A Great New Year Awaits
Kabul, Afghanistan, January 5, 2005 --Greetings from a cold and, I hope for tomorrow anyway, snowy Kabul. It’s Christmas Eve 2004 and I, along with about 70 other State Department employees and some 24,000 US and Coalition forces are getting ready to celebrate the Birth of Christ in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan! When we read news reports from the States about the growing controversy over the very name of this Holiday, we all have to laugh. Here, in an Islamic State, Americans are allowed to put up Christmas decorations, sing Christmas carols and celebrate Christmas without fear that the Afghan version of the ACLU will demand that we call them "Holiday decorations" or force us to deny the existence of Santa Claus. My Afghan friends, who universally wish me "Merry Christmas", just shake their heads when they read stories about a Virginia 7th grader who was asked to leave a school dance for wearing a Santa Claus outfit! So those of us here in an Islamic state will just keep talking about Christmas while you in the States choose you words carefully to make certain the no hint of "Christmas" escape your lips in a public place.
So how goes our effort in this land of high mountains, deep valleys and harsh plains? I think the sight of three PR guys copying and stapling reports at 11:00 PM provide a microcosm of what is happening in Afghanistan. December has provided a perfect picture of what is going right in Afghanistan and also, sadly, on what could possibly cause the country to revert back to its old terrible days as a one of the world’s poorest and most backwards nations.
The good we hope, to paraphrase The Bard, oft-times outlives the bad, so let’s start with the good. On Tuesday, December 7, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan’s first freely elected President after receiving more than 55% of the vote of the both the men and, for the very first time, the women of Afghanistan in the October 9 national election. Both the election and the inauguration, each of which were threatened with violent, terrorist acts by remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda took place without any real disruptions. That they did were tributes both to the Afghan people and the many members of the "international" community that came to Afghanistan and paid a price in both gold and blood to keep to free the country and its people from more than 25 years of war and repression.
I think any of us who have been in Afghanistan as the events of the last few months have unfolded, the election, the successful conclusion of the UN kidnappings and the violence-free Presidential Inauguration, and this week’s announcement of a cabinet that reflects all elements of Afghan society, including women, are pleased at how the people of Afghanistan have taken the opportunity given to them by the US and Coalition forces and made great strides in building a free and functioning society, As I walk and drive the streets of Kabul, Mazur-al-Sharif, or Bagram, you can sense the renewed energy and drive as more and more Afghans open new businesses from the insides of dilapidated shipping containers selling everything from old car bumpers to freshly butchered sheep and goats. Traffic dominated by drivers who acknowledge no traffic laws including one-way streets, center dividers or sidewalks, rivals Bicycle Coalition Fridays in San Francisco as more and more people find work and make the terrifying commute each day. All these are elements of a burgeoning economic sector and the benefit of the decision of the Afghan government to adopt a free-market philosophy to business growth. All this bodes well for the future of Afghanistan.
However, what could put a stop to the growth, which if it increases by double-digits each of the next ten years will still only result in an average per capita income of $500 by 2015, is the complete lack of ability or desire to plan and the almost preternatural belief in the phase "Inshallah" or "If God Wills it." Going to an Afghan business meeting is almost like a trip to a nursery school. Every man at the meetings is willing, welcomed and involved in the discussion. In fact, most times too many are too involved to get anything done. One of the amazing factors in an Afghan meeting is the sheer number of attendees. I’ve been to meetings where there were more than 20 Afghans in attendance, most of whom had nothing to do with what was under consideration. When you add to the mix the tea and sweet servers and the constant ringing of cell phones, (apparently it is an Afghan custom to answer every cell phone call and never to turn it off in a meeting,) it is extremely difficult to stay on subject and get anything accomplished. When combined with the lack of an agenda and no attempt at assigning responsibilities it is pretty easy to see why things don’t get done very efficiently.
The other factor that contributes to the incredible inefficiency is the notion among most Afghans that saying "No" is not acceptable, even if one has no intention of doing what is asked. For instance, as we were planning a recent National Counter Narcotics Conference, we asked our Afghan colleagues about supplying busses for the participants to go to lunch. For two weeks we were told "no problem," though no one would acknowledge who, actually, would supply the buses. Not surprisingly, one-hour before lunch none had appeared. That’s when I took over as the "interim" Minister of Buses and Transport and conducted a full and frank discussion with an Afghan official that led to two things happening. The buses miraculously appeared and I was threatened, for the third time in my life, to be declared persona non grata in a sovereign nation. (I don’t think anyone with any knowledge of the real situation would call my leaving Guyana abruptly the "third time." I’m only counting Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.)
The other situation we see is the lack of real desire to get things done, back to that "Inshallah" mind set. And that’s were the example of the three PR guys copying and stapling at 1100 PM comes into play. The night before the afore-mentioned Counter narcotics conference at which the newly-inaugurated President was to speak, my two colleagues, one US and one UK, all of whom are fairly senior in our posts, were frantically copying and stapling Dari and Pashto versions of the next day’s programs. (We had done the English version earlier.) We were doing this mundane labor because our Afghan colleagues had not finished the translations until late and, this is the essence of my concern, had no intention of sticking around or working late into the night to make certain that the material was ready for the next morning’s event. So it was left to three Western guys to make certain the work was finished. (Some of you may be wondering why one of the crack State department admin assistants wasn’t able to help us. The State admins I have worked with, for the most part, should all have tattooed on the forehead "Don’t even think about asking me to do something, I only have 13 more years to retirement." But that’s a story for another time.)
What is troubling about the Afghan attitude is the sense that someone else should do the work. Or that some work is beneath them. I notice the syndrome late in the evening when most of the Embassy folks, though not the admins, are working and not a single Afghan is around. It gives one pause, and also, says a great deal about why the US and Western civilization are where they are and why Afghan, and other 3rd World countries are the way they are. As the noted social commentator and Combat Speechwriter CDR Mike Nyilis says, "Countries are poor, dysfunctional and poverty stricken for a reason."
I am finishing this missive on New Years Eve 2004. Since I’ve been flat on my back for the past five days with a form of what is commonly called the "Kabul Krud" my celebration of the New Year will be severely limited. A bit of dinner in the mess hall with a few friends, followed by a dose of Ny-Quill, the best friend an American can have in Afghanistan. It’s a snowy, windy night with more bad weather in the forecast. Nonetheless, looking back at the past year I think the pluses in Afghanistan far outweigh the minuses. Three years ago the United States of America led a coalition of forces to free 26 million people from a cruel and oppressive regime that killed and tortured with impunity. This year that sacrifice paid off when a President was freely elected and, in front of panoply of world leaders, was inaugurated. We should all be proud that we as a Nation had the courage to take action when action was needed. We should also look forward to January when Palestinians, under Israeli occupation, and Iraqis, under US and coalition occupation, become the first two Arab peoples to hold free elections. Let’s hope that when the newly-elected leader of Iraq is sworn in he remembers the words of President Hamid Karzai upon his Inauguration on December 7, 2004, words, by the way, were never printed in most major American newspapers
"Whatever we have achieved in Afghanistan--the peace, the election, the
reconstruction, the life that the Afghans are living today in peace, the
children going to school, the businesses, the fact that Afghanistan is again a
respected member of the international community--is from the help that the
United States of America gave us. Without that help Afghanistan would be in the
hands of terrorists--destroyed, poverty-stricken, and without its children going
to school or getting an education. We are very, very grateful, to put it in the
simple words that we know, to the people of the United States of America for
bringing us this day."
Happy New Year