Since I have returned from Afghanistan, many people have asked me what security was like in the country.
Although security is an everyday concern, it doesn’t stop life from moving on, albeit slowly and with some serious interruptions. The half-day gun battle that I mentioned in an earlier blog was unusual even for Kabul. Explosions happen, but extended battles between insurgents and the government forces do not generally occur in the city. All the officials I met with talked about the scheduled 2014 pull-out of U.S. forces, wondering aloud what the impact will be on the country.
One key to being safe is to keep as low a profile as possible – people do that as well as businesses. ChildFund Afghanistan avoids using well-known, highly visible hotels for guests, opting instead for low-frills hotels on nondescript streets. My hotel, and every restaurant I ate at, would be impossible for any newcomer to find unaided. None of these establishments post the business name or advertising signs out front. All are surrounded by high walls, with rows of metal gates that blend in with nearby apartment buildings.
After guests clear the mental fences, most restaurants have two to three security doors to pass through. At one restaurant, you knock at the last door and gain entrance after you’re viewed through a peep hole in the center of the door, very 1920s speak-easy style. Once inside the compounds, you find gardens and good food but few other guests. I think most residents of Kabul prefer eating in the security of their own homes.
For my visits with U.N., U.S. embassy and other government officials and when traveling to airports, the state of security was much higher. All buildings are set far back from the road with elaborate security precautions. For one meeting, we drove (slowly) down a double figure-eight style pathway lined with cement pillars. All offices in which we met were very simple; some organizations have converted shipping containers into offices and (I heard) even into staff housing.
Although the site of my field visit, Jalalabad, is accessible by road from Kabul, the trip takes several hours and would have required an overnight stop. Cars are vulnerable to attack on the road. Being cautious, our team decided to fly to Jalalabad for our one-day visit. Although I was a bit disappointed at the shortness of the trip, I learned that few western NGO leaders have been able to travel outside Kabul recently. So I considered myself lucky, that is until I saw the small one-engine plane we were taking. I have flown internationally all my life, but I have to admit I get very nervous flying in small planes. I didn’t spend much time looking out the window, but I could see that we flew mostly over incredible mountainous areas, including the famous Tora Bora area where a battle ensued with Osama bin Laden in 2001. The flight was worth it, however, because I got to see ChildFund’s programs for children.
Before my Afghanistan trip, very few people knew I was going. Part of the secrecy was for security reasons, and I also didn’t want to worry my extended family.
With good planning and a cautious approach, my trip went fine and our ChildFund team was able to accomplish most of our goals for the visit. A week later I don’t think we would have been as fortunate. Many security incidents happened the following week, including the kidnapping of an NGO worker in Kabul.
In a very, very tough living environment, I met many impressive Afghan, U.S. and other foreign nationals working together to make life better for children and Afghanistan as a whole. Particularly after U.S. troops leave next year, Afghans and aid workers will continue to need our support to make a better world for children in Afghanistan, “the worst place for children to be born.”