Sympathy for the White Land Rover Mafia

It's a little too easy to blame the expat mafia.

It’s been a while since someone wrote an essay-length comment on one of my posts to scold me for things I never actually wrote, so I’m going to reply in full-post form to the comment Farah from Steal This Hijab left on ‘Is it safe?’ (You might want to read my  original post now, if you haven’t already.)

Here’s what Farah wrote:

Interesting to get the perspective of another aid worker in Afghanistan, however, I must disagree with some of the premises of your safety advice. I think aid workers here really need to acknowledge that the majority of people killed either by suicide bombers, armed groups, or military (international and national) are Afghans. Afghanistan is by far most dangerous for the Afghans themselves – not for the aid workers.

Has Farah read anything else on my blog? Both here and at UN Dispatch, I have written extensively about the dangers faced by ordinary Afghan civilians and by Afghan aid workers. And how does dispensing common sense safety advice to other expats demean the sacrifices or diminish the suffering of Afghans? This type of comment falls into category of: ‘You wrote about one thing. I wanted you to write about this other thing. I demand gratification.’

Further, there is a notion that aid workers in this country are people who are interested in noble work for the betterment of humankind – that they are here for selfless reasons, because they believe in democracy, progress, equality, etc. I think this could really not be further from the truth. I think that the vast majority of aid workers are here for career advancement and monetary gains, and thus are willing to take the “risk” of working in Afghanistan.

Farah is either reading lines I never wrote (my post doesn’t discuss motivations for working in Afghanistan), or she’s implying that we’re all so mercenary that, hey, maybe those of us who return home in coffins are getting what we deserve for being greedy careerists. If it’s the latter case, she needs to seriously re-examine her own moral code.

Also, these same workers are treated like elites – getting driven around everywhere, their homes cleaned, their clothes washed, their meals cooked – all expenses paid.

Not every expat lives like this. Many do, sure, but many others do not –or didn’t until recently. I spent my first full year in Afghanistan living in mud houses with only intermittent water and electricity, sleeping on a taushak, cooking my own food and walking to the bazaar by myself. None of my expenses were paid by my employer. I supported myself on a salary roughly equivalent to what I would have made back in the United States. My housemates and most of my expat friends shared in that lifestyle. We refused to live within the Archipelago of Fear.

During my second year in Kabul, walking the streets became more difficult. Men threw large stones at me when I refused to answer their catcalls. Teenage boys surrounded me, groped me, and called me vulgar names in Dari. The police began stopping me more and more often just to stare at my passport picture and pass it around to their buddies, humiliating me in front of my Afghan friends and drawing unwanted attention from passersby.

Then came the Taliban’s summer offensive, with its midnight gunfire symphonies and suicide bombing assassination campaign. My Afghan friends worried I would be kidnapped, so they advised me to take a taxi whenever I needed to leave my home. I still didn’t have a guard or driver, but I began planning my movements more carefully and carrying a switchblade.

There is also the unspoken way expats are engaged with, as if they are the most important people in any situation – their treatment of workers whether they are house cleaners, food delivery workers, drivers, security personal is appalling and would undoubtably be considered racist in their home countries. Whilst I also think that this attitude is really a reflection of the systematic and discriminatory power relations rampant in this country, and reinforced by the international community. Sometimes it feels that the lessons learned by the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles the world over seem lost on otherwise intelligent, educated “aid workers”, who take no responsibility for their behavior or the elitist treatment they receive citing “security needs” or “that’s just how it is.” Whilst, I am also an aid worker, and also receive this treatment I do my utmost to challenge these norms as much as possible. I also break away from my security “requirements” whenever possible so that I might have a better idea of what this country is like for the majority of its people. I think there needs to be a major change in the attitudes and perceptions of Afghans. International security premises its policies on this idea that every Afghan is a potential threat, which is a really impoverished way to approach the immensely important work and potential present here. I think aid workers should reassess why they are in Afghanistan, and structure their lives/work not around their personal security – but around the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of a people who have suffered 30 years of war. Perhaps, this is best done first by listening.

No, I really don’t think Farah has read much of my blog, because I have addressed these issues and Farah and I are generally on the same page when it comes to security theater and the odiousness of ‘Afghan-Free Zones.’

That said, the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere is very bad now, and worsening by the week. That’s not Chicken Little squawking — that’s an irrefutable fact.

2012 will be my third year in Afghanistan, and almost certainly my last. I won’t be able to live my freewheeling lifestyle anymore. My days of picnics in Kapisa and damboora nights at Qargha are over. This year, I will have to live in a formal guesthouse with a guard, or in a hotel. I won’t be doing much walking outside, if any at all, and I certainly won’t go strolling alone, even in the Kabul neighborhoods I’ve come to know so well I could navigate them with my eyes closed.

I’ll continue taking the roads in civilian vehicles as long as I can, because the fear I feel clawing into my ribs when I’m winding my way through the narrow valley highway between Kabul and Jalalabad keeps me honest, connects me to my colleagues, and saves thousands of dollars that could be –and are– better spent on project beneficiaries.

But going “low profile” and eschewing the typical security measures of armored cars and chartered flights between cities is not risk-free, cost-free or always the more ethical choice. If I take the roads, even while hidden under a burqa, I risk the lives of the Afghans traveling with me. If we are stopped at a Taliban checkpoint and my identity is revealed, I’ll mostly likely be kidnapped, but the Afghans with me will be summarily executed. If I live in an ordinary house in an Afghan neighborhood, instead of an expat compound, I plant a target in my innocent neighbors’ midst. With my mere presence, I knowingly run the chance of drawing evil men onto the streets where their children fly kites.

In a morally muddled conflict like Afghanistan’s, the ‘right thing’ is seldom obvious, and, in my experience, expats –aid workers and others– are usually left with no truly good options.


The year Iran almost invaded Afghanistan. From the New York Times on September 17, 1998:

To American eyes, the clerical dictatorships of Iran and Afghanistan can seem variations on the same Islamic fundamentalist theme. But relations between the two neighboring countries are now at a flash point. Ethnic, political and religious tensions have been exacerbated by the recent killings of at least eight Iranian diplomats by Afghan Taliban fighters. Iran is now assembling some 250,000 troops along the Afghan border and threatens military action unless its demands for amends are met.

I wonder how the history of the past thirteen years would have been different if Iran had sent a quarter of a million soldiers into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban in the fall of 1998.

Corruption in Afghanistan

In her latest for Forbes, Ann Marlowe demonstrates how not to write about Afghanistan and Afghans, or, really, any country and its people.

Brace yourself.

The first sentence of the article is, “Afghanistan is a ghetto.” Marlowe argues this in the most appalling, condescending terms imaginable, stopping just shy of using the term “savages” to describe Afghans. She paints all Afghans with the same broad, disapproving brush. It’s stunning, really. So, without further delay, some of the most gobsmackingly offensive excerpts:

By and large, Afghans are relentlessly present-oriented, unable to delay gratification, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized and feckless when it comes to responsibilities.

They spend time almost exclusively with relatives, have few affiliations with civil society and mistrust others outside their family groups.

There is little to no privacy in an Afghan family, and little individuation.

The majority of Afghans are illiterate, but even most of those who are educated are oriented to oral rather than written culture.

Religion is practically the only activity that unites Afghans who aren’t blood relatives.

Independent thinking and critical reasoning are not much in evidence.

Very few Afghans seem to have internalized moral codes, even based on religion.

Fewer still are able to stand up to peer pressure and do the right thing when called for.

While Afghans aren’t nearly as violent as Americans on an individual basis, as a group, they have had trouble figuring out ways of working out their differences through discussion rather than warfare.

Let’s see if I can summarize Marlowe: Afghans are impatient, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized, feckless, insular, clannish, distrustful, willfully ignorant, ill-suited to literary culture (Hamesha must have been dropped on his head as a baby, I guess), seemingly incapable of critical reasoning and independent thought (I guess Nasim Fekrat isn’t Afghan, that imposter!), fundamentalist in religious beliefs and practice, immoral, unethical (strange, then, that my boyfriend feels guilty about a  math quiz he cheated on ten years ago), cowardly, and warlike.


I’m not a cultural relativist. If a cultural practice or tradition infringes on fundamental human rights, restricts the development of the individual, or serves to perpetuate inequality (racial, gender, class, caste or otherwise) or injustice of any kind, I believe it should be changed or abandoned altogether. There are bad cultural practices, and bad traditions. However, to argue that there are bad cultures takes us down a dangerous path. Culture is, and has been for a long time, synonymous with nations, groups of people –rather than mutable pattens of behaviour and symbolic structures (which is roughly the actual definition.) If a culture is bad, it’s bad in its entirety (and not just a part, like political culture), and “bad” labels whole populations, individuals cease to exist.

Afghans are not all the things Marlowe claims they are. Certainly some Afghans are some of those things. Some Afghans are even all of those things. But there are many Afghans to whom NONE of those labels apply.

Dexter Filkins gets that. For a recent IHT article on corruption, Filkins and Afghan collaborators Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi interviewed everyone from former government ministers to truck drivers to better understand the range of (only male?) opinion on the matter. Filkins, Wafa and Rahimi make the important points that; 1) most Afghans disdain corruption (shocking!), 2) understand who is responsible, and 3) don’t sit by passively or approvingly when they can do something to fight it.

The decay of the Afghan government presents Barack Obama with perhaps his most under-appreciated challenge as he tries to reverse the course of the war here. The president-elect may be required to save the Afghan government, not only from the Taliban insurgency – committing thousands of additional American soldiers to do so – but also from itself.

“This government has lost the capacity to govern because a shadow government has taken over,” said Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. He quit that job in 2004, he said, because the state had been taken over by drug traffickers. “The narco-mafia state is now completely consolidated.”

On the streets here, tales of corruption are as easy to find as kebab stands. Everything seems to be for sale: public offices, access to government services, even a person’s freedom. The examples above – $25,000 to settle a lawsuit, $6,000 to bribe the police, $100,000 to secure a job as a provincial police chief – were offered by people who experienced them directly or witnessed the transaction.

[…] Governments in developing countries are often riddled with corruption. But Afghans say the corruption they see now has no precedent, in either its brazenness or in its scale. Transparency International, a German organization that gauges honesty in government, ranked Afghanistan 117th out of 180 countries in 2005. This year, it fell to 176th.

“Every man in the government is his own king,” said Abdul Ghafar, a truck driver. Ghafar said he routinely paid bribes to the police who threatened to hinder his passage through Kabul, sometimes several in a single day.

[…] Many Afghans, including Ghani, the former finance minister, place responsibility for the collapse of the state on Karzai, who, they say, has failed repeatedly to confront the powerful figures who are behind much of the corruption. In his stint as finance minister, Ghani said, two moments crystallized his disgust and finally prompted him to quit.

The first, Ghani said, was his attempt to impose order on Kabul’s chaotic system of private property rights. The Afghan government had accumulated vast amounts of land during the period of communist rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

And since 2001, the government has given much of it away – often, Ghani said, to shady developers at extremely low prices.

The corruption may be endemic here, but if there is any hope in the future, it would seem to lie in the revulsion of average Afghans like Farani, who, after seven years, is still refusing to pay.

“I won’t do it,” Farani said outside the courthouse. “It’s a matter of principle. Never.”

“But,” he said, “I don’t have my house, either, and I don’t know that I ever will.”

And that’s how it’s done.

Ulterior motives are hard to hide: the militarisation of aid work in Afghanistan

There’s an article up at the Huffington Post on the dangers associated with blurring the line between traditionally neutral humanitarian work and counterinsurgency in places like Afghanistan. According to the article:

A meeting this month in Kabul turned acrimonious when USAID and Department of Defense (DoD) officials briefed international aid agencies on the new policy of the US government. The plan, titled Civilian-Military Cooperation Policy, outlines that USAID will “cooperate with DoD in joint planning, assessment and evaluation, training, implementation, and communication in all aspects of foreign assistance activities where both organizations are operating, and where civilian-military cooperation will advance USG foreign policy.”

I kind of wish I was back at the office now (the organization I work for is  USAID-funded and has a project in Afghanistan) so I could ask colleagues their thoughts on this in person.

One attendee of the Kabul meeting made made a point that deserves more attention:

A delegate from InterAction, the world’s largest NGO coalition, representing 172 organizations, accused USAID and the DoD of a classic “bait and switch.” InterAction had previously supported DoD allocating budgets for “reconstruction, security, or stabilization assistance to a foreign country,” but now they felt that the motivation was ” to fund development projects favored by the military”.

Michael Kleinman at Humanitarian Relief has another post up about the dangers attached to the militarisation of aid work. Kleinman argues that:

[…] closer ties between USAID and the DoD certainly don’t make the situation any safer for aid workers, but that the real problem lies even deeper.  The brutal truth is that insurgents in Afghanistan and elsewhere increasingly view US (and western) NGOs as anything but impartial, independent and neutral.

Hence, for instance, the comments made by the Taliban after killing three IRC staff and their driver in Afghanistan this past August, accusing the victims of being part of the “foreign invader forces“.

This isn’t simply a result of closer ties between the US military and USAID.  Many in the NGO community would also blame the military for engaging in reconstruction and development activities that “blur the lines” between soldiers and aid workers.  But again, I think this is far too simplistic.

Sure, and the “lines” are never going to be crystal clear, but there’s a distinct danger in arguing that too far. For example, you get crap like this from Ann Marlowe, who argues that not only should aid and development work be militarised, but the military is far better suited for aid and development work than NGOs are:

Greg Mortenson [of Three Cups of Tea] and his colleagues built 55 schools over a decade in some of the most remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beginning in 1994 in one Shia village at the base of K2 in Pakistan, he started the Central Asia Institute, which expanded its activities into one Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and finally into a remote northern Afghan province on the Pakistani border.

Mortenson’s struggles and achievements are memorably described in his book, co-written with David Oliver Relin, and they are remarkable. But contrary to the impression he gives in his very anti-military book and contrary to what many Americans assume, his work, and probably that of all the school-building charities in Afghanistan combined, is dwarfed by the school-building achievements of the American Army in Afghanistan.

I’ve previously reported how in 15 months, from January 2007 to the end of March 2008, the U.S. Army built 53 schools just in one eastern Afghan province, Khost. (It has since broken ground on 25 more.) School attendance in the million-population province has risen from just 38,000 in 2002 with 3,000 girls attending, to 210,000 at the beginning of the 2008 school year in March, 21% of whom are girls. (Yes, in this deeply conservative, remote province, that percentage represents a step forward.)

[…] Hundreds of thousands of the children of the Pashtun belt here owe their education to the U.S. Army. Its efforts here need to be expanded and supported. And young Americans who want to help the children of Afghanistan probably can do so best by joining the group that’s doing the most for them–the U.S. Army.

Of course, many of the schools the US Army builds are not sustainable, and nearly all of those built by Mortenson’s organization are. Why? Because Pakistanis and Afghans in the regions Moretenson works in know that he and his employees aren’t part of a counterinsurgency campaign. Their goals aren’t political, and all they want is to provide education to children who would otherwise go without.  One can also assume the fact that Mortenson and CAI have never recklessly bombed the people of the region also helps.

Anyway, a recent report on civil-military relations and NGOs by the European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan (ENNA) offers some suggestions for how to proceed from here:

  • NGOs should unite around advocacy to donors to promote more effective and sustainable civilian modalities for aid funding. NGOs that currently accept funding from military operations should reflect in a serious fashion on the high risk of negative implications for the safety and security of their own staff, programmes and beneficiaries, as well as the wider NGO sector in Afghanistan. Particular attention should also be given to building the capacity of local NGO partners to engage in policy dialogue and effective programming on a sustainable basis.
  • Development and humanitarian funding should be channelled through civilian funding instruments and agencies, not military or integrated civil-military institutions. These funding modalities should be carefully managed in order to minimise the risk of implementing agencies becoming perceived as aligned with military forces involved in combat operations. Funding relations should also be reviewed to ensure that they do not undermine local governance institutions through creating parallel structures or additional layers of sub-national governance.
  • There is a crucial need for a neutral and impartial UN capacity to coordinate civil-military relations and humanitarian response. To this end the capacity of the relevant UN agencies responsible for these tasks should be further strengthened and clearly delineated from the political roles within those agencies. Additional support will also be required for NGOs, especially Afghan NGOs to engage actively with this coordination mechanism.
  • While capacity-building of local and national authorities to manage and implement programmes is an important and legitimate long-term objective, Afghanistan currently faces more immediate governance challenges in terms of resolving the political disputes and grievances driving conflict in the country. Greater focus and a more coherent strategy should be placed on tackling these political challenges.

Food for thought.

“This is not a man with good options”

Wrote a friend of mine when he sent me an article about the pressure Afghan president Hamid Karzai is under to sign off on the execution orders for dozens of Afghans sentenced to death for capital crimes.

The basic points of the article:

  • More than one hundred Afghans sit on death row.
  • Most have been convicted of crimes such as rape, murder, and kidnapping.
  • The judicial system is a complete mess, and trials that even come close to resembling fairness are a rarity.
  • Afghan civilians, especially women’s advocates, want the executions to take place, so they might deter future violent crimes, especially rape.
  • Afghans want the executions to be public, Karzai wants them to be private.
  • The international community opposes the use of the death penalty, especially in Afghanistan, where one can safely say that innocent people will be executed if executions are carried out at all.
  • Donors have threatened to withhold aid if these pending executions go ahead.
  • Karzai faces a tough bid for re-election next year.

So, what should Karzai to do?  What should international community to do?

Karzai should halt all executions. The use of the death penalty is a violation of the non-derogable right to life and bodily integrity.  It’s wrong ethically, and, furthermore, it won’t deter the kinds of crimes that have ordinary Afghans living in fear anyway.  Only an effective police force and army, and a fair, professional judiciary can do that.  To placate a fearful populace with hangings would be to excuse the failure of the state to provide basic security.  Public hangings may temporarily satisfy an understandable desire to see “justice” served in a country where injustice and lawlessness prevail in all areas of life, but they won’t bring the safety or stability Afghans desperately need.

If he doesn’t sign off on the execution orders, Karzai will come under even more pressure politically (I wonder, do Afghans have a phrase similar to “soft on crime”?), and his chances of re-election may well be badly hurt.  I’d say, so be it.  If he cares about his country’s long-term future, he’ll do what’s right, even if it threatens his job. It is a rare politician in any regime that chooses this path, however.

As for the international community and the donors threatening to withhold aid, I think their dilemma is even more difficult. If the threat of withholding aid is not made, Karzai will have less incentive to indefinitely postpone the executions, and if they’re carried out, the international community fails in its role as a defender of human rights. Individual country donors, especially the taxpayer-funded development agencies, also have to answer to publics back home –in places like Norway, and Canada.  That said, Afghans need life-saving and life-sustaining aid, especially as another long and hungry winter closes in.  Sleepless nights are being had in Kabul over this, of that I’m sure.

The pessimist in me suspects Karzai will just go ahead with the executions, bleeding-heart foreigners and international law be damned.  If Karzai doesn’t sign off on the executions, he will probably blame the internationals for “interfering” in Afghan justice and play up his role as the patriotic president doing his best with one hand tied by the UN and the other by the legions of NGOs.  If this happens, the internationals should be grateful and play along.  Rarely do cynical political games offer the most humane potential solution to any policy dilemma, but this may be one of those rare occasions.

EDIT I: I should add that Karzai doesn’t seem to have a problem with pardoning very nasty criminals when pardons are politically expedient.

EDIT II: A little background, from the Independent (UK):

Under Afghan law, the cases will be sent to the President, Hamid Karzai, who can either sign the execution orders or grant a pardon.

He had earlier agreed to stop executing prisoners until the courts were reformed.

But all that changed in October 2007, when 15 prisoners were dragged from their cells, without warning, and gunned down on an army firing range. The families of the dead claimed they had been beaten before they were shot in the face and chest. Neither the families nor the prisoners were warned of their fate. Elaine Pearson, from Human Rights Watch, said: “President Karzai should suspend the death penalty immediately. More mass executions will be a huge setback for the rule of law in Afghanistan.”