Monday, May 26, 2008

Greetings from Afghanistan

A good friend of mine works in international development and is usually a half step behind the Army in arriving in war-torn countries. Right now, it's Afghanistan. He dropped an email to a bunch of us recently that really puts it into personal perspective. I thought you might like enjoy benefit from hearing a first hand account:

Greetings from Afghanistan ! It’s been a long time since a wrote anything about my travels lately, mostly because I prefer to not spend what little off time there is out here recalling the days events. In comparison to Iraq , Afghanistan has sometimes been called the “forgotten war” but I find it decidedly difficult to forget, so I am much less inclined to dedicate even more time to remembering it. However, I have been particularly bad about keeping up with my email in recent months or even just keeping up, so I thought it would be timely to at least let you know that I am still on this planet, albeit on the other side of it. Perhaps I feel a bit guilty about falling so out of touch, but mostly I am writing because I am looking forward to getting home.

Over the past few months, my program here has grown to nearly $100 million. Given that the US is presently spending $12 billion/month in Iraq , that jump may not seem like much in the bigger picture, but it is a giant leap if your job is based on aiding rather than invading. When I leave, sometime near the end of the month, we will have nearly hundreds of employees on staff in numerous offices all around Afghanistan with a complex array of politics and partners working in some of the most remote areas of Afghanistan. We are building and repairing schools and health clinics, building roads and bridges, and in one case, even teaching motorcycle repair courses. We have such a wide array of possible projects, the largest thing we’ve been asked to do is build an airport and probably the smallest thing we’ve been asked to do is fund a puppet show (we declined the former and obliged the latter).

It’s been a giant nightmarish mess since it all started, but it is now starting to take some shape, even if the shape keeps changing. In January, I didn’t know if we would be able to spend all the money budgeted for this project. Now, I don’t think we will have enough! A big part of the frustration in trying to manage development projects in places where development is just a marketing tool is that very little can be deliberate and measured. As much as you may hear, or just want to hear differently, Afghanistan is still a war zone. War and development, particularly in an election year, make very strange bedfellows, but here we are trying to tuck them in together and pretend that we’ll all get a good night’s sleep for it. It doesn’t really work that way, even if you pull the sheets all the way up.

On the bright side, our staff recently negotiated a bridge placement among conflicting communities. Old war wounds, tribal disputes, etc. resulted in requests for nearly 10 different bridges to be built across the same river. After much negotiation and settling – our team got agreement for one bridge to be used by all the villages. Because of this, we can make it big enough for carts and small vehicles so that people can actually bring more than they can hand-carry to and from nearby markets. Amazing!

Now that sounds like development! However, around the same time, we were advised into a lock down because of intelligence reports of suicide bombers targeting Kabul over a few days. We try to make the best of such situations, and some of our ex-military staff members got lucky enough to be on the base when a shipment of Corona arrived. We got perhaps more than our fair share, had a cookout, and climbed to the roof of one of our secured buildings in Kabul . All in all, not a bad way to wait out a lock-down in Kabul .

What we didn’t know at the time is that the security threat was actually an 11-year-old boy, who quite assuredly didn’t even know he was a security threat. Some people strapped him with explosives and told him to walk over to one of the Kabul district police stations. Then they blew him up by remote control, killing three and wounding five. How many bridges and puppet shows does it take to get to the bottom of that kind of malice? I don’t really know, but I suppose the answer is as many as you can do. So that’s what we shoot for, even if it doesn’t seem like enough.

After all the money and time put invested in rebuilding Afghanistan it appears that its major industry seems to be centered on being the world’s leading producer of irony. Too bad Toyota can’t make a hybrid that runs on irony. That way at least there would be some payback for funding a war that nobody wants to finish because of another war that shouldn’t have been allowed to start. Perhaps then there would be something to show for the past 8 years other than $4.00 per gallon prices. George W. would be a hero, and that alone would eliminate our dependence on foreign irony for the next millennium.

In the mean time, we can rely on Afghanistan to pump out all the irony we can consume. As a case in point, I have attached a video clip that is the quintessential example of people coming together in Afghanistan as we hope (and pay) for, to produce a result that exemplifies the foreign policy directions of the past 8 years.

Enjoy this real slice of Afghanistan life. Chances are that you paid for that truck anyway.


Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Thanks for the Memorial Day perspective.

Limbic Resonance said...

"Good" for you for sharing this. I too felt his e-mail really put things into perspective.

JCK said...

This is a Memorial Day post. Thank you. He writes so articulately.

Denise said...

It really keeps everything in perspective when you get a letter like that. Thanks for sharing.

HRH said...

Thanks for sharing that.


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