The Road to Helmand

By Holly Barnes Higgins
Sunday, February 4, 2007

The news came in a phone call from Afghanistan. Ten days ago, a suicide bomber tried to talk his way into a compound in Lashkar Gah where I had worked until last October. He blew himself up without getting in and no one else was seriously hurt, but the story shook me. What I had expected for so long had finally happened.

I went to Afghanistan in October 2005 to work on an economic development project funded by the U.S. government. I went because I believed in the mission: helping to improve the quality of life in a war-torn land. I was lucky to get out.

Now I am home, hearing with dismay that President Bush lauds our work as a success and is requesting more aid for Afghanistan. I think of my colleagues still back in Helmand province, especially the young Afghans who risk their lives to work with us because the United States has insisted that progress is on the way.

I know about the millions of dollars already wasted there.

When I was in the field, I sometimes had to travel to Kabul to talk to U.S. officials about various assistance strategies and whether they were viable on the ground. They call the process "groundtruthing."

A year later, this is the story of my time in Afghanistan. This is my own groundtruthing.

September 2005

I didn't want to go.

When a friend mentions the job in Afghanistan, I shake my head before he even finishes talking. I'm not looking for another adventure. I've worked with uban youth and in Angola. I've done enough hard time in hard circumstances. At 36, I feel it's my time to settle down. The most dangerous province in Afghanistan is the last place I want to go.

But my friend presses. "Would you be willing just to talk with them?" he asks. I imagine what I've seen of Afghanistan in the media -- a desperate place bombed to hell even though it already looked to be in pieces. Still vulnerable to the idea of humanitarian service, and to adventure, I agree to a meeting.

The project in question, run by a private contractor and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to the tune of $121 million over four years, is intended to provide jobs, develop business and agriculture, and improve infrastructure in Helmand province -- all part of the effort to reduce poppy-growing in that region, one of the largest opium-production centers in the world. It seems a worthy goal.

But the project is also taking over from another that shut down after 11 members of its staff were killed. The Taliban have never claimed credit for the deaths, but most people assume they're to blame.

I talk to anyone I can find who has experience in the region. No one thinks I should take the job. Only one person I meet has ever even set foot in Helmand, and she sounds stunned that I'm considering working there for a year or two. The lone voice of optimism is that of a journalist. "You'll have a ball," he says.

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