Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another Trip to Spin Boldak

I made another trip to Spin Boldak earlier this week.  Spin Boldak is the district in Kandahar Province (like a county in a state) that's on the border with Pakistan.  It has one of the two major border crossings that ISAF uses as a supply route.  Or it did until two weeks ago, when Pakistan closed the border to ISAF traffic after the shooting incident.  But this trip had nothing to do with the border crossing.  Instead, my boss wanted to talk with the key locals about the future.

His message was pretty clear: we're drawing down.  We're not leaving Afghanistan, but within three years, there will be a very small presence in Kandahar Province.  We're not doing lots of projects anymore, and we're not going to be a "shadow government".  Instead, they needed to work with the government structure to do the things that governments are supposed to do: build and maintain roads, provide schooling, provide a health care system, lay the groundwork for private-sector economic growth, and so on.  They need to get their government working now, while ISAF is here to back them up.  They can't wait until we're gone.

How did it go over?  Hard to say.  They certainly listened.  I saw heads nodding at important points.  Now to see what they do.

I was a back-bencher during most of this.  When you're with the Big Dog, he's the one who does the talking, particularly when we're talking about the big strategic picture.  I'll get my chance to talk with some of them later, when we're talking about specific "how to" points.

So, of course, I did some sketching when I could.  I swear, I could spend days drawing these guys.  Part of it is the fact that they look and dress so different from Americans, and there's that fascination with whatever's different.  That's why we all take photos on vacation, isn't it?  It's someplace different.

But in addition to being different, the Afghans I've dealt with have great character in their faces.  They've lived through experiences that you and I don't even like to read about.  They have a dignity and gravity about them.  But there's often an openness, a friendliness, sometimes even an eagerness, that's almost childlike.  (Not always - in one of our meetings, I sat next to a guy who wanted nothing to do with me.  But he listened intently to what was said and made some very sharp, focused, and interesting remarks back to the Boss.)

Spin Boldak Official
Ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper

Spin Boldak Official
Ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper

These were done during a meeting with district officials.  These guys were quite lively.  Some of their discussion was "I want ... " and "I need ... ", aimed at ISAF, which is how they've been getting much of their resources over the past ten years.  But as the boss made clear, ISAF's not going to provide much more, and they need to get their resources from their own government.  I could see from their faces that they were getting the message.

Later we talked with the tribal shura.  A "shura" is a meeting of the elders to discuss whatever happens to be the topic of the day.  Spin Boldak has created a very representative shura assembly that reflects its tribal diversity.  This is the meeting where I sat next to the guy who didn't want anything to do with me.  Watching the crowd, if you ignored the turbans, beards, and Afghan dress, it was like a community meeting anywhere in the States, except maybe more respectful.  They listened, thought about it, made their own points, and in general were actively engaged.  I hope I can get back down there for another shura meeting soon, only this time without the boss, so that I can better see their dynamics in action.

So what's the future here?  It remains to be seen.  Spin Boldak is a very complex place, much more so than any other place in the region, except maybe Kandahar City.  There are lots of power players, lots of different dynamics, and we have only a shallow understanding of it.  Not for lack of trying, but Afghan society, especially in a place like this, has undercurrents and behind-closed-doors deals and unstated understandings that outsiders will not, ever, know about.  I recently described Spin Boldak as a paper-thin layer of official government laid on top of a spaghetti-plate of real activity.  We're doing what we can to help develop that official layer so that the spaghetti-plate doesn't destroy itself later on.

1 comment:

  1. When I traversed Afghanistan in the early '70's it was the same, paper-thin layer of government with warlords and tribal elders ruling the actual people. The roads and essential infrastructure was built by Germans, Russians and any others that wanted influence with whomever or whatever group was handing out the influence. From what I could gather in a rather short time, except for farming (including opium and whatever species of cannabus that yields the best hashish in the world), the people of Afghanistan did little if no infrastructure that could be considered modern - even by the standards of the time. They beat it all at living as they have for hundreds of years but 20th century? not so much. Good luck and God be with the people and your group in assisting with this unbelievably difficult undertaking.