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There has been a lull in my posts due to an emergency in India. My heart grieves for that family and their loss; I wish them strength in all things to come. In the meantime, I am lucky to be able to spend this time with my own family, since I am often quite far away from them.

This congressional investigation to be released today includes most of the information that I would provide if someone, like Obama, asked me about US programs in Afghanistan.

  • Aid money to stabilize areas is a short-term fix
  • There is little evidence that any positive results are sustainable
  • Enormous cash flows overwhelm and distort local culture and economies
  • There is little oversight, particularly more so in Afghan-run projects, which encourages corruption and mis-use of funds
  • The “single most important step” is to stop paying Afghans “inflated salaries” — often 10 or more times the going rate — to work for foreign governments and contractors

It’s good to see that this information is making it’s way to US policy makers and the public. I just hope they will listen and make changes accordingly.

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Change is in the air. I thought it was just a role change as I discussed in my last post. But, in fact, it’s much bigger.

If you’ve been reading the news lately, specifically about the budget that Congress can not agree on, you probably have heard about massive cuts in USAID. I know several projects that have suddenly started sending people home because they can’t assume that they will have funding next quarter or next year. (These large projects often require a ramp down period for finishing work, leaving houses, and closing the books.)

Several of my friends are leaving due to these cuts. And, yesterday, I learned that I am another person being cut. The project management is quick to say that the cuts are unrelated to performance, which is true, but the further truth is that, like the nepotism of the Afghans, there is some clear favoritism in the people remaining on the project. That’s just a reality of work.

And so:

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

It looks like, instead of my new exciting role, I will be hitting the skies in about a week. There is a slight chance I could find another project or even another job in that time. But most likely I will find myself with quite a bit of unexpected time on my hands.

So my question to you (my few faithful readers) is: where would you go or what would you do if you could do just about anything?

 

This afternoon I returned to Kabul after a quick 2-day trip to Delhi. It is just a short 2-hr flight each way, but mentally, it feels lightyears away. Upon landing, the reality of returning to a post-conflict environment hit me as soon as I turned on my cell phone…a text msg immediately came through from my security indicating that a grocery store that is half a block from my house was hit by a suicide attacker. This is a store that I and my colleagues often stop by, especially on a Friday (our day off).

Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that I knew anyone injured, but this small community of expats will be affected. Reports speculate wildly, but right now, they are saying 9 people were killed with others injured. It’s yet another unfortunate tragedy, but it hits a lot closer to (my) home.

Every once in awhile, the news provides new information with relevant and insightful analysis. Normally, however, the news is a lot of regurgitation, scare mongering, and validation of public opinion.

This article I saw recently fits squarely in the last category for me. It has been said before, it points to the half of aid projects with problems in one province, and it validates the public sentiment that money being spent here is a waste. I’m not disagreeing with their analysis. I know plenty of people who worked on projects (such as the Kabul River cleanup) only to return 6 or 9 months later to see things regressed back to their original state.

The problem is that the kind of large scale change that the US wants throughout the country (e.g. end corruption, provide a functional government and private sector, ensure security for citizens while limiting the ability of rogue/terrorists groups to organize, create gender equality, reduce poverty…) are all long-term, large-scale endeavors. The US hasn’t committed to really managing this type of change.

The assumption of the U.S. operating model is that you can fix a problem by throwing money at it. This is rarely the case. More likely, the sudden influx in money makes the situation worse in unanticipated ways.

from AFP:

Afghanistan marks independence day

Afghanistan marked independence day Thursday as the Taliban-led insurgency drags on, with foreign troop deaths at record highs and the government under pressure to honour pledges on corruption and security.

August 19 commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919, which granted Afghanistan full independence from Britain — though the country was never part of the British empire — after three bloody wars.

The day was traditionally marked by a military parade and other public events, but these were scaled down after a Taliban attack in 2008 that was seen as an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai on Thursday attended a low-profile event in Kabul, placing a floral wreath at the base of the marble independence memorial near his palace.

The ceremony was attended by Western dignitaries including the commander of foreign forces, US General David Petraeus, who watched Karzai inspect a guard of honour.

The Taliban, who were ousted in a 2001 US-led invasion and are the main militant group behind a growing insurgency, also marked the day, vowing to defeat the NATO force and calling them “invaders”.

“The Afghan nation has never tolerated the occupation of their country before and will never tolerate it in the future at all.”

It’s been a quiet day for those of us working from home, as government offices are closed. As the article above mentioned, festivities are scaled way down after the assassination attempt 2 years ago. It doesn’t really feel like Independence Day without food (but we’re in the middle of Ramadan) and fireworks (but we’re in the middle of a war zone).

Yesterday and today, the first days back in the office during Ramadan, were a bit difficult. There was a constant gnawing from my stomach (where’s my snack!?), and my mouth felt dry (waaaater).

I’m trying to be cognizant that my officemates are fasting.

Then we got a notice from security:

“A spokesman for the Supreme Court has been quoted on local television news that anyone eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan will be arrested.  This includes those with exemptions from fasting, (people travelling, the sick and nursing mothers), who are expected to eat and drink in private.  Advisors should avoid eating, drinking or smoking in public during day light hours, including while in vehicles.

While I don’t really think I would be arrested in public, it’s probably best to be careful.  And in the office, I’m trying to be respectful. I still go home and have a huge lunch though!

I want to clearly state that I didn’t sign up to fast, and I think it’s important to eat and drink throughout the day. And while changing your diet and eating times might be healthy (just like changing your workout routine), I find no religious significance to it.

I am very thankful for being able to go home for lunch. And I am also thankful that all of the restaurants in Kabul that I’m allowed to go to are behind heavily fortified gates, which practically means you’re not eating in public.

I do feel sorry for my National staff. Some of these Afghans lived outside the country for many years (one guy lived in CA for the last 15 years), but culturally (and potentially lawfully), they have to fast. And during the summer, sun up to sundown is a long time. I can already see the signs of fatigue and crankiness. It’s going to be a long month for them.

Today is the official first day of Ramadan, based on the viewing of the moon in Saudi Arabia.

The government offices are closed today so I’m working from home.

Having spent the last 2.5 months around people who love their tea, coffee, cigarettes (some Afghans), sweets, and food in general, I am quite curious to see what the next month of fasting during daylight hours will look like. I also haven’t really decided what I will do about it personally. Will I eat my morning snack in the office? Will I keep my bottle (or two) of water on my desk and drink from it throughout the day? Will I tell my officemates about my scrumptious Afghan lunches? (Note: some time ago office arrangements changed, and now I am the only expat, and woman, in an office with 7 Afghan guys. I get along great with “the guys,” but I expect some crankiness to ensue in the next couple weeks…)

On an unrelated note, Afghanistan tragedies, which happen all the time, have recently come to the world stage because they affected expats. If you’re curious about some of the events, here is some commentary in the news:

10 Aid Workers Killed

Attack on Guesthouse Revised: this second article only got a few hours of airtime. It was originally released that 2 expats were killed, but as soon as it was determined that only Afghan guards died in the attack, there was nothing more written about in international news. This is typical.

At various times, we have to stay in our guest houses. Right now it is for the Kabul Conference. I can only liken it to bad weather shutting everything down in the U.S. (such as Snow-mageddon this past winter in DC). The difference here is that we can’t go outside (or even play in the snow). We are always under a lot of restrictions, and as soon as you remove those limited freedoms, cabin fever sets in very fast.

We work during the day, dealing with the crappy internet that may one day be improved (insha allah). And, we entertain ourselves after hours by cooking (no staff in the house these days so we’ve taken over the kitchen, also no food delivery this time), watching movies and the news, listening to music, and trying not to get on each others’ nerves. I’m thankful for the other 10 people living in my house, who help keep things interesting.

I don’t usually talk about current security concerns for two reasons. One, there’s really no reason to worry you. Two, security and the effects of war are common place to us. As I ride around town, my colleague (who I am using as a translator) tells me of an attack on the palace, where the gunmen were holed up, and how long the shooting went on for. Co-workers talk about a hotel that has been bombed more than once. We get text messages anytime there are confirmed or unconfirmed activities around town, from peaceful demonstrations to anything more.

Today, was my first bomb blast. It was fairly close to my work, and the first explosion I have heard loud and clear. We quickly got information detailing the situation through rumors, security personnel notices, and the internet.

I am relieved that there were no injuries and it was an accidental detonation, based on current accounts.

The economy here is totally out of whack. One of the most obvious illustrations of this is housing. The money flooding into the economy through the illicit drug trade, black market (more gray than black for for things like alcohol and pirated dvds), and donor support certainly creates an opportunity for the enterprising land or home owner. However, everything in Kabul is behind a wall, which usually consists of thick concrete and razor wire rolls along the top (definitely should have bought into those companies 5+ years ago).

But the walls don’t hide the tops of the houses, which can often be seen from the street or from the roof/balcony of other houses. And, like an ice berg, what you can see is only the tip of the high life in Kabul. Rooftop bars, green houses, hot tubs, pools, courtyards with waterfalls, rec rooms, and the like make for a great party-scene; one that feels strangely out of place along the unpaved and pockmarked road (with pot holes so large that the sturdiest SUVs bounce like a crazy amusement ride).

Washington Post had a decent article on this subject. I’ve seen the red brick house in the pictures.

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