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Afghanistan Journal

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, who just returned from assignment in Afghanistan, shares his observations about life in a country now in its third decade of war.

October 23, 2009 at 11:10 PM

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A trip west with the ambassador

Posted by Hal Bernton

Maimana, Faryab Province

The governor's office here has orange and blue-tiled floors and elegant rooms with high ceilings and handsome stone masonry work.

But this building in the northwest Afghanistan province of Faryab is perhaps must distinctive for something that it lacks -- the fortified concrete blast walls that ring every government installation I have visited in Kabul and southern Afghanistan. Instead, there is just a metal fence that allows soothing views of a boulevard lined with shade trees.

The absence of these fortifications reflects what had been the relative stability of the provincial capital of Maimana. The city sits in a valley of irrigated agriculture that produces potatoes, onions, melons and other crops that are on ample display in a thriving market place.

In recent months the situation here, like much of northern Afghanistan, has become more tenuous due to an increase in Taliban activity in the western part of this province. There is also growing tension between the Uzbeks and Pashtuns, resulting in a big riot earlier this fall in Maimana that broke some windows in the governor's office

This province, home to 1 million people, is difficult for Western reporters to reach by car due to the distance from Kabul and the risks posed by insurgents or gangs on one stretch of road. So I was glad to get an invitation to fly there on a day visit with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

Eikenberry is a West Point graduate with an unusual resume. He has a master's degree from Harvard and an advance degree in Chinese history from Nanjing University. He served two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the U.S. military before retiring as a lieutenant general in April. In May, he headed back to Afghanistan.

Eikenberry has traveled to 31 of 34 Afghan provinces and appears hungry for the information gleaned from these forays. He thinks such travel is important to counteract an Afghan perception that American diplomats are increasingly isolated in the sprawling U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

"This is right in the face of that propaganda," Eikenberry said after a stroll through the town's shopping district flanked by Afghan camera crews.

He chatted with the owner of a wedding dress-store and with a food cart vendor who sold the ambassador French fries, potato balls and flat bread sandwiches.

Such trips aren't easy to arrange. They require advance scouting teams to set up the meetings and assess security, more security guards to guard the ambassador and other staff to keep the visit on schedule.

We traveled to Faryab Province on a U.S.-government chartered airplane. Aloft, I was again struck by the stark flanks of the barren mountain ranges. Though they have a winter snow pack, they still don't retain enough moisture to support any forests.

Eikenberry peered out of the window at all that creased earth, and remarked that Afghanistan is one of the world's most complex geological areas.

Across the narrow aisle sat the ambassador's wife, Ching Eikenberry, who bore down on a briefing book about the provincial economy, people and government. She comes on every trip he takes. In a country where so many women are still largely confined to family compounds, this woman offers a different image.

'We want to send a message to the Afghan people that we work together as a team," Ching Eikenberry said.

She noted that the message got through, at least on one occasion. An Afghan government minister told Eikenberry that his wife had seen Ching join the ambassador in a walk through a bazaar. "The wife said, 'if she can do it, why can't I?'"

After landing, the delegation ended up at the office of Gov. Abdul Haq Shafaq. There, the Americans filed into a big meeting room with the Afghan delegation. Norway also was represented since that country has more than 400 troops in the province and is involved in development efforts.

Shafaq cited road, school, solar energy and other projects that the United States and NATO countries have invested in here. He had an even longer list of hoped-for projects including dams and irrigation systems, a women's center, micro-hydro projects, training for plumbers and more firepower for security forces.

Gov. Shafaq greets Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his wife Ching Eikenberry.

The meeting ran a bit longer than scheduled with the governor passing out gifts of Afghan rugs and traditional blue and purple cloaks known as chapans. The ambassador's scheduling guys were anxious: They had learned that Eikenberry needed to return to the embassy in Kabul for an early evening video conference with Obama about the next round in the tangled Afghan elections.

We left the governor's office to cut a ribbon at a construction site for a new school to train teachers. The U.S. Agency for International Development had provided more than $1 million for the project.

We headed over to the provincial prison, which was being rebuilt with the assistance of the Norwegians. Eikenberry wanted to go into the men's compound, but with all the prisoners crowded into a big courtyard security would be a bit dicey.

So Eikenberry, the governor and others walked up the stairs to the top of a wall and peered down at several hundred prisoners who stared back up at them.

"How's the food? Do you have a place to wash here?," Eikenberry asked.

The prisoners had other things on their mind. They wanted out.

"I didn't do anything, please pardon me," cried one man to the governor.

"I was asked to pay a $5,000 bribe to a judge to set me free," said another prisoner. "He let another man go for only $2,000."

Other prisoners wanted to talk to the delegation on top the wall. But there was a schedule to keep. So we moved on to the nearby women's prison, which already had been rebuilt to house some 15 inmates and their children.

In Afghanistan, women are incarcerated for reasons that appear to us to be fundamental violations of their human rights, such as the imprisonment of rape victims. The U.S. State Department has awarded grants aimed at improving the plight of women prisoners.

As we entered a room full of women and children, the stories started to pour out.
One woman said she was put in jail after someone- not her - murdered her husband.
'My three daughters are left at home, and they just sit on the ground with nothng to eat," she cried.

Another young woman, pictured below holding her infant, said she was imprisoned because her nephew and another woman had illicit sex in her house.

In the north,and west of Afghanistan, there also have been a tragic increase in the number of women who set fire to themselves. As there is more talk of more freedom for women, there have been more family tensions, and more of these awful deaths.

At this prison, one women was confined here after her daughter suffered a fiery end as family relations soured. This woman prisoner was accused of assisting in the suicide.

The prison said her daughter-in-law, in a videotaped confession before the burns took her life, said the family should not be arrested.

A prison official said the videotape existed, and had been submitted to the judge. But the burn victim had also stated that the family helped her prepare for the suicide, and the confession was not accepted. So this woman, along with two daughters accused of being accomplices, are in prison.


It was getting close to our plane's departure time.

The governor urged Eikenberry to spend a bit more time, and join him in a kabab meal. The offer was politely refused.

"Tell him I've got President Obama who wants to talk with me," Eikenberry told his translator.

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About the author

Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000. He has roamed widely around the Northwest for regional reporting and to help in the newspaper's military coverage. His oversees assignments have taken him to Russia, Algeria, Aceh Province in Indonesia and Iraq in December of 2003 and January of 2004.

Related links

Afghan News Center News of Afghanistan written by Afghanistan journalists.
McClatchy News Service: Dispatches from Afghanistan and beyond.
Talking with the Taliban: A Toronto Globe and Mail series.
Foreign Policy Blog on Afghanistan
Michael Yon: Embedded blogger Michael Yon posts front-line dispatches.
Washington Post's Afghanistan/Pakistan site
Abdulhadi Hairan: Afghan writer reflects on events in Iraq
GlobalPost's Taliban project: Features wide-ranging coverage of Afghanistan.