Cover Story

Their future is now

"Their future is now" Continued...

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

In 2009 under Adm. Mike Mullen, the just-retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon launched Afghan Hands. The initiative immerses hundreds of officers from every branch of service in language training and commits them to assignments in the country for three to five years, gaining a better "boots on the ground" understanding of local conditions and ways to build community. From one standpoint, the program takes a page from the insurgents' playbook: living and working closely with Afghans and learning to build favor, but this time in the direction of Afghan people's and U.S. interests.

That's led officers in the program to look more closely at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Morning Star and try to find ways to work alongside them. "This isn't a charity project. The Afghan people are part of our strategic equation," said Capt. Felisa Dyrud, an Air Force officer with the program who has visited the community centers.

It's also led to a strategic focus on young Afghans like Hameed, and the country's desperate need to cultivate a new generation of leaders.

Near the Kabul University campus at 4:30 in the afternoon, traffic seizes to a standstill beneath the city's smoggy haze. Along Seh Aqrab Road the shopkeepers water the ground around their wares to keep the dust from rising. Vendors sell potatoes from carts, melons piled on the rough ground, chicken or lamb hanging from hooks, and apples wrapped in red cellophane and stacked by the bushel.

At 30,000 students, the school's campus marks a notably progressive spot in a war-beaten city. Young women chat together as they walk, most in vivid-colored head scarves and black tunics over skinny jeans and heels-nothing like the sea-blue head-to-toe burqas long a symbol of Afghanistan's Taliban-era repression.

One of many untold stories in Afghanistan is the growth of higher education since 9/11. In 2001 Afghanistan had four open universities with an all-male student population of about 4,000. Today there are 20 public and 30 private universities with a total student population of 100,000-and nearly a third of those students are female. Socially networked via Facebook and other sites, equipped with English and other skills, they represent a powerful stream of knowledge and leadership potential heading into Afghanistan's uncertain future.

In a low-lit basement classroom just off campus, about 15 students gather for an evening session on leadership. During two hours of class time interrupted by a break for the evening call to prayer, the class will discuss the bestseller Habitudes by Tim Elmore, work on personal vision statements, and gather in small groups to discuss their answers to a worksheet on personal values.

The instructor, an American, draws lessons on leadership from the psalms of David and the opposite in the Shinto concept of kamikaze. In addition to Elmore, the class syllabus includes well-known American business gurus like Jim Collins (Good to Great), authors Stephen Covey, John Maxwell, Daniel Pink, and others. Students have studied the Cuban Missile Crisis, and instructors make time for movies like Stand and Deliver and The Endurance, the story of Ernest Shackleton's expedition to Antarctica. In all, it's a Western leadership ethos that resonates, with emphasis on integrity, courage, and personal values-transformational assets in a culture where corruption and show of force has become equated with leadership more often than character.

"These are very new things for us," said Mohammad Akram Rahy, 23, one of the students. "Previously we did not think about core values. I did not think about my vision or my strengths or what is my goal. Now I am thinking of that. I'm learning here that I have a difficulty with envy and jealously-I knew it before but now I'm trying to take corrective action."

This class, now in its second semester, is the second held in Kabul as a joint effort by several U.S.-based NGOs called the Institute for Leadership Development (ILD). The program began in Herat in 2005 with an inaugural class of seven students. Now classes are held in three cities-with a fourth coming on line in 2012-and each averages 25 students. The classes meet four or five nights a week for six months-and nearly every student has a full-time job and some are also attending the university. In Herat classes are taught by Afghans; the lead instructor until this year, when he traveled to San Diego for further education, was a graduate of the program.

Those who've helped to establish ILD, and asked not to be named to protect its status, say the country is in dire need of sustainable leadership, and such groups of men and women can multiply themselves to practice a new kind leadership with integrity.

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