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Afghanistan Redux: Better Late Than Never
John F. Shroder, Jr.

On a recent trip to Kabul to meet with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and to check on reconstruction progress, I was impressed to find the city jam-packed with returned refugees and legions of country people who have come to the city, where at least slightly greater security exists for them. The bombed-out, wrecked city, where garbage was not cleaned up for over a decade, is now a fetid swamp of humanity, with a new rush-hour-traffic snarl of SUVs and trucks belching diesel exhaust at gridlock proportions. New buildings are springing up everywhere as the war rubble is cleared away, and the people of the city contemplate hope for a real future once again.

Kabul University, a green haven in the storm of destruction around it, is filled with students once again, with only a few veiled figures visible; instead, the old pre-war freedom of unveiled women was evidenced everywhere on campus when I visited. The few faculty of the English department have as many as 700 majors eager to learn the new language of power and education in the city. The geosciences department once again has an association with the government of Germany, who mapped much of the southern two-thirds of the country before the Soviet invasion of 1979 and subsequent wars until 2002.

Accompanying these massive changes in Kabul over the past year, and since my last Geotimes column a year ago (October 2003), was the discovery by the media that some of the funding for reconstructing Afghanistan was diverted to the war in Iraq. The United States seems to be muddling along on its several fronts, not accomplishing nearly as much as it could, but not exactly failing either.

Under the scrutiny of Washington, some American bureaucrats in Kabul are experiencing micromanagement pressures for performance in this election year. For example, a top White House official is reported to have been calling the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Kabul as many as three times a week to track progress on such activities as how many kilometers of road are fixed or how many irrigation canals are cleaned. Other officials in Afghanistan have complained that far too many decisions seemed to be based on politics rather than on how well they would help Afghanistan. Nevertheless, however halting or fitful our reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan might now be, USGS efforts there at last are partially funded. Thus, geoscientists are able to undertake a concerted program of resource development, just as I have been advocating in my publications for well over a decade.

Green light

Last year, more than 1,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were reported to be in Afghanistan to offer assistance in redevelopment. Aside from the rampant inflation caused by the high salaries, expensive vehicles and the best housing going to the NGOs, their efforts still seem to be making progress. About 20 nations have contributed troops to Operation Enduring Freedom in the ongoing U.S.-led military campaign against Taliban and their ilk. Thirty-one additional nations are participating in the International Security Assistance Force coalition that seems to be calming down the urban areas little by little, at least in theory.

The provincial reconstruction teams mounted by the U.S. and British armies do concern some of the NGOs, who see a worrisome blurring of military and humanitarian lines that they fear will increase their vulnerability. Maintaining security for NGOs in Afghanistan is indeed a problem in these delicate times. Geological fieldwork has been possible for a few people, but only with a full security detail to guard life and limb.

A group of 12 Afghan female teachers just returned to Kabul from Nebraska with their new computers and printers.

Efforts by USGS to study the resources of Afghanistan that are necessary to help boost its economy have been far from straightforward since September 11, but at last are now under way. Their efforts to obtain funding continued from 2002 into the first part of 2004.

After seemingly interminable negotiations and briefings, USAID finally funded the oil and gas resources assessment nationwide. The total funding was about $2 million for a 20- to 22-month effort. That funding agreement was not finalized until this past March, but the work actually had begun in August and September 2003, with a trip by three USGS oil and gas specialists to Afghanistan.

In February, the USAID mission in Kabul decided to provide $5 million for six months in 2004 to initiate a USGS study of earthquake hazards, geospatial infrastructure development, mineral, coal and water resources, and capacity building or training. Considering the needs of the country and that USGS initially asked for $70 million, $5 million is a drop in the bucket, but at least it is a start.

To initiate the USGS activities, a team of nine USGS scientists headed by Jack Medlin (from whom much of this information was obtained) traveled to Kabul during the spring of 2004. The team included specialists in coal, minerals, earthquakes, GIS, remote sensing and geologic mapping. The researchers spent more than two weeks in Kabul visiting more than 15 Afghan government organizations, and several development bank offices, NGOs and foreign donor organizations. They discussed facilities, data and information availability, and the quality and quantity of staff to work as counterparts to the foreign scientists. Several team members and Afghan geologists actually visited mineral and coal deposits outside of Kabul with heavily armed security escorts. This June, the scientists finalized a detailed work plan with USAID to establish an ongoing USGS presence in Kabul.

On Jan. 31, Said Mirzad, who was the head of the Afghanistan Geological Survey over 30 years ago before working for USGS in the United States, became the first USGS employee assigned to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s staff in Kabul. The new ambassador, who was also born in Afghanistan, asked Mirzad to become his new senior advisor for natural resources. When I visited Mirzad at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Kabul in late May, he wanted to know how soon we could start educating Afghans in the English language and remedial geosciences after their 25-year gap in training in modern geology, which was created by the long years of war.

Mirzad’s request echoed some of my efforts over the past 30 years, since the late Chris Jung and I first started the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1972. While our activities in the country over the years have been many and varied, they particularly have involved providing education to a host of Afghan teachers, as well as publishing textbooks in Dari and Pushtu, and reports on natural resources. Several years ago, USGS selected our Complex Systems Lab as the Regional Center for Afghanistan and Pakistan in their Global Land Ice Measurements from Space Project, which is funded by NASA. We have regular access to the terabytes of ASTER satellite data from Afghanistan that are actively pouring down from space to enable our assessments. Now, we are negotiating a new contract for further analysis of glaciers, snow and ice, water, hazards and education.

Managing information

In these efforts, the Afghan organizations that USGS will most likely be working with the closest are the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Environment, the Department of Cartography and Geodesy, and the Afghanistan Geological Survey. The ministry is in the best shape of these groups, as it has already started the rebuilding and revitalization process, and their physical facilities are in reasonable condition.

On the other hand, the Afghanistan Geological Survey is in a depressing shell of a building with no electricity, plumbing, furniture or equipment. Electric wires were even stripped out of walls for resale on the black market in Pakistan. All the windows were blown out and are yet to be replaced.

The Department of Cartography and Geodesy has a workforce of about 700 and a building that is intact. The problem, however, is that their equipment is of museum-age; electronic technology has just passed them by. Tightly controlled by communist-era officials in the 1970s, this agency regarded all large-scale maps as state secrets. That attitude has propagated forward into the 21st century as well. So although some secretive Afghan officials are reported to be disturbed about it, other agencies have implemented more transparent means to access the data.

Low-cost housing without access to water or sanitation lies on the Precambrian crystalline rocks that rise around the Kabul Basin. The graveyard in the foreground is representative of a greatly increased land use around Kabul in the past two decades of war.

Thus, in part to circumvent the difficulty of inadequate or secret maps and other previously classified and unavailable information, the Afghanistan Information Management Service and the Afghanistan Research Evaluation Unit were set up with U.N. and USAID backing. The management service is actively producing high-quality, GIS-based maps at many scales, with new computers and training programs in newly configured labs, with software operating licenses from a major American GIS firm. Its primary mandate is to build information management capacity among the employees of the new government of Afghanistan — by providing training, coordination, general advisory work and consulting. Five regional management service offices have also been set up in the outlying cities of Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat and Kandahar. Geology maps will be a later addition, but right now, Landsat-based terrain maps — with a variety of GIS overlays of political boundaries, roads, trails, village names and landcover types — are available at low cost or free to their sponsoring agencies. Later, after a number of years have passed with no apparent adverse effect from such “subversive” maps, some Afghan officials hope that perhaps the offices can evolve into a quasi-governmental organization.

The evaluation unit was similarly set up as the best available library of materials on reconstructing Afghanistan. Its foundation is most of the surviving library of the British government that once ran the country’s foreign affairs, with the exception of the once-comprehensive topographic map collection, which seems to have disappeared. The huge and equally comprehensive development library of USAID in Kabul, in the intervening quarter of a century since they were in Afghanistan, also seems to have disappeared, jokingly it is said, into the same dim warehouse of the U.S. government as that portrayed in the movie Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Loya jirga

Hopefully, these current activities will turn around Afghanistan, a country with tragedy stretching decades into the past, with vast armies of many political and religious persuasions gnawing at the bones of the nation. Now it is the turn of the international coalitions to provide the forces necessary to keep the peace.

Afghanistan is very far from the reasonably safe place to work that it once was, when I drove and walked all over it with only my field counterpart and translator for company 26 years ago. Still, with adequate precautions and sufficient information about conditions, coupled with a security detail, geoscience fieldwork is possible. Thus, in spite of the fitful start of U.S. resource assessment noted in my Geotimes article last year, analyses now under way may at long last be producing results that will finally create the jobs and revenues to bring the country out of a dark age. With the recent restoration of the loya jirga, or town-meeting type of democracy for which Afghanistan was known, and the promulgation of a new constitution, the country may at long last rejoin the company of civilized nations.

Keep your fingers crossed.


Shroder is the Regents Professor of Geography and Geology and a Research Fellow at the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Link:
"Reconstructing Afghanistan: Nation Building or Nation Failure?" Geotimes, October 2003

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