Politics/Law/Government

Letters from Afghanistan: installment #1

Editor’s note:  Our guest, Connor O’Steen, is a special correspondent to Scholars & Rogues.  He’s currently in Afghanistan working for PARSA, a non-governmental organization (NGO) specializing in microeconomic development with an emphasis on women and children. He is often in rural areas far from Kabul where most other journalists cannot, or will not, go.  You are unlikely to find his insights in the mainstream media. Often, he has no access to the Internet, so excerpts will be sporadic, at best.  His correspondence to us is edited for context and to remove information that might put him or his coworkers in danger.

Dogs, generals, and orphans

by Connor O’Steen

One of the things we have no shortage of in Kabul is dogs. Marnie Gustavson, the executive director of PARSA and the person who’s been nice enough to put me up in Afghanistan, currently has seven dogs living under her roof.  It wasn’t exactly that she wanted this many; it was just how it turned out, really.

One of the biggest problems I’ve had adapting to Afghan culture is its casual cruelty and neglect of animals. Marnie even said that one of the drivers she had here would laugh while he swerved trying to hit stray dogs. Given the situation, where children will beat and sometimes kill strays for the fun of it, the staff of PARSA has ended up rescuing a lot of animals. A number of these have been given to ex-pats or caring Afghan families, but some are simply too stubborn or loved to be given away.

The dogs at Marastoon (where the international staff of PARSA live) are mainly Afghan hounds or ex-jongi (fighting) dogs. The biggest jongi dog, ironically named Puppy, could easily fit my head in his jaws but actually has the best temper. Most of the dogs have had their ears and tails cut short; that’s to keep other dogs from grabbing them there during a fight. Despite all of the mischief they cause, they’re great dogs, and another example of making a change in Afghanistan–human or animal.

We went to Alhouddin orphanage a few days ago and took along two British ISAF generals who are kind and smart enough to realize that this is an important program to fund, and who wanted to see the results of their efforts. To emphasize how great these guys were, their money wasn’t coming from any kind of ISAF budget, it was raised through fundraising projects in Britain, Dubai, and other British embassies around the world. Through their own personal clout, they made this a priority.

ISAF generals, however, are not allowed to leave their bases without an armed convoy following them. This is true despite the fact that in Kabul, the only target that could draw hostility is a very apparent, very slow, ISAF convoy. By requiring extra measures of security, these ISAF regulations only serve to make the situation more dangerous for their personnel.

Fortunately, the ISAF generals agreed on this conclusion, so they snuck out in civilian clothes and the three of us climbed into the trunk of a Toyota as we dodged security. On the ride over (a rather bumpy one, particularly without any seats to cushion the blows of the lousy Kabul roads) the generals and I discussed our views on the war in Afghanistan, the security situation, and what should be done to improve the quality of life for Afghans.

The big conclusion that we reached is there has to be an agreement among the international community and the aid community about the consistency of aid to social and political programs in Afghanistan. Easier said than done obviously. It’s not easy to solve donor fatigue or convince nations to continue to give when corruption is rampant and the results seem few. Still, if we lose interest now and refuse to continue what we’ve started, we have no right to be outraged when another security threat arises. The security threats are the result of a base of social and political instability. If you can solve the vacuum of Afghan power, you can improve the security situation, but it all takes patience and continued assistance.

The experience was surreal. Riding in the trunk of a car with two senior staff members of ISAF and discussing aid and security policies with them-even after I’d been told I was going to Afghanistan, I don’t think I would’ve believed that could have happened.

More to come.

Connor O’Steen is the former editor-in-chief of the Shady Dealer, the humor magazine of the University of Chicago, is a Fellow of the International House, and is currently awaiting publication of his policy white paper on the inherent dangers of the Pakistani military’s ownership of private sector companies.  He has language skills in Dari, Urdu, and Arabic.

15 replies »

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  2. Conner, thanks so much for your work and giving us a look into your world there. As a derelict anthropologist, I am always fascinated by these insights into culture and society that you never see in news reports.

    Time Magazine’s cover this week is on how to bring our attention back to Afghanistan and make our work more effective there. McCain and Obama also lent their pens to push their plans for the country.

    How effective are these humanitarian efforts? I’ve gathered that ousting the Taliban and scattering Al Qaeda created a much better environment for a year or two (lots of schools for girls opened up, for example) but deteriorated when we couldn’t sustain our attention (which beget the opium explosion). Obama makes the point that since we diverted our resources to Iraq, military and otherwise, we couldn’t finish what we started in Afghanistan. What do you think?

  3. As he’s in Afghanistan at present, we probably won’t get immediate answers to your questions, Djerrid. Hopefully Conner will be able to answer them when he has either a) regular net access and free time or b) returned to the U.S. safely, whichever comes first.

  4. Djerrid:

    In the next few days, S&R will be publishing some more of Connor’s observations that may shed some light on your questions.

  5. “the generals and I discussed our views on the war in Afghanistan, the security situation, and what should be done to improve the quality of life for Afghans.”

    The underlying assumptions being:

    1) They aren’t an illegal occupying army.

    2) They have some right to be there.

    3) The “international community” can conquer and administrate Afghanistan as it pleases.

    4) The people of Afghanistan are not considered relevant among “generals” of the occupying imperial stormtroopers.

    5) Rolling out a list of problems is self-justifying for more endless, open occupation.

    Etcetera. And I never even got to the whole protected opium trade, intelligence service connections and western sponsorship of terrorist networks…

  6. john:

    Mr. O’Steen isn’t available to defend those comments, and I don’t know enough to do it for him, but I would like to point out that he said these generals had raised money for an orphanage on their own, which would seem to be at odds with your statement: “The people of Afghanistan are not considered relevant among ‘generals’ of the occupying imperial storm troopers.”

  7. “…these generals had raised money for an orphanage on their own, which would seem to be at odds with your statement: “The people of Afghanistan are not considered relevant among ‘generals’ of the occupying imperial storm troopers.”

    Well here’s a modest proposal for the occupying generals:

    Make fewer orphans by bombing and killing less parents. Seems a no-brainer, no?

    Not sure it’s feasible for the military strategists, however.

    Generals also engage in public relations to put a “humanitarian” face on their atrocities. Had that never occured to you?

  8. John,

    What has occurred to me is that maybe, just maybe, native Afghanis have something to do with the problems in their country.

    It ain’t a perfect world where we’re concerned, but let’s be clear on something. Afghanistan isn’t Iraq.