Monday, January 31, 2011

February 2011 Travel Photo: Walking a District Center's Bazaar Street

During my first time out into the non-Coalition Forces controlled part of Afghanistan I was able to walk up and down a bazaar street in a district center (DC) in Ghazni Province.  The DC, what they call the capital of the various districts that make a province, was one of the few places in the district which was controlled by the local Afghan National Police (ANP).  The district sub-governor, head of the district and the representative of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghainstan (GIROA), did not live in the DC because he did not feel safe because the Taliban controlled almost everything outside the DC.

The bazaar street experience was fascinating.  The store owners were friendly and listen intently to what we had to say.  However, when they talked they gave little faith to GIORA.  Many store owners described how they had to bribe both the Taliban and the local ANP otherwise the store owners would be robbed by Taliban and/or ANP thugs.

It was here where I had the first encounter with Afghan kids.  From an earlier e-mail I sent out:
The first stop was in a village bazaar.  Immediately I and everyone else with me were rushed by legions of kids.  We identified the eldest kid, about 12 years old or so, and made him the "elder" by giving him the huge bag of candy.  He set out to distribute the candy in standard Afghan pecking order.  A few kids broke off from his group to follow us.  For the whole hour we were out in the bazaar the kids would say "pen, pen" (asking for a pen).  They would not stop asking for a pen despite the fact we told them in Pashtun that we had no pens.
Soon other kids joined in pointing at possessions and asking for them.  "Watch!"  "Belt!"  It was beginning to become a mob scene when we finally left the bazaar street.

The delicious part of the bazaar involved a baker.  He sold me on his daily special of four, meter-long pieces of naan bread for 10 Afghani (about 1 dollar).  As a fan of bread I can assure you it was delicious!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Map of the Security Situation in Afghanistan by Provinces

Where is Catholicgauze?  In the Black!  Map by ANSO.
The most violent province, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, is Ghazni.  While the United States Marines and the best of Afghanistan's military are focusing on Kandahar and Helmand, Ghazni's battlespace owner is the Polish military which has very restrictive rules of engagement.  Poland has also been unwilling to do patrols off the one main highway thus de facto surrendering all outlying areas to the Taliban.  (Hat tip:  Long War Journal)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Afghanistan Diary: The Boy Who Could Not Speak

The conversation started innocently enough.  An Afghan and I were discussing marriage life.  I was remarking how a mutual friend had four wives and that I just could not comprehend how he could do it. 

"I'm scared enough when my wife is mad at me.  I could never return home if four wives were mad at me."  I said.

The Afghan, who we will call Mohammad for the purpose of this blog post, laughed.  "He was a famous commander during the Soviet Jihad.  He commanded hundreds of men.  He can handle four women."

Laughter was shared between us some more.  Mohammad's face then grew troubled.  He started to say something then stopped.  I noticed this odd abrupt change in behavior.  Never before in our conversations had his emotions suddenly changed.  Perhaps it was because we were talking about family.  Maybe there was something wrong with his family, I wondered, among many other possibilities.  He swallowed his pride and told me about his biggest concern: his son "Ahmed."

Mohammad started with a description of his son.  "He is my only son.  He is a smart boy of 11 years.  He can read and write.  He loves me and his mother very much.  He cannot not talk though.  He struggles but he cannot say a word.  If he really tries he makes sounds but it hurts him and he gives up."  Mohammad then went on to describe how they have tried everything to make him talk.  Prayers did not work.  They even told me about a folk cure "everyone knew."  "We took him to the home of a Hindu in Kandahar and he ate the Hindu's food but he still did not talk."  When I asked how the folk cure was suppose to work Mohammad replied, "That's what everyone said to do.  No one could explain why."

I was deeply touched by Mohammad's story of his son Ahmed.  Motivated by a united combination of personal ethics, religious morals, and geopolitical-imposed responsibilities I set out to help.  I promised Mohammad I would do what I could to help.  I could not promise much I told him but I would try.

First step was to look at the list of Afghan doctors in the area.  A quick survey revealed that every registered Afghan doctor was either an American Civil War-style saw-and-bones style doctor or a pharmacist (surprisingly there are alot of pharmacists in Afghanistan).  Giving up on that approach I looked to see if there was anyone in Kabul who could help.  Sadly a combination of rapid urban sprawl, poor Afghan government documentation, and thirty-plus years of brain drain left with me nothing.

I then turned to the United States military.  A helpful officer, "Rhodes," called around for me.  He reached a doctor in the Army National Guard who turned out to be the most well connected man in all of Afghanistan.  The doctor offered to meet Mohammad and Ahmed and arrange for treatment and/or speech theory anywhere in Central or South Asia.

Today Mohammad and Ahmed are going to meet the doctor Rhodes contacted thanks to all people who cared about a boy who could not speak.  Time will tell if Ahmed will ever be able to say "Za ta sara meena kawom" (I love you) to his dad and mother.  At least now he has a chance.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Note from a Shura: How to End the War

This is a sort of, partial answer to Smeeko's Ask a Geographer question.  I will try to develop on his questions in further posts.  If you have your own question dealing with geography and relating to Afghanistan be sure to e-mail me at catholicgauze [at] gmail [dot] com or leave a comment!

Photo courtesy of the PRT
 I was fortunate enough earlier in my time in Afghanistan to attend an impromptu shura between Pashtun village elders and a Provencal Reconstruction Team (PRT).

The elders stated the only way to end the war was for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to summon a giant shura of all religious scholars and have them settle everything from the war, to laws to be implemented, to what to do with aid and soldiers from all over the world.  They were upset that in nine years of his reign President Karzai has done nothing like this.

When a leading PRT member said he hope to start a shura with the elders, PRT, and local Taliban to achieve peace the elders dismissed the PRT's proposal as pointless.  A peace shura can "only come from Karzai."

The elders did state they would appreciate PRT support for their clinic.  The elders said ,"Just a few days ago a woman died giving birth to a son because there was no medicine.  The doctor has left because there is no money to pay him.  Give us medicine and money for a doctor.  Anything else you give us the Taliban will take and punish us for accepting gifts from you."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Afghanistan Diary: The Landscape of the Dead

Nicholas A. Robertson:  KIA 2 April 2008.  Brave Patriot.  Remembered in a Gym.

Whenever one walks on a Coalition military base in Afghanistan one is immersed in a military landscape.  However, the landscape is not solely controlled by tanks, horahs, and rolling out on missions.  There is another landscape that does not distract yet strangely complements the militaristic mindset of the warrior's universe in its own unique, somewhat covert way.  It is a landscape of the fallen.

Many camps and places on bases are named after people.  Camp Williams, Arnstead Hall, Cooper DFAC, etc.  People will say things like "I am going to eat at Cooper" or "I live over at Williams."  All these places are named after the fallen.  It may take one a day or so to realize it, but all these named places have a plaque, mural, or photo dedicated to the person who's name graces building along with the date of the fallen's death.

When one talks about these places one does not always think of the fallen who's life was taken in the heat of battle, by the Taliban behind the door, or the IED along the road.  However, even if for a brief moment, whenever one walks by the memorial one is reminded of the fallen, the fallen's sacrifice, and that one's own mortality is in play.  Life does go on but the reminders of death await those who pass by.  Much like it is outside in the wire in Afghanistan.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Ask a Geographer in Afghanistan: Sustainable Practices in Afghanistan?

In between longer blog posts I plan to answer questions I receive about geography and Afghanistan.  If you have a question you want asked feel free to comment, e-mail at catholicgauze [at] gmail [dot] com, or contact me via Twitter.

The first question I received comes from Dr. Robert Brinkmann.  He asks via Twitter "how about some things we look at as sustainable practices here: energy, buying local, organic food etc. Interesting comparison"

Short Answer: No

Long Answer:  Afghanistan has been in a state of war since 1979.  As such much of Afghanistan's development has been set back decades if not more.  People survive with what they can, not caring one iota if it is sustainable or not.  In much of the Pasthun Belt (eastern and southern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border) there are whole districts that lack electricity.  Some people use generators for short bursts of power at night but these people are in the minority.  Most cooking is done via charcoal with gas being available at a somewhat high cost to urban dwellers.  There have been some efforts to get rural people solar cookers but this is done because of limited energy, not because it is a green practice.

Buying local is not really an option.  Most people get food staples like rice and naan bread from the bazaars (if they are not farmers themselves).  Meat is available but it is not a daily dish.  Because much of Afghanistan is about to experience the fifth year in a row of drought shipping in food staples is a must.  USAID grain shipments and rice from Pakistan and India is feeding much of the country.  Much of this is handed out by the government but the transit mafia has a large black market share of anything that is shipped to Afghanistan.  Any potential inquiry by me into the transit mafia has been met with strong words advising me to change the line of questioning.

As for organic, from the short time I have talked to farmers I am sure they would use any sort of fertilizer that could give them enough crops to feed their families.

Coming up next:  Smeeko's question on what Afghans want

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Afghanistan Diary Note: An Afghan Insult Against Pakistan

Afghan shop owner to me as we were discussing his price for various flags:  "Pakistan (pwfff), my grandfather is older than that country."

Pakistan's Independence: 1947
Afghanistan's Independence:  Hard to say as parts of the country have been doing their own thing with only nominal outside oversight since historical records began.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

January 2011 Travel Photo: Pashtun Children on a Qalat Wall

This is one of the first photos I took in Afghanistan.  It is of Pashtun Afghan children looking down on me from the walls of their qalat (mud, walled-compound) which the majority of rural Pashtuns live in.  I got the feeling I was being watched not only by these children but by Afghanistan in general.

I am very busy most of the time; however, blogging has provided me with a nice mental outlet.  If you have any suggestions for a blog post you want do dealing with Afghanistan please comment.

Happy New Year!