Opium Season, by Joel Hafvenstein

by Joshua Foust on 3/31/2008 · 5 comments

What to say of a memoir of failures? I give Hafvenstein tremendous credit for being honest about his qualifications for the job he undertook (none), the preparation his company had made to ensure its success (none), the care USAID took to make sure its projects were useful in any way (none) and the ultimate result of several months in the sticks of Helmand running an Alternative Livelihood program (little). None of this is his fault—after all, he was the optimistic kid jumping at the chance to do a job in a dangerous, high-profile area: how many of us would have taken the exact same opportunity? This memoir is more the story of how truly screwed up the international community in Afghanistan is than anything specific about the “year” (it was really more like six months) he spent on the “frontier.”

Probably the most interesting portion of the beginning passages of the book, aside from the sinking feeling that accompanies the “I was clueless but willing, so they sent me” meme, is Hafvenstein’s discussion of how USAID and their contractors operate. It is a realm measured not by sustainable development projects, but by how much money gets churned through these companies. The project he is to lead in Lashkar Gah is not meant to be a sustainable development program, but merely a crash course in flooding the local markets with cash in the hopes that it is enough to keep people out of the poppy fields long enough for the eradication teams to bulldoze them out of existence. Buried into this, and it is not unique to his company Chemonics by any stretch, is the silly arrogance of all-purpose consulting firms. Chemonics can throw together a proposal to: “clean up air pollution in Cairo, train Russian judges, help Ugandans export cut flowers,” and so on, all on a few hours’ notice. The defense industry is much the same way: companies bid on so many things they couldn’t possibly be qualified for, merely because they have the resources to hire (one hopes) the right people for the job.

The result, as one would expect, is that these development projects come into being with no real purpose. While describing how their naïve-but-hopeful project to re-engineer southern Afghanistan’s social and economic networks on a shoestring budget slowly unraveled, Hafvenstein writes a surprisingly readable summary of Afghanistan’s history, going through the American presence in Helmand in the 1960’s (which directly led, if Roseann Klass’ account is accurate, to the ending of Purdah under Daoud) back to the ancient kingdom of Ghazni that was sacked by Genghiz Khan (and led to the creation of the kaleidoscopic pastiche of ethnicities and languages in modern-day Nuristan).

But the fundamental conceit of their project was just that—a conceit. While admitting focusing on poppy missed the point, Hafvenstein also reveals the curious mindset of the professional development workers: they treat their jobs as little more than adventure tourism, and many seem not to care about the peculiarities of the cultures where they work, but merely whether or not they keep USAID happy enough to send the next check. So, from the start, it was a bad project with a bad foundation, and it was executed by mostly disinterested people who cared more about their Christmas bonus than whether or not their actions would result in the violent death of their local colleagues. Indeed, Hafvenstein writes:

I was consumed with the mechanics of adding several thousand laborers and lacked the patience for Khair’s questions [about the project’s first principles]. In the rare moments when I wrote reports, I focused on sending USAID a few basic numbers: labor days, cash paid, meters of canal cleaned, how much land was irrigated by each canal. I sent Khair out to make maps of what we’d accomplished, not to follow up in depth with the workers and communities.

He contrasts this with his father’s own experience as a missionary in Nepal:

In the Nepal mission community where I grew up, the typical foreign missionary stayed a minimum of four years, with most staying in Nepal closer to a decade and many dedicating their whole adult lives to the place. They learned the language and culture, built relationships with their neighbors, funded their own work, and lived with relatively few luxuries…

Being a USAID development professional was rather different. I know some long-term “missionaries” of secular development, committed like Dick Scott of Helmand to a particular place over decades of work. But the typical consultant came for a few months, maybe a year or two, before flitting on to the next contract. The consultant might learn the language if it was a regionally useful one like Spanish, Mandarin, or French, but not a local one like Nepali, Urdu, or Pashto. Instead of service, the system was pervaded by an ethos of entitlement: By and large, USAID’s contractors expected to be treated like any other professional, with general financial benefits, business-class flights, and Western-caliber houses or hotels.

While placing the necessary caveats about how he doesn’t begrudge any of his friends the desire to live comfortably in a foreign land, he notes repeatedly that local Afghans consider this an appalling waste of money. Right when he felt like he had a grip on things in Helmand, he was to leave it behind.

It was tragic Hafvenstein’s Afghanistan adventure, like too many others, ended in horror: several of their local workers and friends were murdered, by who-knows-whom. But the systemic failures he highlights are vital to remember: at the PRT base in Lashkar Gah, where they were hiding out for fear of their own lives, he sits in on an interrogation of an informant on the killings. Of course he had no “right” to be there, but the interrogator didn’t know any better. Only the interrogator didn’t know basic facts about the district, the prominent individuals involved, and so on. Hafvenstein left the meeting feeling what he called a “dull contempt” for military intel. He thought they had assembled a broad list of criminal connections and flows, but instead they didn’t seem to know who the local government official was.

Alas, despite all the discussion of how counterproductive the “aid tourism” can be to Afghanistan, once he married his girlfriend, Hafvenstein takes advantage of that same process to get her “into” the country. So while it’s terrible what happened to him, and it does seem like he got the gist of how so many systemic failures played into the tragedy he had to encounter, there isn’t a real discussion of how things could change. How could USAID restructure itself to ensure more effective development projects? What could he and his company have done differently to avoid the killings? No, like too many others, he seemed content (or perhaps more properly resigned) to let Afghanistan wallow. The system is broken, to be sure, but what can he do about it? He’s just one guy with a book contract.

Update: Here is a 20-minute long interview with Hafvenstein on his book. It actually clears up some concerns I had, and clarifies how he’s spent his time since being chased out of Helmand by armed thugs. Definitely worth watching, as his prescriptions (something I felt was sorely lacking) have evolved somewhat, and are worth considering.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Ian April 1, 2008 at 6:42 am

I think your last paragraph is a bit too cynical–to my mind “memoirs of failure” are exactly the kind of self-critique that bloated, ineffective aid programs need. The fact that he’s still living and working in Afghanistan (last time I heard) shows that he’s still got a real-live commitment to improving the country’s chances–as opposed to experiencing it through the screens you and I have in front of our faces.

The book compares, I think, very favorably to Sarah Chayes’ book. That one turnes out to be basically a chronicle of her going around telling, by turns, American officers on the ground, local warlords, President Karzai, and the American military as a whole how much better it would be if she could just run the joint for a while. Hafvenstein’s reluctance to self-aggrandize and carp on policy strikes me as more honest.

alanna April 1, 2008 at 9:27 am

Okay, I want to start by saying that I work for the US government but I am expressing my own opinion only here and NOT the opinion of the USG.

While I do agree 100% with the assessment of the way USAID contractors can churn out proposals at the drop of the hat, I think that “professional development workers” are unfairly treated here. Admittedly, I was one once and am likely to be biased. But the vast majority of development workers I met were idealists, interested in local culture and genuinely committed to trying to do something good for the world. Cynical as all hell, and also committed to the success of the organzations theyed work for, I agree. But trying very hard to run good and useful programs.

Even those who were not idealists were professionals in the best sense of the word – determined to have their projects succeed in tough circumstances.

There’s an awful lot of incomptence among these people, and the effect may well be the same as ill-intent, but saying it’s an industry based on adventure tourism is untrue and unfair.

Joshua Foust April 1, 2008 at 11:56 am

Ian, I agree with you to a point, except that Hafvenstein does make those critiques, he just wasn’t an ass about it (one throwaway line in particular about “true counterinsurgency” struck me as particularly out of place: since when was anyone talking about counterinsurgency in 2004?). I certainly want to make this congratulatory, whatever my other critiques—he has spent far more time in-country than I have, and his genuine concern for what happens there is obvious. It just didn’t seem like he had learned his own lesson by the end, if that makes sense (and I couldn’t find anything on what he’s doing now; the book flap says he’s a “south and central asian consultant and writer,” whatever that means).

Alanna, I’m certainly comforted you’ve had a better experience with aid workers. And without a doubt many do work out of a genuine interest in the local people and culture. But I’m with Joe in that the vast majority I’ve met—including who have worked in Afghanistan—are literally just adventure tourists. They want to say they’ve been to Afghanistan, but that’s about as far as their committment to the place goes. It’s what happens when you live in the tiny ex-pat bubble in Kabul and never leave the razorwire to meet with normal people. Hafvenstein benefitted tremendously by going places like Helmand before (or perhaps just as) one needed an entourage of security guards; nowadays, I feel, all but the most dedicated are sealed off.

alanna April 1, 2008 at 3:45 pm

I make a distinction between aid workers and development workers (I have actually written about the difference as it pertains to Afghanistan: http://alannashaikh.blogspot.com/2008/03/business-life-kabuls-war-for-talent.html) because they’re very different kinds of work. Aid workers, you may be right about them.

Ian April 1, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Thanks for the interview video, I hadn’t seen that.

The last chapter of the book is about how he went on to work in Badakhshan, where he still is (or was when I briefly corresponded with him after my review came out in Far East Econ Review). He did say then that he was pretty much confined to his project base, but it sounded like it was against his own wishes (I’m sure gov’t insurance plans are really reluctant to cover people wandering around Afghanistan at this point).

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