Thursday, 7 January 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone. Sure wanted to express my appreciation of all the supportive messages I've received since arriving in Afghanistan - your kind remarks help make being away from the US and comfortable routine much more bearable. Some of the things I've been doing that I can share include:1) Strategic planning with the civilian - military alliance here. We have the armed forces, the US Aid for International Development (USAID) and a Department of State (DOS) representative here. The idea is to work together to come up with agreed upon approaches to the entire range of challenges faced here in A'stan - from economic development to security. Obviously this is a complex and difficult topic and, when combined with the difficulty obtaining accurate information from the Afghanis, it can be most challenging. The team here seems to get along well and agrees upon the overarching principles of engagement, so by and large, we use the same lens to view the strategic approach.2) Attending local Afghanistan government meetings. The district governance offices are right outside our front gate and myself, the civil affairs team from the armed forces, the DOS rep and the USAID rep attend these meetings several times a week. The challenge for me is to remember the Afghani names and faces that are currently so foreign to me, and to understand what everyone does. Although the great majority of Afghani's are considered illiterate I've found that is not an accurate representation of their communications skill. Last week I attended a security shura (the A'stan name for a meeting of leaders) attended by around 100 men from around the district, and even though I don't comprehend their language, I was impressed by their oratory skills - fluid communication, rapt attention by those in attendance, no notes, etc. The speeches we hear from our leaders pale in comparison. I was also impressed by the civility displayed at the shura - I've seen more acrimonious city council and school board meetings having much less at stake. The district executive officer (who some of the folks here liken to Abraham Lincoln and he does bear a resemblance) spoke of the need for work together and compared A'stan to Japan as two countries who emerged from the world war around the same time yet have progressed in much different directions due to the differences in the cooperation of the citizenship. 3) Accompanying an Agricultural Development Team around the area. The National Guard has several groups deployed here that come from agricultural background and whose task is to provide technical expertise (soil testing, watershed management, irrigation, orchard management, etc.) as A'stan tries to modernize its agriculture from a subsistence level. The group in the Kunar province is from California and their commander is a veterinarian. Both of us are amazed that the animals that we see are in pretty decent condition. The main livestock we see are cattle, goats, and sheep and about all they get to eat is straw and corn stalks; the fact that they do as well as they do testifies to their hardiness. The Afghanis do not grow food just for the animals(such as alfalfa or soybeans) and all the grain is produced for human consumption, so consequently byproducts are all the animals get to eat. Yesterday when we were walking around we observed two hydro - powered feed mills that ground corn or wheat for flour - pretty modern by A'stan standards! Electricity is a rare commodity in rural A'stan. Some communities have received solar powered street lights as part of assuring security and "micro - hydro power" projects are commonly found on community development plans, but rural electification remains elusive due to security, technological and geographic / terrain challenges. Our base uses diesel powered generators to produce electricity here. 4) Enjoying the nice weather! After packing a suitcase full of long sleeved t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, insulated coveralls and long underwear I find the daily temperatures are in the 60's, cooling off to the thirties at night. We've not had any snow or rain since I've arrived at Blessing almost two weeks ago...and the cold weather gear remains pretty much unused in the suitcase. The weather conditions are mild enough that the farmers can plant two crops per year - usually planting winter wheat in the fall and after that is harvested, planting corn in the spring. A few farmers are diversifying into planting fruit trees and vegetables. Currently almost all the fruits and vegetables sold in the village bazaars are trucked in from Asadabad, Jalalabad and / or Pakistan and one of the objects of the Agricultural Strategy is to encourage diversification of the agricultural production, get more stuff grown and sold locally, thus reducing the area's dependence upon imports. Of course the flip side to the mild weather in winter may be beastly heat in the summer?! 5) Anticipating (read dreading) PR opportunities. I've been contacted about being interviewed by the Springfield paper and also for a segment when ABC news is going to be here (supposedly) in January. Ugh - especially difficult since I've been here for such a short period of time... Once again, thanks so much for the messages and good wishes during the holiday season. And also thanks for the many kindnesses that have been extended to Liz, Matt and Bene. Tom

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