Many thanks to Guest Contributor George Bressler for this fascinating article.
Drinking establishments have long had a history of influencing communities, enacting change and even influencing history. In the lead up to the Revolutionary War, the Sons of Liberty plotted rebellion against the oppressive control by England in the public houses of Boston. The public houses were the predecessors to today’s neighborhood bars.
Paul Revere and Dr. Joseph Warren, members of the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons, purchased the Green Dragon Tavern in 1764 to use as their headquarters. Revere, Warren, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and other members of the Sons of Liberty met in secret at the tavern in the fall of 1774. It was at this public house they planned events that would lay the foundation for self rule. Daniel Webster called the Green Dragon Tavern the “the headquarters of the American Revolution.”
Taverns were popular, and a necessity throughout colonial America. There was a belief among Colonialists that drinking water could endanger one's health, and there was some truth to that. Contaminated drinking water was quite common at the time and beer & distilled spirits were often safer to consume than water. Therefore, out of necessity, colonists drank often and together regardless of gender, class or other distinctions. This practice transformed taverns into natural places of diversity to gather, drink, share knowledge, and engage in conversation. Taverns were the central hubs for information, political debate, and conducting business. Taverns of the time were the closest thing the Colonists had to an Internet. Bartender / Tavern owner often acted as judge, mediator, business facilitator, and banker.
The best lessons of history often repeat themselves. In the war ravaged city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, located within the province of Nangarhar, there was a United Nations Operations guest house, called the Taj. The Taj possessed a small bamboo-covered unofficial tavern by the same name. The tavern had a fireplace, cold beer, few bottles of vodka, and other spirits. Afghanistan is one of 16 countries in the world where the drinking of alcoholic beverages at any age is illegal for most of its citizens. Drinkers can be fined, imprisoned or prescribed 60 lashes with a whip. Afghanistan citizens were never served alcohol at the Taj. However, a prayer room was provided for Afghans when they visited. Non-citizens could drink alcohol, but the police would confiscate the alcoholic beverages the could find at their checkpoints. The alcohol that made it past the police would find its way to the Taj.
The Taj was located approximately 30 miles from the Tora Bora Mountains where coalition forces hunted Osama bin Laden after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Coalition forces faced complex challenges in their battle with the Taliban. Successful stability and reconstruction operations required an understanding of the cultural norms, socio-economic processes, religious customs, political practices and person-to-person inter-relationships of the entire community. The complexities of these interwoven challenges can be a bridge too far for combat troops and commanders whose primary duties are war fighting and force protection. Additionally, this essential understanding can only be achieved through frequent involvement and consistent interaction with community leaders, government organizations, and non-governmental aid groups living and working in the area.
Enter Dr. Dave Warner, MD, PhD, former US Army Drill Instructor, and soon to be head bartender, wearing his signature black long sleeve shirt and jeans. Dave met with representatives from every aid organization, local community leaders, and military unit commanders in the area. Their problems were similar. Although, their goals were well-intended, aid groups’ efforts were often duplicitous or even in conflict with each other. Two different aid groups might vaccinate the same tribe against the same disease while completely missing a neighboring tribe. No one shared information regarding who was doing what or where. Frustrated, Dave visited the Taj. Over a cold beer with the tavern’s patrons, Dave learned more about operations in the area than he had after a week of meetings. The tavern was the main hub in the community’s infrastructure, offering the perfect opportunity to support a wide range of activities. A University of York study found that taverns act as essential melting pots for bringing the community together from all walks of life and function as a physical incubator which foster engagement and involvement. Dave leased the former United Nations guest house soon there after, and transformed the Taj into a modern day Green Dragon Tavern.
Another major challenge to reconstruction and stability operations was that no one could collect information and coordinate that knowledge in a usable and freely shareable format. Dave, and his incredible team of men and women, called the Synergy Strike Force, served one free beer per visit to any patron who provided data files on projects that they, or others, were working on in the area. The source of alcoholic beverages to stock their tavern will remain anonymous. There were sources that could drive to Kabul for a night run, on the main road, or through the Ladaban Pass, depending on the check points, and buy cases of beer at $30-40 US dollars per case. In 2009, police check points shut down this supply line, which forced them to seek other sources. The price per case of beer increased to $120, but could range as high as $200 depending on the level of violence in the region and corresponding risk to the supplier. Throughout these and other challenges, it is clear that this program was highly successful. A 2011 unclassified Defense Intelligence Agency report described the program as “Beer for Data.” Under the banner of “Beer for Data,” the Taj became a major clearinghouse for information.
Dave, and his team, accumulated information by the terabyte: construction plans; hydrology surveys; health-clinic locations; election polling sites; names of farmers; number of trees on their farms; number of acres; and more. Dave and the Synergy Strike Force created shareable maps with this information that displayed who was working where on the various projects in the region. They passed this information onto the United Nations, the Pentagon, and anyone else who might benefit from it.
Internet access via Wifi was the next amenity added to the Taj’s menu. Wifi limited to the Taj was not enough for the Synergy Strike Force. They created long-range Wifi to connect Afghan medical doctors, to other doctors throughout the world. For instance doctors with the only prenatal hospital in eastern Afghanistan were able to collaborate with doctors around the globe via the internet thanks to the Synergy Strike Force’s long-range Wifi network. Afghan doctors were empowered to build a database of medical expertise and provide critical public health information to local medical aid groups. The long-range Wifi expanded into a mesh network comprised of several point-to-point connections (nicknamed “Fab-Fi”) that were developed by the FabLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The connections used an effective and very low-tech wooden parabolic shape covered with chicken wire. The network used a commonly available wireless router to beam a signal across to a another point several kilometers away. Local Afghan community members, trained by the team, expanded the network from the hospital to over 50 nodes. One critical node was the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club High School, which included 12 computer labs.
The community support for education was so great that teachers had to remove the desks from classrooms to make more room for students. Over 4,500 children, one third of whom were girls, attend this school. These children might never have entered a classroom were it not for the commitment of La Jolla Rotarians, the assistance of San Diego State University (SDSU) faculty, and the pairing of San Diego and Jalalabad as Sister Cities.
In 2009, in addition to providing support to a hospital, medical clinics, a high school, and various other aid projects, the Taj provided the social networks and technological infrastructure to conduct advanced election monitoring. The team put together one of the only election monitoring projects in eastern Afghanistan to publish their information online the same day as the election.
A number of lessons were learned from the successes achieved from the Taj. The most important of which is about the people. A 2011 report by the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University on behalf of the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Task Force assessed that the selection of personnel is more important than selection of technology. While the liberty bell of the future in Jalalabad rang out loud and clear as keystrokes on laptops, and the liberty pole was a satellite dish with free Wifi, the power of a good bartender and a cold beer to change the world should never be underestimated.
1,3 Salinger, Sharon V., Taverns and Drinking in Early America, Johns Hopkins University Press (June 30, 2004)
 Sismondo, Christine, America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 1, 2011)
 Cabras, Ignazio and Mount, Matthew, The importance of pubs in shaping community cohesion and social wellbeing in rural areas of England, British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, University of York, 2014.