The cost of aid work/ of being away.

This blog has always (hoped to, at least) combine the personal issues of being an aid worker, with the professional ones. I don’t think, and have never thought that these issues can be separated, nor should be. Aid work/ development work – whatever you call it, stems from a deeply personal set of beliefs and perceptions about the world, and how the world should be. We are all, in this business, ideologues, I guess.

Some years back, when I lived in Australia, and having fun was easy, I used to go surf-kayaking. In little squirt boats, we would surf the waves, rolling and flipping, like wannabe dolphins.

On one occasion, I got dumped, badly. I didn’t roll up immediately, and so I got a lungful of water, and got disoriented. When I finally did roll up, the next wave hit me, and by then, I was close into shore, and this wave pushed me deep into the sand. My head hit the sea bed, hard. A bit harder, I could have broken my neck. My mate Mike, who was watching, had no idea where I was. When I finally emerged, I was a wreck. I had to go to the doctor to get my ears syringed, to get the sand out. She didn’t believe me, when I told her what had happened.

That’s sort of how I feel now. The ride got really hard, this last year. I find myself wondering,  has it been worth it? If I re-do the arithmetic, what will the answer be?

But, then, as I said, we are all ideologues in this business. We started this work, because we believed, long before the rest of the world was interested, that Afghanistan could be something more than a byword for misery and hopelessness. And that we could, or should, be part of that healing.

But why should that belief lead us to conclude that we would pass unscathed? Isn’t there likely to be a cost, somewhere? The other lives of which I am also a part  – son, brother, friend – have continued, in their various parts of the world. Nothing stopped, just because we went to work in Afghanistan. There will be a cost, and we were told that, right at the start. If that cost is never apparent, you are either very lucky, or have somehow stayed close to the surface, buoyant enough to avoid the deep currents.

Deep down though, I know I hoped that these other lives would keep till we returned.


We rejoice in no man’s death

There is a general mood of elation, it seems, that Bin Laden is dead. I do not share in that. I do not rejoice in his death.

It is a sad end to a chapter in a  long, sad story, which is far from ended. This in not the end of Al Qaeda, nor the Taliban. In the 10 years since the hunt for Bin Laden got serious, he has had plenty of time, I am sure to encourage up dozens of new leaders. Maybe they will be effective, maybe ineffective. Does killing him change that? Does any of it buy back the wasted years and the wasted effort and the wasted money? Those who are rejoicing because they think some kind of justice is achieved will not find their grief lighter, I suspect. Pain is not such an easy transaction.

And in between 9/11 and May 2, 2011, how many thousands of Afghans have died in drone attacks, midnight raids, missile strikes, black prisons? How many soldiers from nations never concerned with all this have gone home in body bags, or deranged, removed, taken to a place from which they will never fully return. All their grief and that of all their families follows a different trajectory, unlinked to Bin Laden’s death, and one which will continue long past this day.

But seeing as Bin Laden is dead, and seeing as this somehow, for some people, legitimises all that has happened, can all the soldiers now go home? It’s over. It’s done. A demon is dead. The remnant Taliban are not, and never were a threat to the sovereignty of Western nations. They never had that ambition. Their agenda is surely a domestic issue, which most parties have agreed for years now, can only, ultimately addressed by the Afghan nation. Leave the Taliban to go legitimate or to go feral – they are doing it anyway – and go home, foreign soldiers. Your hunt for Bin Laden is over, and the real war, the war of ideologies, was never going to won with guns and bullets anyway.

Untitled reflection

So, my father died. He died a week and a bit ago, late on a Monday night. My mother and sister had gone home for the night; my wife and remaining daughter were to fly in later in the evening, and my other sister the next day. But in the end, it was just Dad and me. It was unspeakably hard, the last day or so, and the last five minutes when I knew he was about to die were terrible. I loved my father greatly, and he loved me. We all knew he loved us deeply.

This is a blog about aid work in Afghanistan, the intersections between commitment, effort and outcome in the humanitarian sphere, and from the point of view of a person of faith – so I will not deviate too far into the business of my own grief.

It is hard though, to watch someone die, to be so ultimately powerless. So many things are in our control – or so we like to imagine – particularly in the comfortable West. Not death. I held his hands and cradled him as his breathing stopped, and then I just cried and cried.

In the last few days of my Dad’s life, I prayed that he would last, would live to see my sister married in June. Then I just prayed that he would make it out of this current onslaught of illnesses. Then I prayed he would last long enough to see his other daughter arrive. In the end I was praying he would make it through the night, and then simply that he would have a final moment of lucidity. With each step, my prayers became tighter and more limited their request, and in reflection, none of them were answered positively.

Though I guess you could interpret all that as the capriciousness (and therefore non-existence) of God, I suspect all it really means is I don’t get prayer properly. I think I often use prayer as a form of agitating God for what I want, which seems kind of pathetic when you hold it up to the light. I don’t really think that is what prayer is about. I am guessing it is more what Pete F reckons, a sharing of pain, joy, grief, insignificant moments and great ones.

That aside, I miss my Dad enormously.

We hope to be back in Kabul in April, but it is not clear how this all will work. We felt called to work and live in Afghanistan for the long haul way back in ’96, and that all has never changed nor been rescinded. But yet again, the disruptions and dislocations of life have derailed us somewhat.

Cold war thinking.

Still more troops needed, says Petraeus.

Yes, that right. What can’t be accomplished with 60,000 soldiers will be accomplished with 80,000. Or maybe 100,000. That’s what we’ve been doing wrong. Does that last line of the General, ‘for the first time…’, does that not strike you as kind of outrageous? That in essence, the reason for our failure so far, is that we have not killed enough enemies.

Maybe in a conventional war, that reasoning might hold. Say, WWII. But here and now, that is old thinking, cold-war thinking: more men, more guns, more bullets, more killing. That is what it amounts to right? More killing. Let us call it for what it is. Not ‘kinetic action’ which is how the officials at the Department of Defence in Canberra refer to it, in a perfect example of Orwellian Newspeak. Or ‘Degradation of Hostile capacity’. Killing. You don’t bring in more soldiers unless that is where you see the solution.

To those of us here on the ground, this is complete idiocy, and an increasing number of military and intelligence people think so too, not the mention the average public. This issue was well put in a recent article, ‘Hearts and Minds and Blood and Honor’, but a few lines from it will do here:

“It’s never been clear to me exactly how a massive foreign military occupation translates to a stable, secure and democratic society in Afghanistan. How does one lead to the other, how do we get from A to B?…The special forces operatives kicking in some random Afghan’s door at 3 in the morning – how are they solving the endemic corruption? The bombers, gunships, and drones pounding Afghan villages – how do these contribute to a sense of hope and security for Afghan citizens?”

More pertinently, how do 3000 or so aid workers across the country compete with 100,000 men in uniform?

The long call

We received an email today from the widow of one of the people killed up in Nuristan recently. She wrote about ‘reaching the end of this long call to serve in Afghanistan’.

Apart from it being terribly sad and hard to read, it provoked some reflection from Julie and I. Why are we here in this country? So much effort over so many years is erased so quickly. So much goodness can be undone so easily  – in 2009, I evaluated a community development project working in the North East of this country. It was working in two remote valleys, where the staff showed huge commitment and substantial progress was being made. Since then, a bunch of Taliban moved down one of the valleys. US forces took note, and sent in a few drones, which bombed the place up. Everyone got hostile. One of the development team was kidnapped, then released; then they all had to pull out. Now they are working in a small, tight radius around the township. All their work in the valleys is pretty much over, the momentum lost.

It reminds me of our work in community development years ago, in the North. Long days, long years of work in remote, dusty places, which was terminated over night by the events of 9/11.

Why do we keep trying here? I am less and less sure that we achieve anything. I know, I know now that this work is not about us feeling good, or developing our CVs. And I am not an aid junkie, living on the high of the emergency, the thrill of saving lives. But I would like to see permanent progress here in some form, in my lifetime. I am less convinced that will happen, or at least less convinced that there is much I can do to expedite it.

It seems I follow a God of lost causes. I am not sure how I feel about that. As Nathan says, ‘I have joined the long defeat’.


Also, because the room I am sitting in is badly built, one side is about 4 inches lower than the other. I have propped the right side of the desk up on boards but the chair is still on an acute angle. I am just wanting you all to know that should I develop some kind of horrible arthritis or malignant osteopathic condition because of unergonomic seating, I will be vexed.

Back in Afghanistan and a burial.

So, we are back.

We arrived Thursday PM, after two days in sweltering, crazy, fasting Dubai. Women in tight tops and women in the full niqab, eyes barely visible through the narrow slits. Men in shorts and men in dishdashye, shining white. Everyone hot and thirsty. Because of Ramazan, if we were out of the guest house, we had to hide in public toilets to eat. Getting caught eating in public lands you a 2000 dirham fine and time in jail. Such is Dubai.


Kabul is predictably dry and dusty. I immediately started to get Afghan Nose (the condition of  excessive fingering of one’s nostrils because of the dusty dry air, resulting in nose-bleeds, dusty boogers and furtiveness).


And yesterday, we buried Tom and Dan, the two men of the Nuristan Eye team who had requested that Afghanistan be their resting place, should they die here. I, along with three others carried Tom’s body to the grave in the Christian cemetery, and then he was lowered into the ground alongside Dan.

When we first came here, in 1996, we stayed with Tom and Libby, and last year, we were at his 60th.

It was a long, sad day.

Still heading roughly forwards, mainly, mostly

Shocked and sad and grieving the death of the Eye Camp team, some of whom were friends and colleagues. Disrupted too, at a practical level, as we are meant to leave in less than a week. But we are still, mostly, mainly, heading back to Afghanistan. It just seems that the journey is never straightforward.