Bail Out

June 2009     Kabul, Afghanistan

Today marks exactly a year in Not-worth-it-stan, and that is plenty. I will be wheels up and out of here in less than 36 hours, probably never to return. As bad as this place is, working for a floundering startup is what has finally worn me down, but I will skip the boring business details.

I meet many expats who have spent years here and in other war zones or have renewed long-term contracts, and seem quite comfortable. I meet others who self-medicate, get way out of balance, and come unglued. I have watched them age in dog-years. Some people deal with it better than others, but I might be a little too tightly wound to handle all of this downtime and isolation. Ninety-nine percent of the people I have ever known would not even choose to fly over this country. I am out, at least until my employer stabilizes, improves our security, and finally taps into this $65,000,000,000 war effort. I have had enough, and that reveals the truth in what the Taliban say: “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.”

Kabul has been quiet for months since additional US troops came pouring in, but the election is coming up in August, and many westerners expect there to be action in the city and around the country in the coming months. When in doubt, ask the locals.

Dr. Bashir and I stood outside a hospital on the edge of Kabul, waiting on a patient. Around us stretched the ring of deforested brown mountains that surround the city. He pointed out three of the mountains and described which Mujihadeen commander occupied each ridge as they descended together into the city in 1992 to overthrow the post-Soviet puppet government. For any three Afghans, there will five factions, so they could not even work together long enough to push over a puppet. Their prize in sight, they began shelling each other and the town below as the weak alliance dissolved and the brawl for control of this broken country began. Talk about a fight for the bottom.

The skirmishes devolved into a running battle through the streets and houses, tank duels, hit-and-run infantry battles, artillery barrages, mine laying and of course massacring the Hazara minority again. The fighting went on for months, doing far more damage to the capital than the Soviets ever did. This sheds a lot of light on why the people embraced the Pakistan-backed Taliban when they formed in the early 1990s and came out on top after years of civil war. Their severe, uncompromising authority was an improvement of sorts.

I asked Doc Bashir, “What will happen when Karzai is assassinated, or if the elections are completely disrupted?”

He thought a moment, looked away and said “The Taliban will quickly take control again. They are here, too much they never left. I know some of them. I see them now, working for the government or business or paid by the foreign companies. After the Americans came, they took off their beards and dressed modernly, but they are waiting. They will come to Kabul from outside and inside, and take the power. They will break this country into new pieces. ISI (our ally Pakistan’s version of the CIA) backs them with guns and money and trucks. They are here.”

Doc Bashir has a wife, three kids and two houses. He is educated, probably a moderate Muslim, and has a lot to lose. He even spent a week in a Taliban prison for trimming his beard too short. He stood looking out at the mountains almost in a trance telling me this.

I have learned to discount half of what any Afghan tells me, since lying and exaggerating are part of the culture, but he knows as well as any of us that the security condition is at its lowest point in seven years. The Taliban are known to control the roads within 25 miles us now, encircling the city. I see them on the streets now and then; they glare at us, and I make stupid faces at them. I laugh, they do not. We are one of only two medical providers in-country, but we no longer respond by road to calls for help outside Kabul. Of course, that is a limited security benefit, considering the Indian Embassy bombing inside Kabul last summer or the siege in Mumbai recently. For reference, these were both likely directed by the ISI, who are directly bankrolled by the USA. I will ask him another time what he thinks will happen when the Taliban overrun nuclear-armed Pakistan. That day seems to be coming and I do not believe that India will stand idly by.

I said “But there are tens of thousands of Afghan army and police forces here now, trained, armed and equipped. That is how they are positioned, to protect the cities.”

He chuckled, looked away, and said “Those men cannot fight. They are weak and barely paid. Maybe they could fight for one hour, but these Talibs they want to die fighting, and if the police and army don’t have American helicopters over them, they will turn and run quickly. And the Taliban are among them. When the time comes, these policemen with AKs you see today on the streets will drop the uniforms, no longer shave, and (moving his hand around his head) put back on the turban.” He paused. “I think, maybe there are 10,000 Taliban still here in Afghanistan. And there are too much support from the Afghan people for them again. Very suddenly, there will be 100,000.”

Dr Bashir is possibly delusional, misinformed, a Taliban sympathizer, or just a storyteller with bad math skills. The Taliban will not actually re-take this country out from under the foreign armies, but foreign investment is essential to actual stability, and that remains at a standstill. They are further destabilizing the whole country through frequent and widespread low-level actions, even though they are not present or welcome everywhere. And US military/political strategies are not producing any actual progress. There seems to be no clear goal, but that is another topic. The fundamentalists are low-powered but long-term, and have nothing to lose by bringing everyone down to their savage, barbaric level. They have the time.

I think I will go kick it on the beach in the USA and read the headlines from there, at least until after the election. First stop: New York City. See you all soon.

Kabul Spring 2009, 26 photos and captions:

http://www1.snapfish.com/share/p=366111263266178257/l=4391338017/g=6193089/otsc=SYE/otsi=SALB

The painting above shows Colonel Joe Kittinger doing pre-spacewalk testing for NASA in 1960:   still the world’s highest  parachute jump, out of a weather balloon over Arizona.  102,800’, free-falling from the edge of space past the speed of sound.  That is 20 miles up, and a free-fall at 700 mph, and that is cool.  It is how I feel right about now: returning to Earth, stoked.

Youtube link about that jump, set to Moby re-mixed:  

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4 Responses to “Bail Out”

  1. David M Says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 06/03/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  2. Monique Says:

    I am so happy that you are leaving that disaster area especially because you found yourself at the point of saying…

    “I see them on the streets now and then; they glare at us, and I make stupid faces at them. I laugh, they do not.”

    Scary. Kirise would say “Cwistophaaaaaaa, you’re likely to be alive”.

    We are all happy you will be safe at home, sitting on a beach, grateful and stoked about life in the US!!

  3. Mariam Says:

    “I see them on the streets now and then; they glare at us, and I make stupid faces at them. I laugh, they do not.”

    There are many problems in Afghanistan, and often no solutions. But when you feed ignorance, you only perpetuate existing problems. This leaves the people who are still working to create solutions in an even deeper ditch.

    I don’t blame you for wanting to leave Afghanistan. But for the time you have left, please don’t give the Afghan people or the Taliban more reason to hate foreigners. There is no quick-fix, but please don’t make the journey longer for the rest of us who are dedicated to something more, even if you can’t see it now.

  4. Al Says:

    I’ve been to Kabul 5 times in the past 2 years and have to go back before too long. The more you think about it the harder it is. I’ve visited some of the same NGO’s you have mentioned. Unfortunately we will be there for the long haul…..

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