Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Winter in the Jardin Villemin

February 25, 2010

One of the joys of my last job in Afghanistan was getting to know my team. Of them all there was one young man in particular, let us call him Q, who was a pleasure to work with. (Before continuing, let me note that the use of the past tense does not suggest his demise.) Not particularly well educated, he had a curiosity and intelligence that put him beyond many his senior. It wasn’t always the case. He had been kidnapped with an expatriate member of staff and held for almost a month, forced across the mountains under the threat of death. Unsurprisingly, he had been severely knocked by the experience and it took him a long time to recover. To see him re-engage and build up his confidence was a good sight.

Last year he married, and was charmingly full of love. He was taking on more responsibility at work, and as I prepared to leave I was keen to recommend him to my manager and replacement, fearing to lose him from my department were he promoted but knowing he deserved it. In my last few days in Kabul it was decided that he would travel to France to attend a board meeting and some training courses. Within the organisation this signified great praise, and trust. Discussing it with my manager we felt that, recently married as he was, with much to look forward to, he would not abscond.

Not long after that meeting and I was walking up the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris on a bright free day and happened to pass the Jardin Villemin. It was here that several dozen Afghan asylum seekers had been camping out until they were forced out by the police, who were still conspicuously present when I strolled by. France is not known in Europe for having the most compassionate attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees. As in the Jardin Villemin, the state prefers to let them fend for themselves, until they become a public nuisance.

Some time later, and Q was in Paris. Where he did a runner. Hearing this I sent him an innocuous email asking him how his trip had been. Fantastic, said Q. But while in Kabul he had been threatened by people unknown who told him to do jihad and to spy on the kafirs and inform them of their movements. So he was not going back.

I did not believe him. It didn’t add up; this man’s background, a story that sounded too well angled to expatriates’ fears, plausible with no possibility of proof. And I was angry with him. For betraying my and the organisation’s trust, for making it harder to get visas for his Afghan colleagues to travel to Europe for training, for leaving his wife and family, and for what I felt to be his naivete in trying to seek asylum, not fully realising the new world of torment opening up to him in places such as the Jardin Villemin. I had spoken with him and many others back in Afghanistan about the difficulties facing asylum seekers in Europe, trying to tell them that the streets are not paved with gold as many seemed to think. It always felt like they never believed me, but I thought Q had more sense.

Unkindly, I did not hide all of these thoughts in my reply to Q. I told him I thought he had made a stupid mistake. Without saying I did not believe him, I told him the authorities were very unlikely to believe his story, and asked aloud if it would not be better to spend the next years with his family rather than struggling to survive in a foreign and unfriendly land. I tried to assure him that my (brutal) honesty was from a friend who cared for his well being, but he was not best pleased.

The intensity of his reply took me aback. An unpleasant part of me wondered if it was partly due to his realising the situation he had put himself in. The rest of me had to guiltily admit that no, I did not know what it was like to be kidnapped and to face death and to be threatened and to be followed and no, I did not know that when he had gone they had, he wrote, phoned his wife and threatened her and she was taken sick and had to go to hospital then moved back to her parents’ house in a different city.


I didn’t know how to reply to that. I moderated my response, said I did not think he was a bad person but was simply worried for him. Which is true. I haven’t heard from Q since then. Someone else told me he was going to try and get to Scandinavia, which would be a fairly sensible move considering. How a person sans papiers gets from France to Scandinavia I have faint idea. Or maybe he is sleeping under a bush in the Jardin Villemin. Wherever, I wish him well.

Afghanistan wins the World Cup

December 7, 2008

Afghanistan has won the 2008 Homeless World Cup! How bloody brilliant is that?!

Playing in Melbourne, they beat Russia 5-4.

In a thrilling match in front of 50,000 spectators packed into Federation Square throughout the day, the Afghanistan and Russian teams battled it out for the sixth Homeless World Cup Trophy.

Russia opened the scoring, but Afghanistan responded quickly and at the end of the first seven-minute half were ahead 3-2. The two teams traded goal for goal in the second term, with Afghanistan holding the lead. Despite some intense last-second attacks by the determined Russians, the Afghan defence held up to take victory.

The Homeless World Cup is an annual, international football tournament, uniting teams of people who are homeless and excluded to take a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent their country and change their lives forever. It has triggered and supports grass roots football projects in over 60 nations working with over 25,000 homeless and excluded people throughout the year.

What a way to start Eid.

Scratched records

November 30, 2008

Reading yet another report on civil-military relations in Afghanistan is a depressing experience. The same things have been said over and over again as each year passes. Nothing changes, and the record keeps skipping.

‘Aid and Civil-Military Relations in Afghanistan’ is a briefing paper from BAAG and ENNA. It doesn’t say anything new but it’s still worth a look, as is the original research it draws on if you’ve got the time. From the summary:

Governance and Security: The military emphasis on using aid to ‘win hearts and minds’ and promote security as part of their stabilisation strategy is misplaced and even counter-productive in some instances. Ending the violence in Afghanistan requires a much greater focus on the political challenges related to the country’s ‘rule of impunity’ and conflict between power-holders at national and local levels.

Involvement by the military in development places beneficiaries, projects and implementors at risk: Inappropriate associations between the military and some NGOs create security risks for the wider NGO community and local beneficiaries. Military forces should stop instrumentalising NGOs to deliver on their short-term ‘hearts and minds’ objectives; and take greater steps to minimise risks incurred through their interactions with civilian agencies.

Effective development outcomes versus military ‘quick impact’ projects: Afghan communities want long-term development assistance based on transparency, accountability and local ownership. Such approaches are not compatible with the short-term imperatives which drive the military’s stabilisation strategy. The military’s use of often costly, ineffective and unaccountable implementing partners is also highly problematic. Donors should invest in civilian-led and sustainable programmes, with a focus on
building local capacities.

Afghanisation: Policy and practice of both military and civilian agencies needs to be more informed about and inclusive of Afghan perspectives. Military operations are inadequately sensitive to Afghan social and cultural norms which define notions of an individual or community’s security and dignity. Donors and humanitarian agencies need to invest more in cross-cultural translation of the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, as well as focusing on access negotiations with all parties in the conflict.

It continues:

that a simplistic ‘development brings stability and security’ thesis is misplaced and even misses the point. Afghan respondents saw the development-security linkage as artificial and contrived. The deteriorating violence in Afghanistan does not primarily result from poverty, nor will economic incentives buy support for an opposed military presence or government. Following a long history of aid and military intervention, including during the Soviet occupation, Afghans are familiar with and suspicious of ‘hearts and minds’ strategies. Furthermore, aid represents a small component of most Afghans’ coping strategies in times of conflict and transition. Predominant strategies include communal cooperation on rehabilitation and remittances.

And it continues (though the reports brevity is to be welcomed; maybe some folks might actually read it). It doesn’t get round to pointing out the many failings of NGOs (apart from the really dodgy ones), but there are other records that do that. God damn it, that’s a whole musical genre complete with its own specialist annual awards ceremony. But really, it’s time the military crooning about ‘hearts and minds’ put a sock in it.


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.

The other presedential elections

November 5, 2008

Presidential elections are due to take place next year in Afghanistan. The first stage is voter registration, which is taking place at the moment. They are starting with the most inaccessible provinces before the winter snow shuts them off. My trip to Ghor coincided with the process, and the presence of some 300 Afghan National Army soldiers to ensure it goes without a hitch. I wasn’t greatly pleased with this coincidence, concerned by the security implications and the effect it might have on our work.

We were there to carry out an evaluation of a project, and I was worried that our asking of questions might get mixed up in people’s minds with the government’s asking of questions, so we had to take pains to separate the two. As for the security, I was assured that unlike the police, the army would actually quieten things down not stir them up.

Driving through a district where I would have preferred not to stop, we did. Just as I was beginning to protest, the driver pointed to a cloud of dust on the road ahead. We pulled over to let the convoy of 40 or 50 vehicles past, and took the opportunity of having a picnic upwind of the road. As we sat on the grass tearing at our bread and meat, we shyly waved at the guys in the back of the pick-ups, their black balaclavas pulled tightly down to keep out the dust. Pick-ups, supply trucks and an oil tanker, an ambulance and a couple of humvees rolled passed, slowing in the bottleneck of a little village then speeding away up the valley.

On a hill above our picnic spot was the ruins of some old building: a stack of stone pillars worn down but amazingly still standing. There were several sites like this on our trip. I was told they were watchtowers, positioned to survey movement up the valley, built during the Ghorid empire that ruled here in the twelve century. There was an apt juxtaposition between these and the army convoy: of ruling powers trying to patrol, monitor and protect their domain.

Struggling to count and name villages in just a couple of districts, I dread to think what it must be like trying to get an even remotely accurate electoral register. That though is probably the least of their problems.

There have already been reports of voter intimidation in Logar province, and there are worries that using schools and clinics as registration centres will make them into political targets, endangering those inside. I don’t see it being possible to do what they are doing now in Ghor in large parts of the south and east of the country. They would need a much larger convoy, and even then it’s hard to think that the security situation will allow the unfettered registration of voters. And as these parts of the country are where the majority of Pashtuns live, if the registration process is seen as at all incomplete, then a large proportion of the population will see themselves, and probably will be, as under-counted and politically disenfranchised. That will not make for a happy election.

(I’ve just read a newspaper article saying some folks are pushing to have the election cancelled altogether.)

‘Humanitarian’ risk management

October 28, 2008

It’s starting to get cold in Kabul. One of my team came in this morning wearing a thick jumper that happened to have the US flag sewn onto one arm. His brother had been given it when he used to work as a translator for the Americans. I joked that the flag could get him in trouble. He didn’t find it so funny, and took it off.

International aid workers get all the limelight when they get killed, but national staff members face much greater risks. Of 28 aid workers killed in Afghanistan from January to September, 23 were Afghans. Similarly, Afghans comprise 90% of aid workers kidnapped. There’s an article from IRIN that’s well worth reading that puts the risks faced by expatriates into perspective.

And an article here asks the uncomfortable questions on the same theme:

To put it blunty, it often seems that the life of a western aid worker is worth more than his or her Afghan or Congolese or Somali or Sudanese colleague.

Granted, given that the vast majority of humanitarian workers are national staff, it’s not surprising that they tend to suffer the majority of attacks.

What is disturbing, however, is how humanitarian strategies for operating in places like Afghanistan effectively transfer risk from international to national staff.

Too dangerous for me to go somewhere? A shame, but no matter, I’ll send an Afghan colleague instead. He will certainly attract less attention than I. I’ll just tell him to not take any ID card or official documents from work, to delete the names of foreigners from his phone, to think of some story to say why he has to go there, should he be asked by the wrong person.

While I’m referring to other sources, here are a couple more: as ever, Ghosts of Alexander provides better analysis on Afghanistan then I ever find in any newspaper, and has written some valuable pieces on negotiating with the Taliban, in Mecca  and in historical perspective.

And itinerant and indignant, another aid worker in Afghanistan, has some interesting thoughts on the troubling times in Kabul and the perception of risk.

A Geographic Information Shambles

October 28, 2008

The simplest things. Like finding out where one is, or the name of the place one wants to be. Never mind governing a country, carrying out a census or collecting taxes.

I have a list of villages in two districts in Afghanistan. Actually, I have several different lists of villages. Problem is, they don’t match.

The key source of information is the lists from the Afghanistan Information Management Services and the government Central Statistics Office. For the districts I’m in interested in right now, they name about 400 or 500 villages, all neatly displayed with geocodes and GPS points. Problem is, they’re a couple of hundred villages short, and they can hardly get the district borders right let alone an accurate lat and long. Plus, I don’t know if the village listed by the CSO is the same as the village with the same name on one of my other lists.

Districts, as a unit of analysis, are usually no problem. But within each district, we have ‘areas,’ ‘manteqas,’ and ‘zones’; some are administrative, some agro-ecological, project-based or just made up. Two villages may have the same name but belong to different manteqas, or to different ‘communities.’

Lets start with what we mean by ‘village’. A settlement, a distinct collection of houses, probably clustered around a mosque and an old donkey, with some vague social and economic ties between the inhabitants and a single shura, perhaps. Or would that be a community? There are differences, but they seem to mean different things to different people. Do several villages form a community, or do several communities make up one village? And what about related sub-villages, that little cluster of houses a little walk up the valley where the mullah’s brother moved his family a few years ago?

A name, that’s all I want, just a name. But here’s where the fun begins. Translating and transcribing from Farsi to English is always problematic. Koran or Quran, as one basic example; there are some characters that can be changed in different ways, where convention gives the only correct spelling (but is of no use right here). So, I can fairly safely assume that the ‘Sarma Zor’ on one list is the same as ‘Sarmazoor’ on another, but that’s an easy example and you have to be careful.

Complication two is the fact that many places have compound names, which aren’t always written down. AIMS data is full of such gems as ‘Sarshar [1]’ and ‘Sarshar [2]’. Well, I know there’s a Sarshar Ulia and a Sarshar Sufla – an upper and lower Sarshar – but which is which? I’m guessing the ‘Piyazi’ on one list is the same as the ‘Nili Piaziy,’ but without accurate GPS coordinates I can’t be sure.

I’m sorry, I know this is very boring but it’s been driving me crazy and I want to rant.

How many villages can you see?

Next up is the fact that many places don’t really have a name, least ways not one that’s widely accepted. Or, the name of a place given by the folks living in it is different from the names outsiders know it by. Or the question just gets confused between the name of the village, the name of the community, the name of the shura, or the name of the oldest bloke in the village. I have several groups of places that are named ‘Masjed Obaidullah,’ ‘Masjed Hanifa,’ Masjed Haji Abdul Rahman,’ ‘Masjed Mulla Abdul Rahman,’ ‘Masjed Gul’ and so on – named after the guy that built the local mosque, or in the case of the last one, maybe the pretty rose that’s growing up the side of it. These are usually the names of the small isolated places that have never really had need for a more ‘official’ name. What if there is more than one mosque in a ‘village,’ or ‘community’? I start knocking my head against the table that’s what.

Then factor in spelling mistakes, individual idiosyncrasies, and the odd spark of incompetence, and you have a right royal impenetrable mess. I have different lists, written by different people across the years, each containing different bits of information that I need to pull together. Don’t ask me why I need to pull it together, I forgot long ago. But I have an urge to make sense of it. I feel like some colonial administrator, trying to impose a schematic order on the unruly natives, to classify and chart and get these villages to stand in line each with a unique geocode. There’s a good word for all that but I forget.

I demand order! I must fit this chaos into a prettily formatted spreadsheet so I can tell you how many men, women, children and chickens are in the village of Zalargak without having to leave my desk. I want satellite tracking devices in each and every one of those scrawny bloody chickens.

But there are ethics to this. What if that information got into the wrong hands, and the US started using drones to attack those precisely located chickens?

The simplest thing. Knowledge is power, and this kind of boring data is usually pretty important for the chaps in the capital wanting to rule over their minions, or govern. I doesn’t exist in historically decentralised and fragmented Afghanistan.

And that’s all just about a ‘village.’ It doesn’t get any easier talking about a household. Or a family. Or a group of families living together in a single compound but not in a sharing system, or two households physically separated but in a sharing system. I would explain the differences but I’d have to start drawing kinship diagrams, and none of us want that.

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.

Lions and fish in the Panjshir

September 17, 2008

Last week, on the 9th September, was Ahmad Shah Massoud Day – a national holiday to mark his death in 2001, blown up by the Taliban. Hailed as the Lion of the Panjshir – his birthplace and scene of fierce resistance against first the Russians then Taliban – he’s something of a hero in Afghanistan, or certain parts of it at least. A handsome chap, pictures of him can be seen in shops and cars around Kabul.

I went on an outing to Panjshir recently, a fertile valley flanked by steep mountains that lies a short way to the north of Kabul. It seemed wonderfully prosperous compared to many other places, calm and functioning. We paid the obligatory visit to his tomb and the large complex that’s being built around it like the good tourists we are.

What we found much more fun were the wrecks of Russian military vehicles neatly parked up nearby. Parts of the country are littered with these; hulking scraps of iron all that’s been left of the T 62s destroyed then stripped of all possible materiel. Tank tracks are used for small bridges, their wheels as animal troughs. On one road in the north, there seemed to be the remains of a tank at every bend in the road, under every overhanging cliff; any possible site for an ambush by the mujahideen. Monuments and playgrounds for children, they are part of the landscape.

They are also part of the ‘list of essential things to photograph for foreigners in Afghanistan,’ along with a child flying a kite and an old man with an ‘Old Testament Face.’ Your stay here will not be complete without a snap of you perched atop a tank, preferably wearing a shalwa qamis for added value.

And so we climbed onto the tank and the armoured personnel carrier and posed for the camera. There was something rather silly and distasteful about doing so: a boyish enjoyment of weapons and big machines amongst people who have never been on the receiving end of them, never really experienced the violence and occupation they represent, and yet as ‘humanitarians,’ should know better. So we mocked ourselves as we swung on the gun’s barrel. And to be fair, I would have been almost as interested in poking around an old tractor, trying to figure out how it worked, but it just ain’t the same.

Driving back to Kabul we stopped at the bottom of the valley in a narrow defile and climbed down to the river. I went for a swim. It was bloody marvellous. Over the summer I went for a swim in the river Avon in Bristol, which was bloody cold, and made the Panjshir delightfully warm by comparison. Fast flowing in the middle, I struggled to make progress against it, baggy shalwa trousers (kept on to protect the modesty of the few curious onlookers) billowing in the current.

Inspired, I’ve just forked out 60 dollars to use the UN swimming pool back in Kabul for a month. Doing lengths with all the elegance of an asthmatic fish out of water has made me realise how truly, shamefully unfit I am, and how badly I need to get my moneys worth.