November 8, 2009
As I was packing up to leave Kandahar two weeks ago at the conclusion of my fourth visit to Arghand, I mentioned to one of our cooperative members that I had never before seen so many weddings take place alongside so much fighting. He paused briefly to metabolize the irony, and then released a gust of laughter. Indeed, it has been wedding season in Kandahar as the weather is neither too warm nor too cold, and so just about every other day at least one of our members was dashing off to celebrate the nuptials of some relative or friend. It got to the point where it became difficult, at least for me, to distinguish between the sounds of celebratory and antagonistic gunfire in the street at night. Love and War. This is Afghanistan today in full Shakespearean glory.
I had planned the trip anyway, a couple of months out, because I had not been there since early February and also because Sarah and I hadn’t seen each other in the flesh for two and a half years. Now that she was based at ISAF HQ in Kabul, it would be easy enough for her to pop down to Kandahar for a few days during my stay so the Arghand family could finally be reunited. In addition, we badly needed to ship the 1,000 kilos of soap and body oils that had been accumulating in our bedroom since late spring when the Canadians abruptly informed us that we had lost our shipping privileges through their APO. And we needed to meet with the CIDA program officers that had worked with us throughout much of the summer on a proposal for a new one-year contract that would cover 12 months of technical assistance, an alembic for distilling essential oil of rose and the construction of a larger soap making facility. I knew ahead of time that this was going to be a busy couple of weeks, but that was inadequate preparation for the situation that would begin to reveal itself a couple of weeks prior to my arrival.
Sarah went to Kandahar toward the end of September and was confronted by our three male cooperative members who have been working with her the longest. They told her that since the election, Kandahar City security had degraded to the point where the risks associated with working at Arghand had started to outweigh the benefits. The time had come for us to shutter the cooperative, they said. Taliban were everywhere now – not just in the districts surrounding the city but also in town, dressed like ordinary people without their signature black turbans and long beards so they could blend in easily with the general population. As always, the Taliban had it in for those Afghans who were known to collaborate with foreigners, or worked for the government, and the daily reports of murders, kidnappings, suicide attacks and bomb blasts became especially worrisome when the victims started to be neighbors and friends.
And yet, if the Taliban had been the only threat, that might have seemed tolerable. Sarah has taken several public stances against the corruption and abuse of power on the part of Afghan government officials. She has received death threats in the past. Consequently, anyone who is associated with her is in double danger.
Add to this the fallout from the August 20thpresidential election, which instigated a very unattractive tipping point. Nobody expected a national election in Afghanistan to be smooth sailing, least of all the Afghan people. Yet the scale of the fraud was breathtaking – even and perhaps especially for them. It was so well organized and so widespread as to have been clearly premeditated, and Hamid Karzai was revealed not merely as the leader of weak or ineffective government, but rather as the lord of a criminal enterprise that routinely abuses the very people it is meant to protect. Most of Karzai’s remaining popular support evaporated quickly, and if that wasn’t enough the international community failed to denounce the fraud for fear of appearing to “meddle” in the internal domestic affairs of a sovereign country. But here was the problem: After eight years of watching foreign forces bomb their villages, kill their civilians and construct enormous military compounds on their soil, most Afghans don’t view Afghanistan as a “sovereign state,” but rather as a kind of subsidiary of the United States government. By not calling Karzai out on the industrial-scale electoral fraud, the international community was effectively condoning it.
Within just a few weeks the anti-foreigner sentiment had started to metastasize, and many people who felt the need to protest did so by joining the Taliban – because they were the guys with the guns, because they appeared to be winning, and also because their brand of dictatorial leadership was starting to look attractive by comparison. If only the foreigners would go home and let the Taliban use their iron yet predictable fists to reestablish security, the Afghan people would at least be spared the escalating violence. Nurullah told me over a skype call that the Kandahar rumor mill was ablaze with conspiracy theories about how the Americans were behind the recent truck bomb that killed approximately 100 civilians, and the police station shoot-out in which the chief of police was murdered and subsequently replaced by a new commander who is the brother-in-law of President Karzai’s younger brother, and is believed to have strong ties to the Taliban. Powerful government officials were using the Taliban to eliminate those who flagrantly opposed them, he said, before gasping at the notion that Obama would even consider sending additional troops to southern Afghaistan given the bloodshed that would surely unleash. Nurullah went on to say that he could smell the odor of ripening conditions for civil war, at which point I understood exactly what he was describing: Anarchy. His constant anxiety was the result of having aligned himself with the perceived losers.
Sarah spent about five days in Kandahar, talking it out with Nurullah, Fayzullah and Abdulahad until finally she sent me an email that caused me to go numb: “I just really think they’ve had it,” she wrote. “They feel that the Afghanistan we all hoped for and dreamed about is over, finished, washed up, and that as a result Arghand no longer has any meaning.”
“But what about the women?” I asked. “What about the other two guys? What about us and everything we’ve all been working toward these past four years?”
“I know,” Sarah wrote back. “But their feeling is that they’re done thinking about the future of Afghanistan because there is no future in Afghanistan.” She told me that they were ready to think about themselves and their families. What would become of their families if they got killed? They wanted us to dismantle the cooperative and divide whatever money and assets were left 15 ways. This, they figured, would provide everybody with enough of a nest egg.
“It’s not that much,” I said. “Maybe around $5,000 a piece …”
“That’s a lot more in Afghanistan than it is in the US,” she said. “Maybe it would be enough to get them started in some other business. Maybe some of them would relocate to Kabul or even Pakistan.”
“There’s got to be some other alternative,” I tried, thinking about the painstaking progress we had finally started to make between the recently installed solar electric system, the new website, the CIDA contract that was on the verge of being signed, the transition to commercial shipping and the trade show I was planning to do shortly after the new year. Arghand was finally starting to look and feel like a potentially viable business. Taking it all apart now and dismantling the incredible network of friends and supporters that contributed so generously toward its advancement was positively unthinkable.
Before she returned to Kabul, Sarah told the guys that she had heard and understood everything they’d said to her. Still, she couldn’t make a decision of this magnitude on the spot, and she couldn’t make it alone. She asked them to please sit with it for a couple of weeks until I got there, at which point we would all figure things out together. They agreed. They also perked up at a final option she brought to the table, which was that maybe in light of the risky service they had provided to the United States military, she could help them apply for political asylum. She explained that it was a long shot, but possibly worth pursuing regardless.
Over the next couple of weeks, Sarah and I communicated frequently via email and skype in an ongoing effort to come up with some way to salvage the cooperative. We discussed moving to Kabul, talked about the likelihood of identifying trustworthy replacement members in an environment where people were becoming suspicious of their own family members, and even considered the idea of producing just oil in Kandahar and shipping it to America where the three guys who might be able to emigrate could make soap. Each potential solution seemed to create a dozen hazards, and my excitement about the upcoming trip morphed into dread.
People often tell me that my willingness to travel to Kandahar makes me a brave person. It does not. Always I have to drag myself onto the first of three airplanes, talking my blood pressure down amid a mind full of worst case scenarios, which invariably include kidnapping, death by decapitation, or just driving over a roadside bomb on the way home from the airport. This time my anxiety was worse than ever. Not only had the guys described Kandahar as being so physically perilous that they couldn’t reassure me as they had before every other visit that Sarah and I would be safe with them, but I was also preparing to thrust myself into an emotionally desolate environment in which all hope for a decent future seemed to have been lost.
Still, backing out of the trip wasn’t an option. If I were to have backed out then, I may as well have closed the cooperative myself – because if I was unwilling to risk Kandahar for just a couple of weeks, how could I ask our Afghan members to keep it going indefinitely?
So I did what I tell my 13 year-old daughter to do on a regular basis: I sucked it up. Pushing myself through security in St. Thomas, I then sucked down three beers at an Atlanta airport bar and washed up in Kandahar some 40 hours later. The guys greeted me with a stone colored burqa they had borrowed from one of the Arghand women and told me to climb into the back seat. I complied. My life was in their hands now. Removing my eyeglasses to accommodate the burqa, I struggled to take in what I could of the dusty, blurry landscape through the nylon mesh grid.
Sarah arrived four days later and we immediately got down to the business of collectively examining our situation. The position of the three guys had not changed. Working at Arghand had badly endangered their lives, and so they still thought the best course of action was to shut down. They were scared, and that fear had opened their eyes to harsh realities and practical concerns. Afghanistan, which was very clearly coming apart, was unlikely to improve any time soon. On the contrary, they expected the Taliban to regain control of the south, but not until after quite a bit more blood had been spilled. And because Arghand was built to flourish in the progressive environment they had all envisioned, rather than in the hideous one that was lapping at their front gates, the prognosis for our experiment was becoming poor. The new land and building was a pipe dream at this point, despite Canada’s support. If we couldn’t expand toward real sustainability then what was the point? Wouldn’t it be better to divide up what was left of our assets and flee to safer ground? Wouldn’t it be wise to quit while we were all still alive than to sit around making soap, waiting for the unthinkable to happen?
The guys’ anguish was excruciating, palpable. Back in 2001 when the Americans first liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban, their hopes for the future had been so high that they couldn’t have imagined they would see such dark days of violence and paranoia again within their lifetimes. They felt in their hearts that the time was right to build something beautiful and expandable that would showcase the natural resources of their country while at the same time contributing to its economic development. They viewed the cooperative as a microcosm of what Afghanistan had the potential to become, complete with men and women working side by side and fair compensation for hard work. But now that their ambitions had become incompatible with the realities of the external world, it wasn’t only fear that haunted them; it was the bitter taste of foolishness as well.
I heard what they said. I understood. I cried. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of closing Arghand after everything we’d struggled to achieve. For most of us, the cooperative had long since transcended a job; it had become a way of life, a system of thinking, a family. More often than not, it was first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep at night. Those of you who know me well have probably heard me rail against American values reflected in a culture where people are too often judged on the basis of their material worth and can think of nothing more important than to advance their private agendas. And yet, I am a product of this environment. My instinct is to stay the course and persevere no matter what – refuse to let the bastards win. So I told Sarah that we couldn’t let three people determine the fate of 15, no matter how dangerous the situation had become for them, and she agreed. The women, who outnumbered the men two to one, were still happy with their jobs. Their families depended on the money they earned, and because as women they were essentially invisible, they didn’t feel any more personally threatened than they had a year ago.
Knowing that if the political climate in Kandahar did not change sharply for the better, and soon, we might be forced to evacuate, Sarah and I decided that we were not ready to pack it in just yet. So we went back to the guys with several options: We told them that they could take their share of the money out of the cooperative and leave; or we could relocate the three of them to a satellite office in Kabul where they could do their portion of the work in relative safety; or we could send them to the United States for approximately one month, during which time they could escape the pressure, explore the country and gain a first-hand sense of Arghand’s commercial potential in the west. They had all expressed great interest in traveling abroad in the past, but we had put it off in an effort to prioritize capital investments like the new soap making facility. Now that the new space wasn’t looking especially realistic, however – at least not in the short run – we thought that it might be a good time to invest in our human resources. The terrible political situation had crushed the guys’ spirits; perhaps we could reignite their enthusiasm by bringing them to the source of the demand, passion and support.
To our surprise, none of the guys so much as entertained the prospect of a trip to the U.S. Unless they could get visas that would allow them to emigrate, they said, it would be a waste of money. They also rejected the Kabul option on the grounds that the logistics were too complicated; they couldn’t get their minds around the problem of trucking oils and half-made soap between the two cities on roads that were too dangerous to drive. So we came up with yet another option, which was for everybody to keep working at Arghand in a reduced capacity but at a slightly higher rate of pay for the next six months.
The idea behind option number four was for Arghand to drop under the radar by down-shifting from expansion mode into survival mode. We were about to ship enough soap to last through Christmas and into early spring, which put us in a good position to scale back production for a period of six months. During this time we could mitigate the risks by reducing our hours of operation, and changing them on a regular basis. The three guys who were in the most danger as a result of their public association with Sarah and, by extension, ISAF, would get two months off a piece so they could lay low or get out of town. Meanwhile, Sarah and I would work on expanding the cooperative – not by increasing membership but rather through the development of new products like shower gel and skin cream – that would require far less labor to produce. At the end of six months, we would all meet back in Kandahar to reassess the situation.
One by one, each of the three guys decided against taking their share of the money and running. They decided to give our six month plan a shot. Given the security concerns, I’m still not entirely sure why they chose this option, although my guess is that it came down to some combination of down-home Pashtun loyalty and a reluctance to extinguish our dream in spite of their hard boiled cynicism. Besides, circumstances were changing in real time. While Sarah and I were in Kandahar, the UN sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission finally submitted its findings that Karzai had not won enough legitimate votes to avoid a run-off to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which upheld the verdict by throwing out more than a million votes. Then, in a breathtaking affirmation of the politically aggressive US policy that Sarah has been advocating for the past two years, John Kerry and Hilary Clinton forced Karzai to accept the election results by suggesting that if he didn’t comply, international support for his country might collapse. The objective was misguided, but their success was some indication that Karzai was unprepared for an ISAF withdrawal, and therefore at least somewhat malleable.
Meanwhile, I was dreading our meeting with the CIDA program officers who had guided me through the onerous process of securing funding for Arghand’s now improbable expansion. But they seemed to genuinely understand, and quickly amended our contribution agreement to reflect the current circumstances. They encouraged us to accept the funds for salary and the rose alembic, assuring us that doing so would not oblige us to construct the new building. If, on the other hand, Kandahar security were to improve, that option would remain firmly on the table.
Is Kandahar security likely to improve any time soon? It’s hard to say. It is looking increasingly likely that Obama will send additional troops to Afghanistan within the next few months, though maybe not the full 40,000 that General McChrystal has requested. It also seems likely that at least some of these troops will be used to secure major population centers, of which Kandahar is at the top of the list. Even so, the extent to which the United States government seems to understand or is willing to accept the hard line it must now take in dealing with Karzai is debatable. Kerry and Clinton squandered much of the leverage they gained after the ECC and IEC election results were announced in a herculean effort to force Karzai into a run-off election from which they expected him to emerge as a credible leader – without acknowledging that this would not improve his standing with the Afghan people. Fortunately, Dr. Abdullah defiantly criticized his opponent as he reluctantly dropped out of the race, and in so doing handed the international community an unforeseen gift: Hamid Karzai would have his second term, but not as a legitimate leader, and so the Obama team gained even more leverage than if he had won a second round fair and square.
To my relief, President Obama seized this opportunity by inviting his Afghan partner to open a new chapter by cleaning up his act. This was a good start. But now the White House must not back down. We must stop worrying about our reputation as a country that doesn’t do “the foreign occupying power thing” for long enough to demand compliance. We can make American guns and money conditional on Karzai’s prioritization of accountable governance, protection of civilians and removal of the worst abusers of political power. We can, as Sarah suggests, force Karzai to report to a commission of Afghan and international statesmen. We can and should stand firm when he tries to whip up anti-American sentiment by claiming foreign interference, knowing that the Afghan people have been expectingus to interfere on their behalf since 2001 when they welcomed the American troops that emancipated them from the Taliban with open arms. And we can probably cash in our last big bargaining chip, too, by threatening to withdraw and meaning it, because if the Afghan people don’t start to see improvements on the ground soon – perhaps in the form of not being shaken down for bribes every time they apply for a passport or a driver’s license – then even 100,000 additional troops won’t help to defeat an insurgency that is literally being spoon-fed by the heinous government we Americans helped to create.
And so, here we continue to be, on life support with the most powerful solar generator in all of Kandahar and 1000 kilos of soap finally en route to the United States and Canada. Pashtoon will go back in December and will try to hire at least one new male member who is trustworthy and can drive, in the event that some of the others decide to leave after all. Sarah and I have already started to work on formulas and source packaging for our new skin creams and liquid soaps. We badly want to succeed. We don’t want to surrender our years of hard work to a sinister enterprise. We want to finish what we started. And yet, there comes a point at which you begin to realize that you just can’t do it alone. Like the international community, we need reliable Afghan partners who feel as determined as we do, if not more so, to raise this cooperative through a field of thorny obstacles. Because at the end of the day we can push and prod, encourage and facilitate, cheer and console … but we can’t ask people to lay down their lives – for us. They have to decide for themselves what they’re willing to fight for. They have to need to prevail.
Love and Peace to You All,