I’ve got a bit of a thing about cars. It’s a purely academic thing I hasten to add, not some strange fetish. There’s a lot to be learnt from such seemingly mundane things.
All the shiny new Afghan National Police vehicles are Fords. Apart from these, I haven’t seen a single Ford vehicle anywhere in Afghanistan. Now, I don’t know about the relative merits of different makes, but it’s always struck me as odd that the police would choose a type of car for which there will be few if any spare parts available locally, nor the expertise to fix them, making running costs that much higher. And odd that the huge contract for supplying the police with thousands of new vehicles should go to a major American company, rather than to an Indian or Japanese one say.
Every car on Kabul’s roads tells a story, often linked to that of the country. There’s a beaten-up, rusty orange VW camper van parked up round the corner. I like to imagine it’s a relic from when Afghanistan was on the hippy trail, abandoned between Europe and India when its original owners got lost in an opium-induced haze. Then there are the solid Russian jeeps, left over from the Soviet occupation, that look so bone-jarringly uncomfortable to drive.
The latest layer of vehicle imports points to the years of war since that VW pulled up here. Little Canadian flags adorn the back of many private cars. Others have their Afghan number plates screwed on over what can still be made out as the original German markings. Large numbers of the cars on Kabul’s roads today have been imported by the Afghan diaspora: refugees in Germany or Canada shipping home old, but here still valuable commodities.
There is a marked preference to Toyotas (a fact that first got me thinking about those police Fords), from yellow taxis to the white Land Cruisers of international organisations. The latter are often cited as a source of resentment for many Afghans, a sign of where all that aid money has gone. Moreover, rather hard and fast signs that are liable to send the supposed beneficiaries of that aid money – Afghans – jumping for cover (though to be fair they are driven no worse than any car on these streets). They are so obvious a sign that many organisations now prefer not to use them, trying instead to keep a lower profile.
Such is the symbolism of these cars that one academic, Kurt Mills, has called them the ‘postmodern tank of the humanitarian international,’ having replaced the tank as the photogenic sign of war, and Western governments’ response to war. He notes the irony of the Land Cruiser being “a symbol of Western profligacy and excess, and [which] simultaneously represents the Western response to war and desperation in the developing world. The Land Cruisers found in this conflict habitat are invariably white, thus representing the white hats of the good guys coming to the rescue” (2006: 263). In a blog that attracted some interesting comments, Hugo Slim described them as “emblematic of the international aid industry – its power, its presence, its gifts and its opportunities.”
Cars are much more than just symbols though. In many conflict zones around the world there has been an increasing number of attacks on aid workers and their shiny white vehicles. There is widespread concern that this is in part due to a blurring of the boundaries between ‘military’ and ‘civil’ actors. In Afghanistan for instance, the NATO led Provincial Reconstruction Teams – a controversial merging of security and development concerns, of ‘civil’ and military – have used unmarked white Toyotas to transport military personnel, much to the ire of others who see these cars as the preserve, and symbol, of ‘humanitarians.’
One could argue, if you accept Mills’ argument that Land Cruisers are the West’s new tanks, that such attacks are justified: that the boundary between humanitarianism and political and military interventions no longer exists. Something to think about while driving along at any rate.
Cars are also very social (or anti-social) things. On one of the first days I was in Afghanistan I, being a true gentleman of course, got out of the front seat of the car to offer it to my female boss. But no, this wasn’t the done thing. For it would have meant a woman sitting next to a male driver when there was no need, there being space for her (and others of her gender) in the back. If there were just one female and several male passengers, the woman would then have the excitement of sitting in the front, this being deemed less bad than sitting with other male passengers in the back. Every day before getting into a vehicle, thought must be given to the appropriate seating arrangements. As the old anthropological adage has it (sort of), cars are good to think with.