Issues & Analysis

Hearts and mind hard to reach in Afghan valley

Source: Reuters – AlertNet, Date: 30 Jul 2010

By Rob Taylor

SAIDON KALACHEH, Afghanistan, July 30 (Reuters) – Defeating insurgents in Afghanistan’s volatile Arghandab Valley would take time, but there were now enough U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat the Taliban, the area’s U.S. commander says.

A two-day push to widen security to “friendly” villages around a besieged U.S. combat post in Arghandab went awry this week, with American soldiers drawn into an insurgent fight and arguing with local people about their presence.

Soldiers shot and killed two suspected Taliban who had opened fire on them, although local people said the men were farmers. They accused U.S. troops of reacting to a backfiring tractor, underscoring how difficult the American mission to win support in the Taliban’s birthplace will be.

Colonel Arthur Kandarian, who commands the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, said he was confident Afghan soldiers now joining U.S. troops would eventually convince local people that the Taliban no longer controlled the fertile farmlands of Afghanistan’s bread basket.

“I think we are going to be fine. Across the three districts that I’m in charge of, we’re just starting to see additional forces in some of these areas. Security of the population takes time,” Kandarian told Reuters.

The Arghandab river valley is an important infiltration route used by the Taliban to attack U.S. forces and smuggle weapons and men a few miles east to Kandahar city.

An operation across Kandahar by U.S and NATO soldiers is being planned, but insurgents in Arghandab are tying up Kandarian’s brigade with mines and hit-and-run attacks launched from thick cover in ripening grape and pomegranate plantations.


U.S. commanders are pursuing a complicated counter-insurgency or COIN strategy, in which “protecting the population” takes priority over military efforts to defeat insurgents, thereby winning local “hearts and minds”.

But many frontline soldiers and junior officers believe the strategy will not work in Afghanistan, at least not before the July 2011 date set for the start of an American withdrawal by President Barack Obama.

They point out that, unlike Iraqis, Afghans have never rallied behind a strong central government and have allegiances to their local tribal groups rather than provincial and district leaders friendly to the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“There are no friendly villages, there are no hearts and minds here,” a U.S. soldier muttered as a lieutenant stood outside a mud-walled mosque at dawn in Saidon Kalacheh village this week, trying to convince the village leader or “malik” to let his troops stay a night.

After a threat of a forceful occupation to run security patrols, locals eventually moved the platoon into a difficult-to-defend house compound and complained they would be killed by Taliban if seen lending any support.

Kandarian said Afghan troops would bridge the cultural and trust differences in one of the most violent areas around Combat Outpost Nolen and the wider valley, but had only been conducting patrols for around five to six days.

“I think the people are very resilient, and I think a lot of them that do own lands are probably farming in their lands and then they are temporarily moving to other locations until they figure out what the security is going to be like,” he said.

(Editing by David Fox) (; +93 705 998 317) (If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to


Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?

Simon Norfolk/Institute, for The New York Times

The village of Rihab in Wadi Dawan, a valley that is the ancestral home of Bin Laden. More Photos »

By ROBERT F. WORTH, Published: July 6, 2010

Just before dawn on Dec. 24, an American cruise missile soared high over the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, arced down toward the dark mountains above the Rafadh Valley in Yemen’s Shabwa province and found its mark, crashing into a small stone house on a hillside where five young men were sleeping. Half a mile away, a 27-year-old Yemeni tribesman named Ali Muhammad Ahmed was awakened by the sound. Stumbling out of bed, he quickly dressed, slung his AK-47 over his shoulder and climbed down a footpath to the valley that shelters his village, two hours from the nearest paved road. He already sensed what had happened. A week earlier, an American airstrike killed dozens of people in a neighboring province as part of an expanded campaign against Al Qaeda militants. (Although the U.S. military has acknowledged playing a role in the airstrikes, it has never publicly confirmed that it fired the missiles.)

Ahmed soon came upon the shattered house. Mangled bodies were strewn among the stones; he recognized a fellow tribesman. Scattered near the wreckage were bits of yellow debris with the words “US Navy” and long serial numbers written on them. A group of six or seven young men were standing in the dawn half-light, looking dazed. All were members of Al Qaeda. Among them was Fahd al-Quso, a longtime militant who is wanted by the F.B.I. for his suspected role in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. The missile had struck in one of the most remote and inaccessible valleys on earth, in a place where Al Qaeda has been trying to establish a foothold. Quso was the local cell leader and had been recruiting young men for years. Ahmed knew him well.

I met Ahmed several weeks later in Sana, the Yemeni capital, where he works part time as a bodyguard. By that time, Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch had claimed credit for a failed effort to detonate a bomb in a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day, igniting a global debate about whether Yemen was the next front in the war on terror. Yemen’s once-obscure vital statistics were flashing across TV screens everywhere: it is the Arab world’s poorest country, with a fast-growing and deeply conservative Muslim population of 23 million. It is running out of oil and may soon be the first country in the world to run out of water. The central government is weak and corrupt, hemmed in by rebellions and powerful tribes. Many fear that Al Qaeda is gaining a sanctuary in the remote provinces east of Sana, similar to the one it already has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On the day I met him, Ahmed – a small, rail-thin man with a bony face – seemed still awed and a bit frightened by what happened in his valley. He was dressed in a tattered blazer and a futa, the patterned cloth skirt Yemeni men often wear. He sat on a sofa leaning forward with his hands on his thighs, glancing occasionally at me. We were in a small, sparely furnished office belonging to Ahmed’s employer and friend Abdulaziz al-Jifri, who had given him permission to speak. It was evening, and in the room next door men could be heard laughing and chatting as they drank tea and chewed khat, the narcotic leaf Yemenis use to relax.

“We took the bodies under the trees,” Ahmed continued in a quiet voice. “One was from my tribe. He had just joined Al Qaeda, and that was his first night sleeping with them.” He paused, and I caught a hint of defensiveness, perhaps also of anger, in his eyes. He seemed reluctant to stray from his narrative, but it was clear that he felt the bombing was an injustice. “We knew they were Qaeda, but they were young, and they hadn’t done anything, and they were locals,” he said. “They came and went at checkpoints, and the government didn’t seem to care. So we dealt with them normally.. . .

“Later I took the bodies to the graveyard,” he went on to say. “Then I talked with Fahd’s cousin about what we should do about him.”

Within an hour, Ahmed said, the discussions expanded, and Ali al-Asowad, the aging sheik of the Abdullah tribe, was summoned from his house. The sun was rising over the arid brown hills around Rafadh and soon almost 100 people were sitting under the spreading boughs of an acacia tree for an emergency tribal meeting.

Dozens of people spoke. Some were angry. Most people in the valley were related to the dead men or knew them. The victims had scarcely stood out in Rafadh, where everyone carried weapons and hatred of the Yemeni government was nothing unusual. What did it matter that they hated America and called themselves Qaeda? Some of the tribesmen also spoke in defense of Fahd al-Quso, who moved to the area in 2007. His grandfather had a house there, so he had a right to the tribe’s protection. But others stood up and shouted angrily that Quso had put the whole tribe in needless danger by basing himself in their village; more American bombs might be coming soon.

The people of Rafadh had decisions to make, ones that might soon ramify across all of Yemen’s remote mountains and deserts and even half a world away in the Pentagon. What did Al Qaeda mean to them? Was it worth protecting? A bargaining chip to be used against a neglectful government? Or just an invitation to needless violence?

SANA RESEMBLES A FORTRESS, not just in its architecture but in its geography. It is set on a high plateau, surrounded by arid, craggy mountains. At its heart is the Old City, a thicket of unearthly medieval towers and banded spires that stands out sharply in the dry desert air. This was the entire city until a few decades ago, its high walls locked every evening at dusk. Today Sana is a far more sprawling place, with Internet cafes and swarms of beat-up taxis and a sprinkling of adventure tourists. The Old City gates are mostly gone now, and although men still carry the traditional daggers known as jambiyasin their belts, they also wear blazers, often with cheap designer logos on their sleeves. Like other Arab capitals, it is full of policemen, and there are occasional checkpoints manned by bored-looking soldiers in camouflage uniforms.

But Yemen is different. Beneath the familiar Arab iconography, like pictures of the president that hang in every shop, there is a wildness about the place, a feeling that things might come apart at any moment. A narcotic haze descends on Yemen every afternoon, as men stuff their mouths with glossy khat leaves until their cheeks bulge and their eyes glaze over. Police officers sit down and ignore their posts, a green dribble running down their chins. Taxi drivers get lost and drive in circles, babbling into their cellphones. But if not for the opiate of khat, some say, all of Yemen – not just those areas of the south and north already smoldering with discontent – would explode into rebellion.

One morning in Sana, I discovered a crowd of people protesting in the stone courtyard outside the cabinet building. Many had shackle scars on their wrists and ankles. They came from an area called Jaashin, about 100 miles south of the capital. But some of them, I found, did not even know that Jaashin was in the Republic of Yemen. Their only real ruler was the local sheik, Muhammad Ahmed Mansour, who is, it turns out, a kind of latter-day Marquis de Sade. Mansour is also a poet, who earns extra license for his cruelties by writing florid odes to Yemen’s president. Some pilgrims from Jaashin said they were imprisoned, shackled and beaten by the sheik – who maintains his own army and several prisons – after refusing to relinquish their property to him. I asked Ahmed Abdu Abdullah al-Haithami, a bent old farmer in a tattered green jacket, what country he was living in. He looked up at me with imploring eyes. “All I know is that God rules above, and the sheik rules here below,” he said. All of this, I later learned, was documented by Yemeni lawyers, who have been working on behalf of the people of Jaashin for years to little effect. As one lawyer, Khaled al-Alansi, put it to me, “If you can’t fight sheik Mansour, how can you possibly fight Al Qaeda?”

Two thousand years ago, the area east of Sana held one of the earth’s most prosperous kingdoms, a lush agricultural region of spices and fruits, fed by irrigation canals from a vast man-made dam. The Romans called Yemen “Arabia Felix,” or Happy Arabia. Today, the eastern region is an arid wasteland. Most people scrape by on less than $2 a day, even though they live atop Yemen’s oil and gas fields. There are few ways to make a living other than smuggling, goat-herding and kidnapping. The region is also, chronically, a war zone. Tribal feuds have always been part of life here, but in recent years they have grown so common and so deadly that as much as a quarter of the population cannot go to school or work for fear of being killed. The feuds often devolve into battles with bands of raiders mowing down their rivals with machine-gun fire or launching mortars into a neighboring village. No one knows how many people die in these wars, but Khaled Fattah, a sociologist who has studied Yemen’s tribes for years, told me that hundreds of victims a year is a conservative estimate.

Every time I drive out of Sana I get an ominous sense of going backward in time to a more lawless era. As the city’s towers fade in the distance, the houses drop away into level desert and occasional piles of construction rubble. The traffic thins out and consists mostly of pickup trucks carrying tribesmen with patterned cloth kaffiyehs tied around their heads. You pass the first of several checkpoints, where skinny soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms warily circle the car, looking for weapons or kidnapping victims. You pass towering, desolate mountains of black and brown igneous rock. Once you’re out of Sana province, there are virtually no signs of the Yemeni state. Every able-bodied man seems to carry an AK-47 rifle over his shoulder; it’s not uncommon to see rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. Only the oil and gas fields, hidden behind wire fences and vigilantly watched over by the Yemeni military, seem to merit the government’s attention.

Last year I expected to see at least a few government soldiers when I visited the ancient city of Shibam in Hadramawt, the vast eastern province where Osama bin Laden’s father was born. A few months earlier, four South Korean tourists were blown up by a suicide bomber as they admired the view of Shibam from across the valley. I was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” my guide said, patting my shoulder as we walked up to the ridge where the Koreans died. “Ever since the bombing they have put this place on high security.” But when we got to the top of the ridge there was not a single soldier or policeman to be seen. We gazed out over the valley in silence. A sign stood nearby, showing a pair of binoculars and the words in English “Discover Islam.” As we began to leave, my guide smiled broadly and gestured at the sign. “The Koreans – they discovered Islam,” he said, giggling at his joke.

Even in the capital, law and order often mean less than they do in other Arab countries. One afternoon I was having tea with Abdulaziz al-Jifri when a shot rang out nearby. I thought nothing of it; it might have been a firecracker or someone testing a gun. We were in the safest area of the city, a neighborhood called Hadda, where rich Yemenis and foreign diplomats have built an enclave in recent decades. But Jifri got up from the cushion where he was sitting to go see what happened. He came back 15 minutes later with a look of surprise on his face. A friend of the family, a wealthy tribal figure, had been shot dead a block away. The victim, Jifri explained, was walking up to the gate of his home when someone apparently shot him once in the head. There were no witnesses and no one even bothered to call the police, who are so corrupt and incompetent that most people view them as useless.

“There is no law in Yemen,” Jifri said, shaking his head. We went on drinking tea and talking politics.

By then, I had spent at least a dozen afternoons at Jifri’s house. He was a unique figure: educated in Britain and Saudi Arabia, he was designated by his father – a wealthy businessman with political connections – as a liaison to the tribes in Shabwa and Marib, two of the main areas where Al Qaeda is said to find sanctuary. He is tall and handsome, with large, mischievous brown eyes and a knack for setting a room on fire with laughter. His family are sayyids, or descendants of the prophet Muhammad, and that gave them a special status in the caste like social hierarchy that prevailed until Yemen’s republican revolution in 1962. Even now, the Jifris are trusted and respected like few other clans in rural Yemen.

Jifri became my link to rural Yemen. There was no way for me to travel to Shabwa or Marib undetected, I was told. So day after day I would sit on a cushion beside him in the family’s rectangular living room as various sheiks and relatives from those provinces arrived to sip tea, chew khat and talk until dark about what was happening among the tribes. It was there that I met Ali Muhammad Ahmed, along with others from the area around Rafadh, in Shabwa province, the valley where the cruise missile struck on Dec. 24. The Jifris themselves have a house in the Rafadh Valley.

Rafadh, several hundred miles southeast of the capital, is in some ways typical of the areas where Al Qaeda found refuge in Yemen. It is set among dry mountains populated by baboons, there are no paved roads and cars must travel laboriously along dirt tracks that wind among the hills. There is no public water supply or electricity and no functioning school. The valley was largely peaceful during the 1970s and ’80s, when the socialist government that ruled South Yemen – a separate country until it united with the north in 1990 – tried to eradicate tribalism. But since then Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has encouraged tribal practices, and the feuds have returned. Rafadh itself has been devastated by a tribal conflict that has raged for years, killing at least a dozen people and wounding many more in an area with only a few hundred inhabitants.

Ahmed played a central role in the feud. In 2006, Ahmed’s father and older brother were gunned down by men posing as customers at the father’s market stall. Afterward, he told me, he drove the bullet-riddled bodies to the nearest police station to ask for justice. The police captain in charge waved him off dismissively, he said, telling him, “You tribes are always causing trouble – deal with it yourself.”

He did. Ahmed gathered five cousins and together they hunted down and shot two men they believe were among the killers and three other men who were sheltering them. The feud briefly threatened to escalate into a broader war. The government promised to mediate but failed to do so, and the feud grew with further kidnappings and clumsy army suppression. Many local people felt the government was largely to blame.

It was then that Fahd al-Quso, the Al Qaeda figure, arrived in the valley. He had roots in the area but, perhaps more important, he was an outlaw to the Yemeni authorities, and that alone earned him a welcome in Rafadh. The United States wanted him in connection with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. The Yemeni police arrested his younger brother, a tactic aimed at pressuring Quso to turn himself in.

“Fahd was a victim in the eyes of the tribes,” Ahmed told me. “They accepted what he said. People distrust the government here, so those who have problems with it will get sympathy.”

Last summer, as Al Qaeda’s Arabian branch began setting off alarms in Washington, Quso became more active, Ahmed told me. “We saw lots of Al Qaeda guys coming and going from his house,” Ahmed said. They tended to keep to themselves, refusing to give rides to others from the village.

But the tribesmen of Rafadh continued to shelter Quso and his men and not just because of their shared hatred of the government. Quso had offered to supply teachers for the village school. Local families knew he was with Al Qaeda but welcomed the news for a simple reason: there were no teachers in the school at all. “The people were saying, ‘We would rather have our kids get an Al Qaeda education than be illiterate,’ ” Jifri told me. After hearing about Quso’s offer, Jifri went to officials in Sana and delivered a blunt message: “Right now you have one Al Qaeda guy in Rafadh, tomorrow you will have 700.”

Initially, Jifri said, the government refused to provide teachers, saying any town that was willing to accept help from Al Qaeda was beneath contempt. Finally, they relented.

“The government agreed to send 6 teachers,” Jifri told me. “Fahd brought 16.”

WHEN PEOPLE TALK about the government in Yemen, they really mean one man: Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite the country’s many political parties – Islamist, Socialist, Arab nationalist – the country is run almost entirely by Saleh, and he runs it exactly like a sheik: using his own tribe as a power base and constantly making deals to head off his rivals. Saleh came to power in 1978; pictures of him at the time show a skinny young man in a military cap that looks too big for him, his eyes covered by aviator sunglasses.

At the time, most of Yemen was still just emerging from isolation. In 1962 a group of military officers, inspired and aided by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, overthrew the xenophobic religious dynasty that, from its northern base, ruled much of Yemen for centuries. Some of the young officers hoped to modernize Yemen and make it more like other Arab countries. In the mid-1970s one Yemeni president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, tried to tame the powerful tribal sheiks, extend the state’s power throughout the country and unify with South Yemen, which emerged from British occupation in 1967. Yemeni intellectuals still talk about Hamdi with nostalgia. But the sheiks and their Saudi backers were not pleased. In October 1977, Hamdi was found riddled with bullets in his Sana home. The killers had thrown the bodies of murdered French prostitutes beside him to blacken his legacy.

Saleh was not a man to make such mistakes. He fought in a tribal army as a teenager and then made his way up through the ranks of the military, impressing superiors with his ruthlessness and charm. He became a tank commander – a crucial skill at a time when tanks were a new and essential weapon. When Hamdi’s successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, was blown up by a bomb hidden in a briefcase, Saleh was a compromise replacement. No one expected him to last long.

Three decades later, Saleh retains a stiff, military bearing, with a strong jaw and glinting eyes. In person he conveys an impression of fierce pride and gruffness and the natural defensiveness of a man from a small tribe who fought his way up with no more than an elementary-school education. When I interviewed him in 2008, he seemed impatient and almost angry. His eyes darted around the room as he fired off commands to his aides in a guttural voice. He bridled at questions about the American role in Yemen. “Arrogant,” he said, staring at me, then adding disdainfully in English, “Cowboys.”

SOME SAY SALEH has lasted so long because, unlike his predecessors, he knew not to take on the tribes directly. “Saleh survived by mastering the tribal game as no one else had,” Khaled Fattah, the tribal expert, said. He did so in two ways. First, he coddled the big tribal sheiks, bringing them into the capital and building them large homes. He created a patronage network that grew substantially after Yemen began pumping oil in the 1980s, paying large sums to sheiks, military leaders, political figures and anyone who might pose a threat to his power. Much of Yemen’s budget now goes into corruption and kickbacks – worth billions of dollars – that fuel this network, according to diplomats, analysts and oil-industry figures in Sana.

Second, Saleh adopted what some Yemenis call “the policy of management through conflicts.” If a tribe was causing trouble, he would begin building up its rivals as a counterweight. If a political party became threatening, he would do the same thing, sometimes even creating a cloned version of the same party with people on the government payroll. “The government plays divide and rule with us,” Arfaj bin Hadban, a tribal sheik from Jawf province, north of Sana, said. “If one tribe will not do what he wants, he gets the neighbors to pressure it. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s weapons, sometimes it’s employment for the tribesmen.”

But in a sense, the key to Saleh’s long rule – and to much of Yemen’s modern history – lies just to the north in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom squats atop Yemen on the map like a domineering older brother with a rebellious sibling. Starting in 1962, the Saudi royal family viewed Yemenis’ democratic aspirations with alarm and began paying hefty stipends to tribal sheiks throughout the country to reinforce its influence. Later, the Saudis began spreading their hard-line strand of Islam throughout the country, with help from some like-minded Yemenis. Hundreds of religious schools sprang up teaching Salafism, the puritanical sect that denounces all other sects as heresy. (The Saudi variant is usually called Wahhabism.) This was bound to be divisive in Yemen, where a third or more of the population were Zaydis, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

As the influence of the Salafists grew, Saleh formed close ties to jihadists and radical clerics like Abdul Majid al-Zindani, who is listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a “specially designated global terrorist.” Saleh had a political motive: Salafists are mostly quiescent and preach obedience to the ruler (even if they call for violent jihad in other lands). That was an appealing trait in Yemen’s complex social mosaic, where rivalries based on class, region, religious sect and lineage are endemic. But Saleh also knew that he needed the Saudis, who are widely believed to have arranged his accession in the first place.

When I met him, Saleh seemed enraged that anyone should dare to criticize his methods. “We have unified the country and brought stability,” he told me. That is true. Saleh orchestrated the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and he has remained in power for 32 years. But even as he spoke, in June 2008, those achievements seemed to be unraveling. Zaydi rebels from the north – angered by Saleh’s support for the Salafists – were gaining ground. In the south, a groundswell of economic discontent was rising and later became an open secessionist movement. The fact that Saleh is now trying to arrange for his son Ahmed Saleh to succeed him as president has alienated many tribal leaders and other allies, narrowing Saleh’s power base. In the past year, as Al Qaeda began to mount more frequent attacks, he turned to some old friends for help, only to see them abandon him.

One night in January 2009, Tareq al-Fadhli, a 42-year-old aristocrat from south Yemen, received a phone call from Saleh. Fadhli wasn’t surprised: the Yemeni president is famously impulsive and has a habit of calling people late at night with urgent ideas or demands that are sometimes forgotten by daylight. But this one was unusual. Saleh wanted to convene all the old jihadis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Fadhli told me.

“He wanted us to make a dialogue with the new generation of Al Qaeda,” Fadhli said. “He said he wanted to arrange to send them abroad to Saudi Arabia and Somalia, and in return he would release the ones who were in prison.” The released prisoners would stay in Yemen.

It was a bold idea, to put it mildly. Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s most important ally and had waged bloody battles to rid itself of homegrown jihadi fighters. But Al Qaeda, once a manageable problem, seemed to be running out of control in Yemen, and America was putting on the pressure. Saleh was desperate to find a way to rid himself of the militants, preferably without calling in American airstrikes or doing anything else that would alienate the radical clerics on whose political support he counted.

Fadhli, who has mournful eyes and a distinguished face, was a natural intermediary and an old ally. As a young man, he fought for three years in Afghanistan, leaving only after he was wounded at Jalalabad. He had formed a close friendship with Osama bin Laden, whom he still remembers fondly. Later, when the socialists of southern Yemen rebelled in 1994, Fadhli formed a brigade of jihadists at the central government’s request and helped put down the rebels. His friend bin Laden helped out, providing millions of dollars’ worth of arms and hundreds of fighters who were hungry for another chance to kill godless socialists.

After that, the former jihadis split. Fadhli, like many others, went back to civilian life, becoming a landowner in the south and an adviser to Saleh. He said goodbye to bin Laden in Sudan in 1994 and has not seen him since. But some veterans continued to preach jihad and to train in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda, which began to call for the overthrow of secular Arab regimes.

The first real sign that the jihadis were a source of trouble at home came in 2000 with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port town of Aden on the southern coast. Seventeen American sailors were killed. A year later, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Saleh recognized that a major shift had taken place. Fearing that the United States might invade Yemen, he flew to Washington and pledged his support. At home, his security forces rounded up hundreds of former jihadists and jailed them en masse without charge. In November 2002, the C.I.A. used a Predator drone to kill Abu Ali al-Harithi, then the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, as he was driving in the desert east of Sana.

Saleh knew his collaboration with the United States could make the jihadis turn on him. He was furious after American officials leaked word of their role in the Harithi assassination. Later, Saleh repeatedly denied the Americans permission to kill Al Qaeda leaders during Yemen’s 2006 presidential election because he feared the strikes might harm his electoral prospects, according to one high-ranking Yemeni official. Saleh had struggled for years to find a compromise between the radicals and the Americans. He created an Islamic “dialogue” program to bring jihadists under the umbrella of the state, then abandoned it after several of its graduates returned to terrorism. Popular sympathy for the jihadist cause was still high, and in February 2006 Saleh suffered a deep embarrassment when 23 prisoners, many of them in Al Qaeda, escaped from a maximum-security prison in Sana. The authorities offered a preposterous explanation: the men tunneled out of their cell with spoons and table legs and emerged in the bathroom of a neighboring mosque. The truth, the high-ranking official told me, was that officers in the Political Security Organization arranged the escape. “You have to remember, these officers used to escort people from Sana to Pakistan during the Afghan jihad,” he said. “People made relationships, and that doesn’t change so easily.”

By 2007, it was clear that a new and more dangerous generation of Al Qaeda militants was emerging. Unlike their predecessors, these men aimed openly to overthrow the Yemeni state and refused all dialogue with it. Many later claimed that they suffered torture in Yemeni prisons during long terms – usually without formal charges. Some of them had gone to Iraq and returned with valuable battlefield skills. The attacks grew bloodier and more frequent: a suicide bombing in July 2007 killed eight Spanish tourists; there were attacks on oil pipelines. In September 2008, suicide bombers in two cars struck the U.S. Embassy in Sana in a meticulously planned operation that left 10 Yemenis and all 6 attackers dead.

Saleh tried to win the militants over through intermediaries. Nasser al-Bahri, a 35-year-old former driver for bin Laden, told me that he tried reaching out to the new militants. They refused, and he soon discovered he was on a “death list” of accused traitors. Several other former jihadists told me the same thing. “I try to talk to these people,” said Ali Muhammad al-Kurdi, another militant Islamist who fought in Afghanistan. “They tell me, ‘You are an agent.’ ” Some of the older jihadists advised Saleh to immunize the state from attacks by Islamizing it. He briefly deployed a morality-police brigade, modeled on the notorious cane-wielding mutawa in Saudi Arabia. The attacks continued.

Finally, in January of last year, Tareq al-Fadhli received his late-night phone call from the president. Saleh said he would release 130 Al Qaeda sympathizers right away as a good-will gesture and asked Fadhli to arrange the rest.

Fadhli told me that he formed a committee of former jihadis and began traveling through the areas where Al Qaeda has found sanctuary – Marib, Shabwa, Jawf and Abyan provinces. “The tribal sheiks cooperated with us everywhere,” Fadhli told me. “Whenever we found Qaeda members, we told them: ‘The government wants you to turn yourself in, but it’s O.K. We will guarantee your safety.’ “

In the end, 20 people on the government’s 60-most-wanted list agreed to stop fighting, Fadhli said. But the mediators never made any progress with Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, or his top deputies.

A few months after the failed negotiation, in April 2009, Fadhli defected from the government, joining the southern secessionist movement. He told me that he was tired of hearing Saleh offer tempting deals to Al Qaeda while refusing to even talk to the leaders in the south, whose movement – rooted in claims of economic discrimination – is populist, secular and nonviolent.

Meanwhile, the United States grew increasingly concerned about Al Qaeda’s growth in Yemen and about Saleh’s tendency to see it as a family problem, solvable through dialogue. Veteran jihadists were said to be coming to Yemen from Afghanistan and Somalia. Last summer, Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the overall commander of American military forces in the Middle East, visited Sana, and the number of American military trainers working with Yemen’s counterterrorism forces quietly grew. In the fall, a select group of American officials met with Saleh and showed him irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda was aiming at him and his relatives, who dominate Yemen’s military and intelligence services. That seems to have abruptly changed Saleh’s attitude, American diplomats told me. The Yemenis began to mount more aggressive ground raids on Al Qaeda targets, in coordination with the airstrikes that began in December.

But the strikes and raids were a short-term tactic. The real problem was that Yemen, with its mind-boggling corruption, its multiple insurgencies, its disappearing oil and water and its deepening poverty, is sure to descend further into chaos if something does not change. Everyone has acknowledged this, including President Obama and a growing chorus of terrorism analysts. So far, the calls for action have yielded nothing. I spoke to a number of American officials in Washington and to a variety of diplomats at the embassy in Sana. They all told me the same thing: no one has a real strategy for Yemen, in part because there are so few people who have any real expertise about the country. No American diplomats travel to the provinces where Al Qaeda has found sanctuary. Even the Yemeni government has great difficulty reaching these places; often they have no idea whether airstrikes or bombing runs have hit their targets, because they dare not show up to check until days afterward.

Officially, American policy in Yemen is twofold: using airstrikes and raids to help the Yemeni military knock out Al Qaeda cells, while increasing development and humanitarian aid to address the root causes of radicalism. In late June, the White House announced it was more than tripling its humanitarian assistance, to $42.5 million. But the numbers are still small given Yemen’s need. And diplomats concede that they have not figured out how to address the central issues of poor governance, corruption and the economy. “There is a huge amount of diplomacy that needs to be done and is not being done,” Edmund J. Hull, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said when I met him in Washington. “It makes me uneasy to hear that we’re not getting out to those remote areas. One way or another, we have ceded the initiative to Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda is calling the shots.”

AL QAEDA HAS a clear Yemen strategy. On Jan. 23, 2009, the group released a high-quality video clip on the Internet showing four men sitting on a floor, with a clean white curtain and a flag behind them. One of them was Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the group’s leader, wearing a white turban, and one was Qassim al-Raymi, its military commander, clad in fatigues and a red-and-white kaffiyeh. Sitting alongside them were two new Qaeda commanders, both former detainees from the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

The video was a setback for President Obama, who had been inaugurated days earlier and had made a high-profile pledge to close Guantánamo – where nearly half the remaining inmates were Yemenis – within a year. But the real news was Al Qaeda’s announcement that same month that it was merging its Saudi and Yemeni branches into a single unit: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The new group incorporated a number of fighters from Saudi Arabia, where the government had cracked down fiercely on terrorist networks. It proclaimed a broad ambition: to serve as a base for attacks throughout the region and to replace the infidel governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia with a single theocratic state.

At the heart of this new effort was an unlikely leader. Wuhayshi is a tiny man, less than five feet tall. In videotapes he sits motionless, his pinched face blank, his small eyes expressionless. Raymi, the group’s burly military commander, speaks passionately, his hands knifing through the air, his eyes full of righteous anger. By contrast, Wuhayshi seems almost catatonic.

Yet Al Qaeda men treat him with deep veneration. “When they see him, they kiss him on the forehead, like a great sheik,” said Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist who interviewed Wuhayshi and other Al Qaeda leaders before the video’s release. “They all love and respect him.” Shaea, who was blindfolded and driven out to a remote area for his interview, said Wuhayshi was laconic but quick-witted, with flashes of sarcastic humor and a remarkable ability to adduce Koranic verses to back up anything he said. Wuhayshi’s authority seems to derive mostly from his long proximity to bin Laden, whom he served for six years as a private secretary in Afghanistan. “During bombing raids, everyone else would scatter, but he would stay by bin Laden’s side,” Shaea said, echoing a story other Al Qaeda members told him about their leader. The founders seem to have been impressed: bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a statement in November 2008 formally recognizing Wuhayshi as the emir, or prince, of Al Qaeda in the region.

Shaea and others who have studied him say Wuhayshi appears to be modeling himself on bin Laden, who has always been more cerebral guide than day-to-day commander. Wuhayshi left Afghanistan in late 2001 and was arrested by Iranian authorities; they handed him over two years later to Yemen, which jailed him without charge. Little is known about his early life in Abyan province in southern Yemen. Personality aside, he seems to have much in common with Raymi, his fiery military commander. Both men come from ordinary families, studied at religious schools and fought in Afghanistan, according to Shaea and other Yemeni journalists. Both served time afterward in Yemeni prisons. And both were among the 23 militants who escaped from the central Sana prison in February 2006.

The two men have also followed bin Laden’s example in building an ever-more-sophisticated propaganda arm for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including frequent video and audio tapes and an Internet magazine, Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles), that appears every two months or so. The magazine makes for bizarre reading, by turns chilling and poignant. The first page of one recent issue showed a colorful 1950s-style stock image of a hand that was mixing fluid in a chemical beaker, alongside a hand grenade and the headline “Year of the Assassination.” The authors are clearly familiar with the style of Western magazine journalism, and many articles are framed as regular features like View From the Inside and The Leader’s Editorial. There are didactic items, with headlines like “Shariah Is the Solution” and “Practical Steps Toward the Liberation of Palestine.” But some of the articles are almost whimsical (“A Mujahid’s Thoughts”), and there are sharp satires (“The Saudi Media on Mars”). Much of the content has an earnest, proselytizing tone, a bit like the ads that Western corporations publish to trumpet their civic responsibility. One recent article, for example, was titled “Inside View: Why We’re Fighting in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Since it first appeared in early 2008, the magazine has grown steadily more polished, and the quality of its Koranic scholarship has improved, said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University who has spent years tracking Al Qaeda in the region. Its content has mirrored the influx of Saudi militants into the group, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a former Guantánamo detainee who is now the deputy emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps the magazine’s most frequent target for abuse is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who directs Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts and has become heavily involved with Yemen’s struggle with Al Qaeda. In August, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula came close to assassinating bin Nayef when a Saudi suicide bomber posing as a repentant member of the group was allowed into the prince’s Jedda home and detonated a bomb. Bin Nayef was only lightly injured. Afterward, Sada al-Malahim published a lengthy defense of the tactic under the headline “War Is Deception,” citing Koranic verses that approve of deceit as a tool in times of war.

The target audience for all this rhetoric is a bit of a mystery: Internet access is rare in Yemen, especially in the areas where Al Qaeda operates. There is evidence that the group may be aiming to win over members of the military or even the political elite (not an implausible goal, given the depth of sympathy for jihadism in Yemen). As for the broader public, one hint came in a video the group released last summer. The 18-minute video, “The Battle of Marib,” about a successful battle with the Yemeni military, pointedly emphasized the accuracy of Al Qaeda’s casualty count. The narrator, Qassim al-Raymi, mocks the government for failing to acknowledge that seven soldiers were captured. The video then cuts to a government press conference, in which a spokesman stumbles badly in response to questions from journalists and refuses – just as Raymi said- to acknowledge the soldiers’ capture. The video then returns to Raymi, who, facing the camera almost gloatingly, delivers his message: “I call upon all Muslims to take their information from clear and correct sources, like the jihadi Web sites on the Internet.”

It is far from clear how Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in remote and desperately under developed areas, turns out such a slick product. Shaea, the Yemeni journalist who interviewed Al Qaeda’s top leaders, told me he also met four members of the group’s media arm in a room that was set up like a studio, with computers and other equipment. “You could tell they were rich and well educated,” he said. “Some did not look like Arabs. They did not speak, so I wondered if they even spoke Arabic.”

If Wuhayshi and Raymi want to recreate the original Al Qaeda in Yemen, they also seem to have learned from its mistakes. Starting in 2009, the group used its Internet magazine and intermittent videos to make increasingly passionate appeals to the people of Yemen – and especially to its tribes. The magazine echoed populist discontent about government corruption, unemployment and unfair distribution of revenue from Yemen’s oil, much of which comes from the very areas where Al Qaeda is active. The articles often show a deep understanding of local concerns; one issue in 2008 included an anguished complaint about the government’s mishandled response to a flood in the eastern province of Hadramawt.

Al Qaeda’s Afghanistan-based leadership reinforced the tribal message in early 2009, when Zawahiri issued an audiotape addressed to “the noble and defiant tribes of Yemen,” urging them to rise up against Saleh’s government. “Don’t be less than your brothers in the defiant Pashtun and Baluch tribes,” he said. “Don’t be helpers of Ali Abdullah Saleh. . . . Support your brothers the mujahedeen.” At the same time, the group strove to marry members to tribal women and mediate tribal disputes.

The reason for all this was simple: a global reaction was developing against militants acting in the name of Al Qaeda, largely because of their extreme and often indiscriminate violence. In Iraq, the local Al Qaeda branch alienated tribes that provided crucial support for them in Anbar province, paving the way for the American-backed “awakening movement” that threw them out. Wuhayshi and his men clearly wanted to prevent that from happening in Yemen.

So far the most masterful piece of propaganda by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still the “Battle of Marib” video. In it, Raymi tells the story of the Yemeni military’s effort to destroy an Al Qaeda cell and capture Aidh al-Shabwani, a young militant with a lame leg whom one government official described to me as “a sort of local Robin Hood figure.” The raid was a humiliating failure. The army lost several tanks and armored vehicles to the guerrillas, who knew the local orange groves and deserts well. The Al Qaeda men took possession of a weapons convoy and captured seven soldiers, who were later released.

The video’s most striking feature is its anxious plea to tribesmen to resist payments and pressure from the Yemeni government and its Saudi and American backers. It starts off with an acknowledgment that the raid took place because of a “betrayal” by local tribal leaders. Then Raymi intones: “How shameful it is that some sheiks allow themselves to become soldiers and slaves of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is himself but a slave to Saudi riyals and American dollars. I say to these sheiks: be careful that you don’t become a piece of chewing gum that a person enjoys for a short time and then throws away.” After Raymi and another narrator describe the Al Qaeda victory, the second narrator offers a more refined formulation, noting that the seven soldiers’ lives were spared: “If you don’t support the mujahedeen, then at least don’t stand against them.” Since then, the group has released a stream of statements and videos outlining its basic objectives: to recruit more followers, overthrow Saleh and use Yemen as a base to attack the Saudi monarchy and build an Islamic caliphate.

AFTER THE DAWN cruise-missile strike on Rafadh, the open-air tribal meeting reached a conclusion. The elders decided that Quso and his Al Qaeda gang had become a threat to the tribes. Two deadly missiles had struck in less than a week; more might be coming. Tribal hospitality was one thing, and it was a shame that the five young men were killed. But the presence of Quso and his recruits was endangering everyone. They had to go. The elders deputized Ahmed and a fellow tribesman to evict them.

Ahmed told me he sat in his pickup truck with Quso and spoke to him firmly: “Are you satisfied? All of the people here have been living in the mountains, in the trees, for a week. Now we want you out, and don’t come back unless you’re alone.” The Al Qaeda man said nothing. He seemed subdued and appeared to understand that he could not challenge the tribe’s decision.

Ahmed drove Quso out of the valley on a bumpy dirt track. As they drove, Quso contacted other Al Qaeda members in the area, and they picked them up one by one. Before long there were 11 men piled into the truck. Ahmed said he left them on the nearest main road and returned to his valley. A few days later, Quso came back. This time he was alone. As of mid-February, he still was living alone in his grandfather’s house, according to Jifri, who visited him there.

Not everyone has reacted to the airstrikes this way. In the neighboring province of Abyan, an airstrike killed dozens of people, most of them women and children, according to local witnesses. The civilian death toll created a groundswell of anger at the Yemeni government and the United States that was a boon to Al Qaeda recruiters, several local people told me. Ali al-Shal, an opposition member of the Yemeni Parliament who is from a village close to where the Abyan airstrikes took place, told me it was too dangerous for him to visit afterward. Ultimately he was able to visit, but only once and only by drawing on his family connections with local tribal figures. “There was not much sympathy for Al Qaeda before, but the strike has created a lot of sympathy,” he said.

IN RECENT WEEKS, Al Qaeda has sounded more confident than ever, issuing threats and calls to arms, along with publishing its Internet magazine and introducing an English-language online magazine called Inspire. In May, a botched air raid led to the death of a tribal leader in Marib who was negotiating on the government’s behalf with a local Al Qaeda leader, infuriating the local tribes and further eroding President Saleh’s credibility. On June 19, four heavily armed men stormed the fortified headquarters of the Political Security Organization in the southern port city of Aden, freeing prisoners suspected of being Al Qaeda members and escaping unharmed.

Before leaving Yemen, I traveled to Aden. Near the dilapidated oil refinery built by the British, I found the Quso family home, in a row of simple stone and concrete bungalows. Fahd’s father, Muhammad al-Quso, was just walking up to the door as I arrived. He was an old man with a deeply lined face, dressed in a red-and-white futa and headdress. He walked with a cane. Inside the house he sat down heavily in an armchair and told the story of his son’s life. It was a biography that matched many others in Yemen.

Fahd was born in 1975, his father said, and grew up alongside four brothers and six sisters. He was a happy child and a good student at the local elementary school, called al-Saafir. But his parents wanted him to have some religion, so when he was 14 they sent him – along with some of his friends from the neighborhood – to a school up north called Dar al-Hadith. The school is famous as one of the first Wahhabi institutions in Yemen; John Walker Lindh was reportedly among the future jihadists who studied there. After he came home, he studied welding at the local technical school. But he decided not to work at the refinery, as his father had. When I asked about the accusations that his son took part in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, he winced and said he didn’t believe it. He complained that the authorities had jailed him, and then later, after freeing him, jailed his brother-in-law for no reason. Finally, I asked Muhammad whether his son was a member of Al Qaeda, as the authorities claimed.

“No,” he said, “I don’t believe this.” He was silent for a long time, staring at the closed door of the house, which was illuminated at its edges by a bright rectangle of afternoon sunlight. Then he spoke again.

“He is a mujahid,” he said, or holy warrior. “He is fighting those who occupy Arab lands. He is fighting unbelievers.”


Afghanistan’s Nation Building
Editorial, Tuesday, July 20, 2010

VICE PRESIDENT Biden insisted again on Sunday that “we’re not engaged in nation-building” in Afghanistan. How, then, to explain the gathering in Kabul of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and 40 other foreign ministers for the Kabul Conference on Tuesday — the goal of which is to adopt detailed plans for the Afghan government to expand its authority, fight corruption and take over social and economic programs from foreign agencies? In fact the government of Hamid Karzai is undertaking a major new effort to gain control over the country, as well as the fight against the Taliban. Its success or failure will do much to determine the outcome of the Obama administration’s strategy — whatever that might be called.

The author of this not-nation-building plan is not Mr. Karzai, who has shown little inclination for such projects, but Ashraf Ghani, his former finance minister and opponent in last year’s presidential election. Mr. Ghani, a highly capable former World Bank official, has been working with the government to produce proposals and timetables for such essential tasks as strengthening the judiciary and increasing the effectiveness of government ministries. He hopes donor governments will respond by agreeing to channel 50 percent of aid through the Kabul bureaucracy within two years — compared with about 20 percent now. It’s a goal worth supporting: Mr. Ghani has already demonstrated, through initiatives like the National Solidarity Program, that Afghan-managed development can succeed.

Mr. Karzai, for his part, is expected to outline a timeframe for Afghanistan’s police and army to take responsibility for security by the end of 2014, allowing foreign combat forces to withdraw. That timetable looks too ambitious to many Afghans and Western military experts. But it does provide a glimpse of the reality behind the Obama administration’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops 12 months from now — a commitment that has done much to undermine the counterinsurgency campaign the president approved.

To his credit, in his interview with ABC News, Mr. Biden modified his previous declaration that “you are going to see a whole lot” of U.S. forces leaving in 2011, saying “it could be as few as a couple thousand troops” from among the 100,000 soon to be deployed. He also said “there is no daylight” between his position and that of the administration’s new Afghanistan commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus; we hope that means that the persistent civil-military bickering that preceded the abrupt departure of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has ceased. Gen. Petraeus stressed in testimony to Congress last month that any withdrawal would have to be “conditions-based” — or linked to the ability of the Afghan government and army to take over. In other words, not-nation-building better work.


Why some Afghanistan opium farmers turn from poppies to saffron

A farmer works in a poppy field in Marjah, Afghanistan, March 19. Afghanistan opium farmers are looking to make the switch from poppies to saffron. Dusan Vranic/AP

Christian Science Monitor
By Tom A. Peter, Correspondent / June 10, 2010

Herat, Afghanistan – Eight years after getting out of the poppy business, Hajji Ibrahim says he doesn’t miss it. The farmer here in western Afghanistan used to employ 10 guards to protect his land from roving addicts and warlords. Harvesting the poppies was so strenuous that, though women often help with such work, he says those in his family could not help. Still, it was difficult to find a crop that produced returns like poppies.After the fall of the Taliban forced him to find other options, however, he planted a small, 300- square-meter (3/4 of acre) patch of saffron. It was easy to cultivate, so women could tend to it, and it was 20 percent more profitable than poppies.

“As I balanced all the pros and cons of growing saffron or poppies, there were many benefits for saffron – mostly, it is not against Islamic law,” says Mr. Ibrahim, who now devotes a sizable 30,000 square meters (7.4 acres) of his land to saffron.

With at least 80 percent of Afghanistan’s workforce involved in agriculture, policymakers have long focused on rehabilitating the farming sector to provide profitable options other than poppies, which fuel the country’s opium trade. The United States has touted wheat as an alternative crop, but with a market price three times lower than opium, few farmers care to make the switch.

Saffron sells high on the international market and can be grown on otherwise unused fields. But it is nowhere near the perfect substitute for opium – farmers have struggled to effectively process and market saffron well enough to be competitive in the international market.

As a result, Ibrahim says that before more of his neighbors devote their fields to saffron, they will have to see that it is a reliable source of income. That will not happen without better processing facilities.

$2,000 per kilogram

In Herat, where a dry climate makes it one of the best saffron-growing regions in Afghanistan, currently 300 hectares of farmland are devoted to the purple flower – a number that should grow by about 100 hectares per year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Though that’s less than one percent of the region’s active agricultural land, US officials say saffron is one of the three most important crops in the province, the others being wheat and grapes.

The plant is the most expensive spice in the world by weight and can sell for $2,000 to $3,000 per kilogram, whereas most of the food grown in the region is consumed by farmers or sold at local markets for a modest profit.

Saffron has the potential to generate $100 million of income a year for Herat alone if the region can devote 5,000 to 7,000 hectares of farmland to the flower, says M. Hashim Astami, an independent saffron and natural resource expert in Herat.

Saffron also grows on land that is traditionally too dry for other crops, so it would not replace anything currently being cultivated in the region or reduce food production. On top of that, the growing season is in October and November when other plants do not need water, so canals are full and there is ample water to irrigate the saffron fields.

This year, the US will contribute by supplying farmers with 50 tons of saffron seeds to increase the reach of the crop.

Searching for buyers

Still, Mr. Astami worries that farmers are producing saffron faster than companies can be established to process and market it.

“Saffron production, processing, and marketing should grow together,” he says. “But production has increased very fast, processing has increased very slow, and marketing is very weak.”

In the 1990s in Peru, US efforts to encourage farmers to stop producing coca leaves (for the illegal cocaine market) and replace them with cocoa beans (for chocolate) initially failed because coca farmers were taught only how to grow alternative crops, but did little connect them with the niche markets that brought the best prices. That crop replacement program in Peru has since become successful.

Without proper processing, saffron loses its distinctive coloring and taste. Harmful bacteria can also take root in the plant. Consequently, a poorly rendered batch of the crop sells at about 40 percent below market rates – if at all.

Few people inside Afghanistan use saffron, so if farmers cannot produce a product that is viable in the international marketplace, they may not be able to sell it at all. Last year, a number of farmers experienced this problem, which dealt a blow to the appeal of growing saffron, says Sayed Wahidullah Aqil, the provincial management adviser for the US Department of Agriculture in Herat.

“Farmers in Afghanistan get their information from their neighbors. If there is a farmer who is cultivating saffron and this year he cannot sell his product, his neighbors will see this and this may decrease their interest in saffron,” he says.

Aside from increasing the quality of saffron, companies must also work to make Afghan saffron more attractive on the international market, which is dominated by Iran.

This has been a focus for people like Basher Ahmad Rashidi, something of a saffron evangelist and project manger at Afghan Saffron, which was established in 2006 and claims to be Afghanistan’s first specialized saffron company.

By training its farmers how to properly process saffron, the company has managed to produce a high-quality product and build a client base in Spain, France, the United Arab Emirates, India, USA, and it is just starting to make headway in the Japanese market.

If farmers and companies can effectively partner, Mr. Rashidi says that saffron has the potential to become a powerful tool for his country’s development.

“It is all linked together,” he says. “When the farmer has good opportunity to generate income then all of Afghanistan has a good chance to grow.”


It Takes an MBA to Raise a Village?

World Beat

by JOHN FEFFER | Tuesday, June 15, 2010

World Beat, FPIF’s weekly ezine

According to the business plan of the 10,000 Women project, an investment of $100 million over five years will create 10,000 female entrepreneurs in the developing world. The money goes to business education – MBAs – for women in the global south who, in turn, are expected to create businesses that employ people and grow the economy.

Forget about “it takes a village to raise a child.” The 10,000 Women approach turns the African proverb on its head. According to this entrepreneurial model, it takes a child (who grows up and gets an MBA) to raise a village.

The notion that a small group of talented people will raise up their community is an old one. The African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, for instance, coined the expression “talented tenth” in a 1903 essay in his volume The Negro Problem. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” DuBois wrote. “The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”

Here, in raw form, is an appeal to the elite to turn its talents toward bettering the masses. The entrepreneurial model, while comparably elitist, eschews such moralism. In the cloud-cuckoo-land of the market fundamentalist, the MBA-wielding businesswomen pursue their own self-interest and, through the magic of the market, manage to do good by doing well.This “talented tenth” approach can be found in microfinance as well. Outfits like the Grameen Bank and Kiva provide small loans to women who raise goats, families that run very small businesses, small farmers who need fertilizer. These fledgling entrepreneurs don’t attract the interest of established banks, much less international financial institutions. They borrow small sums of money, grow their businesses, and pay back the loans.

As a narrow strategy – getting credit to poor people who need it – microfinance succeeds admirably. But the larger claims that it can serve as a development strategy is at best questionable. The French economist Esther Duflo has worked hard to develop techniques to assess public policies much as medical researchers test drugs: through randomized control trials. Her team published a report on microfinance that concluded that the technique didn’t increase average consumption, improve levels of education, or boost women’s decision-making. “Duflo’s work has convinced her that the absence of a steady job is what is most likely to be preventing a person in poverty from having an easier life,” writes Ian Parker in The New Yorker.

This criticism goes to the heart of the entrepreneurial “talented tenth” approach. Investing in people is a fine slogan. But it ignores the importance of infrastructure (roads, public transportation, fiberoptic cables), a health care system that sustains a population, and a robust public sector that provides secure jobs. It’s not so easy to squeeze money out of donors by showing them a picture of an irrigation system. The “sponsor-an-entrepreneur” strategy is doing for development what the “sponsor-a-child” strategy did for the Christian Children’s Fund.

In many ways, the 10,000 Women project is the flip side of the corporate remuneration scheme. The “talented tenth” of the corporate world receive enormous bonuses for their putative contributions to the firm. These “exceptional men” – and most of them tend to be men, just as they were in the days of DuBois – pull up the performance and the standards of the rest of their colleagues.

Or do they? The 10,000 Women project, it should be noted, is the brainchild of Goldman Sachs. In April, firm representatives faced charges in front of the Senate that they not only helped precipitate the financial meltdown, but deliberately profited by it. In the hot glare of media attention and public outrage, even Republicans deserted the firm. “There is something unseemly about Goldman betting against the housing market at the same time it is selling to its clients mortgage-backed securities of toxic loans,” Susan Collins (R-ME) said.

The $100 million that Goldman Sachs shells out for the 10,000 Women project is a mere pittance compared to the $16.2 billion in corporate bonuses it distributed in January. Goldman Sachs is translating its backwards strategy from the corporate boardroom to the development world. The result may well be some short-term profit. The MBA-armed women will likely make money, just as “fabulous Fab” Fabrice Tourre, the banker at the heart of the scandal, made a lot of money for Goldman Sachs. But will the 10,000 women actually help the common good?

W.E.B. DuBois ultimately repudiated his “talented tenth” essay. In 1948, he wrote: “When I came out of college into the world of work, I realized that it was quite possible that my plan of training a talented tenth might put in control and power, a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men, whose basic interest in solving the Negro problem was personal; personal freedom and unhampered enjoyment and use of the world, without any real care, or certainly no arousing care as to what became of the mass of American Negroes, or of the mass of any people.”

I doubt Goldman Sachs will ever repudiate its own “talented tenth” approach. After all, it is woven into the very texture of the firm and the environment within which it operates. But when will the rest of us wean ourselves of the delusion that a talented tenth – be they entrepreneurs or technocrats or pundits – will deliver us from poverty and the other ills of the world?


Only 13.5% of US aid goes through Afghan Government

Only 13.5% of US aid goes through Afghan Government – Call to clean up contracting system
Lalit K Jha – May 21, 2010, Pajhwok News Agency, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (PAN):  The Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stressed on Friday the need for cleaning up the contracting system by strengthening oversight accountability.

In general, it is a good system, Major General Arnold Fields (Retired), told Pajhwok Afghan News in an exclusive interview. One would be hard pressed to find other folks in the federal work community to provide the resources the contractors were offering, he said.
At the same time, the system needed to be improved so as to increase its efficiency, the SIGAR chief explained. This is an act that really needs to be cleaned up. I think the way to do that is to bring the contracting community just as we need to bring upon the federal community more on oversight and more on accountability on how this money is being spent.

Fields said the United States had decided to substantially increase routing its aid through the government of Afghanistan, meeting one of Kabuls major demands.

Right now 13.5 percent of the US aid is channeled through the Afghan government. Between now and the end of this fiscal year, the government of the United States plans to increase that figure from 13.5 percent to 40 percent.

So we are doing our share to move this in the right direction, because allowing more funds to be channeled through the Government of Afghanistan, it helps to build confidence and helps to build capacity within the government of Afghanistan, Fields said.

Fields had no idea if the Afghan government had the capacity to handle huge amounts of money, saying there was a process underway to certify some institutions to determine their ability to use the increased flow of money.

Earlier appearing before the House Subcommittee on International Organisations, Human Rights and Oversight, Fields acknowledged corruption was a major problem in Afghanistan. When we look at corruption, we are looking at the whole enchilada.  We’re looking at sides, the American side as well as the Afghan side.

Fields agreed with a recent statement from General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, that there is too much dependence on contractors.   But there’s a liability to this.  We either build the resources that are now being provided by the contracting community within the defence mechanism and structure, or we continue to depend upon contractors.


The Left’s Silence On Afghanistan


by MICHAEL A. COHEN, June 11, 2010

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a 152-page report outlining the increasingly grim situation in Afghanistan. The paper highlighted the Afghan government (and its security services) lack of capability; the enduring challenge of endemic corruption and poor governance; and the Taliban insurgency’s ability to maintain influence — often via intimidation — across broad swaths of the country. These challenges have already undermined U.S. military operations in Marjah, and could threaten the upcoming summer offensive planned for Kandahar, the heart of the Taliban insurgency.

The entire U.S. mission in Afghanistan, which is predicated on extending the legitimacy of a flawed Afghan government, bringing good governance to the country’s most insecure regions, and degrading the Taliban insurgency militarily to smooth the path for political negotiations is eerily reminiscent of the flawed American strategy in Vietnam four decades ago.

While no one can be sure how escalation in Afghanistan will turn out, the warning signs are blinking red. Yet the reaction from many of the president’s liberal and left-of-center supporters has been acquiescence and even silence. The Pentagon report — like much of the recent bad news out of Afghanistan — caused barely a ripple on the left. It’s a familiar pattern. The American Prospect, along with Salon, has devoted enormous and laudable energy to covering civil liberties issues related to the U.S. war on terror, but has run only one major article on Afghanistan since Obama’s December speech at West Point.

The Center for American Progress’s Wonk Room blog has not run a headlined story about the war since January. At Talking Points Memo, which is perhaps the most prominent liberal blog, Afghanistan rarely rates a mention. Paul Krugman, a frequent critic of the Iraq War (and President Obama), has not written a column on Afghanistan since the president took office. And The New Republic itself has largely avoided critical consideration of the war. (The Nation and Mother Joneshave been exceptions to this relative silence.)

So why are so many liberal voices muted? Why after so many liberals aggressively asserted themselves in criticizing the foreign policy conduct of the Bush administration — and in particular the war in Iraq — have they ignored the war in Afghanistan? Over the past several weeks I asked a number of prominent progressives why liberals have been so silent about the war in Afghanistan. Several themes emerged.

First, is the obvious information gap. There are fewer reporters in Afghanistan than in Iraq — and little in the way of TV coverage. As a result, it is difficult to get a clear sense of what is happening on the ground and what is working and not working. It is for many liberal publications simply easier to write about the debate over health care reform or other domestic issues. Mark Schmitt, executive editor of The American Prospect told me that it is “tough to produce something well-informed on Afghanistan” because of financial constraints and the challenge in finding knowledgeable writers on the ground to do actual reporting.

Second, in contrast to the war in Iraq, liberals generally support the objectives of the war in Afghanistan — and for a good part of the past seven years have been calling on the U.S. to devote more attention to the war there, rather than Iraq. They recall Afghanistan’s role in the planning of September 11 and are aware of the continued presence of al Qaeda in the region. And many fear that a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would subject Afghans, and in particular Afghan women, to a return of the human rights abuses that defined previous Taliban rule. That makes even those with serious misgivings about the Obama administration’s strategy more willing to give it the benefit of a doubt.

Third, is the hangover from Iraq. According to Michael W. Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, progressives “have yet to come to grips with the dominant surge narrative, which suggests that it was largely responsible for turning the tide in Iraq.” Hanna noted the factors that brought stability to Iraq were largely indigenous to Iraqi society and were only partially the result of President Bush’s decision to increase troop levels. But the misunderstood “success” of the surge has led many progressives to now “feel chastened about speaking out against Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan.” Many seem to feel that if they were wrong about escalation in Iraq then, perhaps they are wrong about escalation in Afghanistan today.

Behind all these factors, however, are the familiar (and very tricky) questions that have bedeviled progressive foreign policy thinkers for years — namely, how do you balance humanitarian aspirations with actual U.S. capabilities and interests, and how and when should the United States utilize military force? Liberals are discovering that it was relatively easy to criticize an unpopular, incompetent war in Iraq and a foreign policy agenda that promiscuously squandered U.S. power and goodwill. But finding a solution for Afghanistan or a national security strategy that moves the country away from the post 9/11 “war on terror” narrative is far more difficult.

In fact, the lack of good alternatives for Afghanistan seems to be a major stumbling block for progressives. Many told me that it was difficult to criticize the president’s strategy without a clear sense of what should be done differently. But for the left to argue that there are still no good alternatives on Afghanistan is an implicit indictment of their own failure to come up with one.

Members of left-leaning, DC-based think tanks and and advocacy organizations like have either tacitly supported the Afghanistan strategy or offered tactical suggestions to improve a policy that some privately believe is irredeemable. These are the groups that should be providing the policy ammunition for liberals to speak more authoritatively on Afghanistan.

The absence of critical discussion among these policy groups was painfully evident when the president convened his first review of Afghanistan in Spring 2009. His civilian national security advisers went along with the military’s single-minded call for a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy as did almost all of Obama’s liberal supporters. But both groups — not well versed in what a fully resourced counter-insurgency would entail — clearly underestimated the implications of a significant U.S. commitment to a COIN strategy.

“They were caught flat-footed in the face of the COIN public relations campaign, which came from the military, some civilians, and an echo chamber of think tank analysts and bloggers who played a cheerleading role rather than critically examining U.S. interests and policy options in Afghanistan,” said Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

According to Lorelei Kelly, who runs the Afghanistan Congressional Communications Hub, many on the left fear that “they don’t have the credibility to engage in this conversation.” Instead, the progressive national security community has tended to focus on issues like arms control, human rights, economic development, and the environment. Moreover, there is a sense that liberals can’t compete on military issues — either from a reputational standpoint or intellectually. Among those who have not served in the military the reluctance is even more profound.

The liberals’ reluctance to address national security issues more authoritatively could prove costly to both the Obama administration and the country. Politicians must rely, in some measure, on the policy ideas that their own backers can muster, as Republicans were able to do when they took back the White House in 1981 and 2001. But when he took office, President Obama wasn’t able to look to the liberal media and think tanks either for help in figuring out what to do in Afghanistan or for political support in exploring approaches different from what the military was proposing. If the strategy he adopted for Afghanistan falters, Obama may once again find himself with limited options from his base of supporters on how to salvage the conflict. That’s a dangerous prospect and it could affect more than just the war in Afghanistan: it could do real damage to Obama’s presidency and the aspirations of his progressive supporters.


New plan to woo Afghan Taliban could harm villages

Kabul is proposing to reward villages whose Afghan Taliban fighters surrender by disbursing cash through councils that already oversee aid money. Critics say that would make the councils Taliban targets.

Temp Headline Image
Afghan policemen stand guard at a check point of the Peace Jirga tent, near a billboard advertising the three-day conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 1. President Hamid Karzai rolled out his program to lure Taliban fighters off the battlefield, when he attended the conference last week. (Musadeq Sadeq/AP)

By Ben Arnoldy, Staff writer
posted June 10, 2010 at 11:47 am EDT

Kabul, Afghanistan —A plan drawn up by the Afghan government and NATO to disarm Taliban fighters is raising concerns that it could imperil one of Afghanistan’s most successful development programs.

The draft document, circulating in Kabul as the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, envisions delivering aid to home villages of former Taliban fighters. The money would be spent by elected village councils set up under the National Solidarity Program (NSP) – widely seen as one of the few bright spots in Afghan reconstruction.

On Tuesday, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke pressed the Afghan government to finalize a draft plan and get it up and running before a Kabul conference on July 20.

But international aid groups involved in the NSP say that the current draft plan would militarize the civilian program, making themselves and the village councils a target for the Taliban. They warn the plan would diminish participation in the NSP just as it begins to show success boosting Afghan attitudes about their government.

The disarmament plan “might be perceived by the opposition as a hostile measure for recruitment of combatants. Every organization associated with that project will be considered an enemy,” says Laurent Saillard, head of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a consortium for nongovernmental organizations.

“It would affect one of the few successful programs in the country and reduce further the access to the population,” he adds.

An aid program that delivers

The NSP works by making small grants of around $30,000 to villages across the country and allowing them to choose which projects to pursue. The program, which has reached 70 percent of the country’s villages, is run by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) and funded by international donors including the United States and the World Bank.

Each village is teamed up with an NGO, known as a facilitating partner, that helps run a local election for the council and develop the village’s list of project priorities. It also provides engineering assistance.

In the village of Sakha in northeastern Afghanistan, all 118 families now have electricity for the first time after residents decided to spend their NSP funds on a micro-hydro turbine. The project was finished six months ago for less than $50,000 with the help of Afghan Aid, an international NGO.

Before the election of Sakha’s council, called a shura, the villagers had no leaders. Now the shura has become a point of contact between the Afghan government, NGOs working on development projects, and the villagers. It’s even become a local court of sorts.

“Whenever there is a dispute or a conflict between two or three among the community, first we try to solve that issue in our shura,” says Baz Mohammad, the shura chief. “After NSP, we learned to send applications and requests to organizations and the government … we know where to go to get help.”

Seeking synergy
The Taliban reintegration program envisions giving these councils another task: taking reward money for local Taliban fighters who surrender and spending it to benefit the entire village – including the ex-combatants and their victims. The former fighters might also stand for election to the shuras.

The Karzai government developed the draft plan with the help of NATO specialists under Gen. Phil Jones, the director of the Force Reintegration Cell in Kabul.

Jones says one of the goals was to avoid creating “additional or parallel” government structures. The councils are already trained to take government money and spending it on a prioritized list of projects.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel “where they have already developed a sensible list of projects,” he argues. “One of the red lines for us is not to create existing things.”

The councils would not be asked to “tackle the higher level political questions” involved in reintegrating insurgents, according to the draft document.

Not a done deal
Still, all this sounds worrisome to Mohammad Tariq Ismati, the government’s executive director for the NSP program.

“The NSP is already loaded with a lot of concerns,” including local development and community conflict resolution, he says. “We cannot risk it by adding such a sensitive and politicized process.”

The plan, he says, is trying to turn the NSP into a tool of counterinsurgency by helping stabilize villages and win the residents over to the side of the government. While that’s never been the reason for the NSP, new data suggest it is achieving some of those results.

A donor-funded study led by Harvard University researcher Andrew Beath looked at a random sample of 500 villages, half with NSP and half without. Villages with an NSP project gave slightly higher marks to the Afghan president, provincial and district leaders, and the US military. NSP villages did not see security improve, but the perception of safety went up by four percentage points.

“The process of mobilizing the community and widening the participation of villages is itself contributing to stability and security in localities,” says Mr. Ismati. But “using the NSP as a model for counterinsurgency will put the model at risk.”

He is confident that the draft plan can be changed before it’s finalized. But he is unhappy that the proposal has already created unrest among NGOs such as Afghan Aid that work on NSP projects.

Representatives from the World Bank, which oversees the funding of the NSP, say that using the NSP councils will likely be edited out because of the harm it would do to the program.

“If the facilitating partners [NGOs] are not keen on doing this – and many have ideological problems with it – it’s not going to work,” says Qazi Azmat Isa, a senior rural development specialist with the World Bank in Kabul.

But General Jones gave no indication that the pushback on the idea was likely to sink it. The decision will have to come from the Afghan government.

Plan B?
Few alternatives exist beyond the NSP village councils to receive the reintegration money. Giving it directly to the ex-combatants would give people incentives to join and quit the insurgency for the rewards. At the village level, few other credible leaders exist, and district-level government in Afghanistan is famously corrupt and ineffective.

The plan includes other money to provide jobs around the country through various Afghan government ministries, including new engineering and construction corps and an agricultural conservation corps.

“Young men from the community of fighting age can be given preference to deny recruits for the insurgency,” reads the draft plan. Recruits for the conservation corps would, instead of picking up a gun, be planting trees.

Related stories:


National Public Radio, Morning Edition: Afghan Civilian Programs

National Public Radio, Morning edition, Report on National Solidarity Program



This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I’m Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I’m Renee Montagne.

When General David Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this last weekend, he stressed that the strategy there needs to be executed by one team, military and civilian.

This week, we’re looking at the civilian side of things. And this morning, we turn to Michael Semple, who spoke to us from Islamabad. He’s worked on civilian projects in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, most recently for the European Union and the U.N. Beyond Afghanistan, those civilian efforts are often overshadowed by news of combat and deadly attacks by militants.

I asked Michael Semple if assistance programs were visible to ordinary Afghans.

Mr. MICHAEL SEMPLE (Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard): It’s certainly visible inside Afghanistan. The Afghans are very much aware. However, I should say the aspirations that the Afghans had at the start of this process, you know, back down in 2001, were sky high. So it’s not so much that it’s invisible. It’s just that however much is thrown in, there’s always a sense, oh, well. It’s not quite what we expected.

MONTAGNE: Let’s talk about one project in particular that seems to be quite effective. It’s called the National Solidarity Program. It involves small reconstruction projects which seem to be really right for many of the areas of Afghanistan.

Mr. SEMPLE: The National Solidarity Program is a very interesting example of the kind of work which has been going on in Afghanistan for the past few years. It is run under the aegis of the Rural Development Ministry here, with participation of a range of international NGO’s. And the way they work is that they go into villages, encourage people to form committees in their villages to try and identify the kind of small-scale reconstruction project that they would like. And then through the project structure, they supply some more seed capital to enable them to get on with implementing their approach. And this is a very, you know, small-scale infrastructure work, for example, tapping hydroelectric power to provide electricity in the villages.

MONTAGNE: And this works because it gets local people involved in doing the actual work and making decisions?

Mr. SEMPLE: Yes. One of the fascinating things about the project is that when you ask people – the Afghans in the villages why they think these are successful, they often say ah-ha, because it’s not a government project -whereas, actually, it is a government project, but it’s a government project which is implemented with a high degree of community participation.

MONTAGNE: To the degree that they’re successful or visible, would the average Afghan distinguish the civilian projects as separate from the U.S. and NATO military campaign? Part of the military’s effort is to do things like build wells and even schools and whatnot.

Mr. SEMPLE: They certainly do overlap. One of the most interesting distinctions that I find is that even some of those people who were engaged in the insurgency, people with the Taliban movement basically say our chief demand is to see the end of the international troops in Afghanistan. But we hope in the future to be benefiting from and participating in international assistance programs. So even some of the people who are involved in the insurgency make this kind of distinction.

MONTAGNE: Both Americans and Afghans can identify General Petraeus as the face of the U.S. military campaign. I’m wondering if there, in Afghanistan, there is a face for the civilian effort. And I’m thinking here of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who mostly travels with the Afghan press – the local press. He’s not even that interested in the international press. Has he succeeded in being the face of the civilian effort?

Mr. SEMPLE: At the moment it’s clear that the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, is indeed the face of the civilian effort. And the reason that he is focusing on traveling with the Afghan press is because he’s said it is a strategic priority that the Afghan population should understand the good things that are happening and not entirely focus on the ongoing conflict.

And his thinking there is that if the Afghans have a stake in peace, then there’s a chance that peace might actually work. And I think he’s decided to leave the business of persuading the American public that the intervention of Afghanistan is worthwhile to others. He’s focusing on trying to ensure that they, the Afghans themselves, have a stake in success.

MONTAGNE: Michael Semple spent 20 years working on civilian projects in Afghanistan. He’s now a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.


Project presentation by Michael Sheridan, July 8, Washington DC

This Thursday, July 8 at 8 pm at the Corner Store Art Center, (address below) there will be a presentation on the development of Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

The project’s director, Michael Sheridan, recently returned from Afghanistan and will introduce the project, screen a sample film and answer any questions.

During Michael’s recent trip to Afghanistan he was offered a generous $20,000 dollar matching grant. This fund will go toward the training of Afghan filmmakers who will serve as the film’s production team. Michael returned excited about the pool of talented, courageous and dedicated young Afghan filmmakers and print, radio and photojournalists with whom he can collaborate to capture the village-based stories for Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

The need now is to raise the matching $20,000 dollars by the end of July so that the training of Afghan filmmakers can begin in August. The team will then film from within 6 villages for a year to experience from the Afghan perspective the costs and benefits of bottom up versus top down approaches and the impact of local versus foreign ownership of the development process.

Please join us for a stimulating presentation and discussion about an important project addressing pressing issues in Afghanistan and about America’s Afghan war strategy. It is urgent at this time of uncertainty and leadership changes in Afghanistan to call attention to more effective and efficient strategies for creating stability in poor and fragile states.

We hope to see you on Thursday. There will be a $5 donation requested at the door to help cover the host’s expenses. Please email this invite to friends and colleagues and post on any appropriate websites and list serves.

Event Location:
Corner Store Art Center,
900 South Carolina Ave, SE
Washington DC, 20003

Please let us know if you could host an event in your community. Thanks!


Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War – Pitch Reel

Community Supported Film’s Afghan team soon will be making the film Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War (BTKW). BTKW will from the Afghan villager’s perspective look at the impact of outsiders coming into their communities trying to help them.


US Marines – Creating more insurgents or space for development?

What Marja Tells Us of Battles Yet to Come
New York Times, June, 10, 2010

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times. Afghans passed through a Marine checkpoint last month in Marja, where fighting has continued since a highly publicized assault on insurgents in February.

MARJA, Afghanistan — Each day, American foot patrols move through farmers’ fields and irrigated villages. And each day some are ambushed or encounter hidden bombs. The patrols turn into gunfights in withering heat, or efforts to dismantle the bombs or treat the wounded. Casualties accumulate with the passing weeks, for Americans and Afghans alike.

A few months ago, Marja was the focus of a highly publicized assaultto push the Taliban from a stronghold and bring Afghanistan’s densest area of opium production under government control. The fighting remains raw.

What does it mean?

Is the violence a predictable summer fight for an area the Taliban and those who profit from the drug economy do not want to lose; in other words, an unsurprising flare-up that can be turned around? Or will Marja remain bloody for a long time, allowing insurgents to inflict sustained losses on American units and win merely by keeping the fight alive?

As NATO and Afghan forces flow into neighboring Kandahar Province, where for the next many months the latest high-profile effort to undo the Taliban’s hold will unroll, the continuing fighting in Marja can be read as a sign of problems in the American-led surge. It can also be read as something less worrisome: a difficult period in a campaign always expected to be hard.

A prevailing assessment among officers on the ground is this: The outcome is too soon to call.

“Right now it’s gray,” said Maj. Lawrence Lohman, the operations officer for Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, which operates outposts in northern Marja.

Those who deem the Marja offensive a disappointment, or even a failure, point to the daily violence and to the signs that Afghans have been leaving the area, at least temporarily, to avoid the fighting. They also point to Taliban intimidation of residents, a still limited government presence, and the continued reliance of Afghan police officers and soldiers on American supervision and logistics. These, they say, are ill-boding signs.

But the signals are contradictory.

Most of Marja’s civilians returned after moving away ahead of the initial assault. Most of them remain. Compounds that were empty in February are inhabited. Roads once quiet are busy. Fields are thick with crops. Shops in some bazaars have reopened. Afghan units participate visibly in dangerous missions.

Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the battalion’s commander, noted that some of Marja’s residents had begun providing information on the Taliban, including sharing the names and locations of fighters. Many civilians have been seeking aid and a few have sought contracts for small scale development projects, the early steps in engagement.

“I’ve seen good growth and good progress,” the colonel said. He added: “There is still a lot to be done.”

The Marines point to what they clearly hope is a Helmand pattern, apparent in other districts, including Nawa, where the Taliban were strong and fighting was initially intense. The pattern, they said, is this: With time and resources, the insurgents’ position erodes, villages become secure, and engagement and the Afghan government presence expand.

Pursuing this goal, Marine companies have been sending out constant small patrols. Their presence keeps the Taliban occupied and inflicts losses, the Marines say, and creates the space to allow for development or programs to gain traction. In the short term, it is also a recipe for small-unit violence — fierce and frequent.

“It goes back to the very basics of what we do: gain and maintain contact,” said Col. Randall P. Newman, who commands Marine ground forces in central Helmand Province.

Colonel Newman said he expected skirmishes to decline in frequency in the months ahead. “I don’t think the guys who are shooting now are committed enough to keep doing this a long time,” he said.

More Western troops have died in Helmand Province than in any other, and the sight of medevac helicopters over Marja each day is a reminder that the area has become a center of the province’s bloodshed.

But Helmand is not uniformly violent. There are areas where fighting is regular — Marja, Sangin, Nahr-e-Saraj — and areas where the Taliban had fought hard before being marginalized as a combat force.

Moreover, the rising casualties have complicated causes. Some are related to the combined effects of Taliban resistance and the Marines’ grinding patrol tempo. Others can reasonably be attributed to a shift made last year to rules of engagement that guide American forces.

The shift de-emphasized airstrikes, artillery and mortars. This transferred some of the risk in skirmishes from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. In the past, American patrols in contact often quickly called for and received fire support. Not anymore. Many firefights these days are strictly rifle and machine gun fights.

Understanding the shift is important. It has made engagement times noticeably longer, driving up the troops’ risks and amplifying a perception that Marja, fought with less fire support than what was available to American units in other hotly contested areas, is mired in blood.

That perception has obscured a wider view. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British officer commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan’s south, urged patience. “The challenge with this campaign is that it takes time, because it’s in the minds of people, and its people take time to be convinced,” he said.

He also cautioned against drawing conclusions by extrapolating from Marja alone. The operation, he said, opened provincial roads. Six months ago, the provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, could barely travel; now he covers much of the province.

“You’ve got a central Helmand that is linked together, and in economic terms can develop,” General Carter said. “So I think people tend to make the mistake of just thinking about Marja.”

Meanwhile, Marines are wounded by bombs or shot each week. The violence in itself does not mean that the campaign is lost. Fighting is normal to war, a concept sometimes played down in discussions about the United States’ counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes developing relationships with the population and helping government agencies gain credibility and provide services.

Those directly involved caution that a few months of fighting is not necessarily a basis for grim forecasts, especially during the first summer in a former Taliban enclave. American commanders have been voicing frustration nonetheless, as was evident last month in Gen.Stanley A. McChrystal’s description of Marja as “a bleeding ulcer.”

The remark underscores perhaps the clearest conclusion that can be drawn thus far. Even before the last troops of the Obama administration’s surge arrive in Afghanistan, high-level American commanders appear pressed for time, no matter the complexities faced by troops on the ground.


In Afghan region, U.S. spreads the cash to fight the Taliban

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

NAWA, AFGHANISTAN — In this patch of southern Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy to keep the Taliban at bay involves an economic stimulus.

Thousands of men, wielding hoes and standing in knee-deep muck, are getting paid to clean reed-infested irrigation canals. Farmers are receiving seeds and fertilizer for a fraction of their retail cost, and many are riding around on shiny new red tractors. Over the summer, dozens of gravel roads and grain-storage facilities will be constructed — all of it funded by the U.S. government.

Pumping reconstruction dollars into war zones has long been part of the U.S. counterinsurgency playbook, but the carpet bombing of Nawa with cash has resulted in far more money getting into local hands, far more quickly, than in any other part of Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s agriculture program aims to spend upward of $30 million within nine months in this rural district of mud-walled homes and small farms. Other U.S. initiatives aim to bring millions more dollars to the area over the next year.

Because aid is so plentiful in Nawa — seemingly everyone who wants a job has one — many young men have opted to stop serving as the Taliban’s guns for hire. Unlike neighboring Marja, where insurgent attacks remain a daily occurrence, the central parts of Nawa have been largely violence-free the past six months.

But the cash surge has also unleashed unintended and potentially troubling consequences. It is sparking new tension and rivalries within the community, and it is prompting concern that the nearly free seeds and gushing canals will result in more crops than farmers will be able to sell. It is also raising public expectations for handouts that the Afghan government will not be able to sustain once U.S. contributions ebb.

“We’ve blasted Nawa with a phenomenal amount of money in the name of counterinsurgency without fully thinking through the second- and third-order effects,” said Ian Purves, a British development expert who recently completed a year-long assignment as the NATO stabilization adviser in Nawa.

U.S. officials responsible for Afghanistan policy contend that the initiative in Nawa, which is part of a $250 million effort to increase agricultural production across southern Afghanistan, was designed as a short-term jolt to resuscitate the economy and generate lasting employment. They say concerns about overspending are misplaced: After years of shortchanging Afghans on development aid, the officials maintain that they would rather do too much than too little.

“Our goal is to return Nawa to normalcy, to get folks back to their daily lives of farming, and that requires a large effort,” said Rory Donohoe, USAID’s agriculture program manager in Helmand province.

Of particular concern to some development specialists is USAID’s decision to spend the entire $250 million over one year in parts of just two provinces, Helmand and Kandahar. In Nawa, which has a population of about 75,000, that works out to about $400 for every man, woman and child. The country’s per-capita income, by comparison, is about $300 a year.

“This is a massive effort to buy people off so they won’t fight us,” said a U.S. development officer in southern Afghanistan.

The spending here is a preview of what the Obama administration wants to accomplish on a larger scale. USAID’s “burn rate” in Afghanistan — the amount it spends — is about $300 million a month and will probably stay at that level for at least a year.

The White House recently asked Congress for an additional $4.4 billion for reconstruction and development programs in Afghanistan, with the aim of increasing employment and promoting economic growth in areas beset by the insurgency.

Although some of that money will be directed through Afghan government ministries and local aid organizations to fund projects designed and run by Afghans, most of it will go to large, U.S.-based development firms with the ability to hire lots of people and spend lots of money quickly.

Among the programs in the pipeline is a $600 million effort to improve municipal governments across the country and to increase the provision of basic services to urban dwellers. The program is supposed to include extensive day-labor projects to pick up trash and plant trees, and it calls for the contractor to implement “performance-based” budgeting systems within two years, something that most U.S. cities do not have.

USAID also envisions spending $140 million to help settle property disputes. One of the agency’s hoped-for achievements is to train Afghans to appraise and value land.

Some development specialists question whether Afghanistan can absorb the flood of money, or whether a large portion will be lost to corruption, inefficiency and dubious ventures funded to meet Washington-imposed deadlines.

“We’ve turned a fire hose on these guys — and they can’t absorb it,” said a development specialist who has worked as a USAID contractor in Afghanistan for three years. “We’re setting ourselves up for a huge amount of waste and fraud.”

Improving farming
The $250 million agriculture program is the Obama administration’s principal effort to create jobs and improve livelihoods in the two provinces where U.S. troops are concentrating their counterinsurgency mission this year. It was designed to address what senior administration officials, particularly presidential envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, deemed to be scattershot and underfunded initiatives over the first eight years of the war to assist farmers, who make up most of the country’s workforce.

The program aims to make farms more productive, thereby increasing employment and living standards. It would do so by cleaning canals so more water gets to crops, offering subsidized seeds so farmers would be encouraged to switch from growing opium-producing poppies, establishing cooperatives to share tractors and constructing a network of gravel roads so they can take their goods to market.

To forge links between residents and their government, a 42-member community council decides which canals to clean and which roads to improve.

USAID selected International Relief and Development (IRD), an Arlington-based nonprofit development firm, to run the program. To get the work started quickly, the agency gave the company the $250 million as a grant last summer, instead of hiring it under contract to do the work, which would have taken longer.

Grants also involve fewer auditing requirements for USAID, but once awarded they limit the government’s ability to make changes.

The program has been a hit with Nawa residents since the day it began in December, largely because of the plentiful cash-for-work opportunities. Once the day labor began, unemployment disappeared almost overnight.

The initiative has put money in the pocket of almost every working-age male in the district. More than 7,000 residents have been hired for $5 a day to clean the canals, and a similar number of farmers have received vouchers for heavily discounted seeds and fertilizer. Thousands of others have benefited from additional forms of assistance through the program.

“We had nothing here before — only bullets,” said Gul Mohammed, a lanky tenant farmer, as he scooped mud from a narrow canal. He said the day labor is essential to feeding his family because he decided last fall, after a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Nawa, not to plant poppies on his 6.5-acre plot.

Now he is growing wheat, which fetches only about a quarter of what he would have made from poppies.

“We are so thankful for this work,” he said. “Without it, we would be going hungry.”

Local infighting
USAID’s decision to involve the community council in the disbursement was intended to help build local governance. It has done that, but it has also generated new frictions in the district.

When the council was formed last fall, the seven principal tribal leaders in the area decided not to participate. They did not want to risk the Taliban’s wrath by siding with the United States and the Afghan government. But now that the council has the ability to influence millions of dollars worth of projects, the leaders want a piece of the action.

The senior elder, Hayatullah Helmandi of the Barakzai tribe, has launched a campaign to discredit the council members, calling them opportunists and drug users. “The Marines should be working with us,” he said.

The infighting has prompted concern among some U.S. officials in the area. “These tensions probably wouldn’t be so severe if there wasn’t as much money involved,” one of them said.

Then there is the question of what to do with all the additional crops grown this year. Purves estimates that the program will increase agricultural production by tens of thousands of tons across central Helmand province.

“What on Earth will happen to that?” he said. “There’s no way all of that can be gotten to market, and even if it could, there simply isn’t a market for that much more food.”

Holbrooke and USAID agriculture experts want to construct cold-storage facilities so the produce can be trucked to markets in other parts of Afghanistan or exported to nearby countries. But that effort will not be completed in time to help farmers with this year’s crop.

The effort to spend the program funds as fast as possible has resulted in some items going to waste, according to people familiar with the effort.

Plastic tunnels to allow farmers to grow crops over the winter were not distributed until February — well after the winter planting season — so many of them simply used the plastic as window sheeting for their mud huts. The metal rods were turned into fences.

The cash-for-work programs are so plentiful and lucrative that some teachers and policemen sought to enroll before U.S. and Afghan officials barred their participation.

Among Nawa residents, the biggest worry is what will happen when the program ends Aug. 31. U.S. officials hope this effort will result in new farm jobs, but nobody thinks it will be enough to employ all of those participating in the day-labor projects. Although USAID is considering a follow-on agriculture program, it is not clear whether the labor component will be as large as it is now.

If not, Afghan officials said their government does not have the resources to make up the difference.

“Those cash-for-work men — half of them used to be Taliban,” said the district governor, Abdul Manaf. “If the Americans stop paying for them to work, they’ll go back to the Taliban.”

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Hopes for Afghan Community Councils to Undermine Taliban

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

NADALI, Afghanistan — More than 600 men, most of them farmers with weathered faces and rough hands, sat on the ground under an awning, waiting all day to deposit their ballots in plastic boxes. They had braved Taliban threats and road mines to come here to select a district council, part of a plan to strengthen local government in the most unstable parts of Afghanistan.

“The important thing is we are trying to build trust between the people and the government,” said Qari Mukhtar Ahmad, a senior cleric attending the election last month. “This district was under fighting for a long time, but now there is peace and we have to listen to the people and bring them together.”

Peace is a relative term in Nadali, a district in the southern province of Helmand with one of highest levels of roadside bombs per square mile. Government officials still have to fly by helicopter from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, rather than risk the 20-minute drive.

The district encompasses Marja, a Taliban stronghold where United States Marines have been battling insurgents since February. Marja remains largely ungovernable, but the operation broke the hold of the Taliban in the rest of the district, making it stable enough to try to set up some local representation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.


Donor Meetings in Kabul

Michael’s June trip to Afghanistan involved a flurry of meetings and presentations as he advanced Afghan partnerships and sought international funding for Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.  Significant progress was made during this time, with specific focus on developing a 50,000 USD key initiative to train Afghans in video production and documentary storytelling. There are now 21 Afghan television stations, an astounding figure considering that much of the country has no access to electricity – no matter television.   Not one station, however, shows documentaries.

While there is a developing video-journalism and filmmaking community in Afghanistan there is limited experience with long-form documentary filmmaking. It is essential for Afghans to be communicating their issues to the Afghan public and the international community.  Currently the majority of information is provided by internationals.  Foreign journalists and storytellers predominately concentrate on the activities of their nationals. There is little of interest to them about what Afghans are doing for themselves.  It is very important for Afghans to hear from Afghans about what is and isn’t being accomplished by Afghans.

The Killid Group (TKG, see the page: Project Partners and Advisors to learn more), BTKW’s Afghan project partner, organized one gathering at the recently restored Queen’s Palace at the Bagh-i-Babur Gardens.

About 40 people from foreign embassy’s policy and development desks, UN agencies, the international and local non-governmental community and local media organizations and filmmakers, attended the presentation. After a brief introduction from TKG founder and president, Sahir Zahine, Michael outlined the project’s goals and showed our ten-minute introductory film.

Tariq Ismati, Executive Director of the National Solidarity Program (NSP), the Afghan government community development work highlighted in our film, also invited Michael to present the project during the NSP’s quarterly donor meeting on June 20th. We are extremely thankful to Tariq and the NSP staff for helping us coordinate this opportunity to communicate with funders who support Afghan led development work.  Some excellent conversations were started at this meeting with potential to bloom into support for the film and training program.

photos by Mirwais


World Bank Provides Additional Support for National Solidarity Program

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

NSP Feature Story:

NSP Website:

For more information on the World Bank in Afghanistan, please visit:

For more information on the ARTF, please visit:


Return to Afghanistan

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

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

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

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


Corruption in the Pentagon is no match for the Afghan government

Tomgram: Christopher Hellman, May 20, 2010

When it comes to the Pentagon and the U.S. military, wherever you look, theres money being handed out.  Wildly and in staggering amounts.  Early this month, for instance, the U.S. Army announced that it had awarded KBR, the private contractor which was once part of Halliburton, a contract worth up to $568 million through 2011 for military support service in Iraq.

This is the same KBR that has been accused of improprieties of all sorts.  As it happened, the Army made its announcement, noted Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News, only hours after the Justice Department said it will pursue a lawsuit accusing the Houston-based company of taking kickbacks from two subcontractors on Iraq-related work. Even though the company has been the object of numerous investigations and law suits, and is the Blackwater (now Xe) of construction firms, as well as a prime victor in the Bush administrations military privatization sweepstakes, this was a no-bid contract.  Given the Pentagons spending track record, none of this should surprise you.

Or consider Mission Essential Personnel, a firm that, unlike KBR or Halliburton, youve undoubtedly never heard of.  No wonder: only three years ago, it was a tiny military contractor taking in $6 million a year.  Recently, however, it garnered a one-year $679 million contract to field a small citys worth of translators to help out American forces in Afghanistan. (And again — surprise, surprise! — a no-bid contract.) Not bad, writes the invaluable Noah Shachtman at his Danger Room website, for a company thats been accused of everything from abandoning wounded employees to sending out-of-shape interpreters to the front lines.

Or heres another Shachtman find: defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton managed to corner a bevy of contracts worth $400 million in recent weeks to help fight future cyberwars, despite a stated Pentagon policy of relying less on outside contractors. In fact, the Pentagon is only now — and only modestly — reining in its long-running senior mentors program in which retired generals and admirals on the payroll of defense contractors (and on military pensions ranging up to $220,000 a year) are brought back as consultants at prices that run to $440 per hour. In some cases, reports USA Today, mentors were paid by the military to run war games involving weapons systems made by their consulting clients.

Theoretically, the military is known for discipline — but not, it seems, when what’s at stake is either spending our money or keeping track of it.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the Pentagon budget, few in this country have cared to pay much attention.  Fortunately, the National Priorities Project has.  It has been trying to put the realities of that ever more bloated budget on the national agenda for a while.  Now, NPPs Christopher Hellman suggests that a window of opportunity is opening, even if just a crack at the moment, for doing just that.  The question is: Will we pry it open further or slam it shut?  Tom


Bill for Afghan War Could Run Into the Trillions

Bill for Afghan War Could Run Into the Trillions … and doesn’t include effective social and economic development
Monday 17 May 2010
by: Eli Clifton 
Inter Press Service

Washington – The U.S. Senate is moving forward with a 59-billion-dollar spending bill, of which 33.5 billion dollars would be allocated for the war in Afghanistan.

However, some experts here in Washington are raising concerns that the war may be unwinnable and that the money being spent on military operations in Afghanistan could be better spent.

“We’re making all of the same mistakes the Soviets made during their time in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, and they left in defeat having accomplished none of their purposes,” Michael Intriligator, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute, said Monday at a half-day conference hosted by the New America Foundation and Economists for Peace and Security.

“I think we’re repeating that and it’s a history we’re condemned to repeat,” he said.

Intriligator also argued that the real, long-term cost of the war in Afghanistan may completely overshadow the current spending bill.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes estimated that the long-term costs – taking into account the costs of taking care of wounded soldiers and rebuilding the military – of the war in Iraq will ultimately cost three trillion dollars.

Intriligator suggested that a similar calculation for the costs of the war in Afghanistan would indicate a long-term cost of 1.5 to 2.0 trillion dollars.

“Why are we putting money into Afghanistan to fight a losing war and following the Soviet example rather than putting money into [our] local communities?” he asked.

The Senate has been under pressure to approve the spending bill before the Memorial Day recess at the end of the month.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the 59-billion-dollar bill drafted by the committee’s Chairman Daniel Inouye and Sen. Thad Cochran.

Gaining the approval of the Senate Appropriations committee may be the easy part in the push to get the bill to Obama’s desk by the end of the month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already indicated that the spending bill will face more intense opposition in the House as congressional Democrats are predicted to offer put up some resistance to the funding for Obama’s 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan.

Experts at the event today expressed their concern with both the physical cost of the war as well as the tradeoffs in spending required by the ongoing costs of fighting the Taliban insurgency.

“The climate bill, for all its defects, if it has a prayer of passing, might provide some of the money we need to keep the momentum on building a green economy going. But so could the savings from an Afghan drawdown,” said Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Intriligator emphasised the human cost of fighting a counterinsurgency campaign not just for U.S. soldiers but for Afghan civilians.

“We can’t distinguish the insurgents or Taliban from the rest of population so we kill a lot of innocent civilians,” he said.

A number of think tank events this week and the Obama administration’s push to gain support in Congress for the supplemental appropriations bill coincided with a high-profile visit last week by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who spent four days in meetings with Obama and members of his cabinet as well as with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Karzai’s trip to Washington and the warm reception afforded to him by the White House and lawmakers appeared to be part of a public relations offensive to build support in Washington for Karzai’s government and Obama’s troop surge.

Karzai’s visit came as polls have shown a major downturn in U.S. support for the war in Afghanistan and support amongst NATO allies has been dwindling.

In early April, news emerged that Karzai, in a closed door meeting, threatened to drop out of politics and join the Taliban.

A senior Obama administration official retorted that Karzai might be sampling “Afghanistan’s biggest export” – a reference to the widespread opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

The publicity campaign is facing an uphill battle this month but the administration has much to gain by putting a good face on the U.S. relationship with Karzai.

Indeed, the White House will need Karzai’s cooperation if it is to get Congressional support for passing the spending bill and will require Karzai’s assistance if Obama is to meet his goal of beginning U.S. troop withdrawals by mid-2011.

Karzai’s trip appears to have made some progress in showing off a “reset” relationship between the Obama White House and the Karzai government but a number of voices here in Washington are raising concerns over whether a U.S. victory in Afghanistan is possible by mid-2011 or at any time in the near future.

“The fear was that if we withdraw from Afghanistan there will be civil war and external great powers will take sides. Is that worse than losing American soldiers day after day? So there’s a civil war. So the regional great partners take sides. Why wouldn’t they? It’s their neighbours. It’s their borders.” said Michael Lind, policy director of the Economic Growth Programme at the New America Foundation, at Monday’s conference.


Continued expansion into Africa of military

Continued expansion into Africa of military only approaches to instability and ‘terrorism’

Military Manoeuvres in the Sahel
By Brahima Ouédraogo

A U.S. Marine debriefs a Malian counter-terrorism unit after mission rehearsals as part of Operation Flintlock 2010. / Credit: Max Blumenfeld/U.S. AFRICOM
A U.S. Marine debriefs a Malian counter-terrorism unit after mission rehearsals as part of Operation Flintlock 2010.
Credit: Max Blumenfeld/U.S. AFRICOM

OUAGADOUGOU, May 14, 2010 (IPS) – Military exercises are under way in the Sahel region as part of the United States-led Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership. Participating militaries are enthusiastic, but civil society cautions that force may not be enough to ensure regional security.

In recent years, the area between the southern limits of the Sahara desert but north of where West Africa’s savanna begins – has been the theatre for operations by militia groups linked to Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (known by its French acronym AQMI). In addition, organised crime syndicates conduct racketeering and smuggling activities in the region.

Operation Flintlock 2010, taking place from May 3-22, is the latest in a series of annual U.S. military exercises in Africa, and will include forces from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad and Tunisia. Some 1,200 soldiers will be involved: 600 U.S. Special Forces, 400 from the various African armies, and 150 drawn from European countries, including France and the United Kingdom.

“The goal is to establish trust and build relationships with military forces of other countries,” said Anthony Holmes, deputy to the commander of civil-military activities of the U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM).

The manoeuvres, which will be supervised by U.S. officers, are being run from a Multi-National Coordination Centre set up for the purpose in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

“The purpose of this exercise is to improve cooperation and interoperability of West African, U.S. and European forces and to enable communication and coordination between various forces from a dozen countries,” Holmes told IPS.

“Our task is even broader given the proliferation of arms and regional crises which offer an opportunity for terrorist groups to inflitrate and carry out their deadly actions,” Burkinabé defence minister Yéro Boly told journalists during the launch of the exercises in Ouagadougou on May 3.

“It is a great opportunity for us to get a maximum of experience and become more seasoned and better face the new challenges that appearing in today’s world,” said Boly.

For several years, U.S. Special Forces have supported the Algerian army against AQMI. Observers of the security situation in the Sahel say AQMI is made up of highly mobile groups that operate across an immense arid area nearly impossible to control.

The U.S. also regularly gives Malian soldiers anti-terrorist training as part of a programme begun in the early 2000s and encompassing many Sahelian countries.

AQMI was accused of several attacks over the last few years and is currently holding two Spanish citizens hostage. The group is also thought to be behind the kidnapping last April of a French national in Niger.

But Holmes said the current military exercises will not try to free hostages. “It’s not a question of solving the hostage situation. The countries where the kidnappings took place are responsible for that.”

In April, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger established a military command centre in southern Algeria to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts.

Legislators from the Kidal region of northern Mali recently warned authorities of Al-Qaeda recruitment among the Arab and Touareg populations in that area.

But the legislators stated their preference for economic development rather than military operations. They argued that development would prevent Al-Qaeda from exercising any influence over young Malians.

Burkina Faso’s defence minister agrees. “The solution to terrorism cannot be just military simply because terrorism isn’t an identifiable enemy; the response should also be economic, because we must fight some of the fundamental causes of terrorism which are poverty and inequality in resource distribution between countries,” Boly said.   Alexandre Pagomziri Ouédraogo, head of human rights and fair governance at the Centre for Strategic Studies for Africa (CESA – the Centre d’études stratégiques pour l’Afrique), told IPS: “The fight (against terrorism) is very important, but the way it is conducted may discourage African countries, who see it as a territorial struggle between larger, more powerful nations.”

African governments, he added, are more preoccupied by poverty and exclusion. “The fight against terrorism needs to incorporate poverty reduction and improvement of living conditions in African countries.”

AFRICOM is not insensitive to these assessments. According to the planners of Flintlock, the exercise also includes civillian activities, such as providing health care to communities and veterinary assistance for livestock in the areas involved.

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