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WIP extract: In which Murphy’s Law applies and I end up in the deep end…

Monday, September 28, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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23 October 2006

I’d been on the job less than a month. I was barely settled into my room at the guesthouse and was still having problems figuring out how to use my handheld VHF radio. But it was Eid, the holiday that follows the end of the month of Ramadan, and my colleagues were all ready for a break. So I was about to be left in charge of the entire Western Region of the United Nations Assistance mission in Afghanistan.

Our office covered four provinces of Afghanistan and was responsible for ‘promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan by leading efforts of the international community’. Sure, no problem. I can do that. Well, I had some doubts. So I double-checked with my boss. Was he really sure that I was ready for this? I should have known that his interest in getting out of the country on a long overdue break might cloud his judgement on the matter, but I decided to trust him when he looked me in the eye (as he rushed out the door) and said “you’ll be fine Marianne. As long as no-one kills Amanullah Khan, you’ll be fine.” Okay, I’ll be fine. Hang on a minute, what was that last bit? He was kidding about Amanullah Khan, right?

Amanullah Khan was one of the two biggest political figures in Western Afghanistan. The number one position belonged to Ismail Khan. Ismail Khan first came to attention when he led a local garrison in Herat into an uprising against the Soviet government in 1979. Although the uprising was defeated, and the overwhelming military response of the Soviet regime led to the deaths of an estimate 24,000 people in Herat province, Khan went on to become a powerful Mujahedeen commander during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. He was also a key member of the Northern Alliance, second perhaps only to Ahmad Shah Massoud in both power and popularity.

Once the Soviets had been ousted Khan became the Governor of Herat Province, successfully defending the province against the Taleban in 1995. But he was no liberal himself. Khan strongly opposed participation by women in higher education and the workforce (both of which had been encouraged by the Soviet regime), was known for his repression of journalists and the press and established his own ‘Islamic police’ that patrolled Herat arresting and beating anyone found to be breaking Islamic laws.

Despite his reputation for repressive policies and brutal policing, Ismail Khan had, and still has, many supporters in Herat. After the fall of the Taleban, despite moves to re-establish national governance of Afghanistan, Khan continued to rule Herat as though it was his personal emirate. He collected taxes and customs duties himself and refused to pay them into the central purse in Kabul. Instead he used them, or at least some of them, to rebuild Herat city. While Kabul waited for the slow trickle down of international aid, Herat’s roads, bridges and schools were being rebuilt.

This independent streak may have been tolerated by Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul were it not for two factors. Firstly there was the problem of revenue, Herat province borders with Iran and so the customs duties collected in Herat constituted a massive proportion of national revenue from import duties. The government couldn’t afford to allow Ismail Khan to continue to hold those funds in Herat province.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Khan continued to foster close relations with Iran. President Karzai’s main backers, the Americans, were not happy about that. So in 2004, under the urging of the USA, Karzai agreed to send Afghan National Army units to Herat to remove Ismail Khan from power. In the clashes with Khan’s men that ensued, Khan’s son was killed. As a conciliatory gesture he was offered an especially lucrative ministerial post, that of Minister for Energy, in Karzai’s cabinet.

Although Ismail Khan no longer held any official positions in the government of Herat province, there was no doubt as to his ongoing political power and influence. The first time I saw him in person I was surprised at his modest stature. His reputation was so gigantic that it was hard to reconcile it with the reality of the small, rotund man with a long white beard who I watched descending from a private plane at Herat airport. But the calibre, and political stripes, of the people who had shown up to welcome him home had tipped me off to the importance and the identity of the man on the tarmac. I couldn’t help staring.

Here before me was a character of legendary proportions in Herat and he looked, quite frankly, so ordinary. But appearances can be very deceiving. Even if I hadn’t seen him at the airport I would have known within an hour that Ismail Khan was in town. Our political staff made a point of reporting to me immediately when he came ‘home’ because, they insisted, whenever he was in town something big was going down.

Amanullah Khan (who was affectionately known in our office as AK) was one of the few people in the Western Region who had the balls and the backing to openly challenge Ismail Khan (aka IK, obviously). He was the leader of the branch of the Noorzai tribe based in the Zirkoh valley to the south of Herat city.

The Zirkoh valley-based Noorzai are only one small part of a much larger clan. Araf Khan Noorzai, Deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament at the time, is one of the well-known members of the tribe. Another is Bashir Noorzai, the war/druglord who was lured from Afghanistan to Manhattan by American intelligence agents in 2005 with promises of a cosy chat about the Taleban. Instead of a cosy chat, he was questioned for days to extract as much information as possible and then, as he went to leave, arrested and slapped in jail on drug charges.

The dirty deals made and broken between US agents and the warlords of Afghanistan could fill a book on their own, but for the purpose of this story it is probably enough to know that the Noorzai are Pashtun (like Karzai himself and the majority of Afghans) whereas Ismail Khan is Tajik, the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. To oversimplify and generalise wildly, in the interest of getting on with the story, you could say that there are closer links between Pashtun leaders and Pakistan, on the one hand, and between Tajik (who are Persian-speaking) leaders and Iran on the other. As the removal of IK from his position of Governor of Herat had shown, the American backers of Karzai’s government had little tolerance for any friendly relations between the powerful elite of Afghanistan and Iran. I had even heard rumours that AK had received clandestine support from the central government to mount a campaign against IK.

Iran, on the other hand, was very keen to make friends in Afghanistan and was happy to spend money to do so. Iran had spent vast amounts of money on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Most of these efforts had been focused in Herat province, where Iranian money had paid not only for the construction or repair of madrasas (religious schools) and mosques but also of orphanages, roads and hospitals. In my own office there were tensions evident between Pashtun staff (who tended to be more suspicious of Iran its influence) and Tajik or Hazara staff, many of whom had themselves lived in Iran, often as refugees.

My own assistant, an extraordinarily bright and hard-working young woman, was subjected to open discrimination and harassment from her Afghan colleagues because she was born Iranian. She had acquired her Afghan nationality only after her family fled Iran into Afghanistan to escape political persecution. She was still a child when they arrived in Afghanistan but her colleagues mistrusted her, some even accusing her of being an Iranian spy.

I knew that many Afghans had been treated very badly when they were themselves refugees in Iran, and had often had a lot of trouble getting work. So I could understand why they might have resented the fact that an Iranian refugee in Afghanistan could get a plum job with the UN. I could under
stand their resentment, but I couldn’t tolerate the viciousness with which these grown men ganged up on a young woman. They attacked her in underhand ways, first alienating her from the few other women in the office by telling those women that she was a spy, then spreading rumours alleging she had a boyfriend or that she was having an affair with a married man. In Afghanistan allegations that a woman had a lover were as damaging to her as allegations that she was a spy. In fact they could even be more damaging, because they are harder to disprove and easier to believe.

The week before my boss was due to go on leave I was still struggling to make sense of my role. For years I had been working in jobs where we identified the big, structural and systemic human rights problems and then addressed them through projects aimed at changing policy and practice at a national or international level.

In New Zealand, for example, I had worked to convince the Department of Corrections to change their rules and practices so that women in prison could breastfeed their babies longer. In Timor-Leste I had helped to develop a consultative, community-centred process for the Government to develop its long-term plan to better protect human rights in Timor. In Kabul I had worked on a project to ensure that, when they made plans about Afghanistan’s future, the Government and international donor governments heard the voices and views of Afghan citizens.  

My experience was in identifying the widespread, systemic human rights issues in a country. I could draft a good project plan and manage a complex, multi-disciplinary, project team to get the project implemented. Suddenly all those planning and research skills seemed to be relatively useless. My new job required quick assessments and reactions to rapidly changing political and security situations and the ability to carefully document individual human rights cases. I had moved to the other end of the spectrum. I was as far away from strategic, long-term, systematic work as it is possible to get. I was on the coalface of responsive fieldwork and it was difficult to stick to a daily to-do list let alone an annual work plan.

This job had thrust me well out of my comfort zone, which is saying something since in the past I had quite happily transitioned from corporate litigation to story-telling at children’s birthday parties. But that was a long time ago and in the intervening years, it seemed, I had learned to prefer structure, planning and control in my work. Since this job allowed for very little of any of those, the transition was proving to be uncomfortable.

Our daily work, which involved responding to individual cases of human rights violations, often seemed futile to me in the face of the gross structural injustices that kept vulnerable Afghan people from getting out from under their poverty and fear. Of course I had known when I took the job that I would be dealing with individual cases, and I believed that it was important work. I believed it was worth doing anything we could for each individual complainant that came to us. But in practice it was proving harder than I expected to maintain a sense of hope and usefulness. It was also turning out to be harder than I expected to feel competent or at all confident that I was doing a good job. Without a project plan to tick off it was easy to get lost in the endless parade of human suffering and never feel any closer to making a difference. 

My boss made his quip about Amanullah Khan at 9.00am on 23 October 2006. It was the Sunday before Eid and he was heading out the door to get on a flight for a much-deserved break with his family. I was hoping, and expecting, that things would be fairly quiet while he was way. Our office was scheduled to be closed for two days for the Eid holiday and all our Afghan staff were ready to go on leave on Monday morning.

By midday on Sunday, Amanullah Khan was dead.

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5 Responses to "WIP extract: In which Murphy’s Law applies and I end up in the deep end…"

  1. amy says:

    thank you for sharing your writing. you have a lovely direct way with words. i especially like the combination of your personal experience with the broader political and social context. i look forward to reading more!

  2. Kara-Leah says:

    Completely engrossing! I can’t believe it just stopped… I want more please.
    You manage to capture to many different aspects of what’s going on in such a short space.
    When’s the book coming out again???

  3. Inge De Leeuw says:

    I’m hooked already and will be pre-ordering the book if at all possible!

  4. leonie says:

    holy crap lady this is awesome!
    i can’t wait to read more…

  5. Lubna says:

    It rocks! Just the right blend of hard core facts and personal experience.

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