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Afghanistan: Eight Days From the Ground -- Part 2 of 8

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After a particularly uninspired breakfast on our first full day, we donned our oppressive scarves and hopped onto the minibus to head for the Kabul headquarters of Women for Women International, an NGO that assists women in devastated parts of the world through vocational training and micro loans. Tea was served as we heard about what a compelling difference WWI is making in the lives of several thousand Afghan women. Oddly, a rather insipid man runs the Kabul office of WWI and a woman who oozed with experience and self-confidence was his assistant. Apparently his presence is needed to give access and lend credibility to women's voices.

On our way there we drove by a variation of something I had often heard about and hoped I would never witness: two men dragging a resisting gray-haired woman across the street after which, one gave her at least one solid kick. We passed out of sight after that, unable to do anything about it. We learned later that Kabul was cleaning its streets of beggars. Maybe beggars are worse eyesores than the ubiquitous mountains of trash, which no apparent effort is being made to mitigate. After hearing the WWI representative talk about the difficulties of being a woman--still--in Afghanistan, it was all the more heart wrenching.

Back out into the heat of the day, bundled up in our increasingly annoying scarves, we headed for a men's drug rehabilitation center. In a country of about 30 million people, Afghanistan has an estimated 2 million addicts. The men who come in for treatment get treated. At-home treatment is their answer for women (none of that commingling of the sexes stuff) and children, who become addicted when, for example, their mothers want to quiet them down if they are hungry, cold or sick or when the mother needs to work long hours. It's an effective way to, you know, keep the kids under control. Dope 'em up. It's cheaper and easier to get than food.

The director of the center is an amazing man, a pediatrician who just couldn't turn away from all the addiction he witnessed. He uncomfortably chuckled when I asked him if he knew the cure rate for women versus men. He said he thought they were about the same though the only ones for whom they have statistics are the men. Couldn't have seen that answer coming!

I was astonished to hear that in a country whose culture is so focused on punishment, drug addiction, as it should be but isn't in the US, is treated as a disease. Moreover, treatment for drug addiction is free. Selling drugs is a crime, albeit not widely enforced. There is a lot for the US to learn from Afghanistan and it's not just about the war.

We stopped for lunch at a noisy restaurant with typical Afghan food, i.e., totally unappealing beige to brown mystery masses. There we met with two men from The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, an Afghan media foundation that focuses on reporters' learning how to get to the truth of a story. We were not surprised by much of what they had to tell us about the US presence in their country. It is a huge thorn in their collective sides.

They were extremely frustrated by the corruption endemic to virtually all contracting in Afghanistan, as it is peeling off billions that could be used for much needed security enhancement and economic development. Most construction companies (contractors--our tax money) have a huge line item in their budgets: security. Essentially, that is a euphemism for paying off the Taliban to leave them alone.

Richard Holbrooke, they said, behaves as though he is the king and lords it over many of the ministries. Worse, he doesn't have a clue what the people of the country really need. He deals only with the male leaders of the government, far too many of whom are profoundly corrupt and care only about the billions of dollars coming into the country and what it can do for them.

The emerging theme we were hearing was security first, then education, without which they really can't have the economic development they so desperately need. Seventy-five percent of the country's children are not in school. The women we had talked with so far all said that if the US leaves, they fear the Taliban will come back to terrorize them. That said, the men are more inclined to see the Taliban as enforcing security, while acknowledging that they are terrible for the country.

It seems not to have registered with the men we have met so far that there is no amount of their own personal security that is worth the horrors women have been subjected to at the hands of the Taliban and before that, the equally savage Northern Alliance.

Children, too, are suffering here in numbers that defy comprehension. There is a name for about 70,000 kids in Kabul: street-working children. These are children who live below below the poverty line, set at a family of five living on less than a dollar a day which is about 60% of the population of Afghanistan. Street-working children spend all day on the streets scrambling for money either to take home to their families or, if orphaned, to live on themselves. Little kids. Big kids. Children.

About 3,000 of them have a friend in a man named Mohammed Jousef who is the director of a place called Aschiana, a school that brings as many of these kids off the streets as it can afford to educate and to provide vocational training. One of the classes we looked in on had children who could not have been more than six years old. Several had that brittle, orange-ish hair of the severely malnourished. Another class was made up of teenage boys carving exquisitely beautiful objects out of wood. Mohammad proudly showed us some of their artwork. Many of these kids have serious talent!

We could be spending our money cultivating future Michelangelos rather than cultivating more Taliban, couldn't we? But we are doing so well at creating more Taliban with our military incursions, why stop? Unless that's not our goal. As actions speak louder than words, many Afghans believe that is our goal.

Getting to dinner at the Farhads' was quite an adventure. Have I mentioned how chaotic the traffic in Kabul is? It's like ducking ice balls in the middle of a hailstorm. All kinds of vehicles coming at all rates of speed from all different directions. I felt as my mother must have felt, sitting in the passenger seat slamming on her imaginary brakes as my father drove like a madman down the narrow roads of Central NY. Then came the three US military vehicles: MRAPS. They looked like the offsprings of a Hummer that mated with a Sherman Tank. Very big, very imposing. How would you like even one of those things (from another country) barreling down your street? It didn't help that the street was half dirt and half crumbled asphalt. The dust storm was blinding and everybody had to just get the hell out of their way.

So much of what happens in life has something to do with friends of friends. That was the case with dinner. Noria and Asad are old friends of a friend (Kathy) who introduced Noria to a mutual friend (Jodie) who became a friend of Noria who lives part time in Los Angeles and part time in Kabul who is now my friend!

The Farhads' home is in the most incongruous neighborhood I have ever seen. The road surfaces had gone from mostly asphalt, to half asphalt, half dirt, to all dirt with holes and hills the size of medicine balls. The neighborhood looked as though it had been through a war...oh, wait; it had been! The rubble of some structures hinted at their past beauty. Others were just piles of building materials. The Farhads' house was unimposing from the outside but rather commanding from the inside.

Before we got down to the socializing and eating, Nooria and Asad took us across the street, behind an intact wall, to visit the "homes" of half a dozen families of squatters. It was all I could do to keep from weeping. Their walls were rags stitched together. The ceilings were sticks gathered together covered with pieces of plastic. Caked in dirt, the children, nonetheless, were so beautiful. Many had those greenish-blue eyes of that haunting photograph of an Afghan woman on the famous cover of a National Geographic 30 years ago. There were so many of them and they had so little. It was an oppressively sad scene. What paltry income they make is from crafting intricate birdcages and embroidering for Nooria. She does her best to sell their wares for them.

Back across the divide, we entered Nooria's and Asad's compound with its lush garden and lawn. As the guests arrived, it seemed that each was as interesting as the last. Among them were a member of the royal family who was jailed when the Communists took over and her husband who is a close advisor to Karzai; Karzai's non-drug dealer brother, Mahmoud; the Minister of Transportation and Urban Affairs (or something like that), the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Finance, a few black-cloaked businessmen, and lots of other fascinating figures. What an education! The now common theme was repeated throughout the night: security and education--then economic development.