Posts tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Letter from Afghanistan VI

Sent on 29th September 2010, in this letter our correspondent talks about being caught up in the fringes of the Bakhtar guest house attack which occurred shortly before the (cancelled) Presidential election run-off and returning to Kabul for the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Greetings loyal readers, your intrepid correspondent is back in Afghanistan for the parliamentary elections this time. Before I comment on current conditions and life in the Afghan capital, Kabul, I would like to return to last year. I penned a brief farewell letter to colleagues on leaving but did not say anything about the events leading up to a very abrupt departure. The reasons will become clear as you read on.

Doubtless many of you will have followed the news at the time of the presidential elections and read stories of “irregularities” in the voting. I will not cover that subject here as it there was more than enough media coverage and pronouncements from various pundits at the time. Not all of these statements were helpful to those of us working in the country and indeed some of the more inflammatory remarks were made by individuals as they were leaving Afghanistan. Thanks a bunch, guys.

Now to the events of Wednesday 28 October 2009, a long time ago you may think but not a date I will ever forget. At around 6am several Taliban/AGE (Anti Government Elements)/insurgents, attacked the Bakhtar Guesthouse with a combination of small arms fire, grenades and ultimately suicide vests. At the time I was in my guesthouse not very far away and awoke to the sound of automatic weapons fire and explosions to be shortly followed by an understatement of a text message announcing that there was a serious incident underway in Shar e naw district and that all staff were to report their location and stay put. For almost two hours a firefight ensued between the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the insurgents. During this time the majority of the inhabitants of the guesthouse managed to get to safety due in no small part to the courage and sacrifice of others, both international and national. I will not go into specifics, some of you reading this will have your own memories of that day and some were a lot more personally involved than I was. Throughout the attack I was in my room with the sounds of explosions and gunfire seemingly outside the gates of the house. Let’s get one thing straight I was terrified, I have never been through anything like that before and I hope I never do again, how the people who received phone calls from some of those trapped inside coped I will never know. Gradually news filtered through of fatalities and the enormity of the tragedy became clearer. Hearing that friends and colleagues had been killed in a brutal and senseless manner left me numb and shocked, the moment for anger and tears was still to come.

The UN declared a White City, no movement whatsoever. That night I slept fully dressed on top of my bed, boots, spectacles, the lot. The following morning I found out that an attempt was to be made to search Bekhtar and recover personal possessions of the former residents, many of whom had fled in their nightclothes or what little they pulled on prior to escaping. I decided in my infinite wisdom to volunteer to help with this task, anything was better than staying in my room. My offer of help was accepted and so mid morning on Thursday I was at the scene with a very few others including some survivors to begin the task of search and recovery. I have to say now that the ANP presence was a disgrace, not only was a senior officer’s son roaming around the fire gutted building but the majority of them were sitting at a table in the courtyard eating, seemingly oblivious to the evidence of events around them, bloodstains on the tiles and body parts in full view. After negotiations with the senior police officer we were eventually allowed to do what we were there for, a room by room search. As we went around the building it was obvious that there had been some looting, clean ash free places suggesting that an I pod, camera, laptop or mobile phone had been picked up by some vulture. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as there are always those who will want to profit from other people’s misfortune. It was a harrowing day but with its lighter moments, a fridge in one room that had been affected by the fire had burst open and whatever was in there had transformed an otherwise mundane household object into a Dali-esque work of art. On a higher floor the person in front of me unwittingly stood on a full, unopened one litre carton of chocolate milk. If there had been any justice it would have projected the contents straight up his trouser leg, instead the entire one litre shot backwards and covered my good self. All I could do was laugh.

As we were loading the cars and vans with a large number black rubbish bags containing the possessions of the Bekhtar inhabitants the assembled journalists would try to photograph the names on the bag labels, anyone putting a camera in my way was liable to get a very close up view of a moving bag, enough said.

After a whole day’s searching and packing we left in an escorted convoy for the main UN base some 15km outside the city where, at the base social club, survivors were reunited with their belongings. Well actually most of them were, due to the fire a few unfortunates were literally left with nothing but the clothes they wore. That night I needed a beer or three and in the company of a couple of friends I had several, I suppose I was trying to drink to forget, dumb idea, it doesn’t work I can assure you. That night I stayed away from my guesthouse with others from the project who were wise enough to recognise that I was in no fit state to go home, even with an escort. A word of advice, when someone tells you to make sure the water heater is switched on before you go to sleep try not to forget these wise words within a nano second. I do have an excuse, there was a fairly strong earthquake that night which produced a kind of fatalistic hysteria and I was drunk.

The following day saw all project members gathering at the office in town before heading out to the base for a memorial service. The social club was packed, not only were we all there but a large number of other UN staff attended. Someone had contacted the Italian embassy in Kabul and a senior Roman Catholic priest conducted what was for the most part a non-denominational service. Friends of the victims spoke as well as UN officials and especially the head of our project who alluded to my sleeping fully dressed, I don’t mind because I am sure other people did and it’s good to realise you are not the only one who felt like that.

Afterwards the survivors were taken to the airport for a flight to Dubai and deserved VIP treatment. Those of us remaining went back to our accommodation to reflect on events and speculate on the future. That Sunday everyone was called into the office compound and the steps to be taken were spelt out. A list was projected onto the conference room screen of those who would stay, mission critical staff, and those who would be leaving as soon as possible. When I saw that I was to leave there was an immense turmoil of emotion within me, I was going home but I was leaving behind friends and unfinished work.

There then followed what can only be described as organised chaos. Destinations had to be given and HR had to book flights for a lot of people. Everyone had to return to their guesthouse and collect belongings then get back to the office in double quick time. The original plan was to get out that night but it proved impossible to get the tickets for the flight to Dubai in that short space of time. Because of a very real threat it had been decided that we were going to at the office compound that night. A kind of end of term party ensued with the occasional drink and lots of pizza, eventually everyone fell asleep on thin mattresses placed on the floors of the conference room and some offices. Morning came all too soon and a queue rapidly formed for the one shower in the gents but somehow everyone got a soaking before drying themselves on items of clothing as no towels were available. At least we all started the various journeys reasonably hygienic. At 05.00 those of us heading for the early Dubai flight left in convoy after somewhat emotional farewells to colleagues leaving later. The boss said goodbye to us all, how she managed to look so good at that early hour I do not know, personally I looked and felt awful and the idea of a day travelling did not fill me full of joy.

Kabul airport is a peculiar form of torture, populated by staff whose sole purpose in life is to make the travelling experience as difficult as possible. With the police refusing to allow our convoy any nearer than 150m to the terminal and the interminable security checks it’s enough to turn Michael Palin into a reclusive hermit. Let me condense the next 19 hours into a few words, boring, delayed flights, airport lounges and wonderfully at last Heathrow and the most fantastic welcome home.

Fast forward to about three months ago, I was approached by a former colleague and asked if I wanted to come back to Kabul and do the same job as 2009. I had to think very hard about this but decided that I would and duly sent off my CV as my job had been taken over by another organisation. After a few weeks I was telephone interviewed and offered the post subject to medical clearance. Surprisingly passed the medical, details of the cholesterol count can be found in the 2011 Guinness Book of Records, and waited for a go signal. The beginning of August arrived and I found myself in Dubai applying for my Afghan visa, the consulate was remarkably efficient compared to the London Embassy and I was on my way to Kabul.

Arrived at Kabul airport and it immediately felt as if nothing had changed, basically because nothing had. However I have to admit that the meet and greet was very efficient, no wandering to the car park to try and find a white 4×4 in a car park full of them, then it was off to the office. The office was also accommodation and very nice it was, clean, smelt good and great food, what a change from the previous year’s guesthouse. The following day it was off to my place of work to see what had been constructed in my absence. I had already seen photos of the centre so was not too surprised when it lived down to all my expectations. All the alterations to the original plan had been ignored by the architect and not passed on to the contractors, trip hazards everywhere, emergency exit, hold that, what emergency exit? Ok it looked nice in an Afghan way, Pakistani wedding cake meets public toilet, but work has been needed to get it useable in anything other than a basic form.

I somehow knew that the comparative five star lodgings must be too good to be true and lo! After a couple of weeks it was announced that due to an influx of more senior and permanent staff some of those nearer the primordial soup end of the food chain were to be relocated to a supposedly decent hotel, so four of us packed our bags and decamped. Alright the web site promised a luxury life style but the reality is somewhat different. The first rooms we were given were actually more suitable to not very fussy hobbits. The shower in my room was not adjustable in any way shape or form and was level with my sternum. Likewise the front door was about bridge of nose height, god that hurt! After some weeks all of us now have reasonable rooms, I have been out and bought a fridge as the opulent lifestyle promoted by the hotel assumes you don’t want cold drinks in the room or to keep even basics like milk for tea fresh for longer than ten minutes in a Kabul summer.

One essential of life here is the can of mosquito and fly killer. The mossies are Taliban trained, and no more than six could probably drain the blood from a medium sized bullock. Unlike the ones at my last year’s lodgings these things are almost silent and hide until lights out when squadrons will appear to dive bomb the unsuspecting meal. The hotel restaurant is limited in its menu, again the web site description paints a picture of something approaching the standard of Le Manoir au Quattre Saisons whereas the reality is more burger van without the extensive menu or hygiene standards. Needless to say use of this stunning facility is kept to an absolute minimum especially since I foolishly decided to survey the kitchen and discovered amongst other things that the salads and veg are washed in the almost certainly contaminated tap water. We are existing on lunches at our place of work, deliveries and snacks in the rooms and that seems to be adequate for us.

Nothing much really changes in Kabul, it’s still dusty, smelly and hot, well hot at least for the present. The evenings have a slight chill about them now. Perhaps this is a warning of a harsh winter to come. Over the past few weeks I have met old friends and workmates, made new friends and tried to do my job despite the various difficulties.

And finally, as I finish this letter I am in my hotel room, we’ve been locked down for four days now because of security concerns. First of all it was because of the end of Ramadan and the Eid celebrations but now a loony tunes pastor from some hickville redneck church in rural Florida has decided to burn copies of the Koran in protest at the building of a mosque near the site of 9/11, the World Trade Centre in New York. Thanks to the intervention of the US president and the wonder of the internet this inbred preacher and his buck toothed banjo playing congregation, if you can call fifty a congregation, has stirred up trouble beyond his wildest imagining. Personally I don’t think you would have to go far to exceed this guy’s imagination but you know what I mean. There have already been protests in Afghanistan with shots fired during them. The actions of idiots like this alligator wrestling retard and his single cell followers are increasing the risk to troops and others working here but providing an excuse that extremists can use to wind up the general population who would normally be fairly benign where us foreigners are concerned. Let’s hope that this story drifts back into the obscurity from which it sprung and we can concentrate on the job in hand with just the usual dangers.

To one and all of you I send my wishes that you stay well and prosper and that I see you in the very near future.

Letter from Afghanistan V: The Potato Exchange

Sent on 31st August 2009, in this letter our correspondent talks about the local markets.

This past week has been almost normal, I mean that I have been getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home and eating the, by now, legendary bad food. Therefore I thought I’d try to paint in words a few pictures of life round here. Now there have been quite a few books written about Afghanistan in general and Kabul in particular but nothing beats living here for making you appreciate almost everywhere else in the world.

Yes the people are charming and hospitable but those characteristics disappear as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car. Then they are fearless warriors charging into battle on their steeds complete with flowing robes and flashing swords held aloft. Ok the steeds do tend to be Toyotas in various stages of decomposition bit they do have the robes and probably more than a few have the swords or some other armament tucked away. It seems that traffic laws, if they exist and even I can’t believe that a whole department of traffic police exist solely for the purpose of extracting al fresco taxes from the motoring populace, are merely an advisory including which side of the road to drive on, the correct way to go round roundabouts (traffic circles for my transatlantic readership) and that one way streets really should be one way and not just the one way that someone feels suits his planned route.

The net result of this is gridlock of the kind that totally belies the low percentage of car owning here but of course you can also throw donkey carts, horse carts and herds of goats into the equation. If this somewhat unstable mix is then given a good stir courtesy of the traffic police on point duty then anything can happen. A favourite trick of these guardians of the highway occurs when they work in teams at a complex junction the definition of which seems to be any choke point in the road system with the potential to cause chaos. Instead of working as a team they perform as individual prima donnas each with their own personal style. However the end result is always the same, each of them will wave through traffic supposedly under their control without even pretending to look at the other officers. No one stops to think that the other traffic is moving, they all rush to the centre of the junction and stop. There then follows some bizarre dance of the cars as the upholders of law and chaos attempt to move enough cars to create a gap, a bit like one of those little games where tiles are shifted around a grid with just one space. Eventually everything is sorted out only for the problem to shift somewhere else and life carries on.

Another aspect of driving here is closely linked with the lack of a proper sewage system in Kabul. Between pavement and road (sidewalk and pavement) there is in most places a gully . This gully or channel varies between 200mm and 400mm in width and around 600mm deep. The depth is a bit difficult to gauge as it is usually impossible to see the bottom on account of the contents. For the most part the channels carry some sort of liquid, I don’t know precisely what the mixture is and I don’t want to, if you then add the detritus that abounds in the city streets the resulting evil mix certainly makes its presence felt on a warm day. The thing that really amazes me is that I have never seen a car put a wheel down one of these things despite every available millimetre of road space being utilised. I have seen a motorbike in one but i think the stand was broken and the owner had simply parked it there in order to keep it upright.

Of course on some streets the kerbside is lined with stalls selling freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with the bacteria laden local water or maybe fresh produce such as tomatoes or water melon. This brings me on to the next part of my letter and eventually the meaning behind this week’s title. The one product/service culture. I mentioned the stalls selling the lemon drink and tomatoes well this goes a lot further. Street traders invariably deal in just one product, in the case of fresh produce you will see whole stalls filled with apples, bananas, grapes, water melons or some not readily identifiable green stuff and this will be just the one item not a mix of produce.

This practice goes beyond street traders and stalls and extends to whole streets. The most famous ones are called Chicken Street and Flower Street. These are the actual names on the road signs, Chicken Street quite obviously sells chickens as well as a variety of other animal bits, the chickens are very fresh and in most cases are clucking until the money is handed over, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the other meats on display, very often hung up outside the shops. As if being contaminated with the bio hazard dust and used as a meeting place for flies wasn’t enough then the joint or carcass can cut up on the bandsaw in the street or put through the mincer powered by a car engine. Neither of these machines will have been cleaned in decades save for the half-hearted occasional wipe over with the all-purpose rag that five minutes before was being used to clean the car windows or another task which I will leave you to speculate about.

Flower Street sells flowers but even here things are not what you would expect. It’s all artificial flowers made of paper, plastic or cloth in some of the brightest shades never seen in nature. Everywhere you go you will find the most ornate and bizarre floral arrangements, indeed some of them on the tables in the guesthouse are so large it’s like trying to talk to the guy across the table through a jungle. There is another reason for the many shops selling the artificial flora, weddings. Now I have no idea how the wedding venues are decorated but cars taking the bride and groom as well as the guests to weddings are decorated in the most elaborate manner. This is all part of the service offered by the Flower Street shops and it is carried out at the kerbside thus reducing the available free road to one car width if you are lucky.

There are other streets which have a one product or service aspect, near to me is a preponderance of sari shops, further down the road it becomes what I have dubbed Toilet Street because every shop sells porcelain products. Think of a commodity and there’s likely to be a street full of shops dealing in it. Tyres, metal gates, rope, computers, you name it and I bet you’ll find it here. On the way to work we pass through a particularly shabby district which deals in vehicle parts, it is said that this is where the locals come to buy back their wing mirrors, hubcaps and other easily collectable spares which get collected by others at night.

About now you may be wondering what potatoes have to do with this week’s ramblings, well I will get to the point. At the foot of the hill leading up to the Intercontinental there is a partially completed road with a reasonably good surface, every morning a selection of horse-drawn carts are parked there along with drivers and several young boys. On the roadway are heaps of potatoes and onions which presumably have arrived on the carts. The boys seem to be picking over these heaps and sorting in what must be a crude grading process. The vegetables are then loaded onto carts and everybody goes away, there doesn’t seem to be any cash changing hands or any locals arriving to buy for home use merely an exchange of produce.

It was at this location that I witnessed the coming together of two of the subjects previously mentioned, the waste channels and the unidentifiable green stuff. This horse and cart driver was parked up near the potato guys with his load of greenery when i saw him take bunches of it and rinse it in the gully. I made a mental note not to eat anything remotely like that ever while I am here.

On that delightful thought I will round off this week’s letter, it’s been a quiet one by local standards at least in Kabul and I can only hope that it stays like this. Good bye for now and I hope it won’t be too long before I see some of you in person again.

Letter from Afghanistan IV

Sent on 14th August 2009, in this letter our correspondent discusses the final week before the elections

Yet another week has absolutely flown by. Your intrepid correspondent has not had time to put thoughts onto the screen before today which is Friday 21 August 2009.

It’s been a rather eventful week as many of you will already know with numerous incidents. I can’t say I really like the word incident when it’s used in the context of some of the happenings here but I don’t suppose the official report writers are allowed to use descriptions such as atrocity or mass murder. The week started with one such “incident”. A suicide car bomb got to within thirty metres of the main entrance to ISAF headquarters, how he got that close and through the other checkpoints is still the subject of investigation and much speculation. Anyway the bomber killed no foreign troops but did manage to kill and injure large numbers of his own countrymen, I just do not know what goes through the minds of these lunatics.

Then on Tuesday an ISAF convoy just off the Jalalabad Road was the target of another of these explosive laden Toyotas. This time a UN vehicle was caught up in the mayhem and two local staff were killed. Because military convoys are the main target of the one way taxis our drivers have instructions to stay at least fifty meters from ISAF vehicles to lessen the chance of becoming collateral damage. Personally I like the hundred meters version of this practice and would actually prefer to be a lot further away, possibly another country.

Throughout the week the saga of the audio-visual and simultaneous interpretation equipment has been running with all the allure and satisfaction of one of Kabul’s open sewers. All this expensive gear had been sat in Dubai for days and promised delivery dates came and went but nothing arrived. As you can imagine there was much shouting and screaming, and then we let the carrier’s local representative down from the rack. No, seriously we were e mailing everybody we could think of at the airline as well as the shippers but nothing seemed to happen except an ever-expanding list of excuses and a growing feeling that if this did show up it could be just in time for the 2010 elections.

On Wednesday we stripped out the small conference room we had been using so that at least we had a PA system, ISAF arrived with decent microphones and an interpretation system and we had promises of a lighting set from Afghan Television.

Thursday morning and imagine how I felt when I received a call from logistics that our man at the airport could actually see the aircraft and was driving towards it with trucks. Normally I wouldn’t welcome being woken up at 06.30 but I was definitely prepared to make an exception for this call. Christmas had come early and I couldn’t wait to unwrap the presents. It actually took another three hours for the shipment to arrive at the hotel and then a while longer to negotiate the security who, first of all seemed intent on making everything come in the long way rather than through the nearest entrance, then wanted to search all the boxes. I refused point-blank to open all this in the hostile dusty environment of the hotel car park so eventually a compromise was reached and a K9 explosives search unit wandered over the boxes, sniffed and went away. I suppose I should be grateful the dog or the handler didn’t hang around to mark out their territory.

As this was only three hours before the first press conference only basics were set up, audio distribution for the press and the projectors. Afghan TV arrived and in their usual style attempted to take over the show. I was prepared to be generous as they had at least turned up with the lighting so just this once they were allowed to place their own microphones.

Over Thursday and Friday we managed to rig the new loudspeakers and microphones as well as the interpretation system. This was a massive team effort and everything came together splendidly. At this point I have to say a special thanks to our ISAF liaison team. They joined in with the set up and provided good company and humour over the days they were with us. How they managed to do that after being stuck at the hotel over two nights because of the movement restrictions imposed on them I do not know but I shall always be grateful to them. On election day they even noticed that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for most of the day and brought a pot of tea to me as I was working at the sound desk. Guys you know who I am talking about, thank you for everything.

As for the election it has been deemed a success in terms of voter turnout. Yes there were a large number of incidents across the country and Kabul experienced some small explosions and shootings, a bit like South London really, but here at the media centre we had the impression of being in the eye of the storm, a dead calm had descended on the place. Life was strangely normal, we sat down and had tea and meals and you could have been almost anywhere except for a couple of little hints that this wasn’t a normal setting. The car park was full of armed police and most importantly the service in the coffee shop was typically Afghan, at least an hour and sometimes more for a simple snack such as a burger or a grilled cheese sandwich.

I’ve had a few days staying at the hotel treating myself to the unaccustomed luxury of hot water from the shower whenever I wanted it, I didn’t care that the air conditioning didn’t work or that the television was dead, there was hot water. The other bonus was breakfast, alright there is no bacon or black pudding but the buffet had plenty of other goodies, enough to temporarily displace the memory of local bread and Happy Cow cheese.

The actual press conferences have been going well and the local staff are gradually getting the hang of the equipment, all I have to do now is convince them to pay attention and not miss microphone cues or play with open-ended cables thereby causing hum on the system.

Well that’s a week which commenced with the bombing at ISAF but which didn’t seem to produce the levels of mayhem that was widely expected. Nonetheless innocent people have been the victims as is usual in any country which is basically at war with itself. Casualty figures are still rising and more coffins are being returned home but if I was asked if this was all worth it I would have to say yes. The average Afghan is a nice person despite their propensity as a race for fighting and they deserve a chance to stay out of the clutches of the lunatics that ran this country back into the dark ages. All that will remain to be done is to convince the majority of the male population to start treating women as human beings and for the place to have a president who is strong enough to stop buying off warlords and religious groups at the expense of the ordinary people.

Letter from Afghanistan III – The Beer Seller of Kabul

Sent on 14th August 2009, in this letter our correspondent reflects on another week in Kabul and the human cost of the conflict.

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic and an unfortunate by-product of this is that alcohol is nominally not available to the citizenry but there are supplies to be had both from official and unofficial sources. On the legitimate side our source is the bar at UNOCA where as you already know I partake of the occasional beverage with my mate Dennis when we go shopping for supplies. If a person doesn’t have access to UNOCA then they are forced to buy on the black market in places such as Flower Street at a substantial premium or as required in their guesthouse or hotel. When a guesthouse sells someone a beer this can involve a house boy going to the beer seller and by the time it gets to your table not only is it warm but a $1.00 beer has become a $5.00 beer. The internationals at the Intercontinental are mostly confined there and anyway don’t have access to the UN base. This includes the European Union Election Monitors who are Brussels’ civil servants lording it around the place as if they were back home. As they seem to be mostly French I would not be too unhappy to find the place a smoking ruin when I arrive in the morning, well maybe just the top floor which appears to be the principle habitat of these refugee purveyors of onions. Anyway I digress from the main theme, one international elections observer asked if I could supply him with beer. As he was 1) English and 2) not from the EU delegation, I duly agreed. Once a case of Heineken had been purchased it was taken to the hotel on one of our usual press conference days, the recipient was phoned when we arrived and a rendezvous was arranged in the car park, unfortunately when he arrived he had forgotten to bring a bag or box with him, you just don’t walk into a government-owned hotel with a case of Heineken under your arm, so more waiting until he returned with cover for the contraband. Money changed hands and another happy customer wandered off to stock up his fridge.

It been just another standard week in Kabul, dust, flies and dire food have been in abundance. Luckily I have not been revisited by the dreaded Kabul stomach which afflicts so many of the international community here, possibly because I am tending to eat out or get a good take away at lunchtime and not having much at the guesthouse. Vegetables continue to be a very rare item in my diet simply because I don’t like them cooked in diesel for 10 hours before dinner. I’m not joking, as I left for work this morning I peeked into the kitchen and the rather unhygienic looking chef, he could have been the chief stoker off the SS Great Britain from the state of his clothes, was just starting to cook tonight’s dinner. The technique seems to be cook everything for the same amount of time, i.e. a lump of mutton is cooked long enough to render it tender but the cauliflower goes on at the same time. Once cooked to oblivion the food is then left to acquire a temperature somewhere between that suitable for a one year old child and stone cold. Of course on the way it has passed through optimum bug breeding temperature with its usual dire consequences. If a guest has the temerity to mention that the food is a bit chilly a member of staff will slink away and reappear with a small chemical fuelled heated to place underneath the food. Of course he will then need to refill it from a plastic molotov cocktail kept under the serving table so that the pungent odour of the fuel adds its own special something to that whole dining experience. He will then light this tin with the flourish of a magician producing a newly repaired sawn in half assistant and at the same time ignite the spilt fuel on the tabletop, his hand and the floor.

None of this is cause for concern to the staff who just wander off to watch some Bollywood movie or Afghan soap opera on the big screen television which dominates one wall of the room. Don’t get me wrong this is not a state of the art LCD or Plasma television, it is a massive cabinet of the projected television type that were popular a few decades ago before flat screen technology. It is constantly out of focus and has a sound system which would reduce Pavarotti to a George Formby sound-alike. Despite these technical failings I have more pressing reasons to dislike this intrusion into my senses. Firstly I have become used to relative peace and quiet during meals so that I can just eat or engage in conversation with my fellow inmates, secondly the staff will continually switch this monstrosity to a channel in a language that nobody except they understand. When asked for BBC or CNN or simply to switch it off they do so with as much bad grace and sulking as can be collectively mustered, a bit like the reaction to be expected from a child from whom you’ve taken away the crayons he was using to redesign a Pugin wall hanging or the look of puzzlement on a cat’s face when the feline finally realises that the small creature its been tormenting for hours has finally expired.

As we approach the final few days before the election speculation is rife as to what will actually happen. Rumours abound about possible violence before polling day, the Taliban have threatened to block roads and otherwise disrupt the electoral process but yet another rumour says that they are going to take a step back and let the various political factions start all the trouble.

Obviously organisations such as the UN have to make contingency plans for any eventuality which could range from a peaceful election to full-scale civil unrest. One worrying sign is that our office is now stuffed with bottled water and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) aka US Army rations also known as Meals Rejected by Everyone. We have yet to be informed as to if and when these will be distributed and I for one will be happy to see them. For the senior members of my readership who remember army “compo” rations these MRE’s are a whole different ball game, each pack contains one main meal plus cake/cookie, crackers, jelly (jam in english) and beverage, coffee. The main meal is in a sachet and can be eaten cold but these ration packs come with a heater bag for each main meal. The heaters are simply activated with water which starts a heat-producing chemical reaction, main meal bag is placed inside the heater bag and hey presto 10-15 minutes later you have a hot meal. I’ve yet to figure out how to make tea with this system but there will be a way I’m sure.

Before I go I must add a few lines with a more sombre tone. Almost every day you folks back home will be seeing accounts of yet more UK casualties here, sometimes you will also see reports of US ones as well. It’s easy to forget that several of the other forty countries involved in ISAF are also losing members of their armed forces. Amongst these are the Germans, Canadians, Poles and Australians, smaller contingents than the UK and US admittedly but still having people killed and injured, however the units taking the most casualties are the Afghan National Army (ANA), and the Afghan National Police (ANP). The ANP alone is losing on average 120 members a month to enemy action.

These elections will not bring an end to the troubles here and indeed may cause more in the short-term but one thing is certain, British and other forces will be here for a very long time and it is up to all of us to make sure our government, whatever its political complexion, gives our fighting men the equipment and back up they need while they are here and provides the best possible care for the injured on the battlefield and when they return to the UK.

Last but not least let us not forget the families of those killed and injured. They deserve the goodwill, compassion and support of the whole community, let their voices be heard above those of the so-called anti-war brigade. If the families wish to criticise our country’s involvement here they have every right to do so, just as if they wish to support it but let’s stop giving air time to those who know nothing about the situation here and have no idea of the personal sacrifices that take place on a daily basis.

I sincerely hope that these last few paragraphs have made sense to you, with any luck the coming week will be a quiet one and I will be able to report from here with more of the funnier side of life in Kabul.

Letter from Afghanistan II

Sent on 7th August 2009, in this letter our correspondent talks about trying to get the media centre ready ahead of the election.

This week I have tried to structure the jottings from dust bowl central into something approaching chronological order, always assuming I can work out what day of the week it is. The new week dawned on Saturday and, after a party Friday night, I stayed in bed till 7am when, thanks to various wild swipes at the alarm clock, I could no longer reach it to hit the snooze button.

Saturday itself contained no surprises and even less work. Highlight of the day was going to be a meeting with the architect of the new purpose-built media centre hereinafter referred to as the MC. Despite being contacted a week ago and me sending him a list of suggested alterations to his vision of Versailles in Kabul, there had been no reply to confirm that the meeting would actually happen. Wafa, as he likes to be called, remained elusively silent. So imagine my surprise when I was called to the gate to vouch for this gentleman. Our meeting was by Afghan standards short and to the point, although the ritual tea, without which no meeting is complete, was consumed before business commenced.

Bearing in mind I am no architect and have the artistic bent of an aphid, between us, we came up with some sensible alterations to the building design which is in a style known locally as “Pakistani Wedding Cake”. Apart from some very necessary technical changes, Wafa agreed that emergency exit doors to complement the one entry/exit in his design would be a very good idea, we also managed to lose a row of small windows 6m up the side walls which were supposed to be supplementary air conditioning, but said daylight intrusion to me.

Sunday it was supposed to be a regular press conference at 10.00. Today all concerned had a shock when it actually started at 10.30 and was conducted in a fairly orderly manner. As it was approaching lunch, it was decided to head for the main UN base for a pizza. Unfortunately, before reaching there, the driver was called and told to turn round and head back into the city, as there was some sort of problem on the road near the base.

I will now assume that my readers are not that familiar with Kabul and its environs. UNOCA, the main UN compound, is on the Jalalabad Road, which is something it has in common with a lot of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) facilities. At one time this road was considered to be one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan due to the frequency with which roadside bombs were detonated. But in recent times, the Taliban effort has headed out into the provinces. On returning to base the full story of what had happened was related to me by a security guy. Apparently, a local child had been knocked down and killed by a white 4×4 and initial suspicion fell on the UN, although it was subsequently discovered that the vehicle belonged to an NGO.

The ramifications go a lot further for all of us working here. As far as the locals are concerned, we all go around in white 4×4’s and it doesn’t matter to them if it says UN, FAO, WHO or any one of a dozen other acronyms on the side. It’s going to be very likely that aggrieved people with AK47’s are going to be taking pot shots at vehicles travelling that stretch of road and unlike our department a lot of other staff are not using armoured vehicles. Maybe common sense will prevail, but no one’s holding their breath on that one.

Monday and another media event, this time to demonstrate the indelible qualities of the ink used to mark voters fingers. Organisation of the show was absolute chaos but the demonstration was a hit. After testing various solutions – from nail polish remover to bleach on several volunteers – it was generally agreed that the only certain method of removal was amputation, although nobody came forward to help test this theory. Technically, this was not a bad day apart from one intellectually challenged member of the press, who managed to unplug the projector from the wall socket in order to charge his camera.

The drive back from the Intercontinental to the office was by my usual mad driver who today had an attack of Mr. Grumpy, so the maniac driving was laced with a severe dose of black looks and monosyllabic grunts as he tried to mow down everything in his path from elderly men on even more ancient bicycles to donkey and cart or herds of the mangiest goats you have ever seen.

I shall begin Tuesday with an open letter to The Taliban.
“Dear Mullah Omar and friends, if you must fire rockets at the American Embassy, the diplomatic quarter in general and Kabul Airport, would you please not do so at daybreak but wait until at least 07.00, 09.00 on Saturdays. I have just started to sleep through the call to prayer and the cockerel and now you lot start. So, unless you want serious trouble, I suggest you let me get my beauty sleep”.

This attack even had a snooze facility. Just as it seemed sleep was possible again, another one went off.

I should say that one child was injured and there was damage to one house, as for the rest nobody really notices any more potholes in the roads, it’s just another hole in the road and in a few days drivers will be swerving to avoid it without remembering what caused the damage. The general feeling is that this attack was long overdue and was really just the insurgents making their point that even the capital isn’t beyond their reach.

Because of this unwarranted intrusion into my slumbers, the US forces decided to spend the rest of the day flying Apache attack helicopters and Blackhawks around the city with such frequency that it was like sitting on the set of MASH or Apocalypse Now. All that was needed was a bit of napalm or a volley of air launched rockets in the air to complete the illusion.

And so to Wednesday, I really do hope this is going to be a no event day and the next thing that I write about is the feeling of an ice-cold Heineken in my hand. Managed to meander through the day without really thinking about anything except how much I miss being at home. I get like this every so often. Anyway, beer is in hand and I am at peace with the world, be even better if certain elements out there were at peace with me. Looking forward to a good night’s sleep now.

Got up Thursday morning feeling quite good, don’t know why considering where I am but there you go. Another normal Kabul day: the usual manic drive to the Intercontinental, a press conference that started a mere fifteen minutes late and was mercifully short, then back to the ELECT compound to try and make some sort of sense out of the procurement process.

In the past 24 hours it’s been decided that simultaneous interpretation is needed, something I was asking about six weeks ago. Now I could go down to the market and buy some of the Chinese copies of virtually every brand of electronics in the world, all with a three-day warranty if you’re lucky. As I want this system to still be functioning in the course of time, I put it into the permanent MC. This approach has been decided against. So now I am putting potential suppliers under pressure to send back quotes in the time that most French companies spend over lunch, needless to say none of them are getting a look in. Lets see what happens and hopefully come Saturday we will have a chosen company to fulfil this order.

Headed out to the main UNOCA base for a beer run in the evening in the company of a very jovial Ugandan called Dennis. The plan was simply to buy some cases of beer to take away and get back in the car. However once we got there it seemed silly not to have a couple of Becks and so we dismissed the driver with instructions for him to come back in two hours. Now the bar has all the charm of a supermarket booze aisle but there’s conversation to be had and its all we’ve got so beers were consumed, friends greeted and a good evening had by all.

Friday and the sun was well up by the time I stirred, just for once getting up late didn’t mean that all the hot water had gone. Hmm, the day’s going too well, I thought. I met some friends and new folk at the Serena Hotel for brunch and proceeded to pig out on delicacies, such as smoked salmon, trout, marinated vegetables and sushi for four hours. It’s a bit of an indulgence, but it has to be done.

One of today’s diners was, wait for this one, an US navy helicopter pilot. It seems he’s either very adventurous or upset somebody because he has been condemned to sitting behind a desk at ISAF headquarters in Kabul for seven months. A really nice guy, although I do think turning up in body armour and armed for brunch may have been a bit over the top.

I’ve been going over the e mails that have appeared since last night, I didn’t checking them earlier in case it spoilt my day and how right I was. Most of UNDP/ELECT are being told to stay in their residence between 17 and 24 August, with the exception of key personnel on the list attached to the message. Yes you guessed it, yours truly is on the list.

Letter from Afghanistan I

Sent on 31st July 2009, in this letter our correspondent talks about life in Kabul whilst he was living and working there. Bazz was in the city before and after the Afghan presidential election on 20th August that year.

To those of you who have not received this before Letter from Kabul just started as a few random thoughts and a sometimes slightly cynical look at life in Afghanistan and in particular from a personal view. I suppose now I should give the usual health warning and say that the views expressed herein are solely those of the writer, as if anyone else could come up with some of the ramblings that follow. So enough of this and on to the main feature.

Yet another week has gone by in the dust bowl of Afghanistan’s Slough. Hard to believe I’ve been here five weeks already, only another 8 to go. Been told to stop marking the days and weeks on the walls of my cell – sorry, “luxury guesthouse suite” – as its confusing the cleaners. They think I’m trying to leave instructions for them.

Also, had to cut down on the use of fly spray, as its being mistaken for a chemical weapon of mass destruction by the detectors on the roof of the US embassy 3km away.

Chatting with people from various UN agencies over what is jokingly referred to as dinner, we decided that there are really only 2 styles of cooking: one – everything is cooked to death in a red oily gloop; in the second version, they use a yellow oily gloop. These methods seem to be applied to most foodstuffs, with the exception of rice and fruit, although I am waiting to see if water melon gets the gloop treatment one night. A high point at dinner yesterday was the arrival of oranges, so the Red Cross parcels must have got through at last. All we need now are the escape route maps printed on silk and hidden in cigarette packets. Please note: no files to be sent in cakes – by the time they get here, I will need a file to break open the cake.

Work progresses albeit slowly, but I eventually got to spend $60,000 on a load of new equipment which if we are lucky will arrive before the elections. Getting anything done here requires lots of signatures, which is difficult because the culture seems to be along the lines of “if I don’t sign, I can’t be held responsible; and if I do sign, it must go further up the food chain, so a higher pay grade can sign and take responsibility”.

Having said that, there are a lot of UN staff here, both national and international, who are very good at their jobs and dedicated to making at least the elections project a success. Press conferences and meetings with candidates continue in the haphazard fashion that passes for organisation round here, as you can imagine time is a bit of an abstract concept. One meeting over ran by such a margin that by the time the VIPs finished talking, the buffet of kebabs, samosas etc. had been well and truly munched by security guards, drivers and the audio-visual staff.

Since we are talking about staff, I have now acquired two Afghan guys from the IT department. Both are very competent and pleasant and should do well. At a press conference on Thursday, one of them, who sports a permanent 3 day beard and an eye watering mantle of sweat, turned up resplendent in a suit of a colour I can best describe as lavender with matching shirt and tie. Predominant fashion round here tends to be shiny suits and very long pointed shoes.

Security tends to be a subject on everyone’s minds, but thankfully for us in Kabul the militants are at present concentrating their efforts on the provincial cities. Unfortunately, this is putting pressure on friends and colleagues working in those areas. We are still awaiting clarification of arrangements for late working over the election period, but for now all journeys by our department are in those nice new 8 ton Land Cruisers, which appear to have one design flaw: yes, they have armour that will stop up to a .50 calibre shell and give good blast protection, engine fire suppression systems, run flat tyres and a selection of sirens and blue lights, but nobody thought to upgrade the hand brake, so the drivers have a hell of a job doing hill starts or even getting the thing to stand still when we are parked on the slope at the hotel security point. (BAe Systems please note)

It’s Friday, the weekend, and please note this is a one day weekend. Went out last night to the main UN base for a few beers and to stock up the fridge with essentials, like wine and Heineken It was a very pleasant evening in the company of two very jovial Ugandan guys from UNDP/ELECT and we all left loaded with enough supplies to see us through the week. Stockpiling and hoarding will begin fairly soon, I suppose, as the rumours of lockdowns over the election period persist. Nobody wants to be stuck in their room without booze, crisps, chocolate and pot noodles.

I’m going to sign off now, wishing you all a safe week to come, and I will be back with more confused jottings next week.

Libya: What next?

Last Thursday in the Telegraph, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP – formerly Defence Secretary (April 1992 to July 1995) and Foreign Secretary (1995 to 1997) in the Major administration and currently chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee – wrote an opinion piece, at the end of which he concluded that we should be arming the Libyan opposition.

His opening statement

So far so good in Libya, but what about the endgame? Gaddafi can no longer use his air force because of the no-fly zone. His navy can no longer bombard towns because of the naval blockade imposed under UN authority. His army is losing tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons because of bombing and precision missiles. This is not just a no-fly zone. It is almost a no-combat zone, and all the better for it.

sums up the situation perfectly as it stood up until the opposition forces started advancing once again. A stalemate situation, reached only because Gaddafi’s forces are no match for Western air-power and cruise missiles. Where though is the end game? Plenty of people, including myself, were asking this a week ago when we first got involved.

What possible endgames exist?

1. A long term stand-off a la Iraq and the no-fly zones there;
2. Gaddafi wins; or
3. The opposition wins.

The truth of the matter at the moment is options 2) and 3) are not viable. Gaddafi can’t attack because his forces would be destroyed from the air and his opponents, as demonstrated by their Italian like progress before UN 1973 was enforced, haven’t got the fire-power. That then leaves option 1) – and with the Americans doing their best to at the very least lessen their involvement, if not get out altogether do the European countries have the wherewithal to keep up an indefinite air and naval embargo? I would say no. And when it falters the conflict will reignite and Gaddafi will probably win.

Rifkind is generally in agreement:

A divided Libya would be inherently unstable, as conflict could break out at any time. It is therefore difficult to see how the no-fly zone could be lifted while Gaddafi remains in charge. Otherwise, he would be in a position to resume unrestrained attacks on Benghazi and the east of the country as soon as the allies had withdrawn.

So what is to be done? Withdraw and let Gaddafi get back to doing what he was doing, force him out ourselves as has been suggested or move from conflict prevention to openly aiding the opposition?

Rifkind suggests the latter. He believes that we should be openly negotiating and advising those opposed to Gaddafi on how to form a westernised method of government. He doesn’t use those exact words but

… advice and help on how to create the institutions of government, the rule of law and a free media. That is not only urgently needed, but would help ensure that the ultimate replacement for Gaddafi would be a new government supportive of democratic reform, rather than one willing to install a new secular or religious tyranny.

can mean little else.

Haven’t we tried this before recently, in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Neither of those can be said to be a success story even if Iraq is just about on an even keel albeit with underlying tribal and religious tensions. Afghanistan though is a failure where central government has little or no meaning outside of Kabul and tribal loyalty – to one’s warlord – rules.

The talking however means nothing given the current stalemate so he suggests that we break it by arming the opposition. Again, haven’t we tried that before somewhere? Ah yes, Afghanistan when we were using the natives there as proxies in Cold War against the USSR. I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of precisely how well that turned out.

What do we know of the opposition forces? Wikipedia lists over half a dozen disparate groups which suggests that they themselves are fragmented. Their goal might be clear but if they manage to fulfil it then what happens? A stable government or ethnic and tribal warfare such as has been seen in various hotspots around the world for the last twenty plus years? The former would be nice, the latter more likely as various sides, with ‘victory’ achieved use the vacuum created to settle old scores and create new ones. If somehow a government is formed, then what manner will it take? The competing outside interests of Western, Arabic, Islamic (not always the same thing) and African states will all no doubt try to influence the outcome.

Arming these groups may lead to a short term ‘win’ in the shape of removing Gaddafi but are we just storing up pain for the longer term? If we do arm them sufficiently that they are able to go toe-to-toe with the loyal forces then should we interfere with the ground campaign? If we do we will be actively assisting the opposition in their stated goal of over throwing Gaddafi, creating an unequal playing field and probably causing even more resentment in certain parts of the Middle East and Islamic world. If we don’t and their inexperience leads to them being crushed then we will no doubt have to intervene again to stop the opposition from being utterly destroyed – and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Obviously we should never have interfered in the first place but, since political grandstanding means that we have, the question of where do we go from here needs answering – and quickly. Unfortunately I don’t think it can be and certainly not in any way that can be deemed to be satisfactory.