6 Months in Kabul: Initial Reflections

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Leaving Kabul just days before Afghanistan’s vital and potentially bloody elections may be a great relief for most expats.  For me the departure though was much more bitter than sweet.  Proximity to violence is harder than ever to avoid as a civilian in Kabul, but it was far from a pervasive part of my life here.  The future of happy and courageous students occupied the entirety of my thoughts as I prepared to leave.

I realized the full energizing effect of SOLA’s students in my last few days in Kabul.  The students were sent home for  10 day vacation around the election for security purposes.  On Friday March 28th most of the students had left, with just a few waiting for relatives to get them and one or two that would have stayed at the school due to unique home situations when a large explosion went off in our neighborhood.  This was the second time in a week an attack had occurred in our neighborhood and this time it was closer.  The gunfire lasted six hours and three more explosions were heard in the middle of the battle.  People were running through the adjacent park to our street and there was smoke in the air.  Good information on what was happening was hard to come by.  It turned out an expat daycare center had been targeted but the attackers accidentally hit a well protected U.S. based NGO and thanks to the Afghan forces there were few casualties.

After packing my bags so I’d be ready to go at any point I spent a lot of time hanging out watching the Goonies and Wall-E with the remaining students.  They didn’t seem perturbed at all by the fighting, but later in the night they were scared by a low flying helicopter that passed over the building.  For the most part we slept in the basement and got up early the next morning to empty the school.  We spent the rest of the morning being stuffed with mantou by friends family members at their home while waiting flights booked hastily the night before.

My lack of an exit visa would have made getting on a flight a challenge.  Bombings and closed ministries meant that the normally routine, although time consuming, process of getting an exit visa was impossible.  The passport office was in the area of the attacks and looked to be closed for an unknown period of time.  Luckily it wasn’t that hard to find someone of importance at the airport who was understanding of my situation and had one of his officers escort me through the immigration process and I got my exit stamp.

While waiting for the flight I saw on a Facebook group where people report on security events that the national Independent Election Commission headquarters was being attacked with RPGs.  One of our colleagues flights to Dubai got cancelled and then I began to wonder about ours.  Sure enough our flight to Delhi was also cancelled.  It was a strange feeling to walk back into Kabul after being so close to leaving.  The Indian newspapers reported that Air India would send a bigger plane the next day to accommodate the cancelled flights.  That was not happening though.  Getting a refund for the flight may also prove impossible as well because Air India says that we were all no shows even though we checked in and then they cancelled the flight.  The reason those two planes didn’t land: the gun and RPG battle happening at the IEC was below the landing flight path of the airport.  Our two flights were the only ones cancelled as the fighting ended soon after.

The next morning I returned to the airport with my colleague to see if we could get a flight at the airport.  Driving in through the glut of cars that suggested huge numbers of people doing something similar was not a good sign.  Kam Air, ranked the worst airline in the world, actually did have seats left, so we booked and rushed through the airport to make the flight.  In my book they aren’t so bad because they got me to Delhi and another friend to Dubai that day in the midst of numerous organizations evacuating including the entire faculty of American University of Afghanistan.

Delhi for a day and change was a strange experience.  I ate a beat and feta salad, went to a Starbucks, had a whisky, ate a chicken and pesto sandwich at a place called Wengers; it was quite different from Kabul.  I am now halfway through my Wilderness First Responder course outside of Bangalore, which is odd in its own way for it is a training readily available right near home on the other side of the planet.  It’s challenging, engaging and distracts me from being done at SOLA.  Eventually that will likely be a challenging subject for I feel like I have left behind thirty plus sisters, many of whom I may not have a chance to see in person again.  For now though I am cooking in the dry Bangalore heat, more afraid of the possibility of bumping into a cobra than I was of encountering the Taliban in Kabul.

It is now two days since the Afghan elections passed.  International media reports it to have been a success with 58% of those eligible voting, relatively low complaints and violent incidents.  The photos and reports should bring great pride in the bravery of the citizens who exercised their right to vote and in the Afghan security forces who did a remarkable job of protecting those rights.  I don’t think anyone can say it was all rosy though because I’ve seen counts as high as 200 official complaints and read a number of stories of violence at polling stations in the provinces.  We’ll see how the vote count and transition of power work out, but for now I can see a huge positive effect of the day in my Afghan friends who see the participation and general safety of the day to be a triumph.

A resilient brand of normalcy is deeply ingrained in the lives of the Afghans I lived with for more than 6 months.  When explosions punctuated the lunchtime air on the Tuesday before I left worry crept in for the students we knew to be walking home from public school.  Just hours before I had driven around tight police cordons insulating parliament due to President Karzai’s appointment of his new VP.  A look at social media suggested the attack was actually closer to leading presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani’s home.  Where the attack was specifically didn’t really matter in the moment though; it was close and we had students out on the street.  Seeing each kid return that afternoon wearing their white school scarf was a relief.

The bombs turned out to be the first event of an attack on the regional headquarters of the Independent Election Commission.  Gunmen rushed into the compound after the suicide bombers took down the gate.  A four hour battle in the complex ensued before Afghan commandos killed the last attacker.  The weight of such an attack, aimed at disrupting the elections, would likely wear on most present in the city.  For me, even with the fighting going on in my immediate neighborhood, it was hardly more bothersome than getting tackled in soccer.  Less than an hour after the bombs ripped the air I was playing volleyball with two students while a dozens more happily jumped rope and played badminton.  As I’d learn later from new sources the gun battle in the IEC compound went on all afternoon, while I was playing games with a bunch of kids before their English classes started.

The IEC attack was just one of several across the country that day.  A female police officer was shot on her morning commute in Helmand province, five were killed in an attack on a bank in eastern Kunar, a border police post in Khost was attacked, and a suicide bomb in Kunduz killed 6 civilians while missing its reported target; a campaigner for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.  The previous Thursday, during Persian New Years celebrations,  the high security, luxury Serena Hotel left journalist Sardar Ahmad brutally murdered alongside his wife, two children and others.  That morning insurgents fought their way into a police station in Jalalabad killing the district police chief among other officers.

I hesitate to say all these attacks have been perpetrated by the Taliban, even though that group has taken responsibility for most.  It is certain that they are active and following through on their promise to disrupt the elections.  Many of these attacks though have left civilians with no connection to the elections dead.  If the Taliban’s goal is to simply halt the elections their choice of targets is poor.  Many Afghans I have spoken with think that some of the attacks are actually political in nature.  Some even think that the recently deceased Vice President Fahim’s death was not by natural causes, rather he was about to come out in support of one of the candidates.  Either way, people of all walks of life have been targeted in the increasing violence.

This change in attack targets began back in January.  The night that 21 foreign and Afghan civilians were massacred in the Taverna du Liban assault shattered the previous sense of security that most expats felt in Kabul.  It was the first time in a long time that an attack occurred on a civilian institution.  The more recent attacks on the Serena Hotel and a game of buzkashi continue the violent attention on public places that has left all manner of civilians dead.  It is hard to see the logic of the Taliban racking up such a huge body count of Afghan civilians.  If they want to retake the nation they need the support of other Afghans.  In the 90s they rose to power as a populist movement.  The past few months have only made everyday folk hate them more.  If their goal is to institute intense fear and chaos this doesn’t make much sense either.  The Taliban’s finances are tight and the Afghan Army is much better equipped.  While recent events have proven that fearsome attacks are possible in Kabul experts give the Taliban a minimal chance of taking the city.

So what’s the point?  In the winter it came out that President Karzai had initiated back channel peace talks with the Taliban, which helped explain to some why he has so stubbornly refused to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S.  Some now speculate that he is still talking with them about disrupting the elections, or at least proceeding in parallel to their actions.  The Afghan Constitution bars the President from running for another term, but it does allow him to postpone the elections due to security concerns.  Postponement could even continue for years until peace with the Taliban is achieved.  This play may seem wild and certainly threatens the growth of democracy in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean it is out of the realm of possibility.  Happily, the successful election day dispels that rumor to a degree.  At least if it was considered it was not carried out.

Such a development would have benefited the Taliban as well.  All of the presidential candidates have vowed to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. if elected.  President Karzai has vowed to ensure all foreign troops, advisors and even civilians are out of Afghanistan by the end of the year.  This means that in President Karzai the Taliban would have a much more amenable negotiating partner than the field of hopefuls awaiting the election results.  If the Taliban’s chief goal is to expel the Americans and other foreign ‘invaders’ then supporting President Karzai’s continued leadership could be a very plausible objective for them.

Of course this is all speculation.  The truth is there is not a whole lot of good, verifiable information in Afghanistan today.  News agencies credit attacks, including ones such as that on the Serena, to the Taliban simply because the Taliban’s spokesperson claims credit for them.  The Serena attack, which seemed to target the murdered journalist, didn’t quite make sense as a Taliban attack.  For one, it would have required inside help from the guards for four men to get guns in past security.  The manner in which the journalists children were executed before their pleading mother doesn’t quite make sense either and the Taliban spokesperson actually apologized for this.  So why would the Taliban claim responsibility for an attack they didn’t commit?  It suits their purposes to appear capable of attacking any institution in the capitol.

So this is the stuff that has the world’s attention via major media outlets, but what does it mean for the people that actually live here?  The bottom line is this country has endured more than three decades of conflict from the Soviet occupation to the civil war to the Taliban regime to the NATO occupation.  Generations have lived through these turbulent times; I have students who can’t remember living under Taliban rule.  The rough times have also spurred the brightest of Afghans to pursue education, careers, and lives abroad.  The Afghans that have grown up at home have learned to take violence into the stride of their lives.  Bombs and guns form a seemingly permanent fixture of their landscape.

War has left the majority of the population under 25.  These young people, including my students, exhibit a passion for change and the work ethic to get it done.  The problem is with most of the country under 25 and a great many of the educated Afghans living abroad there are few leaders to guide the masses of eager students.  Students want to be doctors and politicians but there is no one to show them how to use their energy to meet their goals.  They are like a huge hydrocarbon reserve that remains untapped.  What leaders there are have had generations of role models who also lived under the press of conflict.  It will take great time for things to change.

Frozan Studying

The education system is making small gains now and I feel truly blessed to have had some part in that.  I have taught 14 year old students already planning to build Afghanistan’s first steel factory.  When you see kids like that and know they have the disposition to follow through its easy to see a path forward laid out before them.  The students who will get a good education now can start an exponential cascade if security allows them to.  My hope is that the competence displayed by Afghan security forces responding to the recent slew of attacks predicts an upward trajectory for the security sector as well.

Afghanistan is a messy place that is really only a nation in name.  It was an endless problem list and huge gaps in capacity.  The key for addressing such an overwhelming situation is the quality of the Afghans I have met.  They have always survived horrendous conditions and now they have a window of opportunity to make gains.  There is so much uncertainty in this year and I will follow the transition of power and the international community’s involvement with the nation closely.  It is too hard to say with confidence what Afghanistan’s future holds, but I am sure of success for the SOLA students thanks to the school’s support and the kids’ energy.  I am ever grateful for the portion of that energy that the students shared with me.

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