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Afghanistan: On the Brink

Her book finely evokes the places Jones came to know. “Kabul in winter,” she writes,

is the color of the dust, though the dust is no color at all. It’s a fine particulate lifted by winds from old stone mountains and sifted over the city like flour. It lies in the streets and drifts over the sidewalks where it compacts in hillocks and holes. Rain and snowmelt make it mud. Mountain suns bake it….

When Jones visits young Afghan women in prison, she finds they were almost invariably put there after being abused, raped, or burned by their own men. She describes a typical case:

Dustana said she was about twenty, though her sallow skin and sunken cheeks made her look older. She had been in prison for six months. She too had been married off, but only a few months after the wedding, her husband’s brother came to her house and ordered her to leave it because her husband had divorced her. The brother showed her an official-looking paper, but being illiterate, she couldn’t read it. She asked to talk with her husband, but the brother said she could not. Instead he delivered her to the house of her aunt.

There, after some time, the aunt introduced her to a man from Bamiyan and said that she must marry him. She did as she was told, but the marriage was a fake, and the next day the new “husband” disappeared. The brother of the original husband, having come into a little money, also disappeared. (Zulal [Jones’s translator] turned to me: “Is this not also in English ‘prostitution’?”) Then, to Dustana’s surprise, her husband showed up. He brought the police and insisted they arrest Dustana on charges of adultery and bigamy. After investigators reported their findings to the prosecutor, she was brought to court, convicted of “illegal marriage,” and sentenced to five years in prison.

There are, Jones writes, numerous codes of law—penal, legal, customary, and religious—that women have to conform to in each tribe or ethnic group. The question of women’s rights is never raised. If they don’t obey orders, or resist being abused, the men in their lives can have them arrested. As in many Muslim countries there is no specific law against rape—an Afghan woman who reports being raped is usually charged with adultery. Despite a new constitution that guarantees women’s rights, many judges are barely literate and know only Sharia or Islamic law.

Unfortunately Jones uses part of her book to rehearse the recent history of Afghanistan. She has not talked to the politicians and revolutionary leaders who made much of this history and has to rely on printed sources which make her account reminiscent of other Western histories of the region. Jones also indulges in a long diatribe against what she sees as the warlike, misogynist character of Afghan society, and the Western journalists who failed to criticize it. “Afghans are famous fighters,” she writes. “Fierce, implacable, ruthless, bold, savage, brutal—these are the adjectives attached to them in history books.” She is particularly critical of Western journalists such as the foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan, who in the 1980s and early 1990s celebrated the heroism of Mujahideen fighters. Their reportage, she writes,

sometimes read like fan mail, tinged with a kind of homoerotic glorification of manliness, yet safely homoerotic because these tough, fierce, idealized bearded warriors seemed the very pinnacle of macho masculinity.

This kind of feminist anger is present throughout her book. At the same time, Jones sometimes relies on broad generalizations of the kind she criticizes in other journalists, as when she suggests that Western women working in Kabul dream of having an affair with their handsome Afghan drivers.

Jones is much more informative in her account of teaching English to female schoolteachers, a sobering experience in a country ravaged by years of Islamist rule and civil strife:

Our class meets in a school in the midst of a neighborhood of grim Russian-built apartment blocks. Once exclusively a high school, it is now used for primary and secondary (middle) school students as well. The different age groups are supposed to use the building in separate shifts, but at any hour the hallways seem filled with small noisy boys who run up and down screaming and fighting while little girls wrapped in big white chadors sit silently in the classrooms. Women teachers stand hopelessly in the corridors amid the swirl of shouting boys, as if there is nothing they can do. It is like a prep school for mujahidin—training up another generation of the kind of guys who wrecked the place during the civil wars.

Jones harshly criticizes Hamid Karzai for not taking a stronger stand about women’s rights, although it could be argued that he has not been able to establish sufficient control of the country’s legal system for any such pronouncements on his part to make a serious difference. But she writes perceptively about Washington’s cronyism in its funding of development projects. The complaints of Afghans and Iraqis that hundreds of millions of dollars of development assistance are being squandered are quite understandable when, as Jones writes, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) hired consultants for $1,000 a day to report on the way that projects were being carried out. Afghan experts could do such tasks just as well for a small fraction of the cost.

In Afghanistan the biggest USAID contractor for education is Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C.–based consulting company that has close connections to both the Pentagon and the State Department. In 2003 it received a $60 million contract from USAID to develop primary education in Afghanistan. The Washington Post, in recent reports, has described the failure of this project. Primary schools built at a cost of $174,000 each could have been built by Afghan contractors for $20,000 or less.

In Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson, whose story is recounted by the journalist David Relin, is even more intrepid than Jones. A brilliant and well-known mountain climber, who today could be earning millions endorsing rucksacks in outdoor magazines, Mortenson decided instead to build a school in the most remote corner of northern Pakistan, a place that is unknown to all but very few Pakistanis.

Relin describes how Mortenson grew up in Africa, joined the US Army, trained as a nurse, and became a climber. In Pakistan in 1993 he was separated from a mountaineering party while trying to climb K2, the second-highest peak in the world, and was rescued by the extremely poor residents of a village called Korphe, which is situated on the edge of giant glaciers in Baltistan, a corner of Pakistan close to China:

Korphe was far from the prelapsarian paradise of Western fantasy. In every home, at least one family member suffered from goiters or cataracts. The children, whose ginger hair he had admired, owed their coloring to a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor…. The nearest doctor was a week’s walk away in Skardu, and one out of every three Korphe children died before reaching their first birthday.

After Mortenson recovered he promised to build the villagers a school. His mother started a Pennies for Pakistan at the school where she teaches in Wisconsin. At home in Montana he sold everything he owned and lived in his car so he could save money for the project. In the meantime he lost his girlfriend and his job, and seemed to be going nowhere. He finally met Tara, the love of his life, and married her a few days after their first meeting.

Finally Mortenson received a $10,000 gift from a rich benefactor, which he used to establish the Central Asia Institute—an NGO dedicated to building schools—and returned to Pakistan. In the meantime he encountered mullahs who issued fatwas against him. It took him three difficult years to build his first primary school in Korphe, but in the next three months he built three more. He immediately understood why many experts have concluded that improving the lives of the people in such regions depends on educating girls. By now, he has built fifty-five schools in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, where 24,000 students are being educated.*

In telling Mortenson’s story, the book also traces the history of the severely orthodox madrasas in Pakistan and describes how rich Arab Wahabbis arrive with suitcases of money to fund them. Well before September 11, Mortenson became a foresighted advocate of strengthening the Pakistani education system as a means of countering Islamic extremism. But the strongest part of his book is its account of how his single-minded pursuit of his plan to build a school inspired a wide and unlikely cast of characters to join him in his ventures. Among these, for example, are the tribal elders who befriended him, a taxi driver who became his guardian angel, and the Wazirs from Waziristan who kidnapped him while they were high on hashish. At one point, Mortenson was called before Pakistan’s Shia clerics, who had been deliberating about whether his school-building work could be permitted under Islamic law:

Inside stood the eight imposing black-turbaned members of the Council of Mullahs. From the severity with which Syed Mohammed Abbas Risvi greeted him, Mortenson presumed the worst. With Parvi, he sank heavily down on an exquisite Isfahan carpet woven with a pattern of flowing vines. Syed Abbas motioned for the rest of the council to join them in a circle on the carpet, then sat himself, placing a small red velvet box on the plush wool before his knees.

With due ceremony, Syed Abbas tilted back the lid of the box, withdrew a scroll of parchment wrapped in red ribbon, unfurled it, and revealed Mortenson’s future. “Dear Compassionate of the Poor,” he translated from the elegant Farsi calligraphy, “our Holy Koran tells us all children should receive education, including our daughters and sisters. Your noble work follows the highest principles of Islam, to tend for the poor and sick. In the Holy Koran there is no law to prohibit an infidel from providing assistance to our Muslim brothers and sisters. Therefore,” the decree continued, “we direct all clerics in Pakistan to not interfere with your noble intentions. You have our permission, blessings, and prayers.”

The drawback of Mortenson’s story, as told by Relin, is that it says little about the wider background of world events. While Jones’s book goes on at too great a length about regional history, Three Cups of Tea does too little. The tumultuous political climate in which Mortenson found himself is rarely explained sufficiently, and when events are described, there are numerous mistakes in names and dates, as, for example, in the account of the Afghan factions fighting the civil war in the 1990s. Too much is said about Mortenson’s attempts to raise money and too little about the far more interesting period following September 11, when Mortenson took on the task of helping Afghans build schools. Inevitably, Mortenson’s book has much to say about the American failures in Afghanistan. “Everywhere we went, we saw US planes and helicopters,” says Julia Bergman, one of Mortenson’s supporters who visits Afghanistan with him after September 11. “And I can only imagine the money we were spending on our military. But where was the aid? I’d heard so much about what America promised Afghanistan’s people—how rebuilding the country was one of our top priorities….”

Both Mortenson and Jones make a plea for Americans to learn from history, something the Bush administration has consistently refused to do. Bush visited Kabul for the first time on March 1, 2006, for a few hours, where he remarked on how brilliantly everything was going. In his more lucid moments, Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan, now ninety-two years old, recalls the first US president to visit Kabul. That was President Dwight Eisenhower, who also came for a one-day visit, on December 9, 1959, when, at forty-five, the King ruled the country and was considered young. Shah remembers that he asked Eisenhower for more economic aid for his impoverished country, as well as diplomatic help to improve Afghanistan’s deteriorating relationship with Pakistan, and a sustained US presence to protect the country. The help he received was meager and ineptly supplied. Some things never change.

—May 24, 2006


Angry in Afghanistan November 2, 2006

The Wrong Company October 5, 2006

  1. *

    The Web site of the project is www.ikat.org.

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