Archive for December, 2010

Good News, for a Change: In Taliban country, a precarious success.

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

FOB Smart, Zabul PRT,
Qalat, Zabul Province

We squeeze into the cramped rear seat of a green Ford Ranger Afghan National Police truck. Neither Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Andy Veres—the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) commander—nor the State Department’s James Dayringer nor I wear the body armor and helmet that used to be mandatory for any trip outside the wire of American bases here. Yet we are about to drive 30 miles from the PRT in downtown Qalat to remote Arghandab District in an unarmored car.

On my previous visits to Zabul in November 2009 and April 2010, we would have had to go with a company of American maneuver troops in Humvees. This is Afghanistan’s second-poorest province, where the Taliban’s roots are deep. And while today’s trip takes three hours each way, a year ago it might have taken days, depending on how many IEDs were discovered and how many exploded.

In November 2009, there were weekly suicide attacks in Zabul’s biggest town, Shajoy (population 40,000). There hasn’t been one since May. The mobile phone towers used to be shut down by Taliban decree from sunset to sunrise; now they’re open.

The point of our trip is practical: to show Afghans that the road has been cleared of Taliban and is open for business. Veres—a tall, skinny recreational mountaineer with 65 marathons and ultramarathons under his belt—counts every commercial vehicle we pass along the way up to Arghandab. “Maybe there were 12 cars today. But as people learn the road is open, this will give them the opportunity to take their crops to market in Qalat.” There are now about 50 miles of paved road in Zabul besides the national ringroad, Highway One; there were none in 2007.

Veres’s remark echoes the results of a recent survey of 1,000 southern Afghan men by ICOS. They cited the main contribution of foreigners to Afghanistan as roads (74 percent), schools (53 percent), jobs (21 percent), and elections (9 percent), while only 1 percent said “removing the Taliban.”

The 60 or so Pashtun elders we meet in Arghandab are, according to the local Afghan National Army commander, all illiterate. The blanket and shawl distribution funded by the Americans is a big deal; the local bazaar has only two shops, one a butcher shop without any meat.

The struggle for places like Arghandab isn’t easy. But Zabul seems to be on an upward path. One reason is the growing competence of the Afghan National Army here. The notoriously intractable police are also coming along.

Imaginative programs have been pushed through by a series of good American commanders. A self-defense initiative by former Zabul commander Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander rewards Shajoy men who sign up to police the bazaar with $1,200 bonuses to start a business or join the security forces permanently. Veres—who also served as PRT commander here from June 2009 to March 2010—started a program that places Zabul high school graduates in provincial ministries on internships to help the under-educated directors do their jobs better. He’s part of the Afghan Hands program that aims at creating area experts in our military.

Another factor is the near-doubling of foreign troop strength in Zabul over the last 12 months. In June, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment under Colonel James R. Blackburn arrived in Zabul, joining two Romanian battalions. While the Romanians train the Afghan National Army and protect Highway One, the Stryker battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Omar Jones is responsible for the more dangerous outlying areas.

The security has been won at the cost of many lives. Since June, Jones has lost 3 of his 850, and 7 other American Special Forces were killed, along with 2 Romanian soldiers. The loss among the Afghan police and army here is high: 22 dead since June. Since then, between 24 and 40 IEDs have gone off every month.

The next day, I trail Veres and State Department representative Jesse Alvarado—in his second year here—as they spend the day with Shahr-e-Safa district governor Shadi Khan Nouri. A Kandahari with a ninth-grade education, Nouri owes his position to his long relationship with President Karzai. His three advisers, paid the locally munificent sum of $500 a month each by the U.S. government, do the job he isn’t qualified to do: paperwork, email, project assessment.

Why not just replace Nouri? Politically impossible: District governors are presidential appointees. A real villain, Mohammad Wazir, was evicted from one district for heroin-running and general evildoing after enormous effort by Oclander—only to be reassigned by Karzai to a different district. The tribal leaders there recently protested that they would drag him naked through the street if he dared return. Major Derrick Hernandez, who served under Oclander in Zabul, commented, “Just imagine how far along we would be if the people actually voted for their district and provincial leaders!” Commander Veres, on the other hand, cautions that Afghan voting is a work in progress, and elected district governors might not be any more capable, though they might better serve their local tribes.

And so it goes, in a struggle for governance, the rule of law, and civil society that can assume horrific or comic dimensions. As we walk with Nouri through the pitiful Shahr-e-Safa bazaar, we pass under the American-funded solar street lights, stripped of their solar panels by locals oblivious to the public good. “I won’t be in a hurry to replace these,” Veres says.

Afghan Women’s Uncertain Future (originally published in The Daily Beast, 12/3/2010)

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Less than two months ago, a woman from the isolated valley of Arghandab died because her husband refused to allow her to be examined by the only medical provider nearby—a male U.S. Army medic. When the woman went into a labor with complications, Captain Derek Martin tried to convince her husband to allow her to be flown back to the provincial hospital. Although he argued his case for hours, Martin was ultimately unsuccessful. Her family loaded her on a donkey and set out for the provincial capital of Qalat. She died on the way.

The Taliban has deep roots in this south-central Pashtun province, often described as “Afghanistan’s Appalachia” by the Americans. Mullah Omar was born here, and many Zabulis have family connections with the insurgency. For most women in Zabul, Pashtunwali—or customary law—is as effective in imprisoning them in their homes as the Taliban were.

Few, if any, of the girls and women in Zabul are able to take advantage of the freedoms nominally guaranteed by the Afghan constitution. In the outlying districts, women have almost no rights, are never seen in the streets, and have little access to medical care. The former provincial minister of women’s affairs was a man, and the new minister, a woman named Rajiba, lives in daily danger. At a meeting of prominent Zabul women, she casually mentioned that her office needed a higher fence and concertina wire. Anything to do with women is invariably an insurgent target.

Article – Marlowe Afghanistan Afghan girls listen during class at the Markaz high school October 13, 2010 in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)

The Afghan government ranks the province 33rd out of 34 according to various economic and social indicators. Governor Naseri, who has a doctorate, told me that perhaps 300 people in the province are truly literate—about 0.1 percent of the population.

“Even without the Taliban, we have a long, long way ahead of us,” Ghulab Shah, Zabul’s deputy governor, told me.

But having visited Zabul twice before (a year ago and earlier this spring), I’ve noticed the small and fragile gains. More women and girls can be seen out on the streets, and although there are only 28 schools in the entire province of 300,000 people, it is a big improvement over three years ago, when there were only 12.

Her family loaded her on a donkey and set out for the provincial capital of Qalat. She died on the way.

The best hope for women in Zabul is Bibi Khala Girls’ School in downtown Qalat. Bibi Khala, which means something along the lines of “Lady Aunt” in Dari Persian, has 1,400 students, all girls, between the first and 11th grade—12th grade will be added this spring, when the next school year begins—and offers the only secondary education for girls in Zabul.

On a recent visit, I met a brilliant 15-year-old Afghan girl, who has taught herself English. Peri, the top student in the ninth grade, waved off our translator and made it through most of the interview without help. Though the girls at Bibi Khala get just three hours per week of English instruction from a non-native speaker, they have access to computer learning provided by the American Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul. Peri somehow learned the English keyboard and used the program. She wants to be a doctor—her mother is one of the midwives in the local hospital, Karima, and her father a pharmacist. With some luck, she will achieve her ambition.

Bibi Khala seems a joyful place, though the day I visited, the girls were taking end-of-term exams. There are 45 teachers at Bibi Khala, but the students in grades only go to school three to four hours every day, taking classes in shifts, as the school only has eight classrooms.

Renovated and enlarged by the American Provincial Reconstruction Team last year, it’s one of the nicest and cleanest buildings in Qalat. There’s actual grass—perhaps the only grass in Qalat —blue playground equipment, though somewhat run down, and a model garden planned by a former U.S. reconstruction official. Only the depressingly high concertina-wired fence with watchtowers is a reminder of the dangers of female education here.

Many girls here are much older than usual for their grades, having been deprived of education during the Taliban years. The head teacher, Mahmouda, who has been a teacher for 20 years, says many of the girls are poor, some coming to school barefoot. But when I visited, during the older students’ shift, most of the girls appeared well-dressed. Those I spoke with in the eighth to 10th grades are from families where their father is educated or at least understands the importance of education.

Take 15-year-old Bakhto Azizi, who wants to be a doctor to help women in Zabul. Her dad works for the government; her mother is uneducated. Azizi wants to study medicine at Kabul University, and says her father will let her go, though he didn’t attend university himself. Asked if there are books in her house, she says there are. “Your father’s?” I ask. “No, mine!” she answers sharply.

Nazeefa Jalalai, a slight, pretty 13-year-old in the ninth grade, already writes Pashtu poetry. Her family hails from Kabul, and she hopes to return to the capital to get a university education. Her dream is to become a journalist, and then return to Zabul to help alleviate illiteracy in the province. Asked whether she expects to be allowed to work after marriage, Nazeefa insists she won’t marry a conservative man—to much joshing from her schoolmates surrounding her.

And then there is 15-year-old Shebnam, whose father works for the National Directorate of Security. She, too, dreams of becoming a journalist. Asked about current events and the peace talks with the Taliban, Shebnam quickly says she supports the talks, even though she believes that one of two results are equally possible: an Afghanistan “full of blood” or a “nice and lovely” country at peace. “I know I have to face danger,” she says. “In Afghanistan, when you step out of the house, anything can happen.”