Friday, June 19, 2009

More Bits and Pieces

Being home feels like being in a sandbox now, a sheltered play area where little kids throw sticks at each other and people are only about 50% alive, maybe less. A month ago whenever I felt like stretching my neck and looking up I was looking at the Himalayas. People here getting upset over stupid things, thinking they have problems. I suppose I should have expected a bit of culture shock on the return landing just as I did on the outbound one. A couple of dudes having a road rage incident right on the middle of an intersection makes me laugh, right out loud. I don't know why I think this is so funny.

Kabul is the ultimate peaceful city, most of the time. People crammed together on the roads with inches to spare, cars, pedestrians, donkeys. I was still riding like a foreigner, fists clenched and eyes squeezing shut every time we'd pass a donkey cart with a truck in the oncoming lane at full speed, then cutting back in with a foot to spare. That wouldn't even cause a break in the chatter in the car, as I was the only one who thought that was anywhere near close.

You don't hear angry shouting on a regular basis like New York or Boston, no one leans on their horns in traffic. Just a constant toot-toot I'm here do you see me? On your right coming past, hurry up, cross, I'll wait. It's a rather marvelous social, organic thing, Kabul's street traffic. Given the clearances that are normal between moving objects and bodies, in the States it would be a daily massacre. But I didn't see a single fender-bender or anyone get hit, and we were on the roads a lot. One kid did walk by on the center divider close enough to bend back the outside mirror on its hinge, as we inched past, but he was polite enough to bend it back. Kabul is a peaceful city, maybe because when violence hits, it hits bad. It's not a few gangbangers shooting on the street, or a drunk fight. It's something unspeakable, life-changing, sudden. Mr. Talib reminding you this is still war. So when things are peaceful, everyone is happy, and enjoying it, no matter how many guys are cutting in front of you.

Please visit Jobs for Afghans

Monday, June 15, 2009

Free-write bits and pieces for book: Why I like Afghans

I find I feel a certain attraction to these people, as savage as life can be where the government doesn't hold sway and even some places where it does. How to put it? These are the last men on Earth who have a zero-tolerance don't-fuck-with-me level. None. The rest of the world has learned to tolerate some of it in the New World Order, even Americans now sheepishly acknowledge that their government has a right to enter their huts and homes or what have you, to snoop around and make sure you're not doing anything wrong. An Afghan would as soon tolerate that as tolerate being spit on. Afghans are what Americans used to be, when telling folks you have the right to send them to jail forever, with no trial, would get you a parade of torches marching to the state house at night and a noose slung around your neck, or tarred and feathered. Think of Afghans as Minutemen with rocket launchers.

The downside of this is that the don't-fuck-with-me can get a little out of hand when it is your neighbor the next valley over, and he has stolen some of your goats. Najim says, and I have noticed it, Afghans are very slow to anger, and try very hard to avoid a fight. That's because they know that if it starts, it's going to last 100 years, and be passed down to your sons.

There isn't a guy my age here who hasn't been a commander of some sort, Taliban or Mujihadeen or both, since I tend to hang around the the smart guys. They are young, but they are contractors and businessmen. Everyone knows what a firefight is, and can handle himself in one, kind of hard to fathom when you are all just goofballing around town looking for lamb kebab driving down Kabul's dusty streets and singing current Afghan love songs, like Fasool does. I love this place. This is what America was when the flag said Don't Tread on Me.

I believe Afghans have a remarkable future, and will take the world by storm in all fields, sports, science, culture. There's nothing much cooler than to be an Afghan, if you think of it. The last unconquered people on Earth. And they know it. Because Western decadence has not set in, as in too much of everything, especially food, all Afghan men are in pretty much perfect physical condition. You only see flat bellies, even on old men. They have discovered weight-lifting, so the young men are buff. I saw a young man with black jeans, a tight black tee-shirt that he set off like a walnut-colored James Dean, and a traditional style, black Pashto hat. Silver studded leather belt, black boots. Modern, but the badge of his Afghan-ness on his head. I'm Afghan. I'm cool. Don't fuck with me. It is a rare and special pleasure to be in the company of such men, and to have them consider you their friend. The honor does not get any higher in this world, and I'll trade you all the stuffed suits in the world for one of these men, if he has crossed that tough Afghan line and called you his friend, for loyalty, friendship, and having your back in a pinch.

At Najim's apartment building I saw a couple of boys, maybe eight or nine, laughing and throwing a sock stuffed with sand or something, all you can afford for a ball, at each other. Their arms were great, and they were winging that thing 70, 80 feet and nailing each other, just fooling around, and any little league coach would have drafted them. Afghan is a mountain country, and everyone has the balance, coordination, and endurance of a mountain goat. After 9/11 when fighting was going on Special Forces reported Taliban fighters hopping from rock to rock barefoot in the snow. They are all like that. I saw an old man take a two-foot hop onto a wall like it was a low curb. When these people pick up baseball bats and gymnastic equipment, and start getting proper nutrition, they may be the only ones who can give the Chinese a run for their money in the agility sports at the Olympics. I can't wait to see when Afghans get tall and start playing basketball. That will be something.

The bottom line is, these people have been pre-selected by the most brutal selection process of all: thirty years of war. If they aren't tough, mentally and physically, on the ball and fast thinking on their feet, chances are they are not here, surviving. It's harsh, but it's the truth. Hot summers, harsh winters, high altitude, and little food have made the system of the modern Afghan an immunological marvel. But it's not just that, it's the attitude toward fitness and excellence I see taking hold among the youth. There is a high hilltop in Kabul which is kind of a recreation area, a broad, open parking space where people bring their children to get away from the pressure cooker of the city streets where 4 million people are crammed in a city built for 700,000. There is an internal displacement that no one in the foreign press talks about but which is almost on par with the external displacement to Iran and Pakistan. If you drive to the very outskirts of Kabul, you will see a sea of tents in one quarter, heading toward Kargha District with its beautiful, high lake and food vendors. People flooded to the city to get away from the Taliban, when life got a little too uncertain be it from men with beards and guns or American jets dropping bombs, sometimes on weddings.

On this high hilltop, from which you can see the National Stadium below where the Taliban conducted its cutting off of hands of alleged thieves and mass hangings of alleged criminals, you can take a ride on a horse for a buck or just enjoy the view of the old city below ringed by snow-capped peaks, even in June, a minor branch of the Himalaya range. On the winding road up, you will inevitably see groups of boys, maybe ten to fifteen of them in a club, aged anywhere from eight or nine to maybe twelve. These are clubs that they form on their own, wearing the same colored shorts and tee-shirts. They are jogging up the winding road, or doing wheelbarrows on the way down, boys in pairs with one holding up the other's feet as that one walks down on his arms, really sweating it, sometimes obviously struggling, but sticking to it. It is not school sponsored, or organized by any adult or group. They are just doing it on their own, these young boys, to insure they are growing up big and strong. There are over 200 makeshift gyms in the city, many using car parts tied to rope and pulleys as equipment, and no boy is turned away for the lack of the maybe $4 a month membership. Yes, when peace comes, it will be interesting to see what Afghanistan does in athletics.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Free-write, excerpts bits and pieces from upcoming book

The first thing you notice that tells you you're not in Topeka anymore is the automatic weapons everywhere. If you and I were standing talking on a street corner I'd be able to point to a guy over there, an army guy on the corner, one across the street shooting the shit with some kids with the banana clip resting in his lap as he sits on a lawn chair by a fruit stand, one down about 50 yards away just hanging out in front of a hotel and looking bored. Woekay. So could someone tell me why all these guys need machine guns, and what's going on here? Twenty-four hours ago it was just cops with pistols in Grand Central Station. The relaxed atmosphere makes it more unreal, the normalcy with which people go about their business. When I get home will I ask, so where are all the AK-47s? Maybe that's how I know I was too long in Kabul.

What they don't tell you is what happened last year, when they hit the Serena Hotel, just to show rich foreigners that they can get it too. The luxury Serena looked like a collapsed layer cake along one side, and the city was locked down for a week. What they don't tell you is when that happens, all these guys with AKs don't matter. They are just the first to get swept aside. A car rolls up and they open fire, 9 times out of ten the guy doesn't even get the chance to raise his rifle. Then the real wave hits, the car with the bomb crashing through the iron gate that made you feel pretty safe.

Ooh, so that's why all these machine guns are around. Is it time to go home now?

Kind of like America: all the guns and checkpoints during terror alerts are just to make you feel better, like someone is trying to do something. But when they want to hit, those popguns make no difference. When Mr. Talib or whoever wants to hit, he'll hit. The war on terror is the same everywhere. When people are willing to blow themselves up, they have the advantage. Time to get to the root of the problem.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Troops Out, Jobs In

Our fact-finding mission has convinced us that our central contention is as true as ever. The war in Afghanistan is driven primarily by economics and a 40% unemployment rate, not ideology or any overwhelming hatred of Americans. The Taliban pays $8 a day to its insurgent fighters, and too often it's the only job in town. The old quip is true here: you might not like the work, but that's who is hiring.

There are a small number of Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders who dispense money to a large number of recruits and egg them into attacks. When a U.S. forces unit is spotted in an outpost and an attack is organized, fighters start coming in from surrounding districts to participate mostly because they want the paycheck. They
don't like being occupied, but extremely few Afghans want to see the Taliban return to power. There is desperation here not reported in the West: one out of five infants dies of malnutrition or dirty water by the age of five, and literal starvation has been reported as recently as 2008.

I met a man who was a Mujihadeen against the Soviets when they invaded, then grew his beard and became a Taliban commander when the Taliban took over, then cut his beard and is thinking of joining the ANA for the paycheck now. I was told his story is not unusual. Whoever is in power and can give them a paying job, that's where they will go. With major reconstruction assistance and a works program centered around jobs which pay $5 a day, this war is a tragedy which can be avoided. The entire cost of such a program would amount to only ten percent of what Congress is intending to spend on the military occupation, which will buy only more civilian casualties and a real rise in anti-American sentiment.

It didn't matter whom we talked to, former Mujihadeed, former Taliban, Afghan government officials, ISAF command staff, or Special Forces soldiers. The degree of consensus that lack of jobs was at the core of the insurgency was remarkable. Please call, fax, and email the "Leaning No's" and "Undecideds" on this list of Congress to say "Troops Out Now, Jobs in for Peace in Afghanistan." Leave an weekend voicemail, find the phone numbers here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Last Blog from Kabul, Tomorrow Location Undisclosed

Najim, my colleague at Jobs for Afghans, jumps out of our van to argue with an ANA soldier who was telling our driver he couldn't go through a traffic point, something about the van being over the allowed size or something. I'm sorry, arguing with guys toting machine guns is just not my thing, but Najim's voice is always quiet and calm. Maybe something in his Farsi accent says "educated" and the attitude changes. I've seen this before. The argument goes on for a while, me thinking, ok, we're all going to wind up in some hellish jail cell off the radar to rot without being allowed to contact anyone, but Najim persists, his voice quiet, and the soldier calms down. Then I hear "tashakar," thank you, from Najim, and we are allowed to pass. He is a natural leader, and even hot-headed soldiers recognize it. Harvard did its work well when they chose him for the Kennedy School.

We went to some locations with a camcorder where men congregate to wait for work, to do some interviews. We found hundreds of men who hadn't worked in weeks, and considered themselves lucky to get two or three days of labor at $4 a day. The anger and frustration were palpable. They complained about being beaten by the police and being told not to congregate, making finding work even harder than it already was. The men saw the money coming into the country and the new hotels going up for foreign contractors and the thousand dollar-a day bodyguards. But things were worse than ever for them. The NGOs, non-governmental organizations, where spoken of with disdain. "You guys come and fill your pockets then go home, and nothing changes for us," some said, confusing any American with the foreign contractors like Halliburton and Louis Berger Group, who employ a lot of machinery to improve airports and to build the highway from Kabul to Kandahar, at a cost of five times what it would cost anywhere else.

Our first round of interviews with the unemployed went well, but one instigator at the end, a little guy with a headwrap, started asking loudly how much were we making by taking their pictures, then leaving them, with no help ever coming. They weren't asking for welfare. They were asking to be allowed to work in the hot sun all day with 15 pound picks and 10 pound shovels for $4 a day. Najim whispered to me that the little guy was trouble, and we'd better make our escape. "Another few minutes and they might have gotten mad, we could have got a beating" he said later. He said they are hungry and desperate and every day they don't find work they get a little crazier. This little guy's eye's were wide and certainly desperate - how long since his kids had eaten, if he had kids? - this is when you understand how armed gangs pick up guns here and kidnap someone for the ransom.

Later in the afternoon we talked to a doctor who was working in the provinces before the Taliban came to power, as they were fighting their way to Kabul. The hospital staff noticed a bunch of guys with black turbans looking in the windows, like kids. They had never seen all these shiny things before. The doctor went out and told them to bring their commander to him for a talk, and he said, Look, we are just a hospital, someday you might need us too. He had the commander sign a letter-of-safety so he would have it to show to other Taliban who came through. Throughout the regime, and now after it, the hospital has been left alone by both sides.

Stories like this of casual courage in the face of men who slaughter entire villages are common, and they laugh while they tell them. I have found it: the center of the universe, where it's life and death every day, and everything means something, really means something. How can I ever get on a subway again and schlep to work at an office in Boston?

Driving into the American Embassy compound for a meeting with a deputy ambassador is a maze of barbed wire, guard checkpoints, armored personnel carriers and surveillance cameras. Our driver, who looks like an Afghan's Afghan, bristle-brush black hair and beard and mustache, tough-looking as hell and no English, looks at me in the back seat and smiles as yet another checkpoint raises the gate. I've never seen him smile before, and I smile back. I know what he is thinking, and we share it silently. He has never been inside like this, and ordinarily a guy like him could never get even close without getting hassled, or worse, shot by accident. But here he is being waved on like royalty, gates lifted one after the other, the Afghan, then the American soldiers in the inner ring waving him through. It's obvious from the chatter of the soldiers that the word had come down to expect us and to give us no trouble. The driver is like, Out of my way, assholes, Do you know who I am? He was getting quite a kick out of it.

Finally down the road out of Kabul, up to Kargur District and a bit wilder country. Najim has left for India but his brothers have taken charge of me and take me for a ride for lamb kebab. It's enough to make an omnivore out of a strict vegetarian. You have no idea what non-commercially-raised meat tastes like until it's fresh from a clear-aired mountainside in Afghanistan. Rasool drives like a maniac even for an Afghan, and that's really saying something. Again I am instructed "no English" when we cross checkpoints with soldiers. I'm told that if I come here on my own in the future, don't trust anyone, especially taxi drivers. They might make a deal. You mean trade me for $5,000? - I ask. "What do you mean $5,000? You're an American! They'll start at a million for ransom then come down to $50,000." My eyeglasses are the greatest giveaway that I'm a foreigner. No one can afford them here. After that little chat I take them off.

The soft underbelly of this occupation is the angry men in the squares looking for work, who are ripe to take the Taliban's $8 a day wage because that's who is hiring. It's insane. The Taliban is making gains all over the countryside because of economics, not because anyone likes them. In fact, they are thoroughly disliked. Everyone remembers how they cut off hands and heads. Obama needs to get smart fast. We can have stability here, but not unless the 40% unemployment is addressed. No stability, no exit. Then we're in for yet another long $1 trillion war.

If you have enjoyed this series from Kabul courtesy of Jobs for Afghans, please keep the calls coming to:

Sen. Daniel Inouye, Ph: 202-224-3934 Fax: 202-224-6747

and Rep. David Obey. Ph:(202) 225-3365 Fax: (715-842-4488)

who are hammering out in a conference committee the War Supplemental Appropriations bill. Please fax them this diary and ask them to add a 10% of military operations budget earmark for the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund administered by the World Bank, specifically directed to create cash-for-day-labor jobs for the poorest of Afghans, then call and email this diary to your own congressman to ask him or her, as your representative, to call Inouye and Obey with the same message.

Also please send a copy to President Obama.

Other blog posts at To join the email list for future congressional actions please shoot an email to ralphlopez AT hotmail DOT com.

We interview unemployed men

Unemployed men waiting for work

Doing the Harvard-Yale thing at our NGO host's in Kabul (I'm Yale, Naj is Harvard, rah rah.)


Monday, June 1, 2009

Report from Kabul II: There is no Taliban

It's an extraordinary statement, but people here believe it's true. That's not to say men aren't fighting for the Taliban, they are. But it's not because they are Taliban.

An illustration is best. Take Dani, not his real name, a man of about 40, with a wide smile and an engaging manner full of warmth and kindness. Before the Taliban, he was with the Mujihadeen, as a young commander fighting against the Soviets. When the Taliban came in, he was a top Taliban commander. Now that the the Taliban has fallen, he is with the Afghan National Army. Afghan Army pay is $150 per month, or about $7 a day. Where the job is, that's where he'll go. He doesn't care much about politics. But he's the only breadwinner for his family in a place where family, extended family, is everything. Your cousin is like your brother. If he dies, you can no longer watch his children starve than you can your own.

During the reign of the Taliban, 100% of Helmand Province was Taliban. Now, they are flocking to the city for jobs with the ANC. One thing we know is that the rural population of Helmand was not suddenly replaced with new people in the space of a few years. They are the same people.

Dani's story is not an exception. It is the rule. The Taliban is a construction made up 90% of hungry men with hungry families looking for the only job they can get, in whatever army is in power, whether the Taliban or the one financed by Uncle Sam. But for the black eyes and black hair, the youth and open expressions on most of their faces say they could be American mountain men in Appalachia, tough mountain men that is, who have come here to take the only job in the country for farmboys with no skills, except knowing how to fight. The only other job is joining the Taliban, which pays $8 a day.

It's hard to go more than 50 to 100 yards in any direction without seeing a man or men with an automatic weapon, the ANC sporting nice new American weapons, and security guards hefting whatever beat-up looking AK-47 your dad or grandpa handed down to you. I'd have more photos of men with rifles for you, but some don't take to having their pictures taken, and pointing a camera is a good way to get shot. It's understandable. They aren't trying to be mean, but being with the government can mark you for death. The rule is: ask first.

Positive meetings all around today, with startling agreement all around that unemployment is the number one problem driving the insurgency. This came from non-governmental organizations, military officials, and government departments alike. Spend one-tenth of the appropriation on the military for a $10 a day wage, public works program instead, and chances are the insurgency will melt away. The problem isn't implementation. The problem is political will, most of which the difficulty believing anything like this could work. It's too easy.

It's like a man locked up for 30 years turning around and seeing the prison door standing wide open. It doesn't compute. It's a trick. So he'll stand there, not walking out, now successfully imprisoned by his own mind. We are in a mental prison that tells us war is necessary. That's what we've been told. I had to come here and see it for myself, and if I thought this was an unnecessary war before, I think it tenfold now.

These guys with guns are country bumpkins with simple faces and ready smiles, until they are locked in a firefight, when they are fearless, skilled fighters. I don't see why we wouldn't want to spend a few billion to give them $10 day day jobs clearing trash, which would make them love us. I hear it over and over. Instead, we're running up civilian casualties (which the leadership of what calls itself the Taliban, which most people around call "the nuts,") plan deliberately to radicalize the countryside.

Our hosts are an amazing story, which I will share more fully later. They have a foundation which prints an independent magazine and other publications, builds roads at a fraction of the cost of USAID, and is a major presence in the community. At it's compound tough-looking former Taliban commanders sit working on the magazine on computers, Shahir having been the only man in the world to have ever reached out and taught them computer skills. It is remarkable, and they are clearly devoted to him.

Took a long walk around downtown Kabul. Passing through a busy major traffic circle, I had a fleeting thought that this is the kind of place where a car bomb blows up. It was silly, of course. Kabul is relatively safe. Relatively. Nevertheless, I snuck sideways glances into cars, and felt a bit relieved when I saw families or bored-looking men in suits. It's a kind of tension you can't describe, but these people live with it every day.

At another traffic circle an ANC soldier pointed at our car in the signal to stop. He approached my passenger side passport and asked me for my passport. I looked around to make sure he meant me. He did. I pulled it out and handed it to him, open to the right page. American. He handed it back and I gave a soldierly wave, and he waved back. He looked about 18, a kid's friendly face.

If we can keep the confidence of this people we will have a truly strong ally in the war on terror. If we alienate them, we've got a problem. I'd venture to say we'd have no better friend or fiercer foe. If they believe you are honest and really to trying to help them in their miserable, semi-starvation, they'll die for you. If they believe you are trying to screw them and use them the way all empires have for 30 years, we will go the way those empires have gone.

The way your reconstruction money is getting spent in Afghanistan is now getting hammered out in a conference committee on War Supplemental Appropriations bill, co-chaired by:

Sen. Daniel Inouye, Ph: 202-224-3934 Fax: 202-224-6747

and Rep. David Obey. Ph:(202) 225-3365 Fax: (715-842-4488)

Please call ask them to create cash-for-day labor jobs for Afghans to shorten the war, then email and call your own congressman to ask him or her to call them too, as your representative on a matter of war and peace.

The key pressure points are manageable now, and you can make a huge difference by calling these two at this time, asking them to create jobs for Afghans. At 40% unemployment, it's the only thing that will stabilize this country and allow US troops to go home. Please print out this Mission Statement, then fax it to them. Also please send a copy to President Obama.

Ralph will be blogging from Afghanistan this week. You can follow it at

Boy selling plastic jewelry in front of military compound. I shook my head twice, then he said "I'm so hungry, no business, I'm so hungry." Had to by a few, no one can bear that.

Burkas are not imposed unlike Taliban days, many women choose not to wear them.

My Afghan Buddies