10th Anniversary: Our seventh guest in our series of interview – Paul Barker

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Hi! My name is Paul Barker and I’ve been involved in international issues for most of my adult life. I first travelled overseas in 1966 and to Iran in 1968. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran from 1971 to 1976 during which I travelled to Afghanistan three times.  I was honored to get to know Afghanistan in times of peace, when Shah Mohammed Zahir was King, and later when Daoud Khan was in charge. I’m pleased I was able to know it during what Afghans look back on as “the good old days”.  It was terribly poor; there were lots of problems and frustration was felt by people who were anxious for a better and more modern future, and very impatient to get there.  But when you look back on it, those were glorious days of peace. For all the problems under the Shah at least it was peaceful, which is especially treasured in hindsight.

I first started working in Afghanistan in 1995 with CARE for whom I was the country director in Afghanistan two times, from 1995 to 1999 and then from 2001 to 2006.  Later I worked in Afghanistan with Save The Children from 2012 to 2014 and then for four more months in 2017. Most recently, in 2021 I did four months of remote consulting for another NGO in Afghanistan. My experience in Afghanistan spans the diverse times of Zahir Shah, Daud Khan, the Mujahidin period, the Taliban, the Karzai and finally the Ghani years.

So you do know the country very well, inside out!

Well, I haven’t worked under the new Taliban regime, which in too many ways is reviving some dark chapters in Afghan history.

You did live there for quite some time, is there anything you’d like to share about this special connection you have?

Even before my first visit in 1972, our family in America had an exchange student from Afghanistan.  He came from Kandahar in the year 1968-69.  I treasure a personal connection with Afghanistan that goes to that time.

Was that your first contact with a person from Afghanistan then?

I think so, yes.

Do you have any stories or fond memories to tell us about when you lived in Afghanistan?

There are so many stories I could share. Looking back at my 38 years working overseas for different organisations, Afghanistan was my favourite country to work in. Both with CARE and Save the Children we had incredibly motivated and capable staff who worked through tremendous hardships to get work done, to maintain standards, and to find possible ways out of impossible situations. In 1996, we were based in Peshawar. Like most of international organisations, we managed cross border operations into Afghanistan.  It was a time when the Taliban were based in Kandahar and had not yet taken Kabul.  CARE had challenges transporting relief commodities between Taliban controlled areas in the south and Mujahedin government-controlled areas in and around Kabul.   We decided that it would be useful for the Taliban to know who we were and what we did, so that they could facilitate our work and transport needs.  I travelled to Kandahar with three of our senior Afghan staff.  We had a couple of days of meetings with the Taliban authorities.  We explained what we did and requested them to facilitate our work.  Agreement was quickly reached. Our experience confirmed that meeting someone with mutual respect can allow us to resolve complicated situations even when the other party has views which divert from our own, even the Taliban.

That’s a very positive example actually! It is the beauty of human beings, they all have potential. And what do you think connects Afghanistan to the West?

A lot of history. The land of Afghanistan has been a crossroad of history for thousands of years.  Long before it was even called Afghanistan, empires came and flowed this land and made their contributions to its civilization, monumental architecture, poetry and governance.  One of the greatest poets of all time, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, was born in Balkh, in what is now northern Afghanistan.  In recent years translations of his mystic poetry have become popular in the West.

I think most Americans weren’t aware of Afghanistan until the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC.  There had been positive times in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when US aid programs in Afghanistan were large and in competition with the Soviet programs.  Highways, universities, airports, dams and more were built.  But the scale of US, European and many other governments’ involvement in Afghanistan after the events of 2001 were of a vastly greater scale than anything which came before. When I tell people here in the US that I worked in Afghanistan for all this time they often say, “Oh, you were in the military?”  No. I have a different view on America’ military role in Afghanistan than most people in this country.  I was quite privileged to experience Afghan hospitality and culture.  It is very hard for anyone in the military have such experiences…

So it’s better to not have people with guns around you to manage?

People who live within fortifications live in fear.  They’re very cautious when they go out, and Afghans put that in their calculation of who you are and your reason for being in their country.  One of the struggles faced by NGOs was to differentiate their work from the military and make it clear that NGOs are not associated with them, do not take funding for them, and do not implement projects on their behalf.  We resented the fact that the military tried to use humanitarian programs as a cover for intelligence gathering and some of their operations. They did this with their Provincial Reconstruction Teams and projects managed out of their fortified camps.  But when the military does things that resemble the work of unarmed aid workers, they put those aid workers at risk.

We’ve seen this firsthand in the past years. Workers have been increasingly at risk of being targeted. Let’s talk a bit about culture as something nice for the soul then. Have you ever been interested in Afghan culture, arts, literature, is there any aspect that is more interesting to you?

I have a very large collection of Afghan carpets! I guess anyone is bound to have a collection of carpets if they’ve lived in Afghanistan long enough.   The Afghan literature I’m most fond of is the poetry I mentioned earlier from Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī. Because of the difficult times he was born in, he traveled Balkh in northern Afghanistan to Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, for most of his life.  What I enjoy about his poetry is its beautiful simplicity and depth. I am familiar with other Afghan poets, but I haven’t memorized their poetry like I have Rumi’s. I unfortunately know very little of Pashtun literature.  Since I earlier lived in Iran for five and a half years, my Farsi is better than the other languages.

What a life! Did you find out about this poet while in Afghanistan or was it before?

Long before. I became familiar with his poetry when I was in Iran.

During the time you went in Afghanistan, how did you connect to the culture? Did you get the chance to partake in any celebrations?

We went to weddings – and sadly funerals on some occasions.  We celebrated Nowruz in Afghanistan, and religious holiday.  During Ramadan we were often invited to iftar to break the fast. In a lot of ways, Afghan culture is a celebration of hospitality.  Joining friends for green tea and enjoying Afghan hospitality were always great pleasures. Similarly joining Afghans for picnics in gardens in the spring and summer are fond memories.  For the Afghan people who have endured so much, with everybody having lost at least one relative in the last few decades to the wars afflicting the country, there is an incredible resilience and an ability to laugh and to be normal, and to work for a better future. I always admired both their toughness and this softer side of Afghan culture.

The situation became much more difficult after the withdrawal of foreign forces and the Taliban takeover in August 2021.  A few Afghan friends have managed to flee with their families, but most of them are still in Afghanistan. Many of them are looking for some way to get out.  It is a very difficult situation for them.

Do you have a dream or a vision for the future of Afghanistan?

We can get some solace from the view that “this too shall pass”. These are very difficult times for Afghanistan, the first Taliban government lasted five years, I don’t know how much longer this one should last.  Iranians have an example of a government which came after a revolution and has lasted a lot longer, so it is hard to know how this will end for Afghanistan.  I hope that there will be modalities found in the near future to get humanitarian aid flowing to Afghanistan at the needed levels.  The problems have become more intense in the last several months. It has been pushed out of the news by recent events in Ukraine, but we need to find a way to keep a spotlight on Afghanistan and on a situation for which the West bears much responsibility.

It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on keeping Afghanistan on the map, in the news and on people’s minds in the West. Another one of our speakers said last week during a webinar just that.

One anecdote from 2001:  Before the 9-11 attacks I was working in Ethiopia for CARE.  That summer I was contacted by CARE and asked to come back and participate in a workshop as part of an effort to put Afghanistan on the map and raise its profile and funding for CARE’s work there. Accordingly, I got visas and was ready to come to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But then quite suddenly on September 11th everything changed, and the problems of Afghanistan were very much on everybody’s map. One challenge for humanitarians is to accurately share the challenges of people and countries where we work with people who don’t have that first-hand knowledge but who are interested and want to help.