Contested Truths

I stood in a hallway of a primary school plastered with posters of IEDs.  Crossbones marked the tops of each poster, which showed 10 different types of explosives.  A picture of a grinning Hamid Karzai was placed next to each poster, insinuating that he would protect Yakawlang’s children from accidentally stepping on a bomb.


Hamid ushered Elizabeth, a civilian working for the PRT in Bamyan, and me into a classroom.  The walls were pale yellow, and plastic garlands of flowers hung from the walls.  We were directed to sit at the wooden table at the front of the room.  Around us, 15 members of the school’s staff sat on red and blue plastic chairs, waiting to be interviewed.

Elizabeth was interviewing the school’s staff on the teacher training courses the Kiwis (the New Zealand PRT) had implemented in Bamyan.  She wanted feedback on how the courses could be better shaped to meet the needs of the participants.  I was there, of course, to get a feel for the staff’s sentiments on our presence in Afghanistan, women’s initiatives, and other development projects ongoing in the region.

Elizabeth went first, methodically asking the teachers in the room about their thoughts on the program.  She had a knack for pushing back hard when necessary, whenever the room grew too full of demands and complaints.  A skill that I respected, but didn’t have the authority to wield myself.

After she finished, my turn came up.  Since the room was filled with men, mostly, I skipped the gender-specific questions – and headed straight to the questions on development and foreign intervention.

“What do you think of the international presence in Afghanistan?” I asked the crowd.

An older teacher, with wrinkled, loose skin and hollowed-out cheeks was the first to respond, “Projects in Yakawlang are done by our own people – not the foreigners,” he said angrily, “UN Habitat did not correctly set up a hydropower system, so we have to pay for generators!  We have no library and no laboratory!”

A man on the left, with bloodshot blue eyes, and a red-tipped, veiny nose, piped in, “Everyone has come here, done a small work, and then have left!”

“I think they have not done a good job here.  In fact, I think they’ve done nothing for us!” the first teacher yelled, gruffly crossing his arms.

That’s an interesting take, I thought.  CARE built this school, UNICEF provided its materials, and the PRT constructed the latrine and the well out back.  The teachers themselves were enrolled in classes, funded by the Kiwis, to increase their level of education and enhance their teaching abilities.  And I knew of a number of other projects ongoing in Yakawlang specifically.  In the greater Bamyan area, I heard of a new development project hourly: roads, radio, schools, clinics, agriculture, etc.  These projects were all flawed, some deeply.  But they existed in abundance – too great of an abundance.  The claim therefore, which I’d heard often, that we were doing nothing (or not enough) – irritated me.  If all this investment in development qualified as nothing, what could possibly qualify as something?

I listened with pseudo-patience as another teacher repeated the now oft-told tale, “If a school burns down in the south of the country, the foreigners will rebuild it the next day.  If it burns down here, they will never rebuild it!”  Kandahar and Helmand, I sighed.  The perpetual reference points.

I left the school fuming.  We’d created a culture of expectation, I thought – again and again.  And I’d heard it all before.  Aid dependency and excessive hand-holding undercut our ambition to create a relatively stable, accountable, self-governing state.  But I took a breath and reminded myself that not only was I oversimplifying the complexity of the situation, I was generalizing.  Many of the conversations I’d had here had not gone this way, even with the villagers — the most destitute of the groups I had spoken with.  And we (being the US) were nothing if not extremely culpable in the historical underdevelopment of this region.  That of course, didn’t alter the fundamental, larger questions – in what capacity should we be in Afghanistan, to what extent is our national security dependent on our presence there, are our goals realistic, are they achievable, what are the viable alternatives to COIN – etc. etc.  But it didn’t give me license to be as angry as I was, either.

On to the next, I thought.  Hopefully, this one will go better than the last.


About Afreen

I'm a Masters student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I'm spending the summer in Afghanistan working for a women's rights organization, and documenting their initiatives in central Afghanistan.
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