To understand why so many US representatives in foreign countries are figures of fun or even derision and contempt to their inhabitants one need look no further than a Public Broadcasting Service item of August 7.
The report goes further than showing that the main figure is an idiot. This cameo, this snapshot of the mindset of an American official in Afghanistan, demonstrates appalling lack of understanding of a country with which the US is deeply involved. The deep ignorance of the central character is terrifying. His rejoicing when he forces an Afghan van driver to pay $20 in road tax is grotesque. Here's the PBS piece:
Miranda Kennedy [anchor] : It's a hot, grueling afternoon at the toll plaza on the Kabul-Kandahar highway. Chris Anderson is an advisor to Afghanistan's finance ministry. That sounds like an exalted position. Often, as today, it means standing out on the tarmac, trying to convince Afghan drivers to pay a toll to use the highway. [Scene shifts to Anderson.]
Anderson: [to his interpreter] Can you please explain to him that I understand these people need to be somewhere, but unfortunately if he wants to use this road, there is no choice but to pay. [Dialogue involving the interpreter, Anderson and the van driver]
Anderson : "I understand what you're saying sir ; unfortunately everybody wants to pay tomorrow, and what happens is they come along tomorrow and say let me pay tomorrow so . . ."
Kennedy: Anderson is talking to a young guy who runs a taxi service between Kabul and some outlying villages. His van is loaded with half a dozen villagers, a stack of very weathered suitcases, a bicycle and a couple sheep. Because he's driving a commercial van, he's supposed to pay $20 for a monthly pass. But he offers up every excuse in the book not to shell out, including a sick child in the back. But Anderson is having none of it.
Anderson: "He must make a decision right now to either pay this money or to turn around, and if he refuses then we will have to ask the police to come and tell him to move."
Kennedy : "The traffic police appear. And half an hour later, our supposedly-penniless driver finally gives in."
Anderson : He bought it, he bought the sticker.
Kennedy: There he is, with his blue sticker!
Anderson : It was nothing to him to waste 20 minutes arguing with us rather than buy the decal.
Kennedy: But he had the money.
Anderson : He had the money the whole time.
Yes, the van-driver had the money demanded by the US official. In a country where foreign advisors get over $100,000 a year and an Afghan schoolteacher earns $70 a month (if the money comes on time), he had a whole twenty dollars. Here we have a fat-cat expat, about to return to air-conditioned comfort, running water and a good dinner, confronting a kid who is trying to make a living by driving a van taking people and "suitcases, a bicycle and a couple sheep" from one decrepit village to another. He and his passengers are not just poor : they are verging on being destitute in modern democratic Afghanistan. And a well-fed foreigner rips him off for twenty dollars.
Is there any wonder why Afghans hate Americans?
[To digress : it is deliciously ironic that the American embassy in Britain refuses to pay London's road congestion fee and now owes the city over a million dollars. Perhaps the Mayor of London should ask Mr Anderson for advice.]
The rest of the story is equally bizarre :
"Out on the side of the highway [says PBS], a line of trucks has formed. It's the line of drivers committed to not paying the toll. They know that all they have to do is wait, stick around longer than the foreign advisors. At 3:30 each afternoon, the advisors and toll collectors pack it up for the day. The government hasn't yet hired enough workers for a second shift, so the truckers start up their engines and cross onto the highway, home free and $20 richer."
Lucky them. They haven't been ripped off for a sum that is absurd to demand from a driver who is trying to scrape a living in one of the poorest countries in the world. And there is no point in saying the big guys who own most of the trucks will be the ones who will pay the road tax. Don't make me laugh. It will be the drivers, whether they own the trucks or not, who shell out the cash, most of which will be stolen by officials, anyway.
Afghanistan is a country in which savage drug barons reap millions of dollars, where many politicians and bureaucrats are up to their necks in corruption, and thousands of children are dying of starvation. It is a country in which, as the Senlis Council makes clear in its report 'Five Years Later : the Return of the Taliban', the occupation by foreign forces has failed to improve the lives of any but those who are powerful, rich, well-armed and brutally unscrupulous. And that's before considering the resurgence of the vile and vicious Taliban who are benefiting most of all from the stupidity of the foreigners who occupy their country.
Which brings us to the matchbooks. In the words of Senlis:
"The Taliban have seized on incidents such as the US' infamous failed matchbooks information gathering scheme as evidence of the international community's ineptitude. Villagers in Kandahar province have matchbooks which [were] "dropped from the sky by the Americans." These matchbooks, of which thousands were distributed by the US Air Force across southern Afghanistan, contain a message saying the United States government will pay cash for information about Osama Bin Laden. Locals are mystified as to why the Americans made their reward offer in Dari, when everyone in Kandahar, if they are literate, reads and speaks Pashto. Yet if someone
wants to offer information on Bin Laden in exchange for cash, they would need to first make an international telephone call, (having first discovered the US country telephone code), then need to understand the English instructions on the other end of the information lines. The matchbooks also suggest the option of emailing information on Bin Laden from Afghans' home computers."
That disastrous campaign cost a lot of money and made the US look even more foolish in the eyes of the people at whom it was directed. The notion of emailing from home computers in Kandahar is ridiculous. Only ten per cent of Afghans have electricity, and the computer is unknown by all but the privileged few ; perhaps a few thousand in 20-odd million inhabitants. Over sixty per cent (80 % of women) cannot read or write. There are almost no phone lines outside the few major cities.
As recorded by Senlis :
"After five years of intensive international involvement in Afghanistan, the country remains ravaged by severe poverty and the spreading starvation of the rural and urban poor. Despite promises from the US-led international community guaranteeing to provide the resources and assistance necessary for its reconstruction and development needs, Afghanistan's people are starving to death. . . . . More than 70% of the population is chronically malnourished, while less than a quarter of the population has access to safe drinking water."
Three quarters of Afghans drink filthy water - - when they can get any water at all. So what's the international solution?
Coca Cola, of course. The great American export.
Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his 'Confessions' that "I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being told that the country people had no bread, replied : 'Let them eat cake'."
On September 10 President Hamid Karzai opened a 25 million-dollar Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kabul.
The charity Christian Aid reported last week that "Most of the water has dried up in the provinces of Herat, Badghis and Ghor, and the wheat harvest is down by 90% to 100% in parts of Faryab province." But why worry? ---- Send for Coca Cola to use up even more water. A press report said that "Karzai praised the plant's developer, Habibullah Gulzar, for investing US $25 million to build the facility, which has provided 350 jobs and can annually produce 15 million 24-bottle cases [360 million bottles] of the soft drink."
The millionaire developer lives in Dubai, while in Kandahar :
"entire communities are malnourished, with no clean water, food, nor medical care of any kind."
Let them drink Coke.
Brian Cloughley writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org