I recently read a two-year-old article in The Walrus from a former journalism student at my own college, involving his trip to Afghanistan’s heavily fortified capital city, Kabul. Charles Montgomery describes the city in The Archipelago of Fear, suggesting giant military fortifications and barriers have generated a feeling of colonization and segregation between Afghans and the western aid workers who have come to help them.
In several passages that ring true to my own recent visit of Kabul, he describes the decadence and opulence of western fortresses built right beside gnawing Third World poverty and human filth. “The air is shit,” observes the author’s friend upon arriving in Kabul. It’s not an inaccurate pronouncement. Without wood for fuel, human and animal excrement is burned in great quantities, filling the air with invisible particulates that make breathing difficult.
The Canadian Embassy is housed inside the heart of the city, behind ISAF fortifications and AK-wielding police checkpoints who bar entry to all vehicles without diplomatic plates. Armour-plated cars ferry dignitaries and important business leaders accompanied by Close Protection Teams full of ex-military mercenaries whose job it is to open fire on Taliban ambushes. These vehicular excursions take place at random and secretly arranged times in order to avoid detection by the enemy. Upon my arrival in Kabul, our first briefing involved the discussion of a new magnetic IED placed under the chassis by beggar children who mob western cars stuck in rush hour. One such device had killed two policemen the day before. Police use long handles with mirrors on the end to check the bottom of each car as it passes through the multitude of security blockades.
Outside the embassy is filth, garbage and dust that swirls and covers the scant vegetation that has survived three decades of war. But inside are spacious gardens and flowers, fountains, grass and trees. A dazzling-blue pool sits outside the lounge, which offers a bar stocked with alcoholic beverages, a pool table, leather chairs and a large-screen television. The walls are adorned with autographed hockey sweaters of each Canadian team, folded neatly and presented from the front. It seemed extravagant in comparison to the dry and dusty barracks back in Kandahar, where soldiers were sweating under sixty-pound packs with body Kevlar, not sipping Coronas on air-conditioned leather.
As Montgomery wrote:
It was hard to believe we were in Afghanistan. And really, we weren’t. Kalashnikov-armed guards kept Afghans from approaching the compound gate unless they happened to be employed there as waiters, cleaners, or bartenders. A few years ago, one aid worker felt so comfortable, so fancy free inside the compound, she once opted to swim topless. She was ejected from the country.
And later he wrote “shame pushed me beyond the city’s fortified isles.” The word “shame” isn’t alien to me. At first I was frightened, and then excited about the idea of driving through Kandahar in an armoured vehicle. But as I passed row upon row of shanty dwelling made of corrugated galvanized iron scrap, housing small children without shoes or the slightest of possessions, I grew ashamed. My beard crept out from between the holes in my helmet’s chin strap, a token effort at cultural sensitivity wasted by being strapped into a five-point seat-belt situated behind six inches of IED-resistant steel plating. As we passed Afghans I could see them through the windows, gazing up in awe up at the gunner, this phalanx of wealthy western power needing to train .50 calibre bullets on bearded men car-pooling on tiny motorcycles.
It’s hard to believe I went to Afghanistan. And really, I didn’t. I never got to meet a single Afghan woman that the government hadn’t prearranged for us to meet. I never conversed with any Afghans, save for the desperate translators provided to us at the junior officer college who pleaded with me to ask my government to allow them to immigrate to Canada. And as Montgomery alluded to, the only other ones I met were the servants at Ambassador Bill Crosbie’s mansion, where I dined twice on what I can only speculate would be a King’s banquet for most people in the country.
It isn’t as though I have a right to complain about the situation. I didn’t show up and ask to be pampered. I was invited by the Department of Defence for a familiarization tour, presumably because of my profile in the National Post. As their guest I was subject to their choice of itinerary, under their control and command which included a preposterous level of security. And though I hated the fact I was segregated from Afghanistan, kept inside of military bases and compounds for almost the entirety of my trip, the truth is that it wouldn’t have been a very good idea to simply go for a walk in downtown Kabul either.
That’s the challenge that NATO faces in its battle to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. As Don Rector, Human Terrain Team Director in Kandahar, told us in a briefing at Canadian HQ, “You can talk about winning hearts and minds, but how do you know what is in those hearts and in those minds unless you talk to the people?” And how can you talk to the people when there is this segregation between western agencies and forces in the country and the ordinary Afghans who are forced to detour around these palatial fortresses?
Perhaps counter-intuitively, these seemingly impervious compounds serve as a more enticing target for the Taliban. Worse still, though the mission in Afghanistan shouldn’t be compared to the Soviet occupation, similar mistakes have been made in setting up conspicuously intrusive bases in the heart of the capital city. It’s difficult not to feel occupied when your city is militarized into checkpoints with razor wire and sand bags. As Montgomery writes, the architectural impediments drive people to sympathy for the Taliban. One old man was quoted on a now-defunct website:
“What have these irreligious Christians come for that they write on their cars, ‘Don’t approach, keep away’?… If these bloody foreigners try to stay away from us, then for what reason have they come to our country?”
In one of the lighter moments of our trip, Andrew Potter noticed a car to our right as we meandered along in the dusk of Kabul’s chaotic traffic. On the rear window was stenciled, “My name is Khan, And I am not a terrorist.” As it turns out this was a Bollywood film, but as we sat in an armoured car hoping a suicide bomber wouldn’t descend upon us the irony was entirely appropriate.