October 13, 2005 in Opinion

U.S. contractor sees promise, violence

J.R. Labbe Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 

The little orange pills were new.

What are those for, she wanted to know as her husband filled up a glass of water in the bathroom.

Malaria.

She hadn’t known that malaria was a problem in Kandahar, given that his e-mails home talked about how hot and dry his part of Afghanistan is most of the time. Well, at least until winter, when it’s colder than a well digger’s backside.

I have to travel through Kabul to get to or from anywhere, and it’s a problem there.

Oh. One more thing for her not to worry about, at least not now – not when he’s home for a two-week leave.

The journey back to civilization, which he’s made three times in 18 months, is exhausting. Kabul to Dubai takes a little more than two hours by air. After a seven-hour layover, it’s on to Zurich in another six hours on a plane. Sit around the Swiss airport for a couple of hours before the 10- or 11-hour flight to Dallas/Fort Worth and home. Like he says, exhausting.

She’ll get a taste of that travel schedule for herself in December, when they plan to meet in Dubai for New Year’s Eve. The irony of paying to see explosions over the Persian Gulf doesn’t escape either of them.

Three months later, he’ll be headed home again. End of mission. Sweet, sweet words.

That’s how she manages the time apart – breaks it up into smaller chunks so she doesn’t think about the fact that two years will have passed by the time his nonmilitary training contract ends in April 2006.

But that’s a long way off. He goes back too soon, back to a place where insurgents who are trying to derail a fragile democracy are adopting the tactics that are so damaging and so deadly in Iraq – tactics that include the dreaded suicide bomber.

Afghans are a lot of things, but they aren’t suicidal, he tells friends over Chinese cuisine at a local restaurant. The people blowing themselves up are generally not Afghans.

He talks of IEDs and warlords and detonating land mines as if it’s just another day at the office.

It’s some office. Afghanistan may have weathered the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections without much violence, but the ensuing weeks have been marred by devastating attacks, including a Sept. 29 explosion near a U.S. military vehicle that wounded four American troops. Two days earlier, a suicide attacker on a motorbike detonated a bomb outside a military training center in Kabul, killing nine Afghan soldiers and wounding 28 other people. It was the deadliest bombing in the capital in at least a year.

Their friends all ask the same question: Are we making a difference?

He hopes so, but he’s never been a raging optimist. Coalition and Afghan government forces have been hitting back, hard, with 31 suspected Taliban militants killed Monday in the heaviest fighting since the elections.

But killed and casualty numbers – for the good guys as well as the bad ones – don’t tell the whole story.

The latest Afghanistan index released by the Brookings Institution, which pulls figures from numerous government and research sources, paints a dismal picture.

In 2001, 8,000 hectares (about 19,770 acres) in 10 provinces were devoted to poppy cultivation; in 2004, it was 131,000 hectares (about 323,700 acres) in 30 provinces, according to the International Monetary Fund. (In case you’ve forgotten, heroin is produced from poppies.)

The infrastructure needed to support the population in this nation slightly smaller than Texas – roads, bridges, wells, dams, schools, health facilities, electric transmission and distribution systems – is well below the completion targets for 2004, according to a General Accounting Office report.

The unemployment rate is 30 percent; about 12 percent of the nation’s 30 million people have access to adequate sanitation. Whereas the average percentage of the population with access to safe water in a low-income or developing nation is 75 percent, less than 40 percent of Afghans have access to safe water. That would explain the increase in diarrheal diseases such as cholera.

These are not the things he wants to talk about while he’s home. He sees such promise in the young man who serves as his translator.

He’s so bright. He knows he has no future there, he tells his wife. He wants so much to come to the United States. Don’t you know someone who could help get him a visa?

His estimations of his wife’s abilities are not always grounded in reality. It’s one of his endearing qualities, really. He thinks she can do anything she sets her mind to, including not worry about what happens after she once again says goodbye.


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