Archive for August 2009
The Road to Helmand
I went to Afghanistan in October 2005 to work on an economic development project funded by the U.S. government. I went because I believed in the mission: helping to improve the quality of life in a war-torn land. I was lucky to get out.
Now I am home, hearing with dismay that President Bush lauds our work as a success and is requesting more aid for Afghanistan. I think of my colleagues still back in Helmand province, especially the young Afghans who risk their lives to work with us because the United States has insisted that progress is on the way.
I know about the millions of dollars already wasted there.
When I was in the field, I sometimes had to travel to Kabul to talk to U.S. officials about various assistance strategies and whether they were viable on the ground. They call the process “groundtruthing.”
A year later, this is the story of my time in Afghanistan. This is my own groundtruthing.
The rest of the story can be found at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/02/AR2007020201474.html
For general info, check out:
Directly behind our compound – past spools of barbed wire and high walls – stands Swimming Pool Hill.
Possibly the best known picture from the top of this hill can be found here – http://www.bop.nppa.org/2006/still_photography/winners/ENT/61720/119041.html – from the 2006 National Press Photo Awards.
Because we’re not allowed out and because I only just started the new job, I couldn’t get up top to take photos. But from my bedroom window and from atop the poppy palace I’m staying in [described in the previous blog] I have a view of one flank of the hill – which is covered in tumbledown headstones of countless graves.
No water stands in the pool today, but children still flock to the hill to fly kites in intricate battles – trying to cut the string of their opponents kite with their own.
The kite strings are coated in resin and then ground glass. Younger boys chase down the kites that have had their strings cut. They are called kite runners. As kite after
kite gently floats down on the hot, dusty [the most recent piece of received knowledge among security contractors is that 30% of the dust in the air is human
feces because of poor sanitation] Kabul air, childen run among the graves and down well worn paths before snatching at the colorful kites.
Taking photos has been the only relaxing thing to do since I arrived here [besides watching hours of youtube videos – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UIqRxzgtyo – to get a feeling for what Helmand is like].
Taking pix is hard though, because I’m in a pretty small area. I leave for Helmand tomorrow at 12 noon. I can’t wait to go.
I’ve heard its pretty dicey down there right now, but I want to get working and get thinking.
The view from on top of the palace is so absorbing though, that its difficult to think about the work
tomorrow. I’m all packed [photo gear, computer, body armor, helmet and clothes to last for a few months – and Oreos, chocolate and deodorant – since the US army PX in
Lashkar Gah is extremely expensive] and have nothing else to do – so I stand and look.
Mountains rise up in every direction. Small, mud brick homes wash up against the hillsides and the farthest mountains are obscured by a thick wash of brown dust. Helicopters chop by and a dirigible-shaped balloon rises strangely and menacingly over the city. It is there day and night – immovable in the still air. Security contractors tell me it carries a security camera.
Here are some pix from around the NGO’s compound, which, like other Western compounds in Kabul is a mixture between a fortress and a prison.
The NGO rents one building for office space and two and a half others as guest houses.
The houses are known as poppy palaces because across the country many of them are built using money from heroine sales – as well as for their garish and outlandish designs.
About a dozen of these sit on a short street, all occupied by NGOs. Each end of the street is blocked by heavy gates and each palace is protected by high walls, gates, armed guards and loops of barbed wire – so much of it that it almost seems to be a decorative choice.
Through the reflective, emerald green windows the sound of the generators drowns out everything but the sound of the call to prayer.
Although Kabul has been relatively safe recently, kidnappings and being in the wrong place at the wrong time are still threats.
To get from one palace to another you have to go through two layers of Afghan guards just to cross the street.
Outside, life seems to go on. Roadblocks and slaloms of concrete make travel slow. All of the SUVs are up-armored – weighing more than 7 tons with bulletproof glass and thick skins.
Even to go to the shop down the street, an SUV has to be reserved five hours in advance and an armed Western contractor has to go out with you – even if you’re just buying toothpaste and chocolate.
that’s right – the Lance Cpl. is named Brady Bunch…
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/8201197.stm – great piece – all shot in Helmand Province last week.
Thousands of American troops are setting up combat outposts throughout Afghanistan. But in order to rebuild the country, U.S. civilian experts in fields such as farming, irrigation and the rule of law are needed.
And those experts aren’t arriving in Afghanistan quickly enough, analysts say.
When soldier-turned-diplomat Karl Eikenberry was the commanding general in Afghanistan in 2007, he would often ask his field commanders: “If you had a choice right now of getting 100 more infantrymen or 10 agricultural experts, which would it be?”
“Nine times out of 10, the answer would be 10 agricultural experts,” Eikenberry recalled to NPR in a recent interview.
Now, Eikenberry is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. But U.S. commanders are still waiting for those agricultural experts.
“The military is very realistic about a ‘surge’ in civilian resources,” says Andrew Exum, a retired Army officer and defense analyst who recently returned from Afghanistan.
In this instance, “realistic” means those civilian experts aren’t expected any time soon.
“Rebuilding Afghanistan’s shattered agrarian economy is fundamental to President Barack Obama’s strategy of stabilizing the country and turning around an increasingly deadly war that claimed a record 76 U.S. and allied casualties last month. Where security and agriculture have improved, opium-poppy cultivation has fallen. If that can be achieved nationwide, the Taliban insurgency would lose a major source of revenue, and Obama could reassure a Congress dubious of investing more in aid where past programs have failed.”
“We can’t succeed in Afghanistan if the Afghan people aren’t successful in agriculture,” says Otto J. Gonzalez, a farming adviser to Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While eight in 10 Afghan workers are farmers, agriculture accounts for only one-third of economic output, which the International Monetary Fund estimates at about $12 billion. The illicit poppy economy is worth as much as $3 billion annually to traffickers, warlords and the Taliban, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.”
Obama’s strategy is to coordinate military and noncombat efforts: Troops clear an area of insurgents, and civilians help restore the local economy and government services.
He will have added 21,000 U.S. forces for a total of 68,000 by year-end and will almost double the number of aid workers and diplomats to 1,000. The U.S. Agriculture Department will have 64 staff members by early 2010, up from three in 2003. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry wants even more; he’s requested 350 additional civilians.
Holbrooke called the focus on farming “the most successful thing we’ve done so far,” during an Aug. 12 panel hosted by the Center for American Progress, a Washington public-policy group. “We have increasing evidence that it’s really disrupting the Taliban,” denying them money to buy weapons and pay underemployed peasants to fight, he said.
That would be welcome news. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has bemoaned the “heartbreaking” waste of billions of dollars on failed aid programs, and U.S. lawmakers have threatened to slash funding if Obama can’t prove his plan is working. He budgeted a record $2.76 billion in noncombat assistance for Afghanistan this year and has requested $2.8 billion for 2010.
Keep in mind – the US turned Vietnam into a net importer of rice through USAID during the war there…
You can read the full Bloomberg story here: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a3gmOHmrBxcs
Hi all –
Here is my new blog site. I’m heading down to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in south central Afghanistan, on Saturday where I will be based for year. Its pretty dicey down there right now and there is only very basic infrastructure, so I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to update this, but I will try. I will begin work there as a communications officer for an international NGO. I will be responsible for all of the projects in southern Afghanistan. When I’m able to post, they will mostly be descriptive. I’ll also try to post photos occasionally here, on my facebook and at http://www.lightstalkers.org/john_wendle. Right now I’m in Kabul packing, getting up to speed on projects, admin stuff and sitting in my room – more on sitting in my room in a moment.
ALSO – HAPPY 24th BIRTHDAY ABBY! Much love from your brother!