Afghanistan — Officials Explain Afghanistan’s Complexity

WASHINGTON, April 13, 2010 — The hur­dles to be over­come in Afghanistan are no sim­ple mat­ter, the direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for NATO and U.S. forces there told reporters trav­el­ing with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen when the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff vis­it­ed ear­li­er this month.
“Afghanistan is a com­pli­cat­ed place,” Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith said.

Smith and oth­ers work­ing in Kab­ul spoke of the com­plex “human ter­rain” of Afghanistan and the chal­lenges fac­ing the coali­tion as forces work to pro­vide secu­ri­ty and to train Afghans to take over respon­si­bil­i­ty for the mis­sion.

Know­ing the play­ers and how they relate to each oth­er is tremen­dous­ly impor­tant, Smith said. The fam­i­ly is the cen­ter of life in the nation, he explained — not the nuclear fam­i­ly of West­ern thought, but the extend­ed fam­i­ly of aunts, uncles, cousins twice-removed, and so on.

Fam­i­lies form the basis of the country’s trib­al cul­ture. Trib­al lead­ers are the law-givers and judges in most rur­al parts of the coun­try, the admi­ral said. Each town has trib­al elders who work togeth­er to run the area. The con­cept goes back to an ear­li­er time, and these tra­di­tion­al ties are impor­tant to the very tra­di­tion­al pop­u­la­tion.

In many parts of the coun­try, it is a world lit only by fire. Scenes of vil­lage life seem unchanged from bib­li­cal times. Afghanistan has an agrar­i­an econ­o­my, with lit­tle evi­dence of progress in plant­i­ng, fer­til­iz­ing and irri­ga­tion tech­niques. On the sur­face, it’s as if 2,000 years just did­n’t hap­pen. Blood feuds can last through gen­er­a­tions. In win­ter, the ani­mals live in the homes with the fam­i­lies. The lit­er­a­cy rate is about 28 per­cent for men and 5 per­cent for women.

A bazaar with men slaugh­ter­ing lambs on one side of the street will have a stall sell­ing cell phones on the oth­er. Straight down the mid­dle of the street trav­els a motor­cy­cle with three young men on it. The peo­ple want schools and med­ical facil­i­ties and roads – and they want them now.

And the way to do it, Smith said, is through build­ing on tra­di­tion­al Afghan meth­ods. Shuras are the way the peo­ple get their con­cerns aired and dis­cussed and act­ed upon. The shu­ra is like a New Eng­land town meet­ing, where all can come and speak. The lead­ers of the local shuras then move to dis­trict meet­ings, and so on up the line “This is how gov­er­nance is done in south­ern Afghanistan,” said Frank Rug­giero, the top U.S. civil­ian offi­cial in that region.

No con­sti­tu­tion gov­erns how shuras are com­posed or when they must be held. A shu­ra can be tru­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an area, Rug­giero explained, or it can be manip­u­lat­ed by war­lords, elders or trib­al lead­ers. “The more [peo­ple] you include, the more like­ly there will be a body address­ing the com­plaints of the peo­ple,” he said. But the tra­di­tion­al process has prob­lems, he said. In some parts of the coun­try, 30-plus years of war has oblit­er­at­ed the tra­di­tion­al ways of doing things and the peo­ple who could imple­ment them. In oth­ers, cer­tain tribes have tak­en over the process and frozen out peo­ple from oth­er tribes.

Gen­er­al­ly, Rug­giero said, the areas with work­able shu­ra sys­tems had good con­tacts with the provin­cial and nation­al gov­ern­ment. Oth­er areas, he added, “are the areas sus­cep­ti­ble to Tal­iban intim­i­da­tion and rule.”

Shuras are the way for­ward, Rug­giero said, and secu­ri­ty is nec­es­sary for the sys­tem to work. “The tribes on the fence want secu­ri­ty, access to jus­tice and eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty,” he explained. “If you pro­vide those things, the tribes on the fence will be less sup­port­ive of the Tal­iban.”

Offi­cials through­out south­ern Afghanistan referred to a “thirst for secu­ri­ty” in the region. If the nation­al and provin­cial gov­ern­ment can’t or won’t pro­vide it, a senior mil­i­tary offi­cial said, speak­ing on back­ground, the peo­ple will turn to the Tal­iban. “If it’s a choice between a bru­tal war­lord or a cor­rupt offi­cial or a police chief that’s shak­ing them down or the Tal­iban,” he explained, they’ll opt for the Tal­iban, because they can deal with the Tal­iban.”

That’s because the Tal­iban are over­whelm­ing­ly local, he explained. “Three quar­ters of Tal­iban fight with­in just a cou­ple of miles from their homes,” he said.

The prob­lem, offi­cials said, comes down to a lack of gov­ern­ment capac­i­ty to pro­vide ser­vices. The pop­u­la­tion is dis­en­fran­chised, and the lack of good gov­er­nance con­tributes to this prob­lem. Local, provin­cial and nation­al gov­ern­ment has only spot­ty suc­cess in estab­lish­ing the rule of law and jus­tice and in deliv­er­ing basic ser­vices. If the gov­ern­ment can­not do this, offi­cials said, var­i­ous pow­er bro­kers will step in and fill the vac­u­um.

Giv­en that secu­ri­ty is nec­es­sary for progress, train­ing the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces is a pri­or­i­ty for coali­tion forces. Police have a ter­ri­ble rep­u­ta­tion in Afghanistan; offi­cials in Kab­ul and Kan­da­har said the police were “tak­en off the street, giv­en a badge and told to police the area,” an offi­cial said. The pay was not enough to sup­port a fam­i­ly, so the local police turned to extor­tion to make up the dif­fer­ence.

In Mar­ja, the site of the lat­est offen­sive against the insur­gents, the peo­ple insist­ed that the gov­ern­ment get the cor­rupt local police out of the area as one of the pre­con­di­tions for allow­ing oper­a­tions to take place.

Oper­a­tions in Mar­ja, and now in Kan­da­har, are con­duct­ed by Afghan Civ­il Order Police – a nation­al force based on the Ital­ian Cara­biniere mod­el — and the peo­ple trust them. The train­ing effort in Afghanistan also is address­ing the short­falls in the police, and offi­cers now must be trained before walk­ing the beat. In addi­tion, the police now have pay par­i­ty with the Afghan army.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)