Encounters with power: 3

I have written previously about power and its corruptions in this country. And I had intended that my next post, i.e., this post, be about the struggles we are having in Faryab province – our long term development work being undermined, sidelined and devalued, by the rising tide of uncritical aid money being splashed about. The crazy thing (or one of the many sad and crazy things) is that in those parts of Afghanistan where peace reigns, the development dollar has been the weakest: that is, proportionally far less has been spent on basic infrastructure, education, training of professional and technocrats and so on. Those places that are least stable – so, more poorly positioned to actually thrive – have had the most money spent. Big aid follows the military machine. It is called the peace penalty, it is well known and roundly criticised by people like us whose opinions never reach further than the next street.

In Faryab – seeing as I have now started – it used to be peaceful. Then some Taliban moved in. Then the US came and shot up some valleys and had some of their drones drop some bombs. Then one of our staff got kidnapped and lots of NGO staff got threatened. The insecurity continued to get worse, in part it seems, because people realised that insecurity attracts money. And sure enough, the big money came. And now, people in the villages – those few places where we can still work, where security is sufficient that it permits us a presence, big uncritical aid has corrupted the local people so comprehensively they no longer want to be participants in development. They want it all done for them. They will not contribute free labour: they want to be paid. They will not send their sons and daughters to literacy classes: they want incentives – wheat and oil – before they will give their children permission. And so on. And there goes our approach.

But more on that later.

So: it is Thursday. I have dropped some friends at Chicken St, and then I continue to Bush Bazaar, where I intend to stock up on provisions for our friends, Tom and Lyn, who are coming to Kabul to teach at the kids school. I buy oats and bacon, soap and shampoo, hot chocolate and real Italian pasta, weetbix and real coffee. It is a successful expedition.

I return to our car, and notice my front tire is flat. This is a frustration, as I am meant to be home in 15 minutes, so Julie can go out to lunch. The little boys who attend the vehicles, occasionally polishing them with filthy rags, in the hope of receiving a few Afs compensation for their re-arrangement of the dust, notice my arrival and gather around.

‘You have a flat tire’, they trill.


‘But it was the police. See, they have taken your number plate too.’ I am slow to catch on. It was the police?

‘Yes, you can’t park here. They said. They did it. They tore off your number plate. See, look! Come, see!’ Their excitement is palpable: a foreigner in trouble is high entertainment. I go see, and sure enough, the plate is gone. I look down the row of variously arranged cars; abandoned it seems, for such is the Afghan way of parking. I notice that perhaps half have similarly had their front tires punctured. Others are without plates too. It is not just me then.

Now my anger begins to build. Issue me a fine for parking in a wrong place (though post some ‘No Parking’ signs first), but take my number plate? Puncture my tire?

‘When did this happen? Where are they?’ I demand of the boys, as though they were complicit (they possibly were: they certainly encouraged me to park there, and I can’t be sure they don’t benefit in some way from all this).

‘Up there – see – if you run, you can catch them.’

It seems I have little choice. To have no licence plate is a serious problem and who knows to what graveyard of remote offices the hapless number plates will be borne and hidden? It could take me days to find. Better to try to retrieve it now. I set off jogging down the street, acutely aware that about $300 worth of goods are now sitting in my car in open sight.

After 5 minutes I catch the police. There are about 30 of them. Good Grief. How many coppers are needed to stab tires and pull off plates? Is this an all day thing? Is it such hard work? But more pressingly, who is in charge? Which is the commander? Who do I talk to? I gabble to various underlings and thrust my registration papers at many lowly police toe-rags before finally finding the Commander, and puff out my story. I am not abrasive  – perhaps I should be, or might be, if I hadn’t run the best part of a kilometre. I mainly want my number plate back, and starting a fight with 30 police officers is not going to work. See, I have learned something in the last 12 years.

The Commander scans my papers and grunts. I babble apologies. He takes a single appraising look at me, as if to ascertain how much trouble I can cause, or perhaps how much I am good for.

‘Give him his numberplate’. This is a concession to the fact that I am a foreigner, I am sure – an Afghan here would be told to get lost, to come to the office, to come back in three days. The Commander, without raising his eyes, starts to write something – a fine, perhaps, and then his sidekick, based on some subtle communication from the Commander, jumps to life and tells me, ‘1000Afs’. About $20. It is not too much, though whether it is a bribe or a fine I do not know. Should I protest? Is it too much? Is it official? An official bribe perhaps. The Commander writes out one, two, three, four, and then a fifth copy of the receipt.

‘Why five?’ I ask. Foolish, perhaps, but why do I need so many?

‘Five hours. 200Afs per hour.1000 Afs’ The Commander’s meaning is oblique. ‘Eh? Five hours of what?’ I start to ask, and then decide the better of it. That I was ‘illegally’ parked (note, there are no signs what so ever forbidding parking in the entirety of the street) for only one hour is not going to get my 800Afs back, and if I start to argue my case I might just find myself in his car along with my numberplate.

I get the number plate, the five receipts, my registration papers, and begin the jog back. It now takes only about 45 minutes to locate the jack, the tire lever, pancake myself under the car – now so low to the ground that you could barely slip a pizza underneath – jack it up and change the tire. The jack is the sort that you turn with a small handle, and it offers very little mechanical advantage. With each turn, the jack raises about 1/10th of a millimetre. It is a slow business, and with every turn, my knuckle knocks on the underbody of the car. In warm weather it would be painful, in the wintery 5˚ C, it is murderous, and at one point, I get up, kick a rock and say a bad word. The Afghan boys are delighted, and laugh openly: ‘He has a flat tire! He is changing the tire! He is angry!’

I derive only a small amount of satisfaction from the fact that I am a source of amusement to small boys. More interesting is the solidarity I feel with other car owners, who return to find their number plates gone and their tires down. They too look disgusted and angry, and when our eyes meet, there is the brief recognition that we have been wronged, together.

Finally I am done. I am filthy, from the mud, the oil and grease caked around the jack, the black of the tire, the effort, the blood from my banged knuckle.  I lower the car, hang the punctured tire on the brace at the back of the car, and I drive home, and though vexed, I am not furious. Perhaps I am getting better at managing these situations. Or perhaps I was just too irritated to get really enraged. Or just realised at a subconscious level the futility of it.

I continue to speculate as I drive. If my encounter with Kabul’s police was archetypical -and all I know and read and am told suggests that it is – I wonder how the people of this country are meant to vest trust in its institutions and its officials. I wonder at what point it tips, when enough people decide that on balance, ‘this’ state of affairs is preferable to another. What corruptions are acceptable and what aren’t? What will people put up with? I know it is a world I am largely not part of, and when I get home, I tell our watchman what happened. He says little, but looks at me in a way I can’t quite fathom. It is almost – almost, like he is thinking, ‘Now you’ve had a taste of it’. I do not mean he is mean, or vindictive – far from it, he is a kind and gentle man. But he knows, and I know, that I rarely ever experience anything like the privations and pains that he does, that poor people do. I would not blame him at all, for taking a measure of satisfaction that for a brief minute, I shared something of the hardness of the life of the poor.

Later I go out the bazaar and get the tire repaired. It is only 100Afs.

I please myself the following morning, by being able to laugh when the same watchman comes to the door at 7AM to tell me that I have two completely flat tires.


7 thoughts on “Encounters with power: 3

  1. Yikes that’s just horribly annoying ! Brave man following the police officers . I probably would have sat in the dirt and cried ! I was in the Solomon islands about 15 years ago and we were catching up with some people in their home . We had our van parked out front and when we went to go home discovered our spare tyre was stolen. It was a borrowed van and so spent th next week trying to find a replacement . They were about $ 600 au each for a second hand one . We ended up putting one on the plane from Queensland ( domestic ) as it was half the price ! It was a bit strange going to customs and picking up our tyre off the luggage belt . Ha ha ! I guess stranger things just happen in places around the world.
    Love your blog ; such good reading . May you and Julie have a good Christmas with your family and with the shackles xxx

  2. That’s incredible! Tom and Lyn are coming to Afghanistan! Amazing. It’s starting to sound like the Gold Coast with so many visitors!

    As for the tyre/number plate/police/corruption saga, I am metaphorically tearing my hair out and saying some bad words on your behalf!

    Did the groceries survive?

    Blessings and peace, seriously, for Christmas.


  3. Merry Christmas folks…hope you’re having an excellent day. Thanks Phil for your ongoing insights & reflections. Lots of love, K

  4. How frustrating!Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings, Phil. It prompted reflections on some frustrations here in Oz and my feelings of powerlessness. Nothing like the messiness, arbitrariness and suspicions of corruption you face: just the seeming pointlessness and inefficiency of multi-layered bureaucratic requirements. And the question, why do people/systems default to such? It possibly starts with well-intentioned regulation which is then polluted by abuse of power, or it gaining a life of its own as a fund-raiser? Grace and strength to you.

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