02 August 2011

It's Getting Better All the Time (It Can't Get No Worse)

It's been an interesting few days here. Today marks the first full day of Ramadan, which is 29 days of fasting from sun-up to sun-down, impacting a huge majority of the Muslim population here. It's pandemonium, and quite fascinating. The pace of work has increased significantly, since our work day has been cut from about six hours a day to three (on account of the fasting). Before you judge anyone for such a "short" day, think about how you would feel if you hadn't eaten (or drank anything) in 10 hours and you were trying to participate in a meeting. Not fun. And in my case, absolutely not possible.

Earlier this week (knowing that visits during August would be impossible) we crammed in one last visit up the hill behind our Afghan base to visit with a family. It was me and Julia who were in charge, and we did our best to interact with a house full of women who live on the floor, have no furniture, have no food, have no water, and who met us with open hands. I'm picking my words carefully here...it wasn't open arms with which we were met. It was "what do you have for me" or "what can you give me" or "my child is crying because you didn't bring him candy." I'd like to pretend that it was through poor translations that the above messages were conveyed, but no, in fact, those words came from the mouths of beautiful Afghan mothers. You can see how many people showed up for chai...way too many, to be exact. That's a lot of hands.

Yes, we are by all accounts paying the price for two things here. First, a very challenging history of countries conquering Afghanistan, running it into the ground and leaving. And second, the Coalition's unusual approach to helping the people of Afghanistan. For the past 10 years, the Coalition has dutifully handed out food, water, candy and other "necessities" in this country. The typical Afghan has learned that the more he or she asks for, the more we provide. But what we haven't taught the general population here is how to create a better life for themselves through self-sufficiency (hard to do in a country like this, I know). And as far as I have experienced, we never really considered the need to train the average people of Afghanistan to fend for themselves when we leave in 2014. We've done lots of work with government officials and military leaders. Whether the positive impact has trickled down is, well, more obvious to some than others.

And the fact that we (the Coalition) plan to leave in 2014 is a contentious issue in among people here. I had a great conversation with the Afghan Colonel I advise about that the other day...perhaps my best conversation thus far in Afghanistan. He and I are working on changes to the rank structure for the base. His input to me was that he alone cannot change the corrupt politics of the Afghan National Army and Afghanistan as a whole. He pointed out that there are great people in Afghanistan (many of whom I have the pleasure of working with) and until the "good" people gain power here, change is not possible. Corruption is a way to life here, and it permeates every major decision that is made. Or maybe it doesn't. But the perception that corruption rules Afghanistan runs rampant. So the Colonel and I agreed that the Coalition could stay here forever and Afghanistan wouldn't change until it wanted to change.

I'll end with this, because it's the happier part of the story. If there is hope, it lies with the children. (Bonus points for catching the literary reference). The kids here are just as sweet as can be...and they swarm around us, making us feel like rockstars. One of our guys, we'll call him Jack, discovered that kids across the world love to sing and dance the Hokey Pokey. There is nothing more priceless than hearing a flock of Afghan non-English speaking kids repeat "you put your right hand in, you put your right hand out." And yes, they also learned the motions.

We do what we do here because we hope that the kids who learn the Hokey Pokey from us will someday rise to lead this country to do great things. I, for one, am under no mis-impression that I can change Afghanistan in 6 months, or that I can break people here of the bad habits the Coalition (and about 200 years of terrible wars) have created.

It is sort of cool to feel like a rockstar though, so I think I'll keep going on humanitarian aid drops. And I'll keep posting pictures.