Afghan Scouts take part in a game of tug-of-war at American University in… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
KABUL, Afghanistan –- Mohammad Aziz Ayob adjusts his Boy Scout scarf, leans over and settles a sapling into the dry Kabul soil as two NATO helicopters pass overhead, the clack-clack of their blades echoing off the neighboring mountains.
Bobbing green shirts and matching caps may seem a bit incongruous in a war zone, but organizers of Afghanistan's nascent Scouting program say its emphasis on community service and self-reliance is sorely needed in a society scarred by decades of violence.
Ayob, orphaned as a child and raised by his aunt, can barely afford to attend high school and worries about finding a job. Such concerns melt away, however, when he dons his Scouting shirt.
"I love my uniform; it makes me feel proud," said Ayob, 18. "Scouts are like my family."
The group's motto, "Be prepared," takes on special meaning here, where members risk death to attend meetings, earn "rule of law" merit badges and learn to identify roadside bombs in first aid class.
While Boy Scouts plant trees on streets traversed by Islamist suicide bombers, Girl Scouts in this conservative Muslim nation are more cloistered, volunteering in hospitals, for instance, rather than working in the open.
"With Taliban problems, it's hard to let the girls do everything," said Mohammad Tamim Hamkar, Afghan Scouting's program manager.
Camping and hiking are also restricted for boys, given the security concerns. Campfire singing stopped after mullahs accused the Scouts of worshiping fire. Allowing gays to participate in Scouting isn't even an issue in Afghanistan, where the very concept is taboo and open discussion of it is all but unthinkable.
Though less visible, girls often make better Scouts than boys, organizers say, even when it comes to tying knots, because they have fewer outlets for activity in such a male-dominated society.
" 'Meek' Afghan girls are empowered by the Scout uniform," said Keith Blackey, 68, an American advising the Afghan Scouting program, who previously helped develop Scouting in Iraq. "It's like a superhero putting on a cape. Then they take it off and they're meek again."
Scouting was introduced in Afghanistan in 1931, and its golden years were in the 1960s, said Gul Ahmad Mustafa, national training commissioner. Things foundered during the Soviet occupation and later the Taliban era, when traditional Scouting was banned. At times, Scouts were directed to spy on their parents or, later, to clean mosques and fill ablution pots. The international Scouting association delisted Afghanistan in the 1970s.
Afghan charity Parsa, which focuses on issues involving orphans, women and literacy, reinvigorated the program in 2009 as a way to teach volunteerism and leadership skills and to counter youth recruitment efforts by extremists.
Scout troops are active in six of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, most of which are too dangerous for international advisors to visit. "We're starting from zero," Hamkar said, citing patchwork uniforms, unfinished manuals and limited funding.
Hoping to learn from mistakes in Iraq, where Scouting expanded too quickly and has largely fallen apart, the Afghan focus is on steady growth, Blackey said. The program has 1,062 members, 40% of them girls, with a year-end goal of 1,500.
Scouting's links to the West and its English-language elements could spell trouble if Afghanistan descends into chaos after the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014, so organizers are working hard to localize the program.
In Ghor province, a troop's volunteer work includes cleaning mosques, bolstering the program's nondenominational, non-threatening credentials. "It's not like we're proselytizing another religion," Blackey said. "We're teaching them the same things their parents are."
Organizers struggle to make the program financially sustainable — currently it's 100% funded by foreign grants — and to mentor local staff.
"If things get ugly, anything with an international connection could be targeted," said Marnie Gustavson, Parsa's executive director. "If the foreign staff becomes a liability, we'll leave."
Though it's making progress, Afghan Scouting is years away from official recognition by the 161-member Geneva-based World Organization of the Scout Movement, said Abdullah Rashid, its Manila-based regional director.
During the dark years, loyal Scouts hid their uniforms. "I was too scared to wear mine, even alone in my room," said training commissioner Mustafa. "Sometimes I'd peek in the drawer, though, and remember better times."
Recently, the United Nations has encouraged police to train Scout troops. Parsa initially balked at the idea, Gustavson said, given Scouting's unfortunate association with Soviet secret police, but youngsters responded well.
"In Afghanistan, kids are not inclined to go to the police when they're in trouble," said A. Heather Coyne, a member of a U.N. police advisory unit. "We're trying to show that police are something other than a scary person."