Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Getting A Look At City Life

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A few days ago, I went with my boss out to visit another training facility, one which is looking to us for advice on how to improve on the quality of training they are delivering in the field we’re experts on. They have been delivering their own training, but are trying to standardize what they’re doing with what is becoming ANSF doctrine. The meeting was relatively quick and simple, with a view that we’re going to review their training package, see how we can improve it, and help them with some instructor development training if needed. The idea, after all, is to build the capacity of the ANA to not only operate, but to also train their own people. We don’t just want to teach them how to do things, or teach them doctrinal concepts. We want them to own those ideas and be able to continue teaching their people. That builds sustainability.

More interesting than the meeting itself was the trip, which gave me a chance to see a lot of Kabul city life. Being somewhat sheltered in a camp limits your ability to really understand what goes on in the country, I do interact with Afghans constantly, and I enjoy getting the chance to learn about their lives, but it’s not the same.

Winding down the roads I got a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city – roads were lined with little shops and kiosks featuring people of all descriptions out to earn a living. A lot of them were tradesmen: carpenters, metalworkers, and so on. There were mechanics shops working on the 150cc motorcycles that are everywhere. Taxis. Shops selling everything from gas canisters for cookstoves to door and window frames, and so on. And people everywhere. What was interesting was seeing lots of kids coming and going from schools. I asked one of the interpreters about that,because the times seemed odd, and he told me that schools are generally run in “shifts” so kids come and go throughout the day to maximize the use of the facilities.

The schools we passed seemed mostly to be girls’ schools – they were all over the place in their sharp blue uniforms and white headscarves. That, I suppose, is a sign of progress, although Kabul is different than the rural areas, probably what you might call more “progressive”. In my view, though, any amount of children going to school and getting whatever education they can is progress. And girls in particular, though one wonders how long they’ll be in school. Still, basic literacy will be a good start for them, rates of literacy here are tragically low.

There were also a lot of markets – large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables. Even bananas, which I thought would be a rarity, were on display. Bakeries, too. Naan/footbread is a staple food here, so there’s lots of bakeries, displaying loaves of various sizes in windows. The Afghans who work in our camp usually come to work with bags full of it, it’s their main meal during the day. Every now and then our interpreters bring some for us too, which is always a welcome treat. There’s nothing quite like it at home.

What did strike me, though, is the amount of garbage everywhere. In theory, we could probably revive the Afghan economy very quickly simply by paying people to pick up the tremendous amount of litter that’s on the streets and in the gutters. That does actually happen in some places, but not where I was. I don’t know how much there is in terms of municipal services in Kabul though, but perhaps someone entrepreneurial could come up with something. I saw an interesting documentary some months ago about Cairo, Egypt, where a whole economic system emerged to deal with waste management. Now, viewed through western optics, the idea of a class (or ethnic minority as it were) “relegated” to being trash collectors seems awful, but the fact is that this group did alright. They recycled huge amounts of Cairo’s refuse, including using organic waste to feed the pigs they used to support themselves. The system worked until Cairo started contracting out waste management (which residents apparently find doesn’t work as well) and the government culled their pigs during the swine flu paranoia. Incidentally, the Kabul Zoo was at that time home of the only pig in Afghanistan, which was quarantined.

Perhaps there is scope for some sort of system like that to emerge, who knows. It wouldn’t be pig based like the Zabbaleen in Cairo, but something might be possible.

It does make for a good argument for urban planning and sustainable growth, but Kabul doesn’t really have that, because people have streamed into the city over the last few years, and no one even really knows how many people live here. Housing is in short supply and extremely expensive, so what basically amount to shantytowns have emerged everywhere, and disputes over land ownership along with them, because as I understand it what records did exist didn’t survive the civil war.

Housing, thus, will be another challenge that Afghanistan will face. If economic activity continues to be concentrated here, as well, it will likely only get worse as people will migrate in from the rural areas.

Written by Nick

April 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm

One Response

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  1. Commerce happens (especially when there is not a social safety net).

    I remember a liaison visit to the Kabul police station where they served us some great Afghan pomegranates and some bananas. The bananas were the product of China, by container ship to Pakistan and trucks overland to Afghanistan. Essentially, anything you’d want to buy here in Canada is also available there even if it is from a dusty little street side stall

    Kabul’s population is still not well understood, but there are more people living in that urban space than live in Metro Toronto. Also there are a couple of million more Afghans than there are Canadians. They live in a country the size of Manitoba that has extensive mountain ranges and less habitable space

    Ross

    April 13, 2012 at 8:50 am


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