Building Afghanistan

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The Light of a Secure Peace

When President Obama noted last week that America  “will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government,” I felt a rising excitement. Having spent the last three years in Afghanistan, they were words that made me finally see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, an incentive for the Afghan people to develop their own country, in their own manner, away from international actors.

Nothing has ever been easy in the Af-Pak theatre. Since the time of Alexander the Great, the region has been known as “the graveyard of empires.” The Macedonians, Saffiyids, Tartars, Barburs, Moghuls, Russians, British, Soviets, or Coalition Forces; Afghanistan has eviscerated them all.

The fundamental challenges and obstacles that existed 130 years ago, when it was known as Paktunistan, still remain. Pakhtunistan is the territory inhabited by the Pakhtun tribes, both north and south of the 1,610-mile long Durand Line (named after Henry Durand, the British Foreign Secretary in 1893) which today fixes the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many commentators have concluded that the indigenous people in the region have no notion of civic or national identity. The tribals, they say, influenced by feudal family ties, have been geographically, politically and economically isolated for too long, making pluralistic and democratic government difficult – and making Afghanistan’s development even harder.

For the last three years I’ve managed international donor-funded programs and projects on both sides of the Durand Line. I’ve trusted the tribals with the lives of both my wife and eldest daughter, each of who have been welcome guests of tribal elders and have even stayed in tribal family homes. One such home in 2009 was that of Jamal Afridi, local chief of the Afridi Tribe.  The Afridis once destroyed an entire Mughal army. In January 1842 these same Afridis massacred General Elphinstone’s retreating force of 16,500 in the passes between Kabul and Jalalabad leaving only one man, Dr. William Brydon, alive to tell the tale of which is still remembered today as Britain’s greatest military defeat ever.

Despite this history, my personal and professional experiences have revealed to me that the majority of Pakhtun families and tribal business people share common feelings with us foreigners regarding access to healthcare, education, justice, political representation, peace and prosperity for themselves and their children.

That’s why President Obama’s message resonated with me.

As we suffer today from financial market defaults, credit crunches, sovereign debt downgrades, crashes in housing values, and high unemployment, it’s time to recognize that Western resources to support Afghanistan in fulfilling its potential is limited. Fortunately, Afghan potential is not.

In November 2007, Afghanistan signed a 30-year lease with China Metallurgical Group for copper mining. At a $3 billion price tag with the potential to earn the Afghan government up to $1.2 billion, it is the largest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. The mine will not only create much-needed jobs, it will provide incentives to create a power station, schools, hospitals and mosques. It’s the type of intervention Afghanistan wants and needs. Jobs are key.

This is why PDT in Afghanistan has developed and maintains an online business directory of over 7,500 Afghan companies. It is a directory that is searchable by sector and location. On average, 50 Afghan-owned businesses per week collect tenders issued by international buyers from PDT’s Kabul office, while the Tender Directory receives over 10,000 hits per week.  Over 1,700 Afghan businesspeople from over 1,400 different Afghan businesses have completed procurement training with PDT, utilizing specific training modules developed by PDT for U.S. Military, NATO, and UN procurement practices. PDT supported the U.S. Military through the entire process of sole sourcing ANSF uniform contracts worth $55 million to three Afghan woman-owned businesses with a ceiling of $365 million over a five-year period.  PDT has coordinated more than 40 outreach events, connecting Afghan suppliers with international buyers. These facts exemplify today’s reality of Afghan capacity and only hint at what is to my mind an almost limitless potential for economic growth in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s decision now clears the way for Afghans to invest in their future and for the Afghan people to hold their own leaders to account. “Even as there will be dark days ahead,” Obama noted in his talk, “in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.” I agree.


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  1. Khalid Lalzai says:

    Hi Phil,
    Very good analysis! I really liked it. But, there are few things I would like to bring them to your attention. First, in my opinion and also based on our discussion between my friends and I, it would be very difficult for Afghan government and Afghan people to build the future of this country without direct intervention of International Community/American government and it is because that this international community and other western countries and also Afghan neighboring countries PAK and Iran have created the situation so.

    Secondly, leaving Afghanistan alone in the current situation and/or decreasing the aids is only and only repeating the mistake of 1990s nothing else which was made by west in particular American government.

    Thirdly, I am sure it was not the Afridis who massacred General Elphinstone’s retreating force of 16,500 in the passes between Kabul and Jalalabad leaving only Dr. William Brydon alive! I am sure there was not a single Afridi in this evolved! please rectify this as it is totally incorrect.

    Lastly, I believe Afghanistan will change to a worst battle ground again if international community/America is not actively present in the country and if they are not directly involved in the day to day security control and rehabilitation of the country.

    Thank you,
    Khalid Lalzai

  2. Phil Colgan says:

    Hi Khalid,

    Thank you very much for your reply. We both share the same fears and hopes — yours is the pessimistic view. My own is more optimistic.

    Regarding historical events I was taught that the Brits had offered bribes to the local tribesmen to give them safe passage between Peshawar through Jalalabad to and from Kabul. When payment was not made then the tribes felt no obligation to honour their agreement. Consequently, according to the book The Afghan Wars 1839-42 and 1878-80 by Archibald Forbes he describes the final days of the retreat (the Brits called it an “advance”) from Kabul to Jalalabad in early 1842 as follows:

    “The ghastly truth was all that remained of the strong brigade which four days before had marched out from the Cabul cantonments. The slaughter from the Afghan fire had blocked the gorge with dead and dying. The Ghilzai tribesmen, at the turn into the pen at the other end of which was the blocked gorge, had closed up fiercely. Then the steep slopes suddenly swarmed with Afghans rushing sword in hand down to the work of butchery, and the massacre stinted not while living victims remained. The rear-guard regiment of sepoys was exterminated, save for two or three desperately wounded officers who contrived to reach the advance. This remnant of the army consisted now of about seventy files of the 44th, about 100 troopers, and a detachment of horse-artillery with a single gun. The General sent to Akbar Khan to remonstrate with him on the attack he had allowed to be made after having guaranteed that the force should meet with no further molestation. Akbar protested his regret, and pleaded his inability to control the wild Ghilzai hillmen, over whom, in their lust for blood and plunder, their own chiefs had lost all control; but he was willing to guarantee the safe conduct to Jellalabad of the European officers and men if they would lay down their arms and commit themselves wholly into his hands. This sinister proposal the General refused, and the march was continued, led in disorder by the remnant of the camp followers. In the steep descent from the Huft Kotul into the Tezeen ravine, the soldiers following the rabble at some distance, came suddenly on a fresh butchery. The Afghans had suddenly fallen on the confused throng, and the descent was covered with dead and dying. The Afreedi hill men had blocked the throat of the pass by a formidable barrier, behind which they were gathered in force. The barrier was finally broken through, and a scant remnant of the force wrought out its escape from the slaughter-pit. Small detachments, harassed by sudden onslaughts, and delayed by reluctance to desert wounded comrades, were trudging in the darkness down the long slope to the Soorkhab. The morning of the 13th dawned near Gundamuk on the straggling group of some twenty officers and forty-five European soldiers. Its march arrested by sharp attacks, the little band moved aside to occupy a defensive position on an adjacent hillock. A local sirdar invited the senior officer to consult with him as to a pacific arrangement, and while Major Griffiths was absent on this errand there was a temporary suspension of hostilities. The Afghans meanwhile swarmed around the detachment with a pretence of friendship, but presently attempts were made to snatch from the soldiers their arms. This conduct was sternly resented, and the Afghans were forced back. They ascended an adjacent elevation and set themselves to the work of deliberately picking off officer after officer, man after man. The few rounds remaining in the pouches of the soldiers were soon exhausted, but the detachment stood fast, and calmly awaited the inevitable end. Rush after rush was driven back from its steadfast front, but at last, nearly all being killed or wounded, a final onset of the enemy, sword in hand, terminated the struggle, and completed the dismal tragedy. Captain Souter of the 44th, with three or four privates all of whom as well as himself were wounded, was spared and carried into captivity; he saved the colours of his regiment, which he had tied round his waist before leaving Jugdulluk. A group of mounted officers had pushed forward as soon as they had cleared the barrier on the crest. Six only reached Futtehabad in safety. There they were treacherously offered food, and while they halted a few moments to eat two were cut down. Of the four who rode away three were overtaken and killed within four miles of Jellalabad; one officer alone [Dr. William Brydon] survived to reach that haven of refuge.”

    Again, thanks Khalid for your comments.

    Kindest wishes,
    – Phil

  3. Khalid Lalzai says:

    Hi Phil,

    Thanks a lot for providing the reference about the event. I don’t agree on my views as being pessimistic! Last night attack on the Intercontinental which lasted for more than 5 hours and I observed it from close as I live nearby is a valid reason I think. The attack was ended by Nato’s helicopters! I was watching it all live.

    With regard to Afridis, again the reference you have provided can not prove that it was Afridis who exterminated the Brits. According to this reference from all the officers “only six reached Futtehabad in safety. There they were treacherously offered food, and while they halted a few moments to eat two were cut down. Of the four who rode away three were overtaken and killed within four miles of Jellalabad; one officer alone [Dr. William Brydon] survived to reach that haven of refuge.” It means that all officers except Dr. William Brydon were killed before they pass Jellalabad to Huft Kotul the area where Afridis were which is obviously located not four miles from Jelallabad but more than double of it.

    I really looked at the books of history I have studied so far in school, college, and elsewhere but I could not find that The Afridis exterminated the Brits – I am sure it was Ghilzai tribe and other tribes who did this. However, I do agree on the fact that different authors have written about it differently.

    Anyways, hope you are doing well. Are you back in Kabul? If so, I hope to see you soon.

    Kind regards,

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