USA Today recently said and so it seems the recently released film may be the first about the war in Afghanistan. An adaptation of journalist Kim Barker’s memoir , it’s the first attempt I have seen trying to portray the parallel world of aid workers within the Afghanistan war zone as a comedy.
I was one of the hundreds of aid workers surged in and out at a breakneck pace during the intensified nation building effort of the US government’s AfPak strategy in 2009-10 when the numbers of foreign workers more than from the initial years of the international response. Rapidly recruited, briefed and deployed, we landed on the ground in provinces where logistics and administration had yet to keep pace with the number of arrivals.
As a veteran aid worker managing a bilateral humanitarian, reconstruction and governance programme team, my role became partly manager, cheerleader and boarding school supervisor of a young fresh aid worker crowd. Finding enough desks and searching through army containers for blankets and beds became routine.
Based in Kandahar, then probably the most dangerous place in the country, we led a far more subdued life than Tina Fey’s character portrays. With only non-alcoholic beer allowed and very little on offer in entertainment, we had to get creative when we did get free time – from repurposing the fire reservoir into a swimming pool to shooting comical videos of our life.
There were few chances to go off base, and when we did the places we visited were equally surreal. The Nato base at was particularly memorable. You could go for tango and belly dancing lessons or to a massage and nail studio run by Kyrgyz migrants. There was all-night American Idol-style karaoke, a Pizza Hut and Burger King. All this was designed to provide a sort of relief from more dangerous places just beyond the fortified walls, but instead it was both a drastic contrast to life at home and detached from the rest of Afghanistan.
I don’t think anything quite prepares a civilian for arriving in such a heavy militarised war zone like Kandahar for the first time. All the briefings we got, while helpful, just didn’t match up to the sense of intensity, insecurity and claustrophobia on arrival. The optimism of early military briefings changed as time went on.
Going to Kabul for meetings was like going to New York – suddenly there was a nightlife for foreigners, an abundance of alcohol, a variety of good restaurants and even some short shopping expeditions. Our Afghan colleagues witnessed this as a temporary western parallel world to their own and it was hard to shake the sense we weren’t living most people’s reality – we were heavily guarded even in the popular evening party spots that were considered safe and there was no link between the expat and Afghan lifestyles outside of work or business.
Looking back at the exorbitant number of hours that were spent on working to counter violent extremism, through a hearts and minds campaign and reconstruction programmes, can also be painful. What did we really achieve? The inability to move freely left us with a skewed sense of the needs of vulnerable Afghans and meant that many schools and health units never materialised because checking up on reconstruction work was easier said than done. Ensuring accountability just wasn’t possible.
I often wondered what ordinary Afghans made of all these Americans and Europeans coming in. By the end of 2013 when troops were stepping down, all sides were probably equally cynical, including those Afghans who had hoped for a greater degree of freedom from tyranny, corruption and poverty after 2002.
Some things were accomplished. The civilian reconstruction effort enabled the implementation of an international framework for funding Afghanistan’s development and an eventual military and civilian drawdown while building a stronger role for the Afghan administration. The central government functions.
However, increasing numbers of Afghans are now desperately trying to reach European shores as migrants, along with Syrians and Iraqis. Anyone who can manage to leave is trying, disparaging the earlier optimism about the future of the country.
The humanitarian and development effort has helped the country to be and has staved off a potentially worse humanitarian crisis, but at what cost and effort?