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Good intentions pave road to hell

One expression you are likely to hear if you spend any time with the US Army in Afghanistan is “too easy”.

During the three and a half weeks I spent as an embed journalist, I found nothing that was “too easy”.In my first dispatch from Afghanistan I wrote about how the Kabul International Airport seemed like any other airport in South Asia. Well, that is upon arrival. Departure is a completely different matter.

Those who feel that progress is being made in Afghanistan only need to try and catch a civilian flight out of the country to know there are big problems. Before you even get to the airport entrance there are two security checkpoints,which require you get out of your car or taxi and go through a screening with and without luggage.

Then you board a bus with your luggage and drive to within a couple of hundred metres of the airport entrance where you are dropped off and pass through another security screening. And you still have not entered the airport.

Now there is another screeningbefore you can check in and get a boarding pass. Then you are obliged to wait in the mother of all immigration queues that is about as outdated as the first passenger plane. And then another security screen.

My last few days in Afghanistan were spent in Kabul.I finished my embed and decided to see the city that charmed the great mughal warrior Babur with its intellect,arts and entertainment. And it is the same city that in the last 10 years has witnessed billions of dollars passing through its environs.

If the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions is true, it must have certainly been modelled on Kabul. The amount of pledges and promises that have been bestowed on this once great city in the last 10 years has become a running joke.

Speaking of roads, there is a good road from Kabul International Airport to the city, but that is about it. The majority of the roads in Kabul are a disastrous mix of mud and mortar with potholes that can swallow even the best SUVs. And just like in Phnom Penh, there are plenty of expensive Toyota Landcruisers with well-known aid and development logos painted on the doors that are bolted down with the latest anti-bullet armour. They must be busy delivering aid, because there is precious little development going on.

“You Americans mean well, but do nothing, while the Soviets meant harm, but built many things,” said the elder.

I had come to Afghanistan with questions that I hoped to find the answers too. As a writer, I wanted to do more than just sit around the cafés and bars of Phnom Penh and Bangkok throwing up theories and discussing a topic as important as Afghanistan without having some firsthand knowledge.
As my time wound down and I prepared to leave, I realised that in fact the opposite had happened, for I now had far more questions than when I arrived.

Here are a few:

  • What exactly is USAid? And why are they so prominent inAfghanistan?
  • Why is India trying so hard to gain favour in Afghanistan?
  • Is US foreign policy smarter than it appears?
  • Is the US financing certain“coalition” partner’s military bills in Afghanistan? And if so, why?
  • Who really benefits from the occupation of Afghanistan? (Answer: not Afghanistan)
  • At Bagram Air force Base outside Kabul, it has been reported that in one command and control room there is a mission statement that has“Contain Iran” in the number one slot. Why? 
  • Has anyone considered why Pakistan wants to help the Taliban?

On the advice of the former Associated Press’s Asian bureau chief Denis Gray, I paid a visit to the Gandamack Lodge run by former BBC photo-journalist Peter Jouvenal. Jouvenal and his Afghan wife opened the Gandamack Lodge in 2001as a place where the BBC correspondents could lodge.

As a journalist, Jouvenal spent the entire ’80s with the Mujahedeen, where he covered 72 missions. The Gandamack is the home away from home for journos, diplomats, security people and civilian contractors in Kabul. Spending time with Peter at the Gandamack Lodge is just like going to Cantina down by the riverside in Phnom Penh and talking with Hurley and Michael Hayes, both of whom covered the Khmer Rouge in the early ’90s.

As Hurley will tell you, there is nothing worse than an expat who has spent a couple of months in Cambodia and all of sudden becomes the “instant expert” on all matters Cambodian. I don’t know how Hurley handles them all, but Peter Jouvenal certainly gets his share as well.

I mentioned to Peter what I heard one village elder say to a US Army officer during ashura in Shortepa province.

“You Americans mean well, but do nothing, while the Soviets meant harm, but built many things,” said the elder.

“Well, the military is not designed to rebuild is it?”Jouvenal began. “When the president of the USA or prime minister of UK says “go and do this”, the military cannot say, “we are not trained to do that”.

“They have to say, ‘right you are, Sir’, and off they go. The big problem is these militaries do not understand the local culture. I mean, how can you communicate with a normal Afghani when you are laden down with body armour, weapons and travel in big convoys?“

''When the special forces were here in 2002 and 2003 with their long hair and beards and T-shirts, they did a much better job of interacting with locals.

“Another problem about building here is the lack of competence due to lack of education after the Soviets were expelled,” continues Jouvenal.“For example, the road from Kabul to Jalalabad was built by the Chinese and European Union using all Chinese labour,while local Afghanis looked on from the side of the road.

“Unfortunately, many of these Afghan companies cannot do the work that they are outsourced from USAid or other aid and development agencies. Look, the West fought a proxy war in the ’80s and we had a duty to rebuild and we turned our back.

“Everybody here is just going through the motions of what a great job we are doing.What the West promised has been a complete failure. If you live outside these compounds and two inches of bullet proofglass and meet the Afghans that is plainly obvious.

“What bothers me is that the opportunity is being lost and the credibility has been damaged,” says Jouvenal.“When I first came here in the ’80s the locals treated us with respect and hospitality. Now they are completely fed up with governments promising this and that project but delivering nothing.

“The Afghans have picked up on the fact that the US is more concerned with regime change in Iran than peacebuilding here. And all the other countries here are just supporting America.”

“Afghanistan is like a beautiful courtesan. And at present she has many suitors all vying for her favours.”

Over the course of our conversationthe subject turned to something simple like wheat.“Why does Afghanistan have to import so much wheat if it is their staple crop?” I asked Peter.
“That is simple,” he explained.“There are certain interests in the US and neighbouring countries that want to sell the wheat through aid programmes. You can grow it here at a fraction of the price that it is being spent to ship it from the US. Just like the Polish military imports Coca-Cola from Poland, and Italy imports bottled water from Italy, and so on, even though we have those products readily available here.

“But there is more money to be made by importing goods.“To sum it all up for you,”concluded Jouvenal, “Afghanistan is like a beautiful courtesan. And at present she has many suitors all vying for her favours.”

During my embed I met one US Army officer who was planning on retiring from the military after his tour of duty was finished. To my great surprise, he advised me to write exactly what I saw. He said: “Does a camera take sides? No, it just records a picture. Write what you see.”

For sure there are some successful projects that ISAFforces and aid agencies have been involved in throughout Afghanistan. It is just that in the month that I was there I never saw any of them.

In my first dispatch, I mentioned how the military operates with acronyms for everything. As I took one last look around Kabul and Afghanistan before leaving, I thought of one more appropriate acronym they could use – FUBAR.



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