Notes from Afghanistan: Part I

Afghanistan Study Group blogger Ed Kenney is in Afghanistan for a few weeks.  While he is there we will be featuring his thoughts and experiences.

On Tuesday, I sat down to discuss Afghanistan with the country director of a small but fairly prominent NGO based in Kabul.  My goal was to understand both his take on the direction of the war, and what role specifically his NGO was playing on the political level.    (To be honest, I was less interested in all the great things he claimed his NGO was accomplishing).

As far as the war was concerned things are going badly, and his message was much in accord with what western media outlets have been reporting.  It is very difficult these days to travel outside of a few safe provinces principally Kabul, Parwan, and Panjshir.  The NGO which operates in Wardak—the same province where the Chinook chopper was shot down—has to play politics at various levels from local to the government in order to operate.  They also have to deal with the Afghan National Police, a force that seem to be universally reviled in Kabul. And, most interest for me, they have to maintain indirect communication with Taliban forces.

Here is how it works:  In order to even visit Wardak Province, the NGO seeks the permission of the local Shura, which in this province at least appears to have broad legitimacy.   The Shura in turn is communicating with some Afghan Talibs, probably the more moderate commanders.  Once communication is established, the NGO presents its project to build a school for boys and girls.  In order for the project to move forward the Shura must accept the plan, and this means selling the local Taliban.  In the case of the Wardak School, the country director had pledge that Koran studies would be at the center of the curriculum.

Recently the emergence of a U.S. base in the district has further complicated the NGO’s mission, as intense fighting has broken out and more Taliban commanders, some more extreme, have filtered into the area.    Fortunately for this NGO, the school is still operating.

One question remained unanswered:  To what extent are local agreements with the Taliban sent up the chain of command.  The country director’s take was that the leadership in the insurgency are aware of these deals, but because there is minimal command and control, local Talib leaders have autonomy to make these decisions.  I continue to believe that continuing this line of research holds excellent possibilities to understand how the insurgency conducts diplomacy

The conversation then moved to religion, a theme around which much Afghan life seems to revolve.   The director explained that while non-Muslims were exempt from the moral code, which binds the Islamic community, bad Muslims, which the country director described as those who fail to pray and fast, should be wiped out.  This violent message was surprising coming from someone who was dedicated to human development and education—including the education of girls.  The country director was also a painter, and was accustomed to being accused himself of being a “bad Muslim” due to his depictions of men in his art…

Later that night I had a wonderful dinner with, an Afghan journalist and intellectual.  He believed the war was going badly, due to the incredibly rotten government.  All through the dinner (which lasted several hours and included some excellent Afghan fare) he regaled us with stories of land theft, organized crime, and corruption on a massive scale.   His solution to the governance problem was not to throw Karzai out, but rather to strengthen “civil society.”  Now my eyes tend to roll when analysts talk about civil society—a mostly ill defined term in my opinion.   I pressed him to explain what he meant by civil society, and pointed out that this term might be interpreted in the U.S. to favor policies which strengthen the tribal structures, a policy he opposes.

He would strengthen political parties, which are very fragmented in Afghanistan, unions, and other institutions (outside of religion) which mobilize Afghans against the corruption of the State.  He also thinks much more emphasis needs to be placed on fixing the judicial sector, where much of the wrong-doing takes place and says the U.S. can play a role mentoring bureaucrats in government, much the way we mentor Afghan military officers.  According to him the U.S. made a grave mistake adopting a hands-off government approach out of the fear that we would be seen as taking over the country.  Today the U.S. is still seen as the “puppet master”, and thanks to the insecurity, corruption, and land theft, we get blamed.

The following morning we set off (painfully early) on a “tour of the provinces” with an aid group.  The trip was supposed to include a workshop discussing the Afghan Constitution and women’s rights.  Apparently local Mullahs, (not the Taliban) did not like the contents of the presentation, so this part of the trip was canceled for “security reasons”.

The rest of the trip ,to a university and an orphanage, left a bad taste in my mouth.  The university, with its shiny new facilities was clearly not a development priority, yet they got the resources.  The university has supposedly made strides to educate women, and the director claimed that 150 women were housed in the women’s dormitory.  When I asked about this impressively high number, I was told candidly that the number of women in the dormitory was likely highly inflated.  Because of cultures mores—of course—we could not verify any of the director’s claims.

Similarly, the orphanage that we visited was not really an orphanage.  Most, if not all of the children, had at least one parent still alive.  The facility might be better described as a school for children who have lost a parent.  I am sure some of the charity—six or seven boxes of clothes and supplies—made a difference for these children, but the whole demonstration, with the requisite photo-ops, had the feel of propaganda to sell to donors back in the States so that the money would continue to roll in.  As I said the whole event left a bad taste in my mouth.

Edward Kenney
Afghansitan Study Group Blogger

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