Afghanistan Field Journal: Day 1

I just returned from a one week trip to Afghanistan. Below I share a few posts about my experience.

Day 1

I sit on a Lufthansa airlines flight midway between Frankfurt and Dubai. In Dubai I will board an Afghan airline, Safi airlines flight 202 to Kabul, leaving at 3:30 am, and arriving in Kabul at 6:50 am.

The purpose of my trip, to evaluate the human development (health + education) portfolio of a major
international development organization.  In some ways I am on an inimitable adventure. In other ways, this adventure is not so different from that of many others.  My opportunity is distinctive in that I am one of the rare few civilians, particularly from the US that gets to peak into the events on the ground in Afghanistan.  Among the international community, especially those already in Kabul, I am just another international development consultant traversing through the conflict-ridden Afghanistan to peak into development activities.

Three days before my scheduled departure, there was an incident at Bagram, the largest American air force base 50 miles north of Kabul.  The Americans allegedly burned four copies of the Koran.  This incident is the first media reported instance of an American burning the Koran since the conservative Christian burning in Florida a few years ago, and it is the first reported in Afghanistan. It has sparked violent protests from Afghanis across the country.  Reports all vary.  Some suggest that as many as seven Afghan civilians were killed with 60 injured, while others suggest that as few as four were killed and 40 injured.

In any case, the alleged Koran burning, sparked hundreds of protests (some violent others not) throughout the Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul.   Americans initially report the incident was unintentional.  They were burning trash–a common activity for the region since there is no proper trash collection–and four copies of the Koran were accidentally included.

General John Allen and President Obama offered apologies on behalf of the United States.  Their apologies were ripe with all of the right language and cultural sensitivities.  President Karzai issued a call for peace, particularly as today is Friday and people will be worshipping and congregating around the Mosques throughout the country.

This series of events initially led to a one-day postponement of my scheduled trip. Even though riots continued for a third day today, they have been largely peaceful, and so far we have the go ahead to continue on with our mission.  We will check for further updates in Dubai.  The protests have left the local office I will visit on “Lockdown.”  People are not allowed to leave their compounds and residences, and there is heightened security.  Upon arrival on Saturday morning (the first day of the work week in Afghanistan), we will be sent off to a security briefing at 8:30 am. Our original meeting at the EU has been canceled given the security situation.  In the afternoon I will visit the Ministry of Higher Education to meet with the government coordinator of a national  higher education project that provides block grants and resources half of the 24 universities throughout the country.  I hope to get a few hours of shut-eye before that.

On a personal level I am excited, albeit a bit anxious, to visit Afghanistan.  Having lived and worked in the region (mostly in India) on and off over the past 10 years, I have always had a fascination with Afghanistan, the historical and cultural importance of the country that connects the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East. In some ways the trip feels comfortable, having packed my long sleeve salwars and dupattas to wear. On the other hand, I am anxious and nervous to visit this country so known for it’s poor treatment of women, it’s backwardness, and it’s violence.

I often think of the history of the subcontinent–from sitting in Parsi coffee shops in Mumbai, to the historical spice routes we find in Kerala, we see influences of the rich Afghani culture and life in India. The religious significance, from the Mughals and the Sufis–their culture, music, and traditions, have all shaped the Indian subcontinent over 1000s of years. Afghanistan has historically been a major trade and passage to India, but it is also rich in its
own ethnicities, from the Pashtuns to the Baluchis, and the Uzbeks and Tajiks.  Afghanistan is an
amalgamation of ethnicities, all bound together by the formation of a modern nation-state.

The last 30 years we all have seen and know the tragic ups and downs of the country, from Charlie Wilson’s attempt to fund the Afghanis, including the religious extremists, on behalf of the US of A to fight of the evils of Soviet Communism to the uprising of those very religious groups against the US (using the materials supplied by the US) to fuel the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and to train today’s existing terrorist network–the groups responsible for the World Trade Center attacks.  Afghanistan institutions are complex–layered with politicized religious fundamentalism; terrorist organizations; regular folks like you and I who just want peace; return migrants seeking to make money off of
international organizations; and an increasingly complicated international community. To its East the continued involvement of Pakistan arguably only perpetuates the activities of terrorism and the Islamist insurgency.

My interest in visiting the region is to understand, how effective have the efforts of the government and international community been to improve delivery of health and education services since the fall if the Taliban. Enrollment in primary education has allegedly increased by more than four times since the fall of the Taliban. But how do we account for this? What is being taught in school, and what are the real opportunities for girls to go to school in this society? I want verification.  I want to see with my own eyes–what is the situation on the ground for service delivery in Kabul?  How do the ministries function?

What happens to schools and health clinics when there are three days of violent protests shutting down cities? Where do women go if they need health services?

As for the big picture–where is the aid going, and how can we verify the flows of international aid? India alone spends $2 Billion (USD) on aid to Afghanistan every year–who is tracking how that money is spent? Dare I raise the question–are we funding our own war? And for the future, there are so many questions to consider as the US and NATO withdrawal troops and resources.  What is going to happen to all of the development progress?

I am not sure what kind of on-the-ground experience I will have. I surely doubt I’ll find any kind of answers to these big picture questions.  I may end up locked in a compound for 7 days.  I go with no expectations.

I carry an iPad, computer, notepad, fountain pen, ink, and a yoga mat (not to mention long underwear and hand warmers since it’s 14 degrees F and there will be no central heating in the guesthouse). Even if I am locked in a compound for seven days it won’t fail to be interesting.

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