Life in the Field - The Way of the Samurai

"Show me the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh don't ask why. Oh don't ask why."

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Of ISAF in Afghanistan

I know the ISAF presence, like any international military presence, is not an entirely unambiguous issue in Afghanistan. Especially so when, along ISAF, you have Coalition forces actively engaged in their 'war against terrorism' in the south. There's obviously always a risk for the two forces to be assimilated, at least in people's eyes, with the ensuing risks for ISAF forces - a rather softer target, I suspect, for the laziest Taliban, than the Coalition forces. This ambiguity is only made worse by the fact that some troops, like the Brits, partake in both forces and as a result may sometimes wish their action were more concurring, hence the British plea to have ISAF troops in the south from 2006 more actively involved in the said fight against terrorism. Part of me fears blurring the two mandates is likely to lead to yet more attacks on ISAF and to undermine their overall responsibility to support law and order outside the terrorism realm.

In case any ambiguity subsides, I do think though that ISAF's presence brings an element of stability to the country. Well possibly except where tensions are such that it would take a 100-strong group of men to demilitarize one or two streets. (I'm thinking of Faryab, where militia fighting is still unusually common in some spots.) That's obviously exclusively based on my all-too-subjective perception however. Arguably, the fact that ISAF is made up of NATO nations or, in other words, basically of European ones (Turkey will appreciate) also creates an element of familiarity and therefore trust that partly explains my feeling. Anyhow, as they increasingly have groups of men, if only small ones, patrolling outside provincial centers and trying to keep themselves updated on the local situation, I have the feeling that often, they may appear like a reasonably neutral, if foreign, actor, not involved in local strives. I'm sure I'm overlooking here the quasi instinctive distrust many Afghans feel towards any foreign force interfering in their affairs. Still, for those Afghans who did grow tired of the war and, most likely, grew tired in particular of local warlords fighting each other over a few strips of provinces and a little more power, the presence of military outsiders reasonably neutral to these disputes may appear like a welcome relief.

Anyhow, these are all wild guesses but here is the one thing I can tell you for sure. I find that quite a few of the ISAF forces present here deserve respect for their attempts at bonding with the population. Whether it's just foot patrolling and talking with people on the streets, it is sufficiently remarkable as it is, given the number of attacks targeting them, including in the north. I mean you must have respect for British ISAF, for instance, who days after an attack in the heart of Mazar leading to the death of one of their men were patrolling on foot again in the city.
Additionally, even though I know ISAF's priority shouldn't be to make sure a little female expat worker here feels safe and secure, I have to admit had it not been for a really really tall Dutch ISAF guy guarding the site, Id have been too uncomfortable to ever stop in Maymana park, as I once did, to watch the football match opposing the local team to ISAF. As it is, all the stares were sufficiently obviously on me that it even made ISAF guys nervous. I thus decided to bugger off, but still, ten minutes of game watching had been worth it.
Similarly, today, when the police in Mazar airport decided to record my identity (why exactly I cannot tell except probably out of boredom, as no other city seems to do that upon arrival...), a couple of seconds later a German ISAF guy was in the office too. Feeling a little overconfident about my inexistent German, I saluted him with Guten Morgen. (As I write these lines, I'm not even certain of the spelling, that's how good my German is). Then he asked me something with quite a few words, in German, and I thought fuck, so long for my great language skills. My brain somehow decided that the correct response had to be 'Belgium'. I could have said Belgie too, but all in all I wasn't sure keeping the conversation running in German was going to be that effective. Come to think of it, I'm not even certain what the question was. I may have heard 'land' in the sentence suggesting he wanted to know where I was from. Or I may have gotten that totally wrong cause really, guessing games usually lead you to reply such a thing as 'No, thank you.' to the question where do you work. Anyhow, I'm fairly confident the second question involved something like is there any problem here. That, at any rate, would seem like the obvious line given the number of sleazy policemen hanging around that office. To which I replied 'Keine probleem. Danke.', which must have expressed well enough that all was fine since the guy left as swiftly as he had arrived. Still, as the ISAF guys can't have failed to notice the slight pervert side of most police officers in this airport, I though it had been very civil of him to show up. Civil and discreet. When the police officer asked me what the man had said, I suggested he had just saluted me as my mom is from Germany and so is he. A lie, maybe not a credible one, but something that sounded innocent enough to avoid any tension on the side of the officers towards the ISAF guy.
Anyhow, in the greater scheme of things, I know it was a really unimportant and ultimately unnecessary gesture on the part of the German bloke to come and check if all was fine, but somehow, I really appreciate he did it.


At 9:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Praise ISAF for kindly taking care of Belgian expat and little sister of mine!

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