October 27, 2009

Where "rural" is too "urban"

When passing through Zabul Province this past summer, I got a brief from a smart U.S. Army officer with whom I had served in the 10th Mountain Division. Over the course of the briefing, he told the group I was with that "rural" is too urban a description for Zabul. What he meant was that the province was almost Biblical in terms of its development. The people of Zabul are isolated, remote, and enjoy no known natural resources. The literacy rate is around 11% -- 1% for women. It's all subsistence agriculture, and making matters worse is the fact that the U.S./NATO mission in the province is underesourced and thus dedicated almost entirely toward keeping Route 1 open. (The population is spread out over the province, too, making population-centric counterinsurgency difficult if not impossible.) All of this is worth keeping in mind when you read the resignation letter of the senior U.S. civilian official in Zabul Province (.pdf). These are the words of a man beaten down by the realities of the mission. I'm a pretty optimistic, cheerful guy, but even I would have a tough, tough time pulling a year's duty in Zabul. I salute those who do, including the young intelligence officer (and reader of this blog) who stuffed a powerpoint presentation of how we can do the mission in Zabul better into my cargo pocket as I was getting on a helicopter. Guys like that just make you shake your head in wonder, which is why even in this mournful letter, the author takes the time to praise the amazing men and women in our armed services in Afghanistan. 

(See also Karen De Young's article today, which includes pushback from Amb. Holbrooke and others.)