Letters from Afghanistan: installment #5

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 idea to 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.  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 crucial 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 be 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:  Bamyan is the largest city in Hazarajat with a population of around 62,000.  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 strange 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 cliché, 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.  The 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:  You can read more about Connor O’Steen’s experiences in Afghanistan in his prior installments, linked below.  Also, check out Russ Wellen’s take on educating engineers instead of terrorists.]

Installment 1: Dogs, generals and orphans

Installment 2: The hard-working orphans of Chaghcharan

Installment 3: Nasim’s story: making and unmaking terrorists

Installment 4:  Afghanistan, Ghowr Province: an opium village

What to do — blow myself up or study engineering at Caltech?

13 replies »

  1. How about entertaining the idea that the “west” should get the hell out of Afghanistan and leave the country to the people there?

    So much “grand chessboard” mind-fucking and aggression has taken place there, I’m not sure why you are so into this saving the Afghan’s (savages?) from themselves motif?

    Afghanistan has a long and ugly history of imperial games, covert activity and heroin traficking.

    These are the big stories, not really addressed in corporate media, and certainly not addressed by smiling politicians. Will they be addressed here, ever? Or is this just another outlet for a certain kind of propaganda?

    This bogus “war on terror” is a fraud. The US has partnered with “Al Qaeda linked” proxy forces across the region for decades. The “Al Qaeda linked” Kosovo Liberation Army (sic) KLA was armed, sponsored and protected by US and Britain. Same in Macedonia.

    Pakistani ISI creates numerous terrror organizations with the full blessing of CIA and MI6. The same people show up from Bosnia conflict in London, protected by Brits and in US protected by the Justice Dept. (sic).

    This farce has a long and distinguished history of exposure. Professor Chossudovsky at globalresearch.ca should be one of your first stops.

    There is a “terror card” which is played ad nauseum on US propaganda airwaves. Mostly it is manufactured. The handful of real Jihadis would have no capability to attack anyone if not for the covert COMPLICITY of western intelligence services. These people have demonstrably been protected so as to manufacture this “war on terror” paradigm.

  2. john,

    Well, I would agree with you that Afghanistan does have a long painful history of imperial games, covert activity, and poppy trafficking…that’s about all we agree on though.

    First off, your implicit assumption that all Afghans find Western aid agencies in the country to be an imperialist encroachment, and that they simply wish to be ‘left alone’ (I would instead use the term ‘abandoned’) is an idea that isn’t supported by my experience here. I’ve witnessed and talked to numerous Afghans who welcome our presence, and actively work with us to accomplish mutual goals.

    Furthermore, your use of the word ‘savages,’ insinuating I suppose some form of neo-colonialist ideology to my actions, I find to be unwarranted. I’ve never said or implied anything that would support the idea that we need to ‘take care’ of Afghanistan in some ongoing patronizing form. Nor am I writing a work of fiction or my memoirs; I’m only interested in giving people a sense of what my life and work are like here in Afghanistan. As such, I don’t see how ‘motifs’ come into the picture much at all. I don’t think these remarks adequately reflect the content of my letters.

    From here, your claims deal with political considerations that I don’t pretend to have inside knowledge of or specific expertise on, beyond reading books on the subject for personal interest and for college papers. As an aside, I would recommend Ghost Wars by Steve Coll to anyone interested in the CIA’s and ISI’s (Inter Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s equivalent to the ISI) history in Afghanistan.

    That being said, I have to use Occam’s Razor and argue that the scenarios you describe, namely Western complicity in terrorist actions and the creation of terrorist organizations by the CIA, are far from the simplest answer. Being so, they require a large amount of confirmed empirical evidence to be taken seriously. I’m not sure what ‘long and distinguished’ history you refer to, but I couldn’t find it on the website you posted. On the contrary, I find that there’s lots of empirical evidence to contradict your claims.

    To pull something straight from current news, the CIA just accused the ISI of being responsible for the Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul. If indeed both are complicit in fostering a world wide network of terrorism, why would one draw undue attention to another? My guess is that you have an answer that fits your current schema of interpreting events like these, but I imagine I would again find it more complex than the simpler answer.

    More than anything I’m confused with how exactly you think Afghanistan can be ‘left’ to the people there. Does that mean withdrawing all troops and allowing the Taliban to come back? Even when in all likelihood they are funded by the ISI, and therefore not interested in governing Afghanistan with an interest in citizen’s welfare?

    I have little hope that any of this will change your mind; a comment board really isn’t the place for an adequate debate and I’m afraid I don’t have the time, energy, or really the inclination to devote myself to a longer discussion than this post. With any luck, this at least describes my position to you.

  3. So… the commenter is sitting at a keyboard somewhere in the US, determined to bring the conversation around to the history of imperialist interference in Afghanistan by associating the poster with those forces.

    The poster, meanwhile, is traveling unarmed around a war zone with an NGO trying to get children food, shelter and the chance at an education.


  4. afgh’n had never posed any danger to europe or americas/africa. even now that we have invaded it nost a single afghan has hurt/harmed a single euro/amer in any wise whatsover.
    we can help these people by showing them respect. first of all we must w’draw troops and only after that talk to them.
    that’s a respectful behavior towards afghans. intalking w. them we find what they want.
    we can expect that they wld acept our help that they want/need. thank u

  5. OK. Enough.

    John and bozhidar, you are nearly incoherent.

    Taliban-controlled Afghanistan most certainly represented a threat to the rest of the world, since they harbored and nurtured Al Quaeda. Almost all of the Taliban, and some members of Al Quaeda, were Afghans.

    Withdraw troops? Do you hear Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, asking for that? No. Do you know why? Because he knows that what would ensue is more of the same internal warfare that led to widespread massacres and other human rights abuses at the fall of the Nazibullah government.

    You think we’re not talking to the Karzai government to find out what they want and need? And you think the Karzai government is begging for more troops to take and hold, and provide security for all of Afghanistan, including the Pashtun regions in the south and east that are currently controlled by the Taliban?

    What do you think you would hear if you asked a Talib what he wants? All foreign troops out? Oh, you bet. That way, he and his buddies can massacre the Shia Hazaras at will, retake all of Afghanistan, and serve, once again, as a shelter for Western-hating elements such as Al Quaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others.

    Get this through your heads: Afghanistan is NOT Iraq. The Iraq we invaded was no threat to anyone. It was a secular nation with a really nasty ruler who had been defanged years earlier. Now that we busted it, it will probably become a future threat as its new government is likely to be Islamic, and factional warfare is also quite likely. The Iraq War was a lunatic move which drained resources from the real issue, Afghanistan.

    The biggest breeder of radical Islamists in the world is on the Pakistan/Afghan border and among the radical Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan. And if we and others leave Afghanistan as a show of “respect,” all that will happen is that we’ll have more fighting among Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Turkmen, and other ethnic/tribal/religious groups.

    Until Afghanistan has basic security, they have nothing. And they will not get that by having other nations walk away from them.

  6. Very encouraging, Connor. Wish you had included those pics, though. Couldn’t find any of Jawzareen on the web.

    On another note, don’t know if it’s been mentioned yet, but your travels remind me a little of Rory Stewart and his eye-opening book about walking across Afghanistan, The Places in Between.

  7. I hope you do find the dialogue not too unsettling. I have been on comment threads that were bewildering, vicious, partisan, and intemperate. At that, all that was looked for was insight and a fresh view. Manners ? Hah !
    From the view on the other side of the world, a journal like yours is an invaluable perspective.
    Of course, the village elders are those who one would really like to converse with, but the chances of that are pretty much nil. The rest one reads is filtered through preconceptions made wary by past deceit and organized ‘coverage’ that tends to be written to convince rather than to inform.
    Thanks again. By the way, I am one link in a ‘daisy chain’ of contacts who use referrals from reviewers to find fresh content. Momentum takes time to build, but when it does it can be quite astounding.

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  9. To Russ,

    There will be a few more posts about my time in Bamyan and a few pictures of Jawzareen will show up then. I’m afraid they don’t do the place justice; the stunning thing was the panorama view of the mountains, which I couldn’t really put in a picture. Thanks for your reference to Stewart, that guy is my hero, and The Places in Between is a wonderful and terrifying book. That last section of his walk through Wardak…I think I held my breath while I read it. I would actually really like to meet him–he’s in Afghanistan right now, and I might try.

    To opit,

    Compared to other sites, I think the comments here are great. Even the ones that lean very heavily on neo-imperialist interpretations of history at least allow you to clarify your own views. Not having to flip past ad hominem attacks I think is a step up.

    Anyway, I’m glad this is proving useful and I do hope that some momentum will build. If I can convince one person that Afghanistan is not the ‘war-torn,’ ‘hopeless’ nation it’s made out to be, then this was certainly worthwhile.

    Thanks again,

  10. Conner: Thank you so much for your response to my questions. Especially considering the amount of time you spend away from electricity, never mind a working internet connection. I don’t believe that the answers could come from anyone who wasn’t working on the ground there so I really appreciate taking the time to respond and for all the work you do there.

    And it seems to confirm my suspicions that international aid is most effective when it works with the communities’ social and cultural needs, rather than it being imposed on them.

    I have a more mundane analogy with the work I do in the States. I manage a study that focuses on improving diabetes care by private family medical practices. Our approach is to bring trained facilitators into the practice to evaluate them and then work with them to find out what they wish to improve about their practice and help them achieve their own goals. Our partner in the study has a similar approach but is much more authoritative in administering it; all practices must install a registry. This boosts the current numbers while they administer it, but falls into disuse as soon as they leave. Our approach focuses on creating the groundwork for improvements to continue after we leave, and preliminary results hints that it is working.

    Now, I bring this up because we have research doctors working with highly-educated, practicing doctors and everyone knows the value and importance of research. There are no cultural, ideolistic or linguistic barriers. And if a top-down approach has that much of a problem producing a long-term benefits, I can only imagine the cluster fuck of imposing improvements in rural Afghanistan.

    Thanks again for all your great work there and I apologize for how long it has taken me to respond.