Americans help Afghan scouts learn to build a better future
KABUL, Afghanistan — After a bold climb up some 30 feet of rope netting, Arifa, 15, paused at the top of the obstacle, unsure how she’d maneuver over a crossbeam and continue down the other side. Undaunted, she leaned back and looked for a way.
Below, a huddle of girls chanted her name: “Arifa! Arifa!” Like her, some wore drab green tunics decorated with a few colorful patches. All of them wore head scarves and blue-and-gold neckerchiefs that identified them as scouts, part of an international movement that includes Boy Scouts of America.
They gathered for a co-ed camporee outside Kabul in early September, believed to be the first such event since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Occasions for challenging outdoor fun are rare in a country, at war for nearly 40 years, that’s littered with unexploded ordnance and still battling stubborn insurgents and brutal terrorists.
Scout leaders and Afghan officials believe the skills and values the movement teaches are important for the country’s children, especially the poor and orphaned. Coalition members who volunteer in their spare time see it as a hopeful foundation for Afghanistan’s future.
“When you want to build a country, you need to teach children to be honest, good citizens, healthy,” said Mohammad Tamim Hamkar, director of the Afghan scouting program, which is run by a charity called Parsa.
While some recent lessons have focused on the conflict that surrounds Afghan children, such as how to identify mines and improvised explosive devices, many of the activities at the camporee were more typical of international scouting events — campfires, sing-alongs and nights sleeping in tents.
“It’s a very good outing,” said Hujatullah Stanekzai, 12, who’s been a scout for one year. “It helps us to be in a peaceful environment and also to refresh our minds.”
Former scout Shekib Ahmad, 26, now oversees events like the camporee as an adult leader. Providing a safe place for the children is an important part of why he volunteers.
“Being a human, it’s our responsibility to work for our country, for our people, for the children,” Ahmad said. “There’s no other place where they can play.”
An Afghan revival
Scouting’s history in Afghanistan dates back long before the U.S. or Soviet intervention, to 1931. In fact, the international movement’s founder, Robert Baden-Powell, served in the British army here in the 1880s.
It struggled early on but flourished after gaining the support of King Zahir Shah in the late 1950s, before becoming a casualty of the war with the Soviets. It wasn’t revived until roughly a quarter-century later, after the Taliban’s ouster.
Led by Parsa since 2008, the reborn movement now has 38 scout troops and 20 Cub Scout units in 13 of the country’s 34 provinces, boasting a total of about 1,800 registered members. Roughly 30 percent of them are girls, who do the same activities as the boys, except overnight campouts.
Kabul-based Parsa began rebuilding the movement by forming troops in the country’s orphanages. The organization’s name, which means “integrity” in Persian, stands for Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Services for Afghanistan.
The charity finds donors to sponsor troops and buy uniforms, hosts training programs for scout masters and ensures troop activities remain consistent with the scouting movement’s philosophy.
For much of the past decade, the NATO-led international coalition has supported Parsa’s effort, said Marnie Gustavson, the charity’s executive director. Volunteers have donated their time, money and items such as clothing, toys and hygiene supplies.
Getting Afghans on board with the movement, especially within the government, remains a challenge.
Hamkar said a broader government-run scouting effort under the Education Ministry doesn’t align with “real scouting” because it’s not independent and not informal. It focuses on school lessons rather than voluntary self-education, he said.
Parsa’s program is overseen by the government and has worked with the Education Ministry, but “we are trying to rebuild scouting — real scouting,” which imparts necessary values in a country plagued by corruption, violence and drug use, Hamkar said. “We are trying. We are doing our best.”
Key to building up scouting in Afghanistan is gaining membership in the World Organization of the Scouting Movement, the official international scouting body, Afghan scout leaders say. Local leaders have received training from members of the world body’s Asia-Pacific region, but they are not yet members.
The leaders are struggling to convince the government of the importance of a scouting organization that abides by the international movement’s membership requirements, such as that it be nonpolitical and volunteer-led, they said.
Safiullah Subaat, head of the Education Ministry’s overarching scout program confirmed that there are “some issues” with gaining membership in the international movement, but he said the main problem is turnover within the ministry, which has had seven ministers since 2002.
“When we start working to get membership, we go a little ahead and then the minister gets changed and everything gets mixed up,” Subaat said.
That membership is critical for the movement, scout leaders say. It would allow the scout program to seek grant funding, which could lead to rapid growth, said Gustavson. At the moment, however, “we’re just hanging on through stubbornness.”
Making a difference
Naik Mohammad Behroz is one who understands how traditional scouting can be transformative. A scout in the early 1970s and now a scoutmaster, he keeps black-and-white photos from his prewar scouting days on his smartphone — hiking a trail led by a man in a flat-brimmed campaign hat, singing in a choir and standing arms akimbo next to his scoutmaster. He said scouting isn’t what it used to be back then, but “at least we have something.”
Behroz is now a doctor, a career choice he attributes to his scouting as a young man, which shaped his future.
Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Bacheler believes the scouting movement still holds that kind of promise for young Afghans. Soon after arriving in Kabul in April, the information technology specialist saw some Afghan scouts on a visit to the Resolute Support base and volunteered to assist them.
He wasn’t a scout as a child, but at home in northern Virginia he’s a scout leader. His 15-year-old is a Life Scout, his 10-year-old is a Webelos, soon to graduate to a Boy Scout, and his 3-year-old is “anxious to become a scout like his older brothers.”
In Kabul, Bacheler helps arrange scout troop visits to the NATO-led mission’s headquarters, which typically involve life skills classes, sporting activities, and fundraising to help pay for uniforms and camping supplies.
“When we talk about coming over here to make a difference, through my volunteer work, with scouting, I get to see the difference,” he said.
Earlier this year, Resolute Support hosted a career day, during which the scouts had the chance to speak with local doctors, engineers, college professors and journalists about their work. Another recent meeting focused on knot-tying, first aid, crafts and food preparation skills — activities identical to those Bacheler said his own children do in their scout troops.
The NATO-led mission has hosted scout meetings since early 2010, when the coalition was known as the International Security Assistance Force. Volunteers at the time also helped found scout units in provinces in eastern and southern parts of the country as part of the broader revival efforts.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Glenn Battschinger formed a troop outside Forward Operating Base Finley-Shields in eastern Nangahar province in February of that year. At that time the civil affairs team leader for the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Jalalabad, he spent one of his two hours of weekly free time leading the troop of 100 boys for nine months, and he helped secure U.S. financial backing to support 60 scout troops for one year.
“We taught boys basic life lessons: ‘Don’t lie, cheat, steal; be kind to and help other people,’” Battschinger said in an email. “Scouting teaches children civic responsibility; in a place that has almost none, (the movement) can change a generation of future leaders for the better.”
The “aims and methods” are the same in Afghanistan as they are worldwide, Bacheler said, where the 40 million-member scout movement is active in 224 countries and territories.
“Really the Afghan scout leaders do all the work,” he said, but Resolute Support provides a secure place to host some meetings and dozens of volunteers who enjoy assisting them. “We’re helping prepare them to be productive citizens ... in a fun and safe environment that they may not necessarily have outside of scouting.”
A peaceful environment
The NATO base, inside a heavily guarded section of Kabul, is one of a few relatively safe places in the capital, but not the only one. The three-day camporee in which 15-year-old Arifa participated was held on Kabul’s outskirts, in a wooded area where herds of goats grazed. It was quiet here, except for the sounds of nearly 200 children laughing, cheering or singing. The only reminder of war was the occasional Black Hawk clacking overhead.
The event was designed to give children a chance to have fun adventures and to learn self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
Behroz, the scoutmaster who recalled his scouting adventures in the 1970s, said the opportunities scouting provides for today’s young Afghans are just as valuable, especially for the many disadvantaged children.
“Some of these kids are orphans; they are poor,” he said. “They are learning how to live — have respect, be peaceful, pick up trash, be responsible.”
On one evening of the camporee, 13-year-old Naseer Akbari was helping to prepare dinner for his fellow scouts while they lit candles around a scout symbol he had made out of gravel. Having joined the scouts with a brother and some neighbors, he said he hoped “to be a perfect person and learn how to live and help others.”
Later, the scouts sat around the fleur-de-lis symbol and sang songs.
Bacheler said he’s been impressed by the Afghan children’s “joy and peace and a contagious enthusiasm that makes me want to go out there and help them.” His most rewarding experience in Afghanistan has been volunteering with the scouts program, he said.
“Watching them grow and develop gives me a real sense of hope for the future.”
The experience of Arifa, the girl on the climbing wall, suggests the resilience and optimism that Bacheler says scouting can inspire.
At the top of the wall, she noticed a higher crossbeam and reached for it. She hoisted herself up, kicking over first one leg, then the other.
Her fellow scouts cheered and, as she made her way down the netting, held up their right hands in three-fingered scout signs, begging for a turn to climb.
On the ground again, Arifa said she was briefly worried when she reached the top of her climb.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t make it,’” she said. “But I found a way.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.