Final Thoughts

I pulled at an intricately woven, pale-blue burkha – on a handmade doll.  It was a gift Shuhada gave me at my going away party, replete with Afghan pastries and far too generous of thank yous.  My time in Afghanistan had come to a close.

In coming to Afghanistan to work for/research women’s development initiatives, I hoped also to gain clarity on the conflict.  To move past the halls of academia, to get a better sense of what we should do.

In learning more, I’ve gained little clarity.

Bamyan is breathtaking.  And if there’s a part of Afghanistan that’s idyllic for development, progress, modernity, etc. it’s Bamyan.  Unlike neighboring provinces in Hazarajat, Bamyan doesn’t have any Pashtun-dominated districts, and thus is both anti-Taliban and Taliban-free.  Although its many fields are ripe for opium cultivation – opium is not produced because of the associations opium has with the Taliban.  While abuses of women/girls do persist in this region, the Hazara/Ismaili communities in Bamyan do – on a relative spectrum – afford women the opportunity for greater rights than many other parts of Afghanistan.  The changes in the social fabric of this region, which would result from the full realization of these opportunities, would take a generation at least.  But the underlying conditions for change are certainly in place.

Despite the many protestations of villagers, government officials, aid workers, and advocates in the international community – there’s quite a bit of development ongoing in Bamyan.  Aid per capita figures are very hard to come by, and are incomplete at best.  The most recent figures I was able to find from the Ministry of Finance were for 2007 – 2008, which only captured approximately 80% of all reconstruction and development.  These figures put Bamyan before Helmand province in terms of NATO’s spending per capita.  Again – there’s a considerable amount of opacity in how these numbers are determined, and they’ve changed since 2007 – 2008 with our increased investment in this war.  But the argument that the international community ignores secure regions of the country in terms of assistance, focusing all its energy on the insecure regions, and thereby creating perverse incentives for secure regions to become insecure – doesn’t necessarily hold – at least if you look at aid per capita figures (vs. aid per province).

This is, of course, a war of perceptions and ideas.  People have argued that even the perception of being ignored in terms of assistance could create incentives for insecurity.  While the perception that Bamyan is ignored is widespread amongst its population, the Hazara will not invite or foment insecurity as a result of it.   Their memories of massacre are too immediate and run too deep.

I sense that I’m speaking too specifically.  The Hazara account for only 9% of Afghanistan’s total population, and the province that I’m speaking of is certainly an anomaly in a violent and impoverished nation.  It’s impossible to generalize based off of what I saw there, in Kabul, or elsewhere.  But while many criticisms of Afghanistan are legitimate, I reject the increasingly held notion that Afghanistan is a backward, immalleable, wasteland, and that our efforts there are futile.  Progress has been made in many areas – particularly in health and with the community development councils.  The questions are whether the high costs, which include American lives, are worth it.

And to that end, I remain conflicted.  I could go on a diatribe about the many ways COIN is likely to fail.  I could similarly expound on the potentially explosive ramifications of a dramatic drawdown/withdrawal of resources.  But you’ve heard this all before from people with far greater expertise, and I don’t subscribe to either of these absolutes.   Nor do I yet feel equipped to calculate and weigh the risks involved with a drawdown, and the level of instability (nationally or regionally) that might foment.  I believe our many questionable compromises: propping up corrupt politicians and a farcical President, empowering warlords and local militias, paying off the Taliban to get development projects going, (now) choosing to forgo opium eradication to win “hearts and minds,” (and on) – may in turn, lead to our failure.  And yet all of these actions can be rationalized, albeit perhaps not justified, in the short-term.  It’s certainly easiest, and most popular, to throw one’s hands up in the air and declare the mission impossible, our values compromised, our decisions irreparably flawed.

Yet, as time wears on, and as we recognize our limitations – our vision for Afghanistan continues to evolve.  We started out with a desire to create a stable, legitimate, transparent, centralized, democratic state.  We’ve since mitigated our aspirations rhetorically, and are planning an ambiguous drawdown beginning July 2011, with a handover to Afghan security forces in 2014.  The ambiguous drawdown, while (rightfully) decried on many sides as providing fuel for the insurgency, is meaningful in that it’s a pledge to not commit more troops to the effort.  Both that deadline, and the hoped-for 2014 handover, are ambitious and necessary – for domestic political will, if nothing else.  These deadlines will, in due time and with hopefully strengthened institutions, force Afghan ownership of this conflict for better or worse.

As you can tell, I can’t offer any grand solutions, or vehement support for a particular side.  I aspired, in this blog, to relay versions of Afghanistan that are generally ignored by the media.  The beauty untold, the progress unseen – without pouring whitewash over the incredible complexities and difficulties involved.  I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I thank you for joining me.

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Herat

Click on the image below for a slideshow of Herat:

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Airport Tyranny

We squatted in a corner, under the sparse shade of a steel fence.  The gravel below our feet was mixed with bits of broken glass and candy wrappers.  Women in long floral printed chadors huddled together on our left.  We were in Herat, a city on Afghanistan’s Western border with Iran, waiting for our flight back to Kabul.

Herat was beautiful, but strange.  We’d spent the weekend looking at ancient architecture, crumbling minarets, intricately painted shrines of princes and Sufi poets, and a citadel built by Alexander the Great.  The city’s narrative and sense of historical continuity, though, were disjointed.  Every monument was destroyed, to varying degrees, by Afghanistan’s many wars.  But certain landmarks were favored for restoration in Afghanistan’s intermittent moments of peace.  Major restoration projects were ongoing at the Friday Mosque and the Citadel, which sparkled, bustled with activity, and smelled of wet cement.  The Minarets of Herat however, held upright by steel cables, were mostly left to dissolve tile by tile into the earth – with only a rusted Soviet-era tank or an addict for company.  This was all juxtaposed with the thousands of political flyers and campaign posters hung about every part of the city for the upcoming parliamentary elections – giving Herat an erratic feel.  The battered down and the nearly renewed of the city lived side by side in the purgatory that is its present day.

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Friday Mosque

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Interior of Gawhar Shad’s Masoleum

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Minaret of Herat

The pat-downs by women at airports in Afghanistan were always an interesting experience.  They generally involved a hard smack across my chest and a lackadaisical brush over most of the rest of my body.  The guards at the Herat airport were no different.  After my perfunctory smack, the gruff-looking guards searched through our belongings — carefully eyeing engraved copper plates we’d purchased at a shop the day before.  They handed us a slip of paper to move on.

As we squatted waiting for our plane to arrive, a guard – who had just checked us – ran us down.  She demanded to look through my bag again, grabbing the copper plates.  She called a male guard over, who looked like a policeman out of a Bollywood film, with his dark mustache, sunglasses, and beaked cap.   My patience tended to short-circuit in this country, and I thrust the piece of paper the guard had just handed us in their faces.

“You’ve just checked this!” I yelled.

The guards ignored me and argued with each other.  Eventually, they brought us back to the initial checkpoint, searched us over again, and waved us on.

Our spot in the shade was gone by this time, as ever more Afghans crouched together in the open, waiting for the flight to Kabul.  So I sat on my backpack under the brazen sun.

“The guard said she was worried you were going to use the plates to hit someone over the head,” an Afghan woman with a distinctly American accent told us.  Her jeans and sneakers peeked out from under her long black jilbab.  Her hands were perfectly manicured and full of rings, but her face was free of makeup.  She was young, and was holding an adorable toddler on her lap.

“Are you serious?” I smirked, eyeing our scrappy arms.

“Yeah, they’re ridiculous,” she replied.   It turned out she was an American citizen who fell in love with an Afghan, and after they’d married, moved here temporarily to be with him.  He’s been denied entry to the States,  “And now I’m stuck in this hellhole,” she sighed — rubbing sunblock on the face of her baby.

After another hour or so we stood up, and walked through another series of checkpoints to get to the main waiting area.

“Where are you from?” a security guard asked Katy and me.

“Hindustan [India],” I lied.

“America,” Katy responded.

The guard squinted at Katy, and asked to see her copper plates.  Despite the fact that we’d both bought them, he was only interested in hers — the American’s.  He carefully scrutinized them, calling on his superiors and others to join him.

“How much were these plates? Where did you get them?  When did you get them?  Who sold them to you?” the security guard asked Katy repeatedly, with a growing crowd of his peers encircling us.  The questions grew ever more intrusive until Katy pulled out a business card and phoned Sultan Hamidi, the man who sold them to us.  I envisioned that, by the end of this ridiculous interrogation, the guard would steal the plates from Katy and Sultan Hamidi would be detained, his famed shop raided of its wares.

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Sultan Hamidi

After about thirty minutes the security guard relented.  Keeping the phone number and address of Sultan Hamidi, he finally let Katy go.  I sighed, grabbed my bags and quickly moved past the guards – and we made our way into the main waiting area.  Less than a minute after we sat down in the women’s section, another guard tapped Katy on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, please come with me,” he said.

Katy looked over at me nervously.  I rolled my eyes and cursed the damn plates.  We rose and were guided into an air conditioned, low-lit room adjacent to the main waiting area.  It was the office of the head of airport security; and there were seven men inside, chatting casually on orange couches.

“We need to see the plates,” the head of security demanded.  He was dark-skinned and older, and sounded very serious.

Katy handed them over once again.  He looked at them for a few seconds, and said, “No problem! It’s no problem!” wrapping the plates back up in paper.

“Are you upset?  We’re sorry if you’re upset, we just have to check you see,” he tried to explain, apologetically.

Katy and I both breathed a massive sigh of relief.

“No it’s okay,” Katy replied – conjuring up a sense of patience I found inconceivable at that moment, “Do people usually steal these – “

“Don’t ask that,” I snapped.

The head of security apologized again, offered us tea, and we accepted.  I pretended I was from Hyderabad, India (where my Dad is from), and we had a conversation about the city.

“A very, very beautiful place – where you are from,” he said.

I nodded and smiled.

A fitting end to an absurd day.

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Artistry

A collection of images from sweaty attics above Kabul rug shops, the hectic backrooms of the Friday Mosque in Herat, and classes ongoing at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation.

Click on the image below for a slideshow:

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Lockdown

I slouched against a thick netted seat cover in a banged up taxi cab, my nerves raw with exhaustion.  Dust crept through my headscarf, which I’d pulled around my nose and mouth.  I was back in Kabul, in time for the Kabul Conference and subsequent citywide lockdown.

I’d been – more or less – unafraid since I landed in Afghanistan.  But for days in advance of the Kabul Conference I’d woken up to the piercing sounds of jets and helicopters cutting across the sky.  In anticipation of the conference, there’d been a suicide bombing.  A man on a bike set himself off in the middle of the day, killing three.  The roads home from the Shuhada office that afternoon were eerily free of traffic.  And every time we stalled, stuck behind a truck or waiting for someone to cross, my muscles tensed.  I found myself, then, constantly scanning my surroundings wondering if anything would detonate.

Because the city was on high alert, I’d spent the day before the conference off the roads – holed up in my small, musty guesthouse room, cleaning up and interpreting data for a report on Shuhada’s teacher training projects.  Staring at excel sheets for hours in my tiny, claustrophobic space, I began to feel nauseous and anxious.  I knew that the following day, the day of the Kabul Conference, all movement would be restricted.  That night, I had to get out.  Attacks were far less likely in the evenings, anyway.

I texted a friend to meet me at a restaurant.  The streets were nearly silent – free of the bustle that so marks Kabul’s day-to-day.  Security guards in worn olive green uniforms were out in abundance, perched with their rifles behind sandbags, carefully eyeing the seldom few passersby.  Police at checkpoints squinted into my window, and waved us on.  In those moments everything looked sharper, as though the city was washed with light.

I arrived at the restaurant without any problem.  It was empty except for my friend, sitting on her computer in candlelight.  When I sat down, I immediately felt better.

The conference itself went off almost without incident.  Insurgents launched a few rockets at the Kabul airport, causing Ban Ki-moon to reroute his plane to land at Bagram Airbase.  But unlike the Peace Jirga earlier on in the summer, there were no major bombings or firefights.  And the very next day the city was unthinking, alive, and chaotic again – grateful for the relative ease with which the event had passed.

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Band-e-Amir

We pushed against the peddles of a pink, swan-shaped paddleboat, adrift in startlingly blue snowmelt. As we neared the edges of the lake, to rest in its shadows, I reached out to touch the rough rocks.  In the seamless quiet of Band-e-Amir, I wondered if any place in the world could feel more removed from war.

Click on the image below for a slideshow of Band-e-Amir:

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Ruins of the Red City

The remains of Shahr-e-Zohak, a citadel that once protected Bamyan, are carved out of a red mountain. Dating back to the 6th century, the Red City has since seen the death of a grandson of Genghis Khan, the invasion of the Soviets, and is littered with remnants of war. I climbed it twice while I was in Bamyan – for when else would I get to spin on a rocket launcher atop a mountain’s peak?

Click on the image below for a slideshow of the Red City:

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