Khushbu Shah studied political science at Berkeley then did a Masters in conflict studies at the London School of Economics. She currently lives in Kabul and conducts research for a consulting firm.
I never say no to a meal in Afghanistan that consists of anything besides the usual combination of greasy meat and greasy rice. When my manager called me around noon last week to join her inside our gated compound for “special company and gourmet food,” I was already ringing her doorbell before she hung up the phone.
As I strolled in, four men in military uniform turned around. My boss flashed a mischievous albeit discreet grin my way.
As I realized that this was my first encounter with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and I had a million questions to shoot their way.
As the instant Starbucks coffee was poured into steaming cups, I cornered one of the guests, a lieutenant colonel from the German Armed Forces Technical Advisory Group (GAFTAG). I hounded the worn out and lieutenant-colonel with questions about his interaction with the Afghans who worked under his auspices in maintaining equipment for the burgeoning Afghan army.
Because he mentors Afghans willing to join the international forces for work, he worries constantly about how their equipment is not always up to international standards. There is also a lack of understanding between his team and the national staff in terms of the relative importance of their jobs.
Showing a remarkable amount of passion and sincerity that I did not expect from a man in his position, he constantly referred his frustration with getting his Afghan workers to take their jobs seriously. His mentee chose this job maintaining equipment because it was close to his home, he knew the Afghan in charge and he got to stay in Kabul.
When the colonel brought more than $2,000 USD worth of new equipment for his mentee, the first thing out of the man’s mouth was,” But where is my present?” According to the lieutenant colonel, this mentality has become prevalent over the last decade of international assistance because people prioritize their individual own survival and their immediate concerns: money and presents.
We mulled over the the need to strengthen the the Afghan National Army (ANA). We also lamented the fact that an ANA soldier makes $70 a month versus over $1,000 for a UN driver. Also, the lieutenant colonel adamantly stressed the need for a stronger police force as the basis for post-conflict reconstruction.
Finally, of course, I had to ask him about Obama’s impending decision and the possibility of an increase in American troops. Surprisingly, his answer was not the one I expected. He replied with a simple statement, “If the current number of troops have shown no promise of improvement or change, then there is no point in increasing the number now or later.”
I have days where I meet private security contractors and end up throwing out many harsh words. Generally, it is a battle between the humanitarians, journalists, and NGO workers versus the security contractors and ISAF, but this was a conversation to remember. Not once did I feel the urge to launch a verbal assault, and in actuality, I gained a new perspective on the ISAF’s daily struggles.
– Khushbu Shah