Archive for the ‘Thoughts + Reflections’ Category

Night letter clip art and other snippets

September 2, 2009

A lot of effort goes into night letters. Not only do you have to find and watch your target for long enough to know what they are up to (and thus what they should be warned off doing), but the design of the letter itself takes a deal of care and consideration. Look at the top of the one below, for example. Now that’s some fancy clip art. Plus, they went to the effort of printing it out in colour, no easy task in the wilds of Afghanistan. Aesthetics are important when threatening to kill someone.

Night letter clip art

In my honour (I assume), a soundtrack to my forthcoming departure and return home.

There was a huge storm a few nights ago. After going for a midnight swim in Jalalabad, I was kipping on the roof watching it role in, the sky blazing with lightning. Just as I was nodding off, wind and rain came lashing down in torrential torrents. After a little strobe-lit dance I was soaked to the skin and forced inside, where a frog came and slept on me.

While I’m away I’m handing over all saving-Afghanistan-through-blogging duties to the charming Captain Cat and her legion of sub-tribes. Cap’n Cat (in Afghanistan one assumes a soldiery sort of Captain, but I always prefer the more piratical kind) throws babies down karezes in Gardez and stuffs ballot boxes on behalf of the IEC.

Now back to writing my epic hand-over notes.



August 27, 2009

I’m busy trying to tie of as many loose ends as possible. I do hope they won’t unravel without me, and I am trying not to think of hanging around a bit longer to hold them together.

It goes without saying that I am indispensable. My department, the whole organisation, and quite possibly the whole country are in danger of going to the dogs when I leave.

It would help if I had a replacement but as yet I do not. There are projects and plans that I’ve hatched that are only now coming into fruition. I want to see them ripen. I have a team I deeply care about and I want to do right by them. There are parts of this country I still haven’t seen, adventures still to be had.

There are indescribable frustrations and grievances that I’ve carefully nurtured. There are days when I want to be on the first plane out of here, and failing that, have come close to stealing a donkey to ride off on. I want to go home. I want to see what this ‘work-life balance’ people hark on about is like.

I love this country, and this is the best job I could possibly imagine. Challenging but so full. I hate this country and want nothing more to do with it. The work sucks and I want a life outside shitty, dangerous places.

So um, yeah. A bit of a mixed bag then. Swings and roundabouts doesn’t come close. The highs are high and the lows are low, and I can go from one t’other in the time it takes to make a cup of tea.

Still, variety being the spice of life an’ all, I feel alive in a way that almost makes me fear the absence of it.

Still, to sleep perchance to relax, have a good meal, walk down the pub for a pint, then dream.

Afghanistan: my part in its downfall*

July 5, 2009

It’s been two years to the day since I first arrived in Kabul. As part of my anniversary celebrations I’ve been dwelling on the impact I’ve had on this country (egotistical of me I know, but then blogging seems to do that to me). Here are ten random things I’ve done to change the world around me:

1.Living in a house modest by many expat standards but that has still helped lead to a huge rise in house prices in Kabul, benefiting a few but forcing out many more from affordable housing in their own city.

2.Tempting qualified Afghans out of service to their own government with hugely better pay at an INGO

3.Failing to build the capacity of those people, in a position that will be filled by another expat rather than someone I have trained to replace me.

4.Failing to even have the common decency of learning the local languages, and having only the scantiest knowledge of a country on which I am experimenting with ill-informed development projects.

5.Taking a large cut of the budget of those development projects as my salary, most of which I will take home with me.

6.Treating my life as more valuable than those of my staff

7.Drinking in an Islamic country and generally being a bad influence as well as an example of the debauchery and gross-oppulance of the West. Not good for long-term cross-cultural understading that one.

8.Flying about too much and demanding electricity from the generators and generally contributing to a lot of carbon emissions in a country that will probably be devastated by climate change.

9.Eating scarce food when others around me starved

10.Bitching about all and sundry, how various policies will lead to the downfall of this country, but doing nothing to suggest better alternatives.

*With an affectionate nod to Spike Milligan for the title.

Up the Khyber

February 28, 2009

I haven’t actually been to the Khyber Pass, and doubt I ever will, but have recently made it as far east as I’m ever likely to in Afghanistan. On the road out of Kabul to Jalalabad, twisting down through a narrow gorge before reaching the warm green plains of Nangharha, it was impossible not to reflect on the chaotic retreat of the British along roughly the same route in 1842. Having royally ballsed things up in Kabul, they had little choice but to make a run for it, getting snipped at and slaughtered along the way. Of the 15,000 odd who scarped, only Flashman and one other chap made it through to Jalalabad alive (of the British. We don’t count the natives and camp followers who made up the majority of the expedition).


These days the gravest danger is from overtaking overloaded trucks from Pakistan on the hairpin bends. Unless that is one wants to get all allegorically-analytical and start making historical parallels with some fine figurative illustrations and quotes from Kipling to brighten up one’s policy prescriptions. (My, aren’t I feeling alliterative today.) I do wish I had a better idea of what’s going on in this country and that I was more studious about it, but to be honest most of the articles and analysis about security and politics that I glance at these days leave me cold. As so often, Steve Bell sums it up as well as I could wish:

Steve Bell, 19.02.09

Steve Bell, 19.02.09

There’s rather a fine audio slideshow from the BBC that gives a nice little potted history of the British in Afghanistan, with images from an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Audio slideshow: From the Afghan archives

I was hoping to be clever enough to embed that here but obviously not.

I’m tired, and part of my work is making me more cynical about aid and development than ever before. But it was uplifting to get out of Kabul for a while and see some new places. Especially when those places seem so remarkably green and fertile. It’s a blessed change from the chronic scrubland and food insecurity of central Afghanistan that I’m used to.

Going back to Kabul I flew rather than go by road. A 20 minute hop over the mountains, factor in the time getting into and waiting at the large US military base / airport at Jalalabad and it would have been quicker to go by car. But it did mean I got to see a couple of pilot-less drones take off and swing round towards the Khyber, on their way to drop some bombs on Pakistan. It was fun waving them off on their way, though I soon got bored of trying to think of an historical analogy for their mission.

The good of small things

November 18, 2008

So much negativity. But it ain’t all bad.

So some of the things I want to do at work aren’t going to happen, which is mighty frustrating, but there are still things to be getting on with. Finally finishing a report, improving some basic systems from the safety of my desk, doing staff appraisals and developing a training plan, getting bukharis installed and set up in the right place, making sure we have enough paper clips to weather the winter, sharing a cup of tea and a joke with my team.

Getting home late in the evening and having a good bitch with my house mate as we eat, laughing at the stupidity of it all. There may be trouble outside, but I’m still enjoying my muesli and cup of coffee in the morning. Still getting out for a game of frisbee or a run on a Friday, lounging around with lunch and laptop at the café, having a drink or few around the fire place in the bar.

The usual round goes on, and there’s fun to be had. The more so if you can take pleasure in the small things: a proper loaf of freshly baked bread, a flight of birds or a thunder storm cleaning the air, the idiosyncrasies and absurdities.

It’s hard to be objective when thinking about security; anxieties and self-delusion creating a turbulent sea. So on a good day I try not to think. I do wonder if there’s a secret enjoyment to be had in the danger, a thrill in the sound of helicopters washing low overhead and distant explosions, in the very stress of it, and the stories you imagine telling when it’s all over. I think the stress is too mundane for that right now, but it does make the good of small things more vivid.

The latest small good things are two puppies we’ve taken home, filthy and cute as. Getting them settled in and building a kennel for them, lined with old towels warmed on the stove, and generally fussing over them and feeding them up has been a wonderful distraction. They’re going to grow up to be good guard dogs if we can train them a bit over the winter, and if the cold doesn’t kill them first. If they do survive, expect this blog to turn into saccharine schmutz about their every bowel movement.

The small things add up, and for much of the time life is good. Now I come to think of it, that’s a pretty normal state of affairs.


November 16, 2008

Is not a country where I would want to work. Mainly because I see it as an illegal occupation I would not want any part in, however ‘humanitarian’ the ideals.

For sure, things have changed since 2003 when US troops were invading and I was marching futilely through London. But my memories and associations of that time remain strong.

In comparison, Afghanistan seemed more like the good fight. OK, so I was never that naive but alongside other reasons, I was willing to work here. While I was shouting for troops out of Iraq I never joined in the chorus calling for that here, and I get pretty pissed off when I get emails now still singing for the same.

And yet. And yet I’m increasingly unsure about how I can justify my presence here. It is hard to feel optimistic for the country. It is hard to feel that aid organisations are doing anything more, in the grand scheme of things, than propping up a government that has little support and colluding with foreign military forces that have even less. The Taliban appear to now see NGOs as a valid target, which is just plain wrong. But on many levels is understandable: humanitarianism is political, after all. And the politics, grand and personal, of being in this country, are complicated. Made no simpler by the bombings of civilians and the loss of legitimacy it causes.

I flirted with the thought that ‘talking to the Taliban’ was the only way forward, but have been largely persuaded otherwise. Which doesn’t leave with me much in the way of positive possibilities to look towards. A surge perhaps, to make the discrepancy between military and humanitarian spending even greater…

Most of the time I ignore the issue, and stay sane and motivated by focusing on the smaller things. The little victories, the desperate failures: the fine grain of trying to make just a wee tiny bit of a positive difference on the lives of a few.

But zoom out, or look towards long-term development, and many of those inconsequential things loss their force amongst a general sense of futility. Building sandcastles on the beach with a rising tide.

Which in itself is not a reason not to try. But the balance of forces has shifted so far from a humanitarian to a military endeavour that I feel less comfortable being here. It’s not that I’m planning on going somewhere else right now, and at the moment I’m enjoying being here, just that I’m not so sure about the morality of my position.

Concrete impressions

November 13, 2008

There being some wet concrete outside my house, I couldn’t resist sticking a finger in and engraving my initials.

Now, whenever I walk past it, I can’t help but wonder if that will be the only lasting impression that I leave on this country.

My gut feeling is that it will be. The work that I do is, I believe, an important part of a greater whole that does and will make a difference. But the impact is not as visceral as wet concrete, or as visible, or as likely to survive.

It’s a slightly melancholy thought but not a surprising one, and I’m fine with it. You’d have to have some kind of god delusion to think you could individually make a real impression on this landscape. The current climate is too harsh for much to last. Even that concrete is likely to freeze and crack this winter.

‘Making a difference’: a difference to what, and to whom? Who should decide what kind of ‘difference’ to make? There’s such hubris in the phrase, as in development, though perhaps it’s necessary. There’s also a particularly individualistic streak to my thinking here, a Western philosophical orientation towards the self rather than the group, illustrated perhaps by the childish desire to carve my initials in the first place, to make my personal mark.

Anatomy of a kidnapping

November 11, 2008


I started by writing of how the French aid worker was kidnapped in Kabul last week, but have just deleted it. Working for a French organisation with connections to those affected, I’ve heard little else recently, apart from the plans of several other small French NGOs to repatriate their expatriate staff, and there’s no need to repeat the details. Needles to say, it isn’t a fun story, and it hasn’t been the best of weeks. It’s been a fucking terrible week for some.

Though a good one for others: two journalists who had been kidnapped, one of whom was taken a little way out of Kabul three weeks ago, have both been released. We had heard about it in Kabul, but there was no mention of it in the international media. As is often the case with kidnappings, they are not reported to try and aid the negotiations. So it was a surprise when the most recent case became headline news within hours. Judging by the progress of the story throughout the day it seemed like someone in Paris must have released the identity of the kidnapped man.

There’s a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez about kidnappings in Columbia, but it’s years since I read it and I don’t remember it being particularly good. Not sure why I’m mentioning it actually, but my mind’s wondering a little this evening.

It’s been hard to concentrate. I have two projects I need to complete before the end of the year and both now seem like they might be scuppered by separate security incidents in the provinces. One should be OK but is impossible to plan for with a high degree of uncertainty about weather, flights, budgets and the rotation of the planets. The other I could remotely manage, but that means sending one of my Afghan colleagues to a region there’s not a cat in hells chance I’m going to, and neither of us would feel so happy about that.

I think the decision of some NGOs to evacuate staff isn’t a particularly good one, but at the same time am not that sure how much useful work I can do in current conditions. When I arrived back in Afghanistan, I half had it mind that when it got to the stage where I could no longer walk in the streets, then that would be the time to pack it in and go home. With new security rules in place it’s got to that point, but I don’t feel like leaving yet. Just feel frustrated and dis-empowered, which makes me feel determined not to be beaten by these bastards with the guns, and rather tired.


Rambling on the Taliban

October 20, 2008

The war can’t be won, said the General. Which is a shame, I guess. For if the war can’t be won doesn’t that mean it’s lost?

Oh no no no. Such defeatism, can’t have that. What if our enemies heard such talk and took heart? All we need to do is change what it means to win, a strategic movement of the goal posts if you will. Years of hard fighting have taught us a valuable lesson: our victory must include a political settlement.

Anybody got a number for the Taliban? We should give them a call. For sure, it will be a little unpalatable – human rights and whatnot – but really it seems the only way.

What, which ‘Taliban’ should we talk to? Oh, I’ll leave someone else to figure out the details.

For we are fast running out of money for ammunition and the stockbrockers on Wall Street need our humanitarian aid now as well. Anyway, the bombs don’t seem to be doing the job of winning hearts and minds and all this development isn’t defeating the bastards.

Plus, we need to figure out a plan before McCain or Obama stick their oars in and start attacking Pakistan or some other country. Then there’s elections due here next year as well – did you hear? they’ve started intimidating people registering on the electoral roll already. Very proactive. Not that it matters when security is so bad in much of the country that the idea of elections is farcical – but anyway don’t expect that to change much on the corruption front and basically the whole thing’s been dragging on far too long and isn’t getting any simpler.

Thing is, now doesn’t seem to be the best time to start talking really. As the General said, we can’t win, the US seems to be going all communist on us and I expect the Talibs are feeling rather chipper right now. Could make the negotiations a spot tricky.

Maybe this food crisis will help. After the winter they’ll be too hungry to carry on and half the population will be starved to death so we won’t need to worry so much about civilian casualties. Teach them right for attacking food convoys. More tea, sir?

Bird shit walking

October 6, 2008

Walking through the centre of Kabul towards the Old City was not a relaxing experience. The main drag was packed with people – shoppers, amblers, hawkers, traders – I was concentrating too hard on finding a way through the scrum and keeping sight of my companions to really notice who was around me. Never threatened, but on edge in the constricting streets: one didn’t want to linger.

Crossing the river – the stagnant effluent trickling between beaches of rubbish that passes for a river – and passing the Pul-e Khishti mosque, we were finally able to peel ourselves out of the crowd down a narrow shadowed lane, filled with the musty smell of chicken shit and grain and a strange sense of calm.

This is the bird market. A short stretch of cloistered alleyway that feels like a relic of Kabul’s past, some pigeon-fancying uncle lost on his rooftop. Cages line the twisting walls and fill the cage-like shops. Pigeons, finches, canaries and the prized partridges in their doomed bamboo coops, released for fighting. A medley of chirruping and singing. Old men sitting inside their dens, looking out as impassively as their wares. An avian sense of bored waiting. Intrigued, but not wanting to linger for too long.

Back to the mayhem of the street and back across the bridge past the Murad Khane: a small maze of houses and shops being rebuilt by a foreign organisation that trains local craftsman, trying to revive a relic of the past from meters high sediment of mud and rubbish, for whom I’m not sure.

Past that to the Bush bazaar, named after George W. in honour of the things that have fallen of the back of his truck and found their way here for sale. Concrete lanes covered by tarps, filled with old clothes and shoes and tubs of protein substitute and packs of MREs – meals ready to eat, and BP5 biscuits for the malnourished, Operation Enduring Freedom stationary and, one suspects, much else beside if one cared to linger and root around.

It’s an interesting corner of Kabul, a bizarre mix in the anarchic maelstrom of the old city centre. I’d like to explore it more thoroughly, to be able to wonder and get lost and look. To carry out an archaeological study of the layers of waste: bird’s shit and Bush’s shit and Kabul’s shit. But I do not find it relaxing to walk there; do not find it comfortable to do so. Some would think me stupid for going there at all, taking unnecessary risks. Maybe, but while I didn’t particularly enjoy it, it felt like a small victory of sorts, this walk. A petty defiance against the international communities’ tendency towards extreme isolation and disconnect from the city we live in.

Many foreigners here are not allowed to step foot outside their compounds, have lists of places they can and (more often) cannot go to, and strict rules about how high the walls, how thick the barbed wire, how many armed guards surround them. It is not a situation most want or enjoy. It drives many to distraction. I am lucky to be able to walk a little further, though it gives me no greater feel for the place when I’m too nervous to stop and look around me.

It’s hard to describe the causes of that nervousness. There’s the obvious but unlikely risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then there’s that disconnect; the sense of us and them it breeds, of being so very out of place and watched by an unknown crowd. A bird-like suspicion, to stretch the point.

Somewhere down that main drag, one of our company spotted some old work colleagues. My disquiet disappeared as we greeted. With strangers’ faces coming into sudden focus as individuals, with the contact of a handshake and a smile, I was fleetingly emplaced in the crowd: connected to it and briefly at ease. We parted and moved on, eyes scanning the crowd but no longer seeing.

If it’s hard to look around at the time, at least one can think about it afterwards.