War & Water
Laguna Hills civil engineer Hasan Nouri pitched plans to stabilize both Aliso Creek and his native Afghanistan, but no one listened

Tables are arranged in the shape of a giant horseshoe facing the stage in a Laguna Hills Community Center meeting room, where all eyes on the afternoon of Sept. 18 are on Hasan Nouri as he approaches the podium. With his shaved head, ruggedly carved features, and typical suspenders-and-tie business attire, he looks like Mr. Clean meets Larry King.

The 66-year-old civil engineer has been invited to give a presentation at the bimonthly Aliso Creek watershed meeting that draws representatives from the county of Orange, South County cities, water districts, government regulatory agencies, recreational groups and environmental organizations. Originating in the Santa Ana Mountains within Cleveland National Forest boundaries and ending at Aliso Beach, Aliso Creek and its tributaries are part of a distressed, 30.4-square-mile watershed that flows through Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Laguna Beach and Lake Forest.

John Gilhooley
Hasan Nouri stands before the watershed he had a plan to fix in 1982
John Gilhooley
Hasan Nouri stands before the watershed he had a plan to fix in 1982
Nouri founded International Orphan Care shortly after taking in an 8-year-old who had his hand blown off in Afghanistan's civil war.
John Gilhooley
Nouri founded International Orphan Care shortly after taking in an 8-year-old who had his hand blown off in Afghanistan's civil war.

Nouri tells his audience of “stakeholders” the creek first showed signs of instability at least as early as 1981, when he worked for a landowner who was trying to figure out how to fix the creek. Keep in mind this was before there even was an Aliso Viejo, Laguna Woods or Laguna Hills.

A creek-correction plan Nouri devised was completed in 1982. When he was immediately sworn to secrecy, he figured something was up. A year later, the property owner donated land straddling the creek that would become Aliso and Wood Canyons Park to the county, the county green-lighted the owner’s high-density development of what would become Aliso Viejo, and Nouri’s study gathered dust on a shelf. Subsequent development right up to the creek banks led to even greater degradation of the watershed—thus the necessity, years later, to form an Aliso Creek watershed-management group to figure out how to save a now-dying creek.

Looking at the problem again, Nouri suggests implementing the same solution he pitched all those years ago. His presentation is short, sweet and simple enough for an Engineering 101 dropout to follow. It’s also anticlimactic because not one word is uttered as he packs up before the next speaker trots to the podium.

Nouri is used to being ignored, he confides over a recent lunch. In the 1990s, he repeatedly presented a plan to the U.S. Congress that he believes would have saved his native Afghanistan from further bloodshed. As Barack Obama prepares to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to prop up President Hamid Karzai, keep the pesky Taliban at bay and root out terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, Nouri can only shake his head.

Congressman Ed Royce once said, ‘If we had listened to Hasan Nouri, Sept. 11 would have never happened.’ If the engineering community had listened to me, the tragedy of Aliso Creek would not have happened,” he says. “So those are two tragic things I tried to prevent.”

*     *     *

Nouri’s well-to-do family in Afghanistan was able to send him to an American university. But when he arrived on scholarship to Georgia Tech in 1964, he found himself at the front lines of the battle for civil rights—which might explain his telling a certain reporter he didn’t recognize at first glance, “Sorry, all you Caucasians look alike.”

Thoroughly Westernized, Nouri says everyone assumes he is Caucasian. Only once in America has someone nailed his ethnicity: “Pushtun!” a woman pointing a finger at him yelled in an Aspen ski-lift line. (She was an anthropologist who studied the region.) The Pushtuns, from which Nouri, former king Mohammed Zahir Shah and the Taliban sprang, are the largest tribe in Afghanistan.

His civil-engineering profession has taken him from Atlanta to Pasadena and finally Orange County. But he keeps a watchful eye on his homeland. In 1984, Nouri and Dr. Robert Simon, then an emergency-room physician at UCLA Medical Center, founded the nonprofit International Medical Corps (IMC) to provide health services in war-wracked countries, including Afghanistan, where more than 50 M*A*S*H-style medical clinics were erected to patch up mujahideen freedom fighters who’d waged war against the Soviet forces since their 1979 invasion.

Nouri and Simon are listed in the source notes of the book Charlie Wilson’s War for providing author George Crile “valuable insight” into the Cross Border Humanitarian Aid project. In the early 1980s, before Afghanistan was even on the national radar, Texas Democratic Congressman Wilson helped funnel U.S. taxpayer dollars to humanitarian groups operating in Afghanistan, including those that sent American nurses, doctors and health workers there to train Afghan medics in the war zone. Wilson and a CIA operative hatched a project to send more goods than the relief groups needed, allowing Afghans to sell the unused items and divert proceeds to mujahideen military operations.

That wasn’t the only money being diverted, according to the expatriate Afghanistan Mirror, which has been distributed to Afghan communities all over the world during the past 21 years. Years ago, the crudely constructed magazine accused the IMC of financial improprieties in relation to funds collected for Afghan refugees.

Reached by telephone at his Montclair home, the AfghanistanMirror’s 79-year-old publisher, Sayed K. Hashemeyan, tells the Weekly, “I’ve known Mr. Nouri. I knew his father. I knew his mother. To tell you the truth, we have very serious differences. He has been doing certain things mostly for himself and mostly not for Afghanistan.”

Nouri, by telephone from Utah, where he was visiting his son, blurted two words when Hashemeyan’s name was mentioned: “Oh, God.”

He says the two have battled for years “because he was a staunch Communist supporter of the Soviet Union, a staunch supporter of the Taliban who has gone to Kandahar and kissed the hand of Mullah Mohammed Omar.”

The U.S. has a $10 million bounty for Omar, the Taliban leader and Afghanistan’s de facto head of state from 1996 to 2001, for harboring bin Laden. Both are believed to be hiding in Pakistani caves.

“Other than him,” Nouri says of Hashemeyan, “ask anyone about me.”

In an e-mail to the Weekly, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Said Tayeb Jawad, conveyed “the gratitude of the Afghan people” for Nouri’s “selfless constructive work and tremendous contribution to the political and reconstruction processes in Afghanistan.”

Nabil Miskinyar, the owner of Orange-based Ariana Afghanistan Television, a 24-hour-satellite, Dari Farsi-language network viewed by more than 20 million Afghans and Iranians around the world, has known Nouri all his life. The Lake Forest resident says his second cousin “has done many good things for Afghanistan.” He was surprised to learn Nouri would not return to his former Laguna Hills house from his current trip. “He doesn’t have a home right now and is in the process of moving to a small apartment,” says Miskinyar. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘I gave everything to Afghanistan.’”

*     *      *

Nouri’s passage into Afghanistan for once-a-year medical missions was arranged by his high-school teacher Sibghattullah Mojadedi. When the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, Nouri had high hopes as seven Pakistan-based rebel groups selected Mojadedi as president of the interim government in Kabul and later chairman of a Loya Jirga (“grand assembly”) that adopted Afghanistan’s new constitution. But amid government infighting, the country devolved into bloody civil war. Nouri and his first wife, Lisa, cared in their home for an 8-year-old who had his hand blown off in Afghanistan, then in 1993 founded International Orphan Care (IOC), a nonprofit that builds orphanages, schools and medical clinics for the estimated 1.5 million children believed to have lost one or both parents during the seemingly ceaseless warfare in Afghanistan. Royce (R-Fullerton), his congressional colleague Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and former Ambassador Peter Tomsen, Bush the first’s special envoy to the mujahideen, serve on the IOC advisory board.

Nouri has special relationships with these three. Royce invited Nouri to address subcommittees of the House of Representatives and Senate over conditions in Afghanistan; Nouri returned the favor by promoting Royce’s legislation to establish the propagandizing Radio Free Afghanistan. Tomsen spoke alongside—and praised—Nouri during most of those congressional appearances.

“Hasan brings an incredible passion to his work on behalf of the orphans of Afghanistan, often times at considerable personable cost,” says Royce, speaking from his Washington, D.C., office. “As bleak as conditions in the country have been, he has remained committed to seeing that the most disadvantaged in that society have a better life.

“At his urging, I’ve seen that work first-hand when I visited the orphanage he helped start. A young girl told me she wanted to grow up to go to Kabul University and become a doctor to help her people, as boys told me about their studies to become farmers or engineers.”

Rohrabacher is Nouri’s most interesting friend. During his tenure as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher secretly met with the mujahideen in Afghanistan and returned with glowing reports of their bravery against the Commie occupiers. The same year Nouri co-founded IOC, he started the Council of Cooperation for Afghan National Organizations, and on behalf of that group, he introduced Rohrabacher to Zahir Shah, exiled in Rome, and military leaders loyal to the former king. Nouri told Rohrabacher that Zahir Shah, whose 1933-to-1973 reign represented the longest period of stability in Afghanistan, was the only person of stature all sides would respect enough to buy into the formation of a new government.

Around this time, Nouri formulated a peace plan that involved the creation of a new government with “no allegiance or loyalty to a particular nation or foreign power.” Constitutional law, compulsory military service, a peacekeeping force to abolish warlordism, reconstruction consultants financed by the international community, and a ministry devoted to the affairs of women and children were features of his plan. Nouri says Zahir Shah and Rohrabacher added minor tweaks to his plan. But key in Nouri’s mind was convincing Zahir Shah to travel to Afghanistan to hatch a new regime. Nouri is proud his friend Rohrabacher met the king three times in Rome to form a government in exile and stop civil war and drug production.

History books will tell you these plans failed because Zahir Shah could not reach a consensus with powerful Islamist factions. Nouri blames the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations for not supporting the plan, choosing to prop up moderates already in Afghanistan. After Robin Raphel, Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs, told a congressional subcommittee in May 1996 that the Zahir Shah plan would amount to the U.S. interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs, Nouri followed her and incredulously asked, “If interference is against U.S. policy, why did we interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan for 12 years?” Five years before the horrendous events of Sept. 11, 2001, Nouri said, “Our administration should know that today’s Afghan problem will become our tomorrow’s problem at home.”

Following that testimony, Rohrabacher said, “Hasan not only is very articulate, but he also is one of these exiles . . . who contributes so much to the well-being of his country. Just for people who do not know, not only is he a good speechifier, as we have heard just a moment ago, but in my county, in Orange County, Hasan Nouri is the man who helps build water projects.” Such expertise would be vitally needed in rebuilding Afghanistan’s damaged irrigation and water systems, said Rohrabacher, who had not returned repeated calls for comment on this story at press time.

Hashemeyan of the Afghanistan Mirror downplays Nouri’s plan. “The proposal he made was not accepted by the king,” Hashemeyan contends. “[Nouri] wanted to establish a government in which he would have a big role. That was the main thing. Furthermore, he went with Congressman Rohrabacher, and he wanted a new government that was sort of run by the United States and helped by the United States. So the king did not accept that either. The king formed a group of advisers in which [Nouri] was not included, and he was hurt.”

Miskinyar counters that up until Zahir Shah’s death in 2007, “Hasan was always a close adviser to the king.”

*     *     *

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1996 awarded Nouri the Hoover Medal for “great, unselfish civic and humanitarian services.” Other recipients have included Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter. That same year, the Taliban, with heavy backing from a meddling Pakistan that has a strategic interest in a forever destabilized Afghanistan, rose to power. The fundamentalist Islamic regime would go on to close schools, oppress women, conduct beheadings, desecrate historical landmarks and harbor al-Qaeda terrorists.

In a 1996 edition of the foreign-policy publication Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, self-professed Afghanistan expert Rohrabacher praised the Taliban as “devout traditionalists, not terrorists” and their takeover as a “positive development” that would bring “stability in an area where chaos was creating a real threat to the U.S.” When those comments came back to haunt the congressman, Nouri defended his friend in a letter published June 4, 1996, in TheOrange County Register, writing, “Without the conviction of men like Rohrabacher, President Reagan and the freedom fighters in Afghanistan, our world would be very different today.”

In April 2001, Rohrabacher met with the Taliban’s foreign minister in Qatar, in seeming direct violation of the 200-year-old Logan Act that makes it a felony for U.S. citizens to interfere in relations between the U.S. and foreign governments. When that meeting became an issue in Rohrabacher’s 2002 re-election campaign, he responded that he only met the Taliban official by chance and went to his hotel room and “unloaded on” the Taliban for half an hour about its human-rights abuses. Again, Nouri came to Rohrabacher’s rescue, telling the Los Angeles Times, “It’s sad that someone who has fought against terrorism in the U.S. Congress is now having his record used in a devious way.”

A tearful Nouri called Rohrabacher the day after 9/11 to tell the congressman “it tears me to pieces” that Afghanistan had become a safe haven for terrorists. On the Oct. 9, 2001, broadcast of KCET public television’s Life and Times, Nouri said, “the heinous crimes of Washington, D.C., and New York would not have happened” if the Zahir Shah peace plan had been implemented. As U.S. air strikes pounded Afghan targets, Nouri was quick to remind that not one of the 19 suicidal bombers was Afghan. “Afghanistan unfortunately became the home of terrorists,” he told Congress in Nov. 7, 2001, testimony, “largely because we abandoned Afghanistan.”

*     *     *

During the early years of this decade, Nouri was recognized as a leader among the estimated 30,000 Afghans living in Southern California. He helped get an Afghan international airline aloft and rebuild health care, education and communications. Fauzia Assifi, a Laguna Niguel Realtor who would go on to work with IOC and on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, calls Nouri “a backbone of the Afghan-American community in Southern California.”

But his rival Hashemeyan tells the Weekly Nouri had no role at the December 2001 conference in Bonn, Germany, that resulted in the formation of Karzai’s democratic government. A month later, Orange County sheriff’s deputies had to break up a meeting of Southern California Afghans that Nouri helped stage when 1,000 people showed up to a Laguna Hills banquet hall that only seated 700. Ten representatives were supposed to be elected to a board that would join others around the country in representing the interests of expat Afghans. But the meeting ended in disarray, shouting, shoving—even hair-pulling among women—and no vote. Hashemeyan was among the hecklers who yelled the election was rigged. Nouri accused them of being pro-Taliban. Hashemeyan told local media covering the fracas that he had once promoted the Taliban but backed off when their repression became known.

“I left, and the police came afterward,” Nouri now says of the meeting. “I had kicked [Hashemeyan] out, and he got in a physical fight with another guy.”

Hashemeyan was ultimately chosen to be on that 10-member panel. Nouri, who was not picked, says most local Afghans did not bother to vote when balloting was finally held. “No one wanted to be in that organization with him,” Nouri says of Hashemeyan.

The Afghanistan Mirror publisher says that when Zahir Shah returned to Kabul in 2002 to serve the last five years before his death as a figurehead next to Karzai, Nouri was not at his side. Hashemeyan blamed political differences. “Since the Karzai government,” he says, “Nouri has not been involved in Afghan politics.”

Miskinyar disagrees, saying Nouri “was and still is very involved in Afghanistan affairs.”

Indeed, despite being a staunch Republican who contributes to local candidates and receives awards for his party service from the likes of Tom DeLay, Nouri has consistently criticized the Bush administration for being too stingy with aid and attention to Afghanistan while massive resources are poured into more strategically located—and oil-rich—Iraq.

As Karzai seemed to be losing his grip on the country in the summer of 2003, Nouri told Congress, “Now we are beginning to see the Afghan people protesting in the streets of Kabul. It is very sad that it has come to this, only one year after seeing them dance in the streets and welcome American liberation from the Taliban. Lack of proper support by the United States, coupled with ineffective government in Afghanistan, has resulted in the loss of hope by the Afghan people.”

*     *     *

Laguna Beach eco-activist Roger Butow’s frustratingly long battle to shame government regulators into removing pollution from Aliso Creek and Beach is summed up in his nonprofit organization’s name, Clean Water Now!

“When I first got involved in this, I heard about Hasan, who was this legendary figure who had the real science on the creek,” Butow says over a Nov. 10 lunch with Nouri at King’s Fish House in Laguna Hills. “Then I met him, and he was a regular guy. I heard him speak and thought, ‘This is a guy who sounds like me.’”

That may frighten bureaucrats, elected officials and other environmentalists who’ve found themselves on the receiving end of a Butow tongue-lashing. Though he is as passionate as Butow is about stabilizing Aliso Creek, Nouri’s style is more gentlemanly. He moved from the Atlanta area to Pasadena in 1975 to take a job with the civil-engineering firm Camp Dresser & McKee (CDM). The Mission Viejo Co. subsidiary Jack G. Raub Co. hired CDM in 1981 to examine the creek, and Nouri got the assignment as his expertise centered on the management of sediments. Sediments are important because they help naturally carve channels, manage their flows and, by the time they reach the shore, create sand. The appearance of “head cuts”—vertical drop-offs that resemble waterfalls in creek beds—indicated a problem with the flow of sediments.

With the help of his mentor, California Institute of Technology professor emeritus and ASCE co-founder Vito A. Vanon, Nouri produced a 1.5-inch-thick study titled “Sediment Discharge and Mechanics of Aliso Creek” that identified 33 stabilization points from the creek’s Leisure World boundary in what is now Laguna Woods to the Ben Brown Golf Course in Laguna Beach. That’s the report collecting dust on a shelf.

The county in 1993 hired Nouri’s own engineering firm, Rivertech Co. of Laguna Hills, to come up with a plan to manage sediment damage in the creek. He called for the creation of wetlands along creek banks to filter runoff and allow cleaner water to flow to the ocean. Unfortunately, that report was also shelved amid the county’s 1994 bankruptcy. No studies have been as comprehensive as Nouri’s in improving the watershed’s overall health, Butow maintains. And here’s the kicker: Nouri estimated it would have cost $10 million to make his plans a reality back in the early ’80s. Watershed-management officials are now scrambling to come up with $45 million for just one short stretch of the creek, says Butow.

“If they’d done what he said 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Butow says. “That’s why I find this so frustrating. It’s like building a house. They had the plans to do the building. They just never did it.”

It was Butow’s incessant prodding that landed Nouri a spot on the agenda for the Aliso Creek watershed-management-group meeting, at which he advised flattening the creek’s slope at key points he’d identified to manage sediment flows.

“I thought Mr. Nouri’s presentation was very useful for the Aliso Creek stakeholders,” Mary Anne Skorpanich, the director of Orange County’s Watersheds Program, tells the Weekly.

“One of the major problems with Aliso Creek is substantial erosion, particularly within Aliso and Woods Canyon Regional Park,” Skorpanich says. “Mr. Nouri’s presentation helped the stakeholders understand the dynamics of stream systems that must be considered in any solution for the creek’s problems. He presented a complex set of interrelationships in a manner easily understood by the layperson.”

Skorpanich would not comment on Nouri’s study 27 years ago for the Mission Viejo Co. because she has not read it. But she does not deny he might have been onto something. “Mr. Nouri is a recognized expert in his field and known for high-quality work.”

*     *     *

Nouri removes his sport coat to expose his suspenders and tie before speaking on “Reinventing Hoover Dam” Oct. 29 at the 2008 H2O Conference in Long Beach presented by CalCoast, a nonprofit advocacy group composed of 35 coastal cities, five counties, various regional-planning agencies and associated business associations. His Rivertech has worked all over the world, both for and against developers, sometimes being enlisted by environmental groups prodding builders to adhere to procedures less invasive on natural habitats. He was among the original engineers who long ago abandoned concrete flood-control channels in favor of naturally filtering reeds, grasses, cattails, retention ponds and other wetlands systems for ocean-bound runoff, rainwater and flood waters. He co-authored an article that argued grass-lined flood channels could provide protection from 100-year storms and serve as recreational open space during dry weather—something now hailed as revolutionary.

The issue date on Nouri’s Water & Wastes Engineering article? December 1978.

More recently, Nouri designed much of the award-winning, $19 million Horno basin and riverine system in Ladera Ranch, where water from thousands of homes flows downhill before making a sharp left into a flat area of concrete and vanishing under a wall. On the other side of the wall, a series of natural ponds staggered downhill captures and filters the runoff. The 22-acre system, which can also handle heavy rains and floods, has won awards from engineering organizations.

As Nouri clears his throat, a slide on an overhead projector indicates this presentation is dedicated to “Vito A. Vanon, 1904-1999.”

“He was the best friend I had—and the best teacher I had,” Nouri informs the 50 or so people seated before him. He then explains how the National Geographic Channel invited him and other engineering experts to share ways they would redesign Hoover Dam, which is hailed as the eighth wonder of the world and a triumph of civil engineering, given what they know now.

“We must divert sediment,” says Nouri, who goes on to advocate a strategy the Japanese developed at Asahi Dam, where a tunnel was constructed upstream in 1997 to capture sediment, snake it around the dam and dump it farther downstream.

Nouri wields his laser pointer like it’s a lightsaber as he announces, “A football field of sediment was passed by this diversion tunnel” and calls on Hoover operators to follow the Asahi lead.

He receives polite claps.

*     *     *

As mints are dispersed to indicate the end of a pleasant lunch, Nouri drops a bombshell. He will close Rivertech and take a new job with URS Corp., a global engineering, construction and technical-services company with 350 offices worldwide, as manager of their Storm Drain Group in Santa Ana. He’s finally met an environmental condition his designs can’t mitigate: “the bad business climate.” But Nouri’s lunch mates are not even allowed to wallow in their sympathies because on the way out of King’s Fish House Nouri runs into a fellow he recognizes from the previous Sunday at Saddleback Church, where anti-Proposition 8 demonstrators interrupted entry into services.

Nouri realizes he has something to give members of his burgeoning entourage. Walking to the back of his silver Mercedes with an “Ed Royce for Congress” sticker affixed to the back bumper, he opens the trunk and pulls out invitations to IOC’s Nov. 15 Unveiling Hope Gala at a Costa Mesa hotel and informational sheets for a Feb. 22, 1997, IOC-sponsored symposium at UC Irvine titled “Global Benefits Through Establishment of Peace in Afghanistan.”

Always multitasking and surprisingly upbeat.

“Because of ignorance, we had Sept. 11,” Nouri tells me. “But there also used to be no classes in Farsi at American universities. Now, not only is Farsi taught, but those classes are overflowing, too. It is amazing how quickly this nation is learning.”

The news out of Afghanistan has not been promising since that lunch date. The top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan said Dec. 7 a “tough fight” is coming there in 2009 and more than double as many troops will be needed for up to four years. The Taliban last week spurned Karzai’s offer for peace talks and demanded the U.S. and NATO leave before next year’s elections. Groups inside Afghanistan prefer the elections be overseen by independent Muslim countries.

“That is a dream for the Muslim countries to manage Afghanistan,” Nouri wrote the Weekly by e-mail. But Muslims have tried to convert and politically influence Afghans for more than a thousand years to no avail; Islam only took hold after Afghans introduced it themselves, he wrote, before quoting his own testimony to Congress in 1996: “For a government to succeed in Afghanistan, it must not have the allegiance to a foreign power or nation.”

“Therefore, if we can help establish such a government, we do not need to be there,” he concluded. “We are learning now, and I think Obama’s administration might be able to do that.”

mcoker@ocweekly.com

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