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.