Published: August 7th 2010August 7th 2010
These are the leaders of Afghan society. These elders represent the heads of groups in Arghandab District and are beneficiaries of US largesse. We have to win their hearts and minds... and we do it with free fruit trees.
Photo credit: Will Everett, AVIPA-Plus Project, USAID
or meeting is a fundamental part of community life in Afghanistan. In some sense it's democratic. The tribal elders come together to discuss and listen to what their senior members or representatives of the government are saying. In these days the shura is usually attended by members of the ISAF-NATO forces and civilans from USAID.
This shura was to discuss a fruit tree sapling planting program under a USAID program (AVIPA-Plus) that aims to stabilize the communities in the Arghandab River valley. Previous posts have discussed the Arghandab which is now also the home of units of the 82nd Airborne Division.
We arrive at the District Centre on a beautifully cool morning and wait for the elders to arrive, passing through multiple checkpoints; these people take their lives in their hands to visit a district centre even though watchful helicopters and UAVs (Predator unmanned aircraft) hover like mechanical birds of prey over the valley and armoured vehicles and American paratroops patrol the narrow village lanes. Despite all the efforts security in any real sense is a distant dream.
About 60 elderly, bearded and dignified men cram into the shura room and the meeting kicks off with
Shura in Arghandab
About 60 people represented the elders of the communities in Arghandab at this recent shura. Photo credit: Will Everett, AVIPA-Plus project, USAID
the District Governor praising the efforts of the program. Perhaps unsurprisingly 100% of the attendees say they welcomed a program that had cleaned, weeded and pruned their orchards of pomegranate, plum and apricot and distributed one million saplings for new planting. If it's free they love us. Will they keep weeding and pruning in the future? Not really; they are all in debt (to the District Development Director who is also the person who buys the fruit), and they have to pay him back for years of loans that they can scarcely calculate.
So an alternative would be to bump him off, and a good few assassination put down to the Taliban are actually a quick way for resolving a local business issue. One occasionally hears a "double tap" - a short burst of gun fire - in the night and then silence. There goes another one. This is a hard, hard place where ruthlessness is a valued character trait. The Taliban is in fact a very convenient group that generates money for the community and can be blamed for all kinds of crimes. Without the Taliban I wouldn't have a job, the 82nd Airborne wouldn't have a mission
An Arghandab farmer inspects his saplings provided free by the AVIPA-Plus project funded by USAID and undertaken by International Relief & Development. Photo credit: AVIPA-Plus
and the community certainly wouldn't have free fruit trees (or tractors, or seed or fertilizers) given away courtesy of the US taxpayer. Go figure.
But the meeting goes well, and at the end some free mini radios are handed out by the Americans. A small present for turning up and perhaps saying the right thing that we visitors wanted to hear. Pardon the cynicism, but in fact violent incidents in the Arghandab have increased five-fold over the last year. So free fruit tree saplings and cash-for-work schemes might not be the entire answer. Probably not.
And about 30 minutes after the shura someone rockets the District Centre... No one killed, but the Talibs (or someone) making the point that the money better keep flowing or else the violence will continue. You have to admire the rocketeer.... popping off staring down the gun barrels of a company of the 82nd Airborne. But as I've said, life here is VERY cheap. One day planting saplings for the program, the next shooting a rocket at the project..... then Paradise in a red mist of machine gun fire. This is the life in Arghandab. Thanks to my colleague Will Everett who took the great photos at the meeting