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Officials Explain Afghanistan's Complexity

Jim Garamone - American Forces Press Service

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.

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