Friday, December 16, 2011

Three Days in Maiwand

Two Elders
Graphite on paper, 9"x12"

Three Elders
Graphite on paper, 9"x12"

The Listener
Graphite on paper, 9"x10"

Senior Leader
Graphite on paper, 9"x9"

I spent three days earlier this week in the district of Maiwand.  Maiwand is to the west of Kandahar City, on the border with Helmand Province.  It's an agricultural area with virtually no other types of industries.  Maiwand, along with neighboring district of Zhari on one side and the province of Helmand on the other, is the original homeland of the Taliban.  They still control the territory.  Afghan government influence is minimal but growing.  Slowly.  

During this visit, I was in several meetings with the district governor, chief of police, and other officials.  I also sat in on the District Development Assembly meeting.  This is a shura (a meeting of the elders) to discuss what they want to do to develop their district.  About 30 Maiwand elders were in attendance from various parts of the district.  I was a back-bencher, there to observe proceedings.  What better way for an artist to observe than by sketching?  So I took along my drawing pad and pencil, sat against the wall, and sketched away.  The four drawings above are the result.

As I've said before, Afghans have the most amazing features and are wonderful subjects for an artist.  They're very different from Western norms, very expressive, with different ways of dressing.  I could spend all day, every day, drawing and painting these guys.  Great fun.  My experience as a courtroom artist really helped here, as nobody sat still.  

The meeting itself?  Chaos.  There was much in the way of passionate speech about this and that, people pushing agendas, arguments and counter-arguments, debate, voting, more passion, signing of papers, scheduling of follow-on meetings, and so on.  Sometimes I'd look at the American officer sitting next to me and we'd just shake our heads and laugh.  You can't make this stuff up.  It was great entertainment.  As effective government, well, I don't know.  The district governor is still establishing himself (he's only been on the job for a month and is not from the district), so what he does with this group, and others, remains to be seen.

When not in meetings with the Afghans, I spent time with my primary contact, Carlos.  He's been there almost a year and is extremely well-versed in local governance and politics.  I was listening to the discussion in the shura while sketching, for example, and generally followed what was going on, but Carlos caught a lot of subtleties that I missed entirely.  Sometimes the fact that a certain individual says something, or doesn't say something, is vitally important.  As the man said, all politics is local, especially here.

I was also learning a bit about life on a Contingency Operating Base, or COB.  COBs are small bases with only a couple hundred people total.  This one is right on the edge of the town of Hutal - you can stand on the walls, throw a rock, and hit someone in the bazaar.  (Note: this is not recommended!)  Life on a COB is very spartan: tents, portajohns, gravel, limited supplies of just about everything, crappy communications links, a fairly well-equipped gym, and more MRAPs than you ever thought existed.  But it also fosters an esprit de corps since everybody's in the same boat.  You share what you have and help your buddy out.  Tomorrow, you're going to need your buddy's help.

All in all, a very productive visit for me and, hopefully, for Carlos and the rest of the Maiwand team.  I'm looking forward to working with them throughout the rest of my time in Afghanistan.  

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