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The ruins of Darulaman Palace, the "abode of peace" *

A watering can salesman, near the palace **

Literally, the “abode of peace”, Darulaman Palace was ruined as rival Mujahideen factions fought for control of Kabul during the early 1990s.   Today, it stands as a deeply cynical symbol of Afghanistan’s future … a country ruined by insurgency and government corruption.  But Darulaman also stands for a wildly hopeful future … a vibrant country rebuilt by Afghan entrepreneurs with the help of NATO and others.

I’ve been away from Afghanistan for over a year now, and I’ve found the time and distance have made it harder and harder to maintain perspective of the country and its people …

Clearly, it’s time to wrap up this blog.

Thanks to all who’ve taken the time to read my favorite posts:

And also my most popular posts:

Bottom line:  Fare well, Afghanistan.  And farewell …

* Photo by ET1 Peterson, USN
** Photo by Shah Marai, AFP/Getty Images

An Afghan recruit studies literacy course material *

Afghan soldiers with literacy instruction materials **

In Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan Security Forces face ruthless and determined insurgents.

But they also face an almost unbelievable lack of literacy

As Col William Gerhard of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) points out, soldiers must be able to shoot, move, and communicate.  But in Afghanistan, these necessities are made even more difficult because only 14 percent of new recruits can read or write.  In fact, many cannot identify the letters in their name nor the serial number of their weapon…

But NTM-A is working to change that.  Their Afghan National Security Forces literacy program enables more effective training, serves as an important recruiting tool, and helps install the rule of law while reducing the impact of corruption.

Eventually, NTM-A hopes to raise the Afghan National Army and Police forces to full functional literacy, at the third-grade level.  But there’s a long, long way to go…

Bottom line:  Here are some Dari Flashcards we used in Afghanistan.  Imagine not being able to read either side of the card…

* Photo by TSgt Adrienne Brammer, USAF, from flickr
** Photo by SSgt Rachel Martinez, USAF, from flickr

Spring in Kabul: Cherry blossoms and prayer rugs

Flower viewing in Kabul...with concertina wire

The cherry blossoms of Kabul are truly special.

They’re nothing like the flashy blooms in Washington DC.  Instead, they’re reminiscent of the bittersweet blooms of feudal “hanami” in mainland Japan.  Then, as now, the blossoms reminded viewers of life itself … beautiful but fleeting.

Spring in Afghanistan has a similar poignancy.  As Nate Rawlins points out, spring marks the start of Afghanistan’s traditional  fighting season, as insurgents return from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, bringing death and anguish.  But spring also marks the end of the cold, barren landscape of winter, as warmth returns to the land, bringing–in many places–a lush growth.

Bottom line:   Many days, Afghanistan is a place of grinding despair.  But it is also a place of tremendous beauty, especially in the spring.  Just look up.

Babur’s Garden

Zooming from TV Hill

The Gardens of Babur

Mount Asma-i, known by Afghans and Coalition members alike as TV Hill, is a high mountain in the middle of Kabul.  On a clear day, the view from TV Hill reaches across not just miles, but centuries…

Raju Gopalakrishnan writes about one of the views: The Bagh-e Babur, or Gardens of Babur.

The empire of Babur, the 16th century founder of the Mughal dynasty, stretched from Samarkand to central India, but he died pining for Kabul and insisting on being buried in the place he called paradise on earth.

His open-air tomb on a hillside in what is now the capital of Afghanistan is set in an oasis of greenery. With the snow-fringed Hindu Kush ranges providing a majestic backdrop, the tomb is set amidst a garden of walnut, mulberry, apple and pomegranate trees as well as a small marble mosque, fountains and water channels.

But the views below are far from paradise. These days the tomb overlooks a war-ravaged city of about four million people, dusty and choked with garbage.

Bottom line:  The inscription on Babur’s tomb reads,

If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!

Frankly, it’s been a LONG time since anyone described Kabul as paradise.  And that won’t change soon.  But maybe someday…

Want more info?  Try the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage or the American International School of Kabul.

A bunch of Afghans, shopping in Kabul *

Stacks of newly minted Afghanis **

This is a little thing, but worth mentioning because plenty of well-meaning people get it wrong: “Afghan” refers to the people of Afghanistan.  “Afghani” refers to the currency

This year, it will cost over 119 billion US dollars to protect 28 million Afghans.  But as I type this, it costs just a little over 600 thousand US dollars to purchase 28 million Afghanis.

Bottom line:  As I’ve mentioned before, language matters.  Especially to the Afghans.

* Photo by ET1 Peterson, US Navy

** Photo by Syed Jan Sabawoon, USAID

Afghan children wait for donations*

An Afghan skater waits for the future**

There are a TON of great charities supporting the people of Afghanistan…I’m hopeful I’ll get many more suggestions.  But for now, these are my favorites:

Afghans4Tomorow – An organization working to rebuild Afghanistan, through health, education, and agriculture projects…such as a training program to make fuel briquettes (as an alternative to increasingly scarce wood) and the first Science Fair in Afghan history!

OLPC Afghanistan – The One Laptop Per Child vision…to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power computer…is compelling.  The OLPC hardware and approach are less so.  But for now, OLPC seems a good way to move the children of Afghanistan into the digital age.

Pakistan Flood Relief – Pakistan is the home of Al-Qaeda, a strong Taliban movement, nuclear weapons, and now, the largest humanitarian crisis the international community has ever faced.  Much of the country remains flooded, but even when the waters recede, disease, and hunger remain…along with radical insurgents, who are only too happy to take advantage of the chaos.  Support to Pakistani children today–clean water, safe sanitation, vaccinations, protection from violence, and nutrition–will save Afghan lives in the future.  And likely, American lives as well.

Skateistan – The world’s first co-educational skateboarding school, and arguably the coolest charity in the universe.  Their video, Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul, is a great intro…you’ll understand why it earned “Best Documentary” and “Best Photography” awards at the LA Skate Film Festival last month.

Turquoise Mountain – An organization dedicated to regenerating historic urban areas in Afghanistan and renewing traditional Afghan arts and architecture.  Interestingly, it was established by Rory Stewart, Member of the British Parliament and author of my favorite book about Afghanistan, The Places In Between.

Women of Hope Project – Setting women free from poverty and oppression is a TALL order in Afghanistan, but Women of Hope is making progress.  Their embroidery project, for example, gives women the opportunity to sell their embroidered goods at Coalition bazaars throughout Kabul.  The income, though meager, means their children can attend school instead of having to work.

Bottom line:  Charitable organizations are making a difference in Afghanistan.  You can help.

* Photo by an unknown NTM-A volunteer

** Photo by Uggi Kaldan, at Reklamebilleder

Band-e-Amir National Park makes a nice tourist destination. *

It's free of landmines AND flesh-eating wasps! **

No matter how long or hard my day has been, I know it’s been better than Ghulam Nabi Farahi’s.  He has what is surely the toughest job in the world: Deputy Minister for Administration, Finance, and Tourism, working in the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture.

I’ve written about Afghan tourism slogans before (twice, actually).  But to help out the Deputy Minister — and with apologies to The Late Show — here are a few more ideas:

#10  Afghanistan:  Not bad, except for the giant flesh-eating wasps. In your bunker. Even though “giant flesh-eating wasps” sounds like something from a REALLY bad movie, they’re real.  In fact, watching them pull small chunks of chicken from your plate was just one of the many things that made Kabul dining an adventure.  But building a nest in the bunker closest to my office?  Well, that was just going too far…

#9  Afghanistan:  Cool, in a Mad Max sort of way. Anyone who’s ever driven Highway 1 knows exactly what I mean.

#8  Afghanistan:  The world’s toughest story problem. Inspired by this classic Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson.

#7  Afghanistan:  The crossroads of everywhere.  The graveyard of everyone. People have been trading and fighting in Afghanistan for over 50,000 years.  From the original Silk Road to the Modern Silk Road Strategy, and from Alexander the Great to tomorrow’s news, Afghanistan has a well-deserved reputation as a formidable trading partner.  And the graveyard of empires.

#6  Afghanistan: Where the kids are friendly. And have AK-47s. Eid Al Fitr is a three-day holiday at the end of Ramadan (‘Ramazan’, in Afghanistan).  Traditional gifts for children include dresses for girls and toy AK-47s for boys. Which means a bunch of boys standing at traffic circles shooting airsoft pellets at convoys…from REALLY realistic toy guns.  In general, they’re not being mean-spirited at all, that’s just what boys DO in Afghanistan.  All’s well…as long as the boys run out of pellets before a Coalition member in a gun turret gets spooked or an insurgent figures out how to exploit it.

#5  Afghanistan: Where the only law is the law of unintended consequences. Intervention in a complex system — and nowhere is more complex than Afghanistan — ALWAYS creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.  Like this.

#4  Afghanistan: In a horror movie when the music shifts to a minor key and you’re all, “Don’t open the door!!!”? Well that door leads here. Loosely based on the opening lines of this article by Eugene Robinson.

#3  Afghanistan: The major historical sites are expected to be landmine-free! A quote from the this article by Heidi Vogt about tourism in Afghanistan.  Really.

#2  Afghanistan: That’s not debris.  That’s just air. Overheard after a rocket attack.  Really.  It’s funny until you find out it’s too true to be funny.  During my time in Afghanistan, exactly zero NTM-A members died from rocket attacks.  Two died due to respiratory disease.  Not surprising, since Kabul has “the highest amount of fecal matter in the atmosphere in the world,” according to Pushpa Pathak.

and my number one recommendation for an Afghan Tourism slogan…

#1  Afghanistan:  At least we don’t have evil flying attack squids! Which makes it better than San Diego.  Really.

Bottom Line: All joking aside, Afghanistan has much to offer; with victory we’ll being able to enjoy it.  And as I’ve written, that’s worth fighting for.

* Photo by Paula Bronstein of Getty Images, from USA Today

** Photo by Stephon Sterns

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