On Afghanistan, and “The Lynching of Louie Sam”
The Key to Kabul
I have been engaged in health care development and policy work for more than three of the past eight years in Afghanistan, most recently in Kabul. A friend sent me Charles Montgomery’s article “The Archipelago of Fear” (December 2008), which I thought a reasonably good representation of the dysfunction that plagues the city’s reconstruction and the effect of architectural fearmongering on its people.
But Montgomery doesn’t give any credit where it’s due: to the organizations, both national and international, that have improved the economic situation, literacy, and health of the Afghan people. Some of us were in here before the barriers were built, when we could meet the people. I speak enough Dari to get by and have, unlike most of the westerners in Montgomery’s article, made a tremendous effort to understand the culture and bring this knowledge to bear in my work. Of course, it’s easy to see why successes like mine didn’t make it into the story. Those of us who don’t hang out at L’Atmosphère are harder to find.
It’s typical for the media to focus on the hopelessness of the situation in Afghanistan. But I was also here during the Taliban regime, and I can assure readers there have been many positive changes since then. Maybe if reporters had witnessed this change themselves, they would see fit to broadcast some hope.
Management Sciences for Health
Charles Montgomery suggests that Afghanistan must be rebuilt by Afghans for the economic, social, and psychological welfare of the country, but completely misses the irony inherent in a westerner arriving at this conclusion. His depictions of the “other,” even in the context of an effort to measure the distance between foreigners and natives, smacks of colonialism, and there is very little from Afghans themselves in the article to counteract this. If Canadians could connect more directly with the people of Afghanistan by, say, reading Afghan writers in Canadian magazines, perhaps public opinion and even reconstruction initiatives wouldn’t become so mired in the arrogant rhetoric of international relations.
Charles Montgomery writes, “Aid dollars, opium profits, and war booty [have] transformed the Afghan capital into a manic showcase of glittering mansions, glaring inequity, and militarized urbanity.” While this may be true, I feel the author forgets that the peaceful West is beset with similar problems. In any case, it is good to report such inequalities so that improvements can be made.
Regarding Montgomery’s specific finding that most of the money spent on international construction contracts goes to non-Afghan contractors, we should take a close look at the process by which the West provides this relief. In the US, the president puts a budget together, and Congress approves it. Then money is allocated for particular projects, and authorization is given to the United States Agency for International Development to execute them. But usaid doesn’t have any expertise in this field, so it calls for bids. That is how BearingPoint, the Louis Berger Group, and other Western ngos come into play. Since these organizations don’t always have the right personnel for the job, they hire subcontractors.
Here’s the problem: subcontractors must complete necessary documents in English, they must have a number of years of experience in the field, and their employees must have a certain level of education, often a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Afghanistan, remember, has been at war for almost half a century, and subcontractors tend to hire from outside the country. These “experts” might agree to train their Afghan counterparts to obtain the contracts, but they seldom do, as they would soon be unemployed themselves.
The solution, of course, is to establish an independent system of vocational training in Afghanistan. There are initiatives we might build on, such as Project Artemis–Afghanistan, the Thunderbird School of Global Management’s entrepreneurial skills training program for promising Afghan businesswomen.
On a side note, I am taken aback that Canadian defence attaché Colonel McLean would offer such a grim perspective of Kabul, as he is supposed to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Co-founder and former president
Society of Afghan Architects and Engineers
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In “The Lynching of Louie Sam” (December), which tells the story of a rare lynching on Canadian soil by an American mob, John Vaillant wonders how “the United States and Canada could differ so much on the subject of due process.” John Ralston Saul provides one possible answer in his new book, A Fair Country. We are a Métis nation, he says, founded on the aboriginal ideal of fairness and an adaptive orientation toward negotiation rather than violence.
Might I suggest a slight variation on Saul’s thesis? While Canada’s independence evolved in relative peace, the US was born out of violent revolution. Its civil war was proportionally one of the bloodiest in history; the rebellions in Lower Canada, Upper Canada, and the Northwest would hardly qualify as skirmishes south of the border.
Violence also characterized the settlement of the American West. I am not referring only to the ethnic cleansing of aboriginals, but to fierce competition among settlers for the best land. In the absence of official law enforcement, vigilantism saved communities from falling to anarchy or gangster rule.
In Canada, settlers were generally preceded by the Northwest Mounted Police and had no need to impose their own law. The conditions for a High Noon– style shootout between a lone sheriff and some gangsters, for instance, simply didn’t exist here. And, in at least one case I’m aware of, prospective settlers drew their acreages from an officer’s hat.
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