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A Marshall Plan for Afghanistan

Houston activist known for her place in “Charlie Wilson’s War” rebuilt a village to show the world what happens when basic needs are met.


Houston political activist, socialite and former television talk-show host Joanne Herring raised funds to rebuild the village of Khairabad in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012. (Photo by Phoebe Rourke-Ghabriel)

It takes a village to raise a child, or so goes the oft-quoted African proverb. To raise many children and to prove a point, Joanne King Herring simply built a village, right in the war-torn heart of a nation she once helped arm to defeat the Soviet Union.

The Houston activist and author famously portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2007 hit movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” is still fighting for Afghanistan’s emergence from invasion, poverty, exploitation and a deadly cycle of terrorism. Her prescription for success depends on five essential ingredients: clean water, food, health care, schools and jobs. She calls it a “Marshall Plan for Afghanistan,” hearkening back to the U.S.-led post-World War II reconstruction of Europe and Japan.

All it took to fund the first stage of her plan was one high-society luncheon in Houston – a soirée all about the history of royal weddings, of all topics, attended by a royal figure himself: Prince Jean of Orléans, Dauphin of France, Duke of Vendôme. The event netted more than $450,000, all of which went to rebuild the long-suffering village of Khairabad – south of Kabul – in 2011 and 2012. The money built a school, clinic and water-delivery system. It set in motion a job-training program and launched businesses for Afghans who might otherwise find themselves fighting for the Taliban.

Fundamental to Herring’s effort was a 50-50 proposition. In land or labor, the Afghans had to match the financial contribution. They did so, and the village – chosen because it combined miserable conditions with capable provincial leadership – has flourished ever since. Working with carefully vetted nongovernment organizations, Marshall Plan Charities proclaims on its website: “We kept our promise! One village + Marshall Plan Charity = 20,000 changed lives.” The site displays photos of villagers washing grapes with water flowing from new wells. Young girls are pictured at their desks on the first day of school. Adult vocational classes in sewing and carpet weaving are shown. In one photo, a doctor takes the blood pressure of a patient in the new clinic.

Herring, whose early business ventures included housing projects for veterans using GI Bill benefits that lifted up the U.S. economy after World War II, recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine about her vision to lift up Afghanistan, too.

You first went to Afghanistan shortly after the Soviet invasion of 1979. What did you know going in, and how did what you see affect you?

You don’t know about any situation until you see it. But I had heard. My heart broke for the people. My main objective was not the humanitarian side of it but the protection of the United States. All of my life I had been fighting communism. So I went to Afghanistan with the thought of stopping the Russians in any way we possibly could. To understand what we were up against, I had to see it.

What was it like?

It’s so broad. It’s hard to put it into one perspective. I have never been so cold as I was when I was there. I had 18 blankets on me, and a sable coat. I felt like I was sleeping under a dead hippo. And I was still cold. How the men stood it, I don’t know. And yet the Afghans were barefooted, some of them in tents, others just lying on the ground. These were refugees. Of course, they were all sick – you can’t be in subzero weather with very little food and no cover and not even a tent. It was horrifying, and the world was not recognizing there was a problem.

This all occurred before you worked with the late Rep. Charlie Wilson to route Stinger missiles to the Afghans to fight the Soviets, correct?

That came later. I had talked to the leaders. I went to the refugee camps, which is what you saw in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” The refugees were better off than anybody else. They were telling me about bombs, how children would run after these little butterfly bombs that had toys attached to them – can you imagine the barbarity of that? – and other bombs that had fountain pens, medical supplies, things like that. The Afghans would go pick them up. They were not designed to kill but to maim, so the child or adult would die a horrible death. There were no doctors. No medicine. There was nothing to help them with these terrible wounds that our boys are experiencing from the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) today.

To see a child die a horrible, painful death and not be able to help is a horrifying thing to any parent. And the Afghans are very good parents. They have very close families. They work together. They care about each other. Even today, it’s difficult to talk about. This is when I said, “There has to be something done.”

How difficult was it to have influence as a woman in a remote area of a Muslim country?

I got there on a bus. I was wearing men’s clothes. Women were not supposed to be on the bus, and I don’t think there were any. I don’t remember because we were scared. It was the most dangerous place in the world ... full of terrorist groups. The driver told me he could go only so far with me. Then we walked into Afghanistan. We used all kinds of modes of travel to get to the refugee camp. That’s when I was most frightened. Across the horizon was this line of fighters ... like one of those cowboy movies with Indians all across the screen. Men were screaming, and they had these guns, and they were going up and down the hills. I thought they were going to kill me.

How did you gain acceptance among them?

They accepted me as an American. They were so thrilled that someone cared about them. They didn’t think anyone in the world cared.

It must have been satisfying that your efforts to route arms to them ultimately allowed Afghanistan to defeat the Soviets.

It was a miracle. Here they were, these mountain fighters ... very intelligent people, but they just couldn’t read and write. They could fix a truck. They could learn very quickly how to shoot things. And they never gave up. No matter what, they would fight to the death. They said, “Don’t give us food, don’t give us water, don’t give us medicine. We can live without food, medicine and water. But we can’t live without freedom.” And that’s why I say today, if you just train the Afghans, they will get rid of the Taliban. We need to help them help themselves, and they are quite able to do it. That is why I am fighting so hard for them.

What if a Marshall Plan had been enacted there right after the Russians were driven out?

We wouldn’t be fighting there today. It would have been a different country. I have had Afghans tell me that if we had our American president running for office in Afghanistan at that point – even after 9/11 when we went back – 80 percent of the country would have voted for him. That’s how grateful they were. But we have mismanaged everything so terribly that now they perceive us as the enemy. They see us as an invading force.

As things changed in Afghanistan, you became less involved. What brought you back?

I did not want to go back to Afghanistan. I had had it. I didn’t want to see any more mutilated bodies or children without arms or legs. But Caroline Firestone of Firestone Tire had been doing a big job over there. She said, “Let me tell you a story. This father came in weeping, bringing his son. He said, ‘I am going to put my son in a madrassa (Muslim school for potential jihadists), and I understand that I will sign papers that I will never see him again. But at least he will have enough to eat, and he will get an education. If I don’t do this, I will not have enough money to support the rest of my family. We will starve.’”

So he hugged his son, signed the papers and left. The man who did this transaction was recognized as someone involved in human trafficking – organs. What a humiliating thing to do with that boy. He was sold for his eyes.

When I heard this story, I said, “I am back in Afghanistan, no matter what I have to do.” That was four years ago.

I started looking at the organizations working there. They were wonderful, but patchwork – a school here, a water well there, a clinic – but no one was working together. It wasn’t making a difference. I said there has to be a reason.

New York University did a survey that examined world poverty. At the time, $23 billion had been spent on alleviating world poverty. It had been 63 years, and had we alleviated poverty? Nowhere. They determined that only the country itself can bring itself out of poverty. But they had to have five elements: food, water, health care, education and jobs. If they had those things, the people could bring themselves out of poverty and build a middle class, which could then support democracy.

So we decided to build a village. Go in where there is absolutely nothing. Provide food, water, health care, education and jobs at the minimum, and see what happens. We couldn’t get any help from the government. So I said we will raise the money ourselves. For less than half of what it cost to keep one American soldier in the field for a year, we were able to build a school, a clinic and the wells. It was the poorest village we could find. This happened in two years, and suddenly we were being talked about. American colonels who went out in the field and saw the poverty contacted me to say that what we were doing was wonderful. We hadn’t done anything yet.

How did the Afghan leaders and others help?

We contacted everybody we possibly could, begging them to help us. They found us a man who would run the village once we got it started. One organization helped us plant soybeans in the Italian sector because we couldn’t get into an American sector. The Italians helped us put in pipes and bring water down from the mountains. We filled two wells. A well only cost $2,500. It takes so little if it’s organized and the money is used correctly. We built the school, and the Italians built a wall around it.

Then we started trying to provide jobs. We asked the village, “Now tell us, what can you sell, right here in this area, so you don’t have to ship it anywhere?” They wanted to make little stoves. They had no heat or electricity, but they had to cook. They wanted bicycle repair. The mode of transportation was foot or bicycle. They wanted rug weaving. We got sewing machines so the women could learn to sew. Our objective was to make uniforms for the schools and the Afghan army. The market was right there.

For $450,000, we built the village, staffed it and got the people working. This was exactly what the people needed. We had guys who defected from the Taliban. They came to us and said, “You know, we didn’t want to be Taliban, but they paid us $5 a day and I have 16 people in my family. How am I going to support them if I don’t go out and shoot?”
Our village was too successful. The guy running it was murdered, but that didn’t stop the village. It’s keeping on.

What would it take for big companies to successfully locate in Afghanistan?

If you get the villagers behind you, and they see that you’re there to create jobs and do good things with their people, they will protect you. That’s where we have failed. We leave, and we may leave a task force, but we don’t help the poor help themselves. They talk about getting Chevron. They talk about getting a PepsiCo plant built over there. How marvelous is this? Forty thousand people involved, with truckers, distributing and all these things. What about paying for security? I said, “Help us get the villagers behind you. It will cost half what (security) is costing.”

There are going to be problems, and we always involve the villagers in solving them. And they solve them. The school is their school. Do you think they are going to let the Taliban hit it? Their clinic? No. They can’t always protect the crops, but they will try, and they will die trying.

Local leadership and will to succeed, then, are vital in the region. If you have a good provincial leader – and we have good provincial leaders all over Afghanistan – they are the ones you need to work with, not the central government. Afghans don’t like a central government. They said to me, “You don’t understand us. You say we can’t govern ourselves and that all we do is fight. That’s so wrong. Your forefathers wanted you to have a states-rights government. That’s what we have. All these provincial leaders are like governors.”

Last summer, you voiced outrage when U.S. military equipment and structures were being destroyed as American forces were withdrawn.

The government tries to tell us that’s not true, but it is true. Right now they have a moratorium on the destruction of military property there. An Afghan leader told me the Kandahar base could hold all the refugees. There’s room.

Let’s take the refugees in. Let’s take the orphans off the street. Let’s get the widows who are not allowed to work, who are forced to starve behind the walls. We could bring them in and train them, and they could take care of themselves. We want to help them help themselves, and then leave. And it won’t take a dime in taxpayer money. Give us the money that was going to be spent destroying things. We don’t need to convert them. A barracks is a barracks. A school is a school. A barbershop is a barbershop. One oven could go to a family and make a big difference. Think what a truck would mean to an Afghan family of 16.

How far do you think you will be able to go with the Marshall Plan for Afghanistan?

As far as the government will let us. We have the Afghan government behind us. We have the Afghan army behind us. We would like to work more with the Afghan provincial leaders, if we just had the means of doing it. Every person who has worked with our charity has done so by giving time. They have not been compensated even for the money they spent on travel. Everybody has done it with their heart. It shows that it can be done. 

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.

 

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