June 17, 2013

Hearts For Sale - An American Soldier's Journey Through War Torn Aghanistan

Yesterday was a holiday for many reasons. Not just the last day of the weekend or Father's day, it is also the day when the first woman cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova went into space 50 years ago.     

Seems like the perfect day of a brand new week to introduce someone who has flown thousands of miles away from home but on a planetary scale. A courageous young woman who has seen war up close and has effortlessly straddled the divide between East and West... as the gift of a Persian name bestowed on her, Farzana meaning wise and intelligent, bears testimony.

Felisa is the author of the hard hitting non fiction book Hearts For Sale. 
The book talks about the history of the region, the wars, the strategies and commitments of the American government and forces to preserve peace and humanity in a region ravaged by strife. To succeed unlike the  precious Bamiyan Buddhas who lost the battle to ignorance and brute force.

Hearts For Sale -  Farzana Marie
Publishers - Civil Vision International
Genre - Contemporary -  Non fiction - War Report
Ebook - 155  Pages
Price: Price $ 6.52
Available at Amazon Kindle Store
All proceeds are donated to charities that support freedom, stability, and peace in conflict zones.

Before we read my thoughts on the book, let us hear what Farzana has to say.

1. As someone who has served as a US military personnel and seen the ground realities, do you really believe peace and stability will find a permanent home in Afghanistan?

There is an Afghan proverb that says, "Where the water has flowed, it will flow again." There is nothing historically or culturally deterministic dictating that Afghanistan must be at war. In fact, the vast majority of regular Afghan people yearn for peace, and many I know personally are working very hard toward that end. Many Afghans remember peaceful times in their own lifetimes. So yes, I really do believe that peace and stability are possible in Afghanistan. My book talks about some of the obstacles to that peace that have not yet been properly addressed, especially the support and safe havens in Pakistan for the extremism (Taliban and other groups) flowing into Afghanistan. It will be difficult for peace and stability to come unless those sources of conflict are addressed.

2. There are reports that question the safety of Afghans who have actively helped the US army. They paint a rather bleak and insecure future for those unable to emigrate, once the complete withdrawal of troops occurs. What's your personal take on this?

Yes, it is true that those who have served directly with international forces are often at higher risk to be targetted or threatened by extremists. While there is no projected complete withdrawal of troops (that is a bit of a myth), the drawdown of combat troops means the Afghan National Security Forces must increasigly step up to protect Afghanistan's citizens. There are many recent reports showing that they are in fact doing this day by day. Nevertheless, I think there is absolutely a moral responsibility for the U.S. and other nations to take special care for the safety of those who have helped them and served alongside them in this conflict. They should ensure policies and programs are in place to make effort to ensure the safety of these courageous partners.

3. Your book states that except for efforts from certain quarters, the U.S has largely failed to involve the people of Afghanistan and missed an opportunity. Is it too late for collaboration and cooperation? 

It is absolutely not too late! In fact, a central recommendation, perhaps I should even use the word plea, of my book is that we should not give up and should concentrate on efforts to listen to, connect, and partners with the Afghan people, especially in this critical stage of transition. You see, the major downfall of the policy of withdrawing combat troops in 2014 has not been the fact of their withdrawal but U.S. failure to communicate effectively about it. There is fear and uncertainty everywhere about this looming year, 2014, with both security transition and political transition coinciding with the presidential election. Fear is compounded by historical memory: many feel that it is a re-play of U.S. abandonment in the early 1990s, when the U.S. who had supported and helped to arm jihadi groups against the Soviets disappeared from the scene and the nation devolved into civil war. 

While many analysts assess that nothing especially dramatic will actually happen in 2014, the fear and uncertainty is driving many unhealthy trends. I spoke with a book vendor in Kabul not long ago and asked him how business was going. He said, oh, not so good..."2014, you know." It is affecting business, it is affecting people's willingness to invest, to buy, to stay. Many have family members and friends who are already leaving the country if they can. Even though some number of international troops will remain in Afghanistan post-2014 for training and advisory functions, and the United States has signed an Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement set to last until 2024, the message of commitment and continued partnership has largely not reached the Afghan people. The uncertainty, fear and mistrust among the Afghan people regarding the future is an enormous psychological win for the enemies of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Therefore, the most vital step the U.S. and international community can take to is to communicate unequivocal commitment and re-focus on partnering with Afghans in practical, deeply needed (and usually small-scale) ways that effect the communities where most Afghans live. I talk more about how to do this in the book.

4. You have mentioned ten strategic propositions to winning hearts in your book. How many of these have been  practiced by those in and outside Afghanistan? Will it likely remain an idealistic, unfulfilled vision?

I have personally witnessed the impact that the ideas and strategies captured in the "10 Strategic Propositions" can have. In other words, they have been implemented on a small scale, usually by individuals or teams who personally take responsibility for understanding the situation and developing these strategies, with little to no formal/organizational support and unfortunately often even resistance. The problem is that we need these strategies to be implemented broadly, we need policy to support them, and we need to stop relying on troop and dollar numbers and start relying on genuine human connections, measuring our effectiveness in relationships and trust. That might sound "squishy" at first, but my team saw the power of it first hand. The irony is that many of the ideas I advocate in "Hearts for Sale" already exist in counterinsurgency doctrine (see Appendix B)! Yet both US military and diplomatic efforts have failed to adjust their conventional systems and approaches (including recruitment, training, and utilization of personnel) to realize the powerful potential that is there for genuine partnership toward interests shared by both nations.

5. How easy or difficult was it to compile this book and relive the experiences? 

This is a fairly short book but it was important for me to write. There are many more experiences and stories that are not included of course, but I sought to choose those that would most vividuly depict the ideas I was trying to capture. I started writing this as an "after-action report" to capture lessons learned, in the months after I got back from my deployment in April 2012. I had a lot of leave (time off) because I had been gone so long and my commander at the time encouraged me to capture some of my experiences and lessons in writing. These were clearly, as you can see from the book, not only my own experiences but those of my team, especially the "Afghan Hands" I worked with under General McMaster in the anti-corruption task force. There was always a sense of the value and uniqueness of what that small team had lived and learned, especially from our colleagues in Afghan civil society, but at some point we realized that these insights, both strategic and practical, really needed to be shared more broadly. I see this book as belonging not just to me but to my team, including the many Afghan mentors who have shaped it. I have had many many positive experiences in Afghanistan along with the difficult ones, and I think reliving and sharing both has been important for me. I just hope that what I have written can be useful to others: to deploying troops, to leaders, to policy-makers, even to families and friends of those who have been killed or wounded in this conflict, whose sacrifice is incalculable. I believe the ideas in this book could change the course of our involvement in Afghanistan for the better, whether on a broad policy basis or one soldier at a time.

6. It is mentioned that you love to read and write poetry. Are you aware of Mirman Baheer, the women's group that secretly helps Afghan girls write and record poetry. Have you encountered such women in your travels?

Yes! I just spent most of the week with such women in the city of Herat, in Western Afghanistan. There, men and women meet together once a week at Herat's Literary Society, the oldest in the country (established in 1930) to read and discuss their poems. The women I met are writing powerful poems on human themes of love, longing, loss, oppression, freedom, and a variety of social issues. Many of them have published books of poetry available in the local bookstores. Such literary societies and gatherings also exist in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, but Herat has been a special place to start getting to know the contemporary poetry scene because it is a city with a very long tradition of art and poetry. I hope to spend much more time learning about this since contemporary Afghan women's poetry is my PhD dissertation topic.

7. Tell us about your work in the orphanages and your organisation Civil Vision International.

I worked in the public orphanages in Kabul in 2003 and 2004 with two other young American volunteers. We taught English, exercise, and did a variety of management tasks. I lived with an Afghan family and also worked with Afghan kids and adults daily, so I was really blessed to have an immersion experience that helped a great deal with learning language and culture.

Civil Vision International is a nonprofit established in 2012 with an emphasis on building citizen connections and initiatives for mutual understanding, cooperation, and action in conflict regions. Right now, CVI is solely focused on Afghanistan, on building a network of hopeful and visionary people who share a positive and determined outlook on the future there. Instead of taking on monetary-intensive projects ourselves, we like to honor and highlight the inspiring work that is already happening, but that many people especially in the US do not know about or have access to. We use a broad array of social networking to do this, as well as facilitating direct dialogues between citizens of both nations, such as the recent student dialogues between the University of Arizona and University students in Kabul. You can watch my TEDx Tucson video or check out ourFacebook page for more examples!

Farzana Marie | Program Consultant, Afghanistan Watch | PhD Student, University of Arizona | President, Civil Vision International | Twitter @farzanamarie

My short review of the book. A slightly longer one will appear on Amazon and Goodreads and other sites where I can post reviews.

Hearts For Sale is a practical book on the conflict but written with not just the insights of an Air Force veteran in Afghanistan but with passion for the country and affection for the people living there.
The book starts with a brief account into the  tumultuous history of the region and progresses at a brisk pace bringing us strategical inputs interspersed with personal experiences.

What I liked about he book was the frankness and the direct approach adopted by Farzana when she talks about the military operations and governmental policies. She doesn't hesitate to call a spade a spade. She reiterates that the involvement of the Afghani people, especially the youth, is the best way to ensure that peace and stability is achieved and maintained.

The book is a reminder that beyond victory by arms, true victory lies in gaining the confidence of people who are direct and indirect victims of the decades long conflict. The personal experiences as she and her team embarks on an often risky journey to learn about the culture, the language, and to interact with the people on the ground level can't but move you. A particularly poignant moment from me was the conversation with the young widow Rayana.

She weaves in creative lessons of governance to identify and emphasise the need for and the lack of effective approaches and mindsets in dealing with the common man and woman in Afghanistan, by the soldier and government officials alike.
Farzana scores more brownie points in my book with her advocacy of the 10 strategic propositions with for now is implemented on a smaller scale by individuals or teams. When implemented on a larger level, it could bring the change that has eluded America and her allies in the Afghan war or the war against terror in any other part of the world.

This book is a must for everyone including military personnel. It is an eye opener for those who are far removed from war zones and are more influenced by media coverage. Books like the one authored by Farzana can be useful in reducing the escalation of conflicts if not outright prevention.

The Afghani Proverb "Niat-e saaf, manzil-e aasaan" - clear intention make for easy destinations - is as much a reminder of what Afghanistan needs at this juncture, on the lines of encouraging signals that a moderate leader provides liberal Iranians.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

There is so much good we've done, and even more we could've done. If the liberals weren't screaming so loud for us to leave, maybe we could've made a bigger impact.
Farzana, your book sounds very powerful and moving.

Cherie Reich said...

Farzana, your book sounds like something everyone should read to help understand what's going on in that part of the world.

Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com said...

This book is such a worthy contribution to literature and the world. I've learned from this blog post alone. Thank you, Rekha and Farzana (beautiful names, by the way).


michelle said...

A great book!
Farzana is providing great humanitarian aid... a blessing to those who are on the receiving end...
Thanks for sharing Rekha.

Pat Tillett said...

It sounds like an interesting and thought provoking book. I'm going to read it for sure.

I'm pretty sure I won't agree with everything she, but she is an agent of change in a country where change is badly needed. She does it despite the potential for very negative personal consequences. I admire her for that. Great post Rek!

michelle said...

Hi Rek!
It's exactly one month since you posted. I hope you're well?

Love & Hugs

Wendy Ewurum said...

This is fascinating Rheka. thank you for hosting Farzana. We tend to get so caught up in our own little mandane lives that we dont not the more significant things affecting people around the world.

P V Ariel said...

Hi Rekhan, Thanks for the intro and the interview
A very interesting and informative one. Thanks again
for dropping by and joining me at G+
Keep inform
Best Regards
Philip Ariel

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