Postcard From Afghanistan: F.C.’s Hal Lippman in Kabul

The following is the text of a communiqué to friends in Falls Church from F.C. City Councilman Hal Lippman, on assignment with his day job in Afghanistan:

Kabul, Afghanistan (Nov. 16th) — This being my third trip here (2003, 2006) at the same time of year (Oct/Nov), the first thing that comes to mind is [still] the dust stupid. Everywhere I’ve been here in Kabul, Herat in the west, and Mazar-e-sharif in the north central part of the country fine particle dust is in the air. While no big deal in the scheme of things, it is a nuisance and something you’re always dealing with. It means my laptop in our office will be covered with a fine layer if I leave it open for any length of time and my desk has to be cleaned off every morning.

It also means, especially when you’re out and around on dirt and paved roads, you’re always dusty.  Lots of hand washing, clothes soiled after a day’s use (life threatening ring-around-the collar), and a general feeling of fighting an unwinnable battle to stay clean. As a largely mountainous, semi-arid country Afghanistan is dusty virtually year round, although there are periods in winter and spring where rain or snow provides some relief.

Another strong impression that continues from my prior trips is that Afghanistan reminds me of the phrase “going to hell in a hand basket,” although in this case it’s not going, it’s where it’s starting from in terms of its post-Taliban economic and political status. Not surprisingly, even after five years of intensive and extensive support from donors, it remains one of the world’s poorest and most backward countries, with extremely high rates of illiteracy among men (70%) and women (90%).

The everyday look of people out and about their normal routines, urban and rural landscapes, etc. are typically stark, threadbare, and/or ramshackle.  Yet, at the same time there’s always lots of vitality especially in urban areas and larger villages, with bustling commerce, heavy traffic, and market stalls and stores filled with eye-catching produce (at this time of the year). Street activity is punctuated by the sights and sounds of pedestrians (90% of whom are men), bicycles, handcarts, horse/donkey drawn carts, cars, SUVs, buses, trucks, and small yellow taxis all coming together in a typically chaotic third world mix.

Have also tried to build on my prior experience to get an updated idea of what people who live and work here think of Afghanistan’s prospects. While at the end of 2003, when I was first here, there was definite hope and optimism, I don’t recall getting the same feeling late last year. And, now, as I talk with Afghans, NGO officials, U.S. government types, and others, the clear sense is that the security situation has gotten worse over the last two years and is continuing to erode. One very thoughtful and committed Afghan returnee said he’s lost his optimism because he no longer thinks the country’s leaders are up to the task at hand.

Along these lines, the suicide bombing last week that killed six Members of Parliament, dozens of school children, and others has seemingly had quite an impact on public perceptions of security, since it happened in a northern province that has been widely regarded as being relatively safe.  En route to the site of one of our field trips (Kunduz), my two colleagues had passed by the site of the bombing, a new sugar factory, about half an hour before the incident occurred.

For those who’ve read “The Kite Runner,” in my travels kids flying kites are a common sight everywhere. Readers of this wonderful book will also recall that one of the main characters (the servant) and his son were Hazara, a group of people primarily from Bamiyan province who are disliked, looked down upon, and discriminated against by most Afghans. I asked about this and was told that the word Hazara means “one thousand” and is literally the number of soldiers and others left behind by Genghis Khan after his brutal conquest of the area more than 1,000 years ago. The Hazara are also Shia, while the vast majority of Afghans are Sunni Moslems.

Mention of Genghis Khan also brings to mind some thoughts about the public face of so many Afghans. The terms that come to mind most readily for me are glowering, brooding, cold, hard, fierce, and unsmiling: not at all pleasant or welcoming, but perhaps understandable given the country’s history of being conquered, subjugated, and/or constantly fighting against invading forces. And, on top of this there are the recent decades of continuous conflict, bloodshed, and destruction.

In this same vein, we happened into an unusual experience upon my arrival in Herat. We were hosted for dinner by a retired Afghan Army general who also may qualify for the title, warlord, at his hilltop restaurant/recreation complex. For reasons we couldn’t ascertain, he has built a combination war memorial/museum to honor those who died in Herat during the war with the Soviets in the 1980s. On the grounds surrounding the strikingly beautiful round building captured weapons of all types, helicopters, tanks, artillery pieces, armored cars, and more, are displayed.

On the outside wall are marble tablets exquisitely etched with the names of 2,000 commanders who died in the Herat area. Inside are hundreds of photos of leaders and fighters, 90% of whom were killed, and a diorama that goes around the entire ground floor of the building. Using the lifelike figures and painted backdrops the diorama graphically depicts scenes from a notorious Soviet attack that killed some 24,000 people in a day or so. It was hard to know what to make of all we saw. It seemed over the top and struck us as an eerie reminder of what is happening now. The project is not quite finished so it’s hard to know what’ll become of it. Will it become a tourist draw and/or required visit for school children?