Archive for January, 2009

Dog washers

January 28, 2009

A ‘dog washer’ is a derogatory term used by some in Afghanistan to describe Afghans who have lived and worked abroad, washing the dogs of rich foreigners.

It is not a nice term. There is though a certain elegance in the what the phrase sums up. Dogs are not clean. To be in the service of someone else, washing their proverbial dogs, is about as low as it can go.

There are nuances to this I’m sure I don’t get, so won’t try and analyse it. I first heard the term a few months ago, but it’s recently struck a new chord.

Over the last month, at office and home, we’ve had such an influx of dogs and puppies I’m wondering if we’re turning our NGO into an animal shelter. I’m also wondering what our Afghan colleagues make of it.

People do have dogs here, as guards or for fighting, but lavishing such attention on them and running round the garden being chased by a howling pack of the blighters definitely raises a few eyebrows. Actually washing them I think raises us to the level of the clinically insane, and possibly worse.

Feeding them more bread and rice than many families in Kabul will be eating is, I fear, a little more than eccentric.

Bombs and band-aids

January 17, 2009

I was sitting at home reading about the failures of security sector reform in Afghanistan this Saturday morning when there was the sound of a large explosion not far off in the city centre.

Over the last few days, one year on from the bombing of the Serrena Hotel and with a couple of threat warnings doing the rounds, we have jokingly been taking bets on when the next ‘spectacular’ attack would be. At the time of writing I don’t know how spectacular this one was.

Our cook – a friendly if rather glum woman – and myself went into the garden to look for a plume of smoke to tell us where it was but couldn’t see anything. A few minutes later it was on the local radio; somewhere near the German embassy, but no other details.

She cut her hand and asked me for a plaster. As I rummaged around for one she wearily commented on how troubled Afghanistan is. ‘Yes’, I agreed absently, putting the plaster on her finger, ‘so many problems.’ ‘But you have a passport’ she replied, ‘you can leave. I don’t have a passport. So many problems.’

‘Yes’ was all I could say. And thank you, Roqia, for the analogy: we come, read about these problems without truly experiencing and understanding them, make a few positive noises anyway, put a band-aid on whatever we can, then withdraw to a safe distance.

A cunning plan: gun aid

January 14, 2009

The US has a plan so cunning it would put a particularly cunning weasel to shame. They’re suggesting arming tribal militias in Afghanistan to fight off the Taliban. It worked in Iraq so why not here. Both countries are in Africa so should be pretty similar. Doing this will allow the Marines to put their feet up for a while, empower local villagers, and defeat the bad guys all in one foul swoop.

This cunning plan has been around for a while, and seemed to have been knocked on the head last year. But then it popped up again on the BBC World Service this morning, causing me to splutter porridge all across the table. Seems they’ve just changed it slightly from ‘tribal militias’ to ‘village militias’.

What the Afghanistan government thinks of this plan is by the by (which gives me the sudden image of America as the world’s Baldrick, with no Blackadder to keep him in check). America wants to have a trial run in Wardak province, arming groups of disaffected young men to defend themselves and their local warlords. I was in Wardak province for a few days last month so can obviously now speak with authority about the local socio-economic and political situation, providing great insight into the affairs of this troubled tribal terror-ridden territory. I may choose not to, but I could if I so wished.

Arm them, you say? After all those millions of dollars spent by the UN trying to disarm them? Well it will keep the UN busy I guess. I try and only be rude about one group at a time, but really has the UN been that successful? I always had the impression that those tribal chaps were quite well armed already. Admittedly the Stinger missiles the US gave them last time round may not work so well these days, but then the Taliban aren’t flying about in helicopters yet.

You can never have enough guns I suppose. But then a lot of chaps are managing to re-arm themselves perfectly well without the aid of the US (maybe the National Rifle Association can hold a fundraising tea party or donate some of their cast offs? ‘This rocket was brought to you by the American People’). Since the conflict between Kuchis and Hazaras last summer, word on the street in Wardak is that both parties are stocking up on weaponry in preparation for next season’s shooting season.

But then the US isn’t talking about Kuchis or Hazaras are they. No, they are talking about the well known, clearly defined, homogenous groups of ‘tribes’ and ‘villagers’. Who are no doubt all lovely and entirely trustworthy, but maybe just possibly won’t do exactly as those bloody foreigners ask them, just potentially having a few ideas of their own.

You can rent an Afghan but you can’t buy him. You can sell him a missile but he might default on his loans. You can give him a gun and he can shoot for a day, but teach him how to fish and he can run rings around any bloody idiot forever more. Or something like that, I may be mixing up my whatsits.

[If my cutting academic analysis of this plan hasn’t convinced you it might all end in tears, go have a look-see at Ghosts of Alex and Registan. And proof that I wasn’t dreaming it this morning from the FT.]

Typologies and transits

January 12, 2009

Missionary, mercenary or misfit: the three categories of aid workers’ motivations, so the joke goes.

Glancing back a few pages in my diary I noticed a scribble which maybe answers it for me. Written at two in the morning while hung-over, drunk and exhausted in the crap ‘Irish’ bar in Dubai airport after several hours waiting and chatting with various transiting strangers: “Aid work finally paid off: two free drinks.”

God I hate Dubai and its four and a half billion dollar new shopping centre (with airport attached). What could be done with that money in Afghanistan? Doesn’t bare thinking about. Probably doesn’t help that I’m always sleep-deprived whenever passing through there, walking around in a daze muttering to myself, but still.

It was at least the gateway to a wonderful break, from which I have recently returned. The better the holiday, the harder it is to come back, but it’s been good to catch up with friends back in Kabul, discover that my department hasn’t collapsed without me, and generally get back into the swing of things.

There have been various tasks that I’ve putting off till winter, expecting it to be a quieter time with some of our programme areas snowed closed. So I now have a long list of things to do and am as busy as ever just trying to decide where to start. Time to start planning the next holiday.