"what, right here? drinking beer. or did you mean more generally in Kabul or Afghanistan?"
"yeah that's what I meant. what are you doing in Afghanistan?"
my standard answer eventually became to deliberate a bit, look at them, cock my head to one side and say: "tourism?"
"like fuck you are" they say.
from South Asia News:
Mohammad Zahir Shah - the last king of Afghanistan, who ushered in a 1964 constitution that brought democracy to Afghanistan before a coup forced him into exile - died on Monday morning at the age of 92.
Crowned in 1933 at 19 after witnessing the assassination of his father, Zahir Shah put into effect a constitution that made Afghanistan a constitutional monarchy with free elections and universal suffrage, a parliament and the emancipation of women.
He kept Afghanistan neutral through World War II and the Cold War before a coup led by a cousin deposed him after 40 years on the throne, ending a 226-year Pashtun dynasty. As his country descended into violence in the following decades, Zahir Shah lived quietly in a villa outside Rome.
He only returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after a US-led invasion ousted the country's fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime. His reign was remembered with nostalgia by many Afghans as a long period of peace. Monarchists called for his restoration to the throne, but he refused.
Instead, a postwar 'loya jirga,' a traditional council of tribal elders, declared him the 'Father of the Nation,' but he said a title given to him by the people was his favourite.
'They call me 'Baba', which means grandfather or father.' he said. 'That is the title I like best.'
It is very peaceful, like a graveyard. No one comes here, and the sandbagged observation emplacements in the palace ruins are abandoned by the soldiers who spend the days drinking tea in the shade of the nearest chaikhana
What used to be the gardens are now a desolate sun-baked rubble-strewn waste, strewn with old shell casings and empty ampoules of morphine
Layers of Russian, English and Dari tags plus impact scar
The petroleum and natural gas factor in the civil war is explored in Ahmed Rashid's definitive Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.
And for the most comprehensive overview of the drugs connection we now have a strong contender. Look, it even clicks through to Amazon... go ahead and buy a copy... Until we get around to publishing the realgem overview of the Afghan drug scene, this book is thorough and may I say even scholarly without being dry. David MacDonald (formerly of the Afghan Interim Government Counter-Narcotics Directorate) tries to sort the scorpion tales from the truth while searching for the elusive smokers of scorpion tails.
These latter which you can find, scorpion smokers that is. As to hard and fast facts about the Afghan-global heroin trade, the international 'official' statistics and facts (UN, US Govt, UK FCO, international drug-enforcement agencies, intelligence organisations, consultancies and think-tanks) as far as the heroin / opium economy are concerned are all made up. All of them. It wouldn't gall me as much if I knew I couldn't make up even better statistics myself, and for half the money.
This being so, anecdotal evidence is worth more than any quantitative statistical evidence in this particular field, and here we have an overview presented by someone with obvious extensive personal experience of this complex subject...
(Ah, I do have to mention though, AREU have done some solid research on the opium economy focusing on the farmers themselves.)
(pretty poppies in badakshan)
and so we are drinking like russians do, standing for toasts and then downing gloopy ice-cold raw vodka. no one else on earth drinks like this. the russian military attache is an avuncular old fellow with a very colonial english-looking ginger moustache. as i have been involuntarily promoted to unofficial emissary of hm the queen for the evening, he immediately sits down next to me and earnestly hand on my knee begins explaining how britain and russia are both countries of great history, culture and destiny, and how it is vital that the two nations cooperate and strengthen their friendship at this critical time. i gravely agree and promise to do my best. he bemoans criminals like berezovsky who emigrate to london to smear the good name of russia. there is a toast to putin.
'putin? what was putin? he was a nothing, a clerk, a paper-shuffler. he was a colonel in the kgb. but really this is nothing special in the kgb, to be a colonel.'
'no, he was in the foreign intelligence directorate.... he was active agent in the west, in bonn...'
'ha, the only special thing about him is he came back...' says the east german lt-col. 'anyway, who is your military attache to berlin now?'
'what, is not zhukov?' the russians laugh.
'but this berezovsky, he is an incredibly intelligent man. you must know this. he was graduate of the special forestry institute,' breaks in the colonel.
'ah, the special forestry institute,' we all nod.
'yes, this is the top secret school of the space intelligence programme. anyone who studies there has to be a genius. there is no question of this, the man has the mind of a genius.'
our host is the german lt-col, also a military attache, fluent in russian and from the east. 'you must have started your officer's career before reunification. how did they assimilate the GDR army into the bundeswehr at reunification?' i am curious.
'they got rid of all the top officers. very few were left. but the only ones they kept were ones who had studied in the soviet union.'
more vodka is poured and the russian attache starts to mumble out yet another toast about british-russian friendship.
'but why is britain so tied to america?' demands freddie the german colonialist, who is also a full colonel in the bundeswehr. 'britain needs to come closer to germany. if britain supported europe more we could build a superpower.'
'yes, it's a humiliating situation,' i agree. 'but we need the turks for greater europe. we can't do it without the turks, and we can't do it without the british.'
freddie thrusts his hand at me, we shake hands. 'yes! you are right! this man understands!' he stands up to proclaim to everyone and promptly falls over.
the russian colonel keeps describing his country as soviet, and then correcting himself to russia.
'it is good to be shuravi ['soviet' dari/pashtu] in afghanistan now. when you say you are shuravi they like very much. it is better than to be american. they say we and you, we fought eye to eye... it was war, it was war with... how you say? honour. yes, it is good to be shuravi now.'
someone helps freddie off in search of a woman. it is only us$100 to rent a submissive chinese chick for 24 hours but i have taken 3 xanax as well as the litre of stolichnaya and don't even remember passing out. it is the smoothest gentlest entry into unconsciousness i have ever piloted.
another is the afghan scarf, multi-use checkered piece of cloth, which sort of makes me think of the hitchhikers' guide towel. you can wrap it around your neck. you can drape it over your head to keep the sun off. you can wrap it around your head like a turban. you can wrap it around your face in order to keep the dust out of your nose and mouth. you can casually drape it over your shoulders and use it as a handkerchief. you can put it over your face or lie down on it when taking a nap. you can tie it around your face and walk around looking like a palestinian terrorist and no one will spare you a second glance. it is good to have an afghan scarf, like when hailing a cab at night.
'oh you're foreign. i thought you were panjshiri until i heard you talking now,' taxi driver says. but by that time we have already agreed the fare and no one is quoting me ridiculous inflated price in dollars. 'so what are you doing in afghanistan?'
i look at them a bit and then give an exaggerated 'i have no fucking idea, believe me' shrug and they laugh.
'anyway, you're speaking farsi well. where are you from?'
'actually i don't really understand farsi, i only just started with it. do you speak urdu?'
taxi drivers almost always understand urdu and then i can start explaining today's made-up story of where i'm from.
multi-lingual company is great. you can play silly linguistic games like chinese telephones, whereby someone says something to the next person in, say, persian, which the second person translates on into english, thence the third into urdu and so on, and thence into finnish... and so "these are indeed the tallest sunflowers i have ever seen in my life" becomes "fuck me what a big flower".
STATEMENT OF THE ISLAMIC EMIRATE OF AFGHANISTAN* ABOUT THE COMMENTS OF A HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANISATION
(*as opposed to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan)
Published in Al-Emerah on Sun 1 July 2007
source/translation: AfghanWire Ltd.
The Islamic Emirate has always respected and respects human rights that match the Islamic policy, beliefs and charter/constitution of the Islamic Emirate. All the people of the world, and especially the people of Afghanistan, know that NATO and American forces have always ruthlessly bombarded with heavy bombs. The obvious examples are the recent events in Nangarhar, Shindand [Herat], in Maroof district of Kandahar and Sangin of Helmand where tens of civilians were martyred. As the aforementioned administration accuses the Taliban of [being responsible for] the civilian casualties, [we say that] this is not real and true. This questions the independence of the institution. We believe that the institution issues false reports in order to make its donors happy and access financial privileges.
Most military operations of the Taliban take place in mountainous areas, highways, military bases and government and foreign forces where there are no settlements. We call on the international organisations to prepare grounds for liberal and independent journalists to travel to the battlefield and areas of wars. The mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will do their best to maintain security for independent journalists so that the realities can be revealed to the people. The coalition forces prevent the travel of independent journalists to the battlefield in order to conceal their crimes.
If the Taliban were against their people and nation, then the nation would not support them so strongly [“wildly”]. The institution wants to divert the attention of the people from the crimes and cruelties of NATO and the American forces. The movement of the Taliban is a national movement which emerged from the people, so that it never gets pleased and satisfied. As the result of the indiscriminate bombardments of the invader forces, the mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are respected more by the people as each day passes.
Languages - We have Afghan Persian or Dari, spoken in Kabul and throughout central, west and northern Afghanistan, and the language of literature, culture and government. We have Pashtu, the oldest surviving Indo-European language alongside, I believe, Lithuanian, and bloody difficult to learn, spoken throughout the tribal south and east. There are many minority languages, such as Pashai, spoken by the kuchi, who are nomadic gypsy goat and camel herding types, plus Uzbek and Turkmen, which are Turkic languages spoken in the north. English is not widely understood, and any given person on the street is just as likely or unlikely to speak Russian or German, a legacy of communist-era educational exchange policies - such as which ISAF / UN / the Coalition have incidentally absolutely failed to implement.
Urdu is relatively well-understood, as so many people have spent time as refugees in or have other connections to Pakistan. It is not, however, recommended to walk around starting conversations in Urdu and assuming people will understand, as to many people, Pakistan is the home of the Taliban, suicide bombers, dodgy counterfeit electronics, over-spiced food, and Pakistanis, ie. everything evil, essentially.
However, if you know any Urdu, you will be at a great advantage if attempting to learn Dari, as it is full of Urdu words. Or more accurately, Urdu is full of Persian words. Urdu is and always was a bastard mixture of different languages, including English, created in and for the army camps of the vast and disparate Mughal Empire and later the British Raj. I was watching Pervez Musharraf on al Jazeera the other day, addressing the nation in Urdu after the Lal Masjid incident. One fairly typical sentence went something along the lines of: "Pakistan ka population me to social divisiveness bahut increase kia, is liyee pressure develop hua..."
Salad - The salads in this country generally consist of three slices of cucumber, two slices of tomato, one slice of onion and a green chili artfully arranged next to a mountain of grilled meat and nan bread, for decoration. Gutt. Don't be a vegetarian here. People will think you're weird.
Alcohol - For all that this is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, it is actually much easier to buy booze than in Pakistan, Iran, or even several states of India. Even a great many conservative, bearded, and apparently good Muslim patriarch types will often display a great fondness for Stolichnaya. For many people, alcohol is a status drug (like cocaine and yuppies in the 80s/early 90s), while hashish and opium are common and vulgar.
Burqas - The infamous blue all-enveloping things that in Pashtun areas are worn by pretty much all women in public and are not uncommon elsewhere as well. So how on earth do you check out girls in the street when you can't see them? Watch the locals carefully and take your cue from them - stare hungrily at their feet. Yes! It's amazing what you can learn to tell about women from their ankles and feet!
UN departments and NGOs - There are hundreds and hundreds of different NGOs getting in on the war reconstruction industry scam, and hundreds and hundreds of foreigners riding the UN gravy-train in hundreds of different UN departments. There is an absolutely bewildering array of different acronyms to master, and we aren't even beginning to consider the military here.
Examples: "Ok, I'll see you at UNIPLIP", "No no no, you're on the wrong side of town, I said UNIPLOP!", "Hi, I work for UNAPOG", "Were all the UNIPUTT people at the party?", "No, but most of the UNMOCRAP crowd were there".
Therefore I have decided to set up a FAKE U.N. BUREAU, or in UN bureaucracy-speak, to UNILATERALLY INSTITUTE A NEW U.N. DEVELOPMENT AGENCY!
No one will notice! They'll all fall for it! The working title for now will be UNANT (inspired by seeing an ant dragging a huge leaf get lost and start going in circles, hence United Nations Ant Navigation Training). I'll put a big white and blue UN sign outside, drive around in a big white SUV with UN painted in blue on the side, infiltrate the UN scene, and generate impenetrable reports and papers and incomprehensible protocols and institute committees that sit for years, until they have no choice but to legitimise my bureau.
Journalists - I have started to hate journalists and journalism with a vengeance. With a couple of exceptions, I grudgingly add. Fucking vultures, fucking futile, smug, self-congratulatory self-important wastes of space and oxygen. Do something fucking useful for a change. It's all one great big circle-jerk. It makes me hate myself and wish I'd done something genuinely useful with my life. It makes me want to join the US military, 'cause then I could waste press reporters and TV vehicles with a .50-cal from the comfort of a Black Hawk chopper and eat plastic-wrapped pre-fried vacuum-packed eggs for breakfast. That would be great. At least the first part.
Humvees - I just can't get around it, but I hate those damn things. There is something wrong with the whole aesthetic factor. To my eye they just scream at you to shoot them with an RPG.
The security situation in Kabul - I was at first disoriented by how very quiet it was in Kabul. Even in Peshawar and elsewhere in NWFP, there is a constant background crackle of happy-fire in the evenings. Here, total silence, except for one far-off and muted explosion a week or two ago, which was caused by a car-bomb that splattered two American 'security contractors' (ie. private-sector as opposed to public-sector grunts).
Most foreign media organisations and NGOs and particularly UN departments have strict security rules for their staff, including lists of security-approved restaurants, guest houses and venues. Consequently many ex-pats never see anything of Afghanistan beyond a few 'safe' streets through the tinted windows of an SUV and a few ex-pat restaurants and bars, and many journalists arrive and get their stories from secondary sources, with a quote or two from some authentic real locals that their fixers dig up for them.
Conversation among certain ex-pat circles in Kabul often revolves around the 'security situation', and how suicidally foolhardy it is for a foreigner like me to move around in local taxis, walk around at night, and especially to accompany Afghans to unknown locations and not let anyone know where I'm going. There is, after all, still a war going on in this country, and the number of attacks against foreigners both civilian and military have been steadily increasing the last couple of years.
However, any understanding of this should include, firstly, the knowledge that "Afghanistan situation spiralling out of control" is a headline and "Many Afghans actually like foreigners being here and think the Taliban are nutcases" is not, and secondly, that all the security consultants and officers of the various organisations have to justify their continuing over-blown salaries while avoiding being re-posted to Kandahar or somewhere even less hospitable.
The worst risk of violent death in most of central to north Afghanistan is probably being too near a US public or private-sector military convoy just when an IED or a flock of chickens flapping across the road startles the .50-cal machine-gunner, who then lays waste to everything in sight.
[again, hopefully to be added to]
Playing chicken with ISAF convoys
You're not allowed to pass ISAF convoys. They are authorised to shoot. If you get stuck behind tortuously slow heavy military transports plus escorts hogging the road, that's just too bad.
Of course, this provides opportunities for great entertainment. Come as close as you can to tailgating the rear vehicle. Weave left and right erratically. Attempt to accelerate past by driving up the bank by the side of the road, preferably on the right.
If you get a soldier leaning out of one of the vehicles and pointing a rifle at you, you get 10 points. If you get a warning shot, 25 points. If you get a badly-aimed burst of automatic fire that miraculously misses everyone in your vehicle, 50 points. If you end up severely injured, 100 points. If your passengers are wounded, you lose all your points. If you end up dead, you miss your next turn and all turns thereafter.
Stop for green tea and cigarettes, change drivers, catch up that convoy, and repeat.
Incidentally, it is not recommended to play this game with American ISAF convoys, as not only will you end up dead (which is your own affair, after all), but you will probably be responsible for massive loss of life as they call in airstrikes on every herd of goats, village, roadside kebab guy and Afghan police checkpoint within a mile radius.
Fun with minefields
Pull over by the side of the road by a minefield. These are often clearly marked using red-painted rocks (white paint means the area is de-mined and safe, blue means it's a former battlefield or potential minefield which hasn't been checked yet).
Take turns throwing great big heavy rocks or goats into the minefield until something goes bang. First one to set off an explosion obviously wins.