Archive for May, 2008

Shipping containers: the mundane and macabre

May 31, 2008

If there’s a net-loss in the global supply of shipping containers, I believe the answer may lie in Afghanistan. This is where they come to die.

Painted green and converted into police checkpoints, or lining the roads through bazaars, used as shops, or as houses in Kabul (boiling their occupants whoever in summer), they are two-a-penny. Not dead then, but reincarnated.

Nothing unusual or of note there. But occasionally one will see one reincarnated as a colander, riddled with bullet holes. Driving near Mazar-i-Sharif recently, I noticed one such as this, a solitary landmark in the otherwise featureless sun dried plain of northern Afghanistan. It somehow put me in mind of the ancient barrows of Britain, the neolithic burial mounds.

A more accurate reflection was on the slaughter that surrounded the Taliban attacks and eventual take-over of Mazar in 1997, previously a stronghold of Dostum.

Combatants and civilians who were captured – by both sides at different times – were often herded inside containers, and sealed within. Left without food or water in a tight press of humanity, they would have been cooked in unimaginable agony.

Almost preferable then, or a relief when it finally happened, to have the containers shot to pieces, bullets punching in air and out lives.

The mundane turned into the macabre.

Ode to a road

May 30, 2008

Previously on Harry Rud: a debate on the merits of roads, and the likelihood of them bringing peace and or prosperity. In which your humble (ever so ‘umble) correspondent suggested they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

I take it all back. Roads are great. I’d forgotten how great roads are. Really. Having recently driven along part of Afghanistan’s Great Ring Road for the first time, I am converted. It was so smooth not a single pothole did I feel, you could actually sit back and enjoy the ride instead of bracing yourself for the next whip-lash jolt. It had bridges instead of large gaps with rivers running through them. It had neatly painted milestones and, forgive my excitement, an elegant white line painted down the middle. What splendour!

Admittedly, being able to travel at speed, overtake on blind bends at speed, nearly run a herd of sheep over at speed and so on, did add an alternative element of cold fear (as opposed to crumbling ravines, perilous ascents, stampedes of crazed sheep etc), but at least it was smooth fear.

It also took us where we wanted to go in about one tenth of the time it would have taken to cover the same distance in the fair province of Ghor. And commerce, life blood of a country etc, was travelling along it most merrily.

Still, I would question who that commerce is really benefiting and would suggest it is not the largest and poorest section of society. Apart from maybe the large WFP convoy we passed (never seen one of those in Ghor, neither). Under the right conditions, roads may spur on economic development, but that’s not the same thing as poverty alleviation.

And as I was eulogising the road, one chap pointed out to me that these new roads have a nasty habit of crumbling away. Now the Russians, he said, they knew how to build roads. Their roads have lasted 50 years and are still good, they have only broken when directly hit by a rocket or bomb (so a bit of an exaggeration, but a fair point).

But let’s not quibble. Roads are great. Pave the country for peace, prosperity and a happy posterior!


Roads to prosperity?

Reading cars

And for all your other road related needs, go have a look-see at Registan and posts such as this.

Afghan TV, part four

May 29, 2008


Rubbish and annoying in any country. But they do point to the aspirations and economy of the land.

Banks, mobile phones and gas bottles the main things, with catchy jingles galore.

But there a few other common tropes: I’ve noticed a few more for beauty products recently, and for private hospitals, which list all the equipment they have – ‘with microscopes, ultra sound, x-ray machine, clean needles, bedpans’ etc – while showing some poor sod being cut up for the cameras.

Public service announcements: young girls playing in a playground (there being lots of those here) notice an object that looks like a kettle. Just as they are about to touch it to see, an old man appears out of thin air and admonishes them for playing with something that might explode.

Shouting ‘thank you uncle!’ they skip off and tell the nearest friendly policeman.

Friendly policeman feature quite a lot actually. There was one showing friendly policemen doing various different jobs while telling us that this is someone’s brother, this is someone’s uncle, someone’s father and so on, thus suggesting that they may be policeman but it still wouldn’t be very nice to blow them up in a roadside bomb now would it?

And why don’t you join the police and have has much fun as they obviously are?

Some folks might not feel that kind-hearted having seen another common type though: friendlyish policeman destroying fields of poppies with scythes. (There’s a strange irony there: how poverty can force young men to grow poppies, or to join the police and cut them down.)

A tour of Afghan TV, part one
A tour of Afghan TV, part two
A tour of Afghan TV, part three

Enough of this blather. I could go on but I’m boring myself now.

Jinn and tonic

May 27, 2008

‘But there is a problem’ I was told as we walked up the stream.

Some projects are impossibly beset by problems. The one we were visiting was such. Environmental difficulties, security, and good plain old technical difficulties had plagued it from the start.

‘What problem?’ I asked, trying to keep the note of aggravation I suddenly felt out of my voice.

‘Jinn. Do you know what jinn means? I don’t know the word in English.’

I never thought those classes at school on spirit possession and the more mystical aspects of Islam would ever come in handy, but at last, their time had come. I was almost as pleased as the time I got talking with an old Azande man in south Sudan about witchcraft.

‘Yes, I know what jinn are. There isn’t really a word for them in English, although I guess we would say spirit, or genie. They are like European jinn.’

Jinn are invisible beings that live in remote places. Some are benign but, more often it seems, they are malevolent and should be treated with caution. They pre-date Islam and are frequently mentioned in the Koran, but are only begrudgingly accepted in orthodox Islam.

By this time the valley walls had closed in so tight we’d taken off our shoes and were wading up the stream. We were visiting a micro-hydro power project that I’d thought was finally finished. It was at last providing electricity to the hundred or so families in the village below. Or maybe not.

‘So what’s the problem with jinn?’

‘There are jinn here. People in the village say there are jinn here’ he corrected himself.

I could well believe it. It’s the kind of place I’d expect to find them: trees and flowers growing besides the water’s edge until the gorge constricts around a tight bend in the chill stream, the air cool in long shadows from the high, red-hued rocks.

And this particular project, far up the ravine, did seem like it had been prey to malicious forces, throwing a spanner in the works at every opportunity.

The problem this time was that the man who had to come and tend to the generator when it was dark was faced with a dangerous, jinn-infested walk to get to it. Not a prospect I’d relish myself.

‘But they have managed so far this week?’

‘Yes, three of them come up here together to be safe.’

‘Wise men.’

There is no ‘tonic’ in this story, I just couldn’t resist.

Chagcharan riots

May 25, 2008

Not being in Ghor at the moment and only having had brief conversations with people who are, I don’t have much to add the news reports of what happened last week.

First, let us think of the US soldier who decided to use a Koran as target practice. Now hold your head in despair, take several deep breaths, and scream at the bastard callous moronic stupidity of some people and the institutions that continually let them make such… agghhh, I give up.

Why this event sparked off violent protests in Ghor of all places and not elsewhere I know not. It’s said some religious students organised the protests. That the crowd was shouting anti-US slogans at a base that is mostly manned by Lithuanians seems a bit odd, but symbolically understandable.

How the event got so out of hand that three people were killed and many more wounded is the key question, and one which I have no answer to and which I suspect anybody that does won’t be saying. Or will be saying different things.

That it was a new rotation of ISAF soldiers, only in place for a week, may not have helped. They could have bunkered down behind their fortress wall and weathered the storm, and I’m a bit surprised a Lithuanian soldier was ever in the firing line. The police would have been at the forefront, and may well have over-reacted. Or an ‘insurgent’ could have joined the crowd and fired a few shoots just to warm things up. Who knows? No point looking to blame any of them really.

What I do know is that the whole tragic thing is, well, tragic. Both the loss of life and the loss of trust between the PRT, the police and by extension the government, and the residents of Chagcharan. It’s a small event compared to many that happen everyday in Afghanistan, but it’s unusual for such things to happen in Ghor and it will be remembered for a long while with a great deal of bitter feeling on all sides.


Demonstration in Ghor and food shortages

May 24, 2008

My home town of Chagcharan in the news, for all the wrong reasons. From the BBC:

Two civilians and a Nato soldier have been killed in Afghanistan during a demonstration over the shooting of the Koran by a US soldier in Iraq.

The protest by over 1,000 people in Chagcharan turned violent after the crowd tried to storm a Nato base.

President Bush apologised earlier this week for the Koran incident, in which a copy of the book was found riddled with bullets at a shooting range in Iraq.

He also promised the soldier would be prosecuted.

The shooting broke out during clashes between the police and demonstrators outside a Nato reconstruction team base commanded by Lithuanian soldiers in Chagcharan, the capital of Ghor province.

Protesters were chanting anti-US slogans and throwing rocks, and tried to enter the gates of the base, police said.

General Ikramuddin Yawar, chief of police in western Afghanistan, said: “There was shooting during the demonstration. Two civilians have been killed. We don’t know who shot them.”

He added that the protest had been organised by students from a religious school.

But Nato said that Afghan police killed the two civilians, according to Reuters.


Nato also said in a statement that 10 Afghan police and seven civilians had been wounded in the incident.

A spokesman for Nato’s International Security Force in Afghanistan (Isaf), Major Martin O’Donnell, said: “Isaf vehemently condemns this violence.”

He added: “It is the people’s right in a free and democratic society to stage peaceful demonstrations. Violent demonstrations, such as this, have no place in Afghanistan. Violent demonstrations cause tragedies such as we have witnessed today.”

President Bush’s apology was made during a video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The soldier was sent home by the US military after the copy of the Koran was discovered by Iraqi police.

He was unnamed, but said to be a staff sergeant in a sniper section.

I wasn’t in town when it happened. Don’t have time just yet for any pithy commentry.  

And in other news:

CHEGHECHERAN, 19 May 2008 (IRIN) – Over 22,500 “most vulnerable” families (about 112,500 individuals) in Ghor Province, central-western Afghanistan, who have been severely affected by rising food prices and drought are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, according to aid agencies and provincial officials.

Read the rest of the report from IRIN here.


May 22, 2008

Too many landscape photos on these pages, not enough people. So to redress the balance, here are some random snaps of folks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting along the way.




I don’t know their names.


Afghan TV, part three

May 21, 2008

24 – a ‘real time’ action-packed television series from Fox Network about American counter-terrorism high-jinx.

Guess many of you will know about this one. The American TV show that’s said to have inured the US public to the use of torture to defeat the bad guys, who usually happen to be Muslim.

Now dubbed into Dari and brought to a new audience of Afghan terrorists television viewers.

It seems to have been fairly popular, and the government hasn’t tried to ban it, which is nice. Not sure about it’s ‘educational’ value but hey ho, it’s entertainment.

A tour of Afghan TV, part one

A tour of Afghan TV, part two

Capacity building in Afghanistan: what’s that all about then?

May 19, 2008

‘Capacity building’ is a phrase endlessly bandied about in Afghanistan.

After decades of turmoil with no decent education system or civil service institutions to train them, so the story goes, Afghans lack the capacity to build and run their country as a modern nation-state.

The stated aim of just about any organisation working here, from NATO to NGOs, is to build the capacity of Afghan counterparts. The Afghan National Army; the judiciary; journalists; engineers; civil servants; development workers: all are the focus of capacity building.

Read any document or report, listen to any foreign worker describe their job, and ‘capacity building’ will crop up sooner or later (or will be criticised for the absence). Any academic analysis on the state of Afghanistan, any Kabul bar-room debate will touch upon this ‘lack’ at some point.

At times, these discussions are accompanied by an arms in air edge of despair: ‘if only there was more local capacity to do this!’

Or of resignation: ‘we could try, but there’s just not the capacity, you know. Maybe in a couple of years.’

Sometimes, the specific aim of capacity building hedges an excuse: ‘it is not our function to do that; we are here to support the Government of Afghanistan.’

Capacity building is the dominant discourse on nigh on all things Afghanistan. Security, drugs and development may be the headlines, but capacity building lies at the centre of all these.

For there to be security, the army and police needs the capacity to protect the country without external assistance. To control opium production, the government and judiciary needs the capacity to curb corruption. For there to be development, teachers and health workers need the capacity to do their jobs effectively, the whole population needs the capacity to farm, to build, to work, to earn an income to feed their families to strengthen the economy.

You get the gist. Capacity building is where it’s at.

It’s true. Through no particular fault of its own, this country seriously lacks capacity. It needs help. Just finding suitably qualified staff with the requisite capacity is a perpetual problem.

Only thing is, I’m not entirely sure what this thing that is so abundantly lacking called ‘capacity’ is, nor how one goes about ‘building’ it.

I probably shouldn’t admit that, but I don’t think I’m the only one.

Capacity building is a phrase endlessly bandied about but never described. I’m instinctively suspicious of a phrase that holds such sway, that’s used as a shorthanded by very different people talking about very different things, that is rarely substantiated. I’m suspicious of something that seems to be taken for granted.

Like all the most fashionable terms (good governance say, or development, participation or progress, or democracy), capacity building is difficult to define.

In some instances it seems pretty straightforward. We build the capacity of the army by training them how to aim and fire a weapon. Whiz bang job done.

We build the capacity of the police by training them how to fire a gun, when not to fire a gun, the basic civil laws, so it helps if they can read and write, how to investigate and document crimes, how not to be corrupted, so it helps if they’re not dirt poor and paid a pittance, how to protect communities from local commanders better armed then they are, how to control conflicts between rival factions or over scarce water resources, how to uphold law and order, peace and justice – and justice is no easy concept to define either.

Sometimes this ‘capacity’ thing is damn hard to pin down, it’s ethereal, not some technical skill easily transmitted.

In my work, capacity building may involve direct training, or having a formal supervisory session, or sitting down with someone with a flask of tea to discuss how their work is going, or just having a chat about stuff. Either which way, it builds my capacity as much as theirs.

The capacity I see lacking (anti-capacity? non-capacity?) most often day to day is an (in)ability to analyse a situation in a particular way, to interpret and above all question critically. This is partially related to something I wrote before about there being no real culture of reading in Afghanistan.

I am the product of an education system that has encouraged me to question what I am told and what I read, and of a working environment in which debate and dissent is accepted. Most Afghans, if they are the product of any education system, have been taught by rote, rarely encouraged to question their seniors, and prefer public agreement at work.

It’s a small point perhaps, but it can affect my colleagues’ ability to weigh in during meetings or explain a situation, analyse causes and consequences, and then write a report about it. Or at least do so in a manner familiar to and accepted by foreign standards. And it is a skill that is very difficult to teach in a couple of weeks or months with some flip charts and coloured pens.

I’m feeling deeply uncomfortable writing all this and am scanning what I’ve written looking for places I can add an extra caveat or two (‘most Afghans’ – what nonsense, and as for that stuff about a lack of analytical ability – pure tripe). To talk about capacity building is too often to make sweeping generalisations that are deeply critical. The need for capacity building, due to a lack of capacity, as the polite (and purposefully undefined) way of saying that someone’s, or some institution, or indeed a whole population, are just a bit shit at their jobs and need a helping hand.

To even describe the lack of ability to analyse something in a certain way as a lack of capacity seems deeply suspect. Is it an absence, a negative, or is it rather a different (dare I say cultural?) way of thinking and talking?

The worst bit of it is hearing Afghans saying they lack capacity themselves, when this ‘lack of capacity’ is internalised as a fact. It’s no surprise given how often the mantra is repeated, but to hear a clever, educated colleague, or a farmer, or President Karzai, saying they or their country lack the capacity to do such and such is deeply depressing.

It may be true; they do lack the capacity (and far better to admit it than blunder one’s way through). But then so does NATO and the international community, so do NGOs: they’re all clearly doing such a great job at sorting out this country’s ills, are they not? They must have tonnes of capacity.

And sometimes such claims display a well developed capacity: when Karzai, or a farmer, say they don’t have enough ‘capacity’, it is often followed by a well phrased request for more financial assistance; the ‘lack of capacity’ doctrine put to good effect.

At times claiming a ‘lack of capacity’ becomes a lazy way of making excuses for or not seeing other problems. As a small example, in one meeting recently a foreigner was talking about a department not having the capacity to do something. Some Afghan members of that department demurely agreed. One man stood up for himself though: ‘It’s not that we don’t have the capacity, it’s just that we don’t have the time.’

I’m now feeling I really don’t have the capacity to make sense of all this or make my own thoughts clear and I best leave well alone.

And I don’t have time. But still, I can’t leave without mentioning an excellent article by Barnett Rubin on the same topic, which I’m going to copy at length so as to hide behind it.

Foreign aid donors and consultants working in Afghanistan often complain that Afghans “lack capacity” and suggest programs of “capacity building” to enable Afghans to develop their economy and state. Such programs train Afghans in internationally accepted standards and practices, on the assumption that mastery of these standards and practices constitutes “capacity.”

Unfortunately many of these internationally accepted standards and practices do not work very well in Afghanistan, since they presuppose a set of interoperable systems that do not exist. Hence the need to train Afghans to fill out project proposals for donors soon mutates into demands for a different type of education and legal system, which in turn press Afghans to abandon their languages and political institutions. Since the international standards and practices don’t work very well anyway, Afghans resist abandoning their identity and accepting that they “lack capacity.” Mutual incomprehension and resentment result, if not worse.

Sometimes when a consultant tells me that Afghans lack capacity, I try to imagine my interlocutor being forced to survive in Uruzgan province with two jaribs of land and a goat. I wonder if this person would be capable of transferring billions of dollars from undocumented workers in the Persian Gulf to families living in remote villages with no banks or telecommunications. I wonder if he could transform a local conflict incomprehensible to outsiders into a million dollar business funded by superpowers that have been convinced they have existential stakes in the outcome. I wonder if he could smuggle emeralds out of Afghanistan to buy weapons and ammunition in Ukraine and transport them across seven closed borders into the Panjshir Valley. I wonder if he could create a multibillion dollar a year industry in one of the world’s poorest countries with no government by turning those handicaps into assets in a world with an insatiable demand for illegal addictive substances.

Me, surviving with two jeribs of land and a goat? So that would be a no then. Help build my capacity; comment and tell me what you think.


Volleyball lessons

May 17, 2008

Volleyball game in Ghor, Afghanistan

Many evenings after work there is a game of volleyball in the Chagcharan office compound.

I’m crap at volleyball.

But still, I like to try, and usually manage to get a few laughs if not any points.

Last year I was barely able to hit the bloody ball. I’ve improved a little, and now manage to hit it off at right angles to where I want it to go.

It’s been a good way of learning my numbers as I try and keep up with the point scoring.

I’ve also learnt the word ‘out’ (usually punctuated with an exclamation mark). As far as I can tell, this roughly translates as ‘jolly good show old chap, good effort and better luck next time.’

I try and recover some dignity by saying that if we were playing football, I’d whoop all their arses.

I live in fear of the day they’ll call my bluff.