Alison Blosser is a State Department Representative/Political Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Alison's previous post:Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.
I've not blogged for over a month and would like to quickly answer some of the questions posed by readers (in no particular order) before introducing a new topic:
-- What is the single most pressing need in Afghanistan for the common people?
This is probably the hardest question you could ask. The single most pressing need for the common person varies significantly province to province, even district to district. In the most security-endangered, insurgent-threatened areas, people usually say security is their biggest issue. In remote areas where all the schools within a 10 mile radius are open-air tents, construction of a building that is linked into the Ministry of Education's overall plan for staffing, equipping, and curriculum is the biggest need. In places where drought has struck for multiple years, rendering most [legal] crops failures and causing farmers to turn to poppy, indebtedness to poppy seed providers and smugglers/middle men is the biggest problem. In many provincial capital cities that are beginning to set up functioning bureaucratic institutions that unfortunately lack regular national funding, the implementation of extra-legal revenue collection – bribes, unaccounted "taxes," undocumented fees -- can be the biggest problem.
-- How can solutions to these problems be delivered without interference from corruption?
While I continue to be an idealist about the direction Afghanistan is going and an optimist about incremental improvement, particularly in governance, I do not believe corruption is going to dwindle to zero immediately. Countering corruption is a key element of every program ranging from intensive police training to create a more professional force that is loyal to the country and government of Afghanistan (irrespective of tribe, family, or locality), to encouraging the government to regulate extractive industry exploitation.
-- What can the average concerned U.S. citizen do to help?
Inform yourself. Read multiple sources. Re-read the stories that surprise you. Read media, think tank analysis, academic work by regional experts, history, fiction about the region. Challenge yourself to learn facts that differentiate Afghanistan from Iraq. These are different people, of different histories and cultures, in different circumstances --"The Fight" is not identical in both locations. Tell your friends what you learn.
-- DU poisoning and protection of Afghan citizens:
In Kunar province, I am not aware of a program to specifically deal with depleted uranium. However, the Asadabad PRT is co-located with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit to assist Afghans to safely eliminate Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) from their land. When local residents discover UXO – often in the form of unexploded rockets, grenades, or ammunition rounds – they can report it to the local police, who in turn contact the base. Local people have turned in everything from 30-year-old land mines discovered in agricultural fields to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that were placed in the road by insurgents only days ago. EOD teams respond by going to the site, determining how to safely destroy the ordinance in-place or remove it, and finally conducting a controlled detonation to eliminate risk of accidental explosion and injury. I should add that EOD teams augment the security of everyone working and living in the region, local people and foreigners alike, because in addition to serving a reactive role in responding to reports of ordnance, EOD teams also go out looking for it – risky, but often fruitful work that saves lives and limbs.
-- Is anyone in Afghanistan using satellite or large footprint technology to deliver primary and secondary education, community outreach, and development information?
One of the biggest challenges to using technology in Afghanistan is power supply. Right now, the most effective way to reach the population in Kunar province continues to be radio. Power supply, even in regional capitals, is still often generator- (and therefore diesel-) dependent. Hand-crank and battery-operated radios are common. Projects such as micro-hydroelectric plants on local waterways can sometimes generate good power supply for remote areas, but tackling the power problem will require national, or at least regional grids. These will be costly and time-consuming to build. Thus, use of technology for education is limited in the short-term, but may be more feasible in the longer term.
-- Fun fact on Afghanistan:
An afghani is a unit of currency – the current rate of exchange is approximately 50 afghanis to one U.S. dollar. An Afghan (Afghans) is a person (people) from Afghanistan.
-- Next new topic:
Unity of purpose was a theme of one reader's comment – I hope that readers have seen recent coverage of one of Kunar's most contentious and non-permissive environments, the Korengal Valley.
ABC Nightline, "The Forgotten War" series: http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/11/ambush-video-sh.html
Vanity Fair's January 2008 print issue and web special: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/01/afghanistan200801
NPR's "All Things Considered" reports: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16123139 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15889646
I would like to dedicate the next entry to the unity of effort and the collaboration among local people, troops, the provincial government of Kunar, and the Provincial Reconstruction Team to bring opportunities to the Korengal. The referenced media coverage honestly depicts the dangers in the Korengal Valley and the bravery and courage of the troops fighting there. But I would like to draw attention in the next entry to the non-kinetic efforts that the same soldiers are making in the valley with the collaboration of the Asadabad PRT and the government of Kunar. COMING SOON!