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The Afghan Face

Camp Marmal | Day 17 – It was a little bit of a quiet day today, since Ken and I headed back to the airport. Yes, I admit it, I called Camp Marmal, Mazer-e Sharif in my Day 15 blog. I could have just changed it, but that would be cheating. Mazer-e Sharif is about a 15 minute drive from here.

Since we weren’t out on any missions today, I thought it would be a good time to talk about development in northern Afghanistan. This story really starts when Ken and I were in Western Afghanistan in January. We were on a mission through these big mountains and we were talking about natural resources in this country. Yes, Ken and I really do live and breathe this country. We both agreed that in order for real development to start the Afghans need to do it, they need the resources to do it and they need a way to get the resources to the hardest to reach places. Afghans are very hard workers and they would do the work if they were trained and had the resources.

One of the answers we came up with was they needed a railway system. They needed trains with 150 cars worth of materials so they could start rebuilding their country. We thought our idea was pretty ground breaking, revolutionary and would save the entire country. The only problem was security. Trains are very susceptible to attack. Then we found out the other day the Afghan government and ISAF beat us to the punch… a railway system is being built from Uzebekistan is Mazer-e Sharif.

For more information, I headed over and talked with the German experts who helped plan and coordinate this project. They talked about way more than this project, including the importance of putting an “Afghan Face” on every project. They were very proud of the fact that Germany has always bought the materials they need for a project off of the local Afghan economy and hired as many Afghans as they could to work the project. The Afghans don’t only need the jobs and money, but they need the experience and training.

Sure, modern and industrialized nations can dig a ditch very efficiently with massive machine in hours, but that’s not what Afghanistan needs. Afghanistan needs work not efficiency, so instead of using machines to do the work quickly, the Germans are hiring hordes of manual labor to dig the ditches and work the job sites. This not only employs them, but puts money back into the economy.

This is where their frustration at the railway project came to the surface. The railway is being funded by an Asian bank for about $170 million dollars. The company who won the contract was allowed to hire 700 workers. The company didn’t hire any Afghans. ISAF is currently taking steps to work with the company to see whether Afghans can be hired onto the project, but only time will tell.

I asked them about railway security because I fear it would turn into the United State’s wild wild west years, and it quickly became apparent security wasn’t a topic up for discussion. They did tell me there were a lot of plans to secure the railway though.

They told me about another massive project nearing completion. A new runway has been built here that meets all international standards and will be able to handle almost any aircraft in the world. The total cost for this project is around $100 million. The runway is part of a long term plan to have an international airport here one day to help with the exchange of goods and ease travel for the Afghans.

I asked whether there is an Afghan face to the project, and there is. They hired as many Afghans as they could, but a lot of the more engineering / technical work was handled by international contractors. Also, they said a lot of the raw materials, such as concrete, came from the Afghan economy.

There are more projects going on too, hundreds from what I understand. Schools, wells and clinics are just a few examples. ISAF isn’t the only entity here either. Nongovernmental organizations have a lot of projects going on too. When I went through the counter insurgency leadership course in October, I had an opportunity to meet a lady who used to be married to a member of the Afghan royal family in the 1970s. Her husband died and she stayed in Afghanistan. She now is the sole “westerner” in the organization and she builds hospitals utilizing only Afghan manpower and materials. It seems to be the key here. Unless the Afghans know how to do this themselves, Afghanistan will never be able to stand on its own.

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