28 June 2011

Evening Shadows (Dispatches from Kabul)

On Saturday afternoon, June 18, a group of young men approached the entrance to the Kabul central police station and proceeded to detonate a bomb attached to one of their vests while the others opened fire at whomever happened to be standing around. Nine people were killed.

When I heard about the attack, I did a mental calculation as to the last time I had passed by the police station, and when I might have passed by again.

It happened midday, about 1:30 p.m. The time when lunch is settling in your stomach. You run out for an errand, maybe, or make a phone call, squint your eyes at some emails you need to return—while somewhere else in the city people are dying.


I had come to Kabul two weeks earlier. Caught the mid-morning flight from Dubai. Ascend, up and up, over a skyline thick with high rises, sharp glass and steel that cut into the humid, polluted air like a forest of dead trees.

A few hours later we descend into Kabul. Flew in low, or at least it felt low, skimming the tips of the Hindukush mountains, which surround the city like a massive fortress.

Those mountains—staggering, raw. As imposing as thunder.

The plane bumped and jolted in the wind. Felt like we might be tossed down into those peaks, like we could be swallowed up and disappear.


I was in Kabul to support the Health Economics and Financing Directorate (HEFD) of the Ministry of Public Health as they evaluate a conditional cash transfer program that was recently piloted. The scheme gave cash to mothers conditional on them giving birth in facilities and having their children fully immunized with DPT3. The program also provided incentives to the community health workers who are supposed to encourage and help them.

As part of my assignment at HEFD, I conduct key informant interviews with health policy and program experts. They tell me about their projects—We train midwives. We create guidelines. We build capacity.

They whisper about the latest controversies, like the survey that shows a maternal mortality ratio (MMR) much lower than the one calculated in 2006—which showed an MMR of 1,600/100,000, the highest in the world. Some don’t believe the numbers. Others are worried what they will do to funding.

Informants complain about other programs, about being left out of conversations and meetings. Once I gain their trust, they lean in, keen to tell me, the rooky, what their business is really like. Their comments about their Afghan colleagues are full of admiration and distrust:

—They are great at extraction, one says. They’ve seen a lot of people like us come through.

—They’ve learned how to survive, says another.

Everyone is very helpful and misleading.


It is Friday, the Holy Day. Early morning and the compound is empty, the sky gray.

The night before, I was awoken at 3 a.m. by a tremor. Kabul is near the meeting of the Indian and south Eurasian plates and there are frequent rumblings. Suddenly awake, alert, I strain my eyes to see the ceiling, the outline of the door. I imagine the walls caving in, crumbling to pieces.

Now on the road, I’m unsure where to go. Look out the window, men and women snaking between cars on their way somewhere. Everything about them is long and elegant: long beards, long drapes of white, taupe, gray, billowy blue chadaries. My own head scarf keeps falling clumsily to my shoulders.

My driver leans heavily against the steering wheel, while the shooter in the front seat, an AK47 draped lazily between his legs, picks at his teeth. We pass by a mosque, a market, crooked back roads that lead to the foothills beyond.

The police station is on our right, the same one I will pass twice a day for the next two weeks, the same one that will be attacked a few days after I leave. I hardly notice it, though. I’m looking in the opposite direction, at a wall peppered with graffiti. Something is scrolled in blue paint in Dari next to images of birds, one after the other—wings open, flying.

I ask the driver what it means, but he doesn’t speak English well and hesitates.

Then: It means we want a better life. It means everybody should have a happy life.

I think: Of course. It means Peace.


The pub on the U.S. Embassy compound is called the Duck and Cover.

Meet some friends there one night, two young American guys working on civilian-military relations for General Petraeus. Over beer, I tell them about the incentive program whose evaluation I’ve come to support. They tell me about another incentive program, this one to empower (read: arm) local police forces, also called militias.

Despite the fact that Karzai is a Pashtun, there are many who see him and all the other vestiges of security, as illegitimate, a mere reconfiguration of domestic power structures to serve external interests.

The Afghan National Auxiliary Police and the Afghan Public Protection Program are meant to protect the people who are on the right side of the war. My friends at the U.S. Embassy believe in the program. It’s not perfect, they say, but it’s a good thing to do.

—But I thought we are trying to disarm people?

—Well yeah, one of them says, we arm the locals so they can protect themselves from the enemy.

How can you tell which is which?


There is a restaurant called Cedars House near the central business district. My colleagues and I sit outside, in the garden.

There are so many gardens in Kabul. Sprawling, with trim lawns, lined with pink and red roses.

The evening is cool. There is a quiet murmur all around us: the chink of glass, conversation in the moonlight. Our meal is slow and meandering, the conversation drifting like smoke.

My Ministry colleagues tell stories. Their days at university in California, St. Louis, the Netherlands, Liverpool. They talk about cricket on the weekends, homes full of relatives, their crowded lives. They poke fun of each other, tell jokes, talk fluidly about philosophy, poetry, literature.

Shards of their pasts are occasionally exposed. One’s boyhood as a refugee in Pakistan. The dark days of the Taliban when they all grew long beards.

I study them. It’s like trying to keep my eye on a flame. I want to understand their lives, but I’m on the outside, straining to look in.


They say some expats can’t leave warzones. They get stuck in the netherworld of expat life—behind walls, lonely but never really alone. Submerged in motion, in alcohol, some of them, in constant work. Wake up one morning and realize the only place they feel comfortable is in places where they are uncomfortable.

A storm passes through one afternoon. I’m standing underneath an overhang at the security office with Beth, a British security specialist. She’s open and friendly—shakes my hand, offers me a cigarette as we watch the rain.

She was in Iraq for a while, passed through Sudan, then Kabul.

—I tried to be normal for a year, she laughs. She moved to South Carolina, started a business. “It didn’t work.”

Later, back at the Duck and Cover, I watch her compatriots at the bar: older men with tanned, deeply lined faces, and tattoos on their arms. One wears a gold crucifix, which hangs down over a t-shirt emblazoned with expletives.

It’s karaoke night, and one of them gathers himself solemnly at the mic. A hush falls over the room while he sings:

Would you know my name… If I saw you in Heaven?


There’s a lake just outside the city. Some colleagues and I have lunch—Karayee (lamb with tomatoes and garlic), cucumbers, flatbread and yogurt—while lounging on Afghan rugs. We’re in an open-air bungalow of sorts, on stilts that juts out over a cliff above the lake.

It's a rare midday break from the office, and for a while we are all quiet together, looking out over the water, which changes color in the pale afternoon sunlight, from turquoise to shades of grayish blue.

They are like ship captains, these men: smart, realistic, ambitious, trying to navigate the choppy waters of politics and money and ego that are the stuff of the aid business.

There are something like 62 donors to Afghanistan. Six provide more than 90 percent of external support. Aid flows amount to more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product: official ODA from OECD members rose from US$87 million in 2000 to US$2.2 billion in 2005. [1]

The United States is by far the largest donor. Since 2001, the U.S. has appropriated US$127 billion for the war, and the U.S. military is currently spending nearly US$100 million per day in the country, a total of around US$36 billion per year.

The question on everyone’s mind is Sustainability. It’s the first thing informants ask when I mention the HEFD program to help save mothers’ lives. How will the Afghans, how will any of us, they ask, make this last?

One afternoon, I meet an American official who sneers at the money being “dumped” into Afghanistan. What about the taxpayers at home, she says? Too much money is never enough!

But the amount of aid that ends up in government coffers is hugely reduced by the fact that an estimated 40 percent of all aid goes back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultancy salaries (like mine, with my health insurance and pension, benefits some of my Afghan colleagues do not receive)—a total of some US$6 billion since 2001.

Later, I ask an Afghan colleague about the American official I met. He smiles thinly and looks out the window of our car.

—She has a lot of power, he says.

I think I see a flash of disgust in his eyes.


It’s early evening. A friend and I go up to the roof of the guesthouse where I stay, pull some concrete blocks together and sit down, look out over the city.

Sounds now familiar of the city at dusk: Early evening traffic jam. Some men gathered on the side of the road talking. A stray dog barking down a dirt alleyway. Beyond, the mountains stare back at us, harsh, haunting, somewhat obscured in the shadows of the setting sun.

Then the wind picks up, blowing dust and sand in our eyes. Feels like little needles against my skin.

A few days later, my friend will skype me to tell me about the attack.

I will ask him with a kind of panic if he is okay. How did it happen? Were you afraid?

And what will it take for these things to end?

—I wish I had an answer, he will say.

[1] See: Who Owns the Peace? Aid, Reconstruction and Development in Afghanistan, Jonathan Goodhand and Mark Sedra.