Introduction: 4th EFG Edition

Welcome to the updated 4th edition of the CROSSLINES Essential Field Guide to AFGHANISTAN (EFGA). Compared to our previous three editions (1998, 2004 and 2006), a lot has changed. Not only has the on-the-ground situation in Afghanistan changed dramatically over the past decade, but so has publishing. For this reason, we are presenting the EFGA in a more readily updatable – and accessible – electronic format. Based on an evaluation funded by the Fetzer Institute in the summer of 2012, we are reshaping the EFGA to respond as much as possible to the needs of our readers in an often fast-moving context leading up to 2014 and beyond.

The original 1998 edition – known as the “Taliban” edition – came out at a time when hardly anyone seemed interested in Afghanistan, apart from the usual bastion of Afghan aficionados, aid workers, journalists and occasional travellers. For media and human rights groups, the Taliban frequently made headlines because of their repression of females and their peculiar penchant for banning everything from kite-flying, music and dancing to chess playing and the loud clicking of ladies’ shoes. But otherwise there was little international interest. In fact, in the summer of 2001, less than two months before the 9/11 attack against the World Trade Center in New York, the United Nations was struggling to find ways to project Afghanistan’s dire humanitarian predicament, driven by two decades of war and four years of drought, onto the radar screen of global concern.

For the international aid workers working in country, however, basic human decency was reason enough not to abandon this magnificent but war-wracked country and its increasingly exhausted population.

Everything changed in 9/11. Aid workers suddenly found themselves outnumbered by a rapidly expanding constituency of foreign military, mercenaries, and private contractors. Renewed fighting sidelined recovery efforts. Military commanders – rather than diplomats – assumed control of policies for Afghanistan.

The Essential Field Guide was originally intended to provide anyone interested (or who should be interested) in Afghanistan with a handy reference book of analysis and background resources critical for a better understanding of the country. The EFGA was also designed as a template for similar field guides on crisis zones elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of the foreigners assigned to help out in Afghanistan demonstrated astounding arrogance. They not only failed to grasp what this country is really about, but they showed little interest in increasing their knowledge.

Despite the acquired wisdom of a broad array of Afghan and international experts, who worked closely with the country for years, many of the newcomers – politicians, diplomats, generals, private contractors, development specialists – thought they knew better. The obsession to view everything through a military lens also warped much of the international approach. As a result, the security situation in Afghanistan degenerated to a level that is even worse in 2012 than during the Taliban period with over 3,000 Coalition troops and at least 20,000 Afghans dying with little to show for it. Billions of dollars have been wasted on projects that have achieved little.

Given the current situation, with the bulk of NATO troops planning to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, our principal goal is to promote quality information, reporting and analysis as Afghanistan makes the transition to a new future.  It takes more than a traditional field guide to achieve this function. The problem today is that there is too much information about Afghanistan from too many sources for anyone to follow all the possible outlets all the time.  Clarity is threatened by data smog.

For this reason, we are now developing the EFGA as an online portal covering both Afghanistan and the surrounding region. Clearly, the conflict in Afghanistan is far from over and its resolution will require quality local and international reporting for the foreseeable future.  Afghan media face an emerging crisis. Afghan journalists face increasing repression from both the insurgents and factions in the government. At the same time, funding is rapidly drying up. Many newspapers, radio and television stations find it difficult to remain sustainable. Continued international support is vital to retaining good local journalists as part of this monitoring process. The EFGA website intends to play a critical supporting role.

The development of objective and reliable independent monitoring is crucial if we are to avoid the disasters of the early 1990s, when the United States and other western countries simply forgot about Afghanistan, once the Soviets had pulled out. It is equally important when it comes to restraining the meddling by regional players, such as Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian Republics, or outsiders such as China and India intent on benefitting from the country’s enormous natural resource potential. Foreign private companies and privileged Afghan elites (former warlords, corrupt government officials…) also need to be independently monitored in order to keep them from ripping off public funds or avoiding public accountability. Only with solid reporting and appropriate transparency can ordinary Afghans hope to benefit from genuine recovery efforts.

The electronic version of the EFGA will be available to everyone and we will also host in-depth articles, comment and reports with links to sites that we consider credible. Our target audience continues to be a broad range of players both inside and outside the country, including reporters, aid workers, NGOs, human rights advocates and environmentalists, donors, diplomats, academics, peacekeepers, and business representatives. We also hope to develop versions of the EFG as an indispensable part of Afghanistan briefing and welcome kits for newcomers in the years ahead. Given appropriate donor support, we hope to make portions available in the future for Afghans, young and old, in Dari and Pushto.

As with the previous three editions, the editors have tried to furnish the best assessments and information possible. We have commissioned fully revised Overview Essays and Infobriefs to reflect the new realities in the spheres of security, humanitarian aid and reconstruction. We have also introduced a new element, InspireBoxes, focusing on initiatives that are making a difference and could be replicated elsewhere. These positive stories demonstrate the resiliency of the Afghans and their desire to form their future. They also illustrates the powerful impact that is a result of authentic and compassionate collaboration between Afghans and foreign advocates. The InspireBoxes were made possible with the support and encouragement of the Fetzer Institute and its mission to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in our world. In many respects, the 4th Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan is a completely new handbook. We have sought to adapt it as much as possible to what readers have said they need. We have brought in new partners, notably the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). Rather than providing our own A-Z Listings, we are linking directly to theirs. We also plan to make the previous editions available online as some of the material presented is proving of exceptional value to academics and others researching Afghanistan’s recent history. We trust, too, that readers will support us by joining as subscribers, by sponsoring components or by advertising on the site.

We have sought to provide reliable on-the-ground information, critical analysis, practical advice and background resources that will help those reporting the story or involved in the recovery process to gain a better grasp of the situation. Our aim is to help integrate knowledge across a range of different sectors, all of which may contribute toward peace and reconciliation and help bring Afghanistan back on its feet. For example, the health worker can profit from reading about the environmental impact of the war or better understand the behaviour of his patients by understanding the cultural background of the country. All too often, aid workers remain caught up in their specialized domains and fail to see the bigger picture. The persistent danger is that one will pick up on clichés and then pass them off as part of an original assessment.

Overall, the EFGA has taken a perspective spread over more than three decades (since the first fighting of summer 1978) to stress the need to understand the background behind the country’s years of war and destruction and why there is still chronic insecurity or failure to help remedy Afghanistan’s predicament.

The creation of the Essential Field Guide series emerged out of personal experience. As many colleagues from the BBC, the New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais, or Der Spiegel covering wars and humanitarian situations will agree, this is the sort of information that journalists need when you have to hit the ground running without the benefit of local contacts. The same goes for numerous relief coordinators, frontline doctors or human rights lawyers, who suddenly find themselves thrust into conflict zones on short notice. The EFG is equally designed to be useful for those who know the region, but may wish to expand the breadth of their knowledge. We hope to encourage all those visiting Afghanistan to explore new areas, which affect their own fields of expertise.

Obviously, information is only useful so long as it remains accurate. For this reason, the editors appeal to those involved in Afghanistan, particularly aid organizations, journalists and peacekeepers, to keep us updated on their activities and contact changes. In a sense, the EFG is also intended to serve as an on-line meeting place for an ongoing discussion of Afghan topics. We will seek to keep up with events by publishing links with insights, opeds and briefs on the new www.efgafghan.com website. You can also contact us at email: crosslines@gmail.com The Editors, Geneva and Kabul, September, 2012