27 September 2010

What? Vote? Who, me? No....

As you are likely aware, Afghanistan just held elections of the lower house of Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga.   Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the elections were marred by violence and fraud.  In fact, despite the blithe denials of many in the international community, attacks were more than double the normal across the country. 

Voter intimidation kept polling centers closed and people away from those that were open.  One of my co-workers confided in me that he was one of the few in our office to vote, as the polling station was not more than a few blocks from his house and he didn't think that he would be caught.  Even so, he scrubbed his hands for nearly an hour afterward, trying to wash off the indelible ink.  It was amazing to me that he considered this single act of voting more dangerous than coming to work on a US military base every day.  Indeed, of an estimated population of 30 million (Afghanistan has no formal census, and so actual numbers of eligible voters are uncertain), only 4.3 million ballots were cast.  Although, as one cynical, if astute, observer noted, that number only reflected the number of ballots used, not the actual votes.  Even the most blatant instances of fraud are likely to be white-washed, though, in the face of a highly politicized Electoral Complaints Commission.

Even without the rampant violence and overt corruption, this election would liable to be a debacle.  There were literally hundreds of candidates in Kabul for only a few dozen seats.  Sangar Rahimi of the NYT blog At War had an excellent post about the dangers of presenting such kaleidoscopic candidate slates to an illiterate electorate.

From my limited vantage point (I was stuck far to the northeast due to a country-wide travel ban for Coalition forces), the election was a bit depressing.   As noted by my co-worker upon my return to Kabul, very few of our linguists and other Afghan employees participated.  The reasons for their lapses in civic duty are varied: fear of reprisals; apathy; disillusion.  Another of my co-workers bitterly explained to me that he did not vote because it wouldn't have mattered; all the candidates were running for either money or power and would take what was of use to them at the expense of everyone else.  He didn't vote, he maintained, because there was no pride in the action.  He would not be complicit in their inevitable criminality.

Those that did vote, to a man, are still hiding their stained index fingers, over a week after the election.  It is well-known that the Taliban collect the fingers of those that voted, if they don't simply kill them outright.  Thus, they bury them deep in their pockets or, like the gentleman previous mentioned, wash their hands unlike they look raw.  Another stained both his hands with dark henna in the hopes it made the dye less noticeable, allowing him to claim he had been at a wedding.

There was a bright point in an otherwise disheartening election (I like to end on up notes).  Among those that did vote, having to hide the evidence of their civil participation did not diminish their dignity in doing so.  One linguist sat a little taller when telling me about voting for his wife's aunt, one of the handful of women running for the mandated 68 seats out of 249.  The same staffer who lived close to the polling center made sure to take his mother and sister to vote, strongly asserting that their voices matter too (if he was posturing for the American woman, I couldn't tell).  The pride in the electoral system is, at this point, either deeply tarnished with skepticism or hidden out of fear.  But it is strengthening, bit by bit.  One of my other co-workers, a vibrant young man who only recently received his US visa, is already researching political science Master's Degrees in the States.  He thinks that an American political degree is going to help him, when he returns to Afghanistan and runs for office. 

I realize that I've posted a little late in the game, now almost a week after the elections, and the vast majority of analysis already out there is superior in content and quality to mine.  However, I was motivated to do so by the continuing coverage of our own imminent midterms in the States.  I'm not the first to make this point, and assuredly won't be the last, but sweet glorious goodness, Americans!  Go vote!  No one's threatening to cut off your fingers!  Which reminds me – I need to order an absentee ballot…

26 September 2010

Wishing for the Land of Women

During a recent site visit to our offices in Mazer-e-Sharif, I spent a great deal of time with the assistant site manager there, another 20-something woman.  She's one of the few other contractors near my age, and in addition to being fun to hang out with, she reminded me how much I miss girlfriends.  Of course I miss my actual friends; Skype isn't a sufficient substitute for a groggily shared cup of coffee before work or hummus-laden happy hours.  And I certainly enjoy the male acquaintances I've made and am having fun being one of the fellas.  But I find I also simply miss the presence of other women in my cohort. 

There are, of course, a not insubstantial number of young women in the armed services.  Actually, I recently saw a Female Engagement Team, or FET (all-lady ground patrol, meant to ease interactions with Afghan women) at the PX.  Rather strangely, as I watch them laugh together, picking out their snacks and socks and hair dye, I felt…jealous.  I was reminded of my last girls' day before I left DC, making fun of my roommate for even considering the purchasing a pair of jeggings and going for cupcakes at Baked and Wired with my friends.  The sense of a loss of that community was almost painful.

While I was with the site manager at MeS (who had herself previously been in the Army), she began reminiscing about the 'pajama parties' the women in her unit would throw in Iraq.  Dressed in their PJs (generally the only civilians cloathes most of the military has with them), they would pool their makeup and booze, getting all gussied up just to dance around their B-Hut.  This sounded like the best idea I've heard in a while, possibly months.  It's more difficult as a civilian contractor, however.  The military ladies have ready-made cliques within their units, while most of the other contractors are older or Eastern European.  However warm most the women around here are (and many are not at all), I can't break into the former and find it difficult to really connect with the latter. 

I'm frequently surprised, actually, how unfriendly some of the women are.  I would have thought there would be a natural tendency to bond, being such a stark minority.  Of course, there are a number of possible reasons for reticence.  I myself am quite shy, and my natural introversion is augmented by living in such a strange environment.  There also exists the possibility that some of the ladies enjoy the attention that comes with being so outnumbered, or simply prefer the company of men. 

Still, whatever the reason – cliques, defense mechanisms, territorialism, what have you - I wish they were a bit more open.  There is something about being in the company of like women that is freeing.  Particularly in the theatre context, women offer the companionship that might allow one to be both less pretty and, somewhat counter-intuitively, more feminine.  I wouldn't feel the need to do my hair, but could also wear a tank-top without fretting that I'm sending the wrong message or am being ogled. 

More importantly, though, there are just some things I prefer to talk about with women.  Relationships, family, men, even life here – sharing and commiserating and bitching all sometimes call for a similar framework of understanding.  For example, both the site manager and I recently had our sexual preference questioned.  We spent a very fulfilling dinner, roundly abusing men who assumed we were LGBT-identified, simply because we weren't interested in them.  The attached or lesbian dichotomy went from frustrating to funny when shared with someone who empathized.  I don't normally have that outlet in my life, whether to talk about missing high heels or the man who decided he could hit on me while I was eating my toast, and it was bittersweet to enjoy it for a few days.

But just as much as I miss women, I miss the sense of them as equals.  I've come to realize that, even when I am respected, I am never treated as an equal.  Mostly, I notice it in small, stupid things, like how my co-workers refuse to cuss around me.  However, there are also times with the sense of inequality manifests itself a bit more significantly, such as when my supervisor challenged me as being somehow weak or paranoid when I expressed a reticence to drive around the south in an unarmoured NTV (non-tactical vehicle.  Translated, it means a regular old SUV, in a country littered with IEDs).  He suggested that maybe I just couldn't handle a trip to Kandahar, so he would go in my stead.

Further, even when I am treated kindly, I am not necessarily respected.  Universally, the men on base will not allow me to hold the door for them or even carry my own computer.  Strangers offer me rides in the combat golf carts known as gators for a walk that only takes ten minutes, while my local co-workers frequently bring gifts like lapis trinkets or boxes of dates.  I am disinclined to refuse, lest that be considered rude, but I also feel that in accepting I compromise my professionalism  I sometimes feel like a mascot more than anything.  Perhaps I'm over-thinking it, and should simply accept these perks as the flip side of the rampant sexual harassment.  Even so, it doesn't sit well with me.

Sometimes I just want to be invisible.  I don't want gifts or attention or demands.  I don't want to be objectified or sexualized or even mentored.  I want quiet and space and solitude.  And to be able to finish a New Yorker article at breakfast.

23 September 2010

The State of Brains: Wasted and Drained

There are some days when I can't help but feel that I'm not fulfilling my potential.  Of course, I've always viewed this job is a means to an end.  Still, there are days when, after having quality-checked my 854th timesheet (I'm not exaggerating), that I'm quite convinced Machiavelli had it all wrong.  Nothing could justify this level of tedium.  I've spent altogether too much money on my brain to let it atrophy like this.

Still and all, if my higher reasoning skills are lapsing, I can comfort myself know that I'm not alone.  One of the local nationals working in our records room is a trained surgeon, while the other has a MA (rather, the Afghan equivalent) in civil engineering.  At least when we discuss politics or religion around the office, I feel my development background kicking in.  But as to how the good doctor keeps his skills sharp, I am at a loss.  Every time I ask them to retrieve a file for me, I have twinges of guilt.  These men should be treating the injured or designing a working sewage system for the city, not scanning records for the umpteenth time.

Of course, this job is just as much a means for an end for them as for me.  Although this is not true of all of the linguists, the vast majority of the folks (men, by and large) that work for Coalition forces are in it for the visa.  It is by no means an easy process; Afghans must work for two or more years with the Coalition, fill out forests of paperwork, identify a military sponsor, and when all is said and done, only 50 are allowed in to the US each year.  But they approach it with tremendous foresight and ambition.  The doctor, for example, has been with the company for six years.  He is saving up enough to not only move over his extended family, but attend medical school in the States and resume his practice there.  Others plan on re-hiring with the company as so-call US linguists, making (seriously) 20x what they are now.  One actually just had his visa come through, and he and his wife depart this week for Texas. 

The drive of these men is really amazing; time and again, they display a tenacity, focus, and incredible conviction that things will work out which I find really admirable, if perhaps naive.  I wish their convictions and fortitude were justly rewarded by fate, but unfortunately that isn't always the case.  There was another gentleman I spoke to recently who survived several years in the south as a local linguist with the Marines – no small feat. He received his visa and was re-hired as a US linguist.  However, once he returned to Kabul, he was forced to choose between being a US hire and his family.  His wife and children still lived in Kabul, but US hires are not allowed to leave the bases except under military escort.  The man returned to his work as a local linguist, foregoing the massive pay increase and security clearance, all so he can have dinner with his family every night.
Ostensibly, the 50 per year cap is meant to curtail the ever-present development bugaboo of brain drain.  The effects of the phenomena are readily apparent in Iraq, where the majority of the professional middle class has become economic migrants to more stable areas in the Middle East and West.  This is especially true of doctors.  Some estimates say as much as 60 per cent of that country's physicians have migrated or been killed since 2003.  From a development standpoint, this is a catastrophe.  The professional middle class, encompassing engineers, teachers, and of course doctors, among others, is what allows a post-conflict society to recover and steady itself.  These professions act as stabilizers, spurring growth and development.  In many cases, they also serve to educate, train, and inspire young people to further contribute.

Some economic theories claim that the remittances of economic migrants offset their loss, but I honestly think the vanished human capital is incalculable.  Not only has society lost skilled professionals and intellectuals, a valuable commodity in and of themselves, but also a critical subset of local earners and consumers.  Essentially, the brain drain excises the most profitable element of society and sends it somewhere where their skills are less valued.  Iraqi doctors, or Afghani, for that matter, might not even be able to practice in the country in which they end up (like the States), instead earning minimum wage at Starbucks.  There is no question that standard of living is lower in Afghanistan, such that even the smallest remittance is a dramatic help.  However, the migrant in question then also has to support him/herself in the US.  As someone who has earned minimum wage or less more than once, I can attest that survival on such a pittance is not easy. 

I'm actually a bit mystified as to how the gentlemen I work with can expect perfect equality in the US, considering they're treated like second-class citizens even in their own country.  During a recent site visit, the double standard affecting local linguists was made painfully clear.  In their on-base 'village' (because heaven forbid we garrison them with their units), the dining facilities had degraded to such a level that the food was nigh inedible, and this was during Ramadan!  The linguists did the mature thing, and wrote a memorandum for record asking the base commander to hire a new food contractor, and were promptly ignored.  I was amazed; these men are putting their lives on the line, and you will neither allow them in your DFAC nor ensure that theirs offer nutritious meals.  It even rose to a force protection issue; this was in an area of the country where the Taliban have a history of using poison (against a girls' school, in one instance), and the linguists' food was being prepared off-base.  Nothing like caring for your critical assets.

In the same vein, during my tour of that village, I ended up playing volleyball with a number of the linguists.  Jumping to make a shot, one young man cut his hand rather severely on the metal roof of his B-Hut.  Despite the fact that he was bleeding everywhere, the base clinic refused to see him, as needing stitches and a tetanus shot does not rise to the level of limb-loss, and the site manager had to drive him to the nearest ANA hospital and beg them to see him.

I even feel myself at times condescending to them, as I often think (and sometimes ever refer!) to them as "my locals".  These men, and smattering of women, are amazing professionals.  What they're experiencing right now is, I suppose, less brain drain than brain waste.

Still, I remind myself, there are enough successes to make the struggle worthwhile.  Another young man in my office fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan nearly ten years ago.  He grew up impoverished, working most of his childhood as a street vendor and window-washer.  During that time, he was able to teach himself six languages, including English, and eventually immigrated to the States as a refugee.  Both he and his brother are now back in country, earning 200k+, well able to support their entire family.  He's planning on getting a MA in computer engineering when he returns to the US.  And the doctor just got his visa package today, with a general's signature.  So I suppose a few years of tedium weren't such a huge price to pay.

14 September 2010

GNU: government, wildebeest, red herring

Several years ago now, while interning at a human rights NGO in DC, I had the opportunity to speak with a human rights defender from Zimbabwe.  This was during the horrific post-election violence, as Mugabe was going after members of the MDC and other opposition groups in earnest.  There was a lot of speculation that Morgan Tsvangirai should cave and join his rival in a government of national unity (GNU).  The human rights defender I met with was adamantly against this plan, as Tsvangirai had won the elections outright.  Why, then, should he be forced to compromise anything with the brutal Mugabe regime, simply because it had control over the army?  Zimbabwe, he contended, deserved to be governed by the man its citizens had selected, and the international community did not have the right to suggest otherwise.


I find myself strongly reminded of his words now, as talk of engaging the Taliban is increasingly floating around, both within and outside of Kabul (and even in the United States Senate).  It is not totally analogous, of course.  The violence here is not confined to elections, and it's not a question of sating the party in power.  Rather, the much more expert than I are talking about getting buy-in from an insurgent group during a war that is very much still hot.  Yet, there are a number of lessons to be drawn from Africa and even Latin American in terms of co-opting the Taliban as legitimate political actors, or even more fully incorporating them into a GNU.


There is some precedence that suggests such a course of action has some promise.  In Colombia, the rebel factions ELP and M-19 both successfully made the transition from armed belligerents to valid political parties.  Similarly, African history is chockablock with instances of guerillas turned heads of states.  Among the most well-known are Rwanda's Paul Kigame, previously general of the rebel RPF, and Laurent Kabila of the DRC, who led the ADFL against Mobutu Sese Seko.  Certainly, there seems to be a prevailing sense in international diplomatic circles that negotiated settlements between combatants are crucial to ensuring security.


Of course, for every winning shift from rebel to patrician, there are scores more ending in failure.  If we stay with the same exemplar states, we see that decades of persistent effort to absorb the FARC and ELN into the Colombian political process have crashed.  Meanwhile, Laurent Nkunda's (reasonable) fear of prosecution at the hands of the International Criminal Court caused him to drop out of the transitional government in the Congo and found the CNDP.


Returning to Afghanistan, as that is the ostensible focus of this post, I have to confess that I'm a skeptic of a negotiated settlement.  Mark Sedra at CIGI has an excellent analysis of the viability of engagement with the Taliban, which includes a debunking of the notion of the Taliban as a homogenous, and thus accessible, actor.  Other concerns he discusses include potential for negotiations to introduce a greater opening for Pakistani manipulation of the process and likelihood of Taliban commanders to, once engaged, act as spoilers.  With regard to the first, Sedra posits that President Karzai is likely to quash any talks that threaten his hold on power.  As to the second, it is entirely conceivable that the Taliban could play the role of Charles Taylor, becoming even more destabilizing to the process once they are accepted as legitimate actors in it.


While there are all reasonable concerns, none particularly address my biggest issue with engaging the Taliban.  As the Zimbabwean activist made painfully clear to me, the push for GNUs from the international community is lazy and disingenuous.  It is a pitiful little bandage that major powers slap on when they've become bored but have too much guilt to ignore the problem totally.  It gives them (US, UN, NATO chose your favorite acronym and country combination) the opportunity to abandon an intractable conflict under the plausible deniability of allowing Afghans to solve Afghanistan's problems.  Completely bi-passing the need for justice and reconciliation, policy makers somehow manage to convince themselves that security, or rather, a temporary lull in the killing, equates to stability.  Never mind the civil war that will erupt as soon as someone doesn't feel like playing nicely.


Frankly, I find it appalling that we would countenance negotiations with the Taliban, let alone the possibility of including them in a power-sharing arrangement.  These are the same people who, when they were in power, wantonly destroyed international heritage sites.  I have heard numerous first-hand accounts of the Taliban beating people for attending the 'wrong' mosque.  One of my local co-workers was imprisoned with nearly 100 others in a small room simply because he tried to keep his restaurant open from 12-1pm, a mandatory prayer time.  When he was released, after having stood in the squalled darkness for over a week, he shaved his beard in protest and was savagely beaten.


Now that they are cast in the roll of insurgent, these same people account for as much as 76 per cent of all civilian casualties  Generally, the Taliban is composed of violent, controlling sociopaths who dominate with fear, not govern with respect.  Whatever the motives of vengeance and retribution that engendered this campaign, it is now a predominantly a humanitarian affair.  To diplomatically validate the Taliban now would be a betrayal not only of the Afghans, but also of our own mission.


Of course, I could be way off base here.  After all, look at how well it's worked out in Zimbabwe.

13 September 2010

GO1: Theory and Practice

The conduct of all Americans in theatre, uniformed and civilian alike, is governed by General Order One.  This proclamation forbids the consumption of alcohol and fraternization in the interests of promoting good discipline and optimum force readiness.  With regard to the theatre Prohibition, it very overtly creates a sense of injustice.  Non-American Coalition forces are not under the same restrictions, and the Bulgarian troops are not subtle people (although I do love it when they get really toasted and start singing dancing in the middle of the afternoon).  Moreover, it's roundly violated even among the Americans; you would be amazed at what you can sneak through the mail in a Scope bottle.  Still, the MPs do make a concerted effort to minimize on-base imbibing, as they search rooms and maintain several 'amnesty boxes' in which to dispose of contraband. 


With regard to the latter, however, I'm afraid that it's not only a lost cause, but a foregone conclusion.  The rumor mill at Phoenix is perhaps the single best working piece of equipment here, as assumptions are readily made when two people of the opposite sex are together with any regularity, whether that's at the DFAC, over the pool table, or in the gym.  It's still a very hetero-normative environment, despite the surprisingly high population of pseudo-out LGBT folks I've met (admittedly, the transgendered/sexual population is seemingly non-existent, but still…).  Moonlit jaunts around the track are a particularly popular activity for 'non-couples'.  Strolling among the MRAPS is apparently the Phoenix equivalent of parking, albeit without the snogging.  Aside from the occasional exchange of knowing glances and coy double entendres, a live and let live attitude is pervasive.  The veneer of propriety is apparently all you need to survive under GO1.


Of course, this raises a whole host of potentially dramatic complications.  The imagination runs rampant with speculation.  For one, courting gifts must be fascinating, as scare commodities such as batteries, obscure candy bars, and one's favourite type of shampoo take the place of flowers.  I know of once instance in which a besotted GI offered his romantic interest shrapnel, so as to express that he was thinking of her even while being rocketed out on mission. 


Beyond such war-time twitterpation, slightly more negative eventualities beg to be considered.  For example, on such a small base as Phoenix, one can envisage the potential for mysterious STD outbreaks.  They would have to be mysterious, of course, given that no one is supposed to be having sex.  More realistically, perhaps, I have to wonder about what happens if these clandestine couples go south.  How do you quietly have a breakup when you're never alone?  Can you really write a Dear John letter to someone you'll see at the DFAC everyday for the next 6 months?  And I shudder to think about unintentional pregnancies.  Good thing, then, that the PX sells such a wide array of condoms.  No, really, they do.  There is a larger selection of prophylactics than of deodorant.


That said, there are times when these sorts of improprieties elevate from expected distractions to something more serious.   Indeed, it surprises me just how often sex infringes on force protection.  Two recent incidents with our own linguists left me bemused and dismayed at the audacity of people.  One local was fired after his military supervisor caught him in flagrante while he was supposed to be on duty.  The termination notice as entered into the database was hilariously succinct and contained of almost palatable shock: "Termination due to sexual contact with female inside work place.  Ammunition Depot!"


The other episode was substantively grimmer.  A US hired linguist carried on a relationship, culminating in a clandestine engagement, with a local linguist.  Their actions were daft in the extreme; there can be no question about that.  However, the situation became very much more alarming when I discovered she works as an interpreter in detainee interrogations.  In the unlikely event that one of his friends or relatives are picked up for questioning (unlikely because he wouldn't be hired or allowed on base if his background screening had turned up any such associations), I shudder to think what blind love might compel her to hide.  It is, to say the least, a bad scene.  To add another layer of incredulity to this already absurd story, Corporate has not yet terminated her employment.  Her local paramour is long fired, without even a second thought.  The US hire, however, brings in too much revenue to the company to get rid of that easily.  If they thought they could get away with it, Corporate would probably just transfer her.  Unfuckingbelievable.