Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Parting Gift for Afghanistan

One of the chief strategies in the war in Afghanistan was to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the civilian population. The rationality behind this strategy was to demonstrate that the operational capacity of the NATO military forces was to destabilize and eliminate the Taliban’s power structure in the country not to act as an occupying force that would lead to oppression. Based on the general tread of opinion polls in Afghanistan regarding the U.S. and NATO forces the execution of this strategy has not gone well.

Clearly this strategy has been tarnished by unintended and isolated civilian killings and other deplorable actions by rouge soldiers and other outside parties. However, one characteristic of ‘winning hearts and minds’ is a secure piece of mind. Typically this piece of mind is catalyzed by optimism and hope. Hope is largely the product of a belief that things can get better or things are improving. The chief means of instilling this hope was to develop infrastructure; however, such a strategy is tricky because for most infrastructure normally has only an ephemeral novelty before becoming an element of normalcy and taken for granted. So while improving infrastructure is a significant benefit, individuals may not entirely see it that way.

A more direct means of instilling hope could be through strengthening community interaction. When people know that they are not alone and can draw support from others around them in times of trouble these individuals are more likely to behave in a positive manner. One quality methodology to building community interaction is to introduce opportunity for common association during leisure time. Basically let people talk and play games with each other. An appropriate venue for such interaction is a public park. In a public park children can play, adults can talk and communities are allowed to grow at a generally recognized stress-free place. Interestingly enough NATO ‘nation-builders’ have appeared to forgone the advantages to establish more public parks in Afghanistan or improving those that already exist.

There is almost a special quality to parks in the ability to bring people together. Typically at worse they are treated as neutral ground and at best they are viewed as an environment that eliminates conflict and reduces suspicion. Parks accomplish this disarmament through their versatility. Rarely are parks flashy highly structured entities, but instead their passive nature allows flexibility affording different levels of enjoyment for a wide demographic of people. Fortunately while those who have differences have significant differences the people of Afghanistan are not widely heterogeneous hopefully limiting the amount of friction between different tribes even when attending a park.

One of the best advantages of establishing more local parks is their influence on children. Giving the children of Afghanistan another option where a large group can gather and just play versus some of the more enclosed areas in cities should go a long way to helping them cope with the changes that have happened in their country and the changes that will happen in the future. Play options can range from more organized sports like soccer, cricket and basketball to less formal ones like tag. Research has demonstrated that ‘organized’ physical activity with social interaction can reduce the severity of many mental health disorders from more serious elements like depression and anxiety to less serious like self-esteem and shyness. Finally giving children another place to play should also ease the stress on their parents.

The greater openness of most cities in Afghanistan also lend themselves well to the logistics of designing parks which should make both their establishment and maintenance less expensive in both financial and human capital. Another advantage is that these parks will not need to follow the stricter rules and regulations that are required for national parks, which will ease the financial burden of their maintenance. Most maintenance costs will involve supplying the infrastructure for some of the more organized activities like soccer goals, cricket bats, basketballs, etc. While theft could always be a threat it stands to reason that if a fair checkout system is administered on a first-come first-served basis few people will resort to theft. If theft is thought to be a potential problem specific park equipment can be given an insignia identifying it as park equipment. The insignia would be applied in such a way that to remove it would basically destroy the piece of equipment.

Although there are water supply concerns in Afghanistan largely due to a substandard delivery infrastructure, establishing a drip-based irrigation system to encourage a public garden would be a benefit to any park. Public gardens would further tie communities together by giving children (who would have more leisure time than their parents) a common task involving cooperation. In addition a public garden provides another interest for those individuals that may not be interested in more athletic or introspective (board games like chess and go) pursuits. The most important element about the park is that enough interests are offered that few, if any, feel excluded.

Overall the war in Afghanistan has been long and hard with numerous responsibilities rather unjustly strewn upon the foreign soldiers and diplomats involved. These demands have pushed others in a multitude of different directions and these demands have unfortunately pushed some options in aiding the interaction between the U.S. and Afghanistan aside in favor of more direct methods. Unfortunately these more direct methods have not produced the results that most have desired. However, while withdrawal plans have been officially established there is still time to positively motivate the Afghan citizenry and help improve their overall psyche by improving existing and even potentially establishing new public parks.

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