Archive for November, 2008

Lobster in Kandahar: Dinner on the Front Line

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

CAMP WALTON, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan– Blackened trout with a squirt of fresh lemon, orange rice, and spinach leaves, followed by a Granny Smith apple and an ice cream sundae–that probably isn’t your idea of an Army meal, particularly on a base in Afghanistan. But it was what I ate a couple of weeks ago at the DFAC (dining facility) at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno, though I was able to resist the sundae bar at the last minute. (more…)

The Best School-Builder In Afghanistan: Three Cups of Tea author or the U.S. Army?

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

Every time I prepare for another embed with the American Army in Afghanistan–I’m now on my fourth since July 2007–some acquaintances ask, does the U.S. Army really do any good there? They have the impression that it spends most of its time bombing civilians by mistake and committing cultural gaffes.

They also ask if I’ve read Greg Mortenson’s bestseller Three Cups of Tea, which describes Mortenson’s school-building in the general vicinity of Afghanistan. The implication is that this solitary do-gooder’s work is a better model for helping the rural poor in areas that are a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Finally, someone gave me a copy on my way here.

Greg Mortenson and his colleagues built 55 schools over a decade in some of the most remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beginning in 1994 in one Shia village at the base of K2 in Pakistan, he started the Central Asia Institute, which expanded its activities into one Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and finally into a remote northern Afghan province on the Pakistani border.

Mortenson’s struggles and achievements are memorably described in his book, co-written with David Oliver Relin, and they are remarkable. But contrary to the impression he gives in his very anti-military book and contrary to what many Americans assume, his work, and probably that of all the school-building charities in Afghanistan combined, is dwarfed by the school-building achievements of the American Army in Afghanistan. (more…)

Don’t Negotiate With the Taliban: Afghanistan is making progress despite its president.

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

NOVEMBER 18, 2008

Khost Province, Afghanistan

The British have been muttering in recent weeks about talking with the Taliban to end the Afghan insurgency. And Afghan President Hamid Karzai has recently offered amnesty to Taliban leader Mullah Omar if he would return to Afghanistan for peace talks. Mr. Karzai said that if foreign nations disapproved they could either withdraw their troops or remove him (the latter being the best suggestion he has had in a long time). So the terrible idea of talks with the Taliban has penetrated American military and political circles, part of a new pessimism that threatens to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

“The security situation is better than it was when the 82nd Airborne left in April. I am satisfied.” So says Haji Doulat, the 63-year-old subgovernor of Mandozai, one of the 12 districts of Khost Province. He has worked hard with American troops to develop this rural farming community of 120,000.

Khost is one of the frontline provinces in the war on terror. It shares a 112 mile border with some of the most lawless areas of Pakistan. And its Zadran tribe counts as a member the insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who regularly stages attacks on Coalition forces from across the border. The first two girls admitted to Khost’s university this fall are so fearful of reprisals that they study at home and go to the campus only for exams. But Khost is also one of the places where we are winning the war against the Taliban, if slowly and expensively.

Since 2007, the U.S. commanders in Khost have dispersed their fighters among the province’s districts to live in force-protection facilities alongside the subgovernors like Mr. Doulat and the Afghan National Police. These troops and the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team, a civil-military partnership, use their Commander’s Emergency Response Program Funds to improve Afghans’ lives.

In 2002, there were 13 schools in this province of a million people. Now there are 205, of which 53 were built by the U.S. and 30 by other donors including NGOs, the World Bank and foreign governments. U.S. troops are building 25 more now. Before the invasion not a single girl went to school in all of Khost Province. In 2002 approximately 3,000 attended school. This year, 8,000 girls in Mandozai District alone were in school, and 50,047 attended in all of Khost.

The economy in Mandozai, as in other districts of Khost, has boomed thanks to the hardtop roads financed by the U.S. This week, Mr. Doulat sent men to take a first-ever survey of all the shops in his district with a view of increasing tax rolls and jumpstarting a small bazaar area. There were 61 shops in one half of Mandozai, most with more than 50,000 afghanis ($1,000) in capital. At the beginning of 2007, there were only about 15 shops in all of Mandozai bazaar. (There are 11,300 shops in the city of Khost, the provincial capital, with 2,000 added in the past year, according to Kiramert Khan, the head of the shopkeepers’ union.)

Good governance is an essential part of progress. Mr. Doulat is considered the best of Khost’s subgovernors by U.S. commanders. On a national level, much that’s gone wrong is the fault of Mr. Karzai’s wavering and often incompetent government.

This is why Mr. Karzai has been calling for talks with the Taliban and the ruthless war criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — who in his Kabul University days splashed acid on the faces of unveiled female students — for a couple of years now. Exaggerating the potency of the insurgents is a way of excusing his own failures. It may also help him retain the support of hard-line Pashtun nationalists, nearly his only constituency now. (more…)