KABUL, Afghanistan-Hameed Yaldash wants to friend me. We're huddled with some other young men around a computer looking at Facebook pages inside an internet café, of sorts, in a village south of Kabul.
Seated at a Dell terminal, Hameed, 21, already has busted my stereotype of young Afghan males: He's clean-shaven and wearing a plaid shirt and fitted jeans. He's more eager to show me his latest work in Photoshop than to talk about terrorist factions or weaponry; more entrepreneur than angry, West-hating young Muslim.
So he pulls up his Facebook page, and more notions bite the dust. Hameed's friends are young men and women also dressed like contemporary Westerners, some of them relatives who've immigrated to the Netherlands or Germany. Hameed lives in a conservative village where most women wear full-length burqas, but the Afghan women he knows on Facebook are unveiled. On the social network forum Hameed and his friends discuss music, make jokes, find odd jobs, help each other with classes-and much of it in English.
It's a world wholly separate from their parents' generation. Sixty percent of Afghans are under age 25, and the country's median age for men and women is 18. Talk to many in that demographic, as I did, and you will hear something different from the doom-and-gloom prognosticators who predict Afghanistan's return to civil war, a resurgent Taliban, and a failed state that can never be fixed.
Young Afghans have lived their whole lives in war-many of them spending formative years in refugee camps at the Pakistan border during the Taliban's reign-and they are determined to be a post-war generation.
This year they've witnessed the power of the web in aiding revolutions in other Muslim countries, and they realize that power connects them to one another and the wider global village. It moves them beyond tribal identities and older orders. Young Afghans are more likely to build relationships based on common interests than heritage. Ask many of them what tribe they are from, and they will wave away the question with, "I am from Afghanistan." A handful told me they intend to be the country's president someday, and one, asked what he wants to do after school, said, "I want to work for America."
These young Afghans already have learned enough to yearn for more than survival; they want an education, English language training, a skills set, and a satisfying job. Many come from conservative, traditional Muslim families, but they find restrictive Islam quaint, even unhelpful.
Yet these young men and women still live in a country where only 28 percent of the population can read and write. A country where life expectancy is 45 years. And a country at war.
Turning aspirations into reality is their challenge: First, the challenge of reaching villages like Hameed's-where nearly 80 percent of Afghans live-with modern technology and a sense of national identity. And second, the challenge of shaping leadership for a future that many call "new Afghanistan," rather than waiting for the next generation of Afghan leaders to devolve into corrupt politicians or radicalized Islamists who resent the benefits of the modern world and especially the West.
Community centers like the one where Hameed works in his village of Tangi Saidan are one tangible point of light. The internet café is open to anyone while computer classes meet next door. Young men ages 10 to 20 at terminals work through on-screen exercises designed to improve their computer savvy and acquaint them with new software. Along the way they are improving their English, as little in the world of computing is performed in the lead Afghan language, Dari.
The media center houses an FM radio station-the rural area's first-that provides 24-hour streaming audio via the internet. Hameed is the main programmer and announcer. Most villagers listen in on their cell phones, a piece of modern technology nearly every Afghan has. In addition to music they hear public service announcements about vaccinations and other medical services, classes, or council meetings. And all in a region that's never been connected to any power grid: The community center draws electricity from one generator plus solar panels.
The brainchild of Morning Star Development, a faith-based nonprofit based in Colorado Springs, this community center serves 39 villages, or a total population of about 15,000. Working without government aid, Morning Star built and maintains the facilities-including a health clinic, classrooms, meeting rooms used by the local shura council, and the media center-but the center is staffed entirely by Afghans. An on-site "suitcase" lab with a solar-powered microscope gives quick, accurate diagnoses without sending tests off to Kabul, and an emergency vehicle is ready when visits to a city hospital are a must. A well makes running water possible, plus provides irrigation for an apricot grove, wheat field, and other crops on the property. In a dry season, as now, that's vital.
"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.
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.
Of approximately 150 graduates, 10 percent have received scholarships to study abroad, including Fulbright stipends to study in the United States. Two who undertook advanced studies overseas already have returned to Afghanistan-one to teach literature at Herat University and another to serve as a program manager for the UN.
Another campus organization, Afghans for Progressive Thinking (APT), also is focusing on leadership. Earlier this year, with funding from the Dutch and U.S. embassies, it brought over a U.S. championship debate team to teach competition skills to Kabul University students. Now APT has a full fall schedule of debate competitions within Kabul University and with other schools. "We want to help students think rationally, argue respectfully, and create a culture of acceptance where we value differences," said organizer Aref Dostyar during an October open house for the group.
Josh McCormick, a Yale graduate student who led the visiting team, told me, "Directing the debate project in Kabul this summer was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The students were very eager to learn, and they made remarkable progress even in the short time we had with them." Some of the Afghan women, he said, "had never done any public speaking so it really encouraged them to see the women on our team speak in public and lead by example."
Women are increasingly active in such groups. ILD seeks them during the selection process and they make up a small percentage of each class. Wazhma Rahimzay heads a research foundation for issues related to women and children where she has 25 employees, male and female. She is 27, single, and lives with her family. She told me she feels welcome to discussions in the mostly male class but has had to "change my family's ideas" about attending. "We feel it's so important now for women to have opportunities, to be part of solutions for our country, to travel overseas and have an education."
Rahimzay fears talk of compromise with the Taliban and their becoming part of a future government: "We fear what will happen to women like me. It would be tragic." Rahimzay said the most important thing she's learned so far in class "is identifying my own good qualities and ones that I need to work on."
ILD was founded by Morning Star but is now run in partnership with several NGOs. When the instructor asks a question ("Who fills your tank?" he throws out at one point), a dozen hands go up and several start answers at once.
"The most urgent need for Afghanistan," said Morning Star's Batchelder, "is trustworthy leadership. These young people are hungry to learn how to become good leaders."
An ILD class near Jalalabad was slated for 20 students, and over 70 prospects showed up. Morning Star is in discussion with government officials to use ILD to train Afghan National Army and Police units. But because of security issues, teachers, and funding (tuition of $1,500, often paid partially by an employer, covers most expenses), not enough classes are scheduled to meet demand: "We are trying to be poised so that, should the security issues melt away, we are ready to expand this training," said Batchelder.
Many of the longest-serving NGOs in Afghanistan are faith-based enterprises that began long before the 2001 U.S. invasion. Organization leaders I spoke to-despite rising incidents of violence-say they have no plans to scale back their operations when the U.S. military completes its withdrawal in 2014. In fact, most report increased interest in Afghanistan by Western aid workers over the last year. That's surprising, given the August 2010 attack in Nuristan Province that killed 10 workers with International Assistance Mission (IAM), including six Americans. On Oct. 11, four French aid workers were kidnapped in northern Afghanistan.
Morning Star, which employs 50 expatriate workers and about 120 Afghans, has had 11 new U.S. prospects inquiring about work in Afghanistan this year. In the last month, two newly trained couples joined its staff in Kabul.
IAM has been in Afghanistan since 1966. The organization kept its teams in place even after the devastating attack last year (see "Work and death," Aug. 28, 2010), and spokesman Warrick Gilbert said, "We expect a slight increase" in staffing in the next year. IAM has 500 paid Afghan staff and 50 expatriate volunteer workers in Afghanistan.
SERVE Afghanistan began working with refugees at the Pakistani border in 1980. It employs 12 expat workers and more than 200 Afghan workers. It began with health services for the disabled and recently helped some of the first disabled students to enter Kabul University, according to SERVE community development director Victor Chen. It also trains medical residents, sponsors a micro-savings program among Afghan women, and hosts rural eye-care camps. "As a Christian agency we also focus on character and values development," said Chen. "We try to work on worldview, peace-building, honesty-ultimately issues of hearts and minds. What we don't want to create is dependency."
These and other faith-based organizations see what few Americans have an opportunity to see between the headlines blaring violence, insurgency, and fraudulent activity: that a new generation is busy readying itself in hopes of a new day in Afghanistan. Chen said, "Changes here are subtle. It takes relationship, modeling, and mentoring. At the government level it can be very discouraging-corruption and security problems. But at the grass-roots level we see successes."
Shaida M. Abdali was one of three men aboard a flight with Hamid Karzai from Kandahar to Kabul in late 2001. Karzai had just been named chairman of the interim government formed by the U.S. coalition that toppled the Taliban regime only weeks earlier. Karzai went on to be appointed to a two-year term as interim president of Afghanistan, and to win election in 2004 and again in 2009. According to the constitution he cannot serve another term, and presidential elections are scheduled for 2013, at which time Karzai has publicly stated he will step down. Today Abdali is one of the few Karzai allies not toppled by in-fighting, corruption charges, or assassination.
On the 10th anniversary of the start of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Abdali, currently Karzai's deputy national security advisor and special assistant, spoke to me in the presidential palace. "Do we have Afghans behind us as they were 10 years ago?" he asked. "No. Ninety percent of the country was behind us in 2001. The enemy could not find a place to penetrate. Since then we have been losing public support, through interference or indifference. It's our big problem."
Abdali said the Karzai government has "failed to engage the majority population where they live." That's a dramatic admission for a government that has concentrated power and security in the capital, Kabul. Most Afghans, about 80 percent, live outside that zone in rural areas where the Taliban and al-Qaeda affiliates have over the last decade made considerable inroads. And it's why politicians like Abdali are paying more attention to community development and the work of NGOs that can act as a bulwark against insurgency.
"We have paid attention to the enemy without paying attention to the people," said Abdali.
Faced with increased attacks by the Taliban inside the capital, where fighters fired rockets on the U.S. embassy and assassins killed former president Burhanuddin Rabbani in September, the Karzai government seems further isolated from the people.
Abdali believes that the counterterrorism policies largely favored by the Obama administration, and especially championed by Vice President Joe Biden, don't help in the long run. Those have resulted in the increased pace of drone strikes on terror targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and targeted killings and captures led by U.S. forces.
Abdali contends, "We are not only wasting money, we are making our problems bigger and bigger. We kill one and create 1,000 more. The enemy is on foot and at most has a motorbike and look at what we have." Abdali would like to see the United States in coming months turning more and more operations over to Afghan counterparts, including the national army and police. "This dependency on you is really killing us," he said. "You must take some risk."