Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Afghan-led? or: People with one name only

Thomas Ruttig 3 min

Tom Peter, the Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Kabul, just wrote a story how US soldiers in Arghandab district had denied him access for 90 minutes to the local district governor with whom he had scheduled an interview and who did not want him to bring in his tape recorder. He wondered ‘how much control Afghans have over their own country’ but called the incident an ‘isolated’ one. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig doesn’t think so.

‘In a country where reporters often aren’t allowed to bring their own pens to press conferences’, questions about his recorder did not strike him ‘as unreasonable’. At one point, though, a sergeant told him that the local US commanders had ‘denied’ the meeting because he hadn’t arranged it ‘through them’. And further: ‘At no point did anyone walk the short distance to the district governor’s office to ask if he was in fact expecting me, nor could I call him because the guards had taken my cellphone’ (‘Afghan war: Who’s in charge, again?’).
(By the way we learn from this report that the district governor of Arghandab needs to live on one compound with US troops to be able survive. This, in turn, comes a few days after spokespeople of the Afghan Ministry of Interior and the US troops in Afghanistan had stated that ‘the Taliban have lost their power in southern Afghanistan – they are unable to face Afghan security forces’ (MoI spokesman Sediq Sediqqi) and had ‘lost control of most population centers, operating in more remote and rural parts of the provinces’ (Regional Combat Team 6 in Helmand Marine Col. John Shafer in a USA Today report quoted here).)

I just don’t think that Tom is right when writing that his experience in Arghandab was an ‘isolated incident’. All of us have encountered things like this time and again and all over Afghanistan, and not only with Americans.

But now just imagine for a short moment that you’re not an American but an Afghan reporter or not a German but an Afghan analyst. Last year or so, our organisation was invited to ISAF headquarters in Kabul for a meeting with ‘Afghan think tanks’. One Afghan colleague, from another organisation, came to the meeting room about an hour late. He had been sent to the personnel entry, although there should have been a list of invitees.

When I was coming to KAF (Kandahar Air Field, the gigantic, internationally-inhabited base in southern Afghanistan) for a briefing with Cultural Affairs Officers from different countries a few years ago, transiting from another province with an Afghan colleague, no one was prepared for him being part of the team. (And Afghan colleagues are usually assumed to be interpreters.) It took us hours waiting with a number of extremely polite officers of several NATO countries before being cleared. The briefing finally was extremely interesting for the officers who literally hung at the lips of my colleague frantically writing down almost everything he said, including things I had expected cultural affairs officers would already know.

The same Afghan friend was bumped from a plane operated by a western governmental aid organisation because ‘he has one name only’. Actually, he has two – something like Muhammad XXX – but had put only the last one on the flight form. People ‘with only one name’, I was told, i.e. Afghans, had lowest priority. We put him on the next plane, using both of his names.

The same principle I found at work when attending what was to become the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB) and its working groups when working in the German Embassy in 2004/05. These sessions were held in English only, and Afghans attending, sometimes high-ranking ones, were simply ignored if they only spoke Dari or Pashto. I once found myself translating proceedings to a deputy minister. At least this has changed, now.

And now imagine you are an Afghan villager, your home has just been raided and relatives taken away on a helicopter. How often people in Tirinkot or Gardez, sitting in front of the heavily secured US Special Forces bases there in the sand, between rubbish flying around and barbed wire, had begged me to get them into contact with anyone ‘responsible’ inside to find out what had happened to them.

That even highest-ranking Afghan politicians have made similar experiences, including the President, being overruled by their international ‘partners’, no one should wonder about the increasing tendency of making foreigners responsible for everything that goes wrong in Afghanistan and for the loss of trust in the international community’s involvement. To paraphrase Tom: Who’s country is this, again?


Democratization Kabul