Afghanistan

The news and images from Afghanistan recently have been painful to watch. I have been in and out of the country for about 15 years now. First time in 2007, as the Belgian head of mission. Pol-mil work, as they call it in diplomatic jargon. I was exhausted after two years and took a career break, which never happened because the country had drawn me in. The UN offered me a consultancy contract to help them spin off all of their information technology projects: I transformed Afghanistan Information Management Services from a UN project into a national NGO. Then I moved on to the Asia Foundation, resourcing and leading programmes such as the Performance-Based Governors Fund. Around 2011-2012, I was probably exhausted, although I did not feel that way. I just thought it was time for me to try to settle somewhere else. I fell in love with an American USAID worker, who had worked in Afghanistan but moved to Nepal. Hence, I went to Nepal and settled there, but still went to Afghanistan for shorter or longer jobs (see my LinkedIn profile for the detail of my career).

About four years back, I divorced my American lady. She went to Africa. I went back to Belgium and reintegrated. New job. Re-connecting with friends and family and, first and foremost, my two wonderful children who had then started university. My daughter is a full medical doctor now, and my son is in his last year of engineering studies. I still need to find a woman here to make my reintegration complete, but that will come when I am ready for it (I had not one but two divorces in my life – expat life is nice, but it does come with unanticipated family sacrifices).

I continued doing consultancies, though. My last consultancy job was a three-month stint – yes, in Afghanistan. It was just before C19 outbreak (end of 2019 and beginning of 2020). I worked with the EU and the Ministry of Finance on a direct budget support program, evaluating whether the criteria for releasing a few hundred million Euro were met. I was invited to the Palace by high officials. There is no way you can just walk in there, like the Taliban did. When I was there, even tanks would not have been able to break through the defenses. I was, therefore, utterly shocked to see the Taliban were able to walk into the Palace just days after they had reached the outskirts of Kabul.

Now I am watching the news and images from Afghanistan. I thought I had no tears left inside of me, but it is not true. My heart bleeds. I think many people like me went to these far-flung places more because of a desire for adventure. Because you want to be some kind of hero doing good. A great professional. You think you want to get involved but, deep inside, that is not what it is about. But Afghanistan is a special country: even if you are not involved, it drags you in. Its sad history but, more importantly, its people. I will not be emotional. This blog is not about emotions, but I do want to share what I have to say about, which I summed up in a brief LinkedIn post on the events. I write this:

“It is tough to watch what is happening in Afghanistan. All people who have worked there probably feel betrayed. Not by Americans. Not by Afghans. But by their leadership and governments. It did not have to be a worse repeat of Vietnam. It is a dishonor to the US veterans and those who have died or were injured there, the very ones Biden talks about in his press briefings.

Those 400,000+ of internally displaced since the fighting started this year, the distress, thousands of Afghans climbing the walls to get on the tarmac of Kabul Airport, and – worst of all – the total dashing of any spark of hope that was left (many Afghans honestly did believe in some kind of national reconciliation). That could have been avoided. That should have been avoided. It will stick with Mr. Biden as his single biggest foreign policy failure forever. And it will stick with worldwide sentiment about the intentions and capabilities of the US Government for decades longer.

US force (tested shock and awe tactics) always wins the war, but is uncapable of winning the peace that should come afterwards. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, just to name a few everyone knows. But there are also smaller troublesome interventions which led to nothing: Uganda, Somalia, Lebanon, etcetera. Perhaps I should label the invasions of Panama and Grenada as successes – just to make it look somewhat more balanced? And the Kosovo wars, of course. There were a few stalemates and returns to the status quo ex ante too. But – when looking at the investment, in terms of casualties and money – the record is all but but impressive.”

I will not say anything more about it (the words do not come easy, this time) except, perhaps, one thing. The longest war that the US has been fighting is the Cold War. And it won that too. But it is very clear it is not winning the Cold Peace that ensued. Further antagonizing China, Russia, Iran, etcetera seems to be both Republican and Democrat long-term policy. There is no difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden there. The US Government is making yet another big long-term mistake here.

Post scriptum: For the fleeing ex-President Ashraf Ghani (whom I met personally only once, but that meeting did reinforce my earlier impressions: he was/is too arrogant to lead a country), I have only these words: “Not only were you an inept leader, but you turned out to be a coward as well!”

Former President Karzai had the decency to stay behind – now, when a heroic President is needed – and, when thinking a bit further back in Afghan history, when Russian forces were rapidly leaving the country (in 1996), President Najibullah also stayed in Kabul – till the (bitter) end (unfortunately, he was effectively killed by the then-equivalent of the Taliban but, while that may have led to Ghani’s flight, Karzai at least shows real courage and ancestry now).

The latest news (Al Jazeera, 18 August, 09:41 GMT) has it that Anas Haqqani, one of the leaders of one of the hard-core factions of the Taliban, has met the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks, together with Abdullah Abdullah, who would probably have been a better President than Ghani (but the 2019 presidential elections did not allow to declare who of the two (Ghani or Abdullah Abdullah) actually won those). This is promising, or something that might be promising. Or, at least, we may think the next Taliban regime may actually be some kind of true national reconciliation government.

Finally, I should also encourage you to read alternative narratives, like this editorial article on Al Jazeera. It does help to, perhaps, think somewhat more positively about the turn of events.

About my father, plate tectonics and non-linear thinking

My father passed away almost ten years ago. He was 76 years old at the time. Of course, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. That being said, I do remember he had difficulty accepting that gorges and valleys were the product of a river cutting down into its bed or, in the case of a valley, a glacier grinding down its floor and sides. In fact, he had actually difficulty accepting other ‘scientific truths’ as well.

Although he was not acquainted with the Himalayas, I must assume that he would probably also have reservations about the now generally accepted story of its formation: Tibet was once a fairly shallow sea, the Thetys Sea, separating the supercontinent of Laurasia in the north from Gondwana in the south, until about 50 million years ago, when India (a continental fragment of Gondwana) collided with the Eurasian plate (Laurasia). The Thetys Sea became the Tibetan plateau, and the collision zone is the Himalayan mountain range. The collision actually continues and so the Himalayas are still rising by about 5 to 10 mm per year and, as a result, the whole area is seismically extremely active still: here in Kathmandu, everyone is waiting for the next Big Earthquake which, according to geologists, is long overdue.

This is obviously more than just a theory: it is supported by evidence, such as the presence of marine fossils and abundant salt reserves in Tibet  (Tibet’s main export a couple of centuries ago), and scientists can actually observe the ongoing tectonic shifts with modern GPS technology. Still, it is mind-boggling and so I do understand the reservations of my skeptical father. In addition, I also note that the theory of plate tectonics only got general accepted in the 1950s and 1960s, when associated phenomena such as seafloor spreading could finally be observed. My father was entering the second half of his life by then and, hence, probably somewhat less ready to accept such theories, or at least less ready than today’s average schoolboy. [By the way, isn’t it amazing how recent most of our scientific understanding actually is? Think, for instance, about the discovery of the Higgs particle, which completed our understanding of matter and energy (or of the universe in general), or think about the recent advances in biology and medical science, which revolutionized our understanding of life itself.]

I guess one of the main difficulties in my father’s understanding of it all (apart from his lack of a more formal education beyond secondary school) might have been his lack of understanding of geological age. What is 50 million years after all? That’s a lot of time of course, but is it enough really to create something as big and as vast as the Himalayas?

Maybe it helps to note that adding a zero, or a digit, to a number is not a matter of simply adding a quantity to another quantity: it is a matter of multiplying the previous quantity. In our common base 10 number system, it is a multiplication with factor 10. Moreover, adding another zero is another multiplication and, importantly, it is not a multiplication of the original number but of the previous result. As such, it reminds one of the famous fable of the king and the wise man, whom the king wanted to reward: when the king asked the wise man what he wanted, the wise man took a chessboard and said he would just like to have one grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, double that number of grains of rice on the second square, and so on: double the number of grains of rice on each of the next 62 squares on the chess board. The king agreed, thinking that the man had asked for a relatively small reward, but after some quick calculations his treasurer informed him that the reward would be far greater than all the rice that could conceivably be produced. To be precise, the total number of grains would be equal to 263. That’s a figure with 19 digits. To be even more precise, the number is equal to 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. Now, one kilogram of rice is about 50,000 grains of rice [yes: I know you think that’s not so much – but that fact in itself underscores once again our difficulty in imaging big numbers] so that number is equivalent to more than 184 billion (metric) tons of rice. The current world production of rice is about 700 million tons only. Hence, yes, the king’s treasurer was right: at current rice production rates (which are much higher now than at the time when this story was first told), it would take about 260 years to produce such amount of rice – provided the rice could be kept for such a long time.

Likewise, I think my father had difficulty accepting he could simply not imagine what a period of 50 or 60 million years actually means. Our active life as a human being spans a period of some 60 to 80 years. From 60 years to 600 years… Well… That brings us back to the Black Death epidemic, or the Hundred Years War. We can imagine that, can’t we? Sure. But can we imagine a period of 6,000 years, or a period of 60,000 years? I don’t think so, let alone a period of 600,000 years, or periods spanning millions of years. It’s like the king who could not imagine how much rice he had promised to give the wise man.

The following graph may help to illustrate the point. It displays an exponential function with base 10. The graph below actually only goes to 10 raised to the power of 5, i.e. up to 100,000 only. Now see how that graph soars, and then just note that we are not talking 100,000 years when we talk geology, but millions of years. Indeed, adding zeroes to a number is a process of repeated multiplication (with a factor 10 in our decimal system), and repeated multiplication amounts to exponentiation. I must assume my father always had linear functions in mind when thinking about time and distance, as opposed to exponential functions. Indeed, despite all of the talk about us human beings thinking non-linearly, can we actually do that – in a mathematical sense? I don’t think so. In daily life, we’re used to adding stuff, and perhaps even to adding stuff repeatedly (i.e. multiplication), but we’re surely not used to multiplying stuff repeatedly with itself, i.e. our mind is not very familiar with the mathematical process of exponentiation.

graph

How and when does man appear on these vast geological timescale? Well… The first traces of man go back 200,000 years ago. Now, 60 million years… Hey ! That’s only 300 times 200,000 years, isn’t it? So we can imagine that, can’t we? 300 times 200,000 years. Perhaps my father was right: that surely cannot be long enough to create something as formidable as the Himalayas, or the Alps for that matter? Or can it?

Yes. Read the story above once again: don’t make the mistake which that naive king made – and my father most probably too. I don’t think we can imagine a period of 200,000 years, let alone a period of 60 million years. Our mind is just not made for it. We need fables and graphs such as the one above to remind us of that. When it comes to math, our mind works linearly.

On Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

One of the articles in the latest edition of Time Magazine (I am not a regular reader, but so what else does one read on the plane?) is devoted to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Indeed, in this globalized world – with all its crises and more and more people getting involved in them – it would seem that it has become a societal problem in the US.

Apart from the usual talk about the problems and horror which soldiers and development workers have witnessed in a war zone, the article also notes that a large part of PTSD is not related to the difficulties of dealing with bad memories but – quite simply – with the fact that, once you get out of the zone, you no longer have a feeling that one is part of a grander design, that it’s like you’re not trying to make this world a better place any more.

The few people who asked me about how I’ve dealt with bad memories (from Afghanistan, or from my work in Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami) should not bother. I would say that we all see very bad stuff all of the time really (the media around us offer no shelter from horror) but that seeing one of our relatives or friends suffer from an incurable disease (like terminal cancer), or that losing a kid in an accident (or worse), brings much more mental and psychological trauma than the scenes of carnage and disaster (especially because, both in virtual or real reality, the repetition of such scenes numbs you anyway).

I think PTSD is more like a personal crisis of sense-making. In my view (but, of course, I can only talk from my experience only) it has a lot to do with the fact that, while one was trying to do good in some incredibly remote place (but often for very selfish reasons: money, a sense of adventure, ego,…), one neglected friends and family, which makes it difficult to re-connect and find the kind of joy which we should all be striving for in our life, and that is to be a meaningful person for our kids, our parents, our larger families and our friends and relatives. It may sound strange, but it took me a long time to accept that I would not be able to change the world and, more importantly, that I should simply try to do a better job when it comes to taking care of those are close to me. I am still not there actually, but I am trying.

I am getting married. I am so happy life is giving me a second chance to do better.