I wonder if everyone who goes to Kabul for the first time keeps a diary. I know I did. In Ballots, Bullets & Kabulshit, Toby Ralph writes about one of the most fascinating and frustrating countries in the world. He spent two weeks there as an electoral advisor the year before the 2009 Afghan presidential elections. Ralph has a wonderful turn of phrase, a wry eye, a lightness of touch, and a wicked sense of the absurd. He is side-splittingly funny, too.
'Kabulshit' is a good example (from the Lily Allen song?). Expats live in the well-known Kabubble and Kabulshit aptly sums up the many vagaries that pass for truth. Like most people who travel to Afghanistan for the first time his notions were "a curious amalgam of Kiplingesque clichés from my teens, grainy downloads of sword-wielding fundamentalists steadying on an infidel neck, and tempered triumphalism from Operation Enduring Freedom."
He catches the all too depressing statistics of Afghanistan, not only the corruption, the dominance of warlords and the narco trade, but also the fact that it is also one of the poorest countries in the world with 70 per cent of the population suffering from malnutrition.
It's a country with a lot of problems. Like most things in Afghanistan, the electoral process, which is what the book is essentially about, is tragically flawed. Ralph's dealings with the Independent Election Commission (IEC) provide invaluable insights on why it is so very difficult to get things to work. I love the way he describes Hadija, who was supposed to organise a focus group with NGOs "as a handbrake on the possibility of actually doing something, a human obstacle course citing every possible impediment to action.'
It may be Ralph's 41st election but it was Afghanistan's second since the fall of the Taliban, and Hamid Karzai was keen on another term. It didn't end well with the president's ultimate reinstatement by default.
Media briefings are a shambles, people running them are powerless. "The chairman has taken it upon himself to start negotiating with the Taliban – with a choice of death or death, they're desperate for other options," he writes. One complaint is that the IEC doesn't do enough to let voters know about registration. Ralph wants simple things in order to hold a press conference, like a press conference, but can't get a billboard for a backdrop, fact sheets, a rehearsal, invitations or a chairman who stays on message.
I roared with laughter reading Ralph's diary entry:
9.52 p.m. Thursday, 25 September: Guesthouse
The meeting was fascinating. It began with being denied entry, thus having to stand at the front gate of ISAF with a large crowd of itinerant Afghan workers. This is about as safe as swimming off Port Lincoln in steak Speedos. (Did he take his cue from Lady Gaga's raw meat dress at the MTV awards?)
Sensibly, Ralph considers leaving the country before he even takes off from his native Australia, but once he arrives he goes to Atmosphere (sic), a French bar and restaurant with terrible food, a garden and outdoor pool. It's a surreal introduction to a seductive country. L'Atmosphere, l'atmo to most of those in the Kabubble, is where I spent my first evening in the weird world that is Afghanistan.
It's a land of vast contrasts. Internationals come and go, play, have fun, work hard, and try to make a difference. Many, like myself, love the country, and enjoy rather privileged lives. True people also come for the money. There is a group of young Afghans who are trying to embrace the changes, but for the average Afghan, who lives conservatively, life in aggregate remains a struggle both economically and politically.
Ralph writes informatively about the situation, the history, the complexity of the problems, the people and places, including some I knew. Ambassador Chris Alexander was the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's (UNAMA) deputy special representative. A formidable intellect, everyone waited for his to return to his (and mine) native Canada. He is back now with hopes of being prime minister one day.
Ralph writes ironically about the voting fraud, capturing illuminating little snapshots, including the registration in Kandahar of Britney Jamila Spears. (Hit e baby one more time?) Never far away is the grim reality that people – Afghans and expats – get killed.