As I was packing up to leave Kandahar two weeks ago at the conclusion of my fourth visit to Arghand, I mentioned to one of our cooperative members that I had never before seen so many weddings take place alongside so much fighting. He paused briefly to metabolize the irony, and then released a gust of laughter. Indeed, it has been wedding season in Kandahar as the weather is neither too warm nor too cold, and so just about every other day at least one of our members was dashing off to celebrate the nuptials of some relative or friend. It got to the point where it became difficult, at least for me, to distinguish between the sounds of celebratory and antagonistic gunfire in the street at night. Love and War. This is Afghanistan today in itsfull Shakespearean glory.
I had planned the trip anyway, a couple of months out, because I had not been there since early February and also because Sarah and I hadn't seen each other in the flesh for two and a half years. Now that she was based at ISAF HQ in Kabul, it would be easy enough for her to pop down to Kandahar for a few days during my stay so the Arghand family could finally be reunited. In addition, we badly needed to ship the 1,000 kilos of soap and body oils that had been accumulating in our bedroom since late spring when the Canadians abruptly informed us that we had lost our shipping privileges through their APO. And we needed to meet with the CIDA program officers that had worked with us throughout much of the summer on a proposal for a new one-year contract that would cover 12 months of technical assistance, an alembic for distilling essential oil of rose and the construction of a larger soap making facility. I knew ahead of time that this was going to be a busy couple of weeks, but that was inadequate preparation for the situation that would begin to reveal itself a couple of weeks prior to my arrival.
Sarah went to Kandahar toward the end of September and was confronted by our three male cooperative members who have been working with her the longest. They told her that since the election, Kandahar City security had degraded to the point where the risks associated with working at Arghand had started to outweigh the benefits. The time had come for us to shutter the cooperative, they said. Taliban were everywhere now -- not just in the districts surrounding the city but also in town, dressed like ordinary people without their signature black turbans and long beards so they could blend in easily with the general population. As always, the Taliban had it in for those Afghans who were known to collaborate with foreigners, or worked for the government, and the daily reports of murders, kidnappings, suicide attacks and bomb blasts became especially worrisome when the victims started to be neighbors and friends.
And yet, if the Taliban had been the only threat, that might have seemed tolerable. Sarah has taken several public stances against the corruption and abuse of power on the part of Afghan government officials. She has received death threats in the past. Consequently, anyone who is associated with her is in double danger.
Add to this the fallout from the August 20th presidential election, which instigated a very unattractive tipping point. Nobody expected a national election in Afghanistan to be smooth sailing, least of all the Afghan people. Yet the scale of the fraud was breathtaking -- even and perhaps especially for them. It was so well organized and so widespread as to have been clearly premeditated, and Hamid Karzai was revealed not merely as the leader of weak or ineffective government, but rather as the lord of a criminal enterprise that routinely abuses the very people it is meant to protect. Most of Karzai's remaining popular support evaporated quickly, and if that wasn't enough the international community failed to denounce the fraud for fear of appearing to "meddle" in the internal domestic affairs of a sovereign country. But here was the problem: After eight years of watching foreign forces bomb their villages, kill their civilians and construct enormous military compounds on their soil, most Afghans don't view Afghanistan as a "sovereign state," but rather as a kind of subsidiary of the United States government. By not calling Karzai out on the industrial-scale electoral fraud, the international community was effectively condoning it.
Within just a few weeks the anti-foreigner sentiment had started to metastasize, and many people who felt the need to protest did so by joining the Taliban -- because they were the guys with the guns, because they appeared to be winning, and also because their brand of dictatorial leadership was starting to look attractive by comparison. If only the foreigners would go home and let the Taliban use their iron yet predictable fists to reestablish security, the Afghan people would at least be spared the escalating violence. Nurullah told me over a skype call that the Kandahar rumor mill was ablaze with conspiracy theories about how the Americans were behind the recent truck bomb that killed approximately 100 civilians, and the police station shoot-out in which the chief of police was murdered and subsequently replaced by a new commander who is the brother-in-law of President Karzai's younger brother, and is believed to have strong ties to the Taliban. Powerful government officials were using the Taliban to eliminate those who flagrantly opposed them, he said, before gasping at the notion that Obama would even consider sending additional troops to southern Afghaistan given the bloodshed that would surely unleash. Nurullah went on to say that he could smell the odor of ripening conditions for civil war, at which point I understood exactly what he was describing: Anarchy. His constant anxiety was the result of having aligned himself with the perceived losers.
Sarah spent about five days in Kandahar, talking it out with Nurullah, Fayzullah and Abdulahad until finally she sent me an email that caused me to go numb: "I just really think they've had it," she wrote. "They feel that the Afghanistan we all hoped for and dreamed about is over, finished, washed up, and that as a result Arghand no longer has any meaning."
"But what about the women?" I asked. "What about the other two guys? What about us and everything we've all been working toward these past four years?"
"I know," Sarah wrote back. "But their feeling is that they're done thinking about the future of Afghanistan because there is no future in Afghanistan." She told me that they were ready to think about themselves and their families. What would become of their families if they got killed? They wanted us to dismantle the cooperative and divide whatever money and assets were left 15 ways. This, they figured, would provide everybody with enough of a nest egg.
"It's not that much," I said. "Maybe around $5,000 a piece ""
"That's a lot more in Afghanistan than it is in the US," she said. "Maybe it would be enough to get them started in some other business. Maybe some of them would relocate to Kabul or even Pakistan."
"There's got to be some other alternative," I tried, thinking about the painstaking progress we had finally started to make between the recently installed solar electric system, the new website, the CIDA contract that was on the verge of being signed, the transition to commercial shipping and the trade show I was planning to do shortly after the new year. Arghand was finally starting to look and feel like a potentially viable business. Taking it all apart now and dismantling the incredible network of friends and supporters that contributed so generously toward its advancement was positively unthinkable.
Before she returned to Kabul, Sarah told the guys that she had heard and understood everything they'd said to her. Still, she couldn't make a decision of this magnitude on the spot, and she couldn't make it alone. She asked them to please sit with it for a couple of weeks until I got there, at which point we would all figure things out together. They agreed. They also perked up at a final option she brought to the table, which was that maybe in light of the risky service they had provided to the United States military, she could help them apply for political asylum. She explained that it was a long shot, but possibly worth pursuing regardless.
Over the next couple of weeks, Sarah and I communicated frequently via email and skype in an ongoing effort to come up with some way to salvage the cooperative. We discussed moving to Kabul, talked about the likelihood of identifying trustworthy replacement members in an environment where people were becoming suspicious of their own family members, and even considered the idea of producing just oil in Kandahar and shipping it to America where the three guys who might be able to emigrate could make soap. Each potential solution seemed to create a dozen hazards, and my excitement about the upcoming trip morphed into dread.
People often tell me that my willingness to travel to Kandahar makes me a brave person. It does not. Always I have to drag myself onto the first of three airplanes, talking my blood pressure down amid a mind full of worst case scenarios, which invariably include kidnapping, death by decapitation, or just driving over a roadside bomb on the way home from the airport. This time my anxiety was worse than ever. Not only had the guys described Kandahar as being so physically perilous that they couldn't reassure me as they had before every other visit that Sarah and I would be safe with them, but I was also preparing to thrust myself into an emotionally desolate environment in which all hope for a decent future seemed to have been lost.