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The School Runners (Commentary April 2016)

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Review of “The Last Thousand” by Jeffrey E. Stern

A 2015 exposé on the Buzzfeed website created a stir by savaging the notion that the massive expansion of education in Afghanistan has been one of the triumphs of the international military effort. It was titled “Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools.”

“As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics— the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent —to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded,” wrote a Pakistani-American journalist named Azmat Khan. The U.S. government’s claims are, Khan said, “massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers and students that exist only on paper.”

One-tenth of the schools that Buzzfeed’s employees claimed to have visited were not operating or had not been built. Some U.S.-funded schools lacked running water, toilets, or electricity. Others were not built to international construction standards. Teacher salaries, often U.S.-subsidized, were being paid to teachers at nonexistent schools. In some places local warlords had managed to divert U.S. aid into their own pockets.

The tone and presentation of the article leaves little doubt of its author’s conviction that 13 years of effort in Afghanistan, including the expenditure of 2,000 American lives and billions of dollars ($1 billion on education alone) were pointless and the entire intervention a horrendous mistake.

Unfortunately, it is all but certain that some of the gladdening numbers long cited by USAID and others are indeed inaccurate or misleading, especially given that they are based in large part on statistics supplied by various Afghan government ministries. The government of Afghanistan is neither good at, nor especially interested in, collecting accurate data. Here, as in all countries that receive massive amounts of overseas aid, local officials and NGOs have a tendency to tell foreign donors (and foreign reporters) what they think the latter want to hear. They are equally likely to exaggerate the effectiveness of a program or the desperate need for bigger, better intervention.

Moreover it would be remarkable if there weren’t legions of ghost teachers. No-show or nonexistent salaried employees are a problem in every Afghan government department. This is true even in the military: The NATO-led coalition battled for years to stop the practice whereby Afghan generals requested money to pay the salaries of units that existed only on paper. As for abandoned or incomplete school-construction projects, such things are par for the course not only in Afghanistan but everywhere in South Asia. India, Nepal, and Pakistan are littered with them. You don’t read about them much because no development effort has ever been put under the kind of (mostly hostile) scrutiny that has attended America’s attempt to drag Afghanistan into the modern era. Given the general record of all development aid over the past half century and the difficulty of getting anything done in a conflict-wrecked society like Afghanistan, it may well be the case that reconstruction efforts by the U.S. military and U.S. government in Afghanistan were relatively effective and efficient.

Despite all the money that may have been wasted or stolen, there really has been an astonishing education revolution in Afghanistan that is transforming the society. It is an undeniable fact that the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan has enabled the education of millions of children who would never have seen the inside of a school of any kind had it not been for the overthrow of the Taliban. The World Bank and UNICEF both estimate that at least 8 million Afghans are attending school. This means that even if a quarter of the children who are nominally enrolled in school aren’t getting any education at all, there are still 6 million other kids who are; in 2001 there were fewer than 1 million children in formal education, none of them female.

To get a sense of what education can achieve in Afghanistan, even in less than ideal circumstances, you can hardly do better than to read The Last Thousand, by the journalist and teacher Jeffrey E. Stern. It tells the extraordinary story of Marefat, a school on the outskirts of Kabul. Marefat (the Dari word means “knowledge” or “awareness”) was originally founded in a hut in a refugee camp in Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, its founder, Aziz Royesh, brought the school to Afghanistan and set it up on a windblown patch of desert West of Kabul. By 2012, Teacher Aziz, as he is known to all, had enrolled a total of 4,000 pupils and was sending students to elite universities around the world, including Tufts, Brown, and Harvard.

The school primarily caters to the Hazara ethnic minority, of which Aziz (a former mujahideen fighter) is a member. As anyone who read The Kite Runner or saw the movie made from the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini knows, the Hazara have long been the victims of oppression by the majority Pashtuns and Tajiks. The Hazara (who account for about 10 percent of the Afghan population) bear a double ethnic burden. They are Shiites—heretics in the eyes of the Sunni majority of the country. And they look Asiatic. Indeed, they are widely but probably wrongly believed to be the descendants of Genghis Khan’s invaders.

Hazara were traded as slaves until the early 20th century. As late as the 1970s, they were barred from government schools and jobs and banned from owning property in downtown Kabul. As if certain parallels to another oppressed minority weren’t strong enough, the Hazara are well known for their appetite for education and resented for their business success since the establishment of a democratic constitution, and they have enthusiastically worked with the international military coalition—all of which has made them particular targets of the Taliban.

 From the start, Aziz was determined to give his students an education that would inoculate them against the sectarian and ethnic extremism that had destroyed his country. He taught them to question everything and happily educated both boys and girls, separating them only when pressure from conservative politicians put the school’s survival at risk. (When fathers balked at allowing their daughters to go to school, Aziz assured them that a literate girl would be more valuable in the marriage market.) Eventually the school also found itself educating some of the illiterate parents of its students and similarly changing the lives of other adult members of the school community.

The school’s stunning success in the face of enormous obstacles won it and its brave, resourceful founder affection as well as benefactors among the “Internationals”—the foreign civilian and military community in Afghanistan. When John R. Allen, the tough U.S. Marine general in command of all international forces in Afghanistan, finished his tour in February 2013, he personally donated enough money to the school to fund 25 scholarships. Thanks to reports about the school by a British journalist, a “Marefat Dinner” at London’s Connaught Hotel co-sponsored by Moet & Chandon raised $150,000 for the school in 2011. But by early 2013, Teacher Aziz was in despair for Marefat’s future, thanks to terrorist threats against the school and President Obama’s declaration that he would pull out half of America’s forces within a year regardless of the military and political situation in the country.

It’s a fascinating story. Which makes it a shame that much of it is told in a rather self-indulgent and mannered way. Stern’s prose tends to exude a world-weary smugness that can feel unearned, especially given some shallow or ill-informed observations on subjects such as Genghis Khan, Blitzkrieg, and the effect of Vietnam on current U.S. commanders, and his apparent ignorance of the role of sexual honor in Hazara culture.

Most exasperating, Stern patronizingly assumes an unlikely ignorance on the part of the reader. There are few newspaper subscribers who, after 15 years of front-page stories from Afghanistan, have not heard of the grand assemblies known as loya jirgas, or who don’t know that Talib literally means student. Yet Stern refers to the former as “Grand Meetings” and the latter as “Knowledge Seekers.” He also has his characters refer to Internationals as “the Outsiders,” even though any Afghan you are likely to meet knows perfectly well that the foreign presence comes in different and identifiable national and organizational flavors: Americans, NATO, the UN, the Red Cross, Englistanis (British), and so on. The same shtick apparently frees Stern from the obligation to specify an actual date on which an event occurred, or the actual name of a town or province.

Even so, The Last Thousand is a powerful and important book, especially in the way Stern conveys the sense of betrayal and the terror that many Afghans feel at the prospect of international abandonment. The Hazara children and staff at the Marefat school fear a prospective entente with the Taliban enthusiastically promoted by foreign-policy “realists” in the U.S. and UK. They correctly believe it would lead to cultural concessions that could radically diminish their safety and freedom—if not a complete surrender to murderous Pashtun racism and Sunni bigotry.

The book’s main characters are concerned by what seemed to be the imminent, complete departure of all foreign forces as part of the “zero option.” This option was seriously considered by the United States in 2013 and 2014 when then–President Karzai, in the middle of a bizarre descent into (hashish-fueled) paranoia and poisonous anti-Westernism, refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the Western powers.

Aziz confessed to Stern (who was teaching English at the school) that he himself was in despair but was trying to hide his gloom from his pupils. He began to to urge his students, graduates, and protégés—especially the female ones—to be less vocal in their complaints about discrimination against Hazara, and he himself began controversially to cultivate unexpected allies such as the Pashtun presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani. But Marefat’s staff, students, and their parents had few illusions about the future. As one young girl said to Aziz: “If the Americans leave, we know there is no chance for us to continue our education.”

Although the future of Marefat and its Hazara pupils is uncertain, it is comforting that so much has already been achieved by the education revolution in Afghanistan. Assuming that the Taliban and its Pakistani government sponsors are not allowed to take over or prompt a collapse into civil war, this revolution may well have a tremendous and benign effect on the country’s future. After all, more than 70 percent of the Afghan population is under 25 and the median age is 17. Unlike their parents, these youths have grown up with television and radio (there are more than 90 TV stations and 174 FM radio stations), cellphones (there are at least 20 million mobile users), and even the Internet. Their horizons are wider than anything the leaders of the Taliban regime could even imagine.

As Stern relates in a hurried epilogue, the bilateral security agreement was finally signed in September 2014 after Karzai’s replacement by a new national unity government. There are still U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan, even if not enough.

In Stern’s sympathetic portrayal of the Hazara and their predicament, it’s hard not to hear echoes of other persecuted minorities who put their trust in Western (and especially Anglo-Saxon) liberator-occupiers. The most recent example is the Montagnard hill tribes of Vietnam who fought alongside U.S. Special Forces and were brutally victimized by the victorious Stalinist regime after America pulled out of Indochina. Something similar happened to the Shan and Karen nations of Burma, who fought valiantly alongside the British during World War II but ever since have had to battle for survival against the majority Burmans who sided with the Japanese. In today’s Afghanistan, Gulbedin Hekmatyar, the Pakistan-backed Taliban leader, has overtly threatened the Hazara with something like the fate of the Harkis, the Algerians who fought with French during the war of independence between 1954 and 1962: At least 150,000 of the Harkis were slaughtered with the arrival of “peace.”

 The Last Thousand should remind those who are “war-weary” in the U.S. (which really means being weary of reading about the war) that bringing the troops home is far from an unalloyed good. Having met the extraordinary Teacher Aziz and his brave staff and students through the eyes of Jeffrey Stern, and knowing the fate they could face at the hands of their enemies, one finds it hard to think of President Obama’s enthusiasm for withdrawal—an enthusiasm echoed distressingly by several candidates in the presidential race—as anything but thoughtless, heartless, trivial, and unworthy of America.

The School Runners

The Afghan Handover (The Weekly Standard Nov.17, 2014)

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It’s not too late for the president to rethink his arbitrary end date


With less than two months to go until the end of the mission, the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul can feel a little forlorn. You still encounter an amazing mix of uniforms, headgear, ethnicities, and accents, with Macedonian troops brushing shoulders with soldiers from Mongolia. The gym is still packed at all hours. There are still civilian contractors walking around with pistols strapped importantly to their hips. But the national support element clubhouses are empty, the PXs are closing, and some major ISAF participants like the Canadians are long gone. An organization that was once so large its operational command hadits own separate base at Kabul airport and was in command of 150,000 troops from 48 nations—a quarter of the world’s countries—is shrinking rapidly.

U.S. Army Black Hawk at Kabul airport

In a huge and complicated engineering operation, vast bases are being closed and stripped, or handed over along with their power and water plants to Afghan forces who may or may not be able to staff and operate them effectively. ISAF, which had already largely shifted during the course of 2014 from a combat mission to one described as “train, assist, advise,” is now down to 34,000 personnel; there will be less than 12,000 by the end of the year.

Of course, the war is not over. Come January, ISAF will morph into a NATO-led partnership called Resolute Support Afghanistan. “A noncombat mission in a combat environment” as one foreign colonel called it, Resolute Support is supposed to train, advise, and assist Afghan security institutions in what you might call their higher functions: budgeting, corruption oversight, civil-military relations, recruitment, strategy and planning, and intelligence gathering.

The plan is to have a hub in Kabul or Bagram and four or five spokes. The Germans will run the training and advisory command at Mazar in the North, the Italians will do the same in Herat in the West, and the United States will be in charge of the other bases, which are likely to be in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Bagram.

Planning for the new mission, including raising the required number of troops, was severely delayed by ex-president Karzai’s refusal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement and Bilateral Security Agreement, and also by the election crisis over the summer. NATO is now frantically trying to ensure that it has the 12,000 soldiers it calculates are the minimum needed for the mission to work. If it doesn’t get the full complement of troops from NATO and 14 partner states, Resolute Support will be cut down to only four spokes. That would not be a good thing, either for the training mission or for the wider goals of the alliance in Afghanistan.

After all, America and its allies need their own sources of intelligence in Afghanistan. This is not simply because Afghan corps commanders have a tendency to exaggerate Taliban numbers in an effort to get more funds and more support. It’s also because the drawdown has prompted neighboring states—some concerned about the vacuum, others malevolent—to increase their activity in Afghanistan.

The Resolute Support advisers also need to be able to defend themselves should things go wrong. Although the safety of the foreign advisers will ultimately depend on the Afghan Security Forces, there is a “force protection” element built into Resolute Support; it is not clear if it is nearly large or strong enough.

The rebranded NATO-led organization will shift the training, advice, and assistance from the tactical realm to Afghanistan’s ministries and corps commands. The hope is to make the Afghan government and military leadership capable of sustaining their 350,000-strong forces in the field.

This will be a considerable challenge. For a host of cultural, political, and historical reasons, it can be much easier to teach Afghan soldiers infantry tactics and weapons handling than to impress the essentials of modern logistics, joint operations, and fire support on their senior commanders, or to get the generals and politicians to ensure that soldiers and police are consistently, adequately paid and supplied with food, water, and fuel.

On the other hand, one of the things that quickly becomes apparent if you spend time at ISAF headquarters in Kabul or in the regional commands, or if you visit 
the specialized bases where ISAF personnel are “training the trainers,” is that after more than a decade in the country, and many mistakes, ISAF’s advisers really “get” Afghans and Afghanistan.

The learning curve was long and was not helped by rotations of troops and units that all but ensured the frequent loss of hard-earned institutional knowledge. The ISAF personnel you meet these days, however, are not only impressively able and experienced (it’s common to meet officers, enlisted troops, and civilians who have done multiple tours) but also movingly devoted to Afghanistan.

As you might expect, they have few of the illusions that beset many of the first commanders and aid workers who arrived here in 2002; but neither do they tend to be so cynical about getting things done “the Afghan way” that they’re willing turn a blind eye to rank incompetence and corruption.

On the Afghan side, if you speak to the generals about international assistance you inevitably hear a litany of requests and complaints—they need more heavy weapons, more close air support, and of course more money. Relay those complaints and requests to ISAF commanders and you’re likely to hear depressing and comical anecdotes, such as the recent discovery by an ISAF officer of an Afghan Army warehouse filled with brand new NATO-supplied high-tech anti-IED devices. The Afghan National Army did not know it had been supplied with these devices because the troops that accepted delivery were essentially illiterate and had no idea what was in the boxes.

As time goes on, though, such debacles seem to be less frequent, not least because illiteracy is dramatically lower both in the army and in Afghanistan in general. It’s now easier for the government and the military to hire people who can fill out the forms upon which tasks like the supply of spare parts depend and use the computers that are the basis of all the management systems that ISAF has tried to teach.

A combination of accumulated effort and accumulated cultural awareness has enabled ISAF to transform the way the Afghan Army is paid. Some 85 percent of the soldiers now have salaries paid directly into personal bank accounts they can access through ATMs installed at all the big Afghan bases. This is a revolutionary change, as formerly they were paid in cash from money supplied to their corps commanders—with all the potential for mischief that you might expect. Many Afghan soldiers are said to believe that they were given a 25 percent pay raise this year; they weren’t, it was just that for the first time they got their full salaries unaffected by the generals’ skimming.

It’s not a foolproof system. It’s possible that some generals and defense officials will figure out a way to input nonexistent personnel or whole ghost units into the system and take their salaries. But it’s one of several instances in which ISAF advisers have come up with mechanisms that make government more efficient while removing opportunities to steal or otherwise abuse the power of the state.

Another example is the way the British officers who set up and advise the Afghan National Officers Academy (sometimes called the “Sandhurst in the Sand” after the U.K.’s equivalent of West Point) established a selection system highly resistant to the usual nepotism and tribal influence. All candidates who come to the academy at Qargha are given randomly assigned identity numbers before they take a week of physical and academic tests. Only one person on the entire base has the list that matches numbers to names—the British colonel in charge of the training team. That means that the Afghan commander and his staff can honestly tell any powerful individual who contacts them hoping his influence will ensure the selection of a particular candidate that they are simply unable to game the system for him.

On the purely military side of things, thanks to years of hard work by NATO and ISAF trainers and advisers, units of the Afghan National Army not only can fight in an organized and effective way, but are often more proactive than they used to be. This, along with the shift to “Afghan-led” operations, is one of the reasons why Afghan Security Forces suffered higher casualties this year. Not only was the 2014 “fighting season” Afghan-led and largely successful, but the security forces managed to protect a massive double election process that the Taliban had sworn to disrupt.

On the other hand, the United States and ISAF allowed the ANA’s better units to get used to being ferried to the battlefield in American helicopters and to have highly effective ISAF close air support on speed dial; next year they will have to do without both. They do have helicopters of their own—and will have more, along with a score of Tucano ground attack planes—but beginning in 2015 the Afghan Army and police will no longer have even the possibility of consistent support and backup from first-world air forces, and no one knows how they will do.

In general, Afghan realities are complex and confusing. The more you talk to people here, the more contradictory stories you hear, and the harder it is to get a sense of how things are really going. Some people say with confidence that the Taliban is increasingly fractured and has lost much of its raison d’être with the departure of most foreign forces; others insist that Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura retains enough influence to be a useful interlocutor. Some foreign officials scoff at the way their Afghan counterparts blame insurgency and terrorism on Pakistan’s intelligence service; others regret the failure of Washington and its allies to put more pressure on Islamabad to stop sponsoring terror groups like the Haqqani network. 

On the one hand, corruption, incompetence, and a leadership culture shaped by a toxic combination of Soviet-style and Central Asian warlordism are rife in the Afghan military establishment. On the other hand, the tactical skill and courage of much of the Afghan Army is undeniable. Some senior ISAF and Afghan Army commanders insist that the Afghan Local Police program, which enlists villagers in local defense forces, has generally been a success; others are equally convinced that the ALP are unreliable at best and prone to banditry and moonlighting for the Taliban.

Still, even off the record, the ISAF commanders both at the top and in the training missions tend to be relatively optimistic about the direction Afghanistan is going. They draw considerable comfort from the performance of the Afghan Security Forces during the 2014 fighting season, and in particular during the two elections. If there was ever a time in which the Afghan military might have split along ethnic and regional lines it would have been in between the two elections. The fact that nothing of the sort took place arguably outweighs an ongoing lack of cooperation between the army and the country’s many police forces and the ability of insurgent groups to carry out high-profile attacks in some areas.

They can see that in terms of trends within Afghanistan time is on their side. With every passing year the proportion of the adult population that is young, literate, and either urban or connected to the world beyond the village by mass media, mobile phone, and Internet grows by leaps and bounds, while the backward conditions that created warlordism and then the Taliban are becoming a distant memory.

Some see signs of an osmotic influence. Many Afghans have had more than a decade of exposure to professionalism, to a modern, Western style of military leadership, to the advantages of merit-based promotion, and to organizational cultures that prize individual responsibility.

If you go to, say, the Afghan special forces training base at Camp Commando on the outskirts of Kabul, you can see the effect of this. The officers there from the commanding general down are fit and serious with little sign of that well-fed indolence that indicates high status in many Middle Eastern and Asian societies. While there are still some older generals in the Afghan Army who sport airborne or ranger patches in empty imitation of American advisers, the officers and NCOs here wear patches they have actually earned at elite schools in the United States or Europe. They come back from those crucibles with fundamentally altered ideas of rank and hierarchy.

That said, the ISAF and NATO leaders here were all shaken to some degree by the election crisis and by the way that Karzai’s delay in signing the Status of Forces and Bilateral Security agreements risked a total pullout of foreign forces. The fact that the Taliban was unable to obstruct the election and the dispute was finally resolved in the form of a nascent national unity government was therefore reassuring.

They are also all well aware of the political problems here that will require international involvement and large-scale donation for decades to come. For instance, there is no way that Afghanistan with its limited government revenue could by itself sustain security forces of any significant size for decades to come. They fear, as do many Afghan politicians, that without foreign military forces on the ground, and with new crises emerging in the Middle East and Africa, Western donors may lose interest in the country.

They also think that the timeline of the new mission is far too short. NATO has not specified an end date for Resolute Support. Theoretically it could last until the end of the Bilateral Security Agreement two decades from now. But in practice it is set to finish by the end of 2016, because of President Obama’s insistence that all U.S. troops be gone by then. His plan for half of the U.S. contingent to be pulled out by the end of 2015, regardless of conditions on the ground, essentially rips the heart out of the whole exercise. It will leave the training mission understaffed and largely undefended.

The president’s politically determined end date for Resolute Support, like his previous 2014 deadline, undermines the mission in several ways. It will encourage the insurgents, who know they just have to hold on for two years. It discourages ambivalent allies and supporters in Afghanistan and abroad. It will demoralize soldiers and civilians who know they will have to leave regardless of where their mission stands. And it may well encourage a cynical “screw-it” attitude on the part of personnel who understandably don’t want to be killed or maimed for a cause that the U.S. government clearly does not believe in.

The new president, Ashraf Ghani, has indicated that the duration of Resolution is too short. Senior NATO leaders, both military and civilian, Afghan government officials, and members of civil society, the people at the top of the international aid effort here, and even the reflexively cynical Kabul press corps, all agree. Even the governments of India and even Pakistan have expressed their concerns about the 2016 pullout to the U.S. government. All of them are hoping against hope that the disaster of Iraq will inspire the president to revise his decision. Certainly you would think that all that has happened in Syria and Iraq might prompt the administration and its supporters in the U.S. media and think-tank world to be less complacent about the fate of Afghanistan.

The one thing that has given hope to many people here at ISAF is that Germany’s Angela Merkel is said to have given a classified briefing to the Bundestag in which she said that Germany would push for a longer mission. If President Obama could be persuaded by her example to go for a condition-related date of departure, rather than the rigid deadline he has so far embraced, then perhaps the vast amount of effort and sacrifice, blood and treasure, spent in Afghanistan will not have been given in vain.