Cover Story

Their future is now

"Their future is now" Continued...

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

"We say to our young people, 'Do you want to be a fighter or do you want to have a computer class, a laptop-an education?' It's an easy question for them because they've had enough war," said Mohammad Rafiq, a physician who oversees national projects for Morning Star.

Rafiq makes it his business to know of surrounding threats. The Taliban launched their takeover of Kabul from here in 1996. The Soviets planted landmines throughout the area; many were removed only after the U.S. invasion. Today there's at least one Taliban commander in the area, Rafiq says, and U.S. forces have captured insurgents nearby.

The community centers also face local opposition. At Lollander, a village west of Tangi Saidan, opening a school for girls has been a no-go with shura council leaders after the Taliban forcibly closed a girls school in the area before the 2001 U.S. invasion. But the community center operates a health clinic that sees hundreds of patients per month (with separate entrances for men and women, as at all such facilities) and English classes that serve 14 nearby villages with a total population of about 3,000.

To the east about 50 miles from Kabul (and an over three-hour drive that includes fording riverbeds and dodging camels), the community center at Jegdalek serves 14 villages near the Pakistani border-an area that Morning Star president Daniel Batchelder says is "on the knife edge" of insurgency: "This is territory more familiar to the Taliban than it is to the government of Afghanistan." Last year during parliamentary elections, insurgents in nearby hills fired on the school, where voting was taking place.

But a remote place like Jegdalek is a good place to see what's possible in a so-called "new Afghanistan": The health clinic sees over 2,200 patients per month-some of them women who previously would have died with childbirth complications and children who've never before been properly vaccinated or treated for diseases like cholera and hepatitis. Occasionally, a suspected insurgent shows up injured, and Rafiq says the rule is, "Anybody can come but we don't allow guns." None of the community centers post security guards, but the Afghan National Police recently set up an outpost on a hill across from the Jegdalek center.

A walk through the village reveals the difference outside help is making. Resident Nurasan Khan told me a family used to have to pay $50 for a trip to the nearest town to pick up $5 worth of medicine. "We had nothing before, and we are poor people in rural Afghanistan. We don't have vehicles and our roads have been destroyed. Now our mothers give more live births, our sons learn English, and we have more hope."

The community centers don't offer services for free, though. Patients pay for medicines. Community health workers who make home visits-Rafiq has trained 58 so far-work as volunteers, but Morning Star asks families in the villages to compensate them for services. Compensation is likely to be food, firewood, or a bar of soap, but it promotes interdependency rather than dependency on U.S. aid groups.

In the long run, that means workers know when severe hardships happen and may step in: Lollander residents lost their wheat crop in a flood this year, and Morning Star plans a winter food distribution to the neediest families there.

Rafiq believes that Afghanistan desperately needs a model for decentralized government, and the community centers show one way that might look: National government could work with local leaders and NGOs to bring basic services, including law enforcement and security, to a community-gradually improving both trust and the standard of living while connecting communities to one another.

Batchelder says 10 communities have offered land to build centers, and his group has started a Be Their Neighbor program, where stateside donors provide $30 a month to support construction and services. He also has presented the model as a component of a U.S.-NATO exit strategy at headquarters for ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, NATO's mission in Afghanistan. "You hear over and over in our own nation people say, 'What is the answer? After 10 years of war we have very little progress to show for it,'" Batchelder said. "This is a concept that could work throughout the country, but it's discouraging to go home and get very little response."

U.S. officials have only begun to learn what faith-based humanitarian workers like Batchelder, who started working with Afghans in 1993, have known all along: Afghan people need to be part of any counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy.

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