SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE 12/17/09
By Michael Shank
I was not in America feasting on pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. I was in Afghanistan during the Muslim holiday of Eid, also a day to give thanks. Landing in Kabul , I wondered what there was to be thankful for. Poverty plagued the capital city. Rural villages were even poorer. Exiting the airport, I found no crowd, no taxis, only barbed wire and barracks and the sounds of bombings.
Welcome to Kabul, I thought, with floods, a fossilized road system, and even feces-filled streets. This capital city hardly showed visible benefit from 40-plus countries pumping in billions of dollars to bring security to this country – with the United States alone spending more than $100 billion annually.
What I saw during my 10-day stay convinced me that the part of President Obama’s recent West Point speech, where he mentioned the moral imperative to assist Afghans, was spot on. Afghanistan needs fixing: The question is how.
I wanted to find out for myself what it would take, and then relay my findings to my boss, U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, D-San Jose, who chairs the Afghanistan Taskforce in the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
I quickly found that a workable solution could come from only one place – the Afghans themselves.
Here is what led me to this: NATO forces increasingly see the Community Development Councils, run by Afghans and overseen by the Afghan government, as the best approach to economic development, meaningful elections, law enforcement and conflict resolution. In this program, the villages decide everything, a tack appropriate for a country where “valley-ism,” not nationalism, prevails. Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal takes note, and has dispatched a representative from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which he commands, to the Afghan ministry that oversees this program.
The locally elected councils work because they require a high level of community acceptance and accountability, which in turn builds trust between Afghans and their government. I heard of one village that returned several thousand dollars to the Afghan government, something unheard of among foreign contractors.
Conversely, foreign contractors import over-priced resources, rely on expensive private security personnel and subcontract the work so many times that only 10 cents of the initial aid dollar is left in Afghanistan.
Non-conventional methods, like the councils, are what are slowly stabilizing Afghanistan. But other ideas are emerging.
One involves elders in Shindand District, Herat Province, who want to broker a cease-fire with the Taliban. Elders carry the greatest political currency among Afghans, so it may well work. The cease-fire, still in discussion, ensures the disarmament and demobilization of the Taliban if U.S. troops depart and all economic development is locally run. The cease-fire would be tried for six months, then, if successful, continued for another six months before expanding to neighboring districts.
If coordinated with the Community Development Councils (of which there is talk), the cease-fire could be a formula for securing Afghanistan district by district, elder by elder.
The second involves one of the leading Taliban ministers, Maulavi Arsalan Rahmani, the former deputy minister of higher education, who met with me, even while postponing appointments with various Talib who had gathered for Eid. I read this action as a desire for dialogue. Some 8,000 Talib have already disarmed, and 7,000 wait to do so. If these young men are provided with a livelihood and protection, the Taliban minister asserted, al Qaeda takes a significant hit in recruits and momentum. If postponed, the tide turns and the once-reconcilable Afghan Taliban are alienated further.
In short, the Afghan knows best what will work in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the role for us is that of the quiet American, providing support behind the scenes – for example in financing, but not affiliating with, the Community Development Councils. The takeaway for Washington, then, is to surge the Afghan, and not the American.
Michael Shank is the communications director for Mike Honda. This commentary reflects the individual opinion of the author.
This article appeared on page A – 128 of the San Francisco Chronicle