Between October 2005 and October 2006, I was a “high-value target.” Despite misgivings about risks to my safety, I took a job with a U.S.-funded aid project based in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province because of a desire to help rebuild lives in a region my country had helped to decimate either overtly or by negligence. I also confess to having had a sense of intrigue about the assignment: We were to develop licit income-earning activities in a war-scarred place among an ultra-conservative population, the majority of whom were dependent on opium-poppy production. As the public information specialist for the project, implemented by Chemonics International, Inc. (a for-profit contractor of USAID), I was responsible for creating and implementing a public education campaign to inspire local citizens to commit themselves to economic progress (and in the process repudiate the poppy). I was also tasked with promoting project successes to U.S. and Afghan government officials.
In spite of our well-funded efforts, success stories were few and far between. My fascinating but frustrating months in Helmand brought steadily worsening conditions for local Afghans and expats alike, an experience that left me questioning the wisdom of putting lives at risk in an environment utterly inappropriate for a multi-million-dollar economic development project: Afghanistan’s recrudescent guerrilla war. It also left me troubled by a foreign aid process in which an idea is hatched in a nest of good intentions and self-promotional spin in Washington and implemented, at least in this case, without a comprehensive situational assessment. The combined results of policy hubris and the for-profit’s reckless mismanagement of the project made me less proud to be an American, and glad to get out alive.
When a friend first mentioned a communications job for a project in southern Afghanistan, I shook my head “no” before he even finished his sentence. Though drawn to adventures, I wasn’t looking for another one: A year working in postwar Angola, and several years working with abused and neglected children in crime-riddled U.S. neighborhoods, was adventure enough for me. Now 36 years old, single and with a good job, I wanted to put down roots. I was even considering adoption.
But my friend persisted and I agreed to meet with upper echelon contractor staff about the project. Only weeks later, after the Chemonics hard-sell, rigorous research and substantial negotiation, I left for the surreal world of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
I went with a sense of hope. The language on the contract framed our project as a “high-profile mission at the nexus of U.S. foreign policy and international development.” I believed then (and still do) that opium-poppy cultivation and terrorism were linked and that the strategic use of soft power, like that embodied by development assistance, could make a difference. Besides, the scale of the effort was unprecedented: more than $125 million over four years in a single province.
But apparently, this wasn’t just any province: Everyone I spoke to about the position responded with stunned expressions. This was one of the most feared places in the post-9/11 world. Yet I learned from my preparatory study that Helmand was not an opium-producing area by tradition. Before 1979, when the Red Army descended on Afghanistan, it had been known for orchard crops, especially apricots. Helmand had also been the site of a significant American aid project focused on irrigation and rural development during the 1950s and 1960s, work that built the still-existing but floundering Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority. Lashkar Gah—meaning “place of soldiers” from the days of Alexander the Great’s Bactria Campaign—had once been called “Little America” because of the town’s vibrant social and economic life. An Afghan colleague once wistfully described to me her memory of this era: Boys and girls shared the same classrooms, and girls were allowed to ride bicycles in the streets, just like the boys.
On the way to Afghanistan I imagined what our project’s success might look like: a people emerging from the collective shame of producing an illegal (“haram”) crop and reclaiming its place in the region as producers and exporters of luscious fruit and beautiful carpets. But I also knew that success would not come easily; the alternative livelihoods project was sited in an area where 11 Chemonics staff members had lost their lives over the course of three days while implementing an associated USAID-funded development project just a few months earlier. While the resurgent Taliban did not take credit for those killings, the message was clear: Not everyone wanted progress, and those working on its behalf would be watched, and if unlucky, systematically killed. Before my departure, I met the lead security manager, under whose watch those 11 murders occurred. He had come to DC to brief Chemonics and I insisted on a meeting with him outside the office. Over his second beer, in his lilting New Zealand accent, he said: “They are patient. They will watch you and they will wait. They will take their time, but they will get you.”
It takes just under two hours to fly from Kabul to Helmand, one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Situated amid the breathtakingly harsh landscapes of southern Afghanistan, with Kandahar to its east and Nimroz to its west (a province that borders Iran), Helmand’s 58,584 square miles are sparsely populated by less than 750,000 people, the great majority of whom are Pashtun. The Helmand River bisects the province, flowing southward from the country’s central highlands to where, just south of Lashkar Gah, it joins the Arghandab River, which wends its way through the desert from Kandahar. The confluence of these two all-season rivers creates a lush valley in what is otherwise a mercilessly arid region. My eyes drank in the stunning landscape from 10,000 feet.
Since the autumn 2001 war that put an assumed end to the Taliban regime, Helmand has become an epicenter of poppy production, and one cannot spend much time on the ground around Lashkar Gah without noticing it. A persistent drought has made growing apricots, pomegranates and pistachios untenable; meanwhile, growing drought-resistant poppies with the protection and assistance of the resurgent Taliban has become too lucrative for many to pass up. A typical farmer can earn about $5,400 per hectare of opium yield compared to about a tenth of that for wheat—and getting value for wheat depends, of course, on being able to get the harvest to market. Farmers in Helmand reckon by the jerib—about 2,000 square meters. Some holdings are as large as thirty jeribs, though smaller holdings are still lucrative. Two farmers we came to know devoted ten jeribs to poppies and the rest to other crops. One jerib yielded about $40,000, so these men earned about $400,000 a year, before costs, from opium. That’s a lot of money anywhere, but particularly in a place that looks like it never emerged from the 13th century, and for men who could neither read nor write.
The stark landscape is broken by the momentary quaintness of Lashkar Gah’s American-built USAID dwellings from the 1950s and 1960s. Laid out in a grid system just like an American suburb of that time, they now seem tired victims of the unyielding sun, wind and deferred maintenance. They lean slightly to one side, as if aching for a long-overdue rest. The majority of Lashkar Gah’s homes are mud structures sitting inside high mud walls and sealed off from all others with high, corrugated metal gates. But the most notable of structures dotting the town’s dirt road are the gaudy, massive narco-palaces aptly called “Pakistani wedding cakes” by some expats because of their bizarre, brightly colored layers and amply adorned exteriors made from mirrors and decorative tiles. No question who owns them: Their proliferation reflects the burgeoning opium poppy industry here.
South of the city is a 7,000-foot gravel runway built by the Soviets, where our plane landed. About 1.5 miles north of the runway sits the base of the local PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team), with the town in between. The decision to separate an airfield from a military base like this struck me as strange. The project’s British security manager later explained that this is why the project had hired about thirty local policemen, described as a likable band of villains with no formal training and almost no equipment. Outside the small plane’s window, this ragtag militia stood under the sweltering sun at the periphery of the strip, some holding old Kalashnikovs, some RPGs, and all wearing shoes that didn’t fit and pants six inches too short. They would accompany us whenever we venture out from our compound, I was told. Otherwise, I soon learned, they spent their time protecting the local narcotics convoys.
The need for security was real. Outside of Lashkar Gah, the province has only one paved road— Highway 1, or, as it is commonly known, the Ring Road. Its reputation as unsafe for foreigners was well founded. During my tenure, two convoys associated with our project were targeted by IEDs. On one occasion, a colleague was lucky to walk away, his head coming within inches of being impaled by what was left of the car’s frame. Even seasoned ex-military security contractors were shaken by these events; one went on leave and simply never returned. Travel security worsened over the course of the year. By the time I left southern Afghanistan, the Ring Road was typically closed even to expat traffic moving in convoys with armed guards.
Making the roads unsafe was and remains a Taliban objective. The more they could disrupt our work, the more they could intimidate through violence and murder, the more likely—they seemed to reason—we infidels would flee for safety, leaving the province ripe for their accelerated exploitation. One might have thought that security problems would be minimized by the power of local government, which, I reasoned, had to be functioning more or less in tune with the Karzai government in Kabul. This was not the case.
When the Taliban dissolved and left Lashkar Gah in the autumn of 2001, the position of provincial governor was filled by a man from the north whose arrival into town was accompanied by 200 armed men. Though barely literate, this relative-by-marriage of President Karzai was confident enough in his status to proclaim himself governor. A rival of the governor soon seized the position of regional police chief in similar fashion. In spite of the fact that both had a private militia in tow, neither man was strong enough to wipe out the other, so an uneasy truce prevailed.
When the new government in Kabul solidified, both men were officially recognized in their positions; soon after, they were also recognized as active players in the local narcotics trade. Not long before my arrival, a British-led counter-narcotics operation seized nine tons of opium from the governor himself. In the Afghan political hierarchy, only the leadership in Kabul could bring charges against a governor or remove him from his position. To the astonishment of at least some expats in Afghanistan, neither happened.
In Lashkar Gah, and especially in more remote areas in Helmand, I soon learned of an informal alliance between farmers, officials and the Taliban. In the end, it would be hard for me to swallow the simple truth that the benefits of these symbiotic relationships far outweighed anything we could offer as an economic development project. Yet at the time we took up residence and began our work, we did not know of these entrenched associations, and our project was rewarded by often gracious and sometimes enthusiastic reactions to descriptions of project plans with local residents.
Apparently, those who conceived the project in the first place were not aware of the real situation on the ground either—that, or the situation changed significantly between the project’s conception and its implementation. Indeed, when the project was conceived sometime in 2004, the poppy problem was smaller and the Taliban less in evidence. But opium production had already begun its steady rise. Despite all our collective efforts and many millions of dollars spent, opium production in Afghanistan rose somewhere between 49 and 61 percent from 2005 to 2006 alone, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The total was enough to produce 670 tons of heroin—more than 90 percent of the global supply, compared with 70 percent in 2000 and 52 percent a decade earlier. In Helmand, production had increased a staggering 160 percent, a record-breaking output that left U.S. and British officials in Kabul in a sustained state of frustration and defensiveness.
As a result of poppy production, the Taliban was able to recruit more, pay more attractive bonuses for successful attacks, and supply themselves more abundantly with weapons. But despite active insurgency/counterinsurgency warfare all around us, we were to persist. And so we did.
At times during my first few months in Helmand, the project seemed to make headway. But disappointments abounded. We learned, for example, that the Taliban paid off Afghans involved in the project’s Cash for Work program, making deals that ensured loyalty during poppy planting and harvest seasons. Just when we thought we were gaining ground by hiring local farmers to help with infrastructure elements of the project—improving irrigation nearly destroyed by war and building roads—poppy planting or harvest season would inevitably call them away to the fields.
We also learned in the spring of 2006 that Taliban fighters were promising farmers armed protection from poppy eradication programs. Eradication was supposed to be implemented by the Afghan “Counter Narcotics Force”, mentored by the British, protected by the notorious U.S. private security company DynCorp International, all with intermittent oversight by the State Department. The ultimately bogus effort was a mixture of good intentions on the part of some, nefarious intentions on the part of others, and outright impotence on the part of most. It failed. We in the alternative livelihoods project were to liaise only privately with the eradication people, so as to avoid any public or formal association that would put us in jeopardy. I worked continuously, as the PI officer, to define our efforts as distinct from eradication. Nonetheless, farmers and other local citizens came to perceive our project as being linked to the West’s counter-narcotics mission and a fundamental threat to their livelihoods.
This dangerous association raised the stakes for my still-unimplemented public information campaign (I had been told by Chemonics to hold off because we didn’t want to make empty promises). Aside from a lack of security arising from the informal local poppy alliance, the barriers to shifting the local economy toward licit crops also included the absence of the rule of law, widespread illiteracy, corruption and fiercely conservative interpretations of Islam that seemed to oppose all change, especially change introduced by foreigners. Above all, the fact that the project was slow to produce anything tangible turned out to be just as problematic.
While all of this was going on—or not going on, as it were—I tried to live a reasonably sane life and do my job. Neither proved to be easy. Internally, project mismanagement and a few troubled personalities made for palpable tension. Externally, I became sadly used to the sight of beautiful but dirt-caked Afghan children playing in sewage water. I got used to smells that forced me to wrap my headscarf over my nose, the cacophony of insects that started their day at 3 o’clock in the morning, the screeching wails of donkeys being forced down the dusty road outside my window.
Slightly softening the harshness were my living quarters, which consisted of a substantial bedroom and adjoining bath. Ironically, the project was housed in one of the narco-palaces, this one a pink stucco, ten-bedroom, ten-bath home with nearly as many chandeliers. The windows were covered in blast protection film. Soon after my arrival, the security manager hired a crew to fill sandbags for a ten-foot wall for additional blast protection around the compound’s perimeter.
It was a bit harder to get used to the fact that, as a woman, I was not supposed to be seen outside my quarters without being fully covered from head to toe. While my male colleagues could sit out in the sun and read and had their clothes cleaned by male staff then hung dry outdoors, I needed to exercise and clean my clothes myself, then drape them around my room to dry indoors, lest they offend. Initially, I was the only woman on the project team of nine other expats, but three local young women soon joined the team, one of whom I recruited to assist me in the public information office. Before working with me, this 21-year-old woman had not only never worked outside the home, but she had never come into regular contact with any males outside of her family. I also befriended our Hazara cook, who had an indefatigable fondness for me and for serving overcooked cauliflower in pools of palm oil. Our friendly efforts to stumble through each other’s native languages and cook together made a difficult time almost lovely.
Doing my job turned out to be difficult, but I delighted in mentoring my courageous assistant. I needed her, too. Given the endemic illiteracy in the region, her assistance with creating easily comprehended images and messages for print materials and radio broadcasts was vital. Estimates of illiteracy range from 78 to 93 percent, with women almost totally illiterate, so it was clear that whatever I came up with had to be mostly radio-borne and simple, but compelling, something that would inspire changed behavior and hope.
Meanwhile, Chemonics was generally more interested in how USAID—our client—perceived our work. USAID, in turn, had several audiences to consider: the State Department, Congress and a variety of Afghan officials and organizations in Kabul. With these multiple stakeholders in mind, I was to produce twice-monthly progress reports for USAID and the Afghan government, as well as devise success stories that would demonstrate that U.S. taxpayer money was being well spent. It became more and more difficult to make things sound good on paper, as much as I wanted to. In practice all we had, now some months into the project, were concepts. Though everyone involved with the project worked hard, we had little to show for it. I was told to wait for concrete results to emerge before commencing a public outreach and education effort: We knew that Afghans had heard many unfulfilled promises already, and we, at least, didn’t want to make promises we couldn’t keep.
Yet as the weeks and months went by, I worried that those citizens who were courageous enough to want to work with us were losing interest. A window of opportunity that could tip the scales of Pashtun loyalty to poppy was closing before we could produce any evidence of our bona fides, of the new economic vibrancy we had been forecasting. I felt a heavy foreboding that our failure would not only harm our image but possibly put us in danger. So I suggested ways to operationalize our concepts to the local population—erecting billboards at construction sites showing what finished projects would look like, for example; or recruiting and training Afghan spokespersons. But I was again asked to wait. Chemonics didn’t want to raise local expectations. Still, progress reports and success stories were my mandate.
After a few months of effort, it was becoming clear that the project as a whole was not getting traction in the face of a continuously deteriorating security situation. At one point, our British security manager informed us that the people of Lashkar Gah were getting more “night letters” from the Taliban. These letters, essentially threats embroidered with Quranic verses, characterized the project as part of a disgraceful and aggressive infidel mission in “invaded Afghanistan.” We stood accused of undermining Islam and of secretly spreading Christianity. The letters warned Muslims against associating with Christians and Jews lest they be “painfully tortured in hell.” Anyone cooking, driving, safeguarding or even associating with the infidels “is religiously authorized to be executed”, the night letters said. Such threats made me worry for my young Afghan assistant, so I advised her to vary her routes to and from the office and asked her to call in every night when she reached home safely. She, in turn, worried that I would be poisoned and pleaded with me to trust no one.
Most days I persuaded myself we were making some progress, but every so often an unsettling episode intervened. One day I went to the local market looking for spices to improvise a Thanksgiving meal and was shoved by a group of men who had gathered around me. My male Afghan colleague shouted obscenities at the men and whisked me into the car. His rationale for why this had occurred was that while my hair and body had been well covered, it apparently didn’t suffice; my garb was not traditional enough. From that point, I had to bring two Afghan armed guards along wherever I went, and he suggested that I dress even more conservatively. He even insisted on buying the fabric from the same bazaar (this time, we went well-protected) so that I could have Afghan-made clothes. Still, whatever I wore, I seemed to stand out as if there were a neon arrow hovering in the air above me. I was continually struck by how overtly and unceasingly the Afghans in Helmand stared.
As time passed and my experiences accumulated, I began to understand the local saying that “Afghanistan is where God comes to cry.” Just as the country itself combines remarkable beauty with unrelieved bleakness, so the people are stuck between the rock of the opium economy and the hard place of no viable alternative, between the anchors of tradition and the desperate need for progress and change. And yet change comes at a cost. One day my assistant and I were startled by a loud noise. Wide-eyed and silent, we looked at each other and knew. It was a suicide bomb exploding nearby, outside the governor’s office compound two blocks from our office. The bomb was designed to coincide with a PRT meeting; two U.S. Special Forces Humvees had been parked outside at the time of the attack. She and I had been to the same compound the day before. More than twenty people died.
As winter descended and deepened, the days began to fade into one another. I worked constantly, amazed by how much there was to do. We traveled often—to Grishk, Qalay Bost, Marja and elsewhere—to meet with farmers, widow’s shuras, radio stations, journalists. Interspersed with this work in my particular case were bouts of dysentery and a bite from a feral cat—with accompanying rabies treatment. There were multiple resignations from the project team, a flurry of work in response to a story in The (London) Times about the project, a new provincial governor, the temporary insanity of the local reaction to the Danish cartoon episode, four major reports to USAID, and a much-needed break in England.
In Helmand I earned both hardship pay and “danger differential” since USAID contractors work according to basic U.S. government personnel rules. It didn’t take long for me to feel deserving of both bonuses, though I remained aware that I was among the privileged, and that ultimately, unlike the Afghan friends I was making, I would—inshallah—be able to get out at the end of my tenure. Still, the bonuses helped me stomach ubiquitous trash-heaped ditches, algae-filled water spewing from my showerhead, pillows that felt like sandbags, bacteria-riddled food, and the constant requirement to cover my body. In the end, these hardships were minor compared to my ongoing discomfort with project mismanagement and failure to produce results.
Just as I had shed all guilt about living in a relatively secure compound and earning hardship pay, we heard that USAID had increased our danger differential for the second time. By mid-February of 2006, we were the only representatives of the so-called international community left in Lashkar Gah. Even a Bangladeshi NGO packed up and went home after one of its Afghan staff members was assassinated as he prayed at a nearby mosque. The people in charge of danger pay increases never spoke to us about our evacuation plans, despite the obviously increasing risk. This troubled me, and I felt we were out on the edge, co-existing with the military. I learned that day that while we assumed the PRT would rescue us should we need to evacuate, it wasn’t their mandate.
As spring emerged, the difficulties we faced mounted in spite of our assumption that it really couldn’t get any worse. It began to dawn on me that many humanitarian development efforts were being sucked into the great pool of quicksand that existed between Western aims and historically rooted local realities. While my visits to Kabul and areas north of Kabul underscored the remarkable graciousness and beauty that often characterizes this country, there was something darker and more powerful at play here in the south, a sinister, suffocating quality that refused to let the area be resuscitated. I linked it to the idiosyncratic practice of Islam here that seemed joyless, distorted from its origins, full of anger. I linked it to the virtual absence of independent thinking and even less collective initiative to change life for the better. I found this place threadbare and hole-ridden, eaten through at all levels of government and society by rampant corruption. This was the ugly underbelly of a sometimes beautiful place, and it sucked mindboggling amounts of foreign funds to nowhere apparent. One got used to a kind of low-level existential nausea in which waves of pessimism and frustration became normalized. I became proud of my resilience, however: I would fight against cynicism and prevail—at least for another day.
Every so often, a bright spot reinvigorated me and sometimes even the team as a whole. Not long after the danger pay increase, the project successfully undertook some innovative work involving several Bolivian engineers and laborers. Inspired by a similar licit-livelihoods project in Bolivia, we introduced the ancient and artful technology of cobblestone road-building to Helmand. The provincial governor and other local leaders had insisted on paved asphalt as part of infrastructure development, but they agreed to a one-kilometer demonstration project. Project leaders calculated that, given the capital/labor ratios available, stone roads were much cheaper than asphalt and more durable. Bolivian experts, protected by a cadre of Afghan and Nepalese security guards, taught 46 Afghan men (paid $4 per day) how to quarry and build the road. Despite not having a language in common, the project worked well and it was a beautiful thing to behold: the partnership and each new extension of the road itself.
The one-kilometer experiment was completed in approximately two months, and we held a ceremony at a well-fortified site following a heavily guarded tour with U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann and other U.S. and Afghan officials. The Afghans were clearly proud of their achievement. Another seven-kilometer stretch was soon approved, bringing the road all the way into Lashkar Gah. This sub-project employed more than 350 workers, infused licit money into the economy, built infrastructure and developed at least some project momentum. The road also gave me something to show Western journalists who (very) occasionally made their way to Helmand.
But bright spots invariably dim in southern Afghanistan, sometimes from dust storms, sometimes from smoke from explosions. Springtime brought more IED attacks on project convoys. It brought kidnappings and assassinations of other expats, too. We were told not to speak to any Afghans of our meeting and travel plans out of concerns about forecasting our movements, and therefore creating a target. But, of course, it is hard to liaise with the locals if you cannot travel to them or plan a meeting with them. The staff, professional and otherwise, became testy. As the project came under the increasingly worried scrutiny of Washington, my workload also increased: More success stories were needed, more reports quantifying our progress were demanded. As I attempted to collect data for these deliverables, colleagues once decent to me began responding with blank stares if not overt hostility.
With the poppy harvest approaching, U.S. and British officials murmured grave predictions of huge production increases, I was asked by USAID in March 2006 to devise a more rigorous public information campaign for immediate implementation in Helmand Province. This is what I knew had long been needed, and while I accepted the assignment with enthusiasm and as an honor, I privately feared that the time for such a campaign had passed. Local citizens were increasingly afraid to even tacitly support our alternative livelihoods program or “messaging.” Despite months of effort, we could not find a single person in Lashkar Gah to publicly associate with the project. The reason was basic: The majority of citizens profited in one way or another from the narcotics business, and speaking against it was dangerous. Even some local mullahs were accepting their tithe in opium rather than money. I heard that one mullah had spoken about the righteousness of growing poppy if one is desperate, equating this act with the Quran’s approval of a starving man’s sacrifice of his donkey, something that would otherwise be prohibited.
We in the development and counter-narcotics communities met regularly and soon agreed to shift the message: We must put the onus of responsibility on the Afghans. When the Afghans pushed us about why there wasn’t more progress, we told them that development would lag as long as the security situation remained unsettled. Translation: Don’t do business with the Taliban, tolerate hunger, and your international friends will help you. On the other hand, I could see that significant improvements in the security situation could not occur without a fundamental respect for the rule of law, something that in the face of rampant, narcotics-fueled corruption could not take root. In effect, we were saying, “You who live in day-to-day desperation, you must take these steps before we can help ease that desperation.” It wasn’t much of a strategy. Whatever was broken in Afghanistan was beyond the power of even the world’s superpower to fix. The locals would continue their way of life, including doing business with extremists who hated progress, no matter what we said.
Still, we did not give up. The road project unfolded. We made some headway with local radio stations. Women’s groups, though still afraid to visit us or have us visit them, came to us anyway, and we tried to help them make a dent in the private sector with their cooperative movements in business development associated with tomato paste or the dairy industry. Much of the time felt like wheel-spinning, but we stayed busy. Some members of our team explored new markets in India, attempted to attract investors, worked to improve animal health, distributed seeds, or taught computer literacy. In the end, we mostly just talked about doing these things, talked about it and reported it. Yet a few Afghan members of our staff still supported us, and that was heartening.
I told all the Afghans I spoke to that the agro-industrialization of Helmand would take years and would require the commitment of a generation of local Afghans. All that was true, which was precisely why I began to realize that the project’s planned sequencing had been unrealistic from the start. The Afghans said to us on many occasions that if we wanted to stop poppy cultivation, we should simply agree to artificially hike prices for what local farmers already know how to grow—cotton, for example—until the infrastructure could be put in place for other crops. That made sense as a transitional tactic, perhaps even as a long-term tactic, because sustaining artificially high prices for wheat and cotton ultimately would be less costly and less deadly than the drug war that U.S. and British forces were presently attempting to wage. But the project leadership knew this was out of the question: American agriculture lobbies would never allow it.
As the poppy harvest approached, whatever progress we made became overshadowed as fears of Western-funded eradication efforts rose among the local population. The result of all this was that many Afghans increasingly did not believe we really had a plan for alternative livelihoods. They began to think that we were just a cover for eradication—and why not? We had not explicitly defined our work in ways the locals could understand, because we had been told to wait for results (that never came) before going to the people. We found ourselves racing to separate ourselves from the eradication apparatus and to devise a new communications plan that would breathe fresh air into flailing Afghan perceptions of progress. Increasingly, I was ordered to present the plan and the backstory to officials in Kabul.
Whatever enthusiasm I retained was fed by the latter challenge. When Ambassador Neumann came to see us in March, his support and realism felt solid, buoying me up amid Helmand’s quicksand: My job, he explained, is not to change the scenario overnight, but to finally start a real conversation about what needs to happen. Washington knows, I was told, that the project isn’t about reducing poppy cultivation right now. No one expected us to do the impossible. This new realism, however, didn’t sit well with some of my colleagues. When they heard of USAID’s request for more public information, many were disdainful. They were also unnerved by the fact that I was asked to coordinate with the Poppy Elimination Program (PEP), and not without reason. By April, even Afghans who used to be our well-wishers were claiming that eradication now loomed because the alternative livelihoods project failed to create real alternatives.
Ultimately, though I thrived with the creative elements, the new emphasis on public information made my job close to impossible. Still in charge of reporting and success stories on a bi-weekly basis, I was also now responsible for developing and distributing posters, billboards, public service announcements for radio, a radio drama and public events. At the same time that I was to do more, the project staff found itself able to do less—they simply weren’t able to travel as much to project sites or to project planning meetings, even by armored convoy in flakjackets. So in answer to the inevitable questions about how many hectares of licit crops we were responsible for creating or how many kilometers of road we had built, they told me the correct answer was “zero.” Several project directors came and went in quick succession between spring and late summer. One cracked under pressure and flew into an abusive rage—twice. Once he came to my room to tearfully apologize; the second time, I quit, for the third time. Other staff members seemed clinically depressed, drank too much, disengaged socially. Some resigned in disgust; others took leave and failed to return. I found myself taking pleasure in smaller things—like yoga, hide-and-seek with my kitten, the rare and blissful gin and tonic, or teaching our Hazara cook how to make pancakes.
With so few positive developments to report, the tone of urgency in some phone calls I received—say, before someone in Washington had to give testimony on the Hill—made me feel slightly sick. I could still put the project in a positive light without outright lying, but I had to depend on others for the data, and none of us had much confidence in the numbers—any numbers. Between high staff turnover and the frequent inability to go out into the field to collect information, the statistics we reported were often “educated fiction”, more or less. I never really felt confident I could answer data-related questions, yet I was, ostensibly, the spokesperson.
Not long before I left Helmand, I was asked to staff a major Counter-Narcotics Shura, or council of elders. While initiated by U.S. officials after a meeting with British counter-narcotics and communications consultants, we framed the shura as an idea of Helmand’s newest governor, Engineer Daoud, as he was called in the local vernacular. My job was to collect and prepare talking points, and to supplement those points with data packages for Afghan officials who would be in the unenviable position of convincing weary Afghans in Helmand that things were on the right track. To do this, I had to work several days in Kabul. I knew I had changed when at dinner there one night, flares were released from U.S. jets and tears filled my eyes. Somewhere, fear had been dwelling, but in Kabul, a simple silvery flash of light streaking out of jets summoned it.
I returned to Lashkar Gah from Kabul in a C-130 with a party of American, British and Afghan officials. We flew to Kandahar, and from there took a mesmerizing, low-altitude helicopter flight to the PRT in Lashkar Gah. I was “home.” After I was driven in a convoy to the meeting site, I found myself in a pungent, dark room, full of somber, turbaned men, many of whom had traveled long distances to be present. We were more than two hours late.
The men in the room had been told to leave the front row for the Westerners. Awkwardly, we suggested that Afghans sit in the front, but soon realized that they saw themselves as hosts—we were their guests. So we sat. Afghan state media—radio and television—were present, and despite knowing several of them from my contacts made over the year, they clearly did not want to associate with me. In this setting, they were not willing to risk appearing friendly to any foreigners, especially a Western woman.
During the series of banal speeches by the governor and two Afghan ministers that followed, the crowd grew audibly restless. These speeches failed to use any of the data we supplied; all the folders we worked around the clock to prepare, with talking points and statistics, remained unopened on the tables in front of them. The attendees were then invited to participate after the welcoming speeches, and Governor Daoud called on them one by one. The seemingly disengaged crowd suddenly agitated to attention. Applause grew vigorous as a succession of comments were shouted: “But there are still no alternatives to poppies” and, for the thousandth time, “Why not just raise the price of cotton?” The governor and his ministers took notes, sweating profusely about the head and neck. I watched the translator jot down the questions and ineffectual answers being tossed about, and felt dismayed.
The growing agitation in the room convinced me to grab my backpack and head outside to where our force protection was waiting. Before leaving, I asked the governor’s security detail where the Engineer’s British consultant was, the handpicked Pashto-fluent strategist who was supposed to help the governor manage the province in the face of growing instability. Apparently, this man had chosen to stay safely ensconced in the governor’s office down the street. At that moment, out of the meeting doors burst the governor and the Afghan ministers, followed by Western officials. We had no choice but to follow our hosts into the obligatory luncheon, where thirty people ate in virtual silence, criminals and spies undoubtedly among us.
And so we finished yet another pro forma meeting, the importance of which lay not in what it accomplished, but in the fact that it was held at all. Here in Helmand, appearances and honor—even false honor—were more important than progress. Could it be that this syndrome had seeped into the psyche of Americans and British as well? Whatever the answer, I was now ready to leave Afghanistan.
Kabul is full of consultants—experts in banking, communications, health policy, government reform, land titles, intelligence, business development, women’s rights and numerous other sectors. You would think the place would be thriving. And on some level it is. Girls are going to school, streets are bustling, restaurants are doing well (with expat business). Construction is booming in the city, too, but it is thought to be funded more by narcotics than by development assistance. Yet Afghans who left long ago are returning to find a place largely in ruins. The beautiful city they remember had a population of about 45,000. Now, with little new infrastructure, the capital is a chaotic grid of cesspools and overwhelmed services, bewildered by the burden of approximately three million people. Add to the mix frequent suicide bomb attempts, rockets directed into town from nearby mountains and roadside IEDs, and it becomes laughable that Chemonics designates Kabul as a “mental health break from Lashkar Gah.”
At the end of the day, Western consultants and NGOs and NATO can’t take the chaos out of Kabul and create an order of centralized government citizens could be proud of. Even if they could, the ethic of Pashtunistan cares little about what happens in Kabul; what happens in Helmand might as well be happening in another country. The most powerful forces in the West cannot dent the armor that is the Taliban’s hold on the poppy industry and, therefore, the farmers who grow it.
Once back in the States, news about Afghanistan came over the airwaves infrequently, but when it did, I was dismayed to hear U.S. efforts in Afghanistan often characterized as success stories. Then I heard that my old compound was targeted by a suicide bomber who blew himself up on the premises after telling the guards he wanted access to the interior to kill the “infidels.”
The gap between the rhetoric in Washington and the reality in Afghanistan has dangerous implications. If we are ever to match our ambitions and rhetoric to a worthwhile record of service abroad, we must finally get serious about developing our competencies for hard work in tough places. Whenever policy implementation in nation- or state-building is little more than an afterthought, passed down along bureaucratic and for-profit consulting channels, the policy—however good it may look on paper—is at great risk of failure. Ask anyone in Helmand who isn’t a member of the Taliban: Afghanistan is no success story.