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Working in Afghanistan

ReliefWeb (www.relief and DevNet ( are good places to look for jobs in the development sector in Afghanistan.

The fall of the Taliban saw a flood of international aid workers, contrac- tors and business people come to Afghanistan. Most are based in Kabul, where there is a thriving expat scene. Numbers are more thinly spread elsewhere, with the international presence in the south and east continu- ing to shrink. Particularly if you’re working in the humanitarian sector, working in

Afghanistan can be stressful. Hours are long (six-day weeks are usually the norm), and security concerns can restrict your movement. Each organisation has its own arrangements – UN agencies tend to have the tightest security, with blanket restrictions and regular ‘lockdowns’; other agencies have a more flexible and nuanced response to local conditions. While it’s important to take their security advice extremely seriously, don’t let it make you paranoid. Either way, bring plenty of reading material, as nights can be long if you’re not allowed out. See the Safety in Afghanistan chapter ( p68 ) for more information relevant to those working in the country. If you’re working with an international organisation, check the train- ing and orientation you’ll receive prior to posting. The Aid Workers Network ( is a useful resource, with a good forum and advice on everything from careers to training courses. The British Agencies Afghani-


‘Going inside’ was what we called it in the old days. When the Russians were occupying Afghanistan back in the 1980s, most of us covering the war were based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, divided from where we wanted to be by the jagged mountains of the Khyber Pass. By foot, donkey or motorbike, we would travel back and forth across those mountains with the

mujaheddin, dodging landmines and Soviet helicopter gun-ships. Sometimes we would darken our faces with dirt and a potassium mixture to blend in with the fighters; sometimes we would be disguised in burqas. We lived on stale nan (bread), occasionally supplemented by rice from some villagers or okra fried in diesel oil. When you were inside you longed to be out, but when you were out, you spent all your time trying to get back in. There were no satellite phones then so it was impossible to file copy while inside Afghanistan and crossing the border meant being out of contact for weeks. Even when back in Pakistan, it was so hard to get an international phone line that most of the time the only way to file was through the telex operator in the Public Call Office who required regular baksheesh (tips) to keep him punching out all the holes in the ticker tape. Once I got a visa from the communist regime to cover the war from the other side. That was little

better. Copy had to be sent through the one-armed telex operator at Hotel Kabul who doubled, somewhat alarmingly, as the taxi driver, his one black-gloved hand swinging back and forth from the gear-stick to the steering wheel. These days it’s much easier. The major cities of Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad all have mo- bile phones and internet, and some guest houses such as the Gandamack Lodge even boast wi-fi. But other aspects of reporting Afghanistan have got harder. For a start, journalists have become

targets. Afghanistan has not reached anywhere near Iraq levels but there have been a number of kidnaps and murders of correspondents. The new highways between Kabul and Kandahar and Kabul and Jalalabad have slashed journey times but roadblocks have once more become a feature. Some are Taliban looking for government sympathisers; others are bandits or even police demanding bribes. Some of us have started wear- ing burqas again on the road.

Reporting Afghanistan has also become more depressing. Back in the 1980s Afghanistan was a romantic story – the Spanish Civil War of my generation – a David and Goliath struggle by these men from the mountains with their plastic sandals and old Lee Enfields turning back the most powerful army on earth. That first soured in the early 1990s when the Russians had left and the mujaheddin all started fighting each other. The moment the last Soviet soldier stepped back across the Amu Darya, Afghanistan dropped off the news agenda anyway. That all changed of course with 9/11. In the ensuing fight to oust the Taliban, it was once again easy to identify who were the good guys and who were the bad. The Taliban after all were one of the world’s most repressive regimes and most of the world was on the other side. But five years on from BBC reporter John Simpson’s infamous liberation of Kabul, much of the goodwill towards Westerners had already dissipated. In large swathes of southern Afghanistan, propaganda from the resurgent and newly media-savvy Taliban combined with some overenthusiastic NATO bombing, had convinced many to see peacekeeping forces from the US, Britain, Canada and elsewhere as the occupiers. One thing that has not changed in 20 years of reporting Afghanistan is the difficulty in finding the truth. Afghans are a captivating people, with their noble stance, generous hospitality and proud history, and a love of beauty that has even the most brutal warlord tying plastic flowers to his Ka- lashnikov. But to say Afghans are prone to exaggeration is like saying the French quite like wine. The number of times I would arrive at a mujaheddin camp in the late 1980s to be told that I’d just missed them winning a major battle or shooting down seven Soviet Migs. Strangely the wreckage was never anywhere to be found. Similarly in June 2006 I went with some British soldiers into a village in Helmand where they assured us there were no Taliban then directed us straight into an ambush. People often ask if it’s a problem being a female correspondent in Afghanistan. Strangely, it’s not at all. Warlords and commanders generally seem to regard Western women journalists as some kind of asexual species. We also have a distinct advantage of being able to go and sit in the women’s quarters, giving us access to half the population our male colleagues often miss.

Christina Lamb is the award-winning Foreign Affairs correspondent of the

Sunday Times and author of The Sewing Circles of Herat: My Afghan Years.

WORKING IN AFGHANISTAN •• Top Tips For Working in Afghanistan 77

stan Group ( has an excellent downloadable briefing pack for those working in Afghanistan. Unfortunately the influx of foreign workers has had some negative

consequences. For more on the attitudes of some Afghans to expats, see the boxes ‘How To Undo All Your Good Work In A Night’ ( p74 ) and ‘The Kabul Bubble’ ( p82 ).


The experience of living and working in Afghanistan can be a very per- sonal one, so we asked a variety of expats to give us some hard-earned gems of advice:  ‘Learn about Afghan culture and society before you arrive. There is no substitute for respecting and understanding the context you work in. Do some homework to understand what will and won’t work in Afghanistan. Listen to Afghans about what they want: this shouldn’t be about us.’

LA, Kabul

 ‘Don’t fall in the trap of getting stuck in Kabul, make sure you use some of your downtime to explore this amazing country.’

Anonymous, Kandahar

 ‘If you value your clothes, always self launder (plus it gives you some- thing to do on the weekend!). But never use the local washing powder, although it makes a good toilet cleaner. Never blow your nose in public – it’s considered very rude. Finally, always pack your iPod.’

SC, Lashkar Gah

It’s thought that there are currently around 7000 foreigners working in Afghanistan, plus 16,000 US Army personnel and 18,000 NATO forces. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117  |  Page 118  |  Page 119  |  Page 120  |  Page 121  |  Page 122  |  Page 123
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