Susanne Koelbl: Letter from America

The security officer at Detroit Airport is wearing a dark leather holster with a walkie-talkie and a pistol around the waist over a black shirt with black trousers. He stands like a tree, arms folded, broad stance at the exit of the plane. As the queue of passengers slowly moves forwards, I happen to be standing right in front of him. He glances at me for a second and then smiles: “I like your jacket.”

My favourite jacket. It is a slim-cut frock coat made of green and blue striped dark silk with red embroideries on the collar and cuffs, tailor-made in Kabul.

The jacket arrived just in time, by courier, as agreed, before I left for China in August for two months and then flew to the USA, where I would attend the University of Michigan for a year. “With warm wishes from Kabul, Nazima” – the note was written in blue ink on a small piece of card­­board in the package.

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Nazima is the director of Zarif Design, a truly unique tailor in Butcher Street in Shar-e-Nau, near the centre of the Afghan capital. This small fashion label was founded six years ago by a Swiss architect of Afghan origin. Together with her team, she developed an eye-catching elegant style, fusing old oriental material and embroidery designs with exquisite tailoring, the sort which may be found in Italy nowadays.

Why am I telling you this? Because the story of my jacket is also my story of Afghanistan. A great experience in a difficult country.

As a journalist I have written a lot about the war. But the war is not Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the sum of all the stories of the Afghan people together with their memories.

The Americans here in the Midwest now only remember the victims and the cost of this conflict: of the 2,706 Western soldiers who lost their life in Afghanistan in the period up to the beginning of Nov­­em­ber 2011, 52 were German and 1,748 American. “What are our soldiers still dying for?” – this is the question on the lips of US citizens ten years after they first marched into the Hindu Kush. And why is nine billion still being spent on this war every month at a time when the USA itself is threatening to go bankrupt under the weight of its national debt?

My most vivid memories of Afghanistan are meeting people on my travels through this untamed land. I have travelled to the country over fifty times for the current affairs magazine “Der Spiegel”, and as part of this I was able to visit 27 of the 34 Afghan provinces. Most of the population are still unimaginably poor and every family lost several members in these bloody decades. However, almost all Afghans who I have worked with or encountered through my job were surprisingly friendly and reliable partners. The same even applies to a man who you would certainly not expect to be this way. After all, he is “on the other side” and his followers are fighting our soldiers.

“Tomorrow at five, in front of your house,” said the bearded Kabuli. He was my contact who had promised to take me to one of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s most trusted associates. Hekmatyar is an Islamist politician and guerrilla commander who lives in the underground and carries out bomb attacks and suicide bombings against Western troops. Hekmatyar is one of the most wanted extremists.

It was certainly a risky situation: I had to trust my contact that I was not going to be kidnapped. But by the same token, he had to trust that I wouldn’t inform the Americans about the whereabouts of Hekmatyar’s representatives, despite the US hunting his troops with special forces. My hosts approved the meeting because they were keen to give their version of the conflict through the German media.

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The journey led down dusty streets out of the capital to the east. Our destination was the Afghan-Pakistani border post Tork­­ham at the Khyber Pass. At the time (shortly after the fall of the Taliban), the drive took almost eight hours as the roads were peppered with potholes the size of moon craters.

Hekmatyar’s confidant revealed his identity to me as the commander’s former secretary. He knew exactly where his superior was at that very time. The discussion lasted almost two hours, we ate together and had a considerable debate. We argued about whether the American invasion was legal, about the right to armed resistance, and even the possibility of Hekmatyar’s Hesb-i-Islami Islamist party working together with the West in order to allow Afghans a better life – something he radically ruled out at the time.

I have seen Hekmatyar’s secretary several times over the years, as I wanted to know how the other side thinks and how their views were evolving. He was always punctual and when he kept something from me for security reasons, he would apologise for it next time around. This man’s world is certainly not mine. But we respect one another nonetheless.

In the end, it was this type of contact with different classes of society and regions of the country which enriched my Afghan experience, providing access to the world of Afghan people, even those who think differently to me. Some of them are indeed very approachable.

Afghanistan is not only war and corruption, despite what often seems to be presented in the news. Every day there are numerous positive interactions between Afghans and foreigners. Development workers train teachers and craftsmen, connect remote villages to the electricity grid and water supply, and help found companies. Life-long friendships are for­­ged. This part of reality will also no doubt be adopted into the country’s collective memory.

But for the Americans around me in Michigan, Afghanistan seems more like a dark hell around 20,000 kilometres away. As split as US society is, everyone seems to be agreed that the quickest possible withdrawal from the Hindu Kush should be the next course of action. Only a few still remember that ten years ago their country promised the Afghans that they would be on their side in the long run.

On the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, I attended a commemoration at the University of Michi­­gan campus. Hundreds of students gathered. They carried candles and speeches were given about tolerance and understanding. They even mentioned humility. Together they sang the US national anthem, many placing their right hand on their heart as they sang.
On the lawn there were thousands of tiny US flags to commemorate the dead with a larger Stars and Stripes flag flying above them on the main mast. It was a moving moment. The University of Michigan of course only represents a very small part of the USA, but it was almost as if America was crying for itself.

On the lawn there were thousands of tiny US flags to commemorate the dead with a larger Stars and Stripes flag flying above them on the main mast. It was a moving moment. The University of Michigan of course only represents a very small part of the USA, but it was almost as if America was crying for itself.

The war in Afghanistan cannot be won mili­­tarily. With hindsight, the aims set out at the start of the conflict seem excessive, but they were in part unachievable due to the contradicting interests throughout the region. This war will go down in history as a lesson that deep-rooted change in a country cannot be “made” from the outside, but has to come from within. And it takes time. Not ten but perhaps twenty or thirty years.

But in the end, a war is made up of numerous small stories. Stories made by people. For instance about smart minds investing in the long term by training young people and supporting the Afghan economy.

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Never before were the relations between the USA and the Afghan government as good as at the time of the special envoy and later US ambassador to the new republic, Zalmay Khalilzad. The diplomat from Mazar-e Sharif, who is now 60, first travelled to the USA as a young scholarship student and returned to his homeland as the highest representative of the USA. Karzai and Khalilzad trusted each other like brothers. Nowadays hardly a peaceful word is exchanged between the Pashtun President and the representatives of its protecting power.

It is no coincidence that six former Germans of Afghan descent held ministerial posts in the first democratically elected government in Afghanistan. All of them were German uni­­versity graduates; they spoke our language and remained key contacts for the German government. The first Afghan policemen who helped to establish the new police force in Kabul in 2002 were also a German export. They were trained in Germany decades ago, both in the East and West.

The fantastic stories like that of the Swiss architect and her fashion label Zarif Design in Butcher Street may be quieter than the explosions from mortars which hit the headlines every day. But those who venture through the red tin door between adobe walls in Kabul will find the Zarif showroom to be an idyllic garden of roses and hibiscus bushes. Music emerges from the tailor’s shop and upbeat chat fills the air, while the mouth-watering aromas of lunch waft over from the gas cooker. This is where happiness has found a home, in the centre of Kabul.

Portrait-Koelbl-KopieThe author is a foreign reporter for the current affairs magazine “Der Spiegel”. Since 2011, she has travelled extensively in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. She is also the author of the book “Krieg am Hindu­­kusch – Menschen und Mächte in Afghanistan” (Siedler-Verlag 2010, with Olaf Ihlau). Susanne Koelbl currently is re­­searching about international relations in the Near and Middle East at the University of Michigan.