


Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century

By Hillary Rodham Clinton, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2010

Summary: To meet the range of challenges facing the United States and the world, Washington will have to strengthen and amplify its civilian power abroad. Diplomacy and development must work in tandem, offering countries the support to craft their own solutions.

Today’s world is a crucible of challenges testing American leadership. Global problems, from violent extremism to worldwide recession to climate change to poverty, demand collective solutions, even as power in the world becomes more diffuse. They require effective international cooperation, even as that becomes harder to achieve. And they cannot be solved unless a nation is willing to accept the responsibility of mobilizing action. The United States is that nation.

I began my tenure as U.S. Secretary of State by stressing the need to elevate diplomacy and development alongside defense — a “smart power” approach to solving global problems. To make that approach succeed, however, U.S. civilian power must be strengthened and amplified. It must, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has argued in these pages, be brought into better balance with U.S. military power. In a speech last August, Gates said, “There has to be a change in attitude in the recognition of the critical role that agencies like [the] State [Department] and AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] play . . . for them to play the leading role that I think they need to play.”

This effort is under way. Congress has already appropriated funds for 1,108 new Foreign Service and Civil Service officers to strengthen the State Department’s capacity to pursue American interests and advance American values. USAID is in the process of doubling its development staff, hiring 1,200 new Foreign Service officers with the specific skills and experience required for evolving development challenges, and is making better use of local hires at our overseas missions, who have deep knowledge of their countries. The Obama administration has begun rebuilding USAID to make it the world’s premier development organization, one that fosters long-term growth and democratic governance, includes its own research arm, shapes policy and innovation, and uses metrics to ensure that our investments are cost-effective and sound.


Microlending in a War Zone

Wednesday 03 November 2010
by: David Smith-Ferri, t r u t h o u t | Report

In a small storage shed at the edge of town, we watched as 14-year-old Sayed Qarim signed a simple contract agreeing to borrow and repay a no-interest, 25,000 afghani loan (roughly $555). Daniel from the Zenda Company, the loan originator, counted out the crisp bills and handed them to Qarim, who smiled broadly and shook hands. Qarim, whose family farms potatoes and wheat, plans to use the funds to purchase a cow and her calf. “There are great benefits of owning a cow,” Qarim explains. “Our family gets to use the milk and we can sell the calf for a good profit.”

No one walking by outside on the narrow dirt road would have known an important business transaction had just occurred, one that could in fact help a young man and his family gain economic traction and greater security. The transaction didn’t take place in a bank. No village leaders were present. Only a 14-year-old boy, the representative of a private business company and a witness. And while the signed agreement constitutes a business relationship, the Zenda Company sees it as primarily personal.

Qarim was recommended for a loan by Faiz and Mohammad Jan, two other young men who live in his village and who have themselves recently received and repaid loans. Following this recommendation, Zenda spent much time getting to know Qarim, meeting with him, assessing his knowledge, his resources (such as access to grazing land) and his character, answering his questions and describing to him his responsibilities as a borrower.

Now that the transaction is complete, Qarim is required to send a picture of the cow and her calf as “proof” that the money was used as agreed. In addition, Hakim, another Zenda Company representative living in Bamiyan, who is fluent in Dari, the local language, will visit Qarim periodically. Along with Faiz and Mohammad Jan, he will try to provide whatever support Qarim needs to succeed.

Eighteen months ago, Mohammad Jan borrowed funds to purchase a cow and her calf. Three times in the intervening months, he has fattened the cow, raised the calf, sold them and used the money from their sale to purchase another cow and calf. He has repaid the loan in full and netted a profit thus far of nearly 7,000 afghanis. Faiz has been equally successful, using borrowed funds to purchase lambs; he repaid his loan, took out another and now owns ten sheep and two goats, prized locally both for their meat and for their fleece.

Zenda Company’s small business loan program has evolved gradually through trial and error in Bamiyan and Hakim, a Singaporean medical doctor and ex-pat living now in an outlying village, is central to its success. Hakim (a name given to him by local people which means “learned one”) originally came from Singapore to Quetta, Pakistan, on the Afghanistan border, where he worked for two years with Afghan refugees. “I essentially lived within a refugee settlement and I was treated as a local.”

While there, however, Hakim wanted to do more than treat the symptoms of war. Six years ago, he came to Bamiyan as a development worker with an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). Today in Afghanistan, NGOs involved in development work are as thick as wheat stalks in a field and their presence and operation has a significant impact in the country. But Hakim found that “the NGOs, too, have problems. They hold all the aid power, because they have all the money.” Because of this, says Hakim, despite their intentions, despite their mission, despite even their best efforts, international NGOs in Afghanistan often have a colonial relationship with Afghan communities, encouraging dependence rather than local initiative and sovereignty.

And then there is the intractable question of results. As one Afghan person told us, “The world says it is helping us. Where is this help? None of it reaches the people who need it. Here in Afghanistan it has been going on so long that we have to joke and laugh in order to manage our anger and disappointment.”

Seven months ago, Hakim left his position with the NGO. When he first arrived in Bamiyan, he was invited to visit and later to move into a small village. “The villages are very conservative. The only way to enter the community, even for a visit, is to be invited.”

Hakim has been in the community now for six years, living as people in the village do, eating only what people in the village have to eat. Like a member of the family, he participates in work. “I help in the fields, too,” he says with a self-effacing laugh, “but I’m not very good at it. I cannot work nearly as long or as fast as others.

“With time,” he says, “I’m realizing what it takes to practice what a young Afghan boy once told me, that without peace, life is impossible.” As he sees it, “morality, democracy and intellectual honesty are dying. Here we have forty-three countries [in the ISAF] trying to solve the problem of violence in Afghanistan. How can we allow these countries to say that more violence will solve the problems of violence, without asking them for evidence, for results? Where is intellectual inquiry? Moral skepticism? Why is war always the next solution? Why not reconciliatory talks; who dictates that talks are impossible for human beings? Why are we so willing to accept that violence and terror are the norm? If ordinary people don’t question this, academics at least should, but they don’t. A local shepherd boy knows this is not normal.”

In a country where villagers typically do not farm enough land to actually subsist, where malnutrition and stunted growth are in fact the norm and where the situation is worsening as land is divided and passed on to children, Hakim began to realize that peace cannot be pursued separately from economic security and food security. With this in mind, Hakim took his current position with the Zenda Company.

Through Zenda’s revolving loan fund, dozens of Afghan individuals have borrowed money for business start-up. These businesses include not only loans to villagers for livestock purchase, but also loans to shop owners and a number of loans to existing street vendors, who might, for example, benefit from having the funds to purchase a cart as well as additional inventory. The repayment terms on these loans are simple: one half due at the end of one year and the full amount due at two years. People interested in applying for a loan do so by supplying a simple handwritten proposal. At present, Zenda has received requests for loans totaling far more than it has funds to lend.

According to the United Nations, during the period 2005-2010 in Afghanistan, life expectancy at birth was less than 44 years. Child mortality (before the age of five) is the highest in the world and mortality for women in childbirth is among the highest. Eight hundred and fifty children die daily in Afghanistan. According to UNICEF, in the 2003-2008 period, an astounding 59 percent of Afghan children under the age of five are considered “stunted,” and for 9 percent of Afghan children under five, malnutrition is so severe it is considered wasting. “Is this normal?” Hakim asks.

This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.


‘Fruits of our Labor’ film screening Nov 10th at FCCS, Kabul

We hope you can join us for the screening of films made by the students of the Community Supported Film documentary filmmaking training.   The students have produced an incredible collection of compelling stories that bring to life Afghan’s experiences of and efforts to address their challenging social and economic conditions.

Fruits of our Labor – Film Screening
Wednesday, November 10, 2010, 15:00
Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS)
Salang Watt 869, Kabul, Afghanistan (up ally across from the Police Commander Headquarters)
Further Information: Jamal : 0799415454

We are very thankful to The Killid Group for co-sponsoring this project and for the generous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Danish Embassy.


Editing Final Projects: The final week of the training

It is an intense and invigorating week of editing the students’ stories – 10-15 hours a day.  We have four Afghans working as editors – Jawed Taiman, Hamed Alizada, Rahmat Jafari and Hamid Arshia.  Employing local editors is part of our capacity building effort.  Editing is one of the weaker skills in the local filmmaking community.

Throughout this week some students have continued to shoot and pickup needed material.  All have logged and transcribed their footage. We’ve worked the structure of the stories and disciplined ourselves to first build the visual scenes and then weave in the interviews –  making sure it adds to the visual experience and does not simply describe it.

Students are facing their successes and ‘challenges.’  We have helped one another by reviewing each other’s footage and providing fresh perspective.  As is often the case, we come back from our shoots exhausted and quite sure that we have nothing with which to construct our intended story.   An independent eye and ear can usually see beyond our foggy view. The films are coming together fantastically – especially considering the five-week timeline within which these students have learned and produced.

We are very excited to present our hard work at a screening this coming Wednesday at the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society from 3-5pm.  Please join us if you are in Kabul.


Press Conference

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

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


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.


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

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.”


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.


Dr. Greg and Afghanistan

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.


Tea in Kabul

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.


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.


What Oman Can Teach Us

NYT, Published: October 13, 2010

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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