Dispatches from FOBistan: The Importance of Local Solutions to Local Problems

by Joshua Foust on 2/26/2009 · 7 comments

The Panjshir river, along the borders of Parwan, Kapisa, and Panjshir provinces.

FOB MORALES-FRAZIER, AFGHANISTAN — One of the most interesting clashes in perceptions one can find when talking with the elders of Kapisa province is that American and NATO policy in the area is pretty out of step with what at least some locals seem to want. This past week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with several of them, and the insights they lent illuminated some striking ways in which the overall situation could be very easily improved.

In a lovely discussion over scalding hot tea, an elder from Afghanya Valley told me that many current and former members of Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin—one of the many insurgent groups we misunderstand when we label as “Taliban”—want nothing to do with the government. That could be related to the ways in which HiG has been cut out of government positions, but it could also be because the government operates in a way many of its members view as counterproductive and against their interests. Earlier in the month, he had told me quite specifically that Quick Impact Projects—he actually used the phrase—were the most effective tools for undermining the Taliban’s messages and recruitment practices (along with obvious ideas like building more schools). Doing this undermines the networks that HiG has meticulously built up in the area since the 1970s, and it is understandable that there would be some pushback.

“When you build us large numbers of smaller projects,” the elder said, “I can tell my people that the Americans are here to help us, here to put us to work and give us jobs.”

It is a lesson worth remembering.

Over the course of many meetings, both with me and with my colleagues here, several elders and other interview subjects made the same point again and again. Roads are great, and actually critical to the long-term health of the area, but they don’t mean much without the bare essentials: water wells, retaining walls, irrigation canals, schools, and so on. The other side of that coin, however, is that even those essentials are almost impossible to reliably put into place without effective security. The two must go hand in hand. With an Army as risk-adverse as the U.S. military (and not just the U.S.: the French have become exceedingly gun-shy since ten of their troops were killed in Sarobi District of Kabul last year), such a goal is difficult at best.

The Nijrab bazaar, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan.

Regardless, the idea of looking at smaller scale projects can lead to some surprising revelations. Earlier this week, my colleagues and I wandered over to the Afghan National Army compound on FOB Morales-Frazier. They warmly greeted us, and brought us inside for tea. During the course of an amusing, rambling, two hour long conversation, they expressed that one of their major problems were the puddles of water near the Entry Control Point, or ECP, for the FOB. These puddles are nothing to laugh at: the mud in this part of Afghanistan very quickly becomes the consistency of thick snot when wet, then refuses to absorb more water and becomes a bog; the ECP for FOB Morales-Frazier was very stupidly built right in the middle of a drainage channel for the area. You can see a long, curling trail of water from the top of the hill, through one set of HESCO barriers, through holes the ANA deliberately punched into two other layers of HESCOS to try to relieve the terrible flooding. It is an ineffective drainage system to say the least, and mostly negates the benefit of having an unbroken chain of HESCOs around the base. When we were speaking with the local Kandak, or battalion, the water was more than a meter deep. The two other large puddles along the path were shallower, but just as persistent: they’ve been there for months.

The net result of these puddles is that the Humvees and MRAPs (and French amphibious tactical vehicles) can enter and exit the base just fine, but civilian vehicles, to include the ANA and ANP trucks (all of which are Ford Ranger extended cab pickup trucks) have major issues with flooding, mold, and rust. If you drive a Corolla, like 95% of all Afghans with a car, forget it. Visitors entering on foot, including the distinguished elder I mentioned above, have to ignominiously hop on top of the HESCOs, and jump between the drainage gaps, just to get on base. It is humiliating to almost all the Afghans nearby, made more so by the obvious ease Western vehicles have in navigating the bogs.

There is even a health angle: given the impending warm weather, these puddles of stagnant water present a significant malaria risk.

My colleagues and I, we thought, this might be somewhere we can help. So we walked over to the nearby bazaar, where we have a good working relationship with the main shop owner. We asked him how much it could cost to pay some workers to come dig culverts under the HESCOS and install pipes to let the water drain out down the hill. After some haggling, he agreed to do it for $60. That is, $60 for about two days’ worth of work for around four or five people digging ditches and laying pipe.

We walked over to the French, and asked them what they thought. The French, it turned out, have been planning to “re-engineer” that ECP for a long while, but hadn’t gotten around to it. We got them to promise not to shoot the Afghan men digging at the base of the HESCOs. We scrounged up from behind the PRT building some discarded pipe of an appropriate length to let the water drain. We then walked back to the shop owner and gave him $60 we had pooled from our personal funds. Inside of 48 hours, the worst of the puddles had begun to drain, and the ANA was ecstatic.

The net result of this very tiny amount of effort and money is that five Afghans were given work for two days, a health and equipment problem at the base was resolved, and the ANA’s relationship with the Westerners at the base was vastly improved.

An ETT lookout tower, at the ANA compound, FOB Morales-Frazier.

In an earlier conversation, that shop owner who coordinated the digging said something very interesting about how labor works in Afghanistan. “You hire outsiders to do work,” he said. “When they’re not from here, there is no accountability so you get back work. When you hire locals, they have pride in their work, because they have to live near it” and answer to locals when things go wrong. We saw this in action: further south in the Tagab Valley, a contractor who had angered the community where he was supposed to build a well had all his construction money taken by an angry mob. It was humiliating, to be sure, but when a community is unhappy, they’re not shy about expressing it.

But much more simply, it is remarkable how much seemingly difficult problems can become simple when you just ask. The French had a weeks-long construction project planned for that ECP costing many thousands of Euros. While we obviously don’t have the means to repeat this small success on a larger scale, it does demonstrate that using the local labor pool, and focusing on smaller immediate problems, can yield tremendous results.

The ultimate point here is fairly straightforward: fixing many of the issues Afghanistan is currently facing is really not as complex as we are making it to be. We just need to step back, listen to what actual people living nearby have to say about it, and find local solutions to those problems. Obviously this is not a panacea, and in many areas of the country—like Kandahar—the opposite dynamic is in play. Some problems really are astoundingly complex, and it’s not very realistic to think that even most of them can be boiled down so simply. But given the way the Afghanistan War is going these days, even small battles are worth winning at this point—and there are a lot of small battles to be won.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Aatom February 26, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Nice microcosm you paint here! Keep up the good, creative work.

Travis February 27, 2009 at 1:21 am

This is a really great post. These small projects won’t solve all of our problems in Afghanistan, but they’ll go a long way towards building rapport with the locals, as well as improving their situation.

Ian February 27, 2009 at 8:41 am

Great story.

Even if the American military isn’t, there are very trustworthy organizations doing micro-investment projects that are not temp work but aim to be sustainable. Kiva.org is one that has had amazing success in Central Asia. Ordinary people can lend small amounts of money to individual entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and it’s not “charity” since the vast majority of entrepreneurs pay back the micro-loan. However Kiva isn’t able to keep up with the huge amount of interest in investing because they can’t find enough smart people to quit their jobs and go to Afghanistan to work as reps to distribute the investments.

David M February 27, 2009 at 10:38 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/27/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

tictoc February 28, 2009 at 9:04 pm

It would be more helpful and enlightening to understand why the ANA didn’t do more to solve the flooding problem. They made a tentative attempt (punching holes), but then gave up even though it continued to be a problem. Was it because the French took over responsibility for fixing the problem? Does the ANA feel that they can propose solutions to NATO troops? From your report, there seems to be a complete lack of communication between these two groups (or that’s its unidirectional: foreigners speak, locals follow orders). Why is that?

What you’ve written doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies. It makes me think we’ll never get out of Afghanistan. The locals aren’t taking responsibility for solving their own problems, and foreigners are encouraging them not to take responsibility. As you’ve pointed out, foreign-imposed solutions end up being expensive and counterproductive.

Joshua Foust March 1, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Tictoc, not really. For one, it’s the French’s base. Nothing happens without their say. We had to push them to let us hire local workers, since they continued to insist a permanent solution to the problem was “just two weeks away.” $60 is beyond the means of most ANA soldiers, who make about $150 a month and support their families. And how many times do you see and hear soldiers bitching about things that need fixing on their base but they don’t just rip their shirts off and fix, glistening in the noontime sun like in those world war II movies?

Part of it is laziness, of a sort. But another part of it is it’s not really their problem to fix. It isn’t the ANA’s fault that U.S. troops hastily constructed a firebase on a floodplain to support a SOF sweep in 2006, and it’s not their fault that, despite their best efforts (there was a big whoop-dee-doo about those HESCOs), they still were unable to control the flooding.

To the rest of your questions, there is no standardized method for the ANA to submit base operations requests to the French. They keep to their own compound, and the French keep to theirs — both inside the base. They rarely, if ever, interact, except at the base bazaar. It is a major problem.

But don’t accuse the ANA of not taking responsibility. They take on a tremendous amount of responsibility, including being our cannon fodder when our leaders demand it of them (have you ever seen how pathetic a lone Ford Ranger looks when it’s followed by a convoy of six MRAPS just to try to put an “Afghan face” on an operation?). The locals are many things, but irresponsible is not one of them… in this specific case.

Lisa June 18, 2009 at 7:43 am

Ian’s comment above bites…US military not trustworthy, my butt. Apparently he has no self-respect & isn’t a US citizen. There are people & organizations EVERYWHERE that aren’t trustworthy, but my son’s serving over there & is one of the most trustworthy people I know. Too make an over-arching reference like that shows an incredible exhibition of immaturity & idiocy if he lives here in the states. If he’s so ungrateful, he ought to go back to the place of his roots & gripe there.

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