Thursday, July 9, 2009


It’s not the troops; it’s not the economy; it’s not that it’s mountainous and landlocked like Austria and Switzerland. It’s the society. I write these words from Ghor province, and it’s like the Jurassic Park in Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Nangahar … keep going. A person can tool around in towns like Kabul, Jalalabad or Mazar-i-Sharif and build up hopes, but to extrapolate beyond the tangible is folly. Iraq is 1,000 years more advanced than Afghanistan. Nepal is far more connected to and cognizant of the outside world.

After nearly eight years of war and billions spent, there is not a single Afghan soldier in this entire province. There is not a meter of paved road. There is a single television station that operates for maybe four hours a night when it has fuel.

Recently, I had a long meeting with the manager, Mohammad Jan Kendewalli. The station’s budget is $1,000 per month, he says, but $2,600 is required. He also says the British have returned to steal uranium from Helmand.

We are worried about infiltration into places like Helmand from Pakistan, but what about places like Ghor province? Mostly Tajik, some Pashtuns, Hazaras and others, but that same television manager says even Tajiks go to neighboring Helmand to harvest and fight because they can’t make money. Other Tajiks deny this link.

So we might say, “It’s the economy.” That’s part of it. But the economy is bad because of the people. The Nepali Gurkhas see Afghans as backward. I just spent a month with Gurkhas who served in Afghanistan and have been to many villages where Gurkhas are born. Their situation is tough, but the Nepalese are not plagued by the remarkable tribal and ethnic fighting we see here.

American warplanes recently struck at an Iranian-linked terrorist in Ghor province named Mullah Mustafa. He survived, but the coalition took a hit due to civilian casualties. Unreported, however, was that a Croatian officer who led a 550-kilometer patrol in the area after the attack found that, despite civilian casualties, locals strongly supported that air strike. We do still enjoy a support base in many areas, but some of that derives from the fact that we are smiting their enemies.

Smiting warlords and terrorists is like cutting the grass, which is no revelation to U.S. and allied commanders. Yet many people at home, including some of the political elite, do not grasp the societal inertia, complexity and natural baffles to progress. Ten years from now — 18 years into the process — this will not be finished business.

Time has a different meaning here. Take the case of members of the Baibogha tribe who abandoned a patch of land nearby about 150 years ago. Hazaras moved in, now Baibogha have come back to tell the Hazaras, “Wait … you stole our patch of nothing while we disappeared for 150 years.” Despite all the energy spent on fighting, in the thousands of years that Ghor province has been inhabited, there is not a single meter of paved road to show for all those laps around the sun.

Today, I was in the village of Karbasha Qalat, situated in a remote area at 8,800 feet. The 20 families had no electricity and not even a battery-operated radio. During the winter, the horses, cows, donkeys and other animals live with them inside their mud homes. Only the village elder was literate, and his language was Dari. He said that only two trucks had come to Karbasha Qalat in the 14 years since the village was founded; the visitors were searching for information on land mines. None of the children had been to school, and none are likely to go. The mothers are illiterate … the hand that rocks the cradle. Nearly all mothers in Afghanistan are illiterate.

Let’s be frank. We must look at the situation and ask, “How far can we nudge this place by the year 2100?” Reasonably speaking — let’s take out the pencils — how many generations are required to achieve even 80 percent literacy? If widespread literacy is a goal — literacy should be a primary goal- - it’s already too late for most of the youngsters who will be born in the next five years.

If Afghanistan is to reach even the level of Nepal — maybe we could do that in 25 years. Meanwhile, Germans and Canadians seem to be growing weary. I sat down with the Lithuanian ambassador recently and came away with the impression that the Lithuanians are fully committed to four or five more years. The Lithuanian commitment is valuable, important, and showing obvious progress in its area.

Yet we and our many allies must realize that this cake will not be baked in 10 years. Some British, at least, talk in terms of 10 more years. A key Japanese official in Afghanistan said to me that they are committed to 10, 20, maybe 30 years. It will take 100, but at least the Japanese are thinking straight, while most of us are not.

Michael Yon is a writer and former Green Beret who has spent more time in Iraq and Afghanistan with U.S. and British combat forces than any other journalist.

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