Tomorrow never comes*

I am not feeling positive about Afghanistan at this moment. Ok, that is a massive understatement.

If you pay attention to development news, you already know that CBS has exposed what appears to be massive fraud and waste at the Central Asia Institute of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ fame.

Afghanistan has taught me that the field of international development includes no heroes –but has no shortage of villains– and that development successes are the rare exception. Nightmarish, humiliating failures predominate and even those efforts that appear to have met or exceeded expectations often morph into something dark and twisted over time, calling into question their benefit to society.

Media development is one example of this phenomenon. Afghanistan went from having no media outlets except the Taliban regime’s scolding Voice of Sharia radio station in 2001 to dozens of private television channels and radio stations less than a decade later. But the media boom was not accompanied by the development of capable regulatory institutions or a culture of ethical journalism. Today, extremist broadcasters incite violence against women and stoke ethnic and sectarian grievances with near-total impunity. Freedom of speech has become synonymous with the ability to provoke divisive rage and instill fear.

Other much-hyped “successes” are eventually exposed as being too frail to last without drastic reforms –reforms the responsible parties are almost never willing to make. The most devastating, morale-stomping example I can think of is girls’ education.

For years, Western and Afghan politicians touted the expansion of education to school-age girls as one of the greatest accomplishments of the international mission in Afghanistan. Repeatedly, they stated that the post-Taliban increase in female school enrollment was proof that the blood spilled and the billions of aid dollars spent in Afghanistan since 2001 were not in vain.

But, like every other Afghanistan “success” I can think of, the celebrated gains were hollow. Improvements in education ran out of steam years ago and the quality of education available to most girls is abysmally low. The average rural girl is still forced into marriage and motherhood when she is still a child, without ever seeing the inside of a schoolhouse.

Thinking about the future is painful.

All over Kabul, high-rise apartment blocks are going up at a dizzying pace. Most of these developments are being constructed with frighteningly shoddy supplies and none of the safety measures even other very poor countries mandate. Bribes from the powerful construction mafias ensure the government stays quiet. Everyone knows what is happening, yet the urban middle class still flocks to the dream of apartment life, itself synonymous with modernization and progress.

When the next big earthquake hits quake-prone Kabul, the lethal new skyline will come tumbling down, wiping out a vast swath of the educated class in a few violent shakes.

If the entire paradigm here does not drastically shift —politically, economically, socially and environmentally— everything sacrificed for and hoped for in this country will be subsumed under a tidal wave of blood, greed and fecklessness. Even the small, precious victories won at great cost to all involved will be washed away.

Time is running out, if it has not already run out.

*My taxi ride anthem of the moment.

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Sliding

Herat Citadel. September 2010. A bombing in Herat killed 3 civilians today.

My worldview, if one can call it that, hews to the famous M.L.K  quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I am trying –hard– not to lose sight of that.

Being here continuously (read: no R&R) since the beginning of the year has been physically and emotionally grueling. It has been one of the hardest and at times most painful experiences of my life, and also one of the most formative. Thrown into situations I don’t know how to even begin describing, and for which nothing in my previous life prepared me, I’ve shed many old beliefs and sharpened others to points fine enough to pierce steel.

The war in Afghanistan is worsening in ways that are tangible. Places that were safe when I arrived last winter, places I traveled with no fear, have since slipped into violence and become “no-go” zones. Taliban control is expanding in the north of the country.  The parliamentary campaign season was bloody and frightening. Every few days now, I hear of another kidnapping or another assassination. In the south, suicide bombings have become as ordinary as car accidents. And now the air war is back.

Over dinner a few nights ago, a friend asked me where I think all this is going. I answered honestly: I don’t know. I wish I did, but I have no idea what Kabul city, let alone Afghanistan, will look or feel like two months from now, six months from now, a year from now. Karzai is calling the talks with insurgent groups a “peace process.” Yet, we, politically informed expats and Afghans, still have very little idea what’s actually on the negotiating table or how any sort of political deal might work.

Meanwhile, it is obvious that most of the international community has given up on values: anti-corruption, human rights,  justice, democratization –those have been discarded. All the internationals seem to be working and hoping for at this late hour is some vague concept of stability, the aversion of all-out disaster just long enough to allow their soldiers a dignified exit.

Afghanistan is sliding, and no one knows how to put the brakes on.

None of this is revelatory, but I felt the need to write it anyway, to get it out of myself so I can get back to work.

20 June 2007

I’m going back through emails I wrote over the past couple of years, during my travels, and I came across this email I sent to friends back home and elsewhere after spending all week discussing the various atrocity reports coming out of Iraq.

I’m sorry. It’s been a rough week, and, as you well know, the news we get overseas is a hell of a lot more grim that what makes it through the filters at home. I am just tired and sad. Things are falling apart in so many ways. Talking to the other Americans here, it just makes us all crazy. I guess [DELETED], the director of my department, summed it up the best: “These past six years have been an exercise in grieving. I will never go home for more than a visit again.” The Americans in the [DELETED] dept. scare everyone. They’re converting their savings into euros, ahead of what they predict will be a massive economic collapse.

We’re so far into the tunnel now that I fear we’ll have to go all the way through to see the sunshine again.

Ummm.