Sunday, June 7, 2009

Last Blog from Kabul, Tomorrow Location Undisclosed

Najim, my colleague at Jobs for Afghans, jumps out of our van to argue with an ANA soldier who was telling our driver he couldn't go through a traffic point, something about the van being over the allowed size or something. I'm sorry, arguing with guys toting machine guns is just not my thing, but Najim's voice is always quiet and calm. Maybe something in his Farsi accent says "educated" and the attitude changes. I've seen this before. The argument goes on for a while, me thinking, ok, we're all going to wind up in some hellish jail cell off the radar to rot without being allowed to contact anyone, but Najim persists, his voice quiet, and the soldier calms down. Then I hear "tashakar," thank you, from Najim, and we are allowed to pass. He is a natural leader, and even hot-headed soldiers recognize it. Harvard did its work well when they chose him for the Kennedy School.

We went to some locations with a camcorder where men congregate to wait for work, to do some interviews. We found hundreds of men who hadn't worked in weeks, and considered themselves lucky to get two or three days of labor at $4 a day. The anger and frustration were palpable. They complained about being beaten by the police and being told not to congregate, making finding work even harder than it already was. The men saw the money coming into the country and the new hotels going up for foreign contractors and the thousand dollar-a day bodyguards. But things were worse than ever for them. The NGOs, non-governmental organizations, where spoken of with disdain. "You guys come and fill your pockets then go home, and nothing changes for us," some said, confusing any American with the foreign contractors like Halliburton and Louis Berger Group, who employ a lot of machinery to improve airports and to build the highway from Kabul to Kandahar, at a cost of five times what it would cost anywhere else.

Our first round of interviews with the unemployed went well, but one instigator at the end, a little guy with a headwrap, started asking loudly how much were we making by taking their pictures, then leaving them, with no help ever coming. They weren't asking for welfare. They were asking to be allowed to work in the hot sun all day with 15 pound picks and 10 pound shovels for $4 a day. Najim whispered to me that the little guy was trouble, and we'd better make our escape. "Another few minutes and they might have gotten mad, we could have got a beating" he said later. He said they are hungry and desperate and every day they don't find work they get a little crazier. This little guy's eye's were wide and certainly desperate - how long since his kids had eaten, if he had kids? - this is when you understand how armed gangs pick up guns here and kidnap someone for the ransom.

Later in the afternoon we talked to a doctor who was working in the provinces before the Taliban came to power, as they were fighting their way to Kabul. The hospital staff noticed a bunch of guys with black turbans looking in the windows, like kids. They had never seen all these shiny things before. The doctor went out and told them to bring their commander to him for a talk, and he said, Look, we are just a hospital, someday you might need us too. He had the commander sign a letter-of-safety so he would have it to show to other Taliban who came through. Throughout the regime, and now after it, the hospital has been left alone by both sides.

Stories like this of casual courage in the face of men who slaughter entire villages are common, and they laugh while they tell them. I have found it: the center of the universe, where it's life and death every day, and everything means something, really means something. How can I ever get on a subway again and schlep to work at an office in Boston?

Driving into the American Embassy compound for a meeting with a deputy ambassador is a maze of barbed wire, guard checkpoints, armored personnel carriers and surveillance cameras. Our driver, who looks like an Afghan's Afghan, bristle-brush black hair and beard and mustache, tough-looking as hell and no English, looks at me in the back seat and smiles as yet another checkpoint raises the gate. I've never seen him smile before, and I smile back. I know what he is thinking, and we share it silently. He has never been inside like this, and ordinarily a guy like him could never get even close without getting hassled, or worse, shot by accident. But here he is being waved on like royalty, gates lifted one after the other, the Afghan, then the American soldiers in the inner ring waving him through. It's obvious from the chatter of the soldiers that the word had come down to expect us and to give us no trouble. The driver is like, Out of my way, assholes, Do you know who I am? He was getting quite a kick out of it.

Finally down the road out of Kabul, up to Kargur District and a bit wilder country. Najim has left for India but his brothers have taken charge of me and take me for a ride for lamb kebab. It's enough to make an omnivore out of a strict vegetarian. You have no idea what non-commercially-raised meat tastes like until it's fresh from a clear-aired mountainside in Afghanistan. Rasool drives like a maniac even for an Afghan, and that's really saying something. Again I am instructed "no English" when we cross checkpoints with soldiers. I'm told that if I come here on my own in the future, don't trust anyone, especially taxi drivers. They might make a deal. You mean trade me for $5,000? - I ask. "What do you mean $5,000? You're an American! They'll start at a million for ransom then come down to $50,000." My eyeglasses are the greatest giveaway that I'm a foreigner. No one can afford them here. After that little chat I take them off.

The soft underbelly of this occupation is the angry men in the squares looking for work, who are ripe to take the Taliban's $8 a day wage because that's who is hiring. It's insane. The Taliban is making gains all over the countryside because of economics, not because anyone likes them. In fact, they are thoroughly disliked. Everyone remembers how they cut off hands and heads. Obama needs to get smart fast. We can have stability here, but not unless the 40% unemployment is addressed. No stability, no exit. Then we're in for yet another long $1 trillion war.

If you have enjoyed this series from Kabul courtesy of Jobs for Afghans, please keep the calls coming to:

Sen. Daniel Inouye, Ph: 202-224-3934 Fax: 202-224-6747

and Rep. David Obey. Ph:(202) 225-3365 Fax: (715-842-4488)

who are hammering out in a conference committee the War Supplemental Appropriations bill. Please fax them this diary and ask them to add a 10% of military operations budget earmark for the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund administered by the World Bank, specifically directed to create cash-for-day-labor jobs for the poorest of Afghans, then call and email this diary to your own congressman to ask him or her, as your representative, to call Inouye and Obey with the same message.

Also please send a copy to President Obama.

Other blog posts at To join the email list for future congressional actions please shoot an email to ralphlopez AT hotmail DOT com.

We interview unemployed men

Unemployed men waiting for work

Doing the Harvard-Yale thing at our NGO host's in Kabul (I'm Yale, Naj is Harvard, rah rah.)


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