Replying to questions, why the Marshall Plan doesn’t work, and local democracy in Jawzareen
by Connor O’Steen
First off I’d like to thank you all for your thoughtful and encouraging comments on my previous installments. The first four were published while I was in Bamyan, so I haven’t had a chance to see them or the feedback until now. I admit that I had some initial worries about publishing on a blog: it’s an intimidating ideaÂ toÂ publish copy that will subsequently be dragged across the Internet, perhaps to be eviscerated by packs of battle-hardened commentators. I think it reflects well on Scholars and Rogues that trolling is notably muted, here, and it’s convinced me that writing these letters is absolutely worthwhile.
Some of you had great questions that I’m happy to answer.Â I hope to make these letters the beginning of a broader conversation, so if you have any questions or comments please do leave them. As long as I have the time and the access, I’ll make sure to respond.
In the future I’ll address questions in the comments sections, but I’ll catch up by going over the ones I’ve missed so far.
Djerrid asked: How effective are these humanitarian efforts? I’ve gathered that ousting the Taliban and scattering Al Qaeda created a much better environment for a year or two (lots of schools for girls opened up, for example) but deteriorated when we couldn’t sustain our attention (which begat the opium explosion). Obama makes the point that since we diverted our resources to Iraq, military and otherwise, we couldn’t finish what we started in Afghanistan. What do you think?
This is a big question and skirts around a larger one that I’ll write much more about in the conclusion of these installments.
First off, I would certainly agree with Obama that the movement of troops and money into Iraq from Afghanistan deteriorated our ability to enforce law and order on all of Afghanistan. This in turn led to disparate levels of aid to different parts of the country. Kandahar gets less development money because you can’t have a sizeable USAID commitment or even a UN one there; it’s simply too dangerous. This, in turn, leads to bitterness and poverty which, in turn, provide a base of support for a Taliban revival. In this way, having adequate resources and manpower is crucialÂ to humanitarian efforts. You can build as many girls’ schools as you want, but if a Talib with an AK-47 is standing at the door making sure no one goes in, no one will go in.
That being said, many humanitarian efforts fail with good security and lots of money. From what I’ve seen, this is the result of a policy that focuses on dropping the money, building the building, and walking away. USAID has built a number of facilities (hospitals, schools, orphanages) across Afghanistan, most costing millions of dollars, and the majority of these are stripped bare after a month or two. Whether through inertia, bureaucracy, or lack of interest, the larger aid agencies seem stuck in Marshall Plan development systems. It’s easy to build a school in post WWII Germany because you have a largely literate population and, in many cases, teachers or former teachers who themselves have had formal educations. Building a school in Afghanistan and then leaving it be does very little: There has to beÂ community engagement and a building of capacity. In Afghanistan, it’s not enough to make a school: You have to convince the local population that they need your school, that they can use your school, and (hardest of all) that they have the ability to maintain and staff the school. If they don’t have this last piece, the building is only as good as what you can get for its various salvaged parts in the bazaar.
I could go on, but I’ll save it for later. Good question.
Russ: I’ll be here for another two months, so plenty of time to bore you all with these dispatches!
On to the letter.
We drove back from Bamyan yesterday afternoon and I’ve had a fun day doing very little and not being in a car. The six days in Bamyan felt so extensive, so full of activity and events, that it seems like any letter will automatically fail at providing a full picture. Even getting started is intimidating. I’ll make this one short, and write a few more about specific experiences, later.
[Editors note:Â Bamyan is the largest city in Hazarajat with a population of around 62,000.Â You may remember it as the location of the Buddhas of Bamyan, the enormous ancient statues dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. Hazarajat is the land of the ethnic Hazaras, a persecuted, Shia minority of Mongol descent, and is located in central Afghanistan.]
Bamyan is a beautiful, contradictory town. Green fields of potato and wheat terminate abruptly in a labyrinth of mountain ranges that surround the clustered mud-brick houses on every side. The sights are largely agrarian and pastoral, especially outside the main bazaar, but derelict Russian tanks are displayed proudly among the crops. There was no trace of the hostility we encountered in Chaghcharan, but the curiosity of passersby also seems subdued. By this point I’ve become so accustomed to stares that’s it’s strangeÂ to me to go to a place where someone might look away and keep on walking after a single glance.
The atmosphere there is unequivocally wonderful. It was safe to walk the streets alone — a rare activity that I took advantage of frequently — and the schedule was loose enough that I was able to explore the surrounding area while still completing PARSA’s requirements for the trip. When we weren’t in Bamyan, we were in Jawzareen, a high valley ringed about by mountains that’s about an hour’s drive away. The phrase ‘achingly beautiful’ is a miserable clichÃ©, but I just can’t think of a better description of that place. In all of the pictures I took, I couldn’t get across how gorgeous the villages there are, or how kind the people. There was something painful about it for me; I never wanted to leave the clear streams, the fresh air, or the green mountains. You could go hiking in all directions for days and still have more to see. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t live with the daily grind. Life in the villages consists of a few activities (drawing water, herding sheep, cutting crops, sowing crops) repeated over and over with no possibility of change. I know that even with the landscape, that kind of routine would break me.
Jawzareen was great in another way, because its villages showed how positive the influence of social ties in small communities can be. Unlike Nasim’s village, practically all children are taken care of and treated well. They definitely work hard at a young age — to a certain extent that kind of labor is necessary to keep afloat in a poor, rural community — but they have access to education, which provides the possibility for a different kind of life in the future.
In addition to their treatment of children, village life in Jawzareen might be the closest thing Afghanistan has to a functioning democracy. I met with the wahli of Yatimak on Saturday, a kind-hearted man with reasonably good English and a genuine desire to improve his village. When I proposed providing support to start classes in his village, he thought it over for a minute and said, “I really must speak with the other villagers before I can give you an answer.” This is a far more promising answer than his simply agreeing, because it means he puts power into a consensus rather than a single opinion.
Our role in Jawzareen was to provide support and conduct evaluations for early childhood development and women’s literacy classes that PARSA started six months ago, along with trying to expand the program into the nearby village of Yatimak. The classes that we’ve started are going well and are heavily attended. Between two women’s classes, there are 110 people that come regularly. The three children’s classes have about 100 kids total.Â TheÂ younger ones are slowly plodding through the complicated Arabic alphabet, while the older kids are busy trying to spell words like “book” and “apple.” The going is slow sometimes, but the progress is tremendous seeing as how there were no educational opportunities before these classes.
I’ve already written more than I intended in responding to questions, and I don’t want to burn you out on long, tedious copy. I’ll end this letter here and write a few more about Bamyan in the coming week.
[Ed. note:Â You can read more about Connor O’Steen’s experiences in Afghanistan in his prior installments, linked below.Â Also, check out Russ Wellen’s take on educating engineers instead of terrorists.]