The plane has landed at Kandahar airport on my way back to Paris via Dubai. As good a place as any to start this report about my latest trip. Welcome to Kandahar International Airport, it says. A stop-over to Dubai from Kabul. Somehow, one does n’t exactly feel that welcome. Could it be the US war planes that just took off at full speed, spewing flames into the dusk ? Next to me sit a few high cheeked, heavy featured young men speaking Russian- did their fathers fight here ? If so, in view of the chunky sports watches, they’ve come back with a vengeance, a solid profit-based vengeance. War is big business. Look at who gets out of this cramped Ariana airlines plane, replete with ashtrays and a no-smoking sign. Kandahar is n° 2 opium producing region of the country, a Taliban stronghold and a female literacy rate of under 1 %. What a success story in eight years of Western presence, even though admittedly things are much better in the cities ! Local ‘entrepreneur’ types (to use fashionable parlance) make their way to the exit, turbans, smooth beards, a mixture of rose water and quotidian sweat. My neighbours exude vodka. An unfortunate woman in a blue burqa cautiously threads her way up the aisle, groping at the seats. Her husband is clutching a baby who begins to whine, the father starts shouting at the infant, baring his teeth, the woman whirls round, grabs the distraught mite, as if used to her husband’s rage. How she manages to walk down that rickety stairway to get of the plane in the dusk, with an unlit tarmac, I’ll never know. What can one say of this country?  Despite the fortunes that have poured into , it’s still the worst place on earth to give birth: women continue to die in childbirth at an alarming rate, and child mortality remains appalling..What have we achieved, if anything at all?

Reflexions on my aid mission eight years on. (see
Each Afghan person I’ve met this time is convinced that I’ve come on some humanitarian business, wielding megabucks, the World Bank in person ; an ulterior motive is suspected, whatever it, but presumably sinister and nothing to do with actually helping anyone but myself. My dear young friend Zala has to explain each time, patiently starting anew with each person we meet in Farah. I’ve known Carol for over eight years, she’s a teacher, not a manager, she does projects connected with women’s rights, she earns all the money she brings here etc etc. FemAid is not the World Bank etc. I am viewed as a curiosity, not that interesting as I’m not rich and don’t appear to have resources. Idealism is not a word with any kind of resonance here, not even with those groups I had once believed in and supported. This time round, I ‘ve emerged quite gloomy from this trip. My hitherto indomitable optimism has been shaken to the core.P1000233

I’m cleaning the shelves of the book cases in the library of the Farah Women and Children’s centre; this what aid is so often about- when you chose to work in situ rather than an office

Big white guilt

War, as I have just said is business. Two days ago in Kabul, I had my camera in my hand fumbling for something in my bag and a woman in a blue burqa came up to saying, ‘You’re going to make money out of my face, are n’t you’, thereby instantly demanding dollars. I’ve had the same comment thrust at me in a village in Senegal. The Afghan woman was aware of the global market place the media constitute. I hope that she gets angry at the right person next time, not some idealistic sod like me… Prices for pizzerias and coffee- now that the latter have appeared here- are practically Western. Will Starbucks and Mac Afghan open as half the country quietly starves ? As soon as a foreign face appears – mine, for instance – as just now at the airport store, prices are multiplied by ten. Of course one can blame to foreign presence for this and just about everything, but that’s too easy. Admittedly ‘Farangi’ are n’t exactly loved and never have been, Russian, American, Chinese or whatever. A beautician I met the other day regarding our project for training a girl from Farah for our Centre paid me a handsome compliment : “Usually foreigners’ faces are n’t nice, I really don’t like them but you’re really pretty, you’ve got such nice smooth skin”. Should I be flattered ? Imagine saying the same in Paris or anywhere else in the world, why should we find excuses for this kind of comment just because of some delayed post-colonial guilt ?
I’ve stopped idealizing Afghans and Afghanistan : my readings of Pierre Centlivres and Louis Dupree fall short in front of the reality that has been thrust in my face.

They reminisce an age of innocence which doubtless may have existed before war, but does n’t this fantasy smacks of paternalism ? The ‘innocent’ native, the happy-go-lucky peasant etc. The rich were much happier than the poor and everyone beat their wife. Paradise very likely, until the Farangi (foreigners) turned up. OK, so it’s the Imperialists’ fault, but in view of the reality today, that’s rather like spending your whole life complaining about everything your parents gave or did n’t give you and never taking responsibility for your own life. Enough already. The only ones who don’t complain (enough) and would be entitled to do so are the women. So are warlords really only corrupt because “We” whoever we may be (count me out) put them in power ? It’s all the more difficult to cultivate romantic fantasies about a place when one has caught some ghastly stomach bug and lives in less than salubrious conditions without a proper loo. Romanticism flies out of the window when your innards rumble !!!

And the winner is…

This place has still the world’s highest rate of maternal mortality (in Badakhshan), despite all the massive investments. Afghanistan produces about 95 % of the world’s opium used for heroin. Literacy remains spectacularly low, the democratic process and the very notion of basic human rights are inexistent – but you can buy Viagra in smart supermarkets and “Romantic Dream Life” products, including “Smart Love Woman gel” that produce “Virginity” and “Tightening Vagina Muscle”… Homeira, the midwife in Farah who sees women about their problems twice a week at our Center explained to me that husbands complain that their wives’ vaginas’ have become too wide, in view of the many babies they have (8 on average) so sex is no longer fun for them. These unfortunate women complain about the alternatives that are enforced upon them in the name of male gratification as well as the fact that husbands won’t let them use contraception… (Is that the fault of the West as well ?) But if you’re wealthy, you can buy these Wunder products, that probably work like a million wasp stings. Is that why tubes of surface analgesics are sold just next to ‘Romantic Dream Life’ offerings, to be bought by considerate males ? Global capitalism meets undiluted machismo, a marriage made in heaven. Buy, buy, buy, don’t ask questions, just spend the money you don’t have or better still, finds ways of raising it, does n’t matter how, in the name of ‘empowerment’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ There on the shelf of Chelsea Super Market (sic) lies the portentous symbol of all that the Afghan ‘success story’ might crumble to if some basic thinking is n’t undertaken…IMG_0060

The big shopping-mall in Kabul: women throng the shops selling beauty products. The burqa allows for « respectable’ anonymity in a public space

And the Taliban are getting stronger…

To come back to the doleful state of affairs here. Of course, one could say that most money pouring in here goes to the war itself- in which case why on earth are the Taliban stronger than ever before ? The US initially wiped them out in a week and now these people are better equipped than ever before… Could some of the resources have been leaked out, by any chance ? Rumours and indeed more than that abound…Some NATO countries just can’t politically afford any more casualties and are said to pay the Taliban to hold their guns, so that their leaders can stay in place : Canada and Italy have been amongst those openly accused (and we won’t go into the ones covertly implicated). Others are very busy with the ever lucrative heroin trade which is booming since the Coalition Forces landed. What about the story about Taliban forces being flown by military helicopters from the South to areas further north where they had never been before ? US ambassador Karl Eikenberry took great pains to deny this particularly persistent rumour which President Karazi asserted as a verified fact. Why, you may ask, have the Western troops retreated from Nuristan, a province which borders Pakistan , therefore reinforcing over-the-border (which is no border anyway) Taliban activity ? Totally incomprehensible to me.

The PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in action.

In the meantime, of course, there is the reconstruction effort and these are real, and tangible : I have seen the American PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Farah do an admirable job, recognized by the local population. The main problem is that a) the teams don’t always get the right advice, as there are no real experts (except the local self-styled types who are usually after personal profit) or anthropologists to guide them and b) the PRT teams don’t stay long enough (9 months) to familiarize themselves with the situation and develop some of sense criticism about local politics. Empowering a weak government is certainly laudable aim, but the motivations of those who purport to represent it on a provincial level would need greater scrutiny. The public interest is not the motivation for garnering those juicy contracts, why does n’t the State Department wake up to that ? I am realizing that it is far easier for the local big-wigs to get sizeable money (at a time where contracts are getting bigger, therefore less easy to control) than small grass-roots outfits like Zala’s HOLD which we, FEMAID, support. In brief, if you’re honest, run with a restricted budget, you hardly stand a chance…

The results of blind support are predictable : some schools and other buildings have had to be rebuilt as local contractors have used shoddy materials- and guess who would get the total blame if and should one of these collapse with kids inside ? I know that some of those reading these lines will assume I have gone over to the Dark Side for not wagging an accusing finger at the arch-Satan Amerika exploiting angelic Afghans. Well, Satan comes in many shapes and sizes and be assured there’s more than one of them and they certainly admirably coordinate their efforts. And as for angels, keep looking skywards. Zala and some of my young friends qualify, certainly, but the older generation (i.e. my own) is rotten beyond the core, let’s hope they don’t sit around too long to contaminate the next one.

I don’t mean to say that everything is perfect on the US/Coalition side: of course not.  Much of the  basic reconstruction- agriculture and other basics  imply juicy contracts for those who will supply the essential raw materials manufactured by big companies in the US and the West. Part of these laudable reconstruction efforts are about marketing these products on a worldwide scale. Some big companies will admittedly be making hefty profits , but on the other hand, rural communities will  truly reap benefits from the advice, tutoring, and help lavished upon them at the same time.  This means certain empowerment for rural-based women who often are in charge of vegetable gardening and fowl.  It can be argued that in this sad definitely un-ideal world   based on capitalism and profit, no-one does anything for free and that, ultimately, there are no alternatives except the rudimentary status-quo. If things don’t improve in agriculture- and the terrain here is mainly desert and mountains- people will carry on with opium cultivation. And surely  narcotics are by far the ugliest aspect of globalized economics.