For the month I spent in Afghanistan in the summer of 2014, I lived in a hermetically sealed little world, protected, isolated from the Afghan society around us, beyond the walls and the bullet proof windows of our armoured vehicles. Physically I was in Kabul. But I was cut off from it. Living in a fortified compound, eating international food in a canteen managed by a Macedonian chef, where men could stroll around in shorts, and women could bare their arms and shoulders, it had nothing to do with the Afghanistan beyond the walls.
Making the short journey to work each day, along the Jalalabad Road to the Central Election Commission, I caught glimpses of Kabul. Dusty street life; tumble-down shacks serving as shops; bearded men in turbans watching the world go by; cars and motorcycles in a chaotic melee; occasionally a couple of women in burqas; boys and girls on their way to school; well-armed police and soldiers at the intersections. We sped by, looking intently out of the windows, trying to take it in, snatching at fleeting impressions of the country we were in but which we were hardly able to experience at all. But in truth we might have learned more about Kabul on a couch at home, in front of a television.
Street in Kabul
The only brief moments spent outside of this bubble were when I arrived and when I left. Arriving at the airport, we passed through passport and customs control together with all the other passengers. Stepping out of the terminal, looking for the car park at which we knew our escort of security men would be waiting, there was a bus. An Afghan passenger advised us to get in. It was quicker, no sense to walk outside in the August midday heat. So we got in. One of our companions decided to walk. Had we done the right thing? I had no idea. Entering the weird world of the westerner in Afghanistan, I was a complete novice.
When I arrived back at the airport a month later, I had to get out of the armoured vehicle and walk a few metres before entering the multi-layered security cordon. Just for a moment I was outside the security protection that had surrounded me like a force field the whole of the past month. I had heard how, not long before, and not far from the airport, a foreigner had got out of his vehicle while the convoy he was travelling in was stuck in a jam. An opportunist cyclist passing by had stabbed him in the neck, killing him. This was the reality of being a westerner in Kabul. There were good reasons why we were so cut off from the city around us. There were people there who would jump at any opportunity to kill us. Nothing personal. But we were foreigners in their land, unwanted occupiers. It was trivial, but just for a moment I had stepped into a Kabul street, without any barriers. Just for a moment I was really in Afghanistan. And then I walked up to the first security checkpoint into the airport.
My home for that month was in the Green Village, a highly fortified little oasis of western life on the outskirts of Kabul. Simple but adequate rooms in pre-fabricated meccano-set blocks, with reliable electricity and hot water, English-language TV and rather slow internet access. The canteen served quite decent food. My first evening, there was lobster on the menu. I even ate porridge (or oatmeal for the Americans among us) for the first time since childhood. A café served acceptable cappuccinos and muffins, and rather good ice cream. And at the centre of it all was a garden, where we would sit and while away the warm evenings.
It was a strange little world. Often in the evenings we would have a stroll around the village, which took about ten minutes. So we would do it again. The perimeter walls were guarded by ex-gurkhas, while on the inside the guards were mostly from former-Yugoslavia. There were bunkers to which we were supposed to head in case of emergency. In this contained little world it all felt quite safe. The security was tight. Afghans were kept at bay. The local ladies who cleaned our rooms did so under the watchful gaze of an armed Gurkha.
The security was not for nothing. Old Kabul hands told how in years gone by it had been possible to live relatively normal lives in Kabul, to walk the streets and visit restaurants. But normal life for foreigners in the city had become more and more hazardous during 2014, as Taliban attacks increasingly targeted them. Perhaps it was the drawdown of NATO forces elsewhere in the country that drew the Taliban to seek out victims in soft Kabul. A spokesman of the group hinted as much during an interview. At the beginning of the year, an attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant had left 21 dead, among them 13 foreigners. A couple of months later, nine had died in an attack on the Serena Hotel, including four foreigners. I knew several people who had been present in the hotel at the time, and who had been lucky to escape with their lives. They were election observers, like me. The risk was real and ever present. A few weeks after I left, the Green village itself was attacked, not for the first time. Four Taliban attackers were killed in the attempt, but they did not manage to penetrate the perimeter. None of the residents were harmed.
Street in Kabul
The one place where we had contact with Afghans was at work, at the Central Election Commission. To reach it, we had to go through multiple layers of security. Again, the risk facing us, while not uppermost in our minds, drew our attention every time we drove past the nearby blasted, pockmarked building from the roof of which the Taliban had attacked the Election Commission a few weeks earlier. We worked in a row of enormous hangers, with desks ranged along the walls at which pairs of election workers examined the ballot boxes from the recent presidential election, looking to see if all was in order, watched closely by representatives of the two candidates.
Reopening all of the ballot boxes was an enormous task, and it was a fraught undertaking. Box after box, ballot papers lined up on the tables, carefully scrutinised for any signs that the same hand may have been marking multiple ballot papers. It was tedious. The air in the hangers was foul, with fat ventilation tubes lying on the floor, blasting in cool air and blowing up the putrid dust into our lungs. Much of the time, I covered my face with a mask. Day after day for several hours.
The whole process was a farce. It often seemed quite random as to whether ballots or whole boxes were rejected, excluded from the election results. The cheats and swindlers made a mockery of the honest citizens who went to cast their votes, in many places at great personal risk to themselves. The Taliban forbade people to vote, sometimes cutting off the fingers of people who had the tell-tale ink mark showing they had done so. Sometimes stacks of fraudulent ballots were allowed to count, while the votes of genuine voters were excluded, all depending on the vigilance or determination of the party representatives and the international officials who oversaw the process. Just a game among the powerful elites in which the honest Afghan citizens counted for little.
And yet it was important. For behind all this charade was the threat of greater violence if the two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and their powerful backers could not reach an accommodation over the election outcome. Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun, the largest and traditionally dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, from whom the Taliban are also drawn. Abdullah Abdullah, who is of mixed parentage, is considered to be a Tajik. The stakes were high. In the end, the outcome of the exercise was not what counted. Rather it was all about buying time for the negotiators for the two sides to reach an accommodation. That Ashraf Ghani would be declared the winner seemed hardly to be in doubt. The question was could a role be found for Abdullah that sufficiently met his expectations?
Scene of a Taliban attack
One of my interpreters, a Pashtun, told me that for him there was no doubt that Ashraf Ghani had won. He saw that the process was a farce. He laughed about it. It made me feel sad. That the Afghan people were humiliated in this way. Most of the election workers were educated people. Many of them spoke English well. My interpreter friend was fluent in French too, in addition to Dari (Persian) and his native Pashtu. They were clever, educated, capable people, who had been asked to do a job which most of them knew was all a big circus. And so they did it. I was glad to have the opportunity, while the job was being done, to chat to them. With rare exceptions, they were unfailingly courteous, a crucial point in Afghanistan, where a perceived slight can lead to serious consequences.
I was especially struck by the communications among men and women. Most of the female workers wore scarves covering their heads, although some wore them a little back, revealing some hair. Few covered their faces completely. These were educated, middle-class, Kabul women. Their male colleagues naturally treated them with respect. But they were also familiar among themselves, chatting freely, often laughing. It was all quite normal. I remember one day working close to an elderly man who was forever making jokes, poking fun at the girls working nearby. One joke concerned a wife who had the last laugh when she caught out her errant husband. Everybody laughed heartily. It was the kind of harmless banter one hears in offices in Europe all the time. I realised that stereotypes about Afghanistan surely do not tell the full story. On the other hand, when our interpreters, drivers and security guards showed us pictures of their families, it was striking that they only showed themselves, their children, their brothers, but never their wives. Many of the foreign observers took photos inside the hangars. One day we were warned to be careful, as some of the men had taken offence that Afghan women were included in the shots.
In my brief stay in Kabul, I hardly glimpsed even the surface of Afghan society. I wanted so much to see more. Would it could it be possible. My interpreter friend said he would have liked to invite me home to his village, but he realised it would not be possible, that our security people would never allow it. He related to me his own fear. Living in a village on the edge of Kabul, he was terrified of the Taliban returning. Everyone knew he had worked as an interpreter for the foreigners. He had previously worked for NATO. There were two men in his village who were former Taliban. He was afraid they might not really be so ‘former’. He spoke calmly about it, smiling as he did so. But getting out was very much on his mind. He had been disappointed that his former French military employers had not allowed him to move to France after five years working with them. He spoke about trying to make the long journey as an illegal migrant, collecting the large sum necessary for the journey, for the pay-offs to the traffickers along the way, from his extended family, in the hope that he would then be able to send money home to everyone. We came from different worlds, he and I, which barely touched each other. The life he led, the problems he faced, were beyond my imagining. Yet he took it all calmly and with dignity, and with a gentle smile on his lips.