Interview from Afghanistan: Rosemary Stasek Part 3
Six-year American resident of Kabul speaks on the U.S. in Afghanistan, women’s rights, and more
Monday 19 May 2008, by
All the versions of this article: [English] [فارسى]
Most Americans and other English speakers do not have access to eyewitness accounts of events in Afghanistan. They get breaking news reports from big media that focus on bombings and violence— and not the realities behind the headlines. This series aims to generate discussion and help reveal effective solutions in Afghanistan’s search for justice, freedom of expression, and human rights.
The first interview is with Rosemary Stasek.
Rosemary is a Californian who has lived most of the past six years in Kabul. She zips through the streets in her little Corolla, avoiding SUV convoys that elbow their way through Kabul traffic—calling them “bullet magnets.” She usually refuses to wear a head scarf or stop at the questionable “official checkpoints” that dot Kabul’s streets, and declares that for its size, Kabul is one of the safest cities in the world.
As founder and chair of the non-profit organization, A Little Help, Rosemary is passionately involved with improving conditions for women in Afghanistan through government and NGO project management, fund-raising, and consulting services for other organizations. Her projects have channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to successful programs in women’s prisons, maternity hospitals, and girls’ education. Rosemary lives in a small house in downtown Kabul, and has a good feel for the pulse of life there. Her astute commentary on Afghan government agencies, the UN, and the American military and aid presence are compelling and compassionate, and reflect the thoughts of her many Afghan friends and colleagues.
This is the first in a three-part series of interviews with Rosemary that will discuss both problems and possible solutions. Her responses have been slightly edited.
What should the US be doing in Afghanistan?
The problem with the US work in Afghanistan is that it can be completely out of touch about the situation in Afghanistan. The entire US Embassy should be picked up and moved to Cleveland. It will save taxpayers money, and get no less work done than it does already.
These people get flown into the embassy. They’re there for six, nine, twelve months. They get flown out, and they’ve never left the embassy. They have absolutely no contact with anyone in this country. They see nothing, they accomplish nothing, and they’re just an enormous drain of resources that could be going to things that could actually do something.
USAID is so ineffective and such an enormous waste of American taxpayer dollars over here. It’s the same thing: all the money that comes over here gets sucked into the embassy, and gets sucked into USAID, and accomplishes almost nothing, and certainly nothing useful. The amount of money that’s getting poured into southern Afghanistan in alternative livelihood projects and counter-narcotics projects, its just not accomplishing anything.
They love to build schools, they love to build things. Yes, this country needs a lot of new buildings, but it doesn’t help to build a school or a hospital if there are no teachers and no doctors. And these quick, easy things are what the US likes to do. They like to come in and build schools, and hospitals, or send international consultants over for 6 months to write a report. But they don’t do anything. What is needed is teacher training; medical training.
Outside of Kabul, in areas where it is safe, in areas where there are people who want to see some benefit coming from their government or the international community there’s not much aid being sent. It’s the areas in the South, where the insurgency is the most dangerous, there’s lots of aid on the books. But the money that’s being poured into these areas doesn’t necessarily have the most effective benefit, because there’s already plenty of drug money down there.
They have money to go to Pakistan to get medical care. The money isn’t going where it’s needed. It’s going to an audience that it’s not having any effect on. And it’s all being orchestrated by a bunch of people who never leave the US embassy compound and they have no idea, if you dropped them 3 blocks away from the embassy, where in the world they were. They could be on the moon.
In Army bases, like Camp Eggers (a U.S. military base in Kabul near the U.S. Embassy—ed.) they’re practically as locked down as the embassy folks, and they’ve got weapons.
At the Cigar Club in Camp Eggers, military contractors are admitted in casual wear.
The United Nations
The U.N. is out there. You have U.N. folks all around the country. Every once in a while they pull them in, then they go back out. They have a wider coverage, because there’s a lot more Afghans who work for the U.N. There’s a much smaller number of Afghans who work for USAID.
The issue with the U.N. is that every agency has its own little mandate. For example, there are three different UN airlines. Wouldn’t one be enough? So every UN agency tends to do its own thing. There’s a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of rivalry. All of that kind of thing that comes with a bureaucracy where everyone competes against everyone else.
It was a big loss for Afghanistan to not get Paddy Ashdown.
(Mr. Ashdown, born and raised in India, was a former marine and former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in the UK, served in the powerful position of the United Nations High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2002 to 2005, and was supported by the United States for the Afghan job. It is rumored that Afghan president Hamid Karzai rejected Ashdown because he might take a firmer than desired hand in managing Afghan policy—ed).
Now he might not have been able to accomplish more than anyone else, but I think he would have come in with at least the ability in the beginning to knock some heads. There’s nobody at the U.N. now with that ability. And everybody there is off doing their own thing; every individual agency.
There’s no coordination between aid groups. USAID is off doing its own thing, all the military units are off doing their own thing. There was a story the other day that the Marines down in Kandahar can’t get off the base there. They’re stuck in Kandahar because the 36 different countries can’t get their act together to decide on what the marines are supposed to be doing. So, it’s not only in the civilian arena with development projects, but also in the military area. These marines just sit around doing nothing. A Marine was quoted in a story describing it like a vacation in the desert.
Do you have any fear speaking out about what you see in Afghanistan?
No, not really. Most of my speaking out happens in the international press, and the average Afghan doesn’t have much exposure to the international press. And what I say to you, I say to everybody here. I’m in the Afghan ministries every single day, and what I’m saying is mild. When I start ranting and raving about roadblocks, corruption, and stuff, I’m milk toast compared to what the Afghans are ranting and raving about to me, so there’s nothing I’m saying that the average Afghan isn’t saying every day to me and everyone else who will listen. This is not radical incendiary talk. This is what an Afghan will tell you.
You said Jason Elliot’s book (“An Unexpected Light” NY Times bestseller about his travels in Afghanistan in the 1970s-90s- ed.) was an inspiration.
I’ve never met him, but you know a friend of mine just recently just gave me the hardest time about that. I had read the book after I came back from my very first trip. So number one it was a powerful time for me, having just visited Afghanistan— which still guides my life— just wanting to be here. And it was really funny because I said it was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and how it impacted me.
Another friend of mine had written a book, “Kabul in Winter” (by Ann Jones, 2006, which chronicles her experience with feminist issues while in Afghanistan from 2002-2005-ed.) said ’oh what a crock he was.’ She said,
“Do you remember that part about how he showed up in this house in the middle of the night, and out of nowhere they served him dinner? Didn’t he realize that there were women in the back room who had to get up out of bed and go do all these things and cook that dinner for him, and he never saw them and he never knew they existed?"
Over and over and over again, you have to remind yourself that men don’t see women here. Afghan men don’ t see them, because just culturally they’re trained to not see them. But international men don’t “see them” because they don’t see them. I’m always beating my friends over the head saying you don’t know what it’s like for women. All you see is this from a men’s perspective. You don’t understand how these things affect women. And I do think Jason Elliot suffered from that. He really didn’t have the opportunity to see women here, and understand what things were like for them.
How long will you stay in Afghanistan?
My pat answer is always I’ll stay as long as I can stay. Obviously, after a while, you just run out of energy. In just a couple weeks, I’ll hit my 6 year mark, and I don’t know if it gets easier, the longer you stay, or harder. I think there’ll come a time when I’ll either be tired, or the security gets so bad that I can’t do the things I really want to do. But at the moment I don’t have any plans or wouldn’t say that if something particularly bad happens, then that’ll be the last straw.
Do you wear a headscarf?
I never wear a headscarf in Kabul. I’m driving a car, so who am I kidding? I wear a scarf around my neck just for decorative purposes. But generally in Kabul I don’t wear one. Outside of Kabul, I generally do. Just because it’s not my ‘hood. I’m a visitor there, I’m there trying to accomplish things, I’m not there to piss people off. So I wear the headscarf.
The last time I wore a headscarf in Kabul was three days ago, because I washed my hair, got out of the shower, and the electricity went off; so I tried to start the generator, but the carburetor was flooded. I had to be at a ministry in ten minutes, and since my hair dryer wouldn’t work, I put on a head scarf.
Rosemary Stasek continues organizing and managing development and educational projects for NGOs and others in Kabul, including her own 501-c3 foundation, “A Little Help”). Visit the site- http://stasek.com/alittlehelp -for opportunities to help with her work.
Photos # 4 & 5 by Mustafa Kia http://afghanphoto.blogspot.com/