The Road to Helmand
I went to Afghanistan to help rebuild people's lives. But I learned the hard way that good intentions aren't enough.

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.

Before I leave for Kabul, I put my belongings in long-term storage, ship my cats home to Texas, rent out my apartment. I also prepare a power of attorney and my will.

October 2005

Our little plane hits the large swath of gravel that serves as an airstrip for Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand. The barrenness all around is astounding: no buildings, no parking lots, nothing but a few dust-colored structures.

A group of Afghan men with Soviet-era rocket-propelled grenade launchers watch us get off the plane. They follow every move I make, but I'm careful not to look them in the eye.

My living quarters are a bedroom and bath in a 10-bedroom, three-story pink stucco building that people call "the palace," short for "narco-palace." Blast-protection film covers the windows, and the security manager is preparing to hire a crew to fill thousands of sandbags to fortify the perimeter. The project office is in the same compound, so my commute is about six steps door to door.

The house speaks of rare wealth (and bad taste), but the periphery of our compound is just like everyone else's: rudimentary ditches filled with rubbish and a black-green soup of waste and water.

An American colleague takes me up to the roof. All around are grassless yards and square houses of mud or clay. Directly below us, a scrawny cow stands under a drought-shrunken tree, a chicken pecking at her hoof, while a child prepares to fly his plastic-bag kite. Passersby stare up in shock at the sight of a blond woman with an uncovered head. Ducking, I hurry back inside.

* * *

One of 34 Afghan provinces, Helmand lies about 400 miles southwest of Kabul. It's home to the highly conservative Pashtun people. Poppy production was nearly unheard of here before the Soviet invasion in 1979. But today, most farmers grow poppy, along with smaller amounts of other produce. It's simple economics: A farmer can earn about $5,400 per hectare of opium yield, almost 10 times what he would get for a hectare of wheat.

In the 1950s and '60s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and USAID developed a 1,600-kilometer irrigation system in the province. Many residents remember a time when Lashkar Gah, with its newly paved streets and neat rows of tree-shaded houses, was called "Little America."

Today, much of the pavement is ruined, and the sagging former USAID homes look much older than they are. Meanwhile, massive, gaudy structures built with drug money rise around them. Because of their bizarre, strange-colored exteriors dotted with mirrors and decorative tiles, these narco-palaces are also referred to as "Pakistani wedding cakes."

* * *

I am the only woman on our team. I'd been warned that locals would think I was a prostitute brought from the West for the male staff of American, Australian, British and Latin American contractors, and that this perceived violation of Islamic morality would put the team at heightened risk.

So I am required to stay on the first floor, while my expat male colleagues enjoy more private quarters upstairs. I dress in shapeless clothing and wear only enough makeup to feel comfortable, yet I still feel as though I'm surrounded by a neon light.

The only time I feel relief from this self-consciousness is around A., our Hazara cook. Unlike the Pashtun men, A. looks me in the eye, laughs easily, doesn't seem afraid of me. He spends hours preparing our meals, then watches our expressions as we eat, awaiting appreciation from the table, often winking at me.

Nonetheless, by and large the food is horrible -- sometimes really horrible. But about once a week, A. hits the bull's eye. His "Pashtun burgers" are a favorite. He uses an old coffee can to cut circles out of nan, the flat Afghan bread, to serve as buns.

More than anything, A. wants to be a chef in the United States. Sometimes I get excited about this idea and think about ways to help make it happen. But the barriers are too great.

I feel the same about S. and R., the two young Afghan women in our office. They want to go to medical school, but they have no passports and no money. Nor do they know much English. I feel impotent in the face of their dreams. Getting an Afghan into the United States post-9/11 is as ambitious an undertaking as, well, getting poppy out of Afghanistan.

* * *

The people of Helmand fall into two categories. The great majority believe that poppy is the only reliable source of income. The small minority believe that with help, alternative livelihoods are possible. They don't know how to make progress, but they're hungry for it, so they're willing to trust us.

The project's goal is to diversify the economy and create jobs. Plans include building roads and refurbishing the irrigation system, electrification improvements, job training, an industrial park. I'm responsible for setting up the public information office and developing a campaign to promote the project to Afghans. But there's a substantial caveat: illiteracy. The project's security manager tells me that not one man in his unit of 60 can write his own name; to receive their pay, they "sign" with their thumbprint. Whatever strategy I come up with will have to be compelling but simple.

The company seems most invested in pleasing its client, USAID. Meanwhile, USAID is concerned about pleasing the Afghan people, local and national Afghan leaders, the media, Capitol Hill and the State Department. So I am to issue reports every other week, as well as "success stories" that will convince everyone that these millions of dollars are well spent, that U.S. efforts in Helmand are a shining example of our good work in the world.

On paper, it sounds great. But in practice, all I have to promote are concepts. I'm told to wait before I initiate any public education effort. Weeks go by. Nothing happens. I tell the team I'm concerned about losing the confidence of Afghans who are interested in finding livelihoods other than poppy cultivation. I suggest announcing project timelines so that people can anticipate positive changes. We must provide something to generate discussion as people eat their meals, sit together for tea, walk to Friday prayers.

But because of mismanagement at multiple levels, personnel turnover, lack of initiative and concerns about personal security, progress simply isn't forthcoming. Often the local Afghan government and its culture of corruption, or USAID, are blamed for the lack of results, but the bottom line is the same: We have very few accomplishments to report.

In the meantime, the reports are still due. And I feel pressure to explain to local residents what we are doing here. I hear over and over how the Afghans feel let down by the international community. So our words and images must be chosen with great care. I have little but words and images to offer.

* * *

Though the Taliban pulled out of Lashkar Gah after the U.S. invasion in 2001, they have gradually made their way back, working with drug lords to control the production of the poppy crop they once forbade, the profits from which now fuel their resistance. The Taliban and their collaborators approach our laborers regularly, making deals to ensure their loyalty during the planting and harvesting season.

But maintaining poppy production is only part of their mission. They are here to expel the infidels, maintain the status quo of fear and resist progress that suggests cooperation with the West.

We hear that the Taliban see Helmand province as their proving ground, the key to taking back Afghan territory from NATO and Afghan troops. Commanders on the ground describe the situation as the most brutal conflict the British army has been involved in since the Korean War.

* * *

I ask the elders who work in our office to help me find someone to serve as my assistant. B. comes in the next day. She's nervous, and her English is poor. She doesn't have any real qualifications. But I'm desperate for help, so I hire her.

November 2005

Our security manager is continually checking rumors of danger. Recently, he has received reports of more "night letters" distributed locally.

The night letter calls on holy warriors to fight the infidels. One that I read states that cooperation with Christians and Jews and those associated with the U.S.-backed invasion is punishable by death. Any Afghan known to work as a cook or driver or to engage with Westerners will be executed.

I think of B. and the risks she takes to work with us. We agree that she will call me at the end of every work day to let us know that she has arrived home safely. She in turn worries that I could be poisoned, and insists that I eat food prepared only by people I trust.

* * *

A vehicle-borne suicide bomb detonates outside the provincial governor's office compound, about two blocks away. It's only a partial explosion, and the bomber survives the blast to be shot down as he gets out of the car. Several days later, we hear more blasts -- the rest of the suicide mission's explosives. U.S. Special Forces forgot to tell anyone they were going to set them off. Our ribs shake from the impact, and a tense silence descends on the office.

* * *

I hold a dry opium pod, and it rattles like a baby's toy. Today I learned that women are planting poppy openly in front of their homes, trying to attract buyers. I'm told that some are widows who can't imagine another way to provide for their children. Others are virtual widows, their husbands lost to the haze of opium addiction.

I met today with F., the director of women's affairs for the province. Apparently she secretly educated hundreds of girls in her home during the Taliban era. The Helmand Women's Association is housed in a dank, dilapidated building. F. receives no salary and faces begging, pleading women every day. She feels helpless, and is grateful that we are here.

* * *

Several of us go to the bazaar in search of spices for our Thanksgiving meal. I bite into things, hoping to find nutmeg, and examine the local version of peppercorn. My favorite senior Afghan staff member, H., is with me as the crowds gather to watch us.

Suddenly, I'm pushed. I assume it's an accident, but H. snaps at the crowd. We've just received a call from security about a possible car bomb, so he's already on edge. It's one of only two shopping trips we'll make before the market is designated "no go" for expats, and it is cut short. But I have nutmeg.

December 2005

I heard this today: "Helmand is where God comes to cry." The barren surroundings are so overwhelming that they blunt any interest in conversation, so our travels on the road are mostly quiet. Until we see a camel, or an enormous Kuchi dog, or a little girl decked out in something bright and sequined.

Every day here, it is palpable, the cost exacted from a people living between abject poverty and illegal income. I see it in the cautious eyes of turbaned men coming into the compound to meet with our agricultural team, and in the suspicious expressions of local leaders.

I don't think they know that we understand their situation. Inside this compound we think about it all day, every day. We talk about it at meals; we know the world outside these walls is waiting for more and better options.

But the team seems to face obstacles everywhere: some USAID regulation that management can't get around; resistance to new ideas; and a general sense of being overwhelmed that's the result of an ill-conceived mission.

Local residents live between a rock and a hard place, and expect us to extricate them. We live between a rock and a hard place, and clock time until our contracts are up.

February 2006

I feel bad that we're not accomplishing more here, but I have no guilt about living in this compound and earning hardship pay. Especially because USAID keeps raising our danger pay, but never talks about evacuation. We're the only foreigners left here except the military. Even a Bangladeshi nongovernmental organization shut its doors recently after one of its Afghan staff members was killed as he prayed in the nearby mosque.

* * *

As harvest season approaches, we brace ourselves for foreign media inquiries. Predictably, most want to tell the sinister story of opium and violence. I am determined to show a different Helmand. But after the first two or three visits, it becomes obvious that the project has few activities to showcase. Over and over we take reporters to the cobblestone road at Qalai Bost.

Our one success story, the road was begun early this year, using stones harvested from the Helmand River. Nearly 350 men were paid $4 a day to leave the poppy fields and work on it. I never thought I could get excited about road construction, but it truly is a thing of beauty, as is the laborers' pride in it.

In preparation for a visit by reporters, I want the men to practice being interviewed, so I play reporter while B. serves as interpreter. I ask her to encourage the workers to use their own words. To my relief, each man speaks authentically about his fondness for the work. A day's wage on this project, one says, is enough to buy medicine and send his child to school, and he is proud of the fact that it is clean money.

The reporter I accompany to the site the next day has been around the region a lot longer than I have. When I suggest that she speak to the men I had talked to, she recoils and strikes off in the opposite direction, looking for other laborers who will tell her the darker story of poppy. We all could have saved her the time and risk and told her that over the phone. We all know that story.

* * *

B. has grown so much in the job. Once a young woman who refused to talk to men she didn't know, she now makes phone calls and engages with both men and women with confidence. Mortified when I first suggested that she accompany me to a meeting with government officials, she regularly makes presentations to groups.

She also has an acute case of wanderlust. When I return from London, she asks about my holiday. "It was lovely," I say. She smiles but her look is one of longing. "Where would you want to go if you could go anywhere in the world?" I ask her.

She stiffens, and says I must not suggest such things. "God has written on our foreheads where we are to go in this life," she says, "and he has not written that I am to leave Afghanistan."

I smile. "A few months ago, would you have believed it if someone had said: 'God has written on your forehead that you are to work with an American organization and make a good living'?"

She seems uncomfortable. I feel guilty and go back to my computer. Then she whispers, "Holly. I would like to visit India -- India and London!"

* * *

In the past, threats of poppy eradication have been empty, but now we hear that it has begun. Locals tell me the average citizen believes that "alternative livelihood programs" and eradication efforts go together. This is just what we didn't want, and what some on our team fear puts us at greater risk. We urgently need to make the public distinction between alternative livelihoods and eradication.

We all seem to know how inverted this process is. The options that the project is proposing should have been in place before the eradication threat returned. It comes to these farmers every year lately, and every year they ask, "What are our alternatives?" And every year, the answer is the same, though no one is honest enough to say it: "There are no other options."

August 2006

I'm back from home leave, and B. tells me about the phone calls.

"I was called by this man," she says. "I don't know who he is, but you know, he shouldn't do this. So I said to him, 'What kind of Muslim are you to call an unmarried woman?' " But he responded: "What kind of Muslim are you to work with Americans?"

The caller said he knew where she lived, what time she left her family's home for the walk to our compound, what color her burqa is. I think of the threats to the women on the provincial council, to F., and the recent killing of F.'s counterpart in Kandahar, as well as of F.'s own driver. I tell B. she must now call me when she reaches her afternoon classes. I make her change her route and ask her to call me after she arrives home each night.

* * *

F. and the other women in Helmand's department of women's affairs have avoided going to their new building since her driver was killed, so B. and I head to the old office for a meeting. For this three-block drive, B. covers all but her eyes. She says she doesn't want to be seen in our vehicles; it frightens her. In the front seat, two middle-aged former soldiers from South Africa serve as our escorts. They are carrying automatic weapons; we all wear body armor.

During the meeting, we hear a large explosion. On the way back to the compound, we learn that it was a suicide bomb at the market nearby. It killed 23 people, many of them women and children doing their midday shopping.

The intentional killing of innocents, virtually around the corner. We go to dinner, talk about it briefly, then move on to new recipe ideas. Without our being conscious of it, numbness sets in.

September 2006

The head of the British government's drug team is pacing on the tarmac in Kabul, his bulletproof vest a stark contrast to his summery plaid shirt and rumpled khaki suit. He and his colleagues don't get to Helmand much, and he seems anxious.

We are headed back to Lashkar Gah, to a counter-narcotics shura, a consultation with religious leaders and tribal elders. Planting season is fast approaching, so the pressure is on to encourage people to plant something other than poppy. To increase confidence in him, we've told locals that the governor of Helmand has called the meeting. In truth, the meeting was put together by the British drug team working with USAID and the State Department.

We arrive two hours late and enter a room crowded with somber, sweating men. Some have traveled for more than a day to be here.

After a series of benign speeches by the governor and the ministers of agriculture and of rural reconstruction and development -- speeches that fail to make use of the statistics and talking points we've worked around the clock to produce -- the crowd asks questions. The men become worked up, but all I hear are the predictable complaints: There are no alternatives to poppy. Why can't you just raise the price of cotton, we'd all grow it instead. Where has all the reconstruction money gone?

I am getting as agitated as the crowd, because I know that the materials in the unopened plastic folders would have preempted all these questions. I watch the ministers take notes as the governor mops the sweat from his face and neck.

I get up and go into the hall, where the governor's shooters are pacing. But before I can leave, the meeting breaks and I am led to a private lunch where 30 people sit in silence.

* * *

Another suicide bombing, this one even closer to the compound. I'm in the reception area. At first I think someone has slammed the metal-and-glass door behind me really hard, so I keep talking. We've just received 15,000 information booklets that I've designed. I'm showing them to our Afghan staff when I notice people running.

Our security force comes through the door and rushes past with weapons in hand. We cancel the road move we had planned and some of us gather to watch the smoke rise. The bomb killed 21 people down the street, about a block and a half away.

Once every few days, I think about the very real chance that this could be B.'s last day, some guard's, even mine. Bribes are offered and accepted frequently here, and I wonder when someone wearing an explosive vest will pay off one of our Afghan guards for access to our building.

October 2006

It is my final full day in Afghanistan. I feel spent. I make some green tea out of sight of colleagues who are fasting for Ramadan. If depressing had a taste, I think it would be lukewarm, unsweetened green tea.

It occurs to me that I have been set up to fail, and that this is what has made me so tired, not the dysentery or the malaria or the long days and nights. On the good days, I still feel like progress is possible. Other days, I internalize the project's failure, and that is the feeling I leave Afghanistan with. The sandbagged walls and armored vehicles have not prevented guilt from penetrating my bones.

I now think that the West can do little if anything to quell the opium poppy trade, except to intercept the traffickers. This will be true as long as Helmand's residents refuse to recognize and respect the central government; as long as streets and schools, markets, mosques and government buildings are targeted by suicide bombers; as long as elders strike deals with the Taliban and government officials themselves profit from poppy production.

Still, I wish I could have been and done more. Then on this last day, I see the photographs of our public information materials being distributed in the villages of Helmand. They show wide-eyed children studying the pictures, teachers in full classrooms pointing to pages in the booklets I wrote, smiling policemen handing them out.

I don't know if the words and images inspired any conversations about hope and possibility. But in my final hours in this country, these pictures allow me, at last, to feel some small glimmer of satisfaction.

Holly Barnes Higgins is a former aid worker

in Afghanistan and Angola.

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