Archive for March, 2009

The Afghanistan Drinking Game

March 31, 2009

I was on the verge of writing some sorry excuse about how I’m far too busy doing very very important work to have time to write anything of interest when I was saved by the brilliant idea of Transitionland, riffing off a post from MBK, for a drinking game.

Every time someone says ‘well you know, for Afghan standards it’s not so bad’ have a cup of tea.

For every time anybody uses buzkashi as a metaphor for something, order yourself a beer (I’m pissed already, this is a running joke with one of my drivers every time we get in an intractable traffic jam).

Should you per chance come across an example of six different outfits doing pretty much the same thing without any coordination between them, knock back a shot of Iranian ‘vodka’.

Just read an article by some hack who’s spent a week embedded with the military and has found all the answers? Have a glass of wine with that. There isn’t enough alcohol in Kabul to cover all the possible variations of this one. So, for every report you can find that says the same meaningless tripe as the last, put it in your pipe and smoke it. Better yet, smoke the reports’ weight in opium.

I’m going to suggest this one in the meeting I’ve got to go to tomorrow: every time someone mentions capacity building, Afghanisation, participation, good governance or any other meaningless catchphrase you care to include, surreptitiously knock back a shot. 10 points deducted if your donor notices.

Banged up another journalist with neither judge nor jury? Write a press release saying how their work went against the constitution while knocking back a bottle of whisky. Free a warlord for every spelling mistake.

Tried to kill a couple of foreign heathen bastards hidden inside a tank and knocked off the bloke on the donkey and the kids playing by the roadside instead? Have a chilled alcohol-free beverage of your choice. Through a straw, in one.

Every time you mistake a wedding party for an Al-Qaida training camp and drop a 10,000lb bomb on the evil confetti throwing happily married terrorists, down a gallon of beer in one shout hoorah and deny you ever did it.

I’m going to spend the next week trying to develop the rules for Press Release Scrabble, Spot the Mercenary and Burnt-out-aidworker Snakes and Ladders.

Cold calling

March 19, 2009

Some of my team have gone on a little trip, to a place outside our usual area of operations. They are travelling incognito. It’s made me paranoid about answering my phone.

A place, incidentally, considered too dangerous for me to go to but ‘alright’ for them. Without going into the inequalities of this, I offer up a small example of why working in Afghanistan is such a joy.

Before leaving, they replaced the SIM cards in their phones. Being caught with the telephone numbers of foreigners can be bad for your health, so they put in new cards. Still, they have to stay in touch and let me know they are still alive, so I worry my number will be on their phone somewhere.

Were they to be stopped on the road by someone who perhaps doesn’t see foreign NGOs as paragons of virtue come to rescue this poor country, it would not be unheard of for said person to have a look-see through their phone and dial a few numbers to find out who they are.

Names don’t show up on my phone so I never know who is calling. So, I get a call from a number I don’t recognise and imagine my colleagues being held up in a spot of trouble with some naughty man dialling my number for a quick chat in Pashto, thereby pretty quickly informing the naughty man that I ain’t from around here. Which would, as I said, be rather bad for the health of my colleagues.

I haven’t been answering my phone this week. Oh what a lovely place to work, and what wonderful work it is when you don’t want to talk for fear you’ll get someone killed. Makes you feel all warm inside.


Hamdillah, they’re back safely.

My heart will seize up

March 17, 2009

Maybe my musical tastes are changing. Celion Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ would usually have me tearing out my hair and doing serious damage to whatever medium I was being grievously assaulted through.

During the last hour of the working day, we sometimes listen to music in my office. Invariably, the theme tune to the film Titanic – a super popular hit in Afghanistan – will be played. When it is, I have to cower behind my computer screen. Not in a rage as I’d expect, but in an effort not to be seen giggling to myself.

Writing (someone else’s) CV

March 14, 2009

Reading Phil’s blog about the CVs and application letters he received for a national post in Afghanistan had me chuckling then feeling slightly sorry for doing so. His exasperation at the lack of care and attention many candidates give to applying for jobs certainly rang true, and was something I had in mind when I wrote about international experts applying for jobs in Afghanistan

Recently a former Afghan colleague of mine contacted me asking for help applying for a job. I had to apologise for not knowing anyone at the outfit in question and so being unable to put in a good word for him, but offered to have a look at his application. And ended up re-writing much of it.

I did the same for a non-native English speaking expatriate recently and didn’t give it a second thought. This time round though it was trickier, mainly because I knew if I made it too good, it just wouldn’t be believable. So it was an exercise in creative writing, emulating some of the least bad grammatical mistakes idiosyncrasies and that I commonly read. I’m still worried I over did it.

Then of course there is the ethical dilemma. To which I say well he’s a really good candidate and a lovely chap and damn the ethics. No different than a professional CV writing service in the UK. Even if he did spell my name wrong in his last email.


March 10, 2009

When I was living in Chagcharan last year, I heard tell of a Russian soldier who had stayed in Ghor when the rest of his compatriots retreated in 1989. He had settled down, had a wife and children, and to all intents and purposes was now an Afghan.

So I was interested to come across this from the BBC.

Elsewhere on the Beeb website is a series of cartoons by Hozhaber Shinwary that are worth a gander.


Kiva, debts and Islamic lending

March 7, 2009

I’ve been paid back a little money that some woman in Tajikistan owed me (and didn’t even have to send the heavies round, thanks to Kiva), and loaned it to this chap in Afghanistan:

Khayr Mohammad is the son of Dost Mohammad. He is 43 years old and he lives in Kabul Afghanistan. He is married with three children and he has a metal shop. He has been involved in this business for more than 6 years and he wants to make his business larger. Khayr has requested an individual loan of 50000 Afghani for the term of 15 months. He wants to buy new machines for his shop. Khayr is very happy with this loan process and he hopes to continue his involvement with both AFSG and Kiva.


Would you trust this man with your money?

50,000 Afghani is about 1,000 US Dollars. In a survey we carried out in Ghor province, households’ cash debts almost doubled between 2007 and 2008, averaging 1,500 USD, plus debts in-kind of wheat that amounted a large proportion of their harvest. Considering the poverty of these people, that is a vast amount. The drought last year meant people had to borrow more just to survive, and the global food price rise meant the amount they had to borrow was even higher than normal.

Not everybody would be as happy with the loan process as Khayr Mohammad though. A friend was looking for a loan to pay for his wedding, the costs of which are typically several thousand dollars. He was offered a loan through a Micro-Finance Institute similar to AFSG (Ariana Financial Services), but had to turn it down. His parents see the loans offered through MFIs such as these as un-Islamic and so would not allow him to accept. Islam does not allow interest to be charged on loans; money cannot beget money. MFIs get around this by charging an administrative fee instead of interest, but for some this is a thinly veiled excuse.

Elections in Afghanistan, indictment in Sudan

March 7, 2009

The shenanigans about the election date in Afghanistan seem like rather pathetic political posturing to me. It was never going to be April, just Karzai trying to cover his back. Especially in light of what’s going on in Sudan with the ICC setting off some fireworks by issuing an arrest warrant for Bashir. Who reacted like a petulant child with homicidal intent by kicking out a load of NGOs.For more, read Humanitarian Relief and The Thirsty Palmetto. Both argue strongly and convincingly against the ICC. I’m not quite so certain but then I rarely am. What I do know is that reading the latter has made we want to go back to Sudan. The good bit, as she says, the bit with beer.

Balloons over Kunar

March 4, 2009


The Kunar river flows from the snow-covered mountains of Nuristan and Chitral down through a steep sided and stunningly beautiful valley.

There are small US military bases dotted across the province. Helicopters to and fro with an annoying repetitiveness. They have a lot to do. The main valley is safe enough, but the mountains that surround it are pretty hot. The Pakistan border is but a stone’s throw away. Away from the main roads, it’s bandit country. Above the US base by the main town of Asadabad, a large white balloon innocently floats. An aerial surveillance platform type thing, there is either a guy up there with a telescope or a load of high-tech infra-red cameras and the like. I waved at whoever it was. It’s a pretty smart idea, and sweetly forbidding.


US base and balloon. Both very very small.

There has been rampant deforestation in the area. There are still some trees on the hills, but seemingly even more in the timber-merchants in Asadabad town, where thousands of tonnes of huge baulks of old timber are piled high. We have a couple of horticultural projects in the province that I was visiting, growing fruit trees to increase people’s livelihoods and other trees to try and slowly reforest the hills.

I was standing in an orchard, basking in the sunshine and marvelling at the beauty of the place. It was incredibly tranquil and I was dreaming of setting up a hammock and settling down for the day with a book. Until the sound of heavy artillery and several machine guns boomed out from the hill above us and echoed around the valley. It wasn’t incoming, and my colleagues carried on talking as if it were nothing more than birds singing in the trees. So I nonchalantly strolled on to look at another row of mulberry saplings, and waited a while before asking what the hullabaloo was about. ‘That? That’s just the Americans practising. They’re so stupid.’ I was too preoccupied with hastily having to revise the story I’d been writing in my head to ask for more precise details of their stupidity, and anyway instinctively agreed. Surely they have enough to do for real without blasting away at the few remaining trees on the hills and shattering the peace just for the hell of it.

Later on, I tried again to ask what local people think of the Americans. ‘What does it matter what people think? They can’t do anything about them’ was about as much of an answer as I could get.


Not much analysis there then, but for a good insight into the military side of things within FOBistan,* check out Josh Foust’s recent dispatches.

*The land of the Forward Operating Base.

Humiliated by a Humvee

March 3, 2009

One part of the resentment I mentioned before is the regular humiliation Afghans suffer for the sake of the American’s and NATO’s own safety.

Several times while driving through Kunar we had to slow to a crawl or drive off the road completely when we came across a US military convoy. The hulking bloody great big mustard-yellow trucks, or MRAPS,  lumber along the roads, four or more of them evenly spread out, machine guns swivelling around on top of them, surveying the long line of cars that form up behind them. They move about as fast as a tractor pulling a load of hay, and are even more difficult to overtake. In fact unless you want to get shot at they are impossible to overtake. If you meet them coming the other way you get off the road as quickly as you can, and hold your breath while they pass.

Stuck behind one such convoy, a load of Afghan National Police pick-ups came speeding up in a hurry. They too were forced to wait for several miles until the US convoy pulled off; a particularly visible demonstration of their impotence and of whose cock of the roost.

Outside US military bases traffic again comes to a standstill. The checkpoints are manned by Afghans, so if there is an attack they’re the ones who’ll take the flack. Not defending their country but doing the donkey work of defending the foreign forces. The resentment in the eyes of the waiting taxi drivers speaks volumes.